In This Episode
12:51–18:29 What are we afraid of will happen?/The joy set before Christ.
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Dr. Thompson is a psychologist in private practice in Falls Church, Virginia. He’s the author of several books, Anatomy of the Soul and the Soul of Shame, and he’s the founder of the Center for Being Known, which tries to help educate and equip leaders in the church with lessons from the study of interpersonal neurobiology.
In the last episode, we left the conversation right as Dr. Thompson was encouraging us to think about who we know who we have some significant differences with, who we could actually sit down with and have a real embodied interpersonal face-to-face conversation with over a cup of coffee, over a meal, but one of the things he mentioned before that is that conversations like that can sometimes trigger in us the same feelings or the same reactions that get stirred up when survival is at stake. So this week we’re going to jump right back into the conversation right as I’m asking him why conversations like that can frequently feel like survival issues.
Dr. Thompson: I think one of the things we do is we say, we tend to live better lives when we actually follow the way the brain works and shorthand words that I like to use for folks in terms of understanding how the brain works is that the brain tends to work bottom to top and right to left. By that we mean that when you’re first being formed in the uterus you start with the neural tube, and at the top of the neural tube comes the brain stem.
The brain stem is the part that’s in charge of our fight or flight nexus, and so the first thing, the oldest thing, the thing we’re paying most attention to all the time is this next thing I’m in, the next step I take, is it survivable. And so survival, this sense of being ok, being safe, is the first primal thing that our brain is constantly monitoring the environment for. And out of the brain stem comes the limbic circuitry, and the limbic circuitry is the thing we share with lower mammals, our sense of feeling in the world, our emotional state. There are some animals, snakes, other reptiles, that don’t have feelings as far as we can tell. There are other animals, like dogs, that we can sense their feelings. We have feelings like dogs have feelings. And then out of this limbic circuitry the larger, more intricate, more complex parts of the brain that develop that are mostly like humans, right.
So our prefrontal cortex and the top part of the brain, it gives us reasoning, gives us creative ability, gives us the paths to assess consequences for choices, so far and so on. But one of the things that we have to never forget is that that brain stem, that part of us, is always thinking about survival. And so much of what’s taking place in the course of our daily activity is being filtered through that, but most of our life, for most people, is safe enough that we’re not having to think about that consciously, but that doesn’t meant that our brain stem isn’t always doing that work.
One of the things that the gospel tells us is that we serve a God who even in the face of danger, even in the face of Good Friday, of crucifixion, even in the face of what we human beings are doing to each other, and let alone what we’re going to do, that is not a God who is running from danger.
Now the challenge is that when the brain is in danger it will seek to isolate itself in order to protect itself against the danger. But the thing that the brain needs most when it feels that it’s in danger is not just protection in some abstract way, what the brain needs is connection with other brains who’ll be with it. Our sense of distress in the world is not just about danger per se, it is about danger of being alone. Again reflecting Genesis, in the search for God says to Genesis 2:18, it is not good for man to be alone, it is not good, aloneness, isolation in that sense, of solitude in the spiritual direction sense, but aloneness is not good. This is what hell is all about, this is where it all begins, where hell begins, is this sense of being alone.
To your question, most of our interactions are then filtered through the brain stem if we’re not careful. And so we’re walking into conversation already with our brain stems on high alert, with our limbic systems already saying that this is a conversation that’s going to be dangerous, as opposed to what does it mean for us for me to see, again back to a moment ago, we were talking about what does it mean for me to walk into a conversation in which my mission is to make contact, my mission is not to correct you, my mission is not to show you that I’m right and you’re wrong, my mission is going to be that I’m going to breach over the wall that’s between us, that’s the mission.
This is not what most Republicans and Democrats are thinking about. They think their mission is to convince others that they’re right. Their mission is not necessarily to make contact with others. The gospel is very different about that, and that doesn’t mean that we have to dissolve our differences, it’s about making contact in the face of our differences.
And what we mean by that is we take our attachment patterns, the ways in which we have learned how to relate to other human beings, is deeply connected to how we’ve attached as infants, as toddlers, to our primary caregivers, and that attachment process itself is a complex intersection of both body and relational interchanges that are some of the most formative ways in which we then come together to make decisions, without even being aware of how we’re doing it, they predetermine decisions about how relational interactions are going to go. And then when we get these attachment patterns wrapped in politics, we make the mistake of thinking that anytime there’s similarities or differences that these are largely around these things we call political ideas, when in fact there are far more powerful forces at work that aren’t just about abstractions of political thought, they’re about, do I feel comfortable with this person in terms of the way they sound, the way they look, are they paying attention to me, are they kind to me, are they welcoming to me, do I feel like I can have a rupture with this person, that I can have an argument with this person, that I can have a disagreement, there can be a rift in our relationship and we can repair that.
Those kinds of forces are at work long before my logical, linear, rational, left-brain is bringing political thought to the table. These are things we’re not paying that much attention to, and so when we have disagreements politically, we think that our disagreements are largely about our political causes, when in fact, I would suggest, that our quote unquote “disagreements” are far more powerfully embedded in things that are beyond and before our political thought.
Our tendency to want to be safe is really wrapped in the question of if this person does disagree with me, not just about politics, but about anything, what am I afraid is going to happen to me, what are they going to think about me, what’s it going to feel like if they were angry with me, about anything, not just politics, what’s my interpretation of that, how do I think that they think about me as a human being if we disagree about the economic distribution of wealth, does that mean that I interpret that they think that I’m an idiot? Because if that’s what I’m thinking, even if that’s not the words that I’m using, then I’m going to be very defensive about that, because who likes to be thought of as an idiot?
But if I assume that when we disagree, if I assume that you’re just going to be more curious about me instead of judging me, I’m going to be far more willing to stay in the conversation with you even if on the surface we’re saying that we disagree about things, because my curiosity and my assumption about your curiosity about me and my interest in me fundamentally is superseding these other things that we’re using to get ourselves together in the first place, conversations about politics.
But before we move on to prayer together, there are a couple points Dr. Thompson made in part two of this interview that I want to stop and think about a little bit more slowly or savor a little bit. The first one I want to talk about was right at the end, where he asked when we have these hard encounters with other people one of the questions we have to ask ourselves is what am I afraid is going to happen. That was a question that was really on my mind a lot this week.
A kind of stressful series of emails with a group of other people, every time there was another round of emails or I saw another one pop up in my inbox I felt my stomach tighten up and I was like “I don’t want to open that” and I had to ask myself why, what am I afraid of, why am I getting so nervous or tense whenever I see this chain pop back up, is it that I feel like my time is too important to be spent on a conversation that’s taking far more time and energy and towards than I think is efficient? Is it because I’m so afraid of other people’s esteem that I don’t want to revisit a conversation where I’m in a state of frustration and misunderstanding with other people? In the grand scheme of things is a really low stakes conversation.
It got resolved, it got resolved well, but some of those dynamics there were also similar to what I think some of us might end up feeling when we get into a conversation with someone where we talk about deep differences and its starts feeling like a survival thing. And that brings me to the point Dr. Thompson made that I wanted to bring up.
Right at the beginning of this conversation he talked about Good Friday, he talked about that Jesus went to the cross not hoping for his own safety or nervous for his own safety, absolutely sure that it would not be safe. He knew what he was afraid of and he did end up getting the thing he was afraid of inflicted upon him, separation from his father, exposure to and intimacy with the sin and brokenness of humanity in a way that he had never experienced before. Death, which he had never tasted, and by all rights should not have had to.
He says in his prayers in the book of John that the things he was about to do he wasn’t doing and the things he was praying he wasn’t praying just for himself, but for the sake of his apostles and the people who would believe in him because of the apostles that because of his prayers, because of his work, they could be one with one another. One of the epistles called that the joy set before him. The unity of the people who believe in him and claim his name, that is, us.
Our ability to have these conversations, these hard conversations about things we disagree about deeply and still be united in friendship, in fellowship, in sacrificial love for one another in a way that is astounding to the world around us, is the reason Jesus went to the cross on this weekend about two thousand odd years ago. So, before we say a prayer of thanks for that, I just want to toss one thing out at you really quickly.
If you’re in the DC area, go to our website right now, christiancivics.org, go to upcoming events, and register for Healing our Divided Politics on April seventh. This is going to be a two-hour event next Saturday, April Seventh, featuring me and a couple other guest speakers we’re really excited about including. Aaron Jacobs of The Expectations Project, exploring a few different ways people of faith can practice our unity with one another in public, in visible ways, in a divided political climate. If you’re a subscriber to this podcast or read our blog, his is absolutely the kind of thing you’re going to be interested in, so go to our website christiancivics.org and sign up today.