Tag Archives: attachment

Triggered in church: On the road to secure attachment

Aching loneliness, feeling detached, a broken sense of belonging or being able to connect — all these feelings are flourishing in the church right now. The Times is talking about it and so are we. The experience is not new or foreign to any of us. But we need to be reminded. We can forget that we all have a sense of aloneness we don’t like; it’s not just them and it’s not just me.

Let’s be careful

Image result for baby inside the adult
“love” by Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Milov , at Burning Man 2015

We should be careful with each other!

Maybe you should stop what you are thinking most of the time and picture an adorable baby in front of you instead of a threatening or threatened loved one.  Stuff is happening inside!

Maybe you should let the first thing someone says go right by — that thing that hurt you or disturbed you. Let it go by and let the person have another chance.  They might not be clear on why they say what they say: why make it worse by holding them to their first try?

Under it all they might feel detached and trying not to feel that, or they want to be attached and they are really trying to feel that. We are complex. And the church is an ideal, God-given setting to sort things out. But quite often it is the place where things get messed up. [Bonnie Poon Zahl on Christians and attachment theory].

Things can get hurtful

Image result for gossip chain rockwell

This is hypothetical, but it will probably sound familiar. Let’s say you are a worship leader and you overhear someone telling one of your friends that she feels you have an annoying singing voice. You feel so hurt you go find your husband and make him take you home immediately. You feel so defensive you tell your husband the whole story and that you want to quit singing. You start listing why the person who talked about you is terrible, even worse than you.

When your husband tries to talk you out of it, you are furious that he is not on your side. He tries to get the other person, who he knows, off the hook. That makes you feel like he is leaving you alone in your distress. You even say, “Just like my father never took my side and then he deserted me.” You refuse to talk about it anymore and just look mad and sulk the rest of the day.

The next day you go and talk to your women’s group about it. They are upset and they tell you to call the pastor. So far you have not talked to the person you overheard or your friend to whom they were talking. But at least fifteen people are having your attachment issues. Their own loneliness, detachment, broken senses of belonging and connection are triggered. Vicariously, they are all mad at your father for abandoning you. You can’t stand to feel that aloneness from way back, so you pile the feeling on everyone else and blame them, from your father to the person who talked about you.  Now your listeners are invited to do the same.

Some dangerous-feeling relationships are also places to heal

A woman recently told me about feeling things like this in church and asked me why she went to meetings! Who knows what could happen? It has been hard for her and she expects people to keep hurting her!  She always sits in the back, when she goes to the meeting, so she can slip out easily, without risking the connection she wants for fear of the hurt she dreads.

I felt for her. Her past is full of the worst kind of hurts. So I suggested her strategy might be OK for the time being, as God eased her way into love. The church is great for easing into love, if we let people move into it at their own pace, and help them keep moving. I also suggested that, in the long run, God is going to keep after us until we are securely attached to Love, until our security breeds security and alleviates conflict rather than creating or perpetuating it.

Someone you know, or maybe you, are emotionally unable to tolerate being part of the church where their attachment issues were triggered and repair was not made. I know you can’t just “let the feelings go by.” But whatever it was that triggered your exit might not be as bad as you think it is. After all, the woman who who was hurt in my example had not even talked to the woman who hurt her or the friend who was listening to the criticism she overheard. God is with you if you want to try to get back into the community and do the repair work that not only wins a friend back, but provides an opportunity for your wounds to be healed. God touches our aloneness and is present in it to sustain and even help us be born again.

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My boat is so small — looking to be antifragile

JFK's plaque inspires the antifragile
JFK’s plaque

The spiritual and philosophical seas are stormy. Will our small, fragile ship get broken apart in the waves? JFK kept a plaque on his desk in the Oval Office that read “Oh God thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”  This Old Breton prayer was given to new submarine captains by Admiral Rickover who gave the plaque to the President. JFK used it in his remarks at the dedication of the East Coast Memorial to the Missing at Sea, a few months before his death in 1963. I don’t have an oval office, but I also think the powers seem rather large this week and my boat is so small.

Stormy philosophical seas

President Obama gives a nice eulogy at the memorial at Mother Immanuel (and sings) but doesn’t mention the Lord of the departed. A Methodist pastor sets himself on fire for inclusion. The Dominican Republic disenfranchises Haitians. In Obergefell v. Hodges the Supreme Court redefines marriage for the law — the majority and dissenters sound miles apart. Stormy seas.

I don’t usually read Supreme Court arguments but the recent one about marriage is pretty interesting. We had our own dialogue last year and came up with a good conclusion that put together what the court split apart. A couple of quotes point out how stormy our political seas really are: The majority says that “new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution [of marriage]. Changed understandings of marriage are characteristic of a Nation where new dimensions of freedom become apparent to new generations.” This may seem obvious to us who do not trust the government to deal in truth, but it is a rather breathtaking assertion. The dissenters reply, “The majority’s decision is an act of will, not legal judgment. The right it announces has no basis in the Constitution or this Court’s precedent. The majority expressly disclaims judicial ‘caution’ and omits even a pretense of humility, openly relying on its desire to remake society according to its own ‘new insight’ into the ‘nature of injustice.’”

Fragile psychological ships spring leaks in such seas

What would you say is the opposite of “fragile”?

If you immediately thought: “solid,” “robust,” or even “unbreakable” that seems about right.

But economist, philosopher and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a different response.  He says that which is “fragile” is “damaged by stress.” If you have an anxious attachment, for example, you might be more likely to spring a psychological leak under the pressure of criticism.  But if you navigate through stress with some confidence rather than being sunk by it, you can succeed in gaining an earned secure attachment. The opposite of fragile is not something that is invulnerable to stress but something that grows stronger under it or finds new ways through it.  Maybe the person who can grow under criticism becomes “antifragile.”

attachment antifragile

The church is remarkably antifragile

The first church, as we can see in Acts, was amazingly antifragile. Consider the stress it endured.  First, Jesus is betrayed by Judas and abandoned by his disciples.  He dies the ignominious death of a common criminal and is buried in a borrowed tomb.  At that point, the disciples and budding Church appear ready to collapse.  But the resurrection turns them around and at Pentecost the Spirit empowers them. However, it isn’t long before the Church once again appears fragile.  Peter and John, the church’s leaders, are arrested. Dishonesty breaks the communal sharing that had emerged. More arrests and threats happen. The Greek-speaking converts complain that they are being slighted by the Hebrew-speaking leaders. One of the first deacons, Stephen, is martyred. A Jewish leader name Saul breathes “threats and murder against them.” And that is only about a third of the way through the book!

Despite all that stress the church didn’t just endure; it prospered.  That’s because it was, as Taleb would say, “antifragile.” The pressure on it served as a catalyst for spiritual and numerical growth.  That doesn’t mean that every follower of Christ or every congregation grew stronger because of the stress, but, somehow, the Church as a whole did.

animal antifragileEven though I know Acts rather well and know Circle of Hope very well, I often wake up and pray the Breton prayer. We feel fragile. Even though we have met our extravagant goals for nineteen years and are meeting  this year’s even-more-extravagant goals, I am still amazed that the waves of the huge forces stirring up the waters of the world don’t sink us. Right when I think we are going to break up, something amazing often happens to calm my fears. Last week it was Adam getting pulled from the river and many of us pulled into prayer and wonder as a result. Someone discovered the last vestiges of their Buddhism. A surprisingly positive response came from someone at the About Circle of Hope dinner. Jerome told his wild story about being led by God.

At the same time, it is also true that a person sent some hate mail (not kidding, it happens). And, of course, the culture in general is not too fond of the church in general these days. In reaction to constant boat-shaking and the challenges of sailing, some people have tried to make being a Christian more acceptable by embracing the latest standards and “insights” of the latest laws. This avoids stress by being little different than an attractive new pub — but a pub, however communal-like, is not the church. Others have taken another tack.  They withdraw (at least figuratively) into a “spiritual” enclave, avoiding stress by avoiding interaction that might create it.  While the first reaction might, for a while, appeal and the second, for a while, appear strong, they are ultimately fragile, susceptible to the whims of the culture in the first case and to any event or idea that might disrupt their unity in the second.

An antifragile church (and person), on the other hand, understands that pressures are necessary for growth.  Rather than hide from them, the antifragile church embraces them and, by God’s grace, becomes stronger in the process. We’ve done this and say we intend to do it, but how are you doing today? How are we doing? Do you have any examples of what makes us so antifragile? Or maybe you think I am being too optimistic about our ability to ride that next wave on the horizon.

Attachment issues in the church: People move away sometimes.

People do this. They ask: Why did you move out of town? my neighborhood? our shared apartment with five people in two bedrooms? They get a look on their face and a tone in the voice that implies — shouldn’t you be apologizing?

When I went back to Riverside, CA, this past summer, which I left in 1991, people were still talking about me leaving. When my friend from Riverside came our way to visit this summer, she took me aside and asked, “Why did you leave?” Paul had a similar experience when he left Ephesus, I think. People were crying on the beach (Acts 20). Even if you leave town because you are a Christian, because you think God wants you to do it, people cry and wonder if you should do it. We are important.

But for some people it is, “For crying out loud! You’re leaving?!” Some might even get huffy or pouty if someone seems to be leaving for less than holy reasons. “You don’t love South Philly? You don’t love me? What about what we were together? What about what we were doing together? The community garden! Brunch at Sabrina’s!” We are a community in mission and each player makes a difference.

The Bible talks about moving

This seems like kind of a “light” question for the Bible to talk about it so much. But it does.

  • Paul says: I am with you even when absent: “For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit” (1 Cor 5: 4, see Colossians 2:5, too).
  • Paul also says — I long to be with you to share my life.  I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong. (Romans 1:11-13, see also 2 Cor. 10:10-11).

Present is better than absent. We are not pictures on Facebook, we are people. It does matter when we are physically together. We gain strength and comfort from the presence of others. Paul knows he can’t be who he is or give what he has unless he shows up. What we build together and give to each other really is irreplaceable.

We always have to talk about how spirit and body go together. We are both. We are spirit. We are spiritual beings longing to connect in love. We are also body. We are physical beings who cannot be every place at all times and need to be present to fully connect.

Be careful about how people attach. It’s complex.

I think some people might rely more on being physically present to connect. They need the physical. If you leave town, or maybe even the room, they might get anxious. I study attachment theory quite a bit these days. These kind of people might be like one type of baby Mary Ainsworth identified when she was testing to see what would happen if a baby’s mother left her one-year-old in a “strange situation.” A majority of children she studied had some concern about being left by their mothers, but they were secure, they explored, they were basically happy because they trusted that mom would come back and needs would be met.  About a fifth of the babies were anxious. Apparently, they experienced their mother as sometimes sensitive and sometimes neglectful. They were upset until she got back because they weren’t sure she was coming back! It might be the same if you up and leave town, a good number of people will be upset. You are just one more unreliable person! Some people might be really hanging on to your presence and getting some needs met. It is a loss for them.

One the other hand, I think some people might rely on spirit, maybe too much. They are kind of out there floating and are not attached securely. For about 20% of the Ainsworth’s crawlers, when mom left they were distant and disengaged. They just sat there and didn’t explore and would not connect emotionally. They had a subconscious idea that their needs would not be met. It made them avoid attachment altogether! It might be the same when you leave town. Some people might not say anything because they can’t really bear to feel more needs not being met. Maybe they never got close to you in the first place because they didn’t want to be left alone.

The marriage covenant causes similar issues to surface. Some marriages have a lot of problems from the very beginning because as soon as the intimacy begins, the attachment issues become evident. A person who has always trusted that his needs would be met, might be very insensitive to a person who never could trust her needs to be met. If you have a person who is avoidant and doesn’t instinctively attach connected to a person who is anxious, and so always wants to get closer and get reassured, that can take a long time to figure out.

In the church our covenant often works out in just the same way. That is why many people would not want to make one. They don’t expect it to be anything but trouble and disappointment. We get people connected in our cells and for some people that is a real stretch because they are allowing themselves to trust and to work on loving people, which includes becoming attached in a family-like way. Secure people are fine for the most part — it doesn’t take too much to convince them that there is enough love to go around. But for about half the population, it can be very trying to multiply and experience people separating into another cell. Then the whole congregation multiplies! And then you move away! Maybe they can’t really complain about God and the church but they can complain about you leaving town.

It is OK to have a problem with how love feels. Community doesn’t always feel good, but if we have any life in the Spirit at all, we will be patient with one another as we figure these things out. And even if we don’t seem to be figuring them out too well, we will still be patient.

Get securely attached to God and other things sort out

In soul-health terms, the goal is to be your true self. On the one hand that means being able to say, “I am who I am,” and feel like you are OK with that. You are free. You are yourself in Christ. At the same time it means you can be intimate. You are part of a “we” and able to say, “We are who we are.” You can choose to connect and choose to leave.

I think it is good for lovers of people to understand the processes by which we connect, or don’t. If someone is upset because you are leaving they may have several reasons that seem good to them, and they may have reasons that seem good to God. It makes sense to deal with them all and not just cut them off and move on with your life. They may be clingy because they are insecure. If you need to go, go. But they may object to being devalued because you did not connect. You may not be able to retrofit the relationship, but you might want to note the reality. You think you didn’t make a difference, and you did.

I hope their biggest reason for feeling loss when you leave is not just a personal feeling or a revisiting of an old grief, like the time their mom left them with Mary Ainsworth and they were an experiment! I hope they just longed to be knit together in love.

One last thought from Paul that shows his conviction that being one in Christ is central to be ing one’s true self:

“My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united (knit together) in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ,  in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2-3).

When a part of the body it lost, it is a loss. Because when we are knit together, eternity is opened up in significant ways.

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