2020 will be a year that will be difficult for any of us to forget. Who could have ever predicted it? I am sure most can relate the word “horrible” to 2020, but “terrific” and “opportunity” might be a little harder to grasp. My goal is to help you see the terrific opportunity that lies before you.
A friend of mine recently shared an experience that she had at a winery. The person leading the tour after tasting a sample from a certain year expressed that the wine was not very good. Her explanation as to why the wine from that year was inferior…because the grapes did not suffer enough. As with grapes, it seems God uses the crucibles of our lives in extremely profound and enriching ways.
Psalm 66:12 The Passion Translation
12 You’ve allowed our enemies to prevail against us.
We’ve passed through fire and flood,
yet in the end you always bring us out better than we were before,
saturated with your goodness.
2020 has been filled with strong emotional triggers: a major election, coronavirus, lockdowns, masks, murder of George Floyd, racial unrest, protests, riots, vandalism, etc. So how is all this a “terrific opportunity?” These incidents appear to be robbing us of our peace, creating deep divisions, and leading to much fear. It might look like that on the surface, but there is much more happening than meets the eye. These emotionally triggering events are touching on deeper areas of pain in all our lives. I am defining an emotional trigger as an irrational response to a rational or irrational person, situation, or circumstance. When these areas of pain are provoked, our brain triggers a fight or flight response. This is the primal part of our brain and when it engages the more sophisticated part of our brain where logic and reason reside cannot be accessed. We want this primal part of our brain to engage when our house is on fire. We do not want to think we just want to react. This part of our brain is essential to survival in emergency situations. The problem arises when this survival mechanism activates in non-emergency situations. Have you ever had a heated conversation with a loved one over a very trivial issue, like washing the dishes, taking the garbage out, etc.? It is probably easy to see how a huge argument over these types of issues is irrational. However, what if the argument is about something more serious like politics or racism? The more rational the issue, the harder it is to identify your irrational response. Unfortunately, because of unresolved emotional pain, many live a significant portion of their lives from this emotionally triggered place. This wreaks havoc not only in our relationships but also in our physical bodies. Our bodies were not meant to live in this heightened state for extended periods of time.
The emotional triggers of 2020 create tremendous tension. If we learn to embrace this tension, we can trace it to its source. Much like a skilled massage therapist can trace down the origin of physical pain in our muscles we too can learn to trace our emotional pain to its source. The first step in this process is learning to identify when we are triggered and operating from an irrational place. Renowned emotional health consultant, Laura Duncan, says that we know we are triggered when we are not “OK”. Her definition of being “OK” is when we are clear-minded, tenderhearted, and at peace. It is a deep eternal truth that we can live from this place of being “OK” no matter what is happening around us. I am a follower of Jesus and I see this exemplified profoundly in His life. He slept peacefully on a boat during a storm and He was not rattled by the pressing demands of the many people who followed Him. But, even for Jesus, this process of being clear-minded, tenderhearted, and at peace did not always come easy. The greatest battle for Him occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is in these Garden of Gethsemane moments when God is doing deep work in our hearts. Many are experiencing these moments in 2020.
I have also learned to recognize my triggered moments by noticing when I have lost my ability to have compassion for others. I recently watched a news clip of an activist in Seattle. She was filled with intense anger and some of what she was saying did not sit well with me. I was being triggered. But then something profound happened. Through the camera, I was able to see into her eyes. Behind all that anger I could see a young lady who was in a tremendous amount of pain. My heart was filled with compassion for her. I was no longer triggered and was able to see what she was saying from a much different lens. From her place of pain, she was seeking to be heard and I could empathize with times in my life when I did not feel heard. I was able to connect with her feeling to feeling. As humans, we will never connect with and agree with each other on every issue. But we can connect feeling to feeling and grow in empathy for one another.
Having compassion does not mean you turn down strong emotions or are not moved with great passion. Racism, sex trafficking, politics, etc… are huge issues, and engaging them with great passion is wonderful. However, if you address these from a triggered place you will at the very least not be as effective as you could be or at worst exacerbate the situation. You will also be more likely to burn out and eventually give up on the cause that you are fighting for. Jesus is compassion in flesh. Jesus was very fiery and passionate when he cleared the temple (John 2:13-22) and when he spoke very harshly to the religious leaders of His day. At one point He called them “whitewashed tombs” (Mat 23:27), which was a very terse way of saying that in their hypocrisy they had become dead on the inside. The first thirty-six verses of Matthew 23 are essentially Jesus in no uncertain terms, letting the religious leaders of the day have it. Reading it reminds me a little of what halftime looked like at the hands of my high school basketball coach lol. But in all this, Jesus never lost His compassion. Of these very same religious leaders, He cried out at the end of the chapter (Matthew 23:37) that He longed to gather them as a hen gathers her chicks, but that they were unwilling. He was weeping for them as a mother weeps for her wayward children. His compassion for them did stop there. On the cross, He cried out for God to forgive His murderers (the same religious leaders) because they knew not what they did (Luke 23:34). This response to one’s executioners was echoed by Stephan, the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:60). Can you see the people that hold the opposite views as you in this way? The ones on Facebook or the news that make you red hot with fury by what they say or what they do? Are you crying out to God for mercy for them and to forgive them for they know not what they do? Jesus never condoned sin, and neither should we. Calling evil good is foolish. He just responded to sin in a much different way than most of us do. Our triggered response is often to call down fire and judgement. Jesus, the Ultimate Judge of all mankind, first response is compassion and mercy. If you sensed conviction in what I shared, please understand that my goal is not to shame you for a lack of compassion. But rather to help you see that your lack of compassion is an indicator that you are in a triggered place. Think of it as an emergency light on the dashboard of your car. The light is not bad, it is simply an indicator that there is a problem. Spend some time in the coming days paying attention to your emotions and learning to recognize when you are in a triggered place…when you are not “OK” (clear-minded, tenderhearted, and at peace) and when you have lost your ability to have compassion for others (and yourself!). As you do this, it is possible that you will not recognize your trigger in the moment and will only see it in hindsight. This is normal and natural. Most of us have lived disconnected from our emotions our whole lives. Learning this process will take some time and practice. I promise you that it will be time well spent!
In our next blog, we will discuss how to bring comfort to the pain in our inner world. It is this pain that is at the root of our trigger. You might be thinking, “I am not in pain, what the heck is he talking about?” Most of my life I did not think I carried any emotional pain either. One week in November of 2018 dramatically awakened me to the fact that I was carrying and suppressing a lot of emotional pain. I was completely unaware. That week and the months that followed have become the greatest gift I have ever received. It was my horribly terrific opportunity. I encourage you to embrace this process and let 2020 be that for you.