Third Sunday of Advent
Channeling Our Inner Baboon
December 13, 2020Revised Common Lectionary
This week, as we move into the heart of Advent, I am reminded of the stress that can accompany our joy in this season. Other primates reveal how we can work together in community to reduce one another's stress.
Science & Nature
Robert Sapolsky discusses physiological effects of stress
Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky reviews what findings from primate studies suggest about the formation and nature of stress in humans.
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Who helps you reduce your stress?
This is a season of anticipation and hope. It is also a season of stress—and this year more than most. No matter what is going on in the world around us, the season invites stress. We are accompanied annually by grief, overindulgence, overspending, envy over what we cannot acquire, persistent conflict and old family wounds. And this year, in our country, we add to all that the stress of a global pandemic, a fraught national election, and our profoundly strained race relations. It’s a beautiful time of year, but it can also be a painful time.
Sometimes we look to religion to relieve our stress, and other times we wonder if it’s contributing to our stress. I’d like to invite you to reflect on our vocation to be Christ’s people in this world and how our baptismal calling figures in to the stress we carry. But first, let’s take a look at what we know about stress.
We often say casually that stress can make us sick. But many of us may doubt the scientific validity of that assertion.
Robert Sapolsky is an American neuroendocrinologist, professor of biology, neuroscience, and neurosurgery at Stanford University, researcher and author. He has spent his career studying stress and neuronal degeneration (see today’s science and nature lesson).
Studying Sapolsky’s lifelong research with baboons erases any doubt that there exists a relationship between stress and health.
Sapolsky has spent the past two decades studying stress in baboons, whose neurological makeup and societal structures are close enough to ours to make meaningful inferences and whose shorter life spans make such studies practical.
The most compelling reason Sapolsky believed Baboons were the best primates to study in order to understand human stress has to do with the similarity in culture between their communities and those of so-called first world or more privileged humans. Turns out, baboons have created a culture with plenty of leisure time. It only takes them about 4 hours a day to procure food. Which leaves them free the rest of their day to wreak havoc on one another. That, Sapolsky notes, should be quite familiar to us. You might say we humans have far too much time to create stress for one another.
His studies involve observing behaviors in their troops or communities as those behaviors are correlated to the most important stress hormone in baboons and humans, cortisol or hydrocortisone.
Simply put, you want cortisol in low levels most of the time in your body but in high levels during acute stress. It shuts down many other functions, such as digestion and immune suppression to help your system focus solely on the crisis at hand. In times of trouble, it can save your life. It’s like shutting down all programs on your computer other than the one you’re currently using so it can work at maximum speed and efficiency.
The deal is, we have habituated our bodies to chronic stress and have sort of trained them to keep high levels of cortisol around when it’s not helpful. Which leads to our susceptibility to stress induced disease.
Well, baboons do the same thing.
None of this is today’s news. We’ve known this for a long time. What Sapolsky’s been working on is discovering what factors tend to lead to the chrnic presence of cortisol and what factors help diminish it.
Here’s the interesting thing he found in the baboon troop: it’s not primarily or solely the presence of imminent threat or challenge or even their engaging the challenge that determines the level of cortisol that is chronically present in their bodies. They are just as stressed, if not more so at times, when they are enjoying complete leisure.
Rather, it is other factors. Succinctly put, these include: the kind of society in which they live—stable or not, their experience of that society—hopeful or not,their personal character traits—including their ability to assess a situation accurately and then to impact it, and finally—the most important factor—whether they have community or are isolated.
These animals, who are normally prone to being aggressive, committed to social rank, and downright nasty, can, when in the right type of community, create a caring, mutually beneficial and low stress society.
Sapolsky’s work suggests the best antidote to stress is not pure leisure but rather creating the kind of community that inspires us to change the wrongs we see. Our greatest stress buster just might be relationships that give us energy to change the world.
Two of the three scriptural lessons for this week paint pictures of a world marked by such relationships, the world that can happen if we live our baptismal vows and create it together.
Listen again to this beautiful portion of Isaiah:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.
This text, which Jesus used to describe his core mission, does not let us avoid the challenges of this world. Nor does it bleakly proclaim their inevitability. Instead, Jesus uses this text to form his community of followers who will face the challenges head on with hope, resolve, courage and peace.
Likewise, in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, he asks his readers to form a community marked by uncommon mutual vulnerability.
Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage; hold fast that which is good; render to no one evil for evil. Strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak; help the afflicted; honour everyone; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.
What ought we the church provide to weary sojourners each week?
Comfort? Challenge? Conviction? Good Feelings?Should we avoid issues? Touch upon them but not dwell on them? Hammer away at them no matter the cost in community? It can be difficult to strike the right balance.
But today’s texts and Sapolsky’s research suggest that what actually brings us joy and relieves our stress is not so much finding the perfect balance between rest and work, between leisure and challenge. Rather, the primary predictor of low stress and high joy is in how we engage one another in the midst of life’s challenges.
The single most important predictive factor in our joy is the quality of our community. Intimate, authentic, respectful, and courageous relationships among us give us hope and energy, reduce our stress, and make us want to help others.
When a community is healthy, it allows members to build on the stability within the community and reach past comfort zones to forge new connections with others who are suffering.When we develop true affection and respect for someone outside our circle and gain understanding of their suffering, our work on their behalf does not cause stress. It relieves our stress. It brings us glad tidings. We see the world changing right in front of us.
And this work limits our own isolation and begins to heal our own wounds.
If Baboons who work together to address their social stressors show a reduction in the hormone most predictive of the stress that leads to disease and kills them, is it not also true of us?
This Advent, I wonder sometimes whether we, the baptized people of God, are ready to accept the call to hear and respond to the cries of the broken hearted, the oppressed, the captives.I wonder if we can be the kind of community Jesus and Paul envisioned—one with courage to meet challenges head on rather than anesthetizing them with overindulgence or overspending that leaves us empty and unsatisfied. I wonder if we can respond to the needs ofthose who unsettle us not with ambivalence or resentment but with glad tidings of great joy. And I wonder if we build a deeper community, we might find that our own souls and bodies become less stressed and more whole. I wonder if we can do these things together, now, when there is such need of us.
If baboons can do it, maybe, just maybe, we can too.