Tag Archives: Anxiety

Quick Review: Braving the Wilderness

It’s been a month or two since I read Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness. I’ve delayed writing something up on it because I’ve had mixed feelings about it. It’s both the book of hers I’ve liked least, but it’s also the most intriguing related to some of my areas of research and study.

A lot of the book is similar to her other works – shame, worthiness, and vulnerability. I recently reviewed Rising Strong and there’s some overlap. It’s good stuff and there’s several stories and anecdotes from other books. However, there’s also a lot that is new and there is a different emphasis on this book. This focus, as I would describe it, is the connection between identity and belonging in a reactionary and tribalistic society.

What I liked was that at the core of this book, it really is a tackling of identity between individuality and community. Essentially, Brown is unpacking what family systems theorists call self-differentiation, the grounded identity that is both connected and separate even in the midst of an anxious and reactive society.  I kept thinking of one of my favorite authors, Edwin Friedman and his book Failure of Nerve as I read this. If you want to take a look see my post linking to a couple summaries here and also here.  It is one of my top 5 books of all time and has profoundly impacted my views on leadership and leadership formation.

Anyway – back to the wilderness. Braving the Wilderness is really a metaphor for self-differentiation. It’s living in between the polar extremes of reactivity and anxiety. Friedman calls one extreme emotional fusion. Christian psychologist PaulTripp calls this immersion. Harvard negotiation expert Daniel Shapiro calls this defaulting to affiliation.  It’s the surrendering of individual identity to the group out of fear of rejection, judgment, or shame. It’s compromising the integrity of personhood to belong – belonging becomes being part of a tribe.

Friedman calls the other extreme cutting off. Tripp calls it isolation. Shapiro calls it defaulting to autonomy for the sake of identity.  It’s surrendering community and relationship to preserve personhood. It’s to some degree distancing from those that provide a threat or challenge to be able to feel secure again in one’s self.

Brown is unpacking these dynamics. I think initially I was irritated because it felt like it was being unpacked as new data or phenomena, but these concepts have been out there getting discussed in a lot of places. But I like that she connected shame and vulnerability what can lead people towards surrendering their identity for either reactive extreme. People feeling anxiety and shame tend to seek security and certainty and if they cannot stand on their own and hold their ground for their higher values and their integrity – the emotional forces of society will bounce them around.  Thus Brown is directly addressing in this book how to foster civility and empathy in a society that is looking to dehumanize others and where everyone is trying to strengthen their tribe at the expense of the other.

Worthiness is at the heart of Brown’s books – that people who feel and act worthy and like the belong, actually believe that they belong.  The elephant in the room is the question, “Where does that worthiness come from?” I do not believe Brown offers an answer for this, but to describe that we need to do our best to be civil and understanding and do our part to help extend hospitality across difference.   Added to this though, Brown also discusses a lot about curiosity and civility as key to fostering civil discourse and belonging across difference.

Brown is advocating for people to connect as humans, fighting the tendency of people to dehumanize for the sake of certainty and tribal belonging. As I read this, it’s a perfect apologetic for the Christian worldview as the image of God, loving your neighbor, and the call to grace and truth are core foundational pieces. It’s a shame that Christians tend to be just as tribal, if not more, than others. It’s a sign that the gospel has not taken root. But Brown is pointing to a question that is theological in nature. Can we achieve our own worthiness? Or do we have to receive it from someone else?  Can we get it from other people or does it have to come from a higher authority?

So there’ s a lot that I like and it’s the most I’ve thought about any of her books so it’s a sign that it maybe it ranks higher than I initially thought. But there are things that are hard. I understand why some reviews complain about her being too political, but I didn’t think it was that bad – but an example of tribalism in the reviews.  There’s also a stronger tone of anger and “screw you, I gotta keep it real” to this book that wasn’t as evident in her other books.  On one level – I get it – I think Brown has to have some of that edge to play the role she is playing.

However, I’ve seen too many applications of her work where people are rejecting shame and community accountability to defend their positions (an ironic example of what Brown is speaking against). People can find justification through some of the concepts to defend their personal choices.  Not all shame is bad – when people reject the voice of community completely to “keep it real” they then run the risk of cutting off and getting lost in a myopic view of life. This connects to a series I did many moons ago called “Prophets vs. Posers.”

All in all – it’s a good book and I’m still thinking about a lot of it. But it is a clear reminder that there are deep solutions to questions of shame and belonging and vulnerability. Will people humble themselves to really find those solutions outside of themselves and receive the dignity, belonging, security, and love that can anchor one firmly in that identity so they can freely love and serve others across difference?  This is the Christian life.  Now more than ever, followers of Christ need to embody this self-differentiation in Christ so they can brave the wilderness where is increasingly anxious, hostile, reactionary, and tribal.

So I recommend it, but I recommend Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve even more.

Quick Review: Negotiating the Non-Negotiable

The best of the negotiation books I’ve read this year has been Daniel Shapiro’s Negotiating the Non-Negotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts. Shapiro heads the Harvard International Negotiation Program and was also the primary author of the book Beyond Reason, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago.

One of the things I loved reading this book is that it reflects other streams of relationship theory that I’ve been pursuing for years, especially the application of family systems theory to leadership. Shapiro never refers directly to family systems theory, but does consistently discuss identity and relationships in ways that reflect the concept of self-differentiation as a foundational character foundation of mature and healthy relationships. In fact, themes like anxiety, cutting off, emotional fusion, and self-differentiation are all over this book.

Shapiro’s book focuses on identity-driven conflict – conflict that because of its deep connection to how people see themselves and what is most important to them. He doesn’t like using the language of identity-driven conflict because he sees all conflict impacting and flowing out of identity. But this book fundamentally is a roadmap of navigating deep-rooted conflict that tends to lead towards entrenchment.

Shapiro has some very helpful sections on emotions in negotiation, taboos – those things considered sacred and untouchable in every context, and some of the helpful components of integrative bargaining (i.e. the win-win bargaining). But one of the really interesting aspects of the book is that it’s not just about negotiation in the integrative bargaining kind of way – there’s a large section focused specifically on reconciling relationships. He explores apologies and forgiveness in a way that is quite helpful when considering the overall context of high conflict negotiation. There’s just really solid stuff throughout the book and this will be a go-to resource for me.

An additional note is that one of the awesome things about this book is the 75 pages or so of endnotes that discuss additional research and clarify smaller ideas or concepts. It’s a gold mine. I can’t remember a book where I spent an hour or two just reading endnotes because they were so interesting and helpful. Several of them have led me to other resources that will be super helpful for my research right now on negotiation.

From a leadership or relationship standpoint – highly recommend this one!


Merry Disturbing Christmas!

Nine years ago I wrote a post entitled Herod & Jerusalem based on some reflection on Matthew 2:1-4. I came back across that passage this Christmas season and wanted to offer some new and refined possible responses to the question, “Why was Herod and all of Jerusalem troubled when hearing about Jesus?”  Here’s the text:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.“ When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

This version uses the phrase “troubled,” but others use “disturbed” to describe the emotional response by Herod the Great and all of Jerusalem.  Have you ever thought of what all of Jerusalem means?  Does that mean every single person? Does it mean the rich? The religious? The powerful? The educated?  Or does it mean all? I don’t know definitively what all means here as there was no internet or newspaper service, but I would assume it includes at least the rich and powerful who had a vested interest in the politics and leadership of the day. AKA – the rich, powerful, religious, and educated.

And what does it mean that they were troubled or disturbed? Weren’t the Jews waiting in expectation for a Messiah, a deliverer, a King that would restore them to glory?  Why were these Jewish leaders disturbed rather than curious or hopeful?  And what does that matter for us today?  Here are some of my theories….

Here are some of my theories….

1.  Maybe the news of a newborn prophesied King of the Jews disturbed the elite because they feared the disruption of the social order.  The leaders of Jerusalem had established some measure of stability through Herod’s relationship with Caeser Augustus and the fear of Roman intervention. And in any system, there those who benefit from a political administration and those who may not. Maybe all of Jerusalem means those who found a pretty good life under Herod were more worried about losing their status in the face of local rebellion or Roman retaliation than about Biblical prophecies? Word of a new and promised king would mean a challenge to the political order of the day with potential vast ramifications for those with status in that order.

2.  Maybe Herod and all of Jerusalem were more disturbed than hopeful because they could not see God’s way of providing for His people.  Maybe, as people often do, they fell into patterns of belief and thought that God’s promised King would only come through “Kingly” lineage as viewed through the lens of the day. Of course, Jesus does have Kingship in his bloodlines as Matthew’s genealogy attests, but so did a lot of other people. Maybe people were blinded by their own elitism and expectations about where great leaders come from? Maybe the new King should be born a King and the thought that a baby born in Bethlehem could be a King was ridiculous. As such, this child again becomes a threat to the political and social order because he could not possibly be from the right stock.

3.  Maybe the educated and religious elite stopped expecting the Messiah because they liked their religious system they had developed and the control and status they gained from enforcing it? Maybe the news of a newborn Messianic King was disturbing because they were focused on policy rather the story of Israel? Maybe they feared the loss of their tight religious system if Rome got involved in a power struggle?

4.  But maybe there’s a deeper level of disruption involved? While Herod was disturbed no doubt because of the threat to his power and position, maybe all of Jerusalem was disturbed with him because the presence of two Kings brings the question of allegiance to the forefront. The news that a promised “King of the Jews” has come from outside the current royal line means a challenge to current authority. And for all those “around,” it means there will be a day of reckoning, a time to choose.  Who will they give their allegiance too?  In such a time, everyone has to choose. It’s only a matter of time.

Maybe it’s some parts of all of the above. Comfort, status, control, and safety seem to be factors for why all of Jerusalem began to get disturbed and anxious. But at the core, I believe all of this gets at the anxiety of allegiance. When allegiance is secure, these other things are not disturbing even in the face of risk and danger.

All of Jerusalem seemed to be feeling the anxiety of allegiance, even if they couldn’t put a name to it.  And unless we have addressed our own allegiance once and for all, we should be disturbed by Christmas as well.  But is so, is your anxiety because you fear losing power, status, comfort, or control?

This is what makes the incarnation amazing – the promised King came with no earthly power, status, comfort, and with total vulnerability. The foolish things of the world have shamed the wise.


Quick Review: Smiling Tiger Hidden Dragon

I’ve read Dr. John Ng’s book on conflict management Smiling Tiger, Hidden Dragon over the past month and want to share some thoughts on it.  I also had the opportunity to do a couple day training with Dr. Ng covering the ideas in the book.

Over the last decade, as I’ve been in mostly Asian ministry contexts, the topic of conflict resolution for Asians has been a very challenging and difficult one  – in part because of honor/shame dynamics, saving face, and indirect communication preferences.  Most Asian believers I know readily admit that this is a difficult area of discipleship and skill for them because of the ways conflict can challenge cultural norms and behaviors. It’s also readily clear that many approaches to conflict resolution are blatantly western in assumptions and prescriptions, thus creating significant tension for Asian believers when so much out there on this topic challenges culture (which is not always a bad thing either).

Dr. Ng was educated in the West (Northwestern) and is currently in Singapore and works as a mediator and consultant throughout Asia. This book primarily focuses on describing the things that undermine healthy relationships in the Asian context and provides ideas and strategies for managing that conflict. So he dives into themes like saving face among other things to illustrate how conflict can start and escalate. The book is full of Asian anecdotes and examples which is helpful as a Westerner to just get a feel on a broad level how conflict escalates among Asians in different ways and for different reasons contextually.

He provides a lot of strategies for managing conflict, some based on a conflict style assessment tool he developed for Asia. He highlights about 12 different conflict styles that can lead to escalating conflict including the title, “smiling tiger, hidden dragon.” This was helpful just to really look at a wide range of conflict approaches (negative ones) that do not always get treatment in other books or resources on conflict.

He also highlights a lot of ideas for just managing conflict and keeping yourself in a good emotional space to have a constructive conversation.  He draws from the HeartMath institute. I read The Heartmath Solution as part of a book club way back in the day and you see a brief review here, but he gives a lot of attention to breathing exercises and efforts to keep the heart rate under 100. That’s helpful and in the past I’ve utilized that in some mediation situations and it has helped me maintain mental sharpness.  Dr. Ng also is passionate about the dynamics of the brain and the amygdala as I have often written about from the family and congregational systems theorists and practitioners like Edwin Friedman and Peter Steinke. The big takeaway – we have to be mindful of what’s going on in our bodies or else we may lost control of the situation and start escalating and reacting.

An additional area is the area of bidding.  Dr. Ng studied under John Gottman who introduced the notion of relational bidding as a key for understanding the health and future of marriage relationships. Basically – relationships need a 5 to 1 positive to negative bidding ratio or problems and eventual separation are likely to occur. Dr. Ng uses this idea really well in the context of general conflict management to keep the relationship the central focus and not the issues.

The areas that are weaker in the book are those relating to forgiveness and reconciliation. The forgiveness aspect is viewed as important – but follows some of current psychology trends in reinforcing that forgiveness is about us releasing and letting go. There really is not much attention to reconciliation.   The book is written with a secular packaging, yet the treatment of forgiveness and reconciliation was still light if not non-existent at points.  However, if the book is seen and experienced as a focus on the catalysts for conflict in Asian contexts and tools for having the conflict conversations – there’s some great ideas and tools. But there is not much here that will paint a vision or picture of what relationships will look like after conflict management to get a sense of what reconciliation in relationship looks like.

There are several ideas in the books I want to pursue more and explore, concepts that are very Asian, but even so – the book is relevant far beyond the Asian context.  They key thing that feels Asian besides the metaphors, illustrations, and marketing is that the focus is on preserving relationship which is a high value for Asians.  That’s something westerners can really benefit from as they think about conflict.


Triumphalism: The Lost Art of Honesty

As I continue posting this series on some of my multi-ethnic learnings, this post focuses on positivity gone wrong.

It took only a year or two in this context to understand that perhaps nothing hinders the empowerment of ethnic minority ministry, ethnic leaders, and movement towards great systemic change like militant positivity and the inability to have and navigate honest communication.


In ethnic ministry as well as cross-cultural situations, there are emotional realities and perspectives often kept quiet and silenced because of leadership tendencies to want to keep things orderly, structured, and “clean.” Failure to cultivate honesty, even with all its rawness in cross-cultural contexts, is to assure the preservation of the status quo.

Change cannot happen without the ability to navigate honesty.

Triumphalism I’ll describe here as the over-celebration of what Jesus has done and maybe the overconfidence that comes when we primarily focus on the positive and celebration and to the neglect of seeking out and facing with integrity those things that still need to die, be grieved, or be named as part of reality. This is very subtle but can be very deep. Before redemptive conflict can take place that can move us forward in healthy directions for all, different stories and painful feedback must be allowed into the conversation without it being ignored, silenced, spun, or hi-jacked by majority narratives.

Triumphalistic leadership positivity in this sense usually flows from anxiety.  It could be personal anxiety driven by fear. It could be insecurity or even a sense of inadequacy trying to lead or manage tension or conflict. Whatever it is – unchecked anxiety leads to control behavior and self-preservation.  That posture is a conversation killer, a door closer, a silencer of voice. Positive people are great. What we’re talking about are people I would call “Hopemongers.” They’re so desperate for a happy ending, they subvert the process that can produce redemptive fruit.

The picture above comes from the kids movie, Horton Hears a Who. The Mayor of Whoville speaks the truth to a community fearful of what new knowledge will do and they press “the happy button” for self-preservation.  We’re all tempted to press the happy button, but real conversation requires entering relationships and responding appropriately to pain.

If you’re interested in diving in on this one and you would like a more scholarly or theological resource than Horton Hears a Who 🙂  I would recommend Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination. It does not specifically relate to cross-cultural ministry, but he presents a theology of power and voice that is worth really engaging. I’m very grateful I came across this resource when I was beginning to immerse myself in ethnic minority leadership development and ministry.

Nothing May Be Better Than Something


In a multi-ethnic context,

“Nothing May Be Better Than Something”

In a pragmatic world, this statement is anathema.  But in the absence of knowing how to truly serve a different community, demographic, or group of people, I’ve learned over the last decade that sometimes it is better to wait until you have done your homework before doing something that may do more damage than good.  And by “better” I mean more loving, more honoring, more wise, and more humble.  And sometimes doing nothing requires greater faith than taking action.

By doing nothing I’m not talking about being controlled by fear.  I’m talking about having a healthy capacity of self-control and restraint both personally and organizationally in order to ensure truly serving actions.  The alternative is jumping in blind assuming that something is better than nothing. That’s the justification I’ve heard more than a few times before launching in unprepared to a different type of context and ministry.  I’ve had that justification myself when I’ve anxiously wanted to feel “useful” or want to see things happen.  When this is our defense for our action, we should take a breath and think twice. Maybe something is better than nothing.  Often it is and that’s what pioneering is all about! But sometimes it’s not when attitudes and methodology aren’t appropriate to the situation.

It’s worth making a distinction here between grass roots ministry and organizational functioning.  While humility and learning is necessary in all contexts, failure in grass roots situations is necessary to a risk taking, faith-filled, and innovative growth. This learning point relates primarily to organizational life, functioning, and partnerships. There are times where it would be better if we just listened and learned and didn’t take action – for trying to do something frequently undermines the listening and learning.  “Doing something” needs just as much listening and learning as doing.  If that posture isn’t there, best holster the ambition for impact until it is.

There was a blog I read over a year ago, shortly after I first wrote this, on this general idea that I thought captured exactly what I have learned here and it was called “The Grace to Do Nothing” by David Fitch. It’s worth reading at some point: http://www.reclaimingthemission.com/the-grace-to-do-nothing-on-social-justice-in-the-neighborhood/

Do you have the grace to do nothing sometimes?

How do you resist the temptation to act too fast when it can lead to damaging others and trust building efforts in community?

Glass Houses

I’ve come across the popular idiom a few times recently “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

It’s something people say when someone criticizes hypocritically (and perhaps blindly) others for faults or sins that they themselves are guilty of.

While idioms have their limitations I couldn’t help but think more about why stones are being thrown in the first place.

Could it be that actually living in a glass house, living in a fragile construction of reality – an illusion of security and safety, actually is a catalyst itself for throwing stones at others who if they come too close become tangible if not subtle reminders that we might be standing on shaky ground?

An observation for whatever it’s worth – secure people don’t throw stones.  I haven’t researched it though I bet someone has. But experience tells me there’s a direct correlation between people with fragile worldviews or paradigms of life with stone throwing – judging or attacking others.  It doesn’t always look the same but it often comes from the same place.

One one hand, passive aggressive types must protect themselves from facing the reality that they are not able to be in charge enough of their own glass house, so they judge others for their inadequacies – deflecting away from the big inadequacy staring themselves at the mirror.  Passive people can be just as judgmental as any overtly and explicit angry and critical person.  It’s just disguised – a form of guerrilla warfare if you will. That’s why temperament is not always a good indicator of how much anger is really inside someone.

On the other hand, the flat out aggressive types must guard themselves against the vulnerability of not being in total control of their house, so they attack – and sometimes viciously so at the mere hint that there might be something outside of their control.  Theology, methodology, pedagogy – whatever, they will throw stones against anyone who potentially will remind them that they are preaching certainty from uncertain foundations.

Security and certainty are two different things.  People who seek to find their security in certainty are those who put the most time into designing and constructing their glass houses so they can maintain a perceived position of superiority over their neighbor.

(And for any friends who grow anxious over this – I am not discussing the issue of absolute versus relative truth.  Absolute truth exists – but much of what we seek to find comfort in as “certainty” is all too often a fragile paradigm of theology that makes us feel better about what we fear most in our lives. Glass houses are built reactively out of a survival instinct .)

When threats to our glass houses arise – we have two choices.  Either we can defend it at the cost of others.  I think the Bible would clearly name this as “pride.” Or we can trust our foundations and be humble enough to have some of our glass destroyed for the sake of learning and relationship.

There is a better way than protecting our glass houses – it’s called the way of love and humility.  But these are two things that only really shine in our lives when we first find security as one who is deeply loved and accepted amidst limitations and hideousness.

So yes – people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.  But they shouldn’t live in glass houses either.

In the Scriptures, Jesus talks about God’s provision for Him despite not having anywhere to “lay his head.”  That we can be secure enough in God’s goodness and provision to not have to worry about alleviating our anxiety and fears through material gain or comforts that feel like a “certain” or “sure” thing.  The Scriptures expose “the sure things” of materialism, Pharisaical theology, or the pragmatic religiosity of the Sadducees as glass houses – whose owners throw stones.

And they still throw stones today.  The angry theological watchdogs, anxious and rigid leaders, the self-righteous self-anointed prophets that judge on a dime – glass houses abound today and because glass houses abound, so does stone throwing.

But how about you? How about me?

Are we building glass houses?  Are we throwing stones to defend them?  Or are we seeking a secure foundation that frees us to live and love with humility?

Blaming the Dog to Keep Calm

Anxiety and blame shifting go together like peanut butter and jelly, apple pie and ice cream, or Valentine’s Day and chocolate.  Simply put, the fastest and most convenient way to restore our world to some degree of order and harmony after suffering through anxiety and tension or conflict is to blame it on something…or someone…or everyone.

In such times or moments you have to do something with all the uneasiness, awkwardness, maybe guilt, shame, anger, insecurity, or inadequacy. Lot of emotion and angst builds up inside of us in a lot of life situations or circumstances.  Where’s it all go?  It’s gotta go somewhere, right?

I saw this a few weeks ago. It speaks to my point.


If you (as a leader) are in a complex situation, or you’re dealing with complex relationships, and there’s a lot of struggle and conflict and anxiety in the mix – but YOU’RE walking around calm and easy and feel an undisturbed inner tranquility…Then guess what?

You’re probably blaming the dog.

And by dog. I mean somebody else…or a group of people.  Easiest thing in the world to do – resolve the tension by bundling it up in a bag, tying it off, and dumping it at someone else’s doorstep.

This is the first step of more toxic steps such as scapegoating or even abuse.  It’s a dark thing making someone else pay a price for having our inner worlds disturbed.  After all – aren’t we entitled to live tranquil inner lives without too much disturbance?  If you did not read that as rhetorical sarcasm, the answer is No.

The Scriptures have many exhortations and instructions of what to do with anxiety and inner disturbances.  Most notably we’re to “not be anxious, but pray without ceasing.”  For those who would over-spiritualize this and take it as a call to avoid inner turbulence, you are mistaken.  We unfortunately can hail emotional ignorance or detachment as some kind of spiritual enlightenment, but in reality we’re just blaming the dog and giving it the name “negative emotion.” Rejecting negative emotion is not spiritual maturity.  The call to “not be anxious” is not a call to not be troubled.  In fact, I’m not sure the “joy of the Lord” can truly be just that without being in tension with unspeakable heartache and anguish.  But what great peace can come from knowing that there is a place where you can unload all your fears, insecurities, inadequacies, shame, guilt, pain, woundedness, and failure.

Jesus gives the option that instead of making others pay for our incompleteness, limitations, or even sinfulness, we can take it to him to connect to His grace. This is good for us – to feel loved in our most frustrated and troubled places.  It’s also good for others – because when we are grounded in grace we don’t make others pay for the tensions we try to resolve ourselves within us.  We can treat people in human ways with dignity rather than dehumanizing them so we can feel more human ourselves.

One of the greatest leadership capacities I believe exists is the maturity and character of a leader to discern and assess in hard moments, to put it bluntly, “What the hell is going on inside of me!!!!”  Call it a part of EQ if you want, but it’s so much more.  It’s recognizing that our compulsion to blame, throw people under the bus, scapegoat, judge, or punish is one of the greatest teachers…and exposers of what is taking place within us. It shines a light on our moments of inner-panic that would lead to such short-sighted, panic-driven, and ill-fated actions.  It might not feel like panic or anxiety on the face of it – for many of us are well trained to quickly displace even the smallest hint  or reflection of fault or imperfection in ourselves. It’s automatic.

Jesus once said, “Be angry, but don’t sin.”  I think it’s not far fetched to see there is also wisdom and truth in the following saying, “Be troubled, but don’t sin!”  Be bothered. Be affected. Be torn up by the painful realities and the difficulties of relationships and community.  But don’t sin.

And the number one way people sin when they are troubled?  They take it out on the dog.

Don’t blame the dog.  Let’s not redirect our unresolved emotions onto others as a toxic substitute for learning to pay attention to difficult and sometimes contradicting emotions.  If punishing someone else is what it takes for us to stay calm – then being calm isn’t worth it.

There’s a holy peace and calm only to be found on the other side of being troubled as long as we’re learning to be troubled with Jesus and with community.

Let’s not settle for cheap calm, because it tends to treat people like dogs.

Dangers for Discerners: Elementary

The last few years have seen a resurgence of interest in the Sherlock Holmes narrative, originally created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  There have been two feature films released recently with the lead played by Robert Downey Jr. and two television shows as well.  The BBC is approaching its third season of Sherlock, while Elementary is in its first season on CBS.

I’m not an avid Sherlock Holmes fan, but I’ve seen some of these shows and I’m fascinated by some of what all three of these portrayals of this iconic character have in common.  Holmes is portrayed as unequivocal genius….yet relationally estranged and essentially anti-social in nature.  To differing degrees they all explore questions about the role and value of discernment, of exceptional perception of details, facts, or behavior.  Despite the quirks and great dysfunction illustrated, Sherlock Holmes in contemporary portrayals is a seer, a discerning observer, one with vision that others do not have access too.

Sherlock Holmes is discerning. And yes – it depends on the nature of what he is looking for. The fun of the recent adaptations of Holmes is that the lead character is portrayed as completely superior in intellect and perception as it relates to facts and the meaning of various sets of information, yet he stands clueless and unaware of the emotional systems and contexts he finds himself.  The Holmes characters in these versions are great illustrations of what can happen when sight and perception outpaces relational presence and emotional capacity.

This narrative is lived out in many places – pretty much in any area where one begins to develop an expertise as it relates to perceiving the why’s behind human behavior.  Counselors, Psychologists, and even Human Resource specialists all can find themselves in situations where they have accumulated so many tools, so many ways of seeing and making sense of what people do and why compared to the average person.  This is not bad – this is why people pay them to do their jobs, because people need help seeing and the blind cannot lead the blind more often than not. Yet it can be, and sometimes is for there is an ethics of discernment that not all have engaged.

Discernment is a function of, as well as a test of, one’s gifts of perception and ability to navigate relational and social pressures.  And as in any social reality, there are two primary directions that discerners can take in reaction to crisis, demands, stresses, and anxiety. One can create distance between themselves and others, cutting off in order to experience more objectivity along with a more defined individuality.  On the other hand, one can surrender to a minimalist vantage point in the interest of the status quo and develop great confidence that they are seeing the whole picture – all the whole their powers of observation are in bondage to their emotional interests and fears.

Sherlock Holmes, in recent portrayal, is the former.  His genius is unquestioned, yet he’s alone.  But alone does not quite capture it.  It’s more of an estrangement, an isolation which his great knowledge likely has both resulted from as well as created.  He places knowing above all else.  And that leads to some awkward god complex fantasies of omniscience.

In Episode 3 titled “The Rat Race” in Season 1 of Elementary (perhaps you can catch it online still), there was a fascinating exchange between Sherlock Holmes and his counterpart Dr. Watson (in this version played by Lucy Liu).

Holmes:  It has its costs.

Watson:  What does?

Holmes:  Learning to see the puzzle in everything. They’re everywhere. Once you start looking it’s impossible to stop.

It just so happens that people with all the deceits and delusions that inform everything that they do tend to be the most fascinating puzzles of all. Of course they don’t always appreciate being seen as such.

Watson:  That seems like a lonely way to live.

Holmes: As I said. It has its costs.

People who have a talent for discernment, people who are seers – not in a mystical sense, but in the quest for perceiving the truth in community, have to negotiate the cost of seeing as well as the temptations that come with it.  I hope to in future posts explore that more. But there’s a cost to seeing the puzzles – the dynamics that drive different individuals or contexts.  But Holmes’ “cost” does not come from his ability to see as much as it does from his drive to “master” individuals.  And perhaps this is where counselors, pastors, leaders, and educators can perhaps relate in some way.  The insight, wisdom, and perception of behavior can take on a life of its own, tempting the seer to shift their focus from serving to something altogether darker  in nature.  Seeing is a form of power.  And with that, there’s a wide difference between seeing to serve versus seeing to master.

Holmes’ motivation for solving the puzzles often comes from a desire to have a sense of knowing about another, rather than simply knowing another.  His pride leads him to gain information to set himself above another, to reduce others to equations to be figured out and solved.  His quest for mastery over the human puzzles in his life creates an estrangement that perpetuates the dysfunction. This would seem to be a clear example of what the Apostle Paul was pointing to when he wrote, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” People in the helping professions and ministry are vulnerable to this temptation because they in some ways all must be “people experts.”

Mastery of insight, of the truth of a person or situation can become a false substitute for connection.  Perhaps this is part of why some who have developed such expertise in the interest of “helping others” end up frequently repelling others away because it’s quite evident to most of us as people when we have become a problem to be fixed or an equation to be solved. I like that the movies and television shows all show Holmes’ frustrating and maddening and painfully slow journey towards human connection.

Sherlock Holmes illustrates that seeing can in some ways become an addiction, yet at the same time it can be something one cannot simply shut off.   He himself is a puzzle. And like many discerners, it’s easier to give into the temptation to figure out other people rather than face hard truths about one’s own self.  Knowledge is a danger to the discerner, because instead of a tool for something greater it can become the object itself.  And thus, knowledge becomes a form of idolatry in and of itself.

Most of us, if we have gifts or an aptitude for discerning are not in Sherolock Holmes’ category – in either his genius or his narcissistic and anti-social tendencies.  But we share the same temptations – that as we gain knowledge and insight about people, about community, are we maintaining clarity about the end of such knowledge and insight?  Will our knowledge become an opportunity for arrogance and control in relationships and to objectify people?  Or will it lead us to serve?