The Jar

 Have you ever felt like your emotions were out of control? Like the way you are feeling is incongruous with the situation. Something small happens and you get all bent out of shape about it. That happened to me in a huge way a few months ago. Something insignificant had happened, but I was really upset about it. I was feeling embarrassed about something I had done and I was beating myself up about it. At the same time that my emotional mind was out of control, my rational mind was engaged and asking why in the world, I was overreacting to the situation. The emotions I felt didn’t add up to the situation.

I know that when I am feeling something deeply, there’s more to it than just emotion. When I am feeling something irrational, I know there’s some real gold to be found in mining that. It is worth figuring out what is at the root of it all. The problem is that it is uncomfortable to even admit that I’m irrational. How can I be introspective when I feel stupid?

Russian Dolls

russian-dolls.gifAt a retreat I attended a few years ago, Gordon McDonald compared us to Russian dolls (you know the little dolls that you open up and there’s another one inside that looks just like the one you opened only smaller. He said that the outside doll is the one we show to people. So, when I meet you, the Jim that you see is my outside doll (Jim-1). If I get to know you better, I will show you (Jim-2), but I’m going to have to feel pretty darned safe in order to share Jim-3 with you. Jim-4 might have secrets about me that only my best friends will ever know. I expect to spend the rest of my life learning more about Jims-5, 6, 7… The key is that I don’t know everything there is to know about me. The reasons I behave irrationally is that on some level it isn’t irrational. Jim-13 may be crying out for attention. Maybe something happened to me when I was little that I don’t even remember… but it affects me. It is part of me. I want to find out and give Jim-13 what he needs.

Three Questions

I have begun asking myself a series of questions to find out what’s going on inside when I feel. The intensity of the feeling is more important than the feeling itself… at least at first. A feeling may be huge and debilitating, or it may be just a little flip in my gut. It can be a flush of embarrassment or a sudden defensiveness. When I recognize it, I am learning to ask these questions:

  1. What am I feeling?
  2. What do I believe that is causing this feeling?
  3. Is the belief true?

Feelings are caused by beliefs. I don’t mean something spiritual (necessarily). My beliefs are the way I truly see the world (like a map). For instance, I am feeling confident and comfortable sitting in my chair typing on this computer because I believe that the chair will hold me up and that the computer will work long enough to help me publish this blog. (I just felt a sense of mistrust in the computer which caused me to save my work.)

Once I know what the belief is, I need to know if it is true or not. Sometimes I believe things that just are not true. When that’s the case, the first step is to know the truth and allow it to replace the lie. Sometimes, my belief is true, and the feeling is valid. That is a good thing to know, when I feel confused.

Many times the belief that causes the feeling is unrelated to the situation at hand, which makes the puzzle that much harder to solve. That’s not fair though. If it wasn’t related, the situation would not have triggered it. Rather than say it is not related, it would be more accurate to say that the belief is related to the situation only in my heart. No one else would connect this belief from my past to this situation in the present, but I did. I know I did because I recognize the feeling and I recognize the belief. Just because it is only related in my heart does not make it false. Something is going on inside of me and it is worth the effort to get to the root.

An example of when I did it right… When I was a kid, I was a complete klutz when it came to sports. I didn’t like sports and sports didn’t like me. In PE class, when the team captains picked their team players I was always the one at the end that they both wanted to give to the other team. The one time I tryed out for little league I got taken out on the first cut (and I was glad). A few years ago, I started exercising regularly. One thing led to another and I began running. I started running with my friend, John fairly regularly about a year ago, but John was a much better runner than I. I apologized for slowing him down. John is the one who started my thinking around the three questions, and he asked what I was feeling and believing in the moment. I was feeling like the athletic failure from school because I thought I was impeding his goals. He assured me that the reason he was running with me was because he wanted just wanted to be with me. So the answer to question #3 was no. The belief was not true. After that, I felt better about running with him… and we are still running together… and I don’t slow him down (as much as I used to).

Back to the original story… I was embarrassed over what I had done, but it didn’t make sense. Why was my stomach all in knots when nothing was wrong? What was I feeling? What was I believing? Were my beliefs true?

Did I say that the questions were easy to answer? They are not. It is hard to work through the feelings in the moment when we are feeling such intense emotions. However, in the midst of it all, I had a vision of a jar…

The Vision of the Jar

I saw a large clear glass jar, like the ones you might see in a restaurant kitchen. The jar was full of clear water. You could see straight through the jar and the water. At a glance, I thought that the water was clean, but on second look I noticed that there was a layer of sediment on the bottom of the jar. The sediment was all settled so it didn’t cloud the water at all. Then the jar got bumped ever so slightly. The silt and mud in the bottom stirred up a little and caused the water to become cloudy. After a while, the cloudiness settled and the water was clear again. Another time, the jar got shaken a bit and the stuff was all stirred up in the water causing it to be so murky I could not see through it at all. As the jar remained still, the sediment began to settle once again to the bottom of the jar until it was clear again.

The jar of water is me. When the water is clear, things are going well. Nothing is bothering me and I am not bothering anyone else (as far as I know or care). To look at me, you might think I have it all together. You might say that Jim-1 is polished up for showing off. I am feeling good and looking good. The world is right because I feel right.

The problem is the sediment. The sediment is the junk in my life; the hurts I have received, the names I have been called, the times I have been disappointed the embarrassing moments, the times I tried and failed, the times I didn’t even try, the broken promises… It is also the hurts I have given, the names I have called others, the disappointments I caused, the promises I have broken. The sediment lays there just under the surface where neither of us can see it. Then something happens to stir it up. Maybe it is a small bump of the jar like a glaring look or being the butt of a joke. Rather than address it, I hold my chin up and try to be very still emotionally until eventually, the as the feeling goes away, the water becomes clear. Ahhh now I can continue with life. Everything is fine. Except it isn’t.

Life is full of bumps to mess up my jar by stirring things up. The key seems to be in understanding that the sediment is there and not ignoring it. The sediment is part of who I am. When I stop ignoring it, I can better understand who I am; where my feelings, thoughts and behaviors come from. When I understand me better, I can handle life much better. Not by ignoring the junk in my life, but by understanding it.

Here’s the rub… I can truly only examine my sediment while it is stirred up. Once it is settled, I cannot see it. I can talk about it abstractly, but it is on real in the moment. In the moment, I can feel it. It is ugly. Only when I believe that there is great value in understanding the sediment, will I welcome the shaking and stirring of the jar. Even then, it is a love-hate relationship. I don’t want to see the sediment. I don’t want to feel it, but I truly want to understand who I am, so I am learning to be comfortable with the discomfort.

Each time I have gone through the process of examining the sediment, I feel like I have grown more. The things that I do not know about me block me from being the person God wants me to be. Who does God want me to be? Me! The hurts, habits and hang-ups in my life prevent me from being me.

I was so glad to learn that I don’t have to go through the examination process alone. As I learn more about my sediment, I have discovered that God meets me there. In fact Psalm 139:23-24 addresses it this way:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

I want to be searched and known. I want to be led in the way everlasting. Shake me, God. Stir my heart.

What Happened to Questions?

My son in law, Mark told me recently about a conversation that he had with a buddy who is not a follower of Christ. They were discussing spiritual ideas and his friend posed a hard question. The question isn’t important, but his answer was very important. He answered his friend with these words, “I don’t know.” Mark’s friend was surprised and impressed. He told Mark that he was one of the few (maybe the only) Christians who had ever admitted to him that they didn’t have an answer to a hard question. He felt like Mark was honest and humble. My guess is that he gained quite a few trust points with his friend and rightly so.While I applaud Mark, I ask myself why this is a noteworthy story. Isn’t honesty one of the virtues that Christians hold dear? Rather than just fix it though, I believe we need to examine the roots of this behavior. We could try to merely change our behavior, but I think we would do well to remember what Stephen Covey had to say about our ability to change. He says that if we want to make small changes, we should address our behaviors. If we want to make huge, quantum changes, we should address our paradigms. Paradigms are the way we see the world, the maps we hold in our minds that tell us why people do what they do. Sometimes these maps are just plain wrong. (Read Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to learn more).

We hold beliefs in our core being that tell us what to expect. Then we operate out of those beliefs and when things don’t go the way we expect, we feel uncomfortable feelings. If I believe that my cup with a lid holds steaming hot Starbucks coffee and I take a sip, anything other than that a hot coffee taste is going to make me behave in potentially ugly ways… Most mornings at work, I get a cup of Starbucks bold coffee. I like it black without any sweeteners. After I finish the my coffee, I refill the cup with water and drink that over and over during the day. Not too long ago, I got distracted for a while before I finished my coffee. When I returned to my desk, I picked up the cup, for a sip. Because the cup now felt cool, my mind (my belief) said, “This is water.” But it was not. It was cold coffee. Yuck! A classic example of my beliefs not lining up with reality.

What if I find out that my beliefs about the world (that are more important than what is in my coffee cup) don’t line up with reality? Come on, let’s be real. I do not hold all truth. There is still so much I have to learn and unlearn.

When my four daughters were little girls, they all learned the way we did things and what we believed as a family. What were our values and what did we believe about God. One by one, they became teenagers and the questioned everything… and I mean everything. That caused three things in me:

First it caused me to realize that I had never given myself permission to ask some of these hard questions. I chose conformity so I could find acceptance.

Secondly, realizing that I didn’t have the answers they were looking for, I started looking for answers. Why do I believe what I believe? When Danae challenged me on how God decides who goes to heaven, I remember reading through the entire New Testament looking for anything to do with salvation. I used a pink highlighter so I could easily review and digest what I read. The first thing that struck me was that several times, people came to Jesus and asked him how to get eternal life. His answer was different every time. If he was looking for a simple, repeatable 1-2-3 answer, he could have done better… maybe he could have printed a tract with the answer … but I digress.

The third thing their questions did in me was cause me to feel embarrassed that I didn’t have the answers they were looking for. In my mind, a good dad would have the answers. Once I remember Erin asking me a question while we were watching TV and I felt annoyed towards her. When I realized that I felt annoyed, I asked myself why in the world I would feel annoyed with her. That was when the reality hit me that I was living from a paradigm that said I have to have answers to all of the questions. As goofy as it sounds, that was what was going on deep inside of me. Once I recognized that she didn’t expect me to have the answers, I was doing this to myself, I was on my way to freedom. The next time she asked, I felt that feeling of annoyed embarrassment (because the feeling is automatic), but I quickly reminded myself that I didn’t have to know the answer. I looked at her and said, “I don’t know,” and she was just fine with that.

On this side of teenage-hood (I am happy to say that there is life after teenagers), I am still asking questions. One answer seems to lead to ten new questions. It is a process of uncovering new things all the time. Frequently the new learning challenges my old ideas. That can be uncomfortable because old ideas are like a warm blanket in a cold house (that was for you, Melody). Exposing false beliefs feels like pulling back the warm, comfortable blanket. It feels cold. So why do it? Why not enjoy the warmth of the ideas that make me feel good about myself? Because I am lazy and I would rather create a world that makes me feel good about me whether it is true or not. Left to my own devices, I will create a world that works for me. I, me, mine… That is not what I believe Jesus had in mind. When he was here, he pushed against the people in authority who created rules and social orders for the purpose of making sure they (the rulers) were ok. He wants us to have an outward focus. It is truly not about me. It is about me in the sense that God has put unique gifts, talents and strengths in me (that I am only now beginning to recognize), but these gifts, talents and strengths are not for me. I Peter 4:10 says that they are to serve others.

When we shut off questions or pretend to have all the answers, we invite pride and idolatry into our lives. We lose credibility with people who are genuinely looking for truth. And we allow (or even cause) things to come between us and God. My prayer is from Psalm 139:23-24

Search me, O God, and know my heart;

test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting.