High Risk, Low Anxiety: a Church of All Nations and a Safe Space for Emotionally Stunted “White” Men Like Me to Grow Up In

An old, public FB photo of the passing of the peace at CAN. It lasts a long time, indeed. When you’re family and you really love one another, you hug it out whenever you “CAN.”

As any long-suffering reader of mine will have noticed, I haven’t blogged in a while. As we came to Church of All Nations (CAN) more than a year-and-a-half ago now, I found not long after that I lost my writing “voice.” This was related, I think, to the process of becoming part of the CAN family. CAN is a “high risk, low anxiety” church that is unlike any other that I have ever been a part of. I struggled at first, even as we quickly became members of CAN, to understand what that phrase, “high risk, low anxiety” meant. I do not pretend to have fully grasped it now. I think part of what it means, though, is that CAN is a resilient, differentiated, embodied community of grounded people who are working together to follow Jesus into renewed village life. As I look at that sentence I just wrote, I realize how little justice it does as a descriptor of what and who CAN is- and it’s that same insight that best describes why I haven’t written in a while, for just as words alone can’t do CAN justice, they are poor descriptors of the journey I’ve been on of late.

I’m part of a men’s cell group at CAN, and at our last meeting someone talked about how long it takes us to “check in” with one another, to describe, basically, how we’re doing. He said that we use a lot of words to circle around what is essentially a feeling. In other words (no pun intended), what we’re after when we check in with one another is emotional connection. We want to bond with one another (in the best way possible), and we do that through our emotions. But we men especially are so poor (literally impoverished) at connecting with our own emotions, we have little hope of bringing that to the fore in a healthy way and offering it to one another. So instead we give each other words. I should be careful to say that there was and is no judgment in this assessment; it simply is, and thus this is perhaps the essential work of our male lives, to learn to grow up emotionally and offer our whole selves to one another, to our partners, and to a world in desperate need of emotionally mature men in public and private life. For point of reference, I offer you the opposite of emotionally mature men- see: Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump, or almost any “white” male in public life:

Kavanaugh isn’t immature because he’s emoting. He’s emoting in this way because he’s immature. (Image Credit)

I think that I certainly use words like this- as a way of talking “around” what I feel. I’ve said before that I write to discover what I think, and this may be true. It makes sense to me that writing could be part of a reflective process, but I also use words to try to get at my own feelings, which I struggle mightily to be aware of and connected to. This is so for many reasons. As a childhood trauma survivor, I learned from the earliest age to protect my fragile child self by dissociating. I’ve done this now for basically all of my life and this practice of protecting my self by dissociating emotionally is so entrenched that not only do I so often not know what I’m feeling; I struggle perhaps too to even know who I am. Who am I, after all, apart from all my elaborate defense mechanisms?

Answering this question is part of that “essential work” I described above, and it is part, I think, of what makes CAN a “high risk” church, for if you want to stick around this community for any length of time you will, I suspect, invariably find your pretenses stripped away. I should say that pretenses are “stripped away” not through any willful act of violation. No, it’s quite the opposite. I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ description of heaven in The Great Divorce, and forgive me if I get any part of this wrong; it’s been a long time since I read it. If memory serves, then, in the book of course heaven and hell are not mutually exclusive locations that residents of either “place” are barred from leaving or entering. Instead, residents of hell and heaven can leave at any time and there is a regular daily bus that travels between the two locales. Now this is where my memory may be fuzzy, but as I recall heaven is described as a place that anyone is free to travel to, but entering it is literally hard. The ground of heaven beneath one’s feet is literally harder that that of hell, more substantial, more real. The lights may be brighter. Entering heaven from hell is perhaps like emerging from a fog, waking from a dream into real life. To set one foot in front of the other as you walk into heaven requires a kind of commitment to what is real, for what is false and unreal can not survive there. (Again I apologize if I have gotten The Great Divorce wrong as I’ve recollected it here.)

Now, I’m not saying that CAN is heaven, but I do see the same kind of dynamic at play if you “really” enter into this community. Doing so means, as much as you can and with the help of those around you, laying aside your false self and making an effort to be authentically and truly oneself. This means a lot of other things that we often talk about among CAN, like being differentiated and living in the front of your brain (where higher thinking resides), not the back of your brain (where your “fight or flight” mechanism resides and where trauma can get “stuck”). In any case, this then is, by definition, a “high risk” endeavor. After all in this cruel world, who would dare to risk being truly themselves? And yet it is only authentic, healed, whole, and holy selves that could ever hope to experience life together in community without endlessly re-traumatizing one another. And it is only such a community that could aspire to renewed village life in the midst of cutthroat capitalism, in the middle of a rapacious, violent empire.

High risk though it may be, we do our best to approach this work with low anxiety. I know a lot about (living with) anxiety. It has marked my adult life, especially since my oldest son was born 4 months premature, but I’m sure it has marked my life since probably before I was born, maybe long before I was born (if epigenetic trauma is taken into account- and believe me I come from traumatized German, Jewish, Russian, and British people!). Anxiety has many causes, no doubt, including biology and brain chemistry, but part and parcel of those explanations is this one- that it is a defense mechanism born out of an instinct to protect a fragile self. I do not recall being aware of my anxiety as a child. I only know that every day felt like an intense exercise in survival. How could I make myself as invisible as possible so that my mother would not have cause to lose her temper at me and fly into a rage? How could I offer as few words as possible, or, when words were necessary, choose them so carefully that they could not later be used as ammunition against me? Harry Potter had an invisibility cloak. I’m no Drax, but I really didn’t need one. Like so many remnants of childhood trauma, however, the need for this coping mechanism has long since ended. But I still wear invisibility like a cloak.

Of course, if every day I tried to make myself invisible so that my mother would not have cause to be angry at me, every day I failed. As a result I turned to another kind of invisibility. If I could not be invisible to my mother, I would be invisible to myself. In other words, I dissociated from the “self” that received the brunt of my mother’s anger. I absented my own body so that there remained a part of me that was not actively being traumatized day after day after day after day. Consequently this coping mechanism, this remnant of childhood trauma, remains “hard-wired” into me even though the need for it too has likely run its course with me approaching my mid 40’s and my mother having been dead for nearly half my life. I’m learning, though, that dissociation and differentiation are perhaps very closely related. As I alluded to above, there’s a lot of work within CAN being done around differentiation. Differentiation, as I understand it, means knowing where I end and you begin, or perhaps more importantly, where you end and I begin. It means knowing that I’m me, not you. This may seem elementary and almost laughable on its face, but lack of awareness of this and poor differentiation likely lies at the root of many of the world’s ills, because differentiation means “owning” your own feelings and thoughts and not owning the feelings and thoughts of others, especially that of those closest to you. Scripture is rich with language of intense bonding. “Your people are my people and your god, my god,” Ruth told Naomi. And “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” These are radical acts of self-giving love that we see represented best in Jesus himself. Yet self-giving love is impossible if you do not have a “self” to give, and you cannot fully have a self if you have not begun the work of differentiation.

This clicked for me in a powerful way today. I won’t go into details but my wife expressed via text that she was having a rough day. My initial response was one of stress/anxiety. How could I deal with her emotions when I’m just starting perhaps to reconnect with my own, the result being that yesterday, two days after the anniversary of my dad’s death 8 years ago, I sat at my desk at work doing everything I could to contain and repress an overwhelming urge to cry (this, by the way, was not a terribly therapeutic response on my part, but…capitalism). How could I deal with my wife’s emotions when I still feel that I’m in a “thin place” as I said to my therapist today? “Thin” places or spaces is a phrase that is sometimes used in theological language to describe the veil of separation between the physical and the spiritual. I’m using it here to describe the veil of separation between me and my own emotions. They seem more present to me now than they have in the past, perhaps because of some haphazard effort on my part of being “embodied.” Still, what happened today was that I had my response to my wife’s text, and crucially, I noticed it. I noticed that feeling and the thought that went along with it, and then I had another thought- I thought about differentiation. I remembered that I am not my wife. I remembered that I do not have to let her emotions inside me in a coercive way that would be indistinguishable from my own emotions. I remembered, to use language that my wife herself sometimes uses to describe how she tries to be differentiated from her patients at work, that her bad day is not my bad day. I was not trying to protect my “self” from my wife’s emotions; I was merely having a (differentiated) self. Nonetheless, the result was protective. Secure in my own self, I could risk being empathetic to her, and I was. After all, if empathy is about trying to imagine what it’s like to be in the (emotional) shoes of another, you have to have some sense of what it’s like to walk in one’s own shoes. So then empathy requires having a self too.

I said above that I thought differentiation and dissociation were closely related. The insight I recently had about this came as I reflected about traumatizing people in my life. In an undifferentiated state, their toxic thoughts and feelings felt as if they were inside me, as if I was having them too. For example, if they judge me as an unfit father, or worse, then I must be one. But how could I abide such a thought inside me as if it were my own when there was little actual justification for it? (A perfect father, I am not, of course, and no doubt the cycle of trauma and traumatization extends to my own children too, but I am working very hard to break this cycle and limit its impact. Am I unfit then? Not in the way that this toxic individual has judged me to be, at least.) In the face of this cognitive dissonance in my head, what do I do? I dissociate. Lack of differentiation has given this toxic individual prominence of place in my own head; so I again absent myself from my own body and am but a shell of the fully embodied person I could be. Tragically, it is this shell that I would then offer to my spouse and children as a “self” to attach to, and so the cycle of attachment disorder that is endemic to Western civilization continues. Thus the twin tasks of differentiation and embodiment is at the heart of the “essential work” of growing up emotionally I described above.

I may have more to say about what shape that “essential work” has taken in my own life of late- including some big news(!), but for now let me close with this. I think this, then, may finally begin to get at what is meant by saying that CAN is a “low anxiety” church. Differentiated, embodied selves are grounded, rooted and standing on their own two feet. We do not “need” each other in any existential sense. As I’ve long said, God made us in and for love, and so we are wholly for one another because love cannot exist in a vacuum. We likewise are meant to be interdependent, but we are interdependent in the way that a forest’s root system is interdependent. Individually the ground is solid beneath us, and beneath that ground, we share nutrients and resources so that together we can thrive. But these resources are given, not taken, and we do not anxiously seek our own self-protection. Living in the abundance of God’s abundant love and the more than ample resources of God’s good earth, we approach one another and build community and village life together because we like and love one another, not because we need one another to salve some deep-seated emotional wound or fill some psychological gap. I think our bulletin at CAN says that we are “a high risk, low anxiety church…so that we can be a church of all nations.” This is just so. As we brave the high risk of being our authentic, differentiated, embodied selves, anxiety dissipates on the high, hard ground of village life together. Such a life together is one in which capitalism is not really possible and violence is not necessary, and without capitalism and violence- that is, without empire- the “need” for nationalism dissipates too. Thus we can in fact be a “church of all nations.” Lord, let it be so.