Why We Shutdown Before the Pain of Others (on Gethsemane & our nervous system)
The Emotions of Peter and the Passion of Christ, part 2 of 4
Confronted with the pain, suffering, and death of a loved one, we get overwhelmed and shutdown. It is almost inevitable.
“Your mom’s in the hospital with heart failure.”
I can handle physical pain. I can handle my mental and emotional pain.
But the pain of others, especially those I love, overwhelms me.
I promptly went back to responding to emails and preparing a lesson when I got the call that my mom had collapsed and was being rushed to the hospital for heart failure.
I was stunned.
I was avoiding.
You could say my window of tolerance had been immediately exceeded by the news that my mom might die.
I had fallen off the nervous system ladder (more on that below). And I was shutting down.
My emotional system rebooted after about five minutes. I began to pray. And then I told my wife what was happening. And we started figuring out what to do and who to contact.
Thankfully, my mom recovered and lived many more years with the assistance of a pacemaker.
This overwhelm and shutdown is probably what was happening to Peter, James, and John.
Part 1 of this series: Breaking the Trauma Triangle by Changing Ideas of Honor, Humility, and Agency
The Disciples Fall Asleep In the Garden of Gethsemane
That’s what the disciples did.
Right when Jesus needed his friends.
Just at the moment Jesus asks for help.
When our Savior didn’t want to be alone.
They fall asleep.
The Pain of Jesus
Jesus gathers Peter, James, and John to his side. They can visibly see his sorrow and troubled spirit (Matt. 26: 37).
And Jesus tells them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me” (Matt. 26: 38). And before this Jesus had been teaching them that he must die. And that he was going to be betrayed. And that Peter himself was going to deny Jesus.
Honestly, Peter probably thought that Jesus wasn’t really serious about all this death stuff.
And even if they did actually die, Peter probably thought it was going to be a glorious sacrifice in the midst of overthrowing Rome and freeing Israel (a worthy death if there ever was one).
Remember, Peter wanted to be a hero.
The Overwhelmed Avoidance of the Disciples
But now Peter sees Jesus visibly troubled. Jesus seems to lack the confidence of one ready to charge boldly into a martyr’s death. Jesus is wrestling with God.
All of Peter’s own doubts and fears probably rush in.
What if Jesus isn’t really the Messiah?
What if I’ve wasted my life following him?
What if we are all going to die?
And it’s just meaningless?
Jesus’ distress was triggering a distressed response in Peter, James, and John.
And consciously or unconsciously, to avoid it, they fell asleep.
Learn about the ATTACHING TO GOD Beyond Anxious and Avoidant Spiritualities Learning Cohort (beginning April 18th).
Falling Off the Nervous System Ladder - Immobilization and Shutdown
Our bodies can take prolonged states of stress for only so long. We can only be on high alert, in fight/flight mode for so long. This high alert, action-ready state is when the sympathetic nervous system is activated.
But eventually, the sympathetic system (high energy) is overwhelmed and exhausted. This is when the parasympathetic system (the dorsal vagal system) takes over and you move from mobilization mode to immobilization mode.
In the positive sense, the parasympathetic system is our “rest and repair” response when things are going well and we need to recharge.
But when things are not going well, that is the defense system when everything feels hopeless (or hypoarousal).
This is falling off the ladder into the dorsal vagal state.
Peter Falls Off the Ladder In the Garden of Gethsemane
Peter, being the leader of Jesus’ merry band of disciples, having come to Jerusalem where Jesus was constantly calling out the temple leadership and doing other strange things, was on high alert.
He didn’t know if and when the opposition was going to attack and arrest Jesus, and Peter didn’t even really know what Jesus was going to do next.
Peter was exhausted—and not just from having a big meal and some wine, although that probably added to the situation (especially if he was self-medicating a little bit).
But now, because of the proximity to the suffering of Jesus and the potential of likely trauma, Peter was experiencing shutdown and withdrawal (but not total disassociation).
His body was shutting down.
He was feeling overwhelmed.
So Peter falls asleep.
His spirit might be willing, but his fleshy nervous system was weak (Matt. 37:41).
But Anger Strikes Back
In the next post on Wednesday, we’ll see how anger reactivates Peter (two different times), and how his anger betrays him.
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Learning Cohort: Attaching to God Beyond Anxious and Avoidant Spiritualities
Series: The Emotions of Peter and the Passion of Christ (in 4 parts)