What do inflammation, memory, and spirituality have in common? Quite a bit.
Inflammation is our body’s attempt to protect itself from invading pathogens. For example, if we fall on the ground and scrape a knee, our body reacts instantly to protect us. White blood cells rush to the scene of the accident like super-fast emergency workers. Once there, they release chemicals to keep harmful substances from entering the bloodstream. That red, irritated-looking area surrounding a cut is inflammation doing its job. Without it, our bodies would not heal.
However, inflammation can become chronic. Sometimes our bodies trick themselves into thinking that we are constantly under attack, even when we aren’t. Our bodies are continuously in defense mode and begin turning on themselves, attacking normal tissues like foreign bodies. This overreaction can cause arthritis, heart attacks, autoimmune diseases, and cancer.
We don’t know entirely why chronic inflammation happens, but genetics, our reactions to stress, a lack of sleep, and poor diet all appear to play a role.
What’s this got to do with a person’s spiritual life?
Just as our bodies act against injury by producing inflammation, our souls react to stress with patterned responses. We become anxious when a loved one is sick. We feel irritated after an argument. Insomnia develops because we’re having problems at work. Our feelings are natural responses to the spiritual breaks, cuts, bruises, and threats we experience. They alert us when something is wrong.
Problems arise when those emotional and spiritual reactions turn chronic. Anxiety, fear, and stress take charge even during what should be downtime. Few of us want to deal with these emotions, so we bottle them up and try to push them down as far as possible. But repressed feelings can lead to arthritis of the soul; our minds become rigid, and our hearts harden. We fall into inertia, laziness, and depression, which prevent us from loving God and those around us.
Caring for our souls can be challenging if we’re exhausted from a newborn who refuses to sleep, suffer from chronic disease, have recently experienced a setback at work, or feel fed up with the daily stresses of 21st-century living.
When times like these arise—when our souls are raw and inflamed—let’s try to remember who we are. Sometimes the best way to do this is to find something we love or once loved to do. Maybe it’s reading, making soup, putting together a photo album, exercising, or spending some relaxing time with loved ones.
Moving the body, stimulating the mind, and engaging in conversation might not sound like ways to ward off spiritual inflammation. But these acts help us recover a feeling of possibility and connection. Often our souls need a reminder that our lives are bigger than what we can imagine when we are tired or stressed. Sometimes going for an early morning walk or remembering a particular time with a family member is enough to spark our weary souls.
Recently my wife Grace and I wrote a children’s book entitled, Remember Us with Smiles, about a family remembering some of the good times they spent together. Memory can heal us. We’ve discovered that revisiting the good old days has helped us get through some not-so-good days. Positive memories have a cooling effect that can ease painful moments.
Today, remember who you are by remembering who you were and what you loved. Think back to when you were a child or a student or a new mother or father, and then spend some time with those memories. Remember a time you ate pizza with your family and the laughs you shared. If you loved John Coltrane when working at your first job, then listen to Blue Train again.
Revisit your memories, not to dwell on the past or dig up old hurts, but to remember who you are and what you love. Those precious moments can ease some of the painful and inflamed times that many of us are struggling through in our lives.