Jonathan Merritt on Palm Sunday and the Gift of Disillusionment

The December sky was low and gray on the morning I woke up and could not feel my hands. I wrung out my arms, hoping the sensation would return. I shook them violently to no avail. Rushing to the bathroom, I held them under hot water. Then frigid water. Neither helped.

Within days, prickly tingles crept up my arm and spread to my shoulders. The numbness turned into pain that burned, ached, and stabbed. Even my fingernails throbbed. A neurologist performed tests using electrified needles inserted into my muscles and shock pads placed on the skin. Nothing appeared abnormal.

Next came a series of scans and a litany of tests for minor problems like vitamin deficiencies, major illnesses like Lupus, and life-threatening conditions like multiple myeloma. Each brought excruciating waiting and worry. I was, after all, a writer whose livelihood depended on having control of his hands. All returned negative.

My symptom list grew with each passing month. First came nerve twitches in my legs, arms, back, and face. Then a paradox of sapping fatigue and insomnia. Severe panic attacks struck without warning, and I broke out in excruciating shingles from the overwhelming stress. The slightest stressor—a large crowd or a long line, common in New York City, where I live—left me bedridden.

The revolving door of physicians left me without a diagnosis and drowning in an ocean of medications: anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxants, nerve pills, pain killers, antiepileptic drugs, sleeping pills, and a healthy dose of Lexapro and Xanax to keep me from a full-on mental break. I grasped for anyone who would help, scheduling appointments with cardiologists and chiropractors, naturopaths and nutritionists, holistic doctors and Hasidic Jewish healers.

My life blurred. My ability to work was reduced to a meager three hours a day. My social life disintegrated, leaving me in depths of loneliness I’d never known before. Everything familiar looked strange. Pain tormented me at every moment. I awoke to pain, worked with pain, dined with pain, and fought for sleep despite pain’s presence.

I was helpless like Job, brought low before God out of sheer desperation. When he was faced with his own pain, he could only bow before the Divine and listen to the wind. The difference between us is that once Job submitted, God restored him. I had no such luck. I was incarcerated in the prison of my own body.

And just like that, I joined the more than 25 million Americans who struggle with chronic pain disorders, many of them idiopathic in nature. As a Christian, I believed that God was sovereign, which made my chronic pain journey also a voyage of divine disappointment.

Come on, God. You know my story. You were there when my neighbor abused me as a child. You know how awkward and alienated I felt throughout adolescence. You know how I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression my entire adult life. I’m starting to see sunlight, to get a little relief, and then this happens? Really?

This is the edited version, actually. I spoke words to God that the MPAA would bar from a PG-13 movie.

The Dopamine Roller Coaster

On November 9, 2016, New Yorkmagazine published an article on the science of disappointment. The article opened by stating the obvious, which is that “the feeling of being let down is actually one of life’s toughest emotional experiences.”

Of course, most people don’t need a magazine article to know that this is true, that disappointment hurts. A spouse or partner, that person who made butterflies dance inside you, cheated on you, and then hid it. Your colleague smeared you in a meeting to steal the promotion you earned. The child you prayed over since birth stormed out of the house, swearing to never return. A forgotten birthday, a withheld apology, a bucketful of lies from someone you’d die for.

Disappointment is an unavoidable part of being human, but as the New York magazine article noted, the experience is physiological, not just emotional. The feeling of disappointment is linked to your levels of dopamine: the brain’s “pleasure” chemical, released during positive life experiences. The dopamine systems in your brain don’t just react to what you experience; they attempt to predict what you want or need.

Here’s how it works: Your brain generates expectations about the future. Often these expectations are based on what you want. Something you perceive as good has happened in the past, so you begin to expect it will happen in the future. Before it even happens, your dopamine levels begin to rise in the rush of anticipation. Then, when that good thing actually occurs, you get a double shot of dopamine.

Here’s the rub: Life doesn’t always give us what we expect. People fail us. People hurt us. People lay us on the altars of their own selfishness. When you don’t get the desired result—researchers call this a “reward-prediction error”—not only do your dopamine levels fall; they plummet from the heightened level generated by your expectations.

Now, instead of receiving a double shot of dopamine, you receive none. You crash doubly hard: “Not only do you not get what you wanted,” the article states, “but you also feel the displeasure of having been wrong.” The point? “Losing hurts even worse … when it’s not what you were expecting.”

Rising Expectations

In the valley of my disappointment, I discovered a gospel story that’s a portrait of what it looks like when an entire community suffers a reward-prediction error. It’s known as the “triumphal entry,” and it is usually told on Palm Sunday in most churches.

Dust was swirling across the scorching desert as a rebel-Rabbi and his band of co-conspirators climbed up to Jerusalem. Rather than slip into the city unannounced, Jesus did something strange. He told a couple of his disciples to go to a particular place and retrieve a donkey for him to ride into the city.

Jesus turned his face toward a city that kills prophets, stones truth-tellers, and executes troublemakers. With a deep sigh, he steeled himself, mounted the humble beast, and clip-clopped toward the Kidron Valley. When the Jerusalemites saw Jesus approaching, they erupted in excitement. They began stripping off their cloaks and spreading them across the road. The crowd whacked branches off trees and laid them across Jesus’ path. As if this weren’t enough pomp and ceremony, the crowd broke into a Passover song.

All four Gospel writers include this narrative, each with their own twist. Matthew’s version says that the procession turns the whole city into “turmoil” (21:10, NRSV). The Greek word for turmoil is the root for the English word seismic. The city trembles as Jesus approaches.

The story begins with great expectations, which are easy to miss. Jesus has just been in Bethany, close to Jerusalem, where he resurrected his friend Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus’s eyes have barely adjusted to the sunlight, and his story has spread throughout the region. Hearing this story, the crowds react, their brains bathed in dopamine. They begin to predict how God will act in their lives based on the way that God acted before: He will intervene again. He will work a miracle. He will expel the occupiers and resurrect God’s people in God’s city.

The palm branches signaled the crowd’s high expectations, a symbol largely lost on those of us who are separated from the culture and chronology of the story. Jewish history told of a man named Judas Maccabeus, a freedom fighter who entered Jerusalem 200 years prior to Jesus. As he approached, people waved palm branches and sang hymns. When Judas finally arrived, he defeated the Syrian king, recaptured the Temple, expelled the pagans, and reigned for a century before the Romans took back the city.

God had saved his people from an occupier once before when an uncommon man trotted into town. With a new sheriff seemingly on the horizon, their dopamine systems kicked in, and they began predicting another takeover. Their song declared, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matt. 21:9).

This is a song that Jews sang at the beginning of Passover. It’s taken from Psalm 118, the most quoted psalm in the New Testament. It tells of an enemy swarming like bees, driving the psalmist to the brink of destruction. Then God sweeps in with a mighty hand and wipes out the enemy. The word Hosanna means “Lord, save now.” They are asking Jesus to drive out the enemy army and restore order.

Even the donkey plays a role in elevating expectations, as it harkens back to an image from Zechariah 9:9, a prophetic passage that many of these Jerusalemites would have heard before. “See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey.”

That night, around dinner tables across Jerusalem, the Jews likely discussed the day in hushed voices. “Could this be the king we’ve been waiting for? He was riding a donkey after all.” By the time Jesus mounted that donkey and descended into town, their dopamine systems would have been in overdrive.

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Source: Christianity Today