Connection and Vulnerability

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“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Matthew 6:24 NASB

Devoted – Jesus spoke more about the practical realities of living than anything else. We try to turn his words into theological fodder because it is so much easier to intellectualize the thoughts than it is to let them penetrate our choices for living. As Abraham Heschel remarked, “It is easier to study than to pray.” But the words resist this attempt to marginalize them. They push us toward uncomfortable confrontation. And none are more confrontational than these words from Matthew. We can’t serve two masters. We can’t be devoted to two opposing relationships and responsibilities. If we are going to be fully human, we must be integrated, singular in purpose and pursuit, able to commit to one way and not another.

This sounds so good. Of course we want to be dedicated, true-hearted and resolute. But we often find that our lives are a mix of conflicting forces. The false self masterfully redirects even our most devoted efforts, causing us to waver in our allegiance. Then the false self reminds us of our vacillation, shaming us for our lack of fidelity. We might repent, but our failure is now part of personal history. It doesn’t go away. And that fact allows the false self to manufacture the feeling that if other people knew of our moral and spiritual failures, they would despise our hypocrisy. They wouldn’t love us with our failures. They will love us only if we are perfect (or close to it), just like we want to be perfect. Or so we think. This idea seeds the soil of life with addiction.

Addiction is the substitute for acceptance. Within the addictive cycle, I am not rejected. The fantasy world does not judge me as inadequate, unworthy or defective. I can be what I want to be, what I long to be—acknowledged as whole exactly as I am. I don’t have to live up to someone else’s expectations in order to be loved. In my addictive reality, life accepts me. But, of course, it is a fantasy. The more I struggle in a real world where my basic existence is threatened by rejection, the more I will seek addictive behavior to reduce that pain and keep the threat at bay.

Addictions are long term affairs. It takes time to discover a place of pretended acceptance. It takes effort to cultivate this secret garden. And I have to return to it often enough that it becomes an automatic escape. The old heart has to have been pumping those desires into my bloodstream for a while.

Paul notes the long term threat of addictive behavior when he exhorts us to change our thinking processes. “…and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” is not an overnight solution. Taking every thought captive is a siege on escape routes. Self-help regimens, external restraints, venue changes and protective mantras are ineffective if they don’t arise from a positive alternative to rejection.

It seems that the biblical approach is actions before thoughts. I don’t control my mind by thinking about it. I am exhorted and expected to do something first rather than try to alter my thinking first and then try to do something. The “fight-fire-with-fire” mentality only burns everyone. In other words, I act against my own grain, serving my neighbor in proportion to my desire to protect myself with escape addictions. And God does the surgery on my thought world.

The tenth commandment is not an exercise in mental gymnastic control. It is a call to action. Try it. You might be surprised.

Brené Brown offers great insight into connection. Her TED talk is significant. It must be heard (Brene Brown on Vulnerability).  Her research provides the evidence that human beings are “hard-wired for connection,” and it is this single factor that is most influential in our quest for wholeness. Of course, the Bible speaks about this same inescapable need but in spiritual terms, not psychology. God designed us for connection. “It is not good for man to be alone,” is the primal cry for connection. And, as Brene Brown discovered, it is also the call to vulnerability. Adam needs Eve not for companionship but for voluntary vulnerability. Without this there is no connection. There is only parallel isolation.

Next came Johaan Hari’s talk about addiction (Everything We Think About Addiction is Wrong). It shouldn’t be a surprise that connection is also intimately tied to addiction. Hari discovered that where there is real connection between people, addiction does not flourish. Conversely, the more disconnected people are, the more addictive behaviors become apparent. He specifically notes that cyber-connection is not real connection. What matters is “in your face, flesh and blood” real person-to-person presence. When we don’t have this, we find other ways to fill this essential need. Hari ends with this: “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is connection.” Powerful stuff, indeed.

What this suggests is that the current social media world actually pushes us toward addiction. It is not real connection. It is the copy of true presence. It looks like connection because we are “sharing” with someone else, but the cyber fiber means that we aren’t really in the presence of the other person. We are sharing avatars, unreal personal constructions of ourselves without emotional interplay and interdependence. Michael Moen already noted the effect this is having on the Gen-X population. In private correspondence, he expressed concern that this generation does not know how to deal with real personal confrontation. Simply “unfriending” means there is no need to come to terms with the real emotions of real people. No one in the social media world is likely to show up at the door when you are in serious crisis. Furthermore, Michael observed that this aversion to rejection is creating a world where people want jobs that do not interact with other people. Sitting in front of a computer is much easier. Dating someone who has already been “qualified” in terms of involvement and expectations as a result of social media is not really personal interdependence either. It is mutually agreed upon parallel isolation. People who condition themselves for this kind of controlled involvement are vulnerable to addiction. Why? Because in the absence of real connection the excruciating loneliness of human existence is nearly intolerable, and human beings will choose whatever is necessary to numb that loneliness.

By the way, the “God-shaped vacuum” approach of religion is no solution. While it may be true that human beings are designed in such a way that they must have some kind of spiritual as well as communal connection, filling the hole with God alone doesn’t seem to produce healthy well-being. Christian mystics, hermits and prophets live very difficult lives, usually misunderstood and removed from any form of vibrant community. Something is still missing in the lives of those who claim God is all that is needed. In fact, the biblical text of Genesis 2 clearly implies that God alone is not enough. Adam still needed his ‘ezer kenegdo. And she needed a man to bless. Becoming one is a process of mutual vulnerability. Let me say that again. Becoming one – that doesn’t mean simply joining forces with another person. It means becoming one with myself as well. I cannot become me alone. That’s the real impact of the verse, “It is not good for man to be alone.” You and I need connection – desperately. And when we don’t find it, we will either die or die trying.
Adapted from Skip Moen – A Divided Life

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