If you’re feeling the weight of all that’s transpired in the past two years, you’re not alone. Ironically, that may be part of the problem. There’s a term in psychology called “collective trauma,” and it refers to trauma experienced by a group of people – the hostages in a robbery, victims of an earthquake, survivors of genocide or war.
Understanding Collective Trauma
In a study on the effects of collective trauma, two groups of people were given different tasks. One group was asked to perform pain-inducing tasks, like holding their hands in ice water or doing wall squats. The other group completed painless tasks, like putting their hands in tepid water and balancing on one leg.
Participants in the “painful” group showed greater degrees of teamwork and bonding. We’ve seen this positive effect of collective trauma played out in real life, when people rally together in the aftermath of a hurricane, or bond in the trenches of war. But there are negative effects, too, the greatest being an inability to escape toxic emotions. When an entire society is anxious, grieving, or angry, where do you turn for solace?
Four years ago, when my daughter was hospitalized with a life-threatening infection, my wife and I were able to find moments of relief because not everyone was experiencing the trauma alongside us. When we were exhausted, friends could sit with our daughter while we napped. Unlike us, they could tell jokes, read books, and get her to laugh. Why? They were witnessing the trauma, not living it.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of the past two years is that no one has been untouched by the pandemic. We’ve been impacted differently – affected in different ways, triggered by different things, upset for different reasons. But one thing is the same. There isn’t a person on planet earth who has escaped the trauma.
Whenever I think about getting unstuck in my own life – whether from sin or circumstances beyond my control – I think about three facets: my mind, affections, and actions.
Stuck on Different Sides
In this sense, we’re stuck. Stuck living in a world where hot topics abound and tensions run high. Stuck bearing the subliminal burden of collective trauma, while still dealing with the everyday problems of our private lives.
We’re stuck in alliances, on two different “sides” of every issue. This is the natural effect of collective trauma – bonds have been formed, only they haven’t been formed by society at large, but by factions within society, by those who believe “this” and those who believe “that.” Loyalties to each “side” run deeper than ever, solidified by shared trauma.
My guess is, the majority of us long for a return to normalcy. For less division, greater understanding, and peace. But we don’t know how to get there, or we believe the challenges are simply insurmountable.
And so, we’re stuck.
How to Get Unstuck
Whenever I think about getting unstuck in my own life – whether from sin or circumstances beyond my control – I think about three facets: my mind, affections, and actions. Christian authors sometimes refer to this trio using alliteration: head, heart, and hands.
Let’s talk about the “head” first. In his book, Winning the War in Your Mind, Craig Groeschel writes, “Our lives are always moving in the direction of our strongest thoughts.” That’s a profound statement! Jot down your strongest thoughts, then consider the actions that stem from them.
If your strongest thought is, “I hope my kids will be okay,” how does this thought manifest itself in your life? Maybe it shows up in sleepless nights, or rigorous scheduling, or anger that erupts when your kids disobey because deep down you’re terrified they won’t be okay.
Our lives are always moving in the direction of our strongest thoughts. Want to get unstuck? Change your thoughts. At the very least, be mindful of where you let your brain feast. I can pick up my phone, blink, and two hours will have passed! This is the nature of our world – one rabbit hole leads to another, until our minds are gorged. How much of the input is life-giving? If the answer is “nada,” it’s time to feast on something else.
Our affections or “hearts” are also worth examining. James K.A. Smith suggests that the most fundamental question of Christian discipleship is, “What do you want?” In his book, You Are What You Love, Smith writes, “Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. Discipleship, we might say, is a way to curate your heart, to be attentive to and intentional about what you love.”
What do you want?
Approval? Control? Success? Security? If we’re going to get unstuck, we have to confront these desires and have an honest conversation with God about what they reveal. Do we love the things God loves? Do we love God Himself? Or are our deepest desires misguided?
The third facet – our actions or “hands” – is an overflow of the first two. In Philippians 4:6-7, Paul writes, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Notice the promise that comes next: “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
True peace begins in our hearts and minds and flows outward. If we’re trying to find solutions solely through taking action, we’re just spinning our wheels, but we aren’t any less stuck.
Final Thoughts from Paul
At Grace, we’ve been studying Romans, and a key theme is Paul’s juxtaposition of life and death. As we begin chapter 7, he uses this language again: “So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God” (Romans 7:4).
Imagine bearing fruit in the dead of winter. Bearing joy, peace, hope, and love in a season that reeks of sorrow and dissension. What a breath of fresh air! We bear fruit for God when we remember our identity as His children. When we live out of the reality that “we belong to another.”
Over the next three months, we’ll dig deeply into chapters seven through nine of Romans, focusing on how to get unstuck by moving beyond our old identities. This is our sustaining hope: In Christ, we have a new identity, which is powerful to transform our thoughts, reshape our affections, and govern every action.