On Being Overwhelmed

I haven’t been blogging because I haven’t known what to say.

I still don’t.

There are multiple conversations in culture that demand attention (just cruise your Flipboard for awhile), and to most of them, I simply say this:  I don’t know the answers to the questions we’re facing.

But not long ago, I read a post over at Stephen Pressfield’s blog that accused folks like me of simple cowardice.  Ouch.  To be an artist is to choose a point of view and go after it.    To sit on the fence on anything is to have a yellow streak.  Choose what you think and get on with it.  The writer went on to say that if you don’t choose where you stand on issues, you won’t have anything to say. There’s also the famous enjoinder that reminds us that all it takes for evil to triumph in the world is for good people to do nothing.

And this blog has been silent.


I can’t tell if I’m experiencing a storm, a carnival, or some variation of the two.  A storm-like carnival, a carnival in a storm, or a carnival-like storm…who knows?  All I know is that there’s a lot of stuff—dark and beautiful—whirling around.  And we’re all pointing and saying, “Look at that!”  Not only “Look at that” but also, “Let me tell you the truth about that.”   I watch smart, articulate people I know hold court among friends conversing on a particular topic, and as they speak with conviction and clarity, I wonder, “Why aren’t you as overwhelmed as I am?”


Here’s what’s whirling in our carnival storm: theology, philosophy, biblical studies, world religion, archeology, symbology, psychology, biology, physics, economics, sociology, neurology and brain studies, sexuality, politics, issues of justice, entertainment, creativity, art, ecology, fiction and literature, poetry, theatre, music, popular mass media, media criticism, history, aesthetics, phenomenology, and…the list goes on.

To say it more simply, what’s whirling are our ideas about what it means to be human, and just what it is that constitutes “the good.”


A conversation with a very smart friend of mine recently reminded me that I have traveled further down the postmodern path than I ever thought I would.  He mused that perhaps the kind of Christian you became might depend on whether you read the book of Hebrews before you read the book of Romans, or the other way around.  We were talking about atonement theories (exactly how Christ’s crucifixion paves the way for reconciliation with God), and his simple statement reflected my current thinking that so much of what (and how) we think and feel is determined by more factors than we can get our heads around.   It can be as simple as the order in which you encounter bits of information that you eventually come to hold as your most sacred thoughts.

Genetics, the nurture of our family of origin, the specific time of history into which we are born, our economics, our social circles, our exposure to ideas in all domains of human learning and enterprise, our various degrees of intelligence and giftedness, our educational opportunities, our emotional structures and the various ways in which all these lenses are put together to create dynamically changing ways in which we see the world.   And finally, add to it the notion that we are story-telling creatures by nature, and that the brain may not care whether the stories are true or not, and suddenly, deciding where to put your feet down becomes a bit dicey.

All this is to say that the latest version of what one colleague once termed my “ongoing tortured self” (“If Jeff isn’t tortured about something, he isn’t Jeff”) feels more serious than most.   If all those categories of human activity and study listed above are thought of tectonic plates…well, you know what happens when tectonic plates start shifting.

At the end of the day, the starting place is simply this: we are limited, and what we know will always be dwarfed by what we don’t know.   There isn’t much to do about that.  It’s in the design of things.  That is not to say we can’t know anything—there are in fact, amazing things to know and be sure of, but that list of “knowable” things is, in itself, mysterious, and up for much debate.    Will I ever know anything with enough certainty that I will shout down those who disagree with veins popping in my neck?

I doubt it.


I begin each day with a meditation on the nature of God, and as Peter Rollins reflects on in How (Not) to Speak of God, I’ve ended up not wanting to say anything.  He quotes philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his introduction: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”   Sometimes the not speaking is about knowing your own ignorance, and sometimes its about awe, but either way, no words will come.

That being said, it’s time to start speaking again, though as always with me, it’s going to be mostly questions asked, not declarations made.

Wondering what inspiration means…

7 Replies to “On Being Overwhelmed”

  1. Jeff, some thoughts on the subject from someone who has very little knowledge of anything. I have staked my life on the faith that: First, God is and has all knowledge and all power. Second, Jesus revealed the character of God in His life and teaching, as well as in His death and resurrection Third, when Jesus said, “Consider the lilies of the field,” He gave mankind permission to explore all of God’s creation, for in it God has revealed Himself. Fourth, God wants to reveal Himself to mankind, not only through His creation and Jesus, but through His Holy Spirit, whom He has promised to those who yield to Him in faith and obedience. Fifth, two puddles plus two puddles still make four puddles unless you pour one into the other. It is very hard to get to the higher math that says 2+2 does not equal 4 unless you start with the basic principle that 2+2=4. Likewise, one man and one woman are two people until they become one flesh. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three who are one. Sixth, God’s Spirit gives us all the knowledge we need and the wisdom to apply that knowledge according to His will at any given moment. Therefore, we need not be afraid. (Sadly, we aren’t always listening, but we have the power to do so if we trust His Spirit.). Seventh, we are all one in Christ Jesus if His Spirit dwells in us. (Seven is a whole number, so I’ll stop there.)

    1. Thanks Neita. We do indeed stake our lives on these things, and while there’s is a real elegance to the way we fit these things together, there are also large questions running between the linkages of all the above. You and I share the core of our faith, AND there is so, so, so much to learn. Stay tuned as this long journey continues. Thanks so much for continuing to live the faith of Christ so beautifully, and taking the time to join the conversation. Love you…


  2. Jeff,

    My struggles are slightly different. I have strong convictions about most of the issues you’ve raised, but I am currently living amongst people whose beliefs about these same matters often diametrically opposed to mine. Knowing how to behave in this environment is what I find overwhelming. On one hand, if I am a very intelligent, sharp debater, and I can smash my opponent and make him or her look stupid or if I become a loud, off-putting, angry, person that everyone avoids, what have I gained for my cause? On the other hand there are some situations where the “well, you can have your opinion and I’ll have mine and we’ll just get along”, approach isn’t really appropriate. Racism would be an extreme example of such a case.

    I tend to avoid the confrontation, not being sure what good it will do. However, I am not sure whether this is wisdom or cowardice.

    1. Julie, exactly. What do we win we win the argument? I’m not too interested in winning the argument. The prideful part of me wants to not appear foolish, but truth is, I’m going to if I’m going to be honest about what I don’t know, what I do not have strong convictions about. And yes, there are times when, as you say so kindly, it isn’t appropriate to let opinion just be what it is. That, of course, is one of the battle; which of the issues demands that of us? And yes, wisdom or cowardice? Truth is, I don’t know, though are plenty of folks who are certain. Thanks for joining in. I miss our coffees. Hope all is well.



    2. Julie, It seems to me that Jesus had the same problem. He handled it perfectly by being obedient to the Spirit and it led to the cross. It also led to our salvation. Let’s stumble along together in His footsteps.

  3. My mind jumps to 2 places, neither exceptionally deep or insightful, but …

    “The more you know about something, the more you know you don’t know” or something like that. Have no idea who said it, and not sure it helps me keep from being overwhelmed. But I do know that you Jeff, know a LOT about a lot of somethings. I can only imagine how challenging it can be to know all the things you thus don’t know. But I’d rather have some knowing, than to wallow in a sea of ignorant mediocraty.

    Years ago, Peters and Waterman discussed the concept of “chunking” in In Search of Excellence. When I’m most overwhelmed, it’s because of the enormity of the collective challenges looming overhead. When I feel a glimmer of success, its been the times that I’ve reached up and torn off a chunk, and been totally focused on that particular problem of the moment. Now if I can just keep from being overwhelmed by determining which chunk is more important (and worthy of my time and energy) at any given point. Ugh.

    Your insights always helpful, even on a (it’s all relative) bad day. 🙂

  4. Jeff, I think it was R. C. Bell who wrote, “The greater your island of knowledge, the greater your shoreline of wonder.” And my chemistry teacher, W. P. Showalter, said, “An educated man is someone who knows everything there is to know about one thing and a little bit about everything else.” Paul was an educated man. For him, to know Christ was the one thing. He said, “In Him all things hold together.” These thoughts have helped set me free from the fear of thinking outside the box in which I was brought up. Your posts remind me of how much I don’t know, and they challenge me to keep growing. However, there are a few things that “I know that I know that I know”, and God gets all the glory for that. I post these comments in fear and trembling of being misunderstood, for I fear I sometimes sound very dogmatic. Thank you for your kind replies.

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