Two seats behind me, the bully launched into yet another barrage of ridicule as the big yellow bus motored toward home after school. After two and a half years of being bullied, starting in sixth grade, something within me suddenly snapped. I stood up, turned around, glowered at the bully and shouted, “I’m sick and tired of your put downs. Meet me at the playground this Friday at 3:00 and we’ll settle this thing once and for all!!!”
I turned back, sat down, and knew I had just signed my own death warrant. I wiped a shirtsleeve across my sweaty forehead and tried to quiet my racing heart.
The bully was much taller than me. Apparently my growth hormone decided to take the pubescent years off, leaving me much shorter than I should have been. The bully also learned how to box and had already toppled a couple of hefty, regular sized kids in the neighborhood.
Nervously anticipating the upcoming contest just two days away, I tried to teach myself how to box in front of my bedroom mirror but knew it was useless.
At 2:45 Friday afternoon I trudged toward the playground and arrived five minutes early. Anxious, I hopped on a nearby swing.
At 3:02 the bully came over the hill with two of his ever-present companions. The battle was joined between the Menace and myself and I was quickly knocked to the ground with one sledgehammer blow to the face. The bully pounced and pinned me down. I struggled with all my might, but it was futile. His buddies pointed and laughed raucously. They soon walked off, still laughing, leaving me lying there with a broken front tooth and various bruises.
In the evening, my dad asked what on earth had happened. I had never told anyone about my tribulations. The whole story spilled out and, outraged, he phoned the bully’s father and my torment mercifully ended.
Those years of incessant ridicule caused what amounted to third-degree emotional burns within my young, developing brain. It seared itself deeply into numerous neural networks.
The coping mechanism I devised to keep from being ridiculed and laughed at ever again was to NEVER APPEAR STUPID. Looking stupid was to be avoided at all costs. For me, that became what I call a Guiding Life Principle. In this case, a negative one that is not very healthy.
We all have one or more Guiding Life Principles that give direction to our lives. They can be defined as, “Fundamental beliefs about ourselves and others that serve as the foundation for our thinking and behavior.” They can be positive or negative. They can be planted inside us unconsciously or we can intentionally create them ourselves.
As Christians we usually attribute our bad behavior to the generalized presence of sin and selfishness or we do the opposite and focus on overcoming individual faults. I have found it to be much more useful to uncover the underlying negative Guiding Life Principles that fuel them. It gives me a much better handle on root causes and possible solutions.
My “Never appear stupid” imperative manifests itself in a variety of ways. For instance, I over-research topics I might be asked about. I can also get very nervous around authority figures and experts because I imagine their superior knowledge can easily pierce my carefully constructed shield. Unless I am with very close friends, I choose my words with inordinate care and worry too much that I said the wrong thing. I tend to be a perfectionist, which leads to procrastination, which leads to guilt. I double and triple check too much stuff in OCD-like fashion. I examine my nostrils in particular with the thoroughness of a forensic pathologist to make sure I’ve clipped every embarrassing nose hair.
Staking so much of my inner security and self-confidence on this manufactured defense means that when it fails, I can be in for a world of hurt. It is like living next to a very high cliff and putting up a fence to keep from falling. If the fence is breached, it’s going to be a long way down. Better to move inland, which is much harder than it appears.
To this day I am still haunted by the times in life when the fence failed and I did, in fact, fall far and look very stupid. To illustrate, I’ll share just one incident. I’ll keep it short, for my own sake and yours.
When I was pastoring decades ago, one of my church members happened to be a respected professor at a non-SDA academy for boys. One day he asked if I would give a chapel talk. I agreed, and decided to re-work a sermon I had given before to my congregation that had been well received.
I arrived a few minutes early and was unexpectantly ushered into a large, ornate room for an evening reception of finger foods and dessert. There were dozens of faculty in attendance dressed in graduation-type regalia. Taken aback, I nonetheless tried to be social. I remember one professor telling me, “You must be a very good speaker to be the very first one on our semester schedule.” My heartbeat picked up and my palms began to sweat.
I was led into the packed chapel by the chancellor followed by a formal line of people from the reception. It was all far beyond anything I had expected.
After a lovely hymn sing, I was introduced and stepped into the magnificently carved, oak pulpit. I nervously began my talk. About six minutes in, some of the students off to my left inexplicably laughed out loud. An alarm bell immediately went off in my head. This was NOT a funny part of the sermon. I started fumbling verbally. More laughter. More fumbling. Louder laughter. Completely rattled, I chopped out large chunks of material and landed the mutilated presentation as soon as I could.
When I sat down, the white-haired, regal looking chancellor turned to me and said, “How old did you say you are?”
Deeply humiliated, it took me days to get moving again. It still hurts.
I have another unhealthy Guiding Life Principle I call, “ALWAYS BE USEFUL.” It is one of the defining characteristics of Adult Children Of Alcoholics (ACOA) and my dad was a mean, miserable weekend drunk. Kids from alcoholic homes often grow up with a strong need to be uber-responsible because they had to become caretakers at such a young age.
The “Always Be Useful” imperative makes me feel that I need to be “productive” throughout the day. I read non-fiction because it feels like a better use of my time than fiction. (I know I’m missing out bigtime.) The stuff I read is usually related to some useful project. I have a hard time fully relaxing and letting go. I resist vacations where you simply sit around in some beach house day after day eating, swimming, reading, napping, and playing board games. My wife and I usually compromise — some beach house, some touring.
Of course, that kind of Guiding Life Principle comes packaged with a lot of unnecessary guilt. “You’re wasting time again!!” “When you’re on your death bed and look back on these days, you’ll wish you’d made better use of your time MISTER GOOF OFF!!”
With the boundless patience of my wife, the insights of skilled counselors, and the right medications, I have been able to make enormous strides forward. Over the course of several decades, I have gradually been freed from the worst aspects of these two detrimental Guiding Life Principles, and others.
The Holy Spirit was also an essential part of my healing. I have often wondered what exactly Jesus meant when He said the Holy Spirit “will be IN YOU” (John 14:16, 17, NIV, emphasis supplied). I now believe that the Spirit uses His creative energy to actively, skillfully, stimulate certain electro-chemical reactions in the neural networks of our brain to redirect old patterns of thinking and initiate new ones.
One of the most amazing new ways of thinking that the Spirit implanted in my head is a very positive Guiding Life Principles I call, “EVERYONE IS LIKE A STRATIVARIOUS VIOLIN.” To capture the concept, you have to move several levels above simple respect.
What I’m talking about is the type of reaction you get when you first look out on the Grand Canyon. It is the reaction you get when you first gaze in wonder at Michelangelo’s Pieta in the Vatican. You look at someone and say in your head, “Look at you, you’re incredible!” “You’re as rare and priceless as a Strativarious!” “You are a marvelously complex combination of experiences, personal stories, insights, racial identities, ethnicities, talents, abilities, and dreams, that is unique in the entire universe!” Everyone we meet deserves that way of being seen.
I’m very far from perfect at it, but that’s the goal. The Spirit put it there, not me. It calls on me to try and find a way to brighten the day of each and every person I come in contact with. A smile. A word of encouragement. A genuine affirmation. An expression of empathy. A bit of humor. A listening ear. A pause to acknowledge someone’s need when I’m in a rush.
The scriptures have also proven to be a great ally in decreasing negative Guiding Life Principles and creating positive ones. They are a potent antidote and corrective.
I regularly rehearse Bible verses that assure me that I am God’s adopted son and that He loves me unconditionally. I have to constantly remember that my worth comes from Christ and not from other people. As one book title puts it, “What You Think of Me is None of My Business.” I often remind myself that to be human is to make mistakes. I take time to meditate on the fact that the Man with the most urgent, time-sensitive task ever, took time out to rest and renew.
There are many types of Guiding Life Principles. So, let me ask, “What drives you? Have you taken time to inquire why you think, act, and react the way you do?
Here is a short list of possibilities. Which ones do you identify with the most and why? How have they affected your life?
Negative Guiding Life Principles:
Change is bad.
You are not enough.
2nd place is 1st among losers.
Security and peace of mind come from control.
Ambiguity is unacceptable.
Don’t try because you’ll mess up.
Compromise is for weaklings.
Don’t risk sharing your feelings.
People will always let you down.
My way is usually the best way.
Positive Guiding Life Principles:
Life is abundant.
Life is not elsewhere.
Sometimes there’s more than one right answer.
Messed up plans become adventures.
Learn something from everyone you meet.
Compassion begins with yourself.
Less is better.
Be fully present.
Give more than you take.
In order to grow as individuals, our most fundamental task is to expand our self-awareness and self-understanding. “It is always our own self that we find at the end of the journey. The sooner we face that self, the better.”
Notes & References:
Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The Gift, The Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10612