Distress Tolerance

If you haven’t been keeping up with Rachel Held Evans’ unity blogorama, you should go catch up now.  My contribution is superlate, but here it is:

I’m writing this post on unity, and I’m trying to keep my thoughts from dichotomizing along the all too familiar fault lines.  It’s always there: that willingness to consign the entire world to one of two buckets.  Any issue, any contention, any strife, become warring parties.  This team, that team.  This position, the opposition.  My bucket, and the other bucket.

It goes without saying that my bucket is shinier.


I’m avoiding this post on unity, so I’m going on Facebook instead.  Mayday, and my friends, they’re all talking about bin Laden, out of their buckets:

Bucket #1: Proverbs 24:17- “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when he stumbles, do not let your heart rejoice.”  Etc.  The Bible, from what I can see scanning down my news feed, unilaterally forbids exulting in violence.  All (quoted) Scripture asks folks to be a little more reserved in their schadenfreude; this Bible is not for drunken frat boys with American flags painted on their bellies.

This, I think, would be news to Moses and Miriam, to Joshua, to Samuel and David, and perhaps to the Psalmist who prayed that someone would pick up his enemy’s children and split their skulls on the stones.  I mean, how many of us have some gold leafed wallhanging including “God will prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies?”  Did we really think that God was playing Martha Stewart?  Did we think that the enemies weren’t standing there hungry?

“Table’s not for everyone, sucker,” is a major theme of the Bible.  It’s not, however, a theme of this bucket. This bucket is nothing if not nice.

Bucket #2: “Let’s be clear on this: OBAMA did NOT kill Bin Laden. An American soldier, whom Obama just a few weeks ago was debating on whether or not to PAY, did. Obama just happened to be the one in office when our soldiers finally found UBL and took him out. This is NOT an Obama victory, but an AMERICAN victory!!! Repost if you agree… I’m proud to keep this going.”

Why anyone in their right mind would be proud of such tripe, I’m not sure.  I hear my friends clearly, though; they stand in the center of their bucket, shouting “this is my bucket, and my bucket is the shiniest!”  Obama is a weak leader, see, and we know this because the meme of this bucket is that Obama is a weak leader.  So, if he seems to have done something strong, then there must be a conspiracy afoot.  Never mind that ‘conspiracy afoot’ is more or less the definition of counterintelligence work, which is what got bin Laden in the end.  Never mind that maintaining such a conspiracy would require incredible, if misplaced, leadership skills.  Also, never mind that nonsense like this almost exclusively emanates from ‘conservative Christians,’ a label which ought to correlate with having learned to test all things and hold onto the good.  The point is, we should take care not to revel in the death of an enemy in a way that would accredit his death to our leader.

Perhaps this is why my conservative friends aren’t quoting bloodsoaked Bible verses to prop up their meme- no Biblical author thought to say, for instance, that Caleb deserved no credit for the clearing of Hebron because Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt.  This lack is indicative of the Bible being inspired and useful for teaching, training, and the whole works, but my conservative friends do not see this as a rebuke.

Dichotomies are too easy.  Extrapolating from Facebook is too easy as well, which is why you should be asking for your money back on this blog post. And yet… these buckets. They vary little by issue, by contention, by subject of strife. We read the news only to figure out what people in our bucket did well, what people in the other bucket did poorly, and how to properly respond to the other bucket’s suckitude.

I’m in Bucket #1. We’re #1! Yay, us.


I’m thinking about this post on unity, and I’m in a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy training. DBT is mainly used by patients with Borderline Personality Disorder, one of the most difficult disorders to treat. People with BPD have an extremely shallow sense of identity. No core. No layers to protect them from the world. They have long term patterns of instability in relationships, and an inability to place issues, contentions, and strifes in perspective. They feel empty, and fear being abandoned.

That fear of abandonment isn’t unrealistic, either. They’re often left behind by friends and family who cannot handle their lability, can’t stand for another moment being seen as the shining star of this person’s life one minute, and the Devil incarnate the next. People with BPD lash out in anger at a friend who was insufficiently supportive, not recognizing that this friend could never have been supportive enough to compensate for the inner void.

People with BPD, the trainer says, feel pain like a burn victim. Their emotional nerves can’t distingush between someone brushing them in the hall, and someone punching them in the solar plexus.

This training is titled Distress Tolerance. Is there anything the church needs more than that?


I’m scribbling this post in my notebook, alongside my DBT notes: talking about unity bothers me. A lot. I worry that calls to unity devolve into unified fronts, and fronting is always a bad business. The biggest divide I see in the American evangelical church (I can speak from none other) is between those who worship a God of earthly power and those who at least try not to. It’s between God and Mammon, same as ever it was.

I can’t phrase that in a unifying way, because I have no interest in crossing that divide. ‘No bridges to idolatry,’ is what my sign would say, if I had made a sign. I’m not a John 13:35 kind of person; I prefer Jude’s exhortation to contend earnestly for the faith.

Earnest, however, is centered. Earnest speaks without fear, without wrath, from a place of fullness. Earnest speaks its’ piece without requiring the hearer to agree; Earnest does not fear being abandoned. Earnest can tolerate distress, which the trainer notes is not approving of pain or pretending to like the pain. Earnest, for instance, doesn’t pretend to like John Piper; Earnest begins by saying, simply, John Piper hurts me. Everything functional -everything- flows from that willingness to straightforwardly experience pain.

The trainer is talking about broken legs and Ben and Jerry’s. Ice cream: if you need ice cream, then you need to buy it. It’s no one else’s responsibility to buy you a pint when you’re depressed. People with BPD alternate, quickly, by demanding that someone else buy them ice cream, and feeling selfish for wanting it in the first place. They oscilate, screaming so the world can hear loud and clear how bad they are hurting, then disconnecting completely from the emotional reality, then screaming again.  They need ice cream, and won’t stop to enjoy it.

Broken legs: therapy for people with BPD is like if your leg that healed improperly after a break. I explain to you that you have to rebreak your leg in order to walk. Fine, right? But for the analogy to work, I tell you, my bowlegged friend, that you have to break it yourself. No pain meds, just pain. You have to sit down, right now, and break your own leg.

Would you limp away, rather than break your own leg? Probably.

This is how much it hurts, she says, to develop a sense of identity strong enough to honestly experience pain.


I’m glaring at this post, because it’s three days later than I wanted it, and not a Grand Unified Theory Of Unity. This is what I know: being earnest hurts. It just does. No one in Bucket #2, no matter how earnest I am being, is obligated to soothe my hurt feelings. For that matter, neither is anyone is Bucket #1. In theology as well as romance, I buy my own ice cream.  And yet, if I refuse to acknowledge the pain, no peace will ever come.

Furthermore, no one in either bucket will compensate for shallowness in my own life. No amount of submission on the part of my theological foes will satisfy.  No one can be supportive enough of my faith to keep me from needing to grow. Conversely, if I am speaking out of emptiness, if I am seeking comrades in a fight because I fear being alone, then it’s all noisy gongs and clanging symbols. Who would be drawn to a gospel of decenteredness?

I want a church that speaks without fear. I pray for a church that does not fear abandonment, that knows itself as loved, and that can therefore give love rather than require it.

I’m afraid, though, that we have to break our own legs in order to get there.

About Dhouda

"And what shall I say, fragile vessel that I am? I shall turn to others as a friend." Dhouda's Manual, AD 841
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