Don’t Pile On More Than You Can Bear in Tackling Trauma 

Don’t Pile On More Than You Can Bear in Tackling Trauma  April 26, 2021

“Peach Bowl fumble aftermath,” Johntrainor/Original uploader was Daniel Case at en.wikipedia; Creative Commons

In American football, a “pile on” can refer to players from both teams jumping on top of one another and forming a mound while wrestling and clawing to gain control of a loose ball. Woe to the person on the bottom of the pile! I endured and helped to instigate my fair share of pile on contests during my football playing days a long time ago. It can be suffocating and back breaking. Sometimes all one comes away with is muddy grass in the facemask and bruises to boot. As hard as a pile on can be on one’s body in football, it does not compare with the emotionally backbreaking pile on experiences one can endure when experiencing trauma.

My American Italian pastoral counselor Tom Schiave, otherwise affectionally known as “The Godfather,” always cautions me not to “pile on” too many things in the effort to gain control of this or that loose ball in life. After all, I have this amazing ‘ability,’ or rather problem, to see everything that might even remotely occur, to agonize over less than ideal circumstances, and judge that everything that I have to deal with or shouldn’t even remotely deal with is relevant to the matter at hand, equally important, and has to be addressed right away! Perhaps you can relate? Given all the uncertainties and ambiguities of life for my family and me presently concerning my son Christopher’s traumatic brain injury and comatose state, it is all too easy for me to engage in pile on activities every day of the week. There are way too many “loose footballs.” It’s hard to imagine, even harder to articulate.

If I’m not careful, I can easily put way too much on my plate and endure way too many back-breaking bodies of various kinds on my shoulders in the effort to gain control of life’s circumstances. Sometimes I just have to let things go that bother me, including those things beyond my control, as well as place some things on hold to tackle another day. There are three items I wish to highlight at this juncture that I must account for when discerning how to approach and endure traumatic situations. I need to ask and answer three questions:

First, is the situation that is bothering me and preoccupying my attention directly related to what I need to address in a given traumatic situation? If not, let it go. It’s irrelevant to what I need to do on the playing field of life when dealing with traumatic events. For example, jeering or booing fans in the stands can be a real distraction. I have to block the noise out rather than jump into the stands and engage in a pile on there when the football is out on the field and in play.

Second, is the situation that is bothering me and preoccupying my attention in a traumatic ordeal the result of some lofty ideal that, while wonderful, cannot materialize in the present situation? If so, don’t hesitate to act and choose the best option available when immediate action is required rather than wait for an ideal option that may never materialize. It’s not good to be idealistic if it keeps one from taking action to resolve issues and allow the mounting pressures to keep piling on. For example, it’s like a player who could pitch or pass the ball to a teammate before the other team’s players swarm around them in the effort to knock the ball loose and pile on rather than keep it in hopes of a far better though highly doubtful option to materialize. Quick release decision-making is key. Guard against immobility. Over-analysis leads to paralysis.

Third, is the situation that is bothering me and preoccupying my attention beyond my immediate or long-term control? Is it simply a “what-if? While all things are possible with God, they are not all possible for me to resolve. Nor are all things that are possible always going to materialize. The “what-ifs” of life can really pile on and weigh me down. I need to address the matters that I can help to resolve rather than fixate on things I cannot fix. I can’t leave the sideline to jump on a loose ball if there are already eleven players on the field. Nor can I instigate a pile on if the ball has not yet been snapped or a play has been ruled dead. Some things are simply beyond my control and others are in the realm of possibilities, not near certainties. Focus on the possible, not the impossible or hypothetical.

Pastor Tom likes movies—a lot. So, he doesn’t just do impersonations of Marlon Brando in The Godfather. Sometimes he quotes to me Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” character in Magnum Force (1973): “A man’s got to know his limitations.” That’s a helpful quote. I need to know my limitations rather than think I can bear all the world’s problems. I can barely handle my own problems, especially when I get distracted and focus instead on the irrelevant, the idealistic, and the impossible as well as hypothetical rather than what I need to control and can actually change.

I know public theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr never watched Magnum Force, as he died two years before its release. But who knows? Maybe Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry had Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer” in mind when he spoke about needing to know one’s limitations. All I know is that I need to recount this prayer during my emotional pile on moments. Here it is:

God, grant me the Serenity
To accept the things I cannot change…
Courage to change the things I can,
And Wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.
Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it.
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His will.
That I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with Him forever in the next.

“Amen” is right. I don’t need to pile on additional requests to this prayer. It says quite a bit already. I simply need to live out God’s answer and provision of serenity. By taking the world and my less than ideal situation “as it is” rather than “as I would have it,” “to accept the things I cannot change”—and should not even bother trying to change—but rather “courage to change the things I can,” that is wisdom, that is the path to peace. I trust that God will make all things right in God’s good time as I surrender to the divine will. So, I try to account for the things that must be addressed now within my sphere of responsibility, ability, and authority in the face of trauma. At the same time, I pile all my cares on Jesus, knowing that I can cast all my anxiety on him because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).

About Paul Louis Metzger
Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology & Culture, Multnomah University & Seminary; Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins; and Author and Editor of numerous works, including Setting the Spiritual Clock: Sacred Time Breaking Through the Secular Eclipse as well as Cultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology for Culture. You can read more about the author here.
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