Life is constantly changing. We all know that, but some of us act as though life never changes. The result is a state of surprise and disappointment over inevitable changes.
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We’re starting a new series today. It’s called Making Life Easier. I like to think that everything we talk about makes life easier, but this is more about the kind of things that people don’t think much about – things I’ve noticed people in my practice and myself and others. We won’t cover the same old, same old stuff that everybody knows about – you know, it’s not good to play in traffic, you wait till the light turns green before you cross the street, you pay your taxes – that sort of thing. Everybody knows that. Today we’re going to cover some things that maybe people don’t understand quite so well.
The first one today is…I’m calling it, for lack of a better title, Adapting – the ability to adapt to life’s changes. Let’s get to it.
In his amazing book, The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck makes an inciteful statement. It’s the first thing he says. “Life is difficult. This is a great truth – one of the greatest truths. It’s a great truth because once we see this truth, we transcend it. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.” I argued against his conclusion for many years, until I read something the apostle Paul said in the Bible. Now, I knew life was difficult, but I didn’t see that it didn’t matter that it was difficult. So, Romans 8:38 – what Paul said:
Romans 8:38 – For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation – in other words, nothing – will be able to separate us from the love of God and Christ Jesus.
If we are a God-centered Christian, we see that the most important thing in our lives is the love of God and what it means for our lives with God in eternity. So, you stack the love of God up against the fact that life is difficult, and you realize that nothing else matters, because God will take care of everything else, including all of life’s difficulties.
Peck goes on to say that “most people – even the ones who profess Christ – live life as though it should not be difficult. We complain about everything we don’t like, as though it should not be happening.” He then goes on to ask, “Do we want to moan about our problems or do we want to solve them?” If we want to solve them and teach our children to solve them, then the primary skill set that he tells us is discipline.
Now, I had a nice woman come for therapy once who told me that her husband had had a heart attack and had since recovered. But she kept thinking that he could have another one any time and had become a terrible nag trying to control his diet, his activity, his medication. She couldn’t sleep she worried about it so much. And she was afraid her nagging was going to stress him out so much he might have another attack. So, all day and all night she kept reliving the horror of his heart attack, going over and over the events again and again. So, we targeted that with EMDR, and while her general anxiety level went down, she was still perseverating about controlling him. And I explained to her that there’s a little gate in the brain that when it’s closed our thoughts process to a conclusion inside that gate or to the next step that needs to be done, or whatever, and then the little gate opens and the thought goes through to be saved for further work later so that something else can be worked on. But with OCD – obsessive compulsive disorder – the gate remains shut, even after the thought has been processed, and it keeps looping around and around – going back and the gate is not opened, so it doesn’t have anywhere to go.
How do they know this? They can see it with brain scanning. The place where this happens in the brain is just above our eyes actually. They know that much even. And they have demonstrated that, if a person talks to himself enough, says, “Okay, we’ve processed that thought. No need to keep revolving around it over and over again. Open the gate and move on” – or, things like that. There are all different ways you can defeat the mechanism. But then, eventually, if you do that enough, the brain learns not to keep that gate shut so much and a new neuro pathway opens up. So, you break one habit and build a healthier one.
So, we talked about some of the things she could say to herself – true things, rather than the lies she was believing – things like, “I have already done the best I can do to get ready for another attack,” and “I don’t even know if it’s going to happen, but if it does, I’m ready for it. I’m a nurse, so I know what to do to take care of him.” Another thing she thought about that might be helpful to her was, “It’s time to spend quality time with him instead of trying to control him and making him more stressed.” So, after we had this talk, she went home and when she came back the next week, she said, “It didn’t work.” And I said, “Evidence proves that it does work, but you have to keep working it until it stops. Breaking a habit requires discipline” – which is what Peck told us.
Now, there’s something else that helps us as well. Do you know what it is? Life is unpredictable. It’s always changing. Nothing stays the same. Every plan we make – even the successful ones – always need modification at some point, because circumstances always change. And a lack of ability to adapt to the changes in life actually becomes a mental health issue for some people.
While I was in my master’s program, I saw a video that focused my mind on this adaptability that we all need. The video was made by a lady named Francine Shappiro, who is the woman who discovered the EMDR process. She was doing a session with a police detective. He and his partner were in the process of confronting a suspect when the suspect pulled out a gun and killed his partner before either of them could shoot the suspect. And he felt guilty because of it. He had survivor guilt – “If I just would of…,” or “I should have…” or “I could have….” But he didn’t, so he felt guilty. He wasn’t sleeping. He was having a repeating nightmare – replaying the worst part of the event, which, as I recall, the guy pulling out the gun. He was irritable with his family. He was unstable and jumpy on the job. He had PTSD – all the symptoms were there. During the treatment, while his eyes were going back and forth – like we do in EMDR – he kept going around and around about how he should have something – it was all his fault – etcetera. “Why didn’t we take more precautions?” But he kept bumping into the fact that it was their job and they had already employed all the precautions. But he still couldn’t shake it. He was stuck. Those who were watching the video could clearly see – from his description of what happened – that it wasn’t his fault, and there really was no rational need to feel responsibility. But he couldn’t feel that way about it. He was believing something that was not true.
Now, why was the therapist causing his eyes to go back and forth? Well, Francine had formulated a concept called adaptive information processing. And she saw that the bilateral stimulation of the brain hemispheres – that happens when you move your eyes back and forth – was helpful to trauma victims. She saw that memories that were encoded during the trauma would be encoded in such a way that they were stuck – just like the detective – he couldn’t get past it – and that the bilateral stimulation would rewrite that memory so that it was no longer stuck and the person could adapt to what had happened. Whereas before, they just couldn’t move by it at all.
So, watching this video, the detective is going around and around with all these negative memories and self-doubting emotions and beliefs. After twenty minutes of that, I could hear a change in his thinking. He started saying things like, “We did it by the book,” and “We had no idea what was about to happen,” and “I feel terrible that my partner died, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. I’m lucky to be alive myself,” and “It’s the risk every police officer faces while doing his job.” And I remember thinking, “That’s a miracle!” What I learned after the session was over is that the bilateral stimulation caused a process to start in his brain – one that is dedicated to our own mental health. And in that, it rewrites memory that is stored at a mentally unhealthy state. So, she called it adaptive information processing. He was able to adapt to what had happened.
Surely, God has put that within us. It has to be a gift from Him. Watching this video, it was impressed on me that trouble comes when we don’t adapt to the changes in life – changes of all kinds. The officer had PTSD, so he couldn’t adapt without help. And that is also a part of the picture for Christians. Trauma happens.
But I’m not just talking about traumatic events. I’m talking about non-traumatic changes that occur. One of the best examples recently is COVID 19. Some people have blown this isolation thing – you know, with the lockdown – all out of proportion. To have to stay home from school or work might be traumatic for some few, but to most of us, it’s just an inconvenience. And you say, “What about loss of wages?” Well, with my experience with people, nobody’s complained about that. They complain about the isolation. And that should just be an inconvenience. Nobody’s life is at risk. We just need to adapt to the situation and make the best of it. Make a plan and follow it. If we look at it that way, and start using our imagination to create a work-around and apply discipline to make our plans come to pass, then things are going to go a lot better than if we don’t. If we tell ourselves that life ends when we can’t go to the mall, that kind of thinking itself can make us depressed or anxious.
So, you notice that the idea causing the problem is a lie. Nobody’s died from not going to the mall, for example. So, if we tell ourselves the truth, then Jesus tells us the truth will set us free. I’ve heard people say, “I’m not depressed myself, but my kids are just children and they need to be with other children. So yes, there might be some sort of developmental delay that occurs because of that, but once they get free of that, they’re going to catch up quickly. I see it all the time. Biology causes them to catch up and that’s a very strong force in a human being.
So, if we go back to the beginning, we can see where this all started The devil was talking to Eve and he implied to her, “God is making you do this the hard way. There’s no need to spend your life learning how life works so you can build Godly character so you can be in God’s family and live forever. All you have to do is get some of that fruit off the tree of good and evil, and bingo! You’ll know everything God knows. It’s easy! But He’s making it hard on you.” So, what do you suppose is the next thing that they thought? He was implying that God wasn’t fair. He was implying that life should be easy, when in fact, God designed it to be hard for our own learning and benefit. But they chose to believe the lie rather than the truth.
What’s your belief about the nature of life? It’s important to think about. One of the best examples of somebody who is completely adaptive was the apostle Paul. He was on his way to kill Christians when Jesus struck him blind on the road to Damascus. He explains later what that meant to him. He said:
Philippians 3:4-6 – If anyone else thinks he has a reason to have in the flesh, I have more. Circumcised the eighth day – very important to Jews – of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, Hebrew of the Hebrews. As to the law, a Pharisee – one of the upper echelon people – as to zeal, a persecutor of the church – that was a feather in his cap the way he thought about it at one point in his life – as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
So he had a life of accomplishment and success going forward. He had the right genetics, a good education. He had status in religion – the golden boy. But that all went south once God blinded on the Damascus Road. And he said:
V-7-11 – But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. So he had to completely give up all the things that were really important to him to follow Christ. He had to adapt. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
So you talk about a total 180 life change! He was a very comfortable track until that happened. He says more in 2 Corinthians 11:
2 Corinthians 11:21=28 – But whatever anyone else dares to boast of – and he says: I am speaking as a fool – I also dare to boast of that. Are there any Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one – again, I am talking like a madman, he says – with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews forty lashes less one. So he was flogged five times. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked – a night and a day I was adrift in the sea – on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers, in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And apart from these other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.
So, this man had to make some serious adaptations to follow Christ and to fulfill his calling. And he said that it was all the weakness and trials that made him strong in Christ. No whining, no complaining – just nose toward the trouble and going forward. What an example he set for us!
A lot of people from our society, who have had it so easy, would probably have crumbled under the pressure that the apostle Paul suffered. But he just – because of Christ – adapted to it and gave up stuff – was very flexible about all of that.
And there are others in the Bible we can think about. Abraham got up and moved to a new land. No questioning – just did it. David, when his baby died, grieved and then he went on. The disciples, after coming and seeing, they all had to get used to different. That was an adaptation. And Joseph and Mary…oh, never had sex before, but pregnant – how humiliating, especially in that culture.
So, I hope we can notice that in all these cases, faith in God was the underlying cause of their adaptability. How about you?
So, I mentioned earlier that the ability to adapt is an ability of a mentally healthy outlook. And it’s also a necessity for Christian life and Christian growth. But a problem comes up, and instead of laying down and giving up, instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, we look at the situation, and we start making a plan to deal with it. What resources do I have available to me to survive the situation or combat the issue? What can I do?
I had a great example in my own life – Aunt Velma. She was my favorite relative. Aunt Velma was born in 1901 with clubbed feet and had surgery when she was very young. She also contracted polio as a child. And she came out of that with both feet and her hands paralyzed. She had claws for fingers. She walked with crutches all her life. She had to wear over-the-ankle lace-up shoes to support her lifeless feet. Her legs looked like sticks. There was no muscle tone. When she was a teen, she developed what was called at that time, toxic goiter – a thyroid condition – that left her eyes somewhat larger than before. I think that was what happened when you didn’t get enough iodine in your system. She was under four feet tall, due to all of her disabilities, yet she lived independently all her life. Despite her crippled hands, she had become an expert at knitting and crochet. I recall that when I moved back to the bay area, where I grew up, after a nineteen year absence, I went to visit Aunt Velma, and she was in a facility where she had her own kitchenette. Previously, she had lived in her own apartment. But as she got older, she needed some support. She was in a place where she could go eat at the cafeteria or fix her own food, if she wanted to. She lived on University Avenue, which ended at the front gate of Stanford University in Palo Alto. That street – University Avenue – was the downtown of that town – probably some of the most expensive shopping in the country. She would knit these incredibly clever little sweater vests in an argyle pattern with pastel yarns and a matching set of booties and sell them in gift shops near her home. Forty years ago, she was getting eighty bucks for one of those sets. Not long after my mother died, Aunt Velma had a pretty severe stroke and they moved her to the nursing home that was attached to the living facility where she was before. While I was there visiting her one day, she asked me if I would bring a couple items of furniture to her nursing home room. And I told her I would and I asked her if she wanted anything else. She said, “No Bill. I’ve been thinking about it and I see that this is my home now. You can sell or give away everything else.” So she was probably in her late eighties. Her body was giving out on her, and yet, she was still incredibly adaptable. “This is my home now.” She had lived a hard life, adapting to losses and difficulties that most of us have no idea about. And she wound up – to the end – being a positive and productive person.
While I was visiting her during that time, I noticed that every time I came to visit her, someone was just leaving, or someone was just arriving to visit her. She had a steady stream of company. She was not lonely. Actually, she was incredibly popular, now that I think about it. And I think people just felt good being around her. I know I did. So, I have learned from watching her and others, and from living my own life, even when we are dealt a bad hand, there’s always a good way to play it if we will just think about it. There are always good things we can do in a bad circumstance. And that’s what God wants us to learn to do.
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