As a boy, Tolstoy and two friends put together a club. They called it the White Polar Bear Club because the only membership requirement was that a boy had to stand in a corner for 30 minutes and not think about a white bear. Memory researchers say we’ve all got a bit of the White Bear Syndrome. Close your eyes, if you don’t believe me, and whatever you do do not think about a white bear.
Intentional thought suppression was once tested in a Harvard psychology lab. Participants were told they were going to sit for five minutes and describe, in words, what’s on their mind; speak their stream of consciousness. They were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was told they could think about a white bear. The others were told they could not think of a white bear. They would press a button if or when they thought of a white bear. Additionally, their stream of consciousness utterances were recorded and the number of times they said “white bear” were counted. Participants who were told to not think about bears actually mentioned it less than the others, but all of them pressed the button at about equal rates. If the goal is to stop thinking about something, it’s hardly effective.
Also interesting was a follow-up test with those who, in the first test, were told to not think about bears. In a second test, they were told they could now think of white bears. Those folks – first told to not think about something, then told they could think about that thing – were off the charts in mentioning white bears and pushing the button, much more so than either group in the first study. Suppressing a thought actually leads, in time, to its subsequent over-indulgence. Someone trying to quit drinking only thinks about alcohol; someone trying to lose weight lets himself have just a nibble of a chocolate bunny’s ear and winds up devouring the whole thing.
We humans are tricky animals, crafty, and pretty good at self-deceit. I’ve always thought the Apostle Paul was describing me when he said to the Romans, “I don’t understand my own actions.”(Rom. 7) “I do not do what I want,” Paul wrote, “but I do the very thing I hate.” What do to about it? God “gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul wrote in another letter, so you and I should “stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15)
This is true. When life besets us and gets us down, when the anxiety is too much to bear and the worries are real, when pain is acute or life’s direction gone missing, the story of our faith is that the victory’s already won. For us, then, we hold on, we stand firm.
This is true, but it’s the type of truth Christians know a lot better as mystery than fact. For the fact is that the games of life and the culture of death not only exist outside but also tear us apart, within – desires are inflated, wills are set in competition, and I continue to do the things I do not want to do and which I know aren’t good. Christians celebrate resurrection, new life, but the context of this gift is death.
We labor but sometimes, contrary to Paul, it feels like we do so in vain. I can only imagine that’s what it felt to those women who headed out early on this first day of the week, carrying heavy sacks of ointment and spices. They were doing what they knew to do, laboring through life. Like them, we are also good at finding tricks to get through the day: when life gets overturned, we make lemonade, some say, or bury ourselves in work or master a craft. Mind over matter. A study performed at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, in fact, suggested we’ve got some capacity to exercise mind over matter. From an article in The Week: Twenty particpants were arranged into two groups and told to search for an item. One-half of them were allowed to repeat, out loud, the name of the thing they were looking for. The other half could not say the name of the thing. On average, the group speaking the name of the thing found it quicker than the group which was silent. Similar studies of children show that those who talk themselves through the process of tying their shoes do so faster than those who don’t. We have the capacity, some capacity, to exercise mind over matter, to accomplish tasks, to labor well, to get through the day.
But that’s not what resurrection looks like. Just laboring is not new life. Breaking the culture of death and attaining new life is the goal, but it’s truly hard. Phase two of the University of Wisconsin study is where it gets more interesting. Again, from The Week: “Researchers carried out a ‘virtual shopping task’ for common grocery store items, like Jell-O or Coke. Just as in the first phase, some of the participants were asked to repeat the item’s name to themselves while looking. But this time the results were ‘more complex.’ …Talkers were able to find familiar objects like Coke much quicker. But for less familiar objects, such as the slightly more ambiguous Speed Stick deodorant, the mutterers actually took much longer. Why? ‘Speaking to yourself isn’t always helpful,’” one researcher said, “’If you don’t know what an object looks like, saying its name can have no effect or can actually slow you down.’”
If you don’t know what an object looks like, or if the events of life have so worn down the truth you once received, or if you’ve already made yourself believe there is no hope, just simply saying it has no effect on you. In fact, it might even distract you, slow you down, get in your way. Truly, I wonder how some of the words we regularly toss around in the church actually sound to people, to you. What does resurrection mean? What does new and unending life imply? What does redemption say, to you, today? Are you hearing something or, just as likely and for no apparent fault of your own, do these words not only sound empty, vacant, vacuous but are they a distraction, obscuring your path to wholeness?
The way the Easter story is told, then, is precisely for you, you who are tricky animals, you human beings. The gospels do not describe the resurrection. They tell only of its faint aftermath, the evidence of the action of God: a stone unrolled, a tomb empty, a promise kept. Resurrection is a matter of faith, and faith is born in a place within the lives of perfectly ordinary women and men, people who can and do, from time to time, delude and trick ourselves. Like those women we forget and lose sight, we alter memories and, as science has shown, we are actually a whole lot better at driving ourselves further from the truth than we are at doing what people say when you lose something: just stop thinking about it and you’ll find it.
That’s not what the angel said in the garden. He said “Remember.” “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man will rise again.” And they remembered what he said and that he said it because they remembered how. They remembered, at that moment, not in their quickly deceiving minds but in their well-hewn hearts. For resurrection cannot be thought or learned. Redemption isn’t something some are better at because they pray harder or attend more regularly. It’s a gift and is retrieved in remembering, in coming back together and returning to life. In that moment, in that garden, those women remembered how Jesus embraced them and blessed them, how he took bread and broke it, how he welcomed sinners and loved the outcast, how gently he touched them, in a place deeper than words or meanings or thinking.
That place is the harbor of faith, and it is there in you. It’s been there all along.