Some Great Options for When We’re Overwhelmed - Reservoir Church
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On the Brink of Everything

Some Great Options for When We’re Overwhelmed

Steve Watson

Sep 08, 2019

Recently I was with a number of colleagues who all had graduate student interns, and one of them a little older than me asked about how we can help our interns be more resilient and dependable. Because, he suggested, it seems this generation gets overwhelmed in ways that his didn’t.

As you can hear, his question was equal parts compassion and condescension. Personally, I think he only had his point half right. I do think people are more overwhelmed today than we used to be. A lot of us find life hard, exhausting. But I don’t think it’s just a particular generation. I think it’s all of us. 

I get overwhelmed a lot. Most people I know do. We live in overwhelming times. 

There are probably a lot of factors in this, but one of them has got to be the pace of change we’re experiencing.

I used to be a high school principal. And I used to go to an every-other-month meeting of high school principals. This meeting – paid for by our school districts – was hosted by a therapist, and it kind of was group therapy for high school principals. We would all drive to this obscure development somewhere off 128, we’d stroll into a meeting room on the first floor of a nondescript office building. And then we’d take our armor off, and talk about how hard the work was.

The therapist who hosted these gatherings would look at us and say: Damn straight, it is. This guy was an expert in change, school change in particular, and how hard change was. He’d remind us that expectations were higher for us than they ever had been. Principals these days are expected to heal the sick and raise the dead, he’d say, but they haven’t given you any more tools to do that, have they?

He’d remind us that schools these days – like so many other institutions – say they crave change. Schools are obsessed with continual, simultaneous, multiple improvements. Everything always getting better, all at once. And yet by nature, people hate change. It’s hard. We don’t know what we’re doing. We usually don’t succeed. But in the process of trying to change, we’re always losing something we also want to hold onto. 

This guy didn’t give us a lot of advice, but he did affirm our sense that we had these overwhelming jobs, in overwhelming times. 

Another educator named Parker Palmer wrote a book recently that’s sort of about this. The book’s called On the Brink of Everything. It’s a little collection of poems and essays.

Partly it’s about dying. Palmer is 80 years old, wrapping up a long and fruitful career, and thinking more about the end of his life in front of him. And aging and death certainly can overwhelm. There’s so much change; there can be so much fear of what’s ahead and loss of what’s behind. 

But the book is it’s not just about aging and death, but really about all kinds of change and about the possibilities that hide in the middle of it. 

The title has two things going on. There’s the phrase, “on the brink” which usually indicates something really bad is straight ahead. On the brink of war. On the brink of disaster.  And yet it’s also taken from a poem a mother wrote about her toddler, who always seemed on the brink of everything – some new development or discovery always just ahead, caught up as toddlers olds are, in a wide-eyed kaleidoscope of ever unfolding wonder. 

We feel like all of this is true for so many of us in America, in 2019. Surrounded by infinite possibility and unending wonder, but also overwhelmed by all that’s happening, and overwhelmed by change. 

The next few weeks, we’ll make this our theme. We’ll dig around this in a series we’re calling On the Brink of Everything. And today I’ll start us off with some good options for the many times when we’re overwhelmed.

Let’s join the first followers of Jesus on the weekend after his death, when they were overwhelmed themselves. We’ll take this passage in three sections – starting with the first two verses. 

John 20:19-31 (CEB)

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Here they are: their teacher, their role model has been arrested, tortured, and executed. Their apprenticeship, which took them out of their hometowns, away from their jobs, has suddenly ended. They have no livelihood, they’re afraid for their safety, and they’ve lost what they’ve spent years investing in. 

They’re overwhelmed. They’ve been through trauma. And if you know a little history, you can just scratch the surface of their particular trauma and unearth the overwhelming nature of the times they lived in. Early first century Judea was a time and place of immense, overwhelming change and public trauma. 

They’d been colonized by Rome, who had cemented their rule through a campaign of terror – imprisoning, in some cases crucifying their political opponents. The Roman era also brought changes in culture, technology, economics, and politics that were overwhelming. Rural Judeans like these disciples faced immense tax burdens and challenges to their wages and job conditions. And to have loved and served and apprenticed under a crucified teacher was to wonder if you too were doomed to a threatened life as a marginalized outsider. 

So it’s no surprise the disciples were hiding behind locked doors.

I heard a podcast recently in which someone was commenting on the American experience in the 21st century – the immense technological and political and economic changes and stresses we’ve experienced. Think about it, in just 18 years,  9/11, the War on Terror, the great recession, the rise of social media, the gig economy, Bush, Obama, Trump, Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, climate change, the war on immigrants, Black Lives Matter, Me Too. So much change. So much reckoning. So much exposure and surfacing of things that for some had been long hidden. So much stress and pain exposed. And so whether these things speak to our personal experiences in the world or not, we’re all living in these rapidly unfolding times of public trauma. 

“On the brink” of so much, all the time. And when we’re on the brink, when we’re experiencing trauma or even just rapid change, we get overwhelmed, and for many of us, our default responses are often going to be numbness, fear, or anger. 

I know when I get overwhelmed – big ways like when I was crashing two years ago, or ordinary ways like when stress piles up – I freeze. If I can notice it, I’m afraid. But it’s not fun to feel afraid or to admit fear so that can pretty quickly slide to anger or numbness, lashing out at someone to blame, or avoiding the fear through distraction. 

It’s not just me. I’ve noticed there are huge spiritual and economic forces that are invested in keeping us angry, afraid, and numb. 

This summer, I heard a news report about global birthrates being projected to decline a bit, and I thought: that’s awesome. My whole life, people have been worrying about the economic and climate and societal consequences to overpopulation. I thought I was going to hear a rare good news report in public media. Look, it’s getting better. But immediately, the person on the news said: experts worry that a growing percentage of elderly residents will strain economies and young workers. This too should make us all afraid. 

I was like really, this thing that for so many people if it didn’t happen, made them afraid. Now that it is happening, that’s bad news too? Fear sells. We know from social media that anger sells too. Headlines and stories that make us angry or afraid get our attention, so lots of people are spending lots of time and money thinking of ways to make you and me scared and angry. 

And then other people and companies are spending time and money trying to sell us products that we can buy to distract us from all that fear and anger. 

Vicious cycle here – advertisers keeping our attention, politicians getting our loyalty and money when we’re angry and afraid. And then corporations making money off of us when we buy their products or sell them our attention, while we’re numbing out from all that fear and anger. As if we need any help getting overwhelmed, or staying numb, angry, and afraid. 

So I want to spend a few short minutes noticing what can happen to us when we’re overwhelmed and when we’re numb, or afraid, or angry. And just start to explore some better options God can lead us into. 

Back to our numbed out disciples for a moment. We know they’re behind locked doors. I think in the 21st century version of their post-crucifixion hangover, they’re also day drinking, or maybe just each scrolling instagram on their phones. 

They’re disengaged, and why wouldn’t they be? Their lives are overwhelming. So Jesus comes by to engage with them. He surprises them – hey, I’m back. He shows up in person at their door. Which these days, even if we don’t think someone’s dead, is kind of startling when it happens. And he comforts them – he offers them peace. 

There was this other passage I almost preached from today, from the Bible’s narrative of the ancient kings of Israel. In it, Assyria was about to conquer the kingdom of Judah. Their army shows up outside the city walls, and the Judean emissaries say: Negotiate with us in your language of Aramaic, not our language of Hebrew, because we can speak your language. But really, they don’t want their countrymen to be able to understand the negotiations and freak out.

But the Assyrian conquerors say, that’s OK, we’ll use your language. And they yell out, why shouldn’t we speak Hebrew, because those people on the walls behind you are also going to have to eat their own excrement and drink their own piss when we lay siege to your city. Just like you. So they oughta know. 

It’s terrifying, and it’s overwhelming. So the people on the walls sit there in absolute silence. They’re frozen, totally numb. 

What keeps them from disengaging, checking out and distracting themselves is partly lack of options. They could have got drunk, but they didn’t have iphones or youtube or anything. It was partly urgency – this conquering army wasn’t going anywhere. But it was partly this old ritual of tearing your clothes, and putting ashes on your head, when you were overwhelmed and had nothing else to do. 

They had this physical ritual to do in their grief, which helped them stop and notice their feelings. Helped them physically express their underlying emotion, rather than rush past it. And this ritual – this tearing of the clothes, putting ashes on their heads in grief, is for them the precursor to a breakthrough. Just engaging their reality eventually gives birth to hope and action. 

They start just by staying engaged, by feeling what they’ve got to feel. 

Y’all know that when we’re overwhelmed, a lot of us tend to numb out. We all have our own ways – some eat, some drink, some dig deep into the netflix archives, some watch porn, some just endlessly occupy ourselves with our phones. Whatever it is, we engage in these behaviors that distract us from experiences and feelings that threaten us. 

But that kind of shutting down isn’t something we can do selectively. When we avoid our hard experiences and feelings, we do that with all of them. So we’re less relationally and emotionally available, period. A lot of us, and I’ve got to say, a lot of us men in particular, spend a lot of our lives this way, shut down. Which is this big loss, for us and for the people we know. And for all the good we can do in the world when we stay engaged.  

The way out starts the same way as it did for the ancients, the same way it did for Jesus’ students too – with engaging again in life, with attending to what we’re feeling and experiencing. 

I noticed myself getting overwhelmed here and there this summer and looking for distraction. This is why I’ve started back recently with a daily practice of an old Jesuit prayer called the Examine, where once or twice a day, you stop for a few minutes, and notice the good and bad, the life-giving and the life-sucking, things you’re experiencing, and how those make you feel. It’s a way to stay engaged, a way to stay alive. And staying awake, alive in this way, gives us a shot at good, engaged living in the world. It gives us a shot at hope. It gives us a short at working with the materials we’ve got. Asking what we think, noticing what we feel, when we’re overwhelmed.

From there, Jesus can give us ways to be less afraid too. 

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

 And then skipping ahead a few lines: 

30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

I love that right when Jesus says, Peace be with you, he gives his friends something to do. Not something random, not scurrying about keeping busy as its own way of numbing out, but a purposeful way to participate in the good future God is seeing into being.

This seems to be one of the core functions of the Spirit of God in the world, to persuade us that the future doesn’t need to be as bleak as we think it is. Here it looks like Jesus telling his friends – don’t be afraid, have peace. Trust that I’m with you and up to something good, so you can have life. 

And then rather than just hoping it’ll be so, Jesus gives his friends a way to participate in that hopeful future. As I’ve been sent, I’m sending you. Participate in people’s experience of God’s gracious, merciful, forgiving, loving ways in the world. 

I find this turn to faith and hope-filled action exceedingly powerful when I’m overwhelmed. In addition to my examen, to stop and ask: can I trust that God is up to something good in my times, that God is engaged in a hopeful future for me and for the people and places I care about?

When I don’t have this hope, I freeze. I stagnate. I try to spin plates at best, and just keep things going. But when I have hope, I actually get energy and vision for real action. 

A lot of the time, this action our hope leads us into takes the form of preservation or innovation – holding on to something good we could lose in times of rapid change, or embracing and seeing into being something new ahead of us that we haven’t seen before. 

I don’t find being a pastor nearly as overwhelming as running a high school. This is much better. But sometimes, I still get overwhelmed. I’ll wonder if the things we’re trying to do as a church – gather people in rich community, connect people with a powerful and healthy experience of God’s love, inspire and empower joyful lives of justice and mercy and connection – I can fear that we don’t know how to do these things, or that churches are seeming more irrelevant to these things for so many people. I can wonder like this and freeze a little. 

But then when I stay with those feelings and ask God for hope and faith, I find myself led into particular acts of preservation and innovation. I remember that in my case, that there are some very old things that pastors and churches have done that I want to keep doing and make sure we don’t stop doing. Or I discover there are some new and innovative things we can do which might be a gift. 

I find that in the circumstances and times when I most wonder: what if I’m on the brink of a disaster, that in those times, God is on the brink too. But God seems not to be on the brink of disaster, but more like the toddler, God seems always on the brink of something exciting, something old or something new, but always something wonderful. 

Jesus really can empower us to stay engaged when it’s easy to go numb, and toward faith and hope-filled action when we’re afraid, and also to love, even when we’re gripped by anger. 

In the context of today’s passage in first century Judea, there was a growing, seething anger against Rome and against the Jewish elite that cooperated with them. That anger would within a generation find expression in mass, armed resistance to Rome, a failed revolt which would yield enormous suffering. 

I hear this anger a little bit in Jesus’ friend Thomas.

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

I hear in Thomas the anger of loss – things didn’t work out as they should have, and that makes me angry. I hear in Thomas the anger of being left out. You may have seen Jesus, but he didn’t come my way. I hear in Thomas the anger of having been lied to before, having heard false comfort and false promise that he is done falling for. And I hear in Thomas the anger of enough disappointment and diminishment that he can’t trust hope. 

Anger can be a gift, an awakening to truth. In fact, all three of these places we go to when we’re overwhelmed – numbness, fear, anger – they are all gifts. They developed not just in humans but in all animals for protective, healthy reasons. Numbness, fear, and anger at the right times keep us alive, they protect us, they’re adaptive responses to danger. 

But they’re also all awful as unending, permanent states of being. Uninterrupted numbness, fear, or anger wreck our health and our well-being. They keep us reactive to other people’s stories instead of living out ours. As permanent states of being, they ruin our relationships and society, and they shrink and diminish everyone, not least ourselves.

If you haven’t yet seen the Hannah Gadsby stand-up special that dropped on Netflix last year, you should – for a lot of reasons. But one of them is this powerful way a professional comic says comedy isn’t good enough for our traumatic times. We need to tell whole stories, the parts that make us angry, not just the parts that make us laugh. But then she says that anger isn’t good enough either – anger is a way to somewhere, but it is not a resting place. We need more than chronic anger – we need connection.  

I’ve had a lot in public life in recent years that’s made me angry. I’m sure you have to. I’ve spent more time at the state house, more time at the local jail, more time connecting with my elected representatives these past three years than in the previous thirty combined. Partly it’s been opportunity as a pastor, but parlty, anger’s given me a call to action. 

But when this has gone well, and when it’s felt sustainable, it’s not been because I have something or someone to stand against in anger. It’s been because that anger has clarified for me: who is that I want to love? How do I love myself or others enough to act to preserve and protect what I love? 

I’m working as an organizer these days, as is Pastor Lydia, on a bill that will give all eligible Massachusetts residents, including undocumented immigrants access to drivers’ licenses. Because I’m angry at the diminishment and scapegoating of immigrants in our times. I’m angry that people who pay taxes and contribute in a hundred other ways to flourishing communities have to live in fear that when they’re picking up their kids from school or going to work to pay their bills, they might end up through a stroke of bad luck getting deported, rippint their family apart. 

But that anger by itself doesn’t give me the energy it takes for effective, sustainable action. I’ve seen some angry activists say and do some really self-defeating things. But when I remember who it is I want to love and protect, that love gives me so much more than the anger alone. That love gives me stamina and motivation that helps me engage more consistently, more skillfully, more generously. I’m trying to notice and respect my anger in these times we live in – but I’m trying welcome love into me when I’m angry too, and to let that love give me power to love in my anger too. 

When the ancient Israelites stood behind their wall, being threatened by Assyrian warriors that they’d have to eat their own excrement, they looked at one another, and they realized this wasn’t about standing against an enemy. It was about standing in solidarity with one another, about protecting their beloved community, and that grew their faith, that gave them courage.

In that principals’ group I told you about, where we faced the stresses of our overwhelming jobs, for the most part, we had no solutions for one another. But we had a place to tell our stories and be heard and understood. And that empathy and connection gave us power. It helped us act out of creative love, not be reactive all the time. 

When Thomas the disciple had had enough, I love that Jesus wasn’t angry back at him. Jesus certainly didn’t shame or blame Thomas for his doubt or fear or anger – he got it. It probably all made sense to Jesus. What Jesus did do was say to Thomas, “Touch me.” I’m here. You’re not alone. 

God is this for us as well, an ever-present Spirit of love, near to us, maybe especially when we’re overwhelmed. God is eager to help you stay engaged, powerful and hopeful to turn us from fear to hope, and kind and good enough to accompany our anger with love. 

Let me sum up my invitations today, and then pray for us that we’ll know God’s power and help for this.

An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

When overwhelmed by change, consider if there is opportunity for preservation or innovation.

Spiritual Practice of the Week

When numb, ask what you feel. When afraid, ask how you can trust and hope. When angry, ask who you can love.