Before I begin the sermon this morning, I’d like to do something I don’t often do which is to advertise next week’s sermon. A month ago we sent out a survey about the worship life of this congregation. Now that the feedback has been received and the results tabulated, there was one finding that I found surprising. We received a lot of responses that were critical of hymn-singing. There were comments about wanting hymns sung faster, or fewer rounds, or less of a particular hymn. But several people commented that they didn’t like singing period and implied doubt about congregational singing altogether. Which, to me, raised an interesting question: Why do we sing? Why do we sing in church? Why do people sing together at all? I don’t know if I’m successfully selling this to you or not, but I think next week is going to be really fun, and different, and I’m going to talk about a singer-songwriter named Beck and about the Talking Heads and hymns and music of all sorts. I’m excited about it so you should be excited too.
But you’ll have to wait until next week for that sermon. Now back to this week.
While talking with Anne about the topic of this morning’s sermon, she told me that my topic reminded her of a memoir she’d read recently. Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild describes the author’s solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail, a hike of more than 1,000 miles. The author had been suffering through a period of pain and loss. Her mother had died when the author was in her early twenties and this was soon followed by a period of self-destructive decisions that alienated her family members and wrecked her marriage. The hike she took was about finding herself again. Listen to what she says about her trek:
The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer—and yet also, like most things, so very simple—was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay. As I clung to the chaparral that day, attempting to patch up my bleeding finger, terrified by every sound that the bull was coming back, I considered my options. There were only two and they were essentially the same. I could go back in the direction I had come from, or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go.
I’ll admit that I’m not entirely sure what the deal with the bull is; I’m not that far along in the book. But what jumped out to me in this passage was the idea of being without distraction, of having to face problems head on without the distraction of excuses or escapes.
It has been my tradition for much of my ministry here to kick off December, to kick off the Advent season, by talking about a challenging emotion. In previous years I’ve preached on subjects such as loneliness, anger, depression, jealousy, disillusionment, alienation, and fear. I promise I’m usually cheerier than this. This year, however, what I want to talk about is not an emotion, per se, but rather a practice of avoiding emotion, the practice of numbing ourselves.
In the passage from Cheryl Strayed that I just read, she mentions two things that she turned to in order to avoid the pain in her life: booze and sex. There are all sorts of behaviors that it is possible for a person to turn to in order to numb himself or herself. There’s drinking and drug use, obviously. There’s sex. There’s eating. There’s shopping. And then there are all the things that it’s possible for a person to do in order to lose himself or herself in front of a screen. There’s television watching, videogame playing, web-surfing, and social media scrolling. If we spent some time brainstorming together, there’s no doubt we could come up with a much longer and more exhaustive list of numbing activities that people turn to in order to avoid feelings they may be struggling with.
What exactly do I mean by numbing behavior? How do I define it? There’s certainly a “know it when you see it” aspect to it. One of the ministers I knew way back when I was a student minister told me that for several years he dealt with the stress he was under by pouring himself several fingers of whiskey as soon as he walked in the door after a day at church. That’s clearly numbing behavior. His habit concerned him and he quit it and cultivated other healthier and more productive ways of managing stress. Imagine instead that he had said something like, “Every day when I come home from work I take the dog for brisk walk around the neighborhood and I also make sure to schedule a massage at least once per month.” Would that also be numbing? What is the difference between numbing and unwinding, between numbing and relaxing?
Speaking personally, I will tell you that I take part in activities that I find relaxing, perhaps not as often as I should, and activities that I would have to describe as numbing, perhaps more than I should. Here’s an example of the latter: There is a website called Sporcle that contains thousands of on-line quizzes. In four minutes name the 20 largest potato producing countries in the world. In ten minutes name every American League baseball player to win the Most Valuable Player award. Sporcle claims that it offers “mentally stimulating diversions.” It really offers a complete waste of time. If I’m being honest with myself, I’ll tell you that it also offers temporary escape from whatever happens to be bothering me at the moment. Which I suppose is fine in moderation, but isn’t nearly as good when I get sucked into a game and ignore the larger demands of life and family.
What is the difference between numbing and unwinding, between numbing and relaxing? Let me see if I can describe the difference. I think that you can tell one from the other in terms of the impact the activity has beyond ourselves, externally, and in terms of the impact that it has on us internally. Externally, we might ask if an activity have a net positive or a net negative impact on the lives of the people we care about? If it improves the quality of the lives of those around you, it is probably not numbing. If an activity detracts from your life and makes others’ lives worse, it may be numbing.
Another way of looking at it is to ask whether it is effective at addressing the inner moods and emotions that you’re dealing with. Does it actually help you to feel better or does it just temporarily help you put off feeling bad? If I’m feeling irritated or antsy, a good half-hour of internet quizzes only numbs how I’m feeling. It’s like anesthesia that wears off quickly. It’s like freezing my brain only to have it thaw soon after I stop playing. I don’t go forward with my life in a way that’s less annoyed or irritable or whatever it is that I happen to be dealing with at that moment. Just as martinis and heroin didn’t help Cheryl Strayed, just as a tall pour of whiskey didn’t help my colleague, numbing doesn’t fix anything. It just postpones what you’re hoping to avoid.
I want to be clear here. I’m not saying any this to be Puritanical. I’m not claiming that idle hands are the devil’s playthings. I’m not standing up here and casting judgment on those of us who fill out crossword puzzles or zone out in front of bad television or get lost in video games. There is a place for all of those things. I’m all in favor of meditation and napping. Please don’t think that I’m telling you to get rid of all your mentally stimulating diversions. That’s not what I’m saying.
In fact, those sorts of things may actually be necessary for our brains. I came across an article entitled, “The Holy Trinity of Inactivity: How Boredom, Distraction, and Procrastination are Vital to Healthy Living.” Isn’t that a fantastic title? This article synthesizes stories that ran in a variety of publications including the New York Times, The Guardian, Psychology Today, The Journal of Neuroscience, and Smithsonian Magazine, among others. This article cites research that claims to show that boredom can stimulate creativity, that distraction can help us get unstuck, and that procrastination can be a form of careful discernment. The article says that being inactive rather than overstimulated can be good for our brains. Here’s a quote from a New York Times piece on boredom that the article cites,
Some experts say that people tune things out for good reasons, and that over time boredom becomes a tool for sorting information – as an increasingly sensitive spam filter. In various fields including neuroscience and education, research suggests that falling into a numbed trance allows the brain to recast the outside world in ways that can be productive and creative at least as often as they are disruptive.
It’s not quite right to say that walking the Pacific Crest Trail is a form of being inactive. But, it certainly is monotonous, and that monotony and boredom were probably an important key to Cheryl Strayed being able to reach the insights she reached.
Our brains are utterly remarkable things. They are probably the most amazing things that exist in the universe. And, at the same time, sometimes it seems to me that the challenges of life are overtaxing our brains. The brain is churning through the pain of grief and thinks: “Aha! A couple of drinks might alleviate this pain.” The brain is racing with worry and stress so it switches over to guessing after the world’s largest potato producing countries. This is understandable, even though it may not be good for us.
Taking the example of the brain struggling to cope to its most dramatic and devastating extreme, I’m reminded of something that one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace, once wrote. A few years after he wrote the words I’m going to share he took his own life during a lapse in the treatment of his own mental illness. His life was a battle with his brain. These words happen to come from a piece in which David Foster Wallace talks about how to cultivate habits and disciplines of thinking that allow us to live better lives.
Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master. This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head.
Now, it is important to remember that I am a minister, not a psychiatrist, not a psychologist, not a neurobiologist, not a brain surgeon. I’m a cleric. Nothing I’m about to say is at all intended to replace the insights offered by science and medicine, disciplines that also try to understand the workings of the mind.
From a religious perspective, I wonder if it might be helpful for us to imagine a soul in addition to a brain or a mind. I’m not making any claims about the reality of the soul, just asking us to imagine one. If you’re a humanist or an atheist, you can maybe imagine the soul as your truest self, your best self. If you are a theist, you can imagine the soul as an eternal aspect of the self, never separate from God. In any event, it’s possible to know something about the soul even if you don’t actually believe in it. Imagine a soul alongside a brain, an aspect of the self that is impervious to numbing, not tempted by mentally stimulating diversions.
If a brain wants to be numbed, a soul wants to be soothed. If you are a person that numbs, maybe ask what you could do that would be soothing rather than numbing. Connection is soothing. Meditation is soothing. A warm bath is soothing. A visit with a good friend is soothing. An embrace is soothing. Just as we could brainstorm a list of activities that are numbing, we could just as surely create a list of activities that are soothing.
May we develop practices that are soothing to our souls. May we be good to ourselves. Amen.