Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

I Trapped Friends in my Pain!

Written by: on January 11, 2024

I have always enjoyed preaching, teaching, training, podcasting, and hosting workshops. About 90% of the time, I am asked to speak on topics such as:

  1. Trauma’s impact on the body, brain, immune system, or nervous system.
  2. How to help the body heal from childhood trauma?
  3. How pornography and/or sex addiction wires the brain.
  4. Generational trauma
  5. Understanding epigenetics to understand how to heal severe trauma.
  6. How to help husbands or wives heal from childhood molestation and/or emotional abuse.

But in the fall of 2020, I was asked to speak at a leadership conference, be a guest on a podcast, and speak at my church on the issues surrounding the racial unrest in our country and world. I truly believe I was chosen because I was known for speaking on touchy subjects the Church struggled to address such as rape, molestation, and helping leaders to recover from their sexually struggles. But I also believe I was asked because I am an African American. People identified me as a person who should know the answers to dealing with the unrest in our country. I read everything I could get my hands on:

  1. Dear White America by Tim Wise
  2. How to Fight Racism by Jemar Tisby
  3. Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
  4. White Fragility by Dr. Robin DiAngelo
  5. The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
  6. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
  7. Good White Racist by Kerry Connelly
  8. Biased by Jennifer L. Eberhardt

The result of all my one-sided reading, dialoguing, and researching was I ended up as part of the identity trap. I had no idea my viewpoint was becoming deeply polarizing. It came to a head one day in the fall of 2020 when I responded to a guy in my church. This young man who is Caucasian said, that when he was younger, he experienced racism. I responded by saying, “Since you are white you cannot experience racism.” He responded by saying he truly did experience racism and we left it at that. A good friend lovingly confronted me a year later to let me know he and his wife were deeply hurt and offended by my statement. Within a week, the Lord had reconciled our friendship. I say all of this to show how easy it is to become a part of the identity trap. “The new focus on categories of group identity like race, gender, and sexual orientation is motivated by disappointment and anger at the persistence of real injustices…and yet I have grown convinced that the identity synthesis will prove deeply counterproductive.”1 Mounk was right, all my work had proved to be counterproductive. Mounk gives more insight into prioritizing identity.

If we prioritize identity over universalism, we make the world worse both for the dominant and the marginalized, Mounk contends. His argument shows how what he calls “identity synthesis”2 originated; how it spread from the corridors of academe into the mainstream and claimed victory over all institutions; what’s wrong with it; and how to put it all right. By “identity synthesis” he means the “role that identity categories like race, gender and sexual orientation play in the world”3. It’s a coinage made necessary by the fact that: “Nowadays, anybody who talks about identity politics or describes an activist as woke is liable to be perceived as an old man yelling at the clouds,”4 he writes.

The trap is that by placing group identity at the center of all discourse, it locks in a victim mentality and a pattern of destructive conflict. Mounk also notes that identity politics deliberately ignores the social progress made since the 1960s. For years, identity politics was a marginal academic interest, but the explosion of social media and the election of Donald Trump took it mainstream. It found its way into media organizations, government agencies, corporations, and schools, and its advocates were always ready to shout down and punish anyone who disagreed. For it to spin out of control, Mounk writes, it only requires that good people stay silent.

I have been crawling out of my muddy identity trap hole for about 2 years and Mounk’s book has really given me a huge boost, encouragement, and affirmation for the way I have been thinking lately. On pages 282-284 he has five ways to escape the identity trap. I’m rephrasing four of his main points to fit into my life and business.

  1. Helping myself and others realize the advantage to being tolerant toward different points of view. “In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.”5
  2. Listen to all parties involved instead of the loudest or most educated voice. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”6
  3. Stop people from bullying each other on social media. “Obscene stories, foolish talk, and coarse jokes-these are not for you. Instead, let there be thankfulness to God.”7
  4. Don’t accuse people before you have all the facts. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”8

Even though I have gone back to training and speaking on my favorite topics involving trauma, I continue to look for ways others and even myself unknowingly speak well of the identity trap because “the identity trap, such conservatives warn, holds out a utopian vision of a perfectly just society. But in practice, it would merely succeed in tearing down the guardrails that have for the past decades allowed members of different ethnic and religious groups to live alongside each other in relative peace.”9

  1. Mounk, Yascha. The Identity Trap. 13.
  2. Ibid. 8.
  3. Ibid. 9.
  4. Ibid. 15.
  5. Philippians 2:3-4. NIV.
  6. James 1:19. NIV.
  7. Ephesians 4:5. NIV.
  8. James 1:19. NIV
  9. Mounk, Yascha. The Identity Trap.

About the Author

Todd E Henley

Todd is an avid cyclist who loves playing frisbee golf, watching NASCAR, making videos, photography, playing Madden football, and watching sport. He is addicted to reading, eating fruits and vegetables, and drinking H2O. His passion is talking about trauma, epigenetics, chromosomes, and the brain. He has been blessed with a sensationally sweet wife and four fun creative children (one of which resides in heaven). In his free time he teaches at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and is the Founder/Executive Director of Restore Counseling Center.

10 responses to “I Trapped Friends in my Pain!”

  1. Scott Dickie says:

    Hi Todd,

    I appreciate your humble and insightful self-revelation in this post. Like Adam’s post, I believe that sort of self-disclosure creates the kind of environment where meaningful dialogue can actually take place.

    As it relates to the second point on how to escape the identity trap (Listen to all parties involved instead of the loudest or most educated voice.) I thought of Jim Wallis’ comment that ‘the extremes alway highjack meaningful conversation’ (my summary of his quote)…and learning to listen to the quiet/silent middle rather than the loud extremes is likely a good practice for all of us! This can be hard to do, though, because most of our online platforms are literally set up to platform the extreme as it’s good for ‘clicks’. In my view, thinking through how the middle-majority can be better represented on social platforms, news programs and educational institutions is important work to counter-act the Identity trap we find ourselves in.

  2. Jennifer Vernam says:

    Hi Todd-
    I really appreciate your story. What stood out to me was your observation that you were asked to speak on the racial unrest of 2020 not only because of your professional experience, but also because of your ethnicity. I think this happens so frequently, and I worry about it when I think I am seeing it take place. It seems like it could feel like tokenization. However, the alternative is problematic as well.

    To me, the compelling part of your story is that you made an honest mistake, someone cared about you enough to confront you on it, and then you reconciled. Do you think your relationship with that couple was strengthened because of the episode? If you were asked to do this again, would you say yes?

    • Hello Jennifer. I love your insights into people and organizations. Yes, my relationship with the couple was definitely strengthened. I eve started a relationship with their small children. Now the couple laughs at this incident and we joke about it. They even apologized for holding a grudge against me. Reconciliation was so beautiful from both ends.
      If I were asked to speak again, would I do it? I have thought about this a few times and the answer is still, “No.” I would recommend someone more experienced in this area. Thanks for the good questions, my friend.

  3. Adam Harris says:

    Appreciate your story and love the self-examination. You beautifully illustrated what can happen when we consume one side of an argument for an extended period of time, which is what is happening with our digital algorythms. Extremes on both ends of the spectrum seem to be the culprit for much of our dysfunction. Great stuff man!

    • Hey my brother, I like what you said in regard to extremes…culprit…dysfunction. I’ve thought about that season a few times and actually thought I was dealing with the topic the “right” way because for so many years it was dealt with inappropriately. It was a good lesson to learn and helps me to be patient with others who might be a little too extreme.😊

  4. mm Jana Dluehosh says:

    Todd, your post is enlightening and got me thinking. I appreciate that! the concept “For it to spin out of control, Mounk writes, it only requires that good people stay silent.” is something I think a lot about, especially around election years, I tend to go silent. Is Mounk the origin of that quote? Either way, silence is a problem, listening is not. Both are quiet, but one is passive and the other is active. Maybe that would be the difference?

  5. As always, thank you Jana for your leadership insight! Even though I have looked back on that season of my life, I have never come up with the idea that it would have been more helpful to listen more. LOL! So simply and yet so profound. Yes, you are correct, listening is the difference.😊

  6. Cathy Glei says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story and bringing us back to scripture truths. I appreciate moments when scripture illuminates what is good, true, and right. God’s words . . . so refreshing. How do you keep yourself from reengaging in the Identity Tray? Happy Zwifting!

  7. mm Dinka Utomo says:

    Hi Todd! I’m intrigued by your post.
    Your experience and analysis are truly fascinating and inspiring. I feel greatly blessed and enriched. Both your experience and analysis prove that Mounk’s perspective cannot be denied. In your perspective, if identity is not to be the center of discourse in inter-racial interactions, what should take center stage of discourse in those encounters?

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