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Calming the Troubled Heart

We humans are destined to live in troubled times. As novelist and screenwriter William Goldman so eloquently puts it in The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Goldman echoes the words of Jesus, who made this clear to His followers, “In this world, you will have tribulation.” Anyone who is paying attention knows this to be true. Trouble, sometimes more, sometimes less, is the norm, not the exception. The sooner one comes to accept this, the happier he or she will be. 


The church has always taught, and I have come to see it as true, that in troubled times, the primary problems are inevitably troubled, disordered hearts. In no way do I deny that troubles are real (they are), that they are often quite serious (they are), and that they need to be addressed (they often but not always do). Indeed, every man, every woman is called to do what he or she can to alleviate the groanings of the world. I only suggest that when our heart is troubled, we are not very good at making things better, be it at home, at school, or in the public arena. Troubled hearts always tend toward paralysis and polarization. There are neurological reasons for this: 


  • First, a brain that is negative, neutral or stressed is about thirty percent less efficient than a joyful or peaceful brain. In other words, troubled brains are primed to make bad decisions. 
  • Second, when troubled and unsure how to get out of the trouble, the brain’s relational circuits begin to shut down. These networks of neurons are the brain structures that allow us to accurately read the minds of others and empathize. When they shut down, we are flying blind, unbeknownst to ourselves. 
  • Third, when our relational circuits start shutting down, as things get more distressing and we feel more alone, we start to lose the executive function of our frontal lobes. When this happens, the so-called reptilian brain starts to call the shots, and we are left with the options of fight, flight or freeze.
  • Fourth, for humans, confirmation bias, the tendency to believe anything that supports what we already believe and disbelieve anything to the contrary, becomes a vicious cycle. Our brains would rather not have their existing neural networks challenged. In a troubled brain state, this bias increases. The more troubled the brain, the greater the cognitive rigidity and the confirmation bias.
  • Finally, as a protective measure, when relational circuits are down, we tend to imagine the worst outcomes and cannot be persuaded otherwise, leading us down an aimless path, which supports and increases our distress. 

To some degree, we have all experienced such troubled hearts. They are bleak at the least, and at their worst, overwhelm us with a pervasive hopelessness, despair and loneliness. At the moment, it all seems so undeniably real. Such times are not good for making decisions. Yet, in troubled states, one wants desperately either to despair and quit, or to do something. But what? 


In the simplest troubles – for example, if one’s heart is troubled by a leaky faucet – the trouble may be resolved by fixing the faucet. But, if one’s heart is troubled by some peccadillo of a spouse, it is extremely unlikely the trouble will be resolved by fixing the spouse. Seeking to cure a troubled heart by managing and controlling others or circumstances is an illusion, an alluring fantasy doomed to fail. Equally vain is the attempt to cure a troubled heart by obsessively ruminating over all that is wrong with persons and circumstances, even to the point of extending the complaint globally to the world at large! 


What, then, is to be done?  If we are to address the troubles in our homes, in our schools, in our businesses, in our cities and in our country, we must first address our own troubled hearts. But how? In what follows, I do not mean to suggest an easy, quick fix, only to propose a few important principles. Deep wounds can take a long time to heal. Relatively minor wounds can fester and become infected, particularly if they mirror earlier wounds. While change can come quickly, in my experience it usually takes time, often a great deal of time, which seems a real downer. To some measure, it is for all of us a long pursuit. But what is the alternative? We move forward, or we regress back. Given that we never fully comprehend the depth of someone’s journey, even our own, we never condemn a person for their place on the road. If we do, we become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. 


When one’s heart becomes troubled, stays troubled, and is unable to get untroubled, the brain has encountered a trouble bigger than it knows how to process. As a general rule, what troubles us today troubled us yesterday and has the potential to trouble us tomorrow. Growth is a process of perseverance over time. Again, I do not mean to suggest an easy, quick fix. Recovering from a troubled heart is often a long and difficult journey. What I do want to suggest is that we are not designed to make that journey alone. There is nothing more painful than being alone with a deeply troubled heart. When no one knows me, no one gets me, my heart screams or turns to stone.  


What we all desperately need is someone who will: 


  • See what our troubled heart is seeing. It does not require agreement regarding the right or wrong of what is seen. To use a simple example of teacher with student, “I can see that there is a lot of work to be done here, and you think you can’t get it all done. Tell me about that.” 
  • Empathize, enter into and reflect back, both verbally and nonverbally, what our troubled heart is feeling. “This amount of work feels overwhelming. How would you describe the feeling of overwhelm? How big is it? I usually feel overwhelmed in my stomach, shoulders and face. Where do you feel it?” 
  • Recognize that which is relationally, psychologically and spiritually damaging (what the Bible calls sin) and name it without condemnation. “You seem desperately concerned about doing better than everyone else. That is not good for your heart, and no one wants this kind of turmoil for you, especially our Father. Is there anything I can do to help you let go of the anxious desire to best all others? Could we ask God to help you let it go?” 
  • Facilitate our appreciation and thanksgiving. “It seems that for a while now your attention light has been focused on that which overwhelms. For a few moments, would you be willing to give your troubled heart a break by remembering and giving attention to a time, place, person or thing for which you felt appreciation and thankfulness? Describe this time. How would you describe the feeling of appreciation?” 
  • Give us the gift of sacred presence. Sacred presence is a way of being with another that is difficult to describe. Best to remember a time and a place when your heart was troubled and someone was truly present. What was it like? What would it be like to be so present to another? 

We are meant to support one another along the way, to bear one another’s burdens, to ease troubled hearts. We need parents to do this for children, teachers for students, friends for one another, husbands for wives and wives for husbands. The more skilled we become at doing these, the less troubled will be the hearts of our children, teachers, friends, husbands and wives. And yet, there is a still another way. Not better so as to replace, but to amplify, augment, raise to a greater fullness. 


Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water [from the well] will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”


For many, these are just words, but to those who have learned to drink, they are life. If a caring, mature human person can bring peace to the troubled heart, how much more the God and Father of our hearts?  But, like all forms of intimacy, to drink spiritual life is a learned skill. While at times God breaks into a troubled heart with overwhelming grace, the norm is that His grace beckons us to pursue, to hunger and thirst for Him. There are many ways of learning and practicing the skill of intimacy with God. Two such practices are Lectio Divina and devotional journaling. Like human relations, intimacy with God requires the cultivation of certain skills. These skills take practice. As a rule, the skills of spiritual intimacy are best practiced and learned in times of relative peace. The skills will then be in place when the troubles come. 


One of the great “trouble” multipliers is the illusion of a quick and simple fix. We must not expect it. The most significant balm for the soul is “You are not alone.” 


Finally, if while still young, a person learns the skills of recovering from a troubled heart, he or she will be much better prepared for facing the troubles that life inevitably brings. Learning such skills are an essential part of an Ambleside education.