Campaign attack ads. Stories of computer hacks and scams. Tarnished heroes hiding sordid double lives.
Newspapers and the internet seem to serve up the worst of humanity all day, every day. We’re fascinated and horrified at the same time. It’s as if the theme song for Jaws is always playing in the back of our minds. We're afraid the shark is sneaking up behind us getting ready to ram the boat, and we can't resist any opportunity to peek over the edge and take a look.
There’s a brain-based reason for our fascination, but that’s a subject for another post. Today I want to talk about the power of stories to help us shift our internal balance of darkness and light.
Do a mental check-in right now. On a scale of 1 to 10, if 1 means you feel content and secure and 10 means you’re teetering on the edge of a meltdown, how uneasy do you feel? How short is your fuse? How well do you sleep? How much do anxiety or depression crowd your day?
Do you wish your “sleepless number” were different? Would you and the world be better off if it were different?
Distress isn't all bad. If we’re never distressed, we’re not paying attention. Our own or others’ pain is designed to help us focus and take action, and sometimes it does and we do. But much of our suffering is self-inflicted and unnecessary. Subjecting ourselves to too many miserable stories doesn’t motivate - it paralyzes. On the other hand, stories of courage, triumph, or plain old silliness lift our hearts and remind us of who and where we want to be.
Stories can be big or small. They can tell of Good Samaritans saving neighbors from a hurricane’s devastation or a dog helping a child learn to read. It can be the story of the original Good Samaritan or of an elderly person with a contagious enthusiasm for life. Stories can tell of a middle schooler’s kindness to another child who is often left out or of someone living well in the face of a life-threatening diagnosis.
If your “sleepless number” was higher than you’d like, there’s a good chance unsettling stories are contributing. These can be stories you read, stories people tell you, stories you tell yourself.
We can notice which stories occupy our attention and learn to be more selective. We can take steps to limit our exposure to terrible news stories and decide to pay attention to stories that inspire us and lift our spirits. Good stories are everywhere - in the news, in the Bible, in our family histories, on youtube, in our everyday conversations.
We can also help the children in our lives find stories deserving of their attention. I grew up reading the lives of the saints. Those stories were pretty heavily weighted toward virgins and martyrs, and I didn’t really want to be either in the long run. But every blessed one of them demonstrated confidence in God and courage under fire, and those qualities I did and do want. We can find better stories than the ones popularly offered to our young people.
I started this blog partly because the cynical, angry stories were getting me down. While we’re not called to insulate ourselves from the world’s suffering, we are called to preserve our capacity to respond to it. Stories matter. The right stories go a long way.
Collect them. Replay them. Share them. There’s so much goodness out there. Someone needs the story you have to share.
Photo Tail Waggin' Tutors, Fairfax Library
I was in a hurry, headed out to babysit my grandkids so my son-in-law could get to work. As I headed south on the highway I noticed a woman and a couple of middle-school aged kids dancing on the sidewalk, smiling and waving, jiggling cardboard signs at the passing vehicles. Assuming they were advertising a carwash, I continued on.
But it wasn't a carwash. They were pushing prayer - drive-thru prayer, and they weren't kidding. The parking lot just behind them was set up with drive-thru lanes marked by bright orange cones, a table piled high with water bottles, and volunteers primed to pray with anyone who happened through.
I'd been worrying about my nephew and his wife, who had decided not to evacuate their home in Kinston, NC ahead of Hurricane Florence so they could stay and provide shelter for those who might need it. I figured they needed all the prayer they could get, so I circled back and pulled into the parking lot.
A young girl reached into the stack of water bottles and offered me one. I declined but asked the man and woman standing with her if I could give them a prayer intention. "Of course!" they replied, and leaned in closer to my car window.
I told them about Danny and Sabrina while they listened sympathetically. My voice wobbled a few times as I described the young couple's idealism and potential danger. Feeling rushed, I got ready to pull away, figuring I'd left the intention in capable hands. The lovely woman listening asked, "Can we pray with you first?"
"You bet!" I replied, realizing I'd almost missed an opportunity. I pulled up my emergency brake, still a little distracted by just how odd this all seemed. We put our heads closer together, me still fastened into my seatbelt. The woman launched into the most beautiful, tender prayer imaginable, asking blessing and safety for Danny and Sabrina and for everyone in their community - those in need and those in service. I felt a calm descend on my heart, and a confidence that Danny and Sabrina were protected. When the prayer was finished I thanked the trio, waved to the others in the parking lot, and sped off.
After I got my grandkids settled I called my sister-in-law and told her of the strangers in Minnesota praying for her family. She cried. She told Danny. The circle of love widened.
Danny and Sabrina are safe, and the long process of hurricane cleanup has begun. But thanks to the good-hearted members of Wayzata Free Church, we all experienced the kindness of prayer spontaneously and generously shared, and a reminder of the power of a simple act of love offered without reserve.
Photos CCX Media
A rubber ducky bobbing back to the surface, an irrepressible grin plastered on its face.
An 8-year-old Labrador Retriever that still hasn't learned when enough is enough.
A young woman who stays emotionally whole in spite of being abused at home and in foster care.
Nelson Mandela seeking peace with his captors after spending 27 years in prison.
Examples of resilience? Yes.
Equivalent? Not quite.
The dictionary defines resilience as
1. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and
2. the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape.
Rubber ducks fit those definitions. They’re designed to stand up to babies who delight in shoving them underwater and watching them pop up into the air to land on their little flat bottoms. Rubber ducks may be cute, but they don’t learn and they don’t change.
Spiritual resilience asks more. Spiritually resilient people like Nelson Mandela or a family abuse survivor learn from their underwater moments and emerge more balanced, more persistent and wiser than before. They feel their pain and transform it. We feel the strength of their brave hearts and want to become more like them - at least for a little while.
We instinctively recognize spiritual resilience when we see it, even if we can’t name it. Spiritually resilient individuals can be found all over the world, though some circumstances seem to produce them more readily. Our times cry out for people who are courageous, generous, hopeful and kind. Learning the skills of spiritual resilience can help us become that - and bring us greater joy along the way
In this blog I’ll explore spiritual resilience with you: what it is and how we can develop our capacity for it. We’ll see what we can learn from psychology, neuroscience and our own Christian tradition. Our project will center on developing the key spiritual emotions of gratitude, awe, hope, joy, trust, love and compassion.
We can all be the better for it.
Photo credit: Dennis Hill, Flickr