Not a different kind of person, but a different person, period.
You look in the mirror and don’t recognize yourself.
Other people don’t either. There’s something different about you, hard to say what – a different energy maybe, like your wiring got scrambled.
That kind of different is why I’m not a Christian anymore. The old me didn’t change my mind about God; I became a new person, and God didn’t fit anymore. It wasn’t just a tweak here and there, but the whole ecosystem of me — self, life, world, inside and out – got shifted, zapped, scrambled, rearranged to the point that it’s not that I don’t believe in God anymore, it’s that I can’t. I’m repulsed by the idea. I’m stunned, shocked, and amazed by what I used to believe. I wonder how I could have. What was I thinking?
Now here I am — a nonbeliever, among the godless, the faithless, the backslidden. I never would have believed it. Atheist wasn’t possible – it was never on the life choices list. It still isn’t. I didn’t choose it, I became it. I became a new person in a new place, with no way to get back. It wasn’t change, it was transformation.
“Transformation” has grandiose overtones. It sounds spiritual. We talked about transformation when I was a Christian. It’s right there in the Bible:
“Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Romans 12:2 ESV
The context and the rest of verse is dressed up with pious isn’t-transformation-going-to-be-wonderful language. No it’s not. It’s going to tear you down, and everything else with it. Transformation is destructive and painful, a depressing grind. Try to make big changes and everything comes unglued. I don’t wish it on anybody.
Transformation is inside and outside – the entire ecosystem that is you and your life. Ecological change on the inside is biological, neurological, physiological, chemical, hormonal. On the outside it’s sociological, communal, societal, institutional. When transformation has made a mess of all that it’s just getting warmed up. Now you’ve got to figure out how to carry all that into a new life.
Good luck with that.
Personal ecosystem change is why we take vacations and patronize spas, go to a monastery for a week of silence. It’s why churches sponsor retreats, why corporations lay out five star spreads for off-site strategic planning. It works: put yourself in a new setting, you think new thoughts, feel new things. What was unthinkable and impossible before became your new to do list.
Personal ecosystem change is why re-entry is so hard – go away and get inspired, then try to take what happened out there back to the shop and everybody wants to know what you’ve been smoking out there. Meanwhile you’re scheming to turn no-way-I-can-go-back into the new normal. All that inspiration and new thoughts while you’re away vs. all that dread and drudgery when you go back to the grind – it’s evidence of ecological change.
Self-help is fraudulent pseudo-religion for a lot of reasons, but it’s biggest fraud is that it doesn’t tell us about the need for ecosystem change if we want to make big changes in our lives. Self-help makes it sound like we can just paste some new things onto what we already are, have, and do. Nope. Won’t work. The reason we’re not already doing the new thing is because we’re not the kind of person who does the new thing. If we were, we’d already be doing it. Duh. If we want to do the new thing, we need to be transformed.
“Transformed” is change on an ecological/systemic scale. That means nothing left out. Nothing left out means this is going to hurt. A big part of the trouble is that transformation can’t mix old and new — get far enough into the process and the old is out for good. That’s in the Bible, too:
“No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”
There were a couple popular books about new wine and new wineskins making the rounds in my early Christian years. (The Taste of New Wine and Wineskins.) They were the kind of influential books you could use at ecological change retreats – lots of earnest conversations and strategizing ways to make the new wine flow, like getting people into home Bible study and prayer groups, plus lots of great sermon moments about how very Gospely everything was going to be.
Our understanding of the concept was silly shallow. Every now and then somebody would find out about St. John of the Cross and his “dark night of the soul,” and quote it in a sermon. Nobody actually read what the 16th Century mystic wrote — the poetic phrase stood on its own: transformation could be a major downer — not something you preach about on Tithing Pledge Sunday. If it got mentioned at all, “dark night” transformation got a makeover into something like a bad case of the flu you could get over.
The real thing?
Not so much.
I once thought it would be cool to be one of those self-help speaker, writer, consultant dudes. I got as far as writing some blog posts and making a few trips to do workshops. I got great reviews – earnest, beautiful “you changed my life” reviews. But then I started to worry that I was actually ruining people’s lives, which is pretty much what had happened to mine when I decided it was time to believe my way into my dreams – just like you’re supposed to. So I started telling audiences that they would suffer if they tried to make big changes. I warned them not to use the material because I knew it would work, and when it did they would regret it. Every would changed, and they’d have to deal with it and it would be no fun. I think people thought I was doing some kind of reverse psychology number on them. When it was clear they weren’t believing me, I quit doing the workshops. It was unethical to give people a great retreat experience and send them home knowing they would get clobbered and give up.
Who would submit themselves to the kind of transformation that would turn a commando Christian (me) into an atheist?
In a word, nobody. Not even me.
But then I did.
I’m not bragging. You can’t brag about an accident.
We all know we don’t change unless and until we have to. Which means the usual transformation catalyst is…
We’ve all seen the major stressors lists. Mine were career, money, health. For starters – when trauma gets rolling, it likes company.
Trauma brings grief. Grief rewires our brains – it puts the stress response (flight or fight) in charge, furloughs the part that makes us feel like at least we’re in control. Memory and strong emotions hog the stage, decision-making and planning move out, fear about how we’re going to live without what’s been lost goes on permanent reruns we can’t shut off. We get disoriented, lose track of time and place. We go wandering, literally and figuratively. Our whacked out symptoms take up residence. We enter what science and environment writer April Reese calls The Fog of Grief.
“I was a churning maelstrom of emotions: sadness, confusion, anger, disbelief, fear, regret, guilt. At times in those first hours, days and weeks after his death, it was hard to breathe. I couldn’t concentrate. I forgot things. Fatigue was a constant, no matter how much I slept. I came to understand what Joan Didion meant in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), a chronicle of her grief over the loss of her husband, when she wrote: ‘I realised for the time being I could not trust myself to present a coherent face to the world.’
“This fog of grief, it turns out, is as common as grief itself. When the neurologist Lisa Shulman lost her husband to cancer nine years ago, ‘there was some serious sadness, but that wasn’t the main problem,’ she recalls. ‘It was the disorientation. I felt like I was waking up in a completely alien world. Because the whole infrastructure of my daily life was fundamentally gone.’
“She found herself becoming lost in time, ending up in familiar places without knowing how she got there, she recalls. ‘It’s not simply a matter of discomfort or anxiety. It’s frightening,’ she says. ‘Because you feel like, as Didion said long ago, you feel like you’re going crazy.’
“Grief has such a powerful effect on us, I learned, that it rewires the brain: the limbic system, a primal part of the brain controlling emotions and behaviours that ensure our survival, takes centre stage, while the prefrontal cortex – the centre of reasoning and decision-making – retreats to the wings.
“‘From an evolutionary standpoint, we are strongly hardwired to respond to something that is a threat,’ Shulman says. ‘We oftentimes don’t think of a loss of a loved one as a threat in that way, but, from the perspective of the brain, that’s the way it is literally perceived.’
“That perception of threat means that our survival response – ‘fight or flight’ – kicks in, and stress hormones flood the body. The work of the psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor at the University of Arizona and others has found heightened levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the bereaved.
“While the cortisol is flowing fast, the brain remakes itself – at least temporarily – to help us endure the trauma of grief. In the weeks after a loss, the brain, like a stern nurse imposing temporary bed rest for itself, suppresses the control centres of higher functions, such as decision-making and planning. At the same time, Shulman says, areas involved in emotion and memory work overtime, gatekeeping which emotions and memories get through. Brain scans of the bereaved show that grief activates parts of the limbic system – sometimes referred to as the ‘emotional brain’. Among the limbic regions impacted are the amygdala, which governs the intensity of emotions and threat perception; the cingulate cortex, involved in the interplay between emotions and memory; and the thalamus, a sort of relay station that conveys sensory signals to the cerebral cortex, the brain’s information-processing centre.
“So my inability to form coherent sentences or remember what I opened the refrigerator to get is nothing to be worried about, Skritskaya assures me; my brain has simply powered down my thinking to enable me to tolerate the loss. The tradeoff is fuzzy cognition – what I’ve come to describe to friends as ‘grief brain’.
“‘Grief takes up a lot of bandwidth in the brain,’ Shulman writes in her book. ‘Odd behaviour and incoherence are expected consequences of the brain’s protective responses following emotional trauma.’”
Trauma and grief stay until the dark night is over. Ecological change catalysts like religious retreats and self-help seminars have the same effect — they suspend our status quo ties to “normal,” heighten emotions, promote reality-bending experiences, warp our risk tolerance, enhance receptivity to new versions of reality. But then the weekend is over and we go back home, where the symptoms quickly fade. We resent it, but it’s better than the alternative, which is trauma and grief staying with it until the job is done.
Trauma and grief is a potent cocktail of transformation. Drink it, and there’s going to be trouble. You’re going to suffer.
You might even lose your faith.