Reclaiming Our God-Given Superpowers

I remember where I was when I first realized I was having a mental breakdown.

I was sitting at a computer, trying to write a college assignment as a student at North Park University, and I couldn’t get past my name and the date.

Eventually, I went to see a school counselor who directed me to take an assessment where I would count life stressors for an overall stress score. The high end of the scale, where professional help was recommended, was 300. My score was 550.

My parents had just gotten divorced, I’d experienced two rapid deaths in the family, and I was languishing academically.

I realized later that part of my problem was an inability to process the intensity of my emotions. I could not differentiate my thoughts from my feelings. At that stage of life I’d been socialized to identify myself primarily by my output. I was what I could generate. When my stress levels rose high enough and too many unresolved issues were jumbling around in my brain, I couldn’t concentrate. Then I began to panic. If I couldn’t generate profound commentary or astute analysis, who was I?

When I say I was socialized that way, I don’t just mean by parents or family members. Swallowing my feelings in order to bear down on the task at hand was the modus operandi for all the heroes I admired in films and TV shows. After all, none of the TV detectives I saw found their perpetrators by getting in touch with their feelings. It was all about dogged determination, commitment, and ingenuity. Even as a kid, my favorite superhero was Batman, because he technically didn’t have any superpowers. All he had was a dank cave full of cool vehicles and gadgets and a willingness to fight crime. (He was also super rich, but my socioeconomic analytical lens at the age of 12 was a little underdeveloped.)

I still watch a lot of TV and movies, and I’m grateful to say that times have changed. Kids and teens today have a much wider range of heroes to emulate. One of my new favorites is Will Trent.

Airing on ABC, Will Trent is a one-hour police procedural, based on a novel series from author Karin Slaughter about a special agent in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. At first glance, our titular hero Trent appears prickly and irascible in the tradition of irritable geniuses like Adrian Monk or Dr. Gregory House. But, as viewers quickly learn, the truth is more complicated. Trent’s unconventional style stems not from a personality quirk, but from a history of abandonment and neglect after growing up orphaned in the Atlanta foster care system. Played by Puerto Rican actor Ramon Rodriguez, Trent’s trademarks are a three-piece suit, a digital recorder, and an insistence on always using his full title (“that’s special agent Will Trent”), which he uses to mask the effects of loneliness, grief, and dyslexia.

The irony, of course, is that these qualities also make him really good at his job. The ever-present recorder that records his thoughts about cases makes it easier for him to habitually think deeply, using his powers of empathy and observation to construct scenarios and recreate crime scenes. The sense of dignity and respect he derives from wearing a suit and tie is not something he lords over others, but he does share it with victims and other members of the public. When he uses his full title, it reminds him of all that he has overcome. For Will Trent, the source of his greatest pain has become his superpower.

In Mark 12:10 Jesus describes himself as a rejected stone that eventually became the capstone. As we live to become more like Jesus, shows like Will Trent can serve as examples of God’s redemptive power to transform our places of pain into properties of power.

Like any kind of power, of course, in order to become skilled at wielding it, we need training. That should include standard spiritual disciplines like prayer and reading God’s Word. And it should also include leaning into a greater understanding of emotions. In his 2017 book, The Wisdom of Your Heart, author Marc Alan Schelske writes that “your emotions are made in God’s image.” They’re just as significant a part of you as your face, voice, or fingerprints. Emotional intelligence, then, is our capacity for cultivating an element of God’s creation in our lives.

In her five-part HBO Max docuseries, The Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown refers to “emotional granularity,” the ability to differentiate various specific emotions as one experiences them in real-time. I struggle with this. Often I experience a generalized sense of malaise and frustration but can’t quite put a label on exactly what I’m feeling or why I’m feeling it. As it turns out, there’s a word that describes this inability. According to Brown, to have intense emotions with low enough levels of clarity that one gets confused trying to identify them, is to be overwhelmed.

Isn’t that great? There’s an emotion for what it feels like when you don’t know how you feel! I felt so relieved when I learned that.

The more I dig into this deeper understanding of my emotions, the more I understand my own tendencies. I love worship music, for example, not just because I love God and I want to be around God’s people, but because a good worship song can help arouse my emotions in a way that reinforces what I believe and reminds me what I know to be true. I love doing stand-up comedy because it enables me to broadly communicate my emotions in a way that is a blessing rather than a burden.

Comedy can also be useful to help viewers identify complex emotions in others. This R-rated sketch from the comedy duo Key & Peele is a great example. In it, one person at a bar commiserates with another about an unfaithful partner. And every time Jordan Peele’s character speaks, you can see a different emotion on his face. Using nothing but gestures, facial expressions, and the word “okay,” he manages to tell a whole story about how his character feels about what’s happening.

Proverbs 18:21 tells us that death and life are within the power of the tongue. And Brené Brown claims there is social science research that indicates our ability to name our emotions is linked to our ability to transform them. She also says that there is no courage without vulnerability. My prayer for all of us is that we would lean into our God-given emotions in situations where we might otherwise set them aside.

So if you need me, I’ll be sitting on my front porch swing, enjoying some rare sunshine, journaling, stress-eating grapes, and listening to Chill Rob G & Snap remind me of one simple point:

“I’ve got the power.”


  • Jelani Greenidge

    Jelani Greenidge is the missional storyteller for the Evangelical Covenant Church and ministers in and around Portland, Oregon, as a worship musician, cultural consultant, and stand-up comic.

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