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A train's long, lonely whistle
can bring comfort and pain

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A train's long, lonely whistle
can bring comfort and pain

by Dennis Diehl
The writer was a pastor of the Worldwide Church of God for 26 years in Ohio, Kentucky, New York and South Carolina. Reach Mr. Diehl, who has nothing for you to join, at

GREENVILLE, S.C.--I was sitting quietly on a cushion in a corner of my massage room meditating when it came.

Sitting silently--no music, no CDs telling me how to meditate or what to envision--is not an easy thing for me.

For a long time it seemed like a waste of time for a Dutchman who must have a program in his head that tells him that being productive is the most important human undertaking.

Somewhere along the way I learned that a spinning mind was a happy mind, but then I learned it wasn't so.

A spinning mind is what the brain delivers when it is overwhelmed and unfocused on a meaningful thought or project.

One breath at a time

I meet lots of people with spinning minds and find them exhausting. Many minds spin well into the night and deprive us of our sleep. So I have learned to meditate, which for me is letting go of the thoughts that spin, and just breathe.

Just breathe. How often I tell my clients to just breathe.

Most people with spinning minds either hold their breath for a time while concentrating or breathe in small bites from their upper chest between their sternum and chin.

One method deprives the brain of oxygen. The other, high-chest breathing, is the kind we do when stressed or fearful. It signals the brain that something is wrong and launches us into fight-or-flight mode.

Neither of the two methods helps calm the spinning mind. So sometimes I advise clients to breathe from the tummy, below the navel, even if it makes them look fat.

Down there slow, concentrated, intentional breathing sends the message that all is well, under control and good.

The brain accommodates by sending out the good chemistry of peace, safety and contentment, even if one suspects that "this is not productive."

A train whistles

While breathing one day, just breathing, I heard it.

The wind was blowing in the nooks and crannies of my home, where my practice is, so I was already starting to zone.

But then I heard it: a train whistle in the distance; a train passing through town.

It was perfect: wind in the eaves, the long, lonely but calming sound of a locomotive and its cars and the faint thumping of wheels on rails. It was all good. But then my mind drifted to my sister.

While I was visiting her a few months ago I was riding with her down a road with a railroad crossing up ahead. She was driving, and I noticed her car speed up, and we passed quickly over the tracks.

We both knew why. Trains and whistles by day or night don't mean the same thing to my sister as they do to me.

Her grandson, my great-nephew, was recently killed by a train that he was not aware of because he was wearing headphones and listening to music. He was lost in thought, no doubt, at the loss of his grandmother that very morning. He was making a brief trip to a store across the tracks in Rochester, N.Y.

He never heard the train coming and died instantly. They buried his grandma and him on the same day.

Trains can terrify

Train sounds don't soothe my sister's mind. They terrify her and bring back the pain.

Unfortunately for her, train sounds are everywhere, and sometimes she has to close windows to shield herself from sounds she no doubt never noticed in the past.

Train whistles in the night don't comfort her because her brain was rewired by a painful association with the worst experience in the life of her and her daughter.

I hear trains and whistles even as I write and they do not bring to my mind the anxiety, anger and depression they bring to hers. Those sounds for me are not directly connected to pain or emotional trauma. I am a bit removed from it. I want to open the window and take in the sounds.

Tied memories

None of us is free from similar associations: if not sounds, then ideas, people, even organizations.

Our experiences and the resulting associations that get stuck to moments of pain, fear and anger forever color how we perceive our world.

I have a hard time with organized religion, an oxymoron to me. It would be almost as difficult for me to sit through the sermon of a man who had not done his homework, and was merely emotionally reading the Bible from a pulpit to motivate an audience, as it would be for my sister to stand at a railroad crossing and wave at the engineer.

It's all about associations and the memories that get tied to them. They help make us who we are, and the same sounds, people and organizations can affect us differently from the way they used to.

Switch inspires twitch

I visited an elderly man in a nursing home who was dying and reciting the Lord's Prayer to himself when I arrived. Every few seconds he'd twitch and wince, and I assumed he was reacting to whatever he was physically suffering from.

He twitched about three times throughout the course of saying the prayer. As soon as he said amen his twitching and wincing stopped.

That's odd, I thought. His son was there, so I asked him why his dad did that.

The son said that, when his father was young and learning the Lord's Prayer in school, every time he hesitated or forgot a part of it the teacher switched him on the hands.

The dad's brain figured the pain and the prayer went together so it never allowed him to separate them from each other. Every time in his life when he said the prayer, he acted out the pain that was glued to his experience of memorizing it.

Painful or scary

Wind, rain, thunder and lightning are not relaxing for some people.

Women who hate men have their reasons, as do men who don't want to go home or back to church.

Some people can't go to airports anymore and don't look up when they hear a jet soaring overhead.

Sitting near the ocean or boarding a boat might be one man's dream and another man's nightmare, depending on how their brain chemistry has wired them based on their experiences.

Getting over

Sometimes we need to keep these things in mind when trying to encourage people, if encouragement of people is what we want to do. Our basic rule should be that encouragement by an encourager should actually encourage the one who is discouraged.

I have known ministers who told parents of children who have died that it was about time to get over it. Or they need to come to church and they will feel better.

Driving to church, for some of these people, meant driving over the spot where their child was killed.

For the minister that route was a way to get from one place to the other, but for the parents that road was so painful they must avoid it.

It's just a road. It's just a train. But the mind makes associations.

Hardwired brains

Here are a few ways not to encourage people who have experienced a hardwiring of their brains by circumstances different from yours:

  • To those who have lost children do not say, "Well, at least you will see them in the Kingdom."

Parents don't want to see their children in the Kingdom. They want to see them at the dinner table.

  • Do not say, "God won't give you more than you can bear," because they cannot bear what they are going through, and that piece of advice makes no sense to them.

  • Don't say: Get over it. It's just a train. Or it's just a river, or it's just a church, or it's just a bridge.

A woman who recently lost her only daughter in an auto accident said, "If I hear one more church member tell me that I must be strong or this would not have happened, I will quit going to church."

  • To those who are experiencing financial problems do not say, "If you give God His tithe the windows of heaven will open for you."

Wrong! People who say this are usually comfortable and don't miss the money they give anyway. They have never had to choose between tithing and rent or food or school.

Once burned

Whether we like it or not, for most people God simply does not follow through on "whatever things you shall ask, I will give it to you."

Mention tithing to many adults who grew up deprived because of it and see what I mean.

Once burned twice smart. Once your mind figures out that God doesn't really need your money--and if He owns the cattle on a thousand hills anyway He could sell a few if He did need some--you will feel better.

To those who are having a crisis in faith, do not say:

"Just trust God."

"The thoughts of man are vain."

"The heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, and this refers to you."

"O ye of little faith."

"You need to pray more."

"You need to fast more."

"You need to study more."

Improving people

Religion really ought to improve people, lessen the chances of war and inspire people to greater honesty and less materialism.

People have varied experiences, and we don't all share the same ones. People who have seen war cannot generally be encouraged by those who have not but can be encouraged by people who understand how the mind works even if they have not been in war.

People who have been burned by religion generally cannot be encouraged by those who have their heads in the clouds and are themselves religion-haunted.

People who have lost children generally cannot be inspired by miraculous accounts of God's intervention in the lives of other families when apparently God did not come through for them.

I told a minister who went on and on in a sermon about how a girl in his church was miraculously saved from death in a horrible crash to keep it to himself.

In an audience of 10,000 or so there are a few dozen parents sitting there feeling more forsaken than he can possibly imagine and agonizing over why that wasn't their experience.

Those who haven't experienced it may be entertained, and those who have are being tormented. So just drop it.

Breathe low

Ah, another train is coming. That long whistle on a windy day soothes my soul.

If my sister was here now, I would be turning up the volume on the stereo or inviting her to move to a quieter room in the middle of my house.

When associative sounds, people and places come to haunt, just breathe. Breathe low in the tummy.

Remind yourself, whether anyone else understands it or not: I am okay. My emotions are the reaction to my mind, which is producing the chemistry associated with the trauma that those experiences caused my brain to memorize.

Breathe. Breathe from your tummy. It will pass, and life can go on as you win one more small victory over experiences that hurt your spirit but force your growth.

On the other side of trauma, it can happen that an exceedingly practical encourager and teacher is born.


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