Before exploring where we ended last time before we consider how the man born blind uses his freedom, it is important to reflect more on life in the void. This is especially true for those born into the void who never experienced an early return to presence.
This topic is important to me because, as mentioned, I spent decades in the darkness and I know others are currently dwelling there. For those who are trapped there, I want to use this post to do two things. First, I want to let you know that while each experience is different, you are not alone. Second, I will help make sense of what is going on at a biological level.
My Life In The Void
On the childhood attachment scale, I land firmly in the realm of disorganized. As a quick refresher on the overall theory, here’s the video overview of attachment I shared last time:
How could I best describe the default experience of my inner world? It feels like a car sounds when one foot is standing on the break and the other on the gas. There are all kinds of energy and internal movement, but you never go anywhere with it. It is intense and insane making. The mind, while being both fast and furious, offers none of the pleasure found when watching the film franchise. When my sense of the void is most intense, I will do and have done anything I can think of to make it stop.
To shift analogies, my brain often feels like a cloud amid the kind of ferocious lightning storm I used to watch in the distance while growing up on the outskirts of Denver. However, in my brain, most of the bolts of lightning never strike the earth. Rather, they flash from one corner of the mind to another. When they do discharge, those in the path of the strike, be it manifested as rage, contempt, or lust, experience devastating effects. I, on the other hand, finally get at least a few hours of lucidity on the other side. As a therapist once told me, “You found something that works for you, but destroys everyone else.”
While there is an abundance I could share that explains how I birthed into this void and did not make an early return to presence, this is not the time. It is enough to know that my early experience resulted in everything that should feel safe stirring up fear. This includes my parents, peers, pre-school teacher, and even God. So I found myself instinctually drawn to them one moment and running from them the next. It is a relationship yo-yo I struggle with to this day.
How I Coped With Life In The Void
For many years, I had no way to explain what was going on, I just lived in the midst of it and did my best to cope with my experience. In desperate attempts to make sense of and soothe my inner world, there were times I sought praise and affirmation from sources I could keep at a distance or at least under my control. In other moments, I simply numbed myself and choose to feel nothing. I used things like academic performance, Scouting accomplishments, alcohol, my status and gifts as a pastor, and illicit sexuality including hookups and prostitution as means of coping with my life in the void.
In the process I revealed the faith I proclaimed a joke and did untold damage not only to those I served as a pastor, but to my family, those who dared to get close to me, and those I used to calm my inner world. I lost two marriages, a career, and who knows how much money (including that spent first on illicit activity and then on therapy, as well as what wasn’t earned because of my choices).
So during this subjective experience and external behaviors, what was happening?
The Neurology of Life in the Void
To understand life in the void we need to understand the brain in the void. And to understand our brain in the void, we need to understand our brains and how they work. Here is a simple yet powerful explanation:
Ever since Descartes (1596-1650) postulated, “I think, therefore I am,” we, as humans, like to celebrate the capabilities of our highly advanced prefrontal cortex. However, the more we come to understand how the human brain works, the less reason we have to boast. As it turns out, our mammalian brains have a much larger role in our lives that we care to admit.
As James K. A. Smith argues in Desiring the Kingdom we are not thinking things but desiring creatures. Desire, starting with the desire to feel safe and a sense of belonging, is rooted in the mammalian brain. When these foundational desires are not satisfied, we find ourselves in the void. As this video describes it, we shift from our learning brain to our survival brain:
The survival brain is a brain in the void because it is a brain disconnected from presence, be it an awareness of the divine or that divine love manifested through our parents, caregivers, or teachers.
Coping With Life in the Void
Once in the void, be it because it is the only place you know or because of a traumatic event thrust you into it, we do whatever makes us feel better, that is, we do whatever we can to prompt the brain to release hormones like serotonin or dopamine. Logic and reason disappear. We turn to whatever gives us a sense of safety no matter how dysfunctional or harmful it might be. While we respond differently because of our personalities, ultimately all of these responses land in the categories of fight, flight, or freeze.
When we find something that triggers a calming release, it becomes a hardwired response and soon, we find ourselves pursuing it before we even realize we feel unsafe. This creates a whole new problem because now, we are like someone who thinks thrashing around in the water will save them from drowning, when in fact it pushes away or even wounds the very people who come to rescue us.
I cannot help but think that, at an individual level, this is one way people can find themselves in the darkness of night when no one can work (John 9:4). But before we expand on individual applications, we need to address the primary dark night Jesus references.
The Night That Came and Went
What does Jesus mean when he says the “night is coming when no one can work?” The night is an image of darkness, the absence of light. When this kind of darkness comes, nobody can do the works of God (ie bring the light).
For most of my life, I believed that the ultimate work of God was God crucifying Jesus as payment for our sins. Today, I believe the ultimate work of God is God resurrecting Jesus after humanity crucified him.
In the first, instead of filling the void of hate, God is hate. Rather than creating order, God works disorder. God does not bring light, rather God creates darkness. To say that God killed Jesus makes God the very evil God began working to undo starting in Genesis 1.
However, when the work of God is resurrection, then the crucifixion reveals what those in the absence do when the presence comes to them. Beating the Word made flesh is how those living in the void of hate respond to love. The crucifixion of Jesus is what those living in darkness do to the light. In other words, the cross is one final and desperate attempt by the void to remain the void.
God’s response to the void? The resurrection. The resurrection is the fulfillment of John 1:5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (NRSV).
The Night That Comes and Goes
While the night of Jesus’ crucifixion came and went, the darkness tries to fight back everywhere the light goes. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus tells his disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12, NRSV).
These words are just a continuation of John 9:4 when he says, “We must work the works of the one who sent me.” Notice the plural, we. The disciples, those who follow Jesus, those who are filled by the divine presence, do not just bask in it. They do not celebrate their chosenness. Life in the divine presence is not one of anticipating escape. Nor is it about the condemnation of a world they now see as empty. Rather, with the compassion of Jesus, they allow the fullness in their lives to overflow into the void.
But on the night he was betrayed, Jesus also warns his disciples:
If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, “Servants are not greater than their master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.– John 15:18–21 (NRSV)
It Is Only Persecution When
While Christians often use these words to validate themselves in what they describe as a culture war against their values (it is actually a far right-wing political manipulation), it is important to remember the context. You only get to claim that the world is hating you because of Jesus when, without judgment, you empathetically and compassionately bring light to those trapped in darkness, and the darkness fights back.
Moreover, this is what we should expect from those lost in the void. They act like they are drowning because they are. But even as they do, the call of God’s people remains to bring the divine presence to the void, or as Jesus says in John 9, to light up the darkness.