Friday, January 29, 2010

Stress and unbelief

I read a book over Christmas break by John Medina called: "Brain Rules." John Medina is a brain scientist but this is not a neuroscience kind of book; it is a normal people kind of book. It was my vacation, after all.

I was especially interested in the chapter on stress and the brain. Stress can be good for the brain or it can be bad for the brain; it depends.

Research is like that. Welcome to my world.

Stress is good when it is short term. Chemicals are released in the brain to enhance performance. One famous example is a group of high school students taking the SAT test while a hurricane raged outdoors. The testing company assumed they would have to toss the scores and do a retest. The scores turned out to be higher than expected. Even though the students were worried about family and traveling home, they still did better on the test than expected.

Don't even get me started on high stakes testing in our schools.

Stress is bad when it is chronic. When you are under stress for a long period of time, those performance enhancing chemicals can interfere with your ability to learn and can cause untold harm to your brain and body. People who provide long-term care for chronically ill loved ones have shown us this phenomenon.

The other curious thing about stress is that one person's performance de-enhancing stress is another's performance booster. The event itself is not the stress. Stress is more likely to be damaging if the person experiencing the event views it as adverse. Running a marathon, although physically tiring, would be an enhancer for some. For me: not so much. We are talking major de-enhancing stress.

A big part of stress is how we view the situation, how we react to the situation, and whether or not we are prepared for the situation. If we view the stressor as enjoyable, if we react positively and are prepared for the stressor, the results will be enhancing. If, however, we are unprepared, see the situation negatively and react poorly, the results will be detrimental. God created our minds to be able to deal with stress. Furthermore, He knows how much stress we can take before it is too much. He knows this because He created us. Not only that, He knows us so well He can give us a minute by minute count of the hairs on our heads.

So, why can't I get rid of my anxiety? I sit in class and listen to the professor go on and on about effect sizes and formulas and I feel the knot in my stomach spread to become a migraine in my head. I doubt this reaction is performance enhancing. If I were to contact God on my way out of class regarding the number of hairs, He would report at least a 5% loss. It is a good thing I can't do that because then I would worry all the way home about whether or not that number of hairs was statistically significant. As my stats prof would say: "are we in the critical region?"

Uh, um, maybe.

In spite of all that God has done for me, I am an Israelite wandering in the desert of graduate school wondering if He will send manna, again. Never mind the fact He sent it every day before. Forget the miracles, forget the covenant, forget the awesome power of my God, forget the absolute strength and consistency of His promise to me; I am anxious because today might be different; today He might forget to send the manna.

Really? Seriously?

Think again, who does most all of the forgetting in this relationship? Yeah, that's right: me.

What is keeping me from letting go of my anxiety? What prevents me from viewing these classes as a positive thing? Why do the chemicals released in my brain cause harm instead of enhancement? Hmmm, could it be a faith issue?

Ya' think?

12 men went into Canaan to do reconnaissance. Ten reacted to the stress by clinging to anxiety:

And they told him, "We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large.

However, two did not:

But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, "Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it." Numbers 13: 27-28 and 30 ESV

God had prepared all twelve men equally. They had all been beneficiaries of God's strength and fidelity. They had all been to the same Canaan and seen the same fruit and the same fortifications. It was faith that made the difference between what was performance enhancing and what was anxiety causing.

I am venturing into the Canaan of statistics and measurement. I am not seeing the fruits of the land because I am preoccupied with the giants that haunt me. This stress is not any bigger than any other stress I have experienced before. Furthermore, my faith potential is not any less.

"I believe; help my unbelief!" Mark 8:24 ESV

One of those two men who saw Canaan as potential was appointed to replace Moses as leader of God's people. Now there's a stressor for you. He was to replace Moses; he was to lead an especially difficult group of people; and their job was to conquer a land full of giants. God strengthened his faith by commanding him, three times, to be strong and courageous.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go." Joshua1:9 ESV

Abba, father, Amen.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Hiding Place

Our cat has found a new hiding place. She tucks herself in between the wall register and the portable radiator heater that actually keeps my office area warm. She finds this spot a great place to sit; occasionally turning around to warm her other side.

When she is feeling adventurous she sits up in the window sill to watch over our backyard. The window sill is much more entertaining and she has a soft spot to sit. But, the windowsill is cold so she eventually returns to her hiding place.

When the temperature situation is at an extreme low, and she is in need of significant cognitive inhibition, she burrows under the blankets on our bed. I can relate.

We all need a hiding place at some point in our lives. Some of us need one nearly every day. I am an introvert who has learned to interact like an extrovert, but, it takes a lot out of me. I retreat to my room at night and settle in with my computer so my brain can process all the face time I experienced during the day. Some days it is all too easy to spend time in my hiding place. It seems odd to me because I love talking to people and I especially love teaching, but when I think of my "dream job" it usually involves staying at home and working, by myself.

I have been identifying with Moses, lately. Moses would have loved nothing better than to be a shepherd for the rest of his life.

Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth. Numbers 12:3 ESV

Extroverts are the ones who would enjoy running for public office, yet God chose Moses. A leader of thousands planning to escape slavery and begin a new nation would need oratory skills that could persuade, yet God chose Moses. This job was going to require someone who could influence, inspire, and interface, yet God chose Moses; a man who was more comfortable leading sheep than a nation. Moses didn't want the attention; he wanted long hours alone to think. Moses didn't want the prophet's staff that performed miracles; he was happy with the shepherd's staff that guided sheep. Moses, who as a young man, walked away from a position of great power and leadership; begged to not be appointed to the task of God's calling. Yet, God chose Moses.

One of my advisor's favorite research topics is the development of talent and expertise. We assume that the truly great performers of our time where born with great talent. There is nothing to indicate that is true. Research done on people with great expertise points instead to arduous work and years of practice before any expertise even begins to show. Even Mozart, who began composing at the tender age of six, did not produce anything of merit until he had worked at it for 10 years.

God shows us that He can take any one of His children and create a leader, an expert, a servant of God. He can provide us with the abilities we need and He makes use of not only our hard work, but our miserable failures.

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. Isaiah 64:6 ESV

Here is a paradox of our faith and life: all our work is polluted, all our talents are useless, but, God uses us anyway. He turns our flailing efforts into success for His kingdom. And He does this even if we would prefer to be in our hiding place. Hit fits us for the task he sets before us. So when people remark: "I don't know how you can do it," you know that God is the reason behind your work and ministry. And when you lament: "I don't think I can do this," you know that the simple fact that God chose you, is why you can do the work.

You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in your word. Psalm 119:114 ESV

As you can imagine, while I am writing this I am sitting in my hiding place. My brain and heart are calm and my God is with me as I walk through his word. In a few hours I will need to go to class and tomorrow I teach. I will come home tired and wanting to retreat. I cannot speak for my efforts in either classroom. I see God working in the lives of my students, but I also intensely feel my mistakes. I sit in class and feverishly take notes, but my current classes are all statistics classes and I am afraid my math skills are on a par with Moses' speech impediment. Yet, God chooses for me to be here. He is my hiding place. He is my strength. He is your strength.

"Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation. Isaiah 12:2 ESV