Imagine that you are subjected to a series of mild shocks, equivalent to the static shocks that come from rubbing your foot across the carpet. As the shocks keep coming, you feel more and more stressed. Now imagine that your next-door neighbor experiences the exact same series of shocks. The only difference is that she is allowed to run over to a candy bar sitting on her dining room table and begin chewing it after each shock. Some time later, you develop an ulcer while your neighbor does not. If you think that the candy bar made the vital difference, you would probably be right.
Sound far-fetched? A physiologist by the name of Jay Weiss performed a similar experiment on rats. He let one rat run over to a piece of wood and gnaw on it after each shock. That rat was far less likely to develop an ulcer than the one that experienced a series of shocks with no relief. A masochistic variation on Weiss’s experiment delivered a series of shocks and then allowed the stressed rat to run across the cage and bite another rat to its heart’s content. Guess what? All that biting worked wonders! It seems victimizing others is a great stress reducer.1
So what’s the takeaway for us? Should we all be eating more chocolate bars or beating up on others whenever we feel frustrated? Of course not. The point is that our stress has to go somewhere. Unless we find positive ways to release it, either our bodies will absorb the stress or we will find harmful ways to release it.
One of the best stress relievers known to humankind is exercise. We know that psychological stress can activate the body for a fight-or-flight response even when none is needed. Exercise uses up the energy that the body is prepared to expend, thereby relieving the stress we feel. Other strategies, like talking to a friend or distracting yourself with an activity you enjoy or even imagining that you are doing something pleasant, can also offer relief. Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of ignoring stress. Instead, look for practical ways to relieve it so you can experience more peace in your life.
- The experiments are described in Robert M. Sapolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), 255–56.
I remember my first trip to Disneyland. My friends and I were so enthralled with Fantasyland that we spent most of the day there. We were having such a good time that we nearly forgot to visit the other attractions in the park, places like Adventureland, Frontierland, and Tomorrowland. That’s not really so different from what happens when some of us get lost in our personal fantasies.
We fantasize about a relationship, hoping that a certain person will one day fall in love with us. Or we fantasize about an improbable career, like becoming a famous artist, actress, or movie star. And who hasn’t fantasized about winning the lottery? There’s nothing wrong with having dreams, of course. But fantasies are unhealthy because by definition they are based solely on our imaginations, untethered to reality.
If fantasies are so unrealistic, why do we cling to them? One reason is that they can produce a kind of sham peace. Unsatisfied with life right now, I can distract myself by imagining a beautiful future. The problem with fantasies, of course, is that they can be instantly demolished by the pinprick of harsh reality. While fantasies may calm and console us for a time, they will eventually come to an end. The person we are fantasizing about falls in love with someone else. We grow into middle age no closer to becoming a rock star. We hit retirement with precious little money in the bank. That’s when the pseudopeace we’ve derived from our fantasies quickly dissolves, leaving us deflated and depressed.
Feeding on fantasies is like eating cotton candy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If we make a habit of it, we will suffer from spiritual and emotional malnutrition because falsehoods don’t have the power to nourish. Instead, they steal our attention and energy away from the grace God gives us to live in the present, helping us to build a better future.
What fantasies are you harboring? Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal them to you. Then ask for grace to let go of them so you can take hold of the good life God has for you.
One of the conditions of childhood, at least my childhood, was to envy the animal kingdom for powers I did not possess. Wings were a particular object of my longing. If only I could soar like a hawk through the sky, then I would be happy. One of my daughters suffered the same malady. Her condition, however, manifested itself as feline envy. She wondered why God hadn’t enabled her to see in the dark like a cat.
Now, thanks to modern technology, she no longer needs to accept her biological limitations. Instead, she can purchase a reasonably priced night vision scope, one that relies on starlight, moonlight, and infrared light to pierce the darkness in front of her. Such scopes are great for warfare, hunting rabbits, spotting boats on the water, observing wildlife, or in my daughter’s case, satisfying whatever random curiosity she might have about what is lurking in the dark. I imagine it would have come in handy for Tarzan and Jane, surrounded as they were by all those jungle creatures.
When it comes to seeing through the darkness, there are additional possibilities. In his book Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff processes his grief by observing:
“Our culture says that men must be strong and that the strength of a man in sorrow is to be seen in his tearless face. . . .But why celebrate stoic tearlessness? Why insist on never outwarding the inward when the inward is bleeding? Does enduring while crying not require as much strength as never crying? May we not sometimes allow people to see and enter it?” He goes on to say, “I shall look at the world through tears. Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed I could not see.”1
Could it be that by letting others see the crushing burden in his heart, Wolterstorff became more open to seeing theirs? Opening ourselves to the pain of others is not necessarily a path to peace. But it can be. Particularly when doing so makes us sensitive to suffering in a way we had not been previously. That’s when we can sit down beside someone and ease his or her burden simply by acknowledging that it exists.
1. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987), 26.
The year was 387. A small group of Africans were leaving Italy to return to their homeland. Among them were a mother and son. The two had developed a close bond over the years, the mother praying ceaselessly until her son’s conversion, which had occurred the previous year. Now they were staying in the seaport town of Ostia, awaiting transportation to their home in North Africa. One day as the two were conversing, the mother turned the conversation in a surprising direction.
“My son,” she confided, “I no longer find any personal pleasure in a longer life here. I really don’t know why I remain here. The great hope of my life has been fulfilled.” She went on to tell him that “God has more than answered my prayers since I now see that you have turned your back on worldly values and have dedicated yourself completely to him. So, what am I doing here?”1
Within five days, she developed a fever. A few days later, at the age of fifty-six, she was dead. Though the mother accepted her death peacefully, her son did not.
“A huge wave of sorrow washed over my heart, a rushing torrent that threatened to pour from me as tears. And yet my eyes were dry, held tight by the stern command of my will. The tension tore me apart. . . . Like a fool, I was upset because I was human and so affected by the death of a human being.”2
Gradually the son was able to express his sorrow, saying,
“Finally, alone with you, my God, I was able to weep, to weep about her and for her, to weep about myself and for myself. With relief I was able to let go the tears I had been holding back, letting them flow as fully as they wished, spreading them out as a soft pillow for my heart. My heart came to peace resting on those velvet tears, tears that were seen by you alone.”3
The story of Monica and her famous son Augustine is told in Augustine’s autobiography, Confessions. Through it we discover that even this great man had to learn that peace sometimes comes only through our tears.
- Augustine, Confessions, 9.10.26
- Ibid., 9.12.29
- Ibid., 9.12.33