John Eldredge has a lot on his mind. That’s not particularly unusual for this man, who is well known in Christian circles for his books about reconnecting with your heart and tapping into a divinely ordained life of adventure. In books like The Sacred Romance and Journey of Desire, Eldredge cast the spiritual life as something romantic, primal and deeply in tune with the imagination. He became most famous for Wild at Heart, which taught that men were created to be warriors and rescuers — William Wallace by way of Saint Francis — and lose something vital about themselves when they ignore these parts of their soul.
This article is part of our Quarterlife series, produced in partnership with Unite Health Share Ministries.
But Eldredge is also very into self care, play and treating yourself with tenderness. He’s concerned about the trauma being faced by a generation coming out of a year in crisis, and believes we’re setting ourselves up for failure if we don’t address that trauma with a season of pouring into ourselves. He talked to RELEVANT’s senior editor Tyler Huckabee about what that might look like, and his thoughts about the state of Christian masculinity.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
This is sort of a weird way to start but let’s go for it: How are you, John?
Colorado has been pretty good. We’ve been open for a while. So we can go to a restaurant and get dinner out and go to a movie. But to press a little deeper into your question, we’ve all just passed through global trauma, and I don’t think most folks know that. You can feel the effects in your brain. Forgetting stuff easily. Can’t remember what day it is. Lost sense of time. Those are trauma symptoms.
I think the world’s pretty clobbered. We’re a little beat up. What does it look like now to take care of ourselves? As we’re coming out of this thing, how do we heal from the effects of it and what it’s been like to live in a global crisis for a year?
Let’s define some terms here, because trauma is one of those words that gets thrown around a lot but I still think we operate with different definitions.
Let me give an example. For the past year and in very heightened moments of it, we’ve all had our normal taken away from us. Normal life got taken away. We were kept in a state of constant uncertainty. Navigating new terrain that never turned normal. We were bombarded with the fear of death. “Hey, this pandemic’s real. Everybody, come on. Let’s partner together, be responsible, because you could die or you could make somebody else die.” Then there was never a clear finish line. There was never a, “If we can just get to October 15th, we’re going to be great.” But then it moved to Christmas, and then it moved into ’21.
Those are the same techniques that you use when interrogating prisoners that you’re trying to break down. You take away their normal. You keep them in constant suspense. You bombard them with negative information. They have no idea when it’s going to end. That breaks down humanity.
So when I say trauma, what I mean is a human experience that you have been required to live through that is so disruptive to the normal rhythms of your soul that it leaves you with lasting effects upon your brain.
But prisoners know they’re in jail. They can steel themselves for an interrogation. Most of us are undergoing a traumatic experience and we’re barely aware of it.
Exactly. That’s why conversations like this one are so important. As we come out of it, I have been encouraging people to think of this as being in rehab. We’re in recovery. We need to take care of our souls.
What’s your plan to take care of your soul? Most of the people I know, we rallied. We did our best. We made it work. We got online. We saw our friends on Zoom or FaceTime or all that. Kids were at home. We figured out online learning. Both spouses are at home, working. We tried, right?
But what we had to do was to tap into our reserves. What would be your reaction today, Tyler, if I told you that a new pandemic is going to roll through next month and we are starting all over?
That’s it. There’s nothing in the reserve tank. So think about, “How am I going to renew my reserves?” Basically, you need to have a period of time where more is coming in than is going out. That’s how you replenish your reserves, right? You can’t keep burning 100%. You’ve got to throttle back a little bit.
Find some of those things that pour into your soul. If it’s beauty or if it’s getting out for a run or if it’s a certain group of people that you just love being with. What is going to pour back in now to replenish our very depleted reserves?
What about for folks who are younger — who may not feel like they have the time or even financial resources to really invest in things that bring them joy?
They need soul care just as much as the people that maybe got hospitalized or the people that lost their jobs during 2020. It would be easy to say, “Well, I’m young, and I’m going to rebound.” But you’re not good. You passed through the global trauma, just like everybody else, and you had your series of disappointments. The problem is, you’re now looking at a future that’s pretty uncertain.
There is a kind of resilience that youth will give you, but it’s not the same thing as recovery. Taking care of your body and your soul does not take a lot of money. One of the cool things about walking is that it does good things for your brain. The brain loves it when it feels like you are making progress. So that’s why when you kill it on a test or you do great on an interview, you come out of there and you’re like, “Oh, man, I’m stoked. We killed it. The brain loves that. When you’re walking, you’re continually feeding that in your brain, because you’re moving forward. That’s free.
Now we’re talking about “self-care” — another word we all have a lot of different definitions of.
When Paul is praying for us, he says, “I pray that the God of peace Himself would sanctify you through and through, that your whole spirit, soul, body would be kept blameless for the coming of Christ.”
We’re spirit. We’re soul. We’re body. You’ve got to take care of all three things. When we talk about self-care, some people think about their bodies, and you should. You’ve got to think about your body. But we’re also talking about soul care. Your soul is beautiful, but the soul is remarkable, because it’s very resilient while being very vulnerable. The soul needs care as well.
In the last 12 months, we have all lived through chronic disappointment. You lost that trip. You didn’t go to that wedding. You didn’t get to have the wedding. You didn’t get a graduation. You finished online. You lost your job. You can’t go to the club. You can’t go out to dinner, all of it, just large and small. Then, my goodness, we lost people. We lost loved ones. We have friends who have lost loved ones. So there’s a series of chronic disappointments. Have you grieved what you have lost?
I think something that can happen is that people look inside themselves to ask what things make them come alive and they realize they have no idea. They’re completely disconnected.
You go backwards. There were things that used to bring you life, things that you loved. You can go back five years. There were things that you used to do or enjoy that brought you life. You used to play the guitar. Why did you stop? You used to love listening to classic rock. Why’d you stop listening to that? There were things that used to bring you life. Go get them back. Pick a couple of those things.
If you can’t figure out what’s ahead of you, like, “I can’t really dream towards the future right now. I’m not really sure what that looks like,” go, “Oh, I used to love that park that’s several blocks down in the city. I love that park. I haven’t been there for a year.” Exactly. Go back to that park. Go back and find the things that used to bring you life, and start there.
Is there any reason for people to view any of these things with suspicion? Some things, they feel trivial like, say, Netflix or video games. And they can even be destructive, like spending money I don’t have or addiction issues.
Here’s a really helpful little tool. We call it the cost-joy ratio. Right now, people will get back from their vacation and say, “Oh, man, I need a vacation to recover from my vacation.” They got the cost-joy ratio totally out of whack.
You need to get more joy than what it’s costing you. So blowing a ton of money on something you can’t afford is going to give you some joy, but three days later, you’re going to be so filled with regret and panic, and now you’re facing these payments you can’t make. You got the cost-joy ratio totally out of whack.
The pornography thing is another classic example. Yeah, there’s a few minutes of joy, but then the guilt, the shame, the regret, that cycle. That stuff just tears you up. You look at the cost-joy thing, and you go, “Oh, man, this thing is way high-cost for the amount of joy I’m getting out of this.”
I also wanted to ask you about a subject you’ve become identified with: Christian masculinity. There has been an enormous reckoning centered around young men — particularly young, white Christian men — whose anger drives them to online radicalization. It can be QAnon and storming the Capitol, but sometimes it’s just a very toxic online presence. What’s going on?
This is huge right now. Men desperately want to feel competent. We want to feel effective. We want to feel like, “In my world, I am helping. I can fix the sink that’s leaking right now, and I can enter into that tough relationship and bring life. In my teaching job, I’m bringing life. I am helping. I am a powerful presence.” Men need to feel like their presence matters, that we are competent and effective in our worlds.
The bottom line is we love to fix stuff and we just have come through a period of history where we couldn’t fix much of anything at all. Couldn’t fix the economy. Couldn’t fix the politics. Couldn’t fix the broken education system. Couldn’t fix the pandemic.
There is anger in there. We go “I need to fix something. I need to set something right.” Then that gets into, “I need to set something straight.” That becomes “I need to set someone straight.”
The bottom line desire was good. That’s a good desire. That’s why firefighters will run into a burning building and rescue people. That’s why the EMTs will show up in a car accident like, “I’m here. I’m here to help. I want to set things right.” But you’ve got to name the anger, guys. Name it. Write it down. Shout it out to yourself, not online. Where’s the anger coming from? What is that rooted in?
This is going to be a very surprising soul care thing: there needs to be a couple places in your life where you are making things right. Paint a room. Plant a garden. Fix your bike that’s been broken for six months. Get it working again. You need to do simple things.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.