If you follow American football you may be aware of a new book and motion picture each titled Concussion. They tell the true story of a Nigerian physician named Bennet Omalu who came to the United States, earned several additional degrees and became a renowned specialist in forensic neuropathology. One day Dr. Omalu “picked up a scalpel and made a discovery that would rattle America in ways he never intended…. The body on the slab in front of him belonged to a fifty-year-old…[football player], one of the greatest ever to play the game.” Prior to his death the football player had developed serious mental deterioration. Omalu discovered that this was caused by a brain disease resulting from “relentless blows to the head that could affect everyone playing the game.” The Concussion book and movie give a fascinating account about how others responded to this discovery and how the National Football League (NFL), “a multibillion-dollar colossus” tried to silence the doctor and discredit his work.
Why should you or I care? Here are two observations:
- Be cautious about discrediting research that we dislike. The NFL is a huge corporation that tried to silence Omalu and produce research to disprove his results. This research was suspect from the start because it was NFL funded. But this is not limited to a football league. American politicians do something similar when they discredit research that appears to undermine their political agendas. Don’t theologians do something similar? What about academicians, advertisers, or public speakers who select or create research to support their positions and condemn or ignore the rest? If you do research, do it well. If you site research, be fair and try to site competent sources.
- Be alert to the ways in which ideas, intellectual property and discoveries can be hijacked by others intent of gaining acclaim and money. Omalu’s discovery was claimed by others who took his ideas and built profitable organizations without acknowledging his contributions. When your dreams and accomplishments have been taken form you and used by others, it is difficult to trust again. Omalu struggled with this and withdrew, never expecting that the true story would be told. The book describes him as a man of courage. He also appears to be a man of integrity. That involves doing what is right regardless of whether anybody is watching.
Are these comments biased? Have I been unfair? Hopefully not! Even so, there’s value in pondering the stories of others and insuring that we’re not guilty of similar unethical actions. Please comment.
Jean-Christophe Bieselaar is one of my closest friends (shown here with his son Paul). Born, raised and currently living in Paris, Jean-Christophe is consulting pastor of one Parisian church, Parish Associate at The American Church in Paris, and a chaplain at five hospitals. We kept in contact during the night of the recent terrorist attacks and I was impressed (but not surprised) at how he responded as the events unfolded. The following principles are well known but sometimes forgotten when crises arise in our own environments.
- Try to remain calm. Jean-Christophe wrote that there was no chaos in the hospitals. The professional staff was “calm, focused and organized”. Calmness in caregivers tends to spread, especially to people who are afraid and agitated.
- Resist the urge to rush to the location of the crises. Have you heard about counselors, medical people, or church groups who rush to the places of tragedy, including trips overseas in times of national disasters? These people go with good intentions, but they don’t know what is needed and get in the way of local responders who understand the situation better.
- Be alert to the place where you’ve been planted. Jean-Christophe went to two churches where he normally serves. One is a young adult congregation. “They were all speechless and shocked. They had never faced anything like that. I encouraged them to turn their eyes from TV and their mobile devices. We read some Psalms particularly Ps 121 and I asked them to focus on John 14.1. Then we spent a long time praying. And the peace of God came upon us all like a healing water”. After this, my friend went to the E.R. at a hospital where he is known and works.
- Notice the recommendation to turn off media broadcasts. Watching endless media reruns or commentary can arouse, rather than reduce anxiety. In addition, media consumption can lead to fear-inspiring addiction. This stuff is fascinating to watch.
- Do what you do best in the setting where you’ve been planted. Jean-Christophe worked in the places and with the people where he is known. Few of us can do much in Paris right now, but what about the nervous people in our churches or workplaces? Do you have neighbors with friends or relatives in Paris? Could they benefit from your support, encouragement and prayers?
- Keep focused on the peace and hope that comes from God and on empowerment from the Holy Spirit.
What would you add? Please comment.
Shortly before Christmas in 2012, a man entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and began shooting at terrified seven-year old kindergarteners and school staff. Twenty-six people died, along with the gunman and his mother. A few days later author Philip Yancey was invited to speak at a community-wide memorial service. Yancey’s earlier book Where is God When it Hurts, had sold 1.5 million copies, and early this month he published a follow-up, The Question That Never Goes Away: Why. This is a short, reflective book that draws on the author’s experiences and interviews with people in Newtown, Sarajevo Japan (where many were swept out to sea after the 2004 tsunami), Boston following the marathon killings, Virginia Tech after the shootings there, Columbine, and parts of the southern US devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Why does a good and loving God permit this? Why does the Bible never answer this question? Why does he quietly stand aside while agnostics and other critics mock God and make fun of believers? Yancey struggles with questions like these and describes life changing experiences in his own life where he suffered and cried out to a silent God for answers. Can any topic be closer to the work of counselors, religious leaders, and others who help people deal with the why questions? If you are a people helper (we all are, Galatians 6: 2-3) you might want to read Yancey’s new book.
Don’t expect deep philosophical or theological arguments and reasoned conclusions. Philip Yancey is a superb story-teller and sobering commentator. Here are some of his observations:
- God never promises to protect us from calamities or tragedies.
- Well-intentioned cliché comments do not help in crises. Just show up and say nothing rather than “This will all turn out for good,” or “God just wants your loved one to be with him!”
- People heal faster and better when they are connected with caring communities.
- Pain, grief and why? questions never go away but how we respond can be healing. It is understandable to grieve about the loss of a future but never forget what we enjoyed for a while in the past.
Yancey’s book left me sobered and thinking more about God. Maybe that’s what the author intended. Please comment, especially if you’ve read Philip Yancey’s new book.
This week I have two close friends who are facing career-defining exams. Both of my friends are approaching this with understandable anxiety. It was appropriate, then, that I forwarded each a copy of “Feeling Anxious? Why Trying to Keep Calm is a Terrible Idea” published in the Fast Company daily blog on December 2, 2013. Each day the blog gives several practical, brief articles relating to leadership and career issues. Anyone can subscribe for free at www.fastcompany.com.
The article sent to my friends describes highly visible, boldly-fonted World War II signs that were posted all over Britain. The message, Keep Calm And Carry On encouraged war-ravaged British people to try keeping calm and going about their normal activities even when bombs were dropping almost every night. That’s a terrible idea says the Fast Company writer because staying cool under pressure “totally misses the way emotions work. Anxiety is an automatic physiological arousal in the presence of potential danger. Keeping calm is a cognitive response that rarely works in the presence of physical arousal. “Since arousal is so automatic, it’s hard to control….very, very difficult to do successfully especially leading up to very anxiety-inducing tasks” or experiences.
A better solution is to get excited. This lets the body stay in an amped-up physiological state while the mind goes to something better that focuses away from the fear. In a Harvard study of public speakers nervous about an important speech, subjects who told themselves to get excited performed better: “they gave more persuasive, competent, and persuasive speeches” than those who tried to calm down or others who did nothing to deal with the anxiety.
In reading, I wondered if this is a variation of the power of positive thinking. I wondered, too, if this would have worked with Londoners, told to get excited during the Battle of Britain. Nevertheless, the researcher noted that anxiety distracts us from focusing on real solutions and functioning effectively. Other emotions let us focus on what needs to be done to get past the anxious situations.
What do you think? Please comment.
This month, Monitor on Psychology (September, 2013) stresses the need for more psychologists and other care-giving professionals with training in trauma management. Of course this includes working with victims of natural disasters, military combat, political turmoil and post-traumatic stress disorders.
But the Monitor introduced me to continuous traumatic stress (CTS), a term that originated years ago in South Africa. CTS is ongoing and often inescapable. Unlike stresses that occurred in the past, these are ever-present daily realities that include living in poverty, crime-infested areas, abusive environments and constant famine. I have a friend, a college graduate and young professional who was brought to the United States illegally as a child but has grown up living in the fear of being discovered and deported to a country that he has never known with a language that he does not understand. Unlike victims of past stress, these are people with no place to go for help or safety and often with no hope or way of escape.
Could on-going stress in the workplace be similar ? The Monitor describes bullying and other stresses at work as well as in schools. Undoubtedly these are easier to tackle than genocide or human trafficking but they too provide continuous trauma. For people with no job alternatives and limited credentials for finding alternate employment, entire lives may be spent trapped in jobs that bring constant misery. This is worse when there is job insecurity, long hours or lack of social support at work.
I did some cursory research that confirmed what the Monitor demonstrated in its articles. Describing CTS is common. Providing treatment options is much more difficult. Individual treatment is of limited help when whole communities are impacted—like gang dominated neighborhoods or racially prejudiced environments. Community-wide interventions are difficult and governments rarely take action. Sometimes businesses, schools, churches or community activists work to bring changes but how often does this work?
Is the only alternative to look the other way and get on with our lives? I like these weekly posts to be upbeat and positive but that’s not today. Some courageous people try to take action and bring improvements but it can be thankless work. What’s the answer to this depressing story? What would Jesus do? What have you done? Please comment.
A previous newsletter (449) summarized the findings of researcher Robert Epstein who argued that “we receive formal training in writing and math but learning to manage stress is left entirely to chance.” Writing in Scientific American Mind, Epstein gave a psychological analysis of what he termed “stress-management competencies.” But there was no acknowledgement that what we believe impacts how we anticipate and manage stress.
When natural disasters occur or when terrorist attacks kill thousands like they did ten years ago, millions of people find solace and coping skills in their religious communities and their beliefs in the supernatural. How interesting that the Mayor of New York declared this week that there would be no prayers at the tenth anniversary observances. There has long been speculation why some politicians and scientists ignore anything to do with God even though there is clear data that religious and spiritual beliefs, including prayer and meditation on Scripture, bring comfort to people in difficult times.
We live in this troubled world but “we don’t fight in the same way the world fights,” writes the apostle Paul. “We fight with weapons that are different from those the world uses. Our weapons have power from God that can destroy the enemy’s strong places” (2 Cor 3-4). These biblical words do not focus on stress specifically but they are reminders that Christians have access to supernatural resources for stress management. Most of us believe that of our established stress-reduction methods ultimately come from the grace of God. They can be effective and work to bring calm in difficult times. But the more direct “weapons” that come from God can (and do) bring unexplainable peace, changes in the way we think, and inner tranquility in times of pressure and crises (John 14:27; Phil 4:4-7).
It is easy to lose this perspective when we work with scientific data, evidence-based methods, professional guidelines, and sophisticated explanation models. But in times of increasing uncertainty it is well to pause regularly and remember the divine resources that we bring to our work and to our clients.