“Hello, friends. Are you tired, run-down, listless? Do you poop out at parties? Are you unpopular?”
OK, so maybe the answer to all your problems is not in that little bottle. But I think a lot of us really are tired, run-down and listless. Or angry, stressed and resentful. Fearful, anxious and isolated. Hey… it’s tough out there! And it doesn’t help that it’s an election year.
Meanwhile, our faith calls us to joy, not as an option but as a mandate.
God said: “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and gladness of heart for the abundance of everything, therefore you shall serve your enemies, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and in want of all things.” (Deuteronomy 28:47-48)
Did I say mandatory? Actually, it sounds more like a matter of life and death!
As Christians in the post-Christian age, we sometimes feel like we are coming to the end of things. We live in a world more and more opposed to goodness and justice and peace. Evil parades as good; truth is decried as evil. Across the ocean, our brothers in Christ are being slaughtered for their faith, and we can’t help but wonder when that terror will slither up on our shores.
But joy is not circumstantial; it doesn’t depend on the absence of suffering. In the face of disappointment, betrayal, and grief, joy has no earthly explanation. We can only receive it as a gift from God, or block it.
Is it irresponsible to live joyfully when we are surrounded by so much pain? I call on irreproachable witnesses, who suffered more than we likely ever will, to testify to joy:
“Joy runs deeper than despair.” – Corrie Tenboom, survivor of Ravensbruck Nazi concentration camp
“I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.” ― Anne Frank, hidden from the Nazis for two years before being sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where she died.
If two vulnerable females in the middle of the greatest horror imaginable can find joy, then so can we. But how do we bridge the gap between what we feel in our gut and the joy we are commanded?
I propose that the answer may be found in the body.
Previously in this blog, we have explored how the language of the body reveals our vocation to love. And it goes even farther than that. Our bodies reveal to us, in myriads of little ways, how we are to live.
Here’s an example. Anyone who’s had surgery knows how the hospital staff gets you up to walk practically the minute you’re out of recovery. They do this because not moving has serious health consequences, like deep vein thrombosis, pneumonia and constipation. Likewise, sitting most of the day drives up the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
Because our bodies are designed that way, we can conclude this: God wants us to be active players in the drama of life. It’s written right into our bodies.
So if He commands us to be joyful, the means must lie somewhere in the body. Here are a few ways we can “unblock” the gift of joy that God is always sending.
God has designed our bodies with survival mechanisms because He wants us to live, so we have an onboard “fight or flight” response, the sympathetic nervous system. It regulates the body for the best survival odds against a charging mastodon or an oncoming car. In response to a perceived threat, it releases adrenaline, speeds up the heart, widens airways, and releases glucose into the bloodstream for energy.
Unfortunately, the nervous system can’t distinguish between real threats and false ones. Rushing in traffic, chasing deadlines, feverishly multi-tasking, can activate the sympathetic nervous system, too. As a result, most of us are living in that life-or-death stress response most of the time.
This sort of chronic stress weakens the immune system, raises acidity in the stomach, and contributes to heart disease and diabetes. We should be able to conclude from this that God did not intend us to live in a continual state of stress.
One of the best ways to dissipate chronic stress is deep belly breathing. Not your plain old breathing, mind. Belly breathing.
Here’s how. Take a deep breath. If your shoulders rise, you are chest-breathing which is associated with the “fight or flight” system. Belly-breathing, instead, stimulates the “rest-and-digest” response, which is associated with tissue repair, sleep, eating, sexual activity and the release of endorphins, the “bliss hormones.” Sounds a lot better than stress, right?
If you’re having trouble distinguishing between chest breathing and belly breathing, try this. Lie on your back and place one hand on your belly button. Close your eyes and breathe in slowly through your nose. You should feel your belly rise, but not your chest. It may take some practice if you are a chronic stress-er, because you’ve been chest-breathing for a long time.
It sounds unbelievably simple, but God has designed our bodies in a particular way for our benefit. He wouldn’t make it rocket science.
Digital detox, or “Screen Shutdown”
That includes computers, tablets, smartphones and video games in addition to television. We’ve barely had time to measure whether all this new technology is good for us or not. But we seem to intuit that it’s getting out of control.
Neurologists studied individuals who submitted to a technology-free zone for a short period. After three days away from their screens, researchers found that people’s posture straightened up. When not hunched over a screen, they naturally looked others in the eye, aligned their spines and heads and opened up their lungs. The eye contact seemed to relax people and promote conversation. People’s memories improved. Sleep quality noticeably increased. The test subjects began to make major life transformations during the screen-free period.
Most of us aren’t going to go entirely screen-free for more than the duration of a vacation, if that. But declaring a “blackout period,” say 6:00 to 8:00 in the evening, could yield benefits for relationships, memory and sleep.
Appreciation and positive emotions have been found to reduce the severity of congestive heart failure, hypertension and coronary artery disease. Researchers have also found that when people spent 15 minutes at night jotting down what they’re grateful for, they fell asleep faster and stayed asleep longer. The body itself is telling us to be grateful.
These practical measures don’t remove suffering, by any means, but they do get us out of the way of ourselves so that the Holy Spirit can manifest His joy in us, above all that listlessness, anger and stress.
There are other ways God’s design in our bodies can teach us how to live. But it is helpful to begin to see that God has written His will into our very bodies. Our bodies aren’t cranky machines that thwart our desires; they are our benevolent teachers. So we can begin to look to our bodies to find answers, to align ourselves with God’s purposes for us.
Sheryl Collmer, M.T.S., is the Director of Outreach for TOBET in Irving, where she is belly-breathing her way through a Texas summer.