7 Ways To Transform Your Stress, So You Don't Transmit It - Vince Brackett
Fourth in series: Why this matters
IF I DON’T TRANSFORM IT, I’LL TRANSMIT IT
We’re in the middle of a series of talks here considering the “why” of this church.
Customarily, the answer to the “why” question for churches has focused on determining who is IN and who is OUT. But at this church we take very seriously Jesus’ teachings that human beings should avoid spending their energy on questions of IN & OUT, that we are simply not qualified to judge who is IN and who is OUT.
The thing is, many of us have a lot of trouble imagining a spiritual or religious message that ISN’T focused on IN vs OUT. "Isn’t IN vs OUT what religion is?” we might think. And if that’s not what religion is, then isn’t everything just the same? Why make a fuss about Jesus?
Good questions, right?
You know, in our experience here at this church, setting aside questions of IN vs. OUT as a poor use of our energy and attention doesn't make following Jesus matter less, it makes following Jesus matter more — It frees up the questions surrounding our faith, our religion, our spirituality to become about the things that really matter most in life. We’ve talked in this series about connection — How following Jesus increases our capacity to build meaningful relationships with others, even when the city can be a lonely place How following Jesus increases our ability to find God in all people, even those that differ from us, so we can break out of our echo chamber existences (where everyone thinks and believes just like we do) And Kyle talked inspiringly last week about justice How following Jesus connects us to a bigger story of pursuing societal equity and dignity for all people This week I want to talk about something else that matters immensely to life: growth There’s a phrase we use from time to time in this church because it’s felt so helpful to me and to Kyle: Everyone grows old. But not everyone grows up. In a perfect world, Our spiritual and social-emotional development would track with our physical development -- We’d become more mature and wise and content every year of our life, just like our age keeps going up But of course we don’t live in a perfect world -- All of us hit roadblocks or experience traumas along our way of life, or don’t get the tools we need to mature well. And those roadblocks and traumas and lack of support stunt and stall our internal growth, even while on the outside we’re still getting older
We need look no further than the state of our country's politics for an example of the high stakes of this.
Unfortunately, from local politicians here in Chicago right up to the very top in the President of the United States, we see behavior that seems to point to adults who have grown old but haven’t grown up.
Whether it is a refusal to apologize, pointing a finger at the other side instead of admitting fault, or just being dishonest, we too often see people meant to be leaders acting in ways that are the exact opposite of what we teach our children growing up and becoming more mature is all about.
Now of course that’s the most extreme example But it’s not just the extremes that matter… Day-in, day-out, the egos we experience may not be at quite the same level, the influence may not be quite so far-reaching as government leaders, but in countless little, less-extreme-but-still-very-significant ways, the reality is the same: Everyone grows old. But not everyone grows up. And the sad truth is that that impact of someone’s internal growth getting stalled doesn’t just stay at home… it falls onto other people I wonder if you’ve ever been consistently mis-treated or disrespected or abused by a supervisor or boss or co-worker My wife observed once about the workplaces she’s been in that stress seems to trickle down. The stresses of someone at the top get taken out on a middle manager, who then takes it out on their staff, who then take it out on their clients or students or customers… and on and on Or how about when you get the finger from a random stranger in traffic for something that you’re not even sure was actually very inconvenient to them… The biggest reason you’re mad is because you’re like “How on earth does what I did warrant that?! Where did that come from?!” There is often no logical explanation to getting so mad in traffic… but in the anonymity and power of the car - our private mobile-palaces - rage from other places in our life feels the freedom to escape Maybe we know this full well because sometimes we’re the one giving the finger? How about when we take our anger out on a roommate, or spouse, or friend, or even our kids (!), even though we’re actually angry at someone or something else?
Well, as we have throughout this series, I want to visit another saying from Jesus where he offers a reason why following him matters This one, I think, is about growth and how to not get stalled and end up passing on the impact of that He uses the old-time phrase for follower, “disciple”
"Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it." (Matthew 16)
As he often is, Jesus is pretty paradoxical here. So what exactly is he saying?
I’ll pass on something that’s really helped me — it’s from a 14th century monk named Thomas A’Kempis. I’ll read it for you here, but basically what I took away from A’Kempis was this suggestion: Take this saying from Jesus, and try replacing the word “cross” with “any suffering in your life” So, like this: If you want to be my disciple, you must deny yourself and take up “any suffering in your life" and follow me. Here’s the bit from A’Kempis where I got this:
The cross... is always ready; it awaits you everywhere. No matter where you may go, you cannot escape it... Turn where you will–above, below, without, or within–you will find a cross in everything…
If you carry the cross willingly, it will carry and lead you to the desired goal where indeed there shall be no more suffering…
If you carry it unwillingly, you create a burden for yourself and increase the load, though still you have to bear it. If you cast away one cross, you will find another and perhaps a heavier one.
Do you expect to escape what no mortal man can ever avoid? Which of the saints was without a cross or trial on this earth? Not even Jesus Christ, our Lord, Whose every hour on earth knew the pain of His passion…
How is it that you look for another way than this, the royal way of the holy cross?
Ok, so yes, A’Kempis is a bit dark (Let’s remember: 14th century monk! Give him a break!)… But, to my mind, he is dead on: no person who has ever lived has ever not suffered, even Jesus, or more to the point, ESPECIALLY Jesus. No person has ever not at some point experienced humiliation, or exclusion, or been the victim of someone else’s anger, or been pushed to their limit by stress, or felt overwhelmed.
So, all of that, on the terms of following Jesus, let’s call that “your cross”. A life well lived can not avoid its cross. Cannot avoid stresses, humiliations, mistakes, or pain inflicted by others. If we ever think we’ve successfully avoided something, invariably something else will come our way. A life well lived willingly carries its cross. You take it and let it work its way through you on your terms. Because, one way or another, A’Kempis and Jesus seem to suggest, it will work its way through you. And if that process is not on your terms, then that suffering will be passed on to someone else on its terms, through things like... Passive-aggressive body language Outright aggression and violence Internal resentment & self-pity that bleeds out into our every interaction Hyper-sensitivity & defensiveness maybe Blame-shifting
I’ve heard it said this way: If you do not transform it, you will transmit it. If you do not transform your stress and pain, you will transmit your stress and pain to someone else. Your spouses, your kids, your coworkers (especially those who report to you), your friends, your siblings, your parents… or a stranger in traffic I don’t mean this to sound mean. It’s just reality.
And it absolutely feels true for me. When I am stressed, like for example by an unfinished conflict with someone (say, my wife or my co-pastor here Kyle -- they’re the people I’m closest to so they’re the people I do the most conflict with), here’s what happens to me My mind enters a tunnel, where the only thing I can really think about is the conflict I can usually function enough to get things done that are routine or don’t require too much thought But inside I am mulling over the conflict, re-playing it, asking myself “what now?”, justifying my side of the issue, imagining how I would say what I feel I need to say, guessing at how Keziah or Kyle might react And what I’m told (by the two of them and by other people who have observed me in conflict) is that as a result of this I become very intense My body language is confrontational I am shorter and harsher when I speak And then if we start trying to work through the conflict, even if the other person indicates they want to take a break to cool down or think about things, they feel that I am aggressively insistent on seeing the the conflict through as quickly as possible In those situations, my stress is passing through me un-transformed, on its terms not mine, and therefore I am transmitting it to others When I am intense with Keziah and Kyle in conflict, it does not make things easier, it makes things harder… Then their defenses go up and now they have stress to process too… a cycle starts Other friends of mine, with different temperaments and personalities from me, describe similarly challenging dynamics showing up in their lives, they just present challenges in different ways One friend doesn’t become more intense when stressed, they become more distant. They disappear. They say everything is fine when, internally for them, everything is very much not fine. Transmission for them is the people around them feeling dismissed, like they don’t deserve the time of day Another friend, when stressed, can’t help but subtly turn every conversation toward themselves and their stresses and their story -- everyone else’s stresses and stories are just things that remind them of their own. Transmission for them is the people around them feeling passive-aggressively told they are a burden. And there are other things that can set off transmission, it’s not just my example of unfinished conflict Feeling exposed or humiliated or embarrassed Feeling regret or recognizing a mistake Someone bringing up a topic that makes us uncomfortable, like money or political opinions or, as a dad of young kids I feel this one, parenting styles Or the really big stuff Experiencing a tragedy or loss A trauma from our past being triggered All of these present us with the choice: transform or transmit
So when we recognize patterns of transmitting in our lives, what do we do? I want to share Seven ways to transform, so you don’t transmit that I’ve experienced some success with (or if you prefer Jesus’ language: Seven ways to carry your cross)
Get good at identifying when you’re stressed out Just knowing what’s going on in us can sometimes go a long way toward stopping us from transmitting But this is harder than it seems If you’re like me and you tend to think about the emotions you have rather than just feel them, try to pay attention to signals of stress that your body gives you, like shoulder tension… that helps me! If you’re more like my friend Kyle here and you feel your emotions and wear them on your sleeve pretty much immediately, you probably have an easier time at recognizing when you’re stressed… The challenge for you in those situations is being careful not to transmit almost immediately through body language Have go-to prayers or songs to help calm you. I am an extremely tightly wound person, I’ve learned, so I need this a lot. I have lots of go-to prayers and songs When I find myself unable to drop something (like an unfinished conflict, as I mentioned before), I turn to one of my go-to prayers or songs I repeat them over and over in the shower; or I listen to them while I’m walking or driving to my next appointment. And I just feel the volume dial get turned down… I feel my body relax These are also very useful right after you’ve just been flipped off in traffic… to stop the cycle of transmitting stress before I continue it I have included in your program links to a couple of mine The prayer of Teresa of Avila Fernando Ortega’s “O God, you are my God” If anger is something you notice you’re transmitting, prioritize physical outlets Sometimes it’s hard to transform anger in particular because transmitting it gives a very brief feeling of satisfaction -- “I let someone have it!” -- of course that satisfaction very quickly dies and we’re left with negative consequences What I’ve learned from that is that anger longs to be recognized in some way -- it doesn’t want to be told to “calm down” (you ever tried to do that to someone who is angry? don’t!)... Anger wants to be told “you’re angry! I see that!” I’ve found that doing something that physically tires me out is a great stand in for that need to be recognized… I have a feeling like I did something. I’m tired afterward. For me lately this has been playing drums, in the past it’s been playing basketball For many people I know, it’s exercise or running. All of those are great for transforming anger so you don’t transmit it Tell stories about your humiliations, not just your triumphs. I don’t mean willingly make yourself feel ashamed. I mean learn to laugh at yourself Learning to laugh at myself has been a hard process for me, because as a kid I felt laughed at by others a lot. But the more I improve at it, the less guarded and defensive I feel when I receive feedback or when I make a mistake. So when you and your roommate or partner or a good friend are swapping stories about your days, include a humiliation from time to time Apologize to someone you’ve transmitted un-transformed stress or pain to. This can speak powerfully to the person you apologize to But, in my experience, the best part about apologizing is what it does for me -- it allows me to think clearer and be more present afterward… Something spiritual happens in us when we humble ourselves and apologize So who is someone you’ve transmitted to? Let other people in when you’re stressed or in pain. Here’s an unfortunate mis-reading of Jesus’ carry your cross command — that he is talking about some heroic individual effort you have to exert and that needing help would be cheating or not doing it right. That’s not correct. Carrying my cross often means others are helping me. In the story of Jesus’ passion, there is this hard but beautiful moment when a man named Simon ends up carrying Jesus’ literal cross during part of Jesus’ execution One of the most life changing decisions I’ve ever made is to never feel stressed out alone. If I am ever experiencing stress, either Keziah my wife or Kyle my friend (or both) will know it, and hear me process that out loud. This doesn’t always lessen the stress (sometimes it does!) but it stops me from feeling alone Work with a counselor on the big stuff. In the same vein as letting other people in... We’re big believers that everyone can benefit from some professional counseling And the biggest roadblocks and traumas we experience along our way often require seasoned and knowledgeable help to transform so we don’t transmit Our church keeps a list of therapists we’re connected to and trust, and should that be something you think you could benefit from, reach out to us and we’ll help you get connected.
I want to say: this is as high stakes for life as it gets. Not because you are going to hell if you don’t do this, or you are out with Jesus if you don’t do this.
But, because transforming rather than transmitting is about how you will experience your life — Like do you actually like your life? And transforming rather than transmitting is about the kind of impact you will have on those around you. Do other people like when you’re around?
I’ve never encountered a promise like Jesus’ He doesn’t just describe reality accurately, he promises help. There is spiritual help to do the hardest internal work people have to do in life Healthily processing stresses and pains and traumas Can you do that internal work without spiritual help? Some extra-ordinary people seem to be able to But even if you are one of those extraordinary people, why would you? This is an offer for connection with and help from the God of the universe This is the great message of Jesus: God is not distant, not cold, God is good and caring and actively invested in your life.
Following Jesus, for me, has been the difference between: A reactive, tiring existence of just passing on my stress and pain to others. And a resilient life capable of finding peace and grounding to make wise, healthy choices even when experiencing stress or pain...
I want to end by praying for us, and to start I want to pray a something from the Psalms, the prayer book of the Bible, over us Can I ask you to stand with me?
Happy are the people whose strength is in you! whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way. Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, for the early rains have covered it with pools of water (Psalm 84)
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