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.

Hiraeth Part II: Beauty Breaks Through

In my previous post I explored the human experience of hiraeth, which the Welsh describe as a bittersweet ache of our heart for some kind of elusive homeland. It’s a rather unique word describing a rather universal human experience – at least for those willing to look deeply within their heart.

I suggested that the experience of hiraeth is ultimately an invitation into Christian hope. In the remotest depths of our heart we “remember” a homeland that has not yet come into full existence. We have tasted its fruits, like the Israelites on the edge of the promised land. Like them, we are held back by sadness and fear. By the power of God, Joshua (Yeshua in Hebrew) led the Israelites through dangers and into the promised land. Jesus (also Yeshua in Hebrew) will lead us through the dark valley and into his Kingdom, the fruits of which we begin to enjoy even now.

Even with Jesus at our side, it can be so hard to muster the courage to re-enter the dark and scary places of our heart. We live in a world that encourages us to escape reality and numb our pain. Instead of grieving well, many brokenhearted people turn to manifestly destructive behaviors: drunkenness, illegal narcotics, internet pornography, sexual promiscuity, impulse shopping, overeating, chain smoking, or compulsive gambling. Aside from addictions, we find more subtle ways of hurting self and others as we try to cope: being critical or sarcastic, “fixing” others, engaging in manipulative behavior, lying, peevishness, or fault finding.

Perhaps we don’t turn to behaviors that are directly hurtful, but run from our pain all the same. I think here of activities such as daydreaming, spending long hours playing video games, binge watching TV shows, a never ending quest for tattoos or piercings, fanatical exercising, plunging into busyness or careerism, obsession with sports, and so forth. We numb and anesthetize, hoping somehow to avoid our pain forever. But it will not go away on its own.

Please don’t get discouraged in reading these lists! Probably all of us engage in some level of coping. It’s part of our survival instincts – which are there by God’s design to help us get through the troubles of life. The problem is when the “high alert” switch gets stuck in the “on” position and we don’t learn how to calm down and face reality.

I look back now on my childhood and realize that I had an enormous amount of emotional and spiritual pain without knowing how to face it. I coped for several years by turning to extensive daydreaming, and so I struggled in school and in sports. As I entered adolescence, I learned how to pay attention and became an overachiever. All seemed well, but it was actually a new way of trying to escape from pain. I spent my down time playing thousands of hours of video games, and otherwise strove towards every accolade I could achieve. There was good that came from all of these things – but they ultimately avoided the pain rather than help me overcome it.

Thankfully, truth and goodness and beauty have a transcendent power. They are always capable of lifting up the human spirit. In my Catholic high school years, I experienced a significant spiritual conversion. Even as I strove to “achieve” in my religion classes, I was captivated by the objective truth and goodness and beauty that I encountered. God writes straight with our crooked lines. My faith and spiritual life deepened, and I went on to have many profound moments of conversion.

Nonetheless, there was still plenty of minimizing and false hope, ignoring the signs that all was not well with my soul. It was only during the most recent years of my life that I realized the need to grieve some of those old wounds in earnest.

For me, as for many others, there were formidable walls of pride and self-protection. In my need to feel safe, I found ways to isolate and protect those places of pain – also keeping the out the good in the process. At times truth and goodness would beat at the door, and I would yield, even if it was painful. I cannot stand to live a lie. But I can be pretty darn skilled at minimizing. My mind is a gift that sometimes works against me.

But beauty breaks through. It has a way of catching us when our guard is down and sneaking past our defenses. Occasionally over the years I would find myself tearing up at scenes in movies. I didn’t always understand why (and was glad no one could notice in the darkness of the theater). But when I became serious about facing past wounds and growing in hope, I realized that I would benefit from turning actively to art, music, poetry, movies, and other aesthetic expressions. I sought and found those that spoke to my heart. And speak they did. I let the tears flow – sometimes cathartically. I talked to trusted friends and to the Lord about what I was experiencing. Layer by layer, the encounter with beauty has helped to heal my heart and increase my hope.

We all have dark and scary places in our heart that we would rather avoid. Thankfully, like Peter and James and John on Mount Tabor, we occasionally receive a glimpse of glory, a foretaste of our true destiny. Like them, we can find the strength to endure the darkness of Good Friday and journey forward in hope to the glory of the Resurrection and Ascension.

Panic Rooms

Do you have a panic room?

Unless you’re on the wealthy side, you probably don’t have a high-tech security vault that you can escape to in the event of home invasion, zombie apocalypse, visits from the in-laws, or whatever other threats you may experience.

However, many of us have spiritual or emotional “panic rooms” that we flee to when we feel unsafe or threatened, anxious or confused. That has definitely been part of my story.

My childhood was not always easy. My stepfather could be one of the funniest and funnest people to be around. Other days, he would get into fits of rage, yelling and screaming, name calling, belittling, pushing or shoving, slapping, and the like. God and others have helped me to find healing for the fear and shame that I internalized, yes, even to find deep compassion and mercy for him in his woundedness. I love him and forgive him.

It has been a long journey to make the transition from victim of trauma to lifelong survivor to true freedom as a wise and joyful son of God. Well, okay, I can’t claim to have arrived at the last one, but it’s a work in progress.

Our human brains are wired to survive. Like all mammals, we all have the “fight or flight” instinct – or in other cases, the impulse to “freeze” like an opossum. Whether in the savagery of nature, the horrors of the battlefield, or the hidden hells of suburbia, these hardwired instincts serve to save us, protect us, and help us to survive and endure.

But there is a problem. Our brains can get stuck in “survive” mode, keeping us from becoming who we are destined to be. We are more than mere mammals. As human beings, beloved sons and daughters in God’s image, we are called to abide in love and truth, to experience the joy and peace of communion with God and others.

Those who experience full-blown PTSD can be blocked significantly from this experience. They are often numb. They cannot feel what they feel; they struggle to realize what they really need. They become disconnected from their surroundings and their loved ones. They often plunge into addictions as their interior battle rages on.

Even if we don’t have PTSD, I think a large number of us, in one way or another, run away from our more painful emotions or fail to seek out what we truly desire and need. We hide out in our panic rooms.

As a child, I had various panic rooms. I would hide under the covers of my bed or talk with an imaginary friend. I was especially adept at daydreaming. I probably needed daydreaming as a way of getting through the traumas I was experiencing. On the plus side, I also used my imagination creatively, and became a highly reflective and independent person. But I also became an isolated person. It was a struggle to focus in school or during games on the playground. I was disconnected and lonely.

As I entered adolescence, things shifted. I suddenly discovered determination and a laser focus. In my longing for fatherly affirmation, I entered on a path of overachieving – whether in academics or in athletics. The false god of achievement and success haunted me for a long time. But that is a different story for a different time.

I discovered new “panic rooms.” I spent thousands of hours playing video games. It was the ultimate fantasy escape. I especially loved games that were challenging, but which I could eventually overcome through diligence and ingenuity. I would get a thrill from each level of achievement, and a marvelous sense of accomplishment with the praise and accolades at the end of the game. Sure, there were dangers and threats, but nothing the reset button couldn’t fix. It was a safe little universe with predictable rules. And best of all, I didn’t have to think about or feel any loneliness or shame or fear.

Another “panic room” was turning to comfort food. Later in life, I could add alcohol to the mix. I might have a stressful day, but I would know that at the end of it I could fix myself a drink or eat something I liked. For years of my life, I carried extra weight (not just physically, but spiritually and emotionally as well).

Different people have different panic rooms: indulging in food and drink, watching television, pornography, masturbation, smoking, fixing other people’s problems, getting yet another tattoo, intense exercise, careerism, and many more. Some are more destructive than others. Sometimes what is a healthy hobby for one person becomes a destructive escape for another.

Panic rooms are not a bad thing in and of themselves. People spend thousands of dollars on them for a reason. But consider their real purpose. Whether the citadel on ship or a safety room in a mansion, the purpose is to be a temporary place of safety and refuge. It is supposed to be a three-step process: (1) Retreat into the place of safety; (2) Reach out for help; (3) Come back out into the world safe and secure.

Some of us keep hiding in our place of perceived “safety.” We are too stubborn or scared to ask for help, or too proud to admit that we need it. So we stay stuck in isolation, loneliness, or addictions. When we learn instead to reach out to those who are willing to help us, we can leave behind our panic rooms and enter healthy and safe relationships in the big and beautiful world outside. Panic rooms are great for surviving a real threat. But they are no place to abide in.