Indecisiveness, passivity and assorted coping mechanisms of the self-deluded sea anenome

This is Part One of a series around David Benner’s The Gift of Being Yourself, a book I am reading with a number of my students. Since I am discussing the book anywhere from 5-6 times a week with different students, I figured I might as well document the fruit of some of my reflections and conversations.

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” — Matthew 14:28

“There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.” — William James

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I am convinced Peter was an extrovert. I am convinced the distance between the birth of a thought in his brain and sound out of his mouth was the smallest nanometer of a nanometer. Perhaps I’m projecting a bit of myself onto the well-knowing story of Peter walking-ish on water depicted in Matthew 14. But how else could you explain the ridiculous utterances that came out of his terrified mouth in verse 28? It doesn’t seem to be very well thought-through on a number of levels.

First of all, he doesn’t recognize Jesus… so maybe you’d ask this ghost-like aqua man to come a little closer to get a better a look at his face. If you don’t trust him, why would you even ask him to invite you out onto the water? And secondly, what’s with the weird request for an invitation anyways? It would be like if you walked into a kitchen and the guy at the stove told you he was Gordon Ramsey, you wouldn’t reply to him, “If you really are Gordon Ramsey, invite me to cook a soufflé.”

I think there are probably a handful of different ways to interpret Peter’s behavior, but when I imagine him in that boat, gripped with fear, I see myself. I see a fearful confused man, hoping for an interaction with the divine, waiting for an invitation. And when it comes, he reacts. Stumbling forward, without much thought until he is spiritually and physically in over his head. Jesus tells he is of little faith. Whatever the heck that means, Peter had no idea of how lacking he was until he failed.

ImagePeter wasn’t just indecisive, but utterly confused. His request of Jesus was betrays a confused passivity. Throughout this story, Peter is clumsily moving forward and mostly being acted upon. He didn’t recognize Jesus and makes a passive request. He stumbles out of the boat and quickly realizes he had no idea what he was getting into. Maybe if he were better, a man of faith, he would have immediately recognized Jesus and leaped onto the water and jumped up and down like a trampoline, smiling and praising Jesus. But that wasn’t him.

And that’s definitely not me.

I have made a habit out of indecision and passivity all my life. Where do you want to eat? What do you want to study? Do you want to ask her out? What classes to take?

Ordering at a restaurant is a perfect example. I’m scanning through the menu, licking my chops, fantasizing about each item, plotting, scheming, strategizing. But usually without fail, the server will come and I will freeze up, unable to voice my opinion. The more options there are, the more my anxiety. So I realized I developed some coping mechanisms to this regular dilemma: Option 1) Defer to the server’s opinion. Option 2) strategically respond to others menu selection (which another reason I love family style). In both cases, I have absolved myself of responsibility and am able to use an outside initiator to force my hand and make a decision.

This exact process happens in all decisions of my life, big and small. Deciding to go to college, I prayed, sure. I sought counsel, sure. I thought about it… hmmm maybe? But at the end of the day, I got in early decision and was obligated to attend. Romantic life? Friendships? Community? Put myself in situations where relational opportunities are common and wait until there is a space to interact, connect, fellowship and “bust a move”… if someone takes a first step and there is very little uncertainty, I am now freed up to react.

Basically, I’m telling life/God/Jesus/college/careerchoice/friends/significantother, “If this is the right choice, invite me to step out of the boat and come to you.” Its a brilliant strategy. It allows me to avoid outright rejection and play it safe, waiting for people to initiate with me as I passively sit in my boat, terrified.Image

Contributing to this dynamic is the fact that I often don’t know the difference between what I want and what I should want. I’m a good kid that likes to please authority and “do the right thing” so I’m pretty confident I can make my self prefer that which I should, preempting any inner discussion of what I naturally would desire.

And here’s the kicker: I’ve developed this uncanny ability of deploying my charisma, self-deprecating sense of humor and innate inquisitiveness to invite people to initiate with me. Like a jovial sea anenome, I try to be the life of the party in ways that are relatively safe socially or engage in thoughtful, but often, conceptual forms of discussion in hopes that I attract some cool fish and can somehow enjoy their presence and gain whatever emotional benefits I am currently lacking. I am then hopefully invited to play that role at future gatherings in future communities. And this strategy has served me quite well in life, ministry and even romance. I never need to really learn how to initiate and take risks!

This is precisely why people always think (as I used to think) that I am a confident, outgoing social butterfly (or other outgoing aquatic creature) when under the surface I am filled with indecision, passivity, insecurity and fear that renders me passive and reactive.

I think this was where Peter was at in verse 26. And which is why I wonder if somewhere in his confused inner monologue, he knew that he needed didn’t need Jesus to come closer to him, but he needed to take a step towards Jesus. But as he found out, stepping out of the boat is hard.

Once I step out of the boat, my inner monologue of fears, doubts and self-loathing is suddenly free to roam, control and consume.

  • “Am I good enough?”
  • “Will I be accepted?”
  • “Will I look like a fool?”

Those moments are few and far between but when they happen, I have an opportunity to glimpse the tender, wounded spirit that lies beneath the glossy gregarious exterior.

It can be as simple as a few weeks ago when I decided to call a friend to see if he wanted to grab coffee. In a short span of a few moments, I was paralyzed by fear, wondering if I was being too forward, if he would feel obligated to yes, if I it was even ok for us to hang out on short notice. My heart beat raced faster and I began to sweat. Then a few texts later after he agreed to meet with great excitement, I realized not only just how foolish and deluded I was, but that even stepping out in such a seemingly superficial, inconsequential way would reveal the inner storms in my own heart.

You must be asking yourself, dear reader of this infrequently updated and frequently rambling blog, what a awful predicament I must find myself in! What tragedy! What angst!

ImageYet this is precisely what David Benner suggests is the pathway to a genuine relationship with God, through “the interweaving of the deepening knowledge of self and God…[as] we have seen in Peter’s experience.” With each failure, Peter stepped out of his boat into waters of failure. And while his issues continued to play out in one failure (“I will never let you wash my feat!”) to another (“I will never deny you!”) we also glimpse a man who is slowly but surely being redeemed and restored by grace. Peter went from being a brazen immature young man with lots of knowledge, pride and boldness to a man utterly humbled by failure, knowing simultaneously the depths of His sin and the riches of God’s grace. Using Peter’s story as the prime example, Benner, writes”Deep knowing of God and deep knowing of self always develop interactively. The result is the authentic transformation of the self that is at the core of Christian spirituality.” (pp 30)

So I guess as angsty as this entry is, and as frequently as I am experiencing the storms, I have renewed hopes that I am on the right track. I don’t want to be someone paralyzed by inner anxieties and relying on twisted social defense mechanisms. I don’t want to be paralyzed by insecurity. And I’m realizing that along with getting out of the boat is facing the storms. And then, and only then, can I experience both God and my own true self most deeply and authentically.

Benner writes and thusly concludes chapter 1:

“Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by guilt. Hear God’s call to a deeper personal encounter as an invitation, not a reprimand. It is an invitation to step out of the security of your boat and meet Jesus in the vulnerability and chaos of your inner storms. It is an invitation to move beyond objective knowledge to personal knowing. It is an invitation to truly know God.  (pp 31)

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