Smoke Alarms and Watchtowers

The smoke detector in my kitchen is ridiculously sensitive. Over the years, it has been a source of steady annoyance to me and of ongoing amusement for my guests. Take a roast out of the oven – smoke alarm. Fry some bacon – smoke alarm. Even a simple slice of toast will send it screaming. I keep a fly swatter hanging nearby, not because I get flies in the house, but to wave briskly in front of the smoke alarm, hoping to appease its wrath. Sometimes the only option is to reach up, rip it from the wall, and remove the battery until the cooking is over. It is at that point that my guests usually laugh as they hear me say something like, “I hate you! But you’ll probably save my life someday…”

I’ve come to learn that God has also wired our brains with a smoke alarm system: the amygdala. Each side of our brain has a tiny, almond-shaped bundle of neurons designed (among other functions) to set off a swift and strong reaction to threats. For example, I remember the time as a child that I was digging for night crawlers. I began feeling my whole body vibrating heard a deep throbbing hum. I paused in perplexion. Then I felt a sting – and had an immediate realization that I had just dug up an entire nest of ground wasps! My “fight or flight” response flashed like lightning, and I ran a 100-yard dash that could rival any Olympic athlete. Thanks to my brain working the way God designed it to, I escaped with only two small stings. It could have been much worse.

We humans, together with other animals, are hardwired with survival instincts. Our amygdala sends swift messages to other parts of the brain and body. We receive a rush of stress hormones that bolster us for battle.

This instinctive response can save our lives, but it can also yield a daily dose of anxiety, spiritual unrest, and torment. Unfortunately, some of us (myself included) have an internal smoke alarm much more like the one in my kitchen – set off by the smallest stimuli, and disruptive of daily life. Everyday encounters can trigger an overreaction in me. An unexpected interruption or an unreasonable request can bring out the worst in my behaviors – just ask my staff or volunteers! I find myself feeling threatened when there is no actual threat. It’s just the toaster.

Having our internal smoke alarm go off frequently makes it quite challenging to abide in love and truth. Just as cooking in the kitchen becomes much less focused or relaxed so long as the alarm is blaring, so also with our daily life. When our brain is on “high alert” we will find it quite challenging to think clearly, to be tender-hearted and vulnerable, to connect with others, to trust, to have fun, to be spontaneous, or to love our neighbor as ourselves.

I first encountered the analogy of a “smoke alarm” in the writings of Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk. The image immediately resonated with my experience – both in my kitchen and in my daily life. Van der Kolk has dedicated his life to studying and treating the crippling effects of trauma – part of the human experience that is far more commonplace than we realize.

In a truly traumatizing situation, we find ourselves helpless or powerless to do anything. Neither “fight” nor “flight” will save us. We instinctively revert to the “freeze” response and shut down. But our brains can keep producing stress hormones, even years after the threat has passed. This shows up in various undesired symptoms: high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, irritability, peevishness, headaches, muscle tension, nightmares, etc. Hence the title of Dr. Van der Kolk’s book: The Body Keeps the Score.

It is tempting at times to wish away all these unpleasant experiences. Can’t I just take a pill for it? Sometimes we do indeed need to take medications to keep our symptoms under control. But the symptoms (unpleasant as they are) can actually become our greatest allies. They are like the bread crumbs that allowed Hansel and Gretel to find their way back home.

That is where “The Watchtower” comes in – no, not the monthly publication of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but another part of the brain: our medial prefrontal cortex. It is the part of our brain that allows us to survey the scene from above, like a calm and curious observer. In relation to our “smoke alarm,” our “watchtower” can tell us calmly and serenely, “Not a fire – just the toaster.”

In an ideal world, we grow up in a safe, secure, and nurturing environment. We find our physical and spiritual and emotional needs well cared for. Our brain easily forms neural pathways between our “watchtower” and our “smoke alarm.” False alarms still happen, but are then much less common, and we are able to recognize them quickly and calmly.  That is the ideal. In reality, for many of us, these neural connections literally do not yet exist, or are underdeveloped.

Thankfully, there is good news from brain science. The newest research backs up what we already know from our Christian Faith: we are capable of changing our habits and growing in virtue. In scientific terms, this involves (literally) rewiring our brain – forming new neural pathways. Throughout our life, our brain remains “plastic” – able to be reshaped. This best happens when we follow Jesus’ advice and become like little children (Matthew 18:3). In this case, it means rekindling some of those childlike qualities: wonder, awe, curiosity, eagerness to learn, and a willingness to make plenty of mistakes along the way.

Think of little children learning to walk and talk. We do not scold them when they stumble or fall. We do not berate them because they mispronounce a word. Quite the opposite – we find it cute and endearing, and cheer them on. Our steady encouragement and affirmation keeps motivating them to take the next step and learn the next word. All the while their brain’s “watchtower” is fully active – noticing everything with the utmost curiosity, making new connections every single day.

We tend to be hard on ourselves, to criticize, or to shame ourselves, thinking, “Why do I have to be this way??” Instead, with encouragement from God and others, we can learn to “just notice that” within ourselves, without criticizing or condemning. We can say, “Yup, there goes the smoke alarm again” and calmly inquire why it is going off. Even when it is not a fire, it is possibly something that needs our attention. From that calm and childlike wonder and awareness, we are then free to make a rational choice of what we will do. As this space of freedom and spontaneity grows within us, little by little, we can learn to abide in love and truth.

God is Faithful

Advent is a season of promise and fulfillment. We abide in expectant hope, confident that God is faithful. He never breaks his promises. We can trust him with total vulnerability and receptivity.

I must confess that trusting God’s promises – really trusting them – has been a lifelong challenge for me. I often surrender myself in faith and hope and love. But I have a pattern of “crossing my fingers” and holding back a little something for myself. There can be a clutching in my heart, a nagging doubt, a lingering fear that God might not really come through for me. I don’t always verbalize that doubt or have awareness of it. But part of my heart still struggles. There is that temptation to cling to an escape clause, a golden parachute, or a “Plan B” – just in case. I am guessing the same is true for many of you.

Scripture offers us lively examples of faith in God’s promises: Abraham, Joseph, and Mary.

Abraham is our father in faith. God commands him to leave behind his country and go to a land yet to be named. God promises make of him a great nation. Abraham trusts and abides. God promises to give him descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky. According to those chapters of Genesis, Abraham is 75 at the time of God’s promise, and waits until the age of 100 for the fulfillment! Yet Abraham trusts and abides. Some years later, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his own beloved son Isaac. Abraham continues to trust and abide, proclaiming to Isaac, “God himself will provide a lamb” (Genesis 22:8). God celebrates Abraham’s faith, and does indeed provide the lamb. He sends his own beloved Son Jesus, places the wood of the cross on his shoulders, and invites him up the mountain of Calvary to offer and be offered as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

That promise of saving us from our sins is also given to Joseph in Matthew 1. God sends his angel in a dream, assuring Joseph that his wife is pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is to name the child Jesus (“Savior”) because he will save his people from their sins. Joseph trusts and abides.

Joseph continues trusting and abiding in Bethlehem, amidst circumstances that would lead most men to panic or rage. This great savior-child is born amidst animals and laid to rest in their feeding trough. Joseph trusts and abides following another dream, in which God sends his angel to command him to rise, take the mother and child, and go into Egypt until commanded otherwise. Joseph rises, takes the mother and child, and goes. He knows not how long they will be there, where they will stay, or how they will be provided for. He trusts that God is faithful. Scripture never records any spoken word on his part. But every single time God issues a command to him, he promptly obeys, abiding in faith and hope.

Luke offers the example of the Virgin Mary. His Gospel begins with two parallel stories, as the births of John and Jesus are announced. Zechariah and Mary are contrasting figures. Both are righteous and pleasing in God’s eyes. Both are promised a very special son under quite impossible circumstances. Both ask questions about God’s promises.

But there is a great difference in their questioning. Zechariah asks, “How can I know this?” He does not fully trust; part of him desires to comprehend and be in control. Mary, meanwhile, trusts and abides. Elizabeth praises her for believing that God would fulfill his promises (Luke 1:45). Mary’s question is “How will this be?” In Greek the grammar is more obvious. If there were doubt about the outcome, Luke would employ the subjunctive or optative (“How could this be?”). But he uses the indicative mood. She believes that the promises will be fulfilled, and desires to understand more deeply. In her lively example, we see that trusting and abiding doesn’t mean that we have to be a helpless victim or a passive bystander. There is a faith-filled way of questioning God. Mary does not shrink back in fearful submission, nor does she willfully demand a total explanation. She freely and actively gives her “yes” and grows in her expectant hope as the mystery gradually unfolds. She does not succumb to any urge to panic or rebel.

Personally, I am quite skilled at what some of my friends call “future tripping.” My mind and heart fantasize about the “what if” scenarios, and I find myself consumed with anxiety or sadness as I grapple to stay in control. God keeps inviting me to be a little child, trusting and receptive. He will shepherd me. He will protect me. He will lead me. He will nourish me. He will heal me. He will wipe away every tear. He will provide for all my needs. He will fulfill each and every one of my deepest desires. He is the one who put them there in the first place.

Advent is a time of promise and fulfillment, a time to trust and abide. The examples of Abraham, Joseph, and Mary are truly inspiring. We can trust the living God, who never lies and never breaks his promises. Paul’s prayer for his people can be a prayer for each of us this Advent:

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).