TURN YOUR ALARM SYSTEM OFF!

Two women, worlds apart, are talking.

“It is hard to listen to me?”

“It’s not hard. I have my alarm system turned off.”

On Being with Krista Tippett, interview with Arlie Hochschild

You know the feeling. My alarm system is on almost all of the time, so much so that I don’t even realize I have an alarm system. My hackles get raised when Fox & Friends plays on the gym’s TV during my morning workout, or when I think people are going to speak derogatorily about immigrants, Muslims, the LGBT community, Millennials, etc. Such things are my alarm system finely tuned to.

Our church is doing a book study called “Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully About Racism,” by Carolyn Helsel. Talk about an opportunity for alarm bells! “Anxious” is an appropriate word: we can be anxious that we will say something offensive, anxious that the conversation is going to devolve into politics, anxious that someone else is going to say something that really gets under our skin and our face will flush and we will try and talk honestly about systemic racism without being written off as a naïve, bleeding-heart liberal (oh whoops, was that just me??).

What would happen if we could just listen to people without alarm systems going off? With the understanding that others will say things we don’t agree with, but that we don’t have to let this hurt us. They got to their positions and beliefs somehow, just as we got to ours.

Don’t think I’m suggesting we just roll over and play dead when the “other side” starts raising its voice. Not at all. I firmly believe in the importance of truth-telling, honesty, and objectivity. But I’m also aware that facts do little to change people’s opinions when their emotions point them a different way.

Sometimes giving facts to emotion-driven people is about as useful as this dog is presently being.

Our brains are ruled by confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is not exactly objective: it feigns objectivity while really just reinforcing what we already believe at an emotional, gut level. We want so badly to understand the world we live in and make it a safe, habitable place. We make it safe by making it small. Once we think we understand something, we try and fit in all new pieces of information into the systems we have already worked out for ourselves. This has been our survival strategy for millennia upon millennia: we had to quickly learn how to categorize stimuli into “safe” and “not safe,” so we could, you know, act quickly and not get eaten by bears or stomped on by wooly mammoths.

Admit it. You don’t want to be stomped either.

So what can help us increase our capacity for feeling safe – and also for helping others feel safe?

There are many routes to do this. Just being aware of our own hyperaroused alarm system is a step. I would add in cultivating qualities of curiosity, compassion, empathy, and openness.

Cultivating openness.

Retrieved from www.pickthebrain.com

For me, spirituality helps inform the approach to the “other.” In non-dualistic ways of being (which I would describe, in part, as the place God dwells), the distinction between “self” and “other” is a false dichotomy. We are somehow deeply interconnected even with those who feel like enemies. Yes, that means I’m even connected with Trump. My ego may throw a little fit about that and my surface-level skin might crawl, but the deeper part of me has compassion for the both of us because we’re just human, trying to get by. Our wounds are different. He has a little more power (in the traditional sense) than I do. He has more of a temper than I do. But a belief I hold is that we are both image-bearers of the divine, muddled as that image may be.

I thought about inserting a pic of Trump instead… but I like this better.

Perhaps one of the hardest tasks of spirituality is navigating the path between the contemplative knowledge that we are all connected and everything is, ultimately, okay — with the reality that we are in a world where real-life issues need to be addressed, people’s rights need to be protected, where the poor, broken, and wounded receive real-life healing. I’m not saying I have the answers. But I believe we need both parts to be fully human. Hating the perpetrator while tending to the victims does not actually bring about the beloved community.

These are hard words to swallow. I write them and I want to believe them, but it is so difficult to live into. But if we can, we find the alarm system is suddenly a relic. We don’t have to hate and be alarmed by the other. And then, maybe then, will our world start to become the place we so desperately need it to be.

how can you long for what you already have?

Longing. Desire.

You know what I’m talking about. I know you’ve experienced it, if you’re human. And I’m not just talking about the “I want his/her hot bod next to mine” kinda feeling. I’m talking about the feeling that seems to emanate from the very core of your being,  the one that asks “what else is there?”, the one that lives for the possibility that there IS more to live for, the feeling of knowing something is lacking but being unable to express exactly what that is.

This feeling, I think, must also encompass hope. As C.S. Lewis says, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world” (Mere Christianity). We hope that there is something out there that can meet our desire.

Different psychologists talk about this feeling of unmet longing in different ways. Some (Freud) say it’s just our biological drives for pleasure and aggression that provoke longing (or in his way of thinking, anxiety, when our urges go unmet as they often do).

Some (Fairbairn) think that since our parents didn’t perfectly meet our needs (physical or, just as importantly, emotional) when we were infants, we end up internalizing concepts of what we wished our parents could have been for us. It’s the infant equivalent of, “well, if you’re not ACTUALLY going to be here for me, I’ll make you be here for me in my MIND!” We idealize people as adults too. On the flip side, we can also actively reject others in a “you’re not gonna reject me because I’ll reject you first!” type of attitude. Then we go around our whole life long trying to connect with people using a mold based on those fantasy connections. No wonder we long, because we are seeking something that didn’t exist in the first place.

Some (Winnicott) say that we didn’t get a chance to let our “true self” really flourish as a child before the walls of reality came crashing down on our fantasy, egocentric ways of being: “no Mommy, I really AM Superman!!”. Yup, believe it or not, it really is important to indulge little kids’ notions of being powerful and the center of the universe (according to Winnicott, and I believe him). When we do that, we help establish a feeling of personal importance and personal meaning, which is embodied in our true self. Without this sense of meaning, we will be constrained in a false self, trying to meet the demands of the world but feeling empty inside: longing and desiring for something more.

I think these interpretations are great, and help give us a glimpse into the myriad of processes that are going on ever since we were born. However, there is one psychoanalyst who recently caught my attention, because I felt like he was describing the state of my soul. He’s French (harrharrharr, twirl your mustache), postmodernist, linguist, terribly confusing and complex and deep (good thing I just read summaries of his work in English). Jacque Lacan describes desire in this way (summarized by authors Mitchell and Black from Freud and Beyond):

“Desire, the wellspring of passion, is more encompassing than the pursuit of satisfaction and the quelling of need– it is ultimately necessarily ungratifiable. In desire, the child wishes to be totally captivating, to be everything for the (m)other. To truly be everything for the other would be to embody everything the other desires….
This [disconnection from the m(other)] gives rise to Desire… Desire is ultimately unsatiable, because desire is born of the longing to heal the gap…to attain an impossible (imaginary) recollection, to be at one with mother and nature again.”

You might have to read it a couple of times. But for whatever reason, this writing helped give words to a feeling, an idea, a longing, that before had just floated around in my soul.

It smacked me on the face because I realized: I WANT TO BE EVERYTHING FOR SOMEONE ELSE. My desire is to be all that you desire (you=my other). I want to somehow, magically, meet all your needs.

Lacan suggests this desire emerged as a baby, when in my self-centered world, I believed that I was the only thing my mother desired. And when that fantasy came crashing down, man, what a blow to the ego. It’s a painful gap that is formed… a chasm between my soul and the world that can feel interminable.

When I am all that you want, my desire is fulfilled. I am given meaning. I am worth something. Please do not suggest to me that it is not possible to be someone else’s everything, because it feels like you will destroy my sense of self. By being important – by being EVERYTHING- to you, I can believe that I AM important. To settle for less feels like settling for a cheap substitute.

Yet at the very same time, I also know that this desire is inherently unsatiable. I know that as a human, I cannot meet all of another human’s needs. I was not meant to. It’s just… part of being human. IT’S NOT MY FAULT.

(I have a tendency to self-blame and undervalue). (maybe you do too).

Well, what in the world do I do with this terrible endless not-quite-describable feeling of longing, of wishing to be something I cannot be, of trying to create meaning through what I can be for someone else?

I don’t know much about Lacan, so I don’t know if he resolved this. But for me- on my good days, when I can believe with all my heart- I know the answer.

I really, really, believe (and again, I’m not saying I feel this way all the time, but I have experienced it once and sometimes once is really enough) that we are NOT SEPARATED FROM GOD. God is not “out there” watching us, not really caring, not involved. I believe that God is inside every single one of us. Already. I don’t believe you have to ask God to come into your heart, or have a conversion experience, or be baptized. I believe God is already right here. God is part of us… but we are also part of God. What? Altogether. Collectively. God-in-us and we-in-God.

You see what happens to the gap, the chasm, the unspeakable longing?

BOOM. Gone.

God is here. God is with us. We are with God.

In the moments I know this, I don’t have to long anymore. You don’t long for something that you know you already have.

And how sweet it is.

Amen.