Life Support: Controlling Responses to Uncontrollable Situations

Life Support: Controlling Responses to Uncontrollable Situations June 6, 2021

Bonaventura Peeters the Elder, “Sea storm with sailing ships,” circa 1640; Wikimedia {{US-PD-expired}}

Have you ever experienced and endured an uncontrollable situation, like a great storm in life? It can be overwhelming. Well, that’s how I often feel in dealing with my son’s traumatic brain injury and its aftermath. Of course, as I have noted in some of my posts, we experience encouraging days where Christopher is responding in positive ways. He may respond to a prompt. He may smile. He may say a word. My soul soars in those moments in uncontrollable happiness and joy. However, there are many other days when there is no response and no such happiness. I cannot control how my son’s body responds or reacts. Certainly, I can advocate for him in the hopes of working with various care givers to provide him with the best possible opportunities to recover. In addition to Christopher’s medical situation, there are other situations beyond my control. Sometimes the weight and the pressure is enough to require the emotional and spiritual equivalent of a ventilator for my own life support.

Just this weekend, I reflected back on Viktor Frankl’s assessment of uncontrollable situations. Frankl was a noted Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, who was also a Holocaust survivor. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl reflects upon the need to remain active, not passive, to be proactive, not reactive in dealing with uncontrollable situations. One of the reasons Frankl’s perspective is so important is because persecution and torture often fragment and destroy people’s personalities. In my estimation, something similar occurs in the case of traumatic ordeals bound up with health crises and surrounding circumstances, as in the case of TBI. While my family and I are not enduring persecution and torture, I resonate with the following statement, which touches on our own experience to one degree or another:

The pathogenic effects of suffering extreme stress have been well documented (although whether a specific psychiatric syndrome exists is still debated) and the evidence suggests that the cognitive processes most vulnerable to psychological assault, especially when combined with the self-inflicted pain from stress positions, is executive function. This results in intellectual deterioration, difficulty in focusing, sustaining attention and psychological balance; in severe cases tortuous techniques can compromise the integrity of the mind–body system causing disintegration of a person’s identity and personality which may lead to regression or psychiatric disorder John Leach, “Psychological Factors in Exceptional, Extreme and Torturous Environments,” in Extreme Physiology & Medicine).

Frankl underwent such stress bound up with persecution and torture in the Holocaust. He came to the realization that it is important to remain in control of one’s inner person and attitude on life. Frankl writes:

When we are no longer able to change a situation…we are challenged to change ourselves (Frankl, 112).

…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way (Frankl, 66).

I cannot control many of the unfathomable circumstances my family and I are facing. While we are hardly living in a concentration camp, we are living in the cramped quarters of not having much room for error in addressing ever-evolving, major life decisions of various kinds. So, I am slowly learning that I need to create more space between what I encounter or endure and my responses so I don’t react and fly off the handle. I need to slow down in order to speed up in dealing well with these various major life decisions. How about you?

As noted in a prior post on this subject, Daniel Goleman, author of the best-selling volume Emotional Intelligence, speaks of how forming a gap in our response mechanism to external stimuli gives us time to process so that we do not fly off the handle. It helps us become more response-able. According to Goleman, “Maturity is the ability to increase the gap between impulse and action.” It is important to increase the gap in our responses so that we become more response-able in engaging others.

Just think if all of us put Goleman’s counsel into practice in our relationships and encounters with various people. Just think what his counsel would do for us if we applied it to driving down the road of life. I cannot control if someone flies up behind me and rides my bumper as I am driving. It wouldn’t be wise to slam on the brakes or to flip off the person. It will only lead to more dangerous road conditions. What would be wise is to make sure there is plenty of room between the vehicle in front of me and my own car so I don’t have to slam on the brakes in case they slow down suddenly (we should ensure such a gap in any event, but even more so when someone’s riding our tail). If I can change lanes to let the driver riding my bumper pass, that would be good, too. In any situation, it is vital to create space in order to operate by way of premeditation rather than impulse. Road rage is all about operating by impulse, not pro-action. How we drive down the road and on the road of life parallel one another. How are we doing in both domains?

Yesterday, as I was driving down the highway, I was feeling the extreme stress of everything going on surrounding my son’s situation. I started reflecting on Psalm 46:10-11 and the classic hymn “It Is Well With My Soul.” Sometimes I turn to these two anchors for my soul, when I feel tossed about by uncontrollable life circumstances. I quoted the biblical verses, prayed over them, and sang the hymn, as I drove. Don’t worry. I didn’t close my eyes.

Psalm 46:10-11 reads, “‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’ The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (NIV). That passage of Scripture and the hymn quieted my soul and helped me create more emotional space in the moment. No doubt, the scripture and hymn also helped me create even more space between other drivers and myself on the highway. As conveyed in the psalm and Hebrew Scriptures as a whole, Israel faced all kinds of difficulties, endured all sorts of conflicts and onslaughts. The author of Psalm 46 exhorts the people to realize that their God will be exalted among the nations and will be their fortress in the face of ever-present dangers.

The author of the hymn, Horatio Gates Stafford, who was a Christian leader and esteemed lawyer, wrote the song in response to receiving the earth-shattering news that his four daughters had drowned at sea on a transatlantic journey. Here’s the first verse:

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
“It is well, it is well with my soul.”

Stafford’s hymn has encouraged countless believers since he wrote it in 1873. How could someone who lost so much find so much solace in God? While on spiritual and emotional life support, Stafford created space between impulse and action in the face of uncontrollable circumstances. You and I can do the same.

Next time you feel like you are losing control and removing the gap between impulse and action and allowing others and life circumstances to get the upper hand and master your responses, meditate on Psalm 46:10-11 and sing Stafford’s hymn. It may save you from a few more accidents in life. God bless you and grant you peace.

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 of numerous works, including Evangelical Zen: A Christian's Spiritual Journey with a Buddhist Friend and Setting the Spiritual Clock: Sacred Time Breaking Through the Secular Eclipse. You can read more about the author here.

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