A couple weeks ago, I gave a weekend seminar at my home church in California. It was a busy weekend for me — four talks over two days — and not least because I had a hard time deciding which topics (among dozens I have studied over the years) I should cover.
I finally decided to build the weekend’s theme around the same theme I use for this website: Leaving the Shadowland. I mean this in both scientific and emotional terms, as I hope will become clear in this post.
These are my written notes for the second of the four talks. If you would like to watch the talk instead, it’s available on YouTube:
If you are interested in learning more, click the link below to get a FREE resource on how to leave the shadowland of stress, depression and anxiety:
And if you are interested in having me come give a seminar on mental health at your school or church, please visit my speaking page.
Now I’d like to tell you a story about a stressful time in my life.
It happened almost twenty years ago, around the time I was finishing graduate school in New York.
At that time, Oleg and I lived in New York City, in the borough of Queens. Queens is just east of the island of Manhattan – it’s on the western edge of another island about 100 miles long: Long Island.
Oleg and I had met out on Long Island where we were both in the same graduate program. We were both still grad students when we married and had our first daughter. We decided that it would be easier (financially, anyway) to live in New York if one of us was earning a real salary.
Oleg had done computer programming as a hobby ever since he was a boy, and those programming skills helped him land a job in Manhattan. He had commuted from Long Island to Manhattan for a few years, which was about 2 ½ hours each way. But in the last year of my PhD program, we had moved into the city, to Queens.
Oleg’s first job had been in the World Financial Center in lower Manhattan – across the street from the World Trade Center. But about six months before I finished my PhD, he had switched companies and began working for a financial news company called Bloomberg in midtown.
I had been looking for a job, too. I had interviewed and accepted a job at a non-profit organization called the New York Academy of Sciences, which was just a few blocks away from where Oleg worked. Perfect, we thought.
Our older daughter was 5 years old at that time and had just started kindergarten. Oleg walked with her to our local subway station every morning so he could drop her off at her school. Then he continued his commute into Manhattan. Since we would all travel the same route, I could share the commute responsibilities once I began work.
One morning, exactly one month after I had defended my dissertation, I woke up, checked my email, and answered an email to my prospective boss about job negotiation stuff. Then I went upstairs, made myself some breakfast, and kind of mindlessly turned the TV on.
The NYC newscasters were explaining that a few minutes before, a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. Like the rest of the news stations, they were taking live footage of the tower as they talked. Of course they were concerned, but they were also puzzled. No one knew what had caused the crash. So they were discussing amongst themselves if there had been some sort of navigation error, or equipment malfunction.
Since Oleg had worked across the street from the towers, I immediately called him at his office in midtown. Since Bloomberg is a news outlet, the walls of his office building were banked with large screen tv screens so that they could keep up with the latest developments on Wall Street and elsewhere.
So I asked Oleg, “Are you seeing what’s going on downtown?”
We were on the phone when the second plane hit. And of course at that moment the newscasters knew that neither had been an accident. That some sort of malicious act was in progress. And no one knew what other targets were still to be hit.
So I begged Oleg on the phone, “Please come home now.” Normally Oleg’s commute between Manhattan and Queens was about 40 minutes.
On September 11, 2001, it took Oleg six hours to make his way home.
On his way, he saw many small acts of kindness and heroism: strangers offering other strangers a ride out of the city in their cars. But in the wake of severe trauma, cracks also begin appear in the veneer of civilization. So Oleg also saw acts of brutality: fist fights broke out in the crowds struggling to board each train.
Knowing Oleg as I do, as a peacemaker with a heart full of grace and compassion, I knew that he would be trying to help others as much as he could, even if it compromised his own safety. So you can imagine how relieved I was when he finally walked through our door.
The weeks that followed 9/11 were surreal. New Yorkers grieved with those who lost loved ones at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.
But no one knew if the attacks were over. There were all sorts of rumors that there would be more hits in New York.
According to one rumor, orthodox Jewish neighborhoods would be targeted with bombs. Our block contained a kosher grocery store and bakery; there was a large Jewish community center around the corner.
People in our neighborhood were opening their mail with latex gloves due to the anthrax scares.
There was a heavy police and military presence in all the subway stations, tunnels, and bridges – lots of uniforms with lots of guns walking around everywhere. Every day, at least one line would be abruptly shut down due to some threat or another.
So in a very real sense, when Oleg and our small daughter left in the morning, I honestly didn’t know if they would come home safely that night. I didn’t know if any of us were safe.
A couple weeks later, my boss called me to tell me that her department at the Academy was being closed down. At that time, a huge amount of government funding was shunted away from non-profit organizations, like the Academy, toward national defense. So I lost my prospective job.
Oleg’s job was still secure, but frankly, we were wondering if we wanted to stay in New York. We weren’t sure if we wanted to raise our daughter in an area where we would not only have to worry about noise, pollution, and crime, but also terrorism.
I felt like I was walking around with a huge knot in my stomach all the time, largely composed of fear and anxiety.
There was also a fair amount of irony mixed in, too. Because I had just finished my PhD. I had spent the previous six years of my life studying the effects of stress on mental health. And there I was, living through one of the most stressful periods of my life.
That irony was not lost on me, believe me. But there was a definite difference in the way I viewed stress pre vs. post-9/11.
While I was in grad school, I was focused mostly on the science of stress, the mechanics of how it affects certain parts of the brain.
When I was living through that stressful time, I began to study and think about the philosophical side of stress. The spiritual side.
How We Enter the Shadowland
I realized then that all stress we experience in life can be divided into two basic types: 1) the suffering we seek and 2) the suffering that seeks us.
We seek suffering, we put ourselves into stressful situations, when we work toward goals.
We can all think of personal examples here: studying for a degree, working for a job promotion, training for a marathon, and so on.
We don’t really struggle to understand the suffering we seek.
We want to run a marathon, so we train for it. We’re not surprised when our legs ache a little afterward. We welcome that pain because it means our muscles are growing in strength and endurance.
In all cases of the first kind of suffering, the work we’ve set out to do has such great meaning that we willingly suffer in order to achieve it.
It is the second type of suffering, the suffering that seeks us, that we often can’t understand.
This is the stuff of tragedy. This is what we as a nation experienced after 9/11. The world has experienced it many times over in the years since; not just in terrorism and war, but in tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires. Families and individuals experience it in disease and death.
This suffering is not a journey we ever choose to take. It’s more like being thrown into a dark shadowland.
I mean this in a scientific sense: trauma can cast dark shadows over the mind that lead to neurological disorders like:
- clinical depression, and
- clinical anxiety.
These are so common in trauma victims that some psychiatrists refer to them as the trauma-spectrum disorders. And there are more:
- traumatic grief (which is the complicated grief that we suffer when someone close to us dies in an unexpected and sometimes violent way). In addition to grieving that loved one, we also have to deal with the emotional aftershocks of the way they died.
- Trauma victims are at increased risk of personality disorders that lead to inappropriate anger & self-harm, sometimes suicide.
- They are also at increased risk for substance abuse of alcohol or drugs
It is also a shadowland in the emotional sense. The world becomes a darker place.
Those suffering from panic disorder or anxiety find this shadowland a terrifying place. They stumble through with their heart pounding, their breath choking in their chest. Each step is a fearful one. Sometimes fear they are losing their mind. They live in dread of the next stressful event, the next shoe to drop.
Those suffering from clinical depression find this shadowland a desolate place. Each step is a hopeless one, because life has lost its meaning. They begin to wonder what there is to live for.
Trauma can bring on the darkest feelings imaginable:
How We Leave the Shadowland
In this dark world, we start searching for landmarks to navigate by: meaning behind the suffering that will help us understand and accept it, and hope that we will eventually make our way out.
Both hope and meaning are integral parts of the psychological construct called Resilience.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back quickly from stress or trauma. Some people are born resilient. So even before they go through stress, they already have the right tools to defend themselves against it.
They all essentially boil down to three characteristics described by a psychiatrist at Duke University (Kathryn Connor):
Resilient individuals [are] characterized by their personal competence and determination, the supportive relationships they [form], and their reliance on faith and prayer.”1
These 3 characteristics are:
- a healthy viewpoint (that helps us find the right context and give meaning to the stress in our lives)
- the ability to form supportive relationships with others, and
There’s a related psychological construct called Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG). This is the mental and emotional growth that can result from a survivor’s struggle to cope with trauma.
Resilience and Post-Traumatic Growth are similar in many ways. Both involve the same basic set of tools:
- creating a sense of meaning and purpose,
- better social connections, and
- faith in a higher power.
They differ in when we develop them. Resilience is something we have or develop before suffering. Some people (the lucky ones) are born resilient. Others learn how to be resilient from good role models in their lives (parents, teachers, mentors, etc.).
Post-Traumatic Growth, as the name suggests, comes after, and out of, suffering. Sometimes we learn how to deal with suffering by going through it.
But there is another important difference between the two. One way to illustrate it is to think of a rubber ball. If you try to poke a hole in the ball with your finger, the surface will just spring back. The physical characteristics of the ball make it resilient to outside pressure.
Now, if you throw the ball as hard as you can against the ground, the ball will bounce off the ground. The harder you throw it, the higher it will bounce.
Post-Traumatic Growth is illustrated in the ball’s flight path. The ball is higher in the air after it hits the ground than it was before. Likewise, those who experience Post-Traumatic Growth (emphasis on “Growth”) do not just return to their pre-trauma baseline of mental health, but in fact reach higher levels of life appreciation, meaning, and purpose.
Clinical research tells us that those who have faith in a personal, loving God often deal with trauma better than those who don’t.
Faith that hangs on by its fingernails
When suffering seeks us, unwanted and unbidden, we need a special kind of faith. The kind faith that trusts against all odds, that even in suffering, still hangs on by its fingernails.
The author of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews wrote about this kind of faith.
Hebrews 11 (The Message)
verses 1-2 The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.
verse 3 By faith, we see the world called into existence by God’s word, what we see created by what we don’t see.
Then the author goes through a long list of those with this kind of faith. Let’s go through the list:
- verse 4: by faith, Abel brought a better offering to God than Cain did.
- verse 5: by faith, Enoch skipped death completely.
- verse 7: by faith, Noah built a boat in the middle of dry land, preparing for a natural disaster no one had ever experienced before.
- verse 8: by faith, Abraham left his home and camped out in a new land.
- verse 11: by faith, Sarah had a son in her old age.
- verses 17: by faith, Abraham was willing to give that son back to God.
- verse 20: by faith, Isaac reached into the future to bless his twin boys, Jacob and Esau.
- verse 21: by faith, Jacob passed that blessing on to Joseph’s sons.
- verse 22: by faith, Joseph, while dying, prophesied the exodus of God’s people from Egypt.
- verses 24: by faith, Moses led that exodus.
- verse 29: by faith, the nation of Israel walked through the riverbed of the Red Sea on dry ground. Later they took a city just by marching around it.
- verse 31: by faith, the prostitute Rahab saved her family’s life from that doomed city.
verses 32-38 I could go on and on, but I’ve run out of time. There are so many more—Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets. . . . Through acts of faith, they toppled kingdoms, made justice work, took the promises for themselves. They were protected from lions, fires, and sword thrusts, turned disadvantage to advantage, won battles, routed alien armies. Women received their loved ones back from the dead.
So far, this makes it sound like the life of faith pretty awesome, and always victorious. But we know this is not always the case, and so does the author of this letter. He continues:
There were those who, under torture, refused to give in and go free, preferring something better: resurrection. Others braved abuse and whips, and, yes, chains and dungeons. We have stories of those who were stoned, sawed in two, murdered in cold blood; stories of vagrants wandering the earth in animal skins, homeless, friendless, powerless—the world didn’t deserve them!—making their way as best they could on the cruel edges of the world.
In the final verses of the chapter, the author of Hebrews describes the “hanging by the fingernails” kind of faith. The faith that endures through suffering. He also makes it clear that this faith would continue to be required of his people through the rest of earth’s history.
verses 39-40 Not one of these people, even though their lives of faith were exemplary, got their hands on what was promised. God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.
3 Components of Hebrews 11 Faith
I believe there are 3 components to the kind of faith we find described in Hebrews 11:
1. FORTITUDE – the faith to become stronger in the broken places
Suffering can strengthen one’s character: building patience and fortitude in the face of adversity.
These strengths of character can then protect the tender beauty underneath: love, joy, compassion, and a sense of peace in the midst of suffering.
The first reason why the heroes of Hebrews 11 were able to live through their suffering was this divinely-given fortitude.
We see examples of it elsewhere in the Bible.
Christian writer Philip Yancy wrote the following in his book on prayer:
In one of his letters Paul described himself as afflicted but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed. He learned a different level of faith, one that does not remove difficulty but nevertheless withstands, a [fortitude] in which weakness transforms into strength…”2
2. FELLOW FEELING – Learning a Christlike Compassion
In NYC, the tragedy had been a tangible part of our reality.
My father-in-law watched the towers fall from his office across the East River, in Brooklyn.
The night of the attacks, we attended a special church service in Queens. As we drove to the church, the sky was still streaked with smoke and ash. And it was eerily quiet. We were used to the sound of a lot of air traffic, since that area of the city was right between two major airports (Kennedy and La Guardia).
That night, no commercial planes were in the sky. We went to sleep listening to the sound of military planes flying circles around the city. Maybe they should have made us feel safe. They didn’t for me at least.
In the weeks that followed, construction crews worked around the clock to clear away the rubble. They were hoping to find survivors, but didn’t. A few blocks from our home was a large cemetery. That September, several funeral processions wound their way through our streets, some no doubt from the towers. Some of the processions included firetrucks or police cars, so we knew they were for emergency responders who had also died that day.
New York City changed after 9/11. I don’t mean its character changed – it’s always been a busy place, a place of hardcore business and commerce.
I mean that its heart felt more exposed.
People flocked to ground zero to hand out sandwiches to the construction crews. At neighborhood blood drives, people lined up for several blocks to give blood.
Normally, when you use the subways and buses in New York City, the unspoken rule is that you don’t look other passengers in the eye. Doing so is considered to be a challenge or a threat. But for a few months after 9/11, people looked at each other. We searched each other’s faces for signs of pain or fear. And when we saw them, we tried to give each other encouragement: a slight nod, a smile.
I don’t think this increase in “fellow-feeling” was just a coincidence. It was divinely given – a spark of compassion between fellow human beings who were suffering. This is perhaps suffering’s best gift: the ability and the DESIRE to come along someone else and help them through the same thing.
Being able to share and discuss hardship helps us heal. Clinical research has shown that this is key to the post-traumatic growth experienced by those dealing with the aftermath of
- intimate partner violence
- and chronic illnesses like AIDS and cancer.
As a component of faith, compassion grows to a more Christlike maturity.
3. FIDELITY: Holding onto a Future Hope
In my work – the books and articles I write, the seminars I give – I am constantly aware that we all struggle with both types of stress and suffering: that which we seek and that which seeks us.
In our day-to-day life, most of us experience much more of the first kind than the second kind. Sometimes the suffering we seek is for a positive purpose: training for a marathon, studying to get a good grade, working for a job promotion.
And sometimes we create unnecessary suffering in our minds through the thinking patterns we use. So some of what I do is to provide tools to help us correct those patterns.
But this morning, I wanted to focus on the suffering that seeks us. We don’t see this as much in everyday life, but when it hits, it hits us hard.
And if we’re being honest, we would admit that this suffering does not always deepen our faith. It can cause a crisis of faith, where we lose hope.
Even the heroes of Hebrews 11 sometimes lost hope. They too stumbled in the shadowland. Abraham and Sarah despaired about having their own baby and so tried putting their own plan in motion. Moses struggled in his role as leader to God’s people. I think of others in the Bible, too: the weeping prophet Jeremiah, the suffering of Job.
Unfortunately, some believers, particularly those who have never been touched by suffering, are quick to rush to God’s defense when their brothers and sisters stumble. They act like Job’s friends: in their fervor to save God’s good reputation, they sometimes throw the sufferer under the bus, blaming him or her for their own suffering.
Others give up on the idea of faith altogether.
J.D. Bremner is a psychiatrist at Emory who works with PTSD patients. In his book he makes this statement:
We all have an illusion that the world is a safe and just place that we cherish. That’s because we need such an illusion in order to survive. The world would be a terrible place if we could foresee the future, if we knew everything that was going to happen to us. We wouldn’t be able to survive, we would become trembling and terrified infants who were afraid to take a single step on our own. It is our ignorance of the true nature of the world that keeps us sane.”3
Dr. Bremner is a scientist and as far as I can tell, an atheist – many of my colleagues are.
In this day and age, scientists often work under a different creed than believers. But my purpose here is not to denigrate that creed – I understand and respect that creed because I, too, am a scientist. Believers make a mistake if they think they will convert the analytically minded by attacking them.
My purpose here is only to say this: some among us have lost so much hope that they begin to view faith as nothing more than a psychological crutch.
Some believe that we have made up God because we cannot face the reality that we are alone in the world.
But as both scientist and believer, I think Bremner is only half right. Bremner was right when he said that we live under an illusion if we believe that the world is a safe and happy place.
But I would modify his last statement to say, “It is our faith about the true nature of the world that keeps us sane.”
Faith is what helps us see what’s happening behind the scenes. Faith lets us see the true nature of the world.
In listing the reasons why God cannot always relieve suffering, Christian author Philip Yancy wrote:
Some, but not all, trace back to God’s mysterious respect for human freedom and refusal to coerce. Some, but not all, trace back to dark powers contending against God’s rule. Some, but not all trace back to a planet marred with disease, violence, and the potential for tragic accident.”4
Faith helps us see the world as a marred place, a dark spot of rebellion currently (but only temporarily) in allied to the “dark forces” Yancy spoke of.
The Bible describes how this rebellion started in heaven and how it came to be here. We know that at the very beginning of the story, God made provision to take the worst of human suffering on Himself.
Jesus did this at the cross. That was the suffering He willingly sought in order to give us hope.
Today, you and I live in the middle of the story of humanity. Here in the middle, the consequences of rebellion are still playing themselves out.
We travel the same road as, sometimes “making [our] way as best [we can] on the cruel edges of the world.”
We learn from the stories of the Hebrews 11 heroes that God’s children are not always kept safe from suffering. Paul talked about this in Romans:
Romans 5: 2-4 (NIV): And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.
In this verse, we see the three components of faith together: perseverance (fortitude in the face of suffering), developing a more Christlike character (including compassion for others who are also suffering), and finally, hope. Hope seems to be the endpoint of the process.
This third component of faith projects us into the future, at the end of the story of humanity, where God has promised to make a new world clean of suffering.
All of humanity will have their hope fulfilled together at the end of the story. We know this, because at the end of the faith chapter, the author of Hebrews wrote:
verses 39-40 Not one of these people… got their hands on what was promised. God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.
Philip Yancy described hope as a process of waiting:
The very tedium, the act of waiting itself, works to nourish in us qualities of patience, persistence, trust, gentleness, compassion – or it may do so, if we place ourselves in the stream of God’s movement on earth. It may take more faith to trust God when we do not get what we ask for than when we do.
Is that not the point of Hebrews 11? That chapter includes the poignant comment that the heroes of faith were ‘commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.’ It then intertwines their frustrated destiny with ours: ‘God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.’ Faith calls us to trust in a future-oriented God.”5
So Bremner was right when he said that we live under an illusion if we believe that world is a safe and happy place. It is a world filled with fearful shadows.
But a shadow can have two meanings: it can be a dark and terrible place, filled with dark and terrible forces. But it can also mean something insubstantial, transitory. Like the shadow cast on the ground by a tree or a rock or even a mountain, a shadowland may exist only as the faintest outline of some other, far more real, world.
The true nature of the world was described in a play I saw once by William Nicholson. He wrote, “This world that seems to us so substantial is no more than the shadowlands. Real life has not begun yet.”6
You and I are only the tail end of a long line of pilgrims through this shadowland.
Those at the front of the line are described in Hebrews 11: Abel. Enoch. Noah. Abraham. Sarah. Isaac. Jacob. Joseph. Moses. Rahab. The nation of Israel with its generations of judges, kings, and prophets.
13-16 Each one of these people of faith died not yet having in hand what was promised, but still believing. How did they do it? They saw it way off in the distance, waved their greeting, and accepted the fact that they were transients in this world. People who live this way make it plain that they are looking for their true home. If they were homesick for the old country, they could have gone back any time they wanted. But they were after a far better country than that—heaven country.”
This world that seems so substantial to us is no more than the shadowlands. Real life has not yet even begun.
Conclusion and Action Steps
If you valued this post, please SHARE IT. This is more helpful to my ministry than you know.
1 Connor, KM (2006) Assessment of Resilience in the Aftermath of Trauma. J Clin Psychiatry 67 (suppl2):46-49.
2 Yancy, P. (2006). Prayer: Does it make any difference? Grand Rapids: Zondervan. p.279.
3 Bremner, J. D. (2002). Does Stress Damage the Brain? New York: Norton and Co. p.21.
4 Yancy, P. (2006). Prayer: Does it make any difference? Grand Rapids: Zondervan. p.232.
5 Yancy, P. (2006). Prayer: Does it make any difference? Grand Rapids: Zondervan. pp.237-238.
6 Nicholson, W. (1991). Shadowlands. New York: Plume. p.3.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.