Last week’s Newsletter (#563) reviewed Philip Yancey’s new book The Question that Never Goes Away: Why. The book alerted me to the number of Why? Questions I was hearing from my friends: “Why did I spend thousands to get a degree and now can’t find a job?” “Why was my application for graduate school rejected without being read?” “Why did my cousin commit suicide this week?” Yancey shows that God never answers the Why? Questions but he permits tragedies that mold us. He wants to see how we respond. To use a cliché, do we get better or bitter? Do we acknowledge the grief or loss and then try to move on? Or do we wallow in misery and bitterness but never recover?
Have you ever pondered how tragedies and disappointments so often lead to unwise decisions and actions? To rephrase the title of this post: Why do otherwise rational people make irrational–sometimes self-destructive—decisions in times of stress? We see this prominently when politicians, people in ministry, and others make unwise decisions, sink their careers and destroy their families. Reasons include these:
- The brain responds to intense emotion—fear, sadness, strong sexual and other arousal—by temporarily shutting down the cognitive, rational, thinking parts of the brain. This heightens our sensory system and narrows our cognitive focus so we are better able to detect stressors. As a result we make decisions with a narrow focus, miss the bigger picture, and take actions that are regretted later.
- We lose perspective when we face trauma. For example, we dwell on the losses and fail to notice what might be positive in tough situations. Dwelling on the negative can lead to the destructive bitterness that counselors encounter and the Bible cautions against (Eph 5:31-2.)
- We are influenced by people who pull us down and encourage us to take unwise actions while we’re in the midst of emotional overload. Involvement with a supportive community or caring friend can help maintain a more balanced view.
- We see no reason to hope so we throw caution to the wind and move forward with unwise thinking and actions. Here is where our core values and belief systems become important. There’s a difference when one’s “hope is in the Lord.”
What would you add to this list? When we know reasons for unwise decisions in times of stress, we are better able to help others. Please respond.