Managing the stress.

Reading “My Grandmother’s Hands” and RCL Pr16A

Menakem begins Part II of My Grandmothers’ Hands talking about the “soul nerve.[1]” He calls it the “unifying organ of the entire nervous system…” which reaches almost everywhere in the body except for the thinking brain. The soul nerve does not think. It reacts and is involved in any feeling you can imagine: love, fear, dread, hope, empathy, anxiety and of course the urges to fight, flee or freeze.

Menakem provides exercises in “soul nerve training” in order to help us be aware of and learn to settle our bodies.  The goal is not to reduce or avoid stress, but to increase our ability to handle stress and manage our reactivity so that we are free to choose our response.

Some of the settling exercises were familiar to me from Insight Meditation. I have used them to get distance from stress.  Menakem’s purpose is different. He wants us to remain present to stress. [2]

I had a chance to try it out a couple of days ago during a frustrating phone conversation with a company that had made a mistake with our order.  After saying “I would like to speak with your supervisor” I had about 15 minutes to wait before the supervisor came on the line. While waiting, I noticed the tension in my body. It was in my gut, my shoulders and even in my forehead. I did the two exercises I knew best (body scan and belly-breathing) and within minutes I felt settled. I wasn’t enraged or relaxed. I wasn’t distant or detached. I was present and free to think about what to do or say next. I was managing my stress. It was not managing me. Menakem’s exercises worked.

I remember what it’s like be in a group in which some well-meaning white person claims that they already know all about racism. There was a time when I thought the same thing. The anxiety behind the defensiveness understandable. No one welcomes the fear, anger and guilt that a sentient white person is likely to feel when learning the truth about anti-black racism in America.  

But there are ways to manage that stress. Ways that work.  Learning to focus on our own bodies and soul nerves is one of them and might help us open ourselves anew to the work of anti-racism.

A quick thought about this week’s gospel reading. Peter’s answer to the question of Jesus’ identity or significance feels a little odd. Jesus himself observes that Peter’s answer seems to come out of nowhere. Peter’s answer may have been a good one, but there was truth in the other disciples’ answers too.

The story is written to dismiss the other disciples’ answers as less worthy. I think that’s unfortunate.  A uniquely inspired Peter might be a good model for hierarchical church leadership, but it’s a lousy model for the kind of group or community work that values each of the members for the insights which arise from their own experiences, hearts and bodies.

[1] Others call it the vagus nerve.

[2] If we can remain present, we can become aware of how the stress manifests in our body and then develop the ability to calm the body while still in the presence of the stress.

Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

Healing from Trauma

Reading My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, by Resmaa Menakem and Pr.14A

This week I read Part I of My Grandmother’s Hands.  Menakem writes that we all carry the burden of trauma: our own, our family’s and even our ancestors’. In America, the color of our skin can give rise to trauma in different ways. He talks about black trauma, white trauma and blue (police) trauma.

When we are traumatized, we may be physically and emotionally compromised. We may be hyperalert, reacting to perceived threats instinctively. Reflexively. Before we can think about the severity of the threat or the intensity of our response. The way a misplaced hand flies off a hot stove. Fast. As fast as the white cop shot 12 year-old Tamir Rice. Because personal survival seemed to be at stake.

Menakem’s thesis explain why anti-racism education and DEI[1] programs haven’t done more to fix American racism.  Racialized trauma doesn’t get better because we think better thoughts. It can only get better when we address the trauma where it is: like all trauma, not in our minds, but in our bodies.

At the end of last week, I felt I needed to read something uplifting.  I found it in Menakem’s book because he says that trauma is not the last word. It can be a lifelong condition. It can be passed down through family, DNA and culture. It can become embedded in societies, laws and institutions. But it can also be identified, addressed and healed. Even a small amount of healing makes a difference. When we do the work that leads to healing we “create a little extra room in our nervous system for flow, for resilience, for coherence, for growth, and, above all, for possibility. (Grandmother’s Hands at 12.)

I was delighted to see that this Sunday’s gospel is a resurrection story[2].  This story of Jesus walking on the water is usually called a “miracle story.” A closer look reveals the pattern of a Resurrection story: the disciples are in community (gathered in an upper room or on the beach or in a boat), a stranger appears (on the road to Emmaus, in the garden near the tomb, cooking breakfast on the beach), and eventually the stranger is recognized.

The Risen One appeared to traumatized people: people who had to standby helplessly while a loved one was arrested, humiliated, tortured and killed. The point of the resurrection stories is not what Jesus or the Risen One does: it is what happens to the traumatized disciples. Here, Peter moves. He gets out of the boat and tries to walk on water. He sinks, but he doesn’t drown and the Risen One speaks encouraging words: you just needed a little more faith. Keep trying.

Healing doesn’t happen all at once writes Menakem.  “Healing and growth take place on a continuum, with innumerable points between utter brokenness and total health. If this book moves you even a step or two in the direction of healing, it will make an important difference.” (Grandmother’s Hands at 12.)

That was the encouragement I needed to hear.

Image by Chad Krusenstjerna from Pixabay

[1] Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

[2] Thank you Philip Jenkins at Anxious Bench (2014.)