Category Archives: A life in the Spirit

The blessing of your creativity: Apply it to the nearest ailment

In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield poetically reveals the wall everyone faces when they feel the urge to be their true selves, to give humanity what they’ve got. He names the foe “resistance.”

Our urge to co-create with our Creator meets with many obstacles. Freud even called resistance a “death wish” — a destructive force that rises up every time we want to be good and do good.  One of the great joys of counseling of every kind, of loving someone enough to struggle with them, is witnessing the emergence of a true self, a self not bounced off the wall. The Apostle Paul demonstrates this struggle when he tells the Galatians, “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!” (Galatians 4:19-20). My amplification is: “You stopped creating and clamped the manacles of “law” back on? Why? Where is the true you?”

Why do we tend to do clamp on manacles, as a species? Why do 20%  of scripted dramas on TV have cops in the lead role? Why do parents abdicate their parenting and church members sit on the sidelines of their own body? Pressfield wonders whether humankind is even ready for the freedom they are granted to become their true selves and to give their gifts of creativity to the world.

“I wouldn’t be writing this book, on this subject, if living with freedom were easy. The paradox seems to be, as Socrates demonstrated long ago, that the truly free individual is free only to the extent of [their] own self-mastery. While those who will not govern themselves are condemned to find masters to govern over them.”

Pressfield is also perplexed about us, like Paul. But he is not deterred. He is gives his gift of writing to call out the best in us, to open us to inspiration that sparks our contributions. We are meant to bear fruit, fruit that will last.

“Fundamentalists” and their hate

Galatians is a masterful diatribe against the fundamentalists who promote a safer route than the freedom Paul insists upon. Pressfield says (language uncorrected),

“The fundamentalist reserves his greatest creativity for the fashioning of Satan, the image of his foe, in opposition to which he defines and gives meaning to his own life. Like the artist, the fundamentalist experiences Resistance. He experiences it as temptation to sin. Resistance to the fundamentalist is the call of the Evil one seeking to seduce him from his virtue. The fundamentalist is consumed with Satan, whom he loves as he loves death.”

Does any of that sound familiar? I think it should. The whole world is so distressed, so tired of the relative “freedom” of democracy, that government and all sorts of other institutions are running towards fundamentalism – both in religion and in the political right and left, and running toward authoritarianism — let the rules and rulers steer me.

Several people called me this week — out of the blue, really, to get some advice for how to survive on the other side of communities they cared about. They felt like they fought the law and the law won. One was summarily dismissed from a community group. One was stranded by the leaders of their church in a new “unapproved” territory. One was subject to leaders who are just a “new regime.” One was  subjected to HR maneuvers they did not imagine were even legal. I am not sure I gave very good advice or even demonstrated enough empathy.

But Pressfield has me thinking in the right direction, I think — the Apostle Paul was there for me, too. They both teach it is our innate creativity, freely exercised in spite of fear or criticism, which is the seed of the good we desire. The exercise of our creativity not only makes us feel better, it is the best antidote we contain for the poison of power used for safety instead of community, for coercion instead of trust building.

It is a good day to read all of Galatians 5 again, since the trouble Paul addresses is everywhere, it seems. He says,

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
Stand firm, then,
and do not let yourselves be burdened again
by a yoke of slavery.

We’re set up for self-destruction

Capitalism, it must be repeated, is an economy best suited for slavery. The U.S. perfected that principle and became rich. U.S. Christianity has often been slaveholder religion. Most people assume capitalism is reality.

A truism in human development says things like, “The abused abuse.” And I think it is true, “The enslaved enslave.”  So Paul’s admonition is not easy to hear or heed, even though it is innately alluring. There is a lot of resistance to standing firm in our freedom.

Paul goes on to say:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. (Galatians 5:13-15)

It is amazing how many extended families, churches and whole denominations are devouring each other right now! Even serving one another in love can easily be perverted into hate.

Howard Thurman cautioned against bearing the fruit of hate. For the oppressed, hate may be a first step out of slavery and into dignity. But there is no ongoing place for hate in such dignity.

“Above and beyond all else it must be borne in mind that hatred tends to dry up the springs of creative thought in the life of the hater so that his resourcefulness becomes completely focused on the negative aspects of his environment. The urgent needs for creative expression are starved to death. A man’s horizon may become so completely dominated by the intense character of his hatred that there remains no creative residue in his mind and spirit to give to great ideas, to great concepts…

Jesus rejected hatred. It was not because he lacked the vitality or the strength. It was not because he lacked the incentive. Jesus rejected hatred because he saw that hatred meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, death to communion with his Father. He affirmed life; and hatred was the great denial.” (Jesus and the Disinherited)

Live your creativity

Looking back on those phone conversations, I wish I had said better stuff.  My friends were struggling, up against a wall of their own resistance, innate to them but also reinforced by the godless society in which they live. That struggle is an old story Steven Pressfield tries to put in a new poetic form. He ends his book with this encouragement. I hope you can receive it.:

Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be
a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end
the question can only be answered by action.

Do it or don’t do it.

It may help to think of it this way. If you were
meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack
cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt
yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your
children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.

You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite
the Almighty, who created you and only you with your
unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human
race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.

Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for
attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the
world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your
contribution. Give us what you’ve got.

Turn around and face your shadow: Before you project it

Carl Jung told this story about how the idea of “the shadow’ came to him. “I had a dream which both frightened and encouraged me. It was night in some unknown place, and I was making slow and painful headway against a mighty wind. Dense fog was flying along everywhere. I had my hands cupped around a tiny light which threatened to go out at any moment. Everything depended on my keeping this little light alive. Suddenly I had the feeling that something was coming up behind me. I looked back, and saw a gigantic black figure following me. But at the same moment I was conscious in spite of my terror, that I must keep my little light going through night and wind regardless of all dangers. When I awoke I realized at once that the figure was my own shadow on the swirling mists, brought into being by the little light I was carrying. I knew too that this little light was my consciousness, the only light I have. Though infinitely small and fragile in comparison with the powers of darkness, it is still a light, my only light.“ (C. G. Jung in Memories, Dreams and Reflections)

I have had my own frightening and encouraging dreams. I often tell about the monster that chased me in my dreams for many nights as a young husband. My dear wife, a little frustrated with being awakened night after night, suggested I stop running from the monster and turn to face it. I was not sure I could direct a dream, but I determined to do what she advised. I can still remember how the terrifying thing kept running at me and then right through me. I was left without a scratch — and I was encouraged to face what lurked in my unconscious.

The integration of the shadow is a great work of holiness. Robert Johnson says, “We are advised to love our enemies, but this is not possible when the inner enemy, our own shadow, is waiting to pounce and make the most of an incendiary situation. If we can learn to love the inner enemy, then there is a chance of loving – and redeeming – the outer one.” (in Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche)

Owning one’s shadow

To refuse the dark side of one’s nature is to store up or accumulate the darkness. This boiling pot of self-denial is later expressed as a black mood, psychosomatic illness, or unconsciously inspired accidents. I think most people reading that sentence can feel the truth of it. If you show me contempt, the part of me hiding from abuse and unwilling to stand up to bullying critics might numb my whole emotional system, or I might take a weird risk with the car, or maybe I’d take the next day off from work.

Even though we know the work of repression in us, we are still committed to presenting a perfect-seeming self and are offended when it is not respected. Both the secular and religious side of the American experiment are ill-served by a streak of pride and perfectionism that show a lack of integration. Obama’s “exceptionalism” and Trump’s “greatness” both reflect it. Antiracist radicals and antiabortion radicals both produce the violence and disorder we are experiencing in the name of their perfect political positions. [Listen to David Brooks recently talking about the scourge of “essentialism”]

Any repair of the fractured world must start with people who have the insight and courage to own their own shadow. This should be a well-known teaching of the Bible, since Paul demonstrated it.

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. — 1 Timothy 1:12-17

Many read this statement as a one and done: “Once I was a lout, but now, by the grace of God, I am perfected. Now I am perfectly shadowless.” I read it as an ongoing process of development: “I understand I am the worst of sinners and the beloved of God at the same time.” Paul is repeatedly trying to undo the heresy that Jesus makes us perfect in anything but grace (especially in Corinth!).

Doug Savage @ savagechickens.com

Integrate or project the shadow

When we do not integrate our shadows and live with enough humility to recognize our sin and receive our salvation, we project the shadow on others. To avoid this seems like an easy change of mind, but intolerable feelings that have been denied access to our conscious thoughts and actions are never easy to look at: guilt and shame, fury, worthlessness, fear and the trauma that often stores them in deep recesses.

Unless we do conscious work on it, the “shadow” side of us is almost always “projected;” that is, it is laid on someone or something else so we do not have to take responsibility for it. Mates are notorious for asking their spouses, “How do you feel?” when it is they who have a feeling they fear to express. Suddenly their mate feels defensive about a feeling they didn’t even have before their spouse walked in. Their partner should have stuck with having their own troubling feeling, On the other side of things, a weak-feeling partner might compliment their spouse for doing something, like driving or cooking, at which they, themselves, are actually quite adept and like doing. But they would rather give it over to someone else rather than bear the weight of being competent or being subject to scrutiny.

The worst

When we sit in the movie theatre we are in the position of the projector, so the theatre is an ideal venue for projecting our fears at a horror movie, or our anger and hate in a war movie or our unspeakable desires in a romance or crime drama. The economy makes billions off our disinterest in integrating.

It is easy to see society work out projection. The two political parties in the U.S. have created an image of the other party as terrorists or devils. In a recent NYTimes opinion article, Michelle Goldberg referred to Trump as a “Master of Projection” and noted that many instances of Trump’s projections were uncannily predictive of his future actions as president. He accused others of what he did not want to own as his own traits. Examples include roundly criticizing Mitt Romney for failing to release his tax returns and berating Barack Obama for watching too much TV in the White House, playing too much golf, and overusing Air Force One for “politics and play” (see The Nightmare Stage of Trump’s Rule Is Here. Jan 6, 2020, and this analysis).

Therapists often work with the projections their clients put on them to a good end. The therapy relationship is an ideal place to see what is happening in the shadowy places we can’t see or refuse to accept. Likewise, when I was a pastor, I often called myself a “projection screen,” since I often wore all sorts of unconscious processes instead of having the face-to-face dialogue I prized. Once I was out of the proverbial saddle, my “legacy” ironically became place to project fears and desires; I’ve heard about people using an abstraction of what I represent to make a point instead of owning their own feelings and thoughts. It is easier to “not be the old guy” or “not that less-than-desirable thing.”

The best

Most of the time we think we project the dark, unacceptable part of our selves. But it is also possible to project the best of oneself onto another person or situation. Our hero-worshiping capacity is pure shadow; our finest qualities can be refused and laid on another. A child may idolize an older sibling, feeling they ought to be but cannot be like them. Soon they will be like them and then, as a fourteen year old, they will find someone eighteen with whom to catch up.

Last week included Francis of Assisi Day. My family and friends know he is a hero of mine. When I did not have time for my annual showing of Brother Sun Sister Moon in his honor, I felt a strange lack of guilt, even though I had “betrayed” my hero. Looking back on my unexpected lack of feeling, I think I may have less need for him than I used to. I am more content with my own value and less in need of an aspiration. Being a Franciscan may have been easier than being Rod in some ways. His character and worth are widely respected, whereas I will need to survive the investigation of critics on my own merit.

There is help

God loves your shadow, too! It is you! He may love it more than your sense of self which competes with God’s sense of you. The repressed elements that become our shadow are often positive qualities, ultimately. When we project them on others, God has to be a bit disappointed.

I think God loved how Paul could own his past. He did not repress his murderous intent or his ignorant pride. He did not feel like his opponents were all terrorists or ignorant fools. He knew everyone needed mercy, just like he did. His trustworthy saying was a present tense experience: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” Jesus came into the world today, too, still patiently walking with us. Maybe you feel Republicans or Democrats are sinners who need to be eradicated, or believe Lady Gaga is the star you are supposed to be but never will be. Jesus came to help us reel in such projections and learn to be loved — all of us, the parts we already own and the disowned parts yet to be integrated.

Come as a child: Return to the memory of harmony with God

“Truly, I say to you,
unless you turn and become like children,
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
— Jesus in Matthew 18:3 (ESV)

I am thankful my childhood home life included a lot of music. My father sometimes played his old guitar and my mother was often singing a snippet of a tune. My siblings are all musicians. I latched on to singing like a life jacket, I think. Floating with the harmonies was like a return to Harmony, itself.

 a child in joy

When Jesus gives the profound teaching, above, which no one ever forgot, I think he is drawing his disciples back into that Harmony —  just as he demonstrates how to live in harmony and is, in fact, an expression of it. So often we go with many translations which read “turn” as “unless you are converted,” or “unless you turn yourself around and go a new, better direction,” or “unless you repent of your sins” you’ll never get into heaven. The word does imply “turning one’s back” and can be used in all those ways.

However, the older I get, the more I think the simple word “turn” is probably the best way to get at the meaning. Turning is the basic skill of spiritual development. And when Jesus attaches the word to becoming like children, I think he has to mean it more in the sense of “return.” As in, “Unless you return and keep returning to what you knew as a child, to the experience of knowing God’s presence you had, you’ll miss eternity.” Part of what Jesus forever represents is the Son of God, the child of God, even God identified with the lost child of Luke 15, returning to the loving embrace and extravagant care of the Father, who has been waiting and watching for the sight of that lost and longing child coming up the path.

The right brain has a memory of harmony

We tend to read the whole Bible with the left brain. That’s not surprising, since language resides mainly in the left hemisphere and, if we don’t watch it, that part of us can end up fencing off the words from any influence other than themselves.  In that context we could easily think this Bible verse provides a principle for how to get into heaven: one must become like a child, having the traits of that abstraction – trusting, humble and forgiving. This is true as far as it goes. But I was already a child. I don’t need an abstract child to become, I need to return to being myself in harmony with God. That is where I think we start out.

The experience of oneness and harmony for which I keep looking is not only an ideal, or a promise of something I have yet to see, it is also a memory. Before I had language, I lived in the presence of God. I did not know any better. My parents may have contributed to that sense or not. But I wanted them to. I wanted to attach to that trust, truth and grace forever. My parents were my first shot at experiencing such harmony consciously. For most of us, it was a bit of a shock that what each of us needed at the core of us was not fully realized. [Attachment theory explained in the NYTimes].

a child in the tall grass

I am not among the many people I know who cannot remember much of their childhood. I remember a lot. I think I gloss over the troubles of it and retain the goodness — sometimes to a fault. What came to mind just now was laying in the tall grass that had grown up in a housing development that went bust not far from my childhood home. I thought I was the only one who had thought of doing this. Invisible. Ignoring that I was not supposed to be there. Staring up into the sky for I don’t know how long. Feeling secure in the embrace of the earth, entranced by clouds in an endless sky, returning to the presence of God. In harmony. I later attached that feeling to the songs and lessons I learned when I got dropped off at Sunday school. I think I can safely say I learned all I needed to know about God by the time I was in kindergarten.

Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary gives me some exhaustive science and philosophy to validate my experience. He reminds us that the right brain was the  first hemisphere to develop. It is not an add-on to our more scientific left brain, it is the part of us that developed the left brain and feeds it.

In childhood, experience is relatively unalloyed by re-presentation: experience has “the glory and the freshness of a dream,” as Wordsworth expressed it…Childhood represents innocence, not in some moral sense, but in the sense of offering what the phenomenologists thought of as the pre-conceptual immediacy of experience (the world before the left hemisphere has deadened it to familiarity). It was this authentic “presencing” of the world that Romantic poetry aimed to recapture.

The Romantic acceptance that there is no simple “fact of the matter” – a reality that exists independently of ourselves and our attitude towards it – brought to the fore the absolutely crucial question of one’s disposition towards it, the relationship in which one stands to it. This emphasis on disposition towards whatever might be rather than the primacy of the thing itself in isolation or abstraction, explains the often contradictory accounts of what Romanticism “stood for.” (McGilchrist, 359)

Prayer is returning like a child

When I turn to centering prayer, meditation, even the left-brainish “mindfulness,” I am returning to childlike thinking, just as I think Jesus is encouraging. Meditation is the older sibling of science. When we move into the silence, we still the left brain and experience the holistic, right-now, apprehension of the right — including the longstanding memories of what it was like to know God and feel one with the earth, full of boundless hunger and curiosity, before we were constrained to find our place among others and compelled to consciously turn and turn into harmony.

McGilchrist quotes Wordsworth as a prime example of someone who is good at returning to the wonders of childhood. The art of the Romantics is a conscious turning into the presence of God (at least for many of them). Some are turning into the presence of “presence” itself, which I think is mostly just moving to the fringes of left-brain domination. Their movement, as short-lived as it was, is a good example of how humanity never really forgets who we are. Here is part of the poem to which McGilchrist refers above

But for those first affections,
……………………Those shadowy recollections,
……………Which, be they what they may
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
…………….Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
……………To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
…………………..Nor Man nor Boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!

— From Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood William Wordsworth by William Wordsworth

I think Wordsworth is embellishing what Jesus is saying. We have all experienced the “fountain-light” of all our days. It may be dimmed by the messy attachments we have made, but it still has the power to reveal eternity when we turn into it. The enemies of joy may threaten it, but it can never be destroyed.

Our disposition towards the world makes all the difference

Much of psychotherapy is listening to stories about relationships. When married couples are with me, they are having their relationship as we speak! The quality of these relationships often hinges on the dispositions of each person, specifically toward the people they are talking about, but, more important, to the world.

You may have never used the word “disposition” in a sentence. I think the word should be more popular than it is. Since it is an inherently relational word, it has fallen out of fashion in an age in which people are mainly interested in their identity, their self-hood, their personal power. Just this week, Michelle Goldberg wrote a op-ed about the movement in feminism away from meaningless sex towards a restoration of relationality. Relationships might make a comeback! I hope so. If they do, disposition might get into one of your sentences!

You may have heard the word “disposition” used to mean the inherent qualities of mind and character that give someone their unique way of being in the world: “Your sunny disposition has a way of rubbing off on those around you” — temperament, nature, makeup, the grain of them that might cause them to go against the grain. In a less individual sense, someone’s or something’s “disposition” is the way someone or something is placed or arranged, especially in relation to other people or other things: the disposition of infantry on the battlefield, the disposition of trees in an orchard, the disposition of the parts of this blog — arranging, ordering, positioning, relating.

When a couple moves into therapy, each has a personal disposition which their mate will learn to understand better and, hopefully, to respect and even love. Their relationship will also have a disposition of its own — its own character and a sense of how it relates to the world, how it arranges itself and how it has been arranged by various forces and its own history.

Since this word and all its synonyms are built into the English language, one would expect us to understand it. But during the last 50 years or so, the relationality of words has not been not assumed — we no longer assume words relate to something more than themselves. This blog post is for exploring that oddity in the hope that things are changing, just like Michelle Goldberg is exploring how sex is trying to regain human connection and love.

La‘amea Lunn and helpers on Oahu, Hawai‘i

A deeper knowing

A lot of what makes people “indisposed” when it comes to relating is the “left brain” dominance which accompanies the present domination of machines and technical skills. You may have friends, like I do, who have dropped off the grid and bought a farm so they can restore their relationship with the earth and feel all the parts of themselves in a natural setting (new farmers above). Most people have done the opposite and spend most of their time indisposed, in the sense they are unavailable for relating to others, the world, something or someone Other than themselves. This is so true that China recently passed a law to restrict video game use by minors. Chinese kids have been dwarfing themselves by attaching to a machine.

My favorite book of the year, so far, is The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. In that book Iain McGilchrist exhaustively shows the difference between the left and right brain and how the left is meant to serve the right, contrary to much of western philosophy since Descartes. He says:

If one had to encapsulate the principle differences in the experience mediated by the two hemispheres, their two modes of being, one could put it like this. The world of the left hemisphere, dependent on denotative language and abstraction, yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualised, explicit, disembodied, general in nature, but ultimately lifeless. The right hemisphere, by contrast, yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings within the context of the lived world, but in the nature of things never fully graspable, always imperfectly known – and to this world it exists in a relationship of care. The knowledge that is mediated by the left hemisphere is knowledge within a closed system. It has the advantage of perfection, but such perfection is bought ultimately at the price of emptiness, of self-reference. It can mediate knowledge only in terms of a mechanical rearrangement of other things already known. It can never really “break out” to know anything new, because its knowledge is of its own re-presentations only. Where the thing itself is “present” to the right hemisphere, it is only “re-presented” by the left hemisphere, now become an idea of a thing. Where the right hemisphere is conscious of the Other, whatever it may be, the left hemisphere’s consciousness is of itself.

I meet up with people who are dwarfed by their left brain disposition. Their relationships are especially difficult. In the case of men, their sexual relationship with their partner may be difficult to maintain, since they have been having sex with themselves via internet-delivered porn for much of their lives. When it comes to intimacy, they are often indisposed.

The deadly disposition of control

In an out-of-control society, in a state of perpetual warfare, on an outpost in the warming atmosphere, it is easy to see how one could conform to the illusion of control the left-brain-dominated, corporate world promises. For instance, below is a Lexus commercial from this past summer by a student in Oklahoma which tells a young man that it (the car) needs a fellow dreamer to experience the “power of the spirit of now” together. This is a popular idea; a Cadillac ad from this year depicts the growing “light” within a woman climbing the corporate ladder as resonant in her Cadillac.

The philosophy the video neatly expresses in thirty seconds promises that the “spirit” can be reduced to a relationship with a car. I hope the student was being ironic, but I suspect he was angling for an advertising job one day.

Longing for what a car ad promises is healthy humanity. But actually attaching to representations of meaning within the limits of scientific, consumer capitalism reduces one’s will to managing the elements of a merely material world. McGilchrist explains the philosophical necessity of thinking beyond the boundaries of that kind of representation of reality:

Philosophy being a hyperconscious cognitive process, it may be hard to get away from the left hemisphere’s perspective that will is about control, and must lie in the conscious left hemisphere. But if our disposition towards the world, our relationship with it, alters, will has a different meaning. The disposition of the right hemisphere, the nature of its attention to the world, is one of care, rather than control. Its will relates to a desire or longing towards something, something that lies beyond itself, towards the Other.

The relentless teaching about “the spirit of now” is all about power and control. Even the search for the beloved community often descends, these days, into a fight about power and one’s share of spoils of capitalism.

When people with a “left hemisphere” disposition enter into the self-exploration of psychotherapy (or spirituality) they often feel confronted with a terrifying choice to make. Will I leave my “zone of control,” aided by all sorts of machines and society’s present philosophies? Or will I moved with my right-brain empowered longing for what is beyond the left brain’s frame? Will I leave my porn world for a real relationship? Will I desert the constant, anxious monitoring for what I dread and my anesthesia against that anxiety in order to move with the desire I have neutered in honor of my fear of betraying what dominates me? If I change my disposition, I will have to care and become respons-ible.

I believe in you

When I was in high school I played the lead in one of the more unpopular musicals my director could have chosen for us: How To Succeed in Business without Really Trying. [Harry Potter tried it]. I did not understand the tongue it had in its cheek. But I got sort of famous on campus for singing the signature song: “I Believe in You.” It is a left-brain hymn to looking sincere and believing you are good at looking sincere.

How to Succeed was lampooning what happens when advertising execs become the advertising (nowadays when we are all our personal brand). Robert Morse is singing a right-brain idea in a left-brain environment. He is climbing the ladder by performing the representation of a man who can succeed in a left-brain world devoted to selling right-brain dreams. He is literally singing to his representation in the mirror! I did not get it. But after a life of believing, I do now. As a result, I found this quote from McGilchrist compelling.

Believing is not to be reduced to thinking that such-and-such might be the case. It is not a weaker form of thinking, laced with doubt. Sometimes we speak like this: “I believe that the train leaves at 6:13,” where “I believe that” simply means that “I think (but am not certain) that.” Since the left hemisphere is concerned with what is certain, with knowledge of the facts, its version of belief is that it is just absence of certainty. If the facts were certain, according to its view, I should be able to say “I know that” instead. This view of belief comes from the left hemisphere’s disposition towards the world: interest in what is useful, therefore fixed and certain (the train timetable is no good if one can’t rely on it). So belief is just a feeble form of knowing, as far as it is concerned.

But belief in terms of the right hemisphere is different, because its disposition towards the world is different. The right hemisphere does not “know” anything, in the sense of certain knowledge. For it, belief is a matter of care: it describes a relationship, where there is a calling and an answering, the root concept of “responsibility.” * Thus if I say “I believe in you,” it does not mean I think such-and-such things are the case about you, but can’t be certain I am right. It means I stand in a certain sort of relation of care towards you, that entails me in certain kinds of ways of behaving (acting and being) towards you, and entails on you the responsibility of certain ways of acting and being as well. It is an acting “as if” certain things were true about you that in the nature of things cannot be certain. It has the characteristic right-hemisphere qualities of being a betweenness: a reverberative, “resonant,” “respons-ible” relationship, in which each party is altered by the other and by which relationship between the two, whereas the relationship of the believer to the believed in the left-hemisphere sense is inert, unidirectional, and centers on control rather than care.

Marriage is the queen of all adult relationships, where we create more care in the world, daily – at least the opportunity presents itself. In marriage we are called upon to see “the other” and relate ourselves to it in the person of our mate. Friendships and church covenants do much of the same kind of work, of course — that is, they do the work if we are disposed to it, if we turn into it, if we hold on to the love.

Right now relationships are under a barrage of criticism all day and night, left-brain radicals think justice is exactitude in speech and action, and the generation raised with a cell phone in the aftermath of 9/11 is sure they are saddled with the personal power to succeed in their business. I bring it up to give another opportunity to choose see the Other and to turn a new eye on the world which might develop a more holistic disposition toward it. As the world disintegrates under the weight of its left-brain foolishness, surely it is time to listen to the voices within and without, even built into our brains, that lead us deeper.

* Belief, like faith and truth, etymologically implies a relation of loyalty, and has the same root as love (and as the German words Glauben and Liebe).

The joy of travel: Boston is no more glorious than Philly

I live on the 21st floor overlooking Philadelphia. Our building is a bit run down, but it is located in one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I am not just saying that. I see the glory of God out my window every day. 

One of the reasons I travel is to experience that “aha” of seeing God in new places. At one point Pennsylvania was one of those new places I discovered. The sun beams on Greek water. The Sequoias smell mysterious. The spray drenches everyone at Victoria Falls. Brugge tastes like chocolate. The whole creation feels like an immense expression of love. Just like you are. You are more love being born again. If I am looking, I see it. I’d travel to see it.

These days we might want to scale back the travel so we don’t keep pouring more carbon into the air — poor Sequoias this week! But when I see the Schuylkill back in its banks and the grass popping back up; when I go down the shore and feel the wind in my face and the pulse of the waves; when I see the first leaf turn red, there is that immense love in my own back yard. I won’t miss out.

I travel so I can find God at home and come home to find God. Travel is the movement of pilgrimage I need to keep teaching my body and soul  — so I do not only remember sitting around watching murder on TV! I travel because it stretches my adaptability; it exercises my growth membrane. We are growing bodies on a psychological/spiritual development journey. It is in our nature to look over the boundaries of our defense structures and our societies of control and go someplace next. When I go to Zambia, I am cooperating big time.

I love all the versions of this old song I am giving you today. It is foreign to English-only people but it feels like home. It honors the Italian-speaking restauranteurs who welcomed us into their Boston neighborhood last weekend.

I hope you have heard it so you can just experience the sun, the moon, the wind and water in it. Travel with it. Be drawn somewhere by it. I hope when you look at the next person you see after you’ve heard it, you see the love of God in them as well. Don’t worry if they acknowledge that Love or exercise it appropriately, just admire it like a beam of the sun through the cloud of today.

It is so sweet to feel
how in my heart,
now, gently
love is being born.

It is so sweet to understand
that I am no longer alone,
that I belong to an immense life,
which resplendently shines around me. A gift from His from His limitless love.

He gave us the sky,
and the light stars,
our brother sun
our sister moon.

Our mother earth,
with fruits, meadows and flowers,
the fire, the wind,
the air and the pure water,
source of life for His creatures.

A gift from His, from His limitless love.
A gift from His, from His limitless love.

Dolce è sentire
Come nel mio cuore
Ora umilmente
Sta nascendo amore

Dolce è capire
Che non son più solo
Ma che son parte di una immensa vita
Che generosa risplende intorno a me
Dono di Lui, del Suo immenso amore

Ci ha dato il cielo
E le chiare stelle
Fratello Sole E sorella Luna

La madre terra
Con frutti, prati e fiori
Il fuoco, il vento
L’aria e l’acqua pura
Fonte di vita per le sue creature

Dono di Lui, del Suo immenso amore
Dono di Lui, del Suo immenso amore

Rebuild after an affair: 4 basic nutrients for new love

My clients in troubled intimate relationships are searching for answers. They often come to a session after spending hours online looking up solutions for their problems. Their search often comes up with damning criticisms and daunting expectations scattered among the good ideas. A few have come to an appointment with a diagnosis that promises a quick fix if the associated steps are accomplished.

Their seeking is promising, if sometimes misguided. They want to do something right or good. They want to feel better and repair something, not just cut off and do it all again somewhere else. Even better, they want to form a relationship with a caregiver, their therapist, who can help them sort out how the relationship went wrong and how they participated in the problem.

Several clients are rebuilding after an affair, either sexual or emotional, that broke their partner’s trust. Many people go directly to divorce after such an event, some accept sharing their partner, but quite a few try to work out a renewed, exclusive relationship. That is not easy. Injured relationships need to recover in many ways, especially when it comes to  trust.

Recently I have spent months with people trying to rebuild, not always successfully. I woke up one night with a list forming in my mind about what they could do. The following list  includes my dreams as well as some research into what everyone else is saying. Here are four basic ways back into a rebuilt love relationship.

Recognize the trauma

If something feels traumatic to you, it is. New relationship breeches trigger old ones. Some of your emotional reactions may feel overwhelming when infidelity is revealed.  It will take time to settle down and more time to work your way into a new equilibrium.

See if you can get to the “table.” Everyone may be unhappy, initially, but there has to be enough talking and action for someone to think the process is going toward healing.

In this day of “alternative facts” getting to the table will likely include a definition of adultery. Is it penetration only? Is it just looking on someone with lust so you were penetrated in your heart? Is it lonely Gov. Cuomo touching inappropriately? Is it the surprising porn addiction you discover in your husband? Is polyamory OK as more people than ever assert? Arguing over the terms won’t solve the problem, but it might take some discussion to get to a common table to negotiate something new.

How did you get to adultery? You might want to take the quiz in “What Makes Love Last?” by John Gottman, who did extensive work on divorce prediction, marital stability, and recovery from infidelity.  You may never get to a satisfactory answer to “Why?” The basic answer may not feel like enough. But the process will help you move through the trauma. As you do, some fundamental questions will need to be addressed:

  • Are you interested in making amends? Or are you willing to leave your partner?
  • Will you let go of the anger and resentment towards your partner and move forward?
  • Can you imagine a future with your partner even though they betrayed your trust?
  • Do you have adequate resources to help you recover, personally?

Get out or make something new

In therapy I consistently need to ask, “What are we doing here?” Would you like to build something new or are you content to keep seeking justice or maintaining your old patterns?  Gottman’s “four horsemen of marriage apocalypse:” criticism and contempt often meeting defensiveness and stonewalling, are likely elemental to the old pattern. If you don’t want to take this opportunity to build something new with this person, you should probably admit it. I would not admit it too soon, but you’ll need to commit to be in if you don’t want to be out.

Therapy can help sort this out. But therapy won’t make you do something. The post-adultery relationship is a new relationship. Same people, new relationship. You might be building the relationship you should have built originally. More likely you are just getting to building a good relationship with the advantage of having a new urgency to do so.  That is OK.

Repent

Many people say things like “There are two sides to a story” when it comes to an affair. The betrayed partner must have helped cause it. The victim often gets blamed in the U.S. I don’t think much restoration will happen if an endless argument about who is at fault is installed as a solution. If you sin, repent. The person who committed the act must take all the blame.

This is going to be difficult since the betrayer will be dealing with shame. The angry responses from the deep well of grief and loss from the aggrieved partner are not going to feel good and every time they emerge a natural defensiveness will arise. If you did it, stay calm and respond to this anger with another round of admission and asking for forgiveness until it is done. Get forgiven by your partner. God will forgive you, so start there. Your partner, however, is not God.

Forgive

Betrayal gets stuck in my craw until I can’t stand seeing the person and I start assuming everyone will treat me bad. It can make me hardhearted. I need to forgive to preserve my soul. Even if you divorce an adulterer you will still be better off if you forgive them. “Will you forgive me?” must be met with “I forgive you” at some point. It may take a while to get there but this is the first step toward a new relationship.

If you reserve your forgiveness until you feel you have exacted justice, you are not really at the table of rebuilding yet. The table is all about reconciling and rebuilding. Forgiveness does not mean we are done. But it does mean we are beginning.

Learn improved ways to relate

There is no linear path or prescribed method for rebuilding after adultery. We are all different and our relationships are unique. There are a lot of ways to rebuild better. So the following elements that came to my mind and came through research are not in a particular order. At some point I think they all need to be exercised, however.

Grieve. The old relationship died. The betrayed partner, especially, but the betrayer also, will grieve for what is gone or what was desired. Grieving takes as long as it takes. We usually need to decide we have had enough and move on.

Wait. Everyone is re-calibrating. They are seeing things in new ways. They are changing and growing. All these things take time. The plant won’t grow faster because you are frustrated with it. Waiting is also how we hear from God and trust the work of the Spirit. If we try to control the future we will only achieve what our limited capacity can achieve.

Listen in a new way. The relationship probably had some habits that did not work. We need a new curiosity and some new understanding. Listen to understand; give the gift of understanding.

Let go. Suppressing the past as if you do not matter will not work well. Acting like everything is fine is not sustainable. But we do need to let the past go, let the sinner go free after they have repented, let our feelings mellow, let our view of ourselves and our relationship change. Letting go is elemental to trust in God; we are not in control of the world. Letting go is essential to love, otherwise your partner is subject to judgment, which is intolerable.

Accept each other. Most people ease into newness and you should accept the relationship you presently have if you want it to grow, not hold out for the ideal you don’t have. Accept one another as God accepts you is key to togetherness.

Attune. Your therapist can help you with this. But there are any number of self-help books (like the one I already mentioned) that can get you started. Attunement is the desire and the ability to understand and respect your partner’s inner world. This cannot be done completely, but the attempt matters. Sharing vulnerabilities stops either partner from feeling lonely or invisible.  Marriage is God’s gift to our maturation. Everyone needs a way to communicate that allows for safety – no “You” messages, enough space to allow each other to do what they can without criticism or stonewalling.

Work day by day, stone by stone

We like to say “trust the process” these days. We generally don’t trust it, since we can’t tell where we are going. I think we all need to trust God, since none of us knows what we are doing. Here are a few ways to stay in the incremental process of new growth.

Receive the good given. The good you have needs to be good enough. Looking over your partner’s shoulder for something better may have been the initial impulse that led to an affair. Looking beyond the repentance your partner offers to the ideal mate they never were and aren’t will subvert the process of building love with the one to whom you are committed.

Get right brain. The right brain is the seat of holistic health in our body. The left brain is more about correlating the evidence and keeping us on track. We are a left-brain dominated society, thus we have people who have served time in prison and are still refused jobs and the right to vote after they are released — endless “fairness” and no grace. You and your partner must not be left as an eternal judge and felon. The left brain internet never forgets, the right brain comes to a bigger picture by ignoring unnecessary facts.

Make small commitments. This is one way toward a new, fuller marriage commitment. We like to leap to the end of the process we imagine and often give up because “This is not working.”  It might be the impatient way we work that does not work. Love is not a commodity to procure, it is the fruit of a wise life. Changing the way dishes are done could be revolutionary over time. Making a weekly time to consider the schedule could be life-changing. Creating an affirming ritual when someone comes home from work could loosen up tangled emotions.

Re-Attach. Or maybe you will be attaching for the first time. Our re-enactment of unfinished childhood attachment issues is integral to marriage. Your therapist can help.

Symbolize the progress. For some people ceremony cements what is new. You write a card that is about repentance or forgiveness. You go on an anniversary trip that is designed to be a new step. You put your wedding ring back on or buy a new one. You go on a pilgrimage and throw a stone into the sea that symbolizes your past.

These ideas can also apply to the friends we have cut off or the churches we have divided. Even those difficult family systems that seem so impossible might change! Underneath all these practical responses to injured trust is love. I think love has a deeper source than my own capacity. Marriage is a radical re-enactment of being created in the image of God as male and female. How we connect in love is as deep as creation itself. So whatever we do to work that out, it is good. Sometimes it may mean moving on from a relationship that is too broken to repair or from a person who can’t get to the table.  But many times it means being healed by a deeper love than that which was broken.

Grief is everywhere: Open to joy by acknowledging it

Grief hangs over us like a cloud. Over 647,000 families have experienced the loss of a loved one since the onset of Covid-19. Climate change presents us all with a daily dread about more loss of normalcy. After two hurricanes flooding our cities and our basements in the Northeast, we are reeling. People try to keep the grief down, but it keeps bubbling up. If we keep trying to repress it, that is one more use of energy we need for doing more important things — like surviving, adapting and thriving.

Megan Devine (NPR in Boston) has been talking a lot about grief. Her conclusion is this: “The real cutting edge of human emotional development isn’t resilience, and it isn’t a stiff upper lip. It’s acknowledgment.”

Opportunities for acknowledgement are easy to find. We were walking around our neighborhood the other day and were glad to run into a neighbor who recently, suddenly lost her sixty-something husband to Covid-related attacks on his vital organs. Then the hurricane hit and the new roof on her home began to leak rain into her top floor bedroom. A sodden piece of drywall tape drooped low enough to be caught by the ceiling fan, so bits of wall and drops of water sprayed all over the room. It was a moment of “perfect storm,” when Covid and climate invaded her bedroom. As we talked, she was exhausted from grief and bravely putting one foot in front of another.

I was glad we stopped to hear the story and commiserate. It is always tempting to leave the grieving alone. “They probably don’t want to deal with me,” we think, or “I have no idea what to say.” Even as we were talking I gestured I was about to walk on, thinking I would overstay my welcome. But she began a new story and drew me back. She just needed to be together and talk. It opened up a little space for joy.

The summer is over

We rushed back to normal as the summer began. The economy opened up and bustled. I did some traveling. My friend began making money on his restaurant again. The church began to meet in person. Many people were vaccinated. It was like the weather report was “partly cloudy” instead “overcast.” The more sunshiny among us started to celebrate the future and move on after their survival. The need to get out of pain and uncertainty did not leave much space to process what happened to us. Grieving opens up space for new happiness if happiness doesn’t repress the grief.

LaToya and Peaches Foster at the  headstone of Lovell Brown at the Leavenworth National Cemetery Aug. 30.

Last Friday, health officials in Leavenworth, Kansas quietly updated a 78-year-old woman’s death certificate dated January 9, 2020, listing cause of death as Covid-19. Hers is now the first recorded pandemic death in the U.S. I wish we had honored the grief that followed her death on January 9, 2021. We missed the funeral for that lost year. I do not think the outpouring of emotion over the lost election in Washington was an adequate substitute, although it is hard not to think it provided an indirect outlet for feelings we resist having.

Now the death rate is again climbing as the vaccine-refusers have provided a suitable pool of victims for the Delta mutation. Many of the dying are from the same territories that supplied the mob that stormed the capitol. Children are going back to school and already, just a few days in, frightened parents are hearing about infections and some are arguing about masks. Many want to keep their kids out altogether.

We will be very needy on January 9, 2022 (or whenever the new first-death date is discovered) for ways to acknowledge our grief.

Would you say we aren’t that good with grief?

Sigmund Freud gets tagged with a lot because he was first and famous in many ways. But he was hardly alone in his influence. However, his paper called Mourning and Melancholia, struck a chord in 1917 with people reeling from the carnage of WWI and beginning to experience the horror of the last deadly pandemic. Megan Devine says,

The paper gave a framework for suppressing grief in order to embrace life, a seductive and reductive approach to mental and emotional health…He posited that you simply need to “withdraw” your energy from the person who died and attach it to someone else. Two years later, his own daughter died, followed soon after by his grandson. Freud himself recanted his paper in the wake of his personal experience, but by then, his initial position on grief had become canon.

The generally accepted way to deal with grief seems to be, at best, “keep it to yourself,” or at worst, “don’t think about it– move on.”

Illustration: Peskimo at Synergyart.co.uk

An example of this “stoic” mentality might be the many variations on the meme “Keep Calm and Carry On” that have been going strong since about 2008. They keep appearing, sometimes sincerely, on Facebook or Instagram. While it did not become poster during WW2, the original encouragement represents the spirit of the English response to their huge loss, displacement and fear. The same spirit carries on with the kind of “positivity” that floods social media. We’re encouraged to have a “stiff upper lip” in relation to the pandemic which coerces people to deny their losses and the losses of those around them. This week the screen was full of people in Louisiana saying, “I lost everything, but I am pushing” or “I can’t think about it or I will break down” and “I am tired of being resilient.”

Grief is good

In an era more adept with grief, less concerned with power and image, at least among normal people, Jesus talked to his disciples about their upcoming grief. His beloved disciple, John, remembered the moment:

Truly, truly I say to you that you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will grieve, but your grief will be turned into joy! Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world. Therefore you too have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one is going to take your joy away from you. (John 16:20-22 NASB)

There is a lot to learn here. But I think a couple of things speak to us about acknowledging  our present grief.

  • Jesus acknowledges it. Grief accompanies loss in its many forms. My grandchildren express it when they feel the loss of the cookie they imagined. We quickly teach that right out of them. By the time people are young adults, they are tough and keeping calm and distant from a lot of feelings. Some of my clients are so depressed by their inexpressible grief they feel numb.
  • Jesus sees grief as birth pangs. It is terrible, but it signals something new is being born. People would like to skip the grieving of the pandemic and go right to whatever is being born. Chances are, whatever is being born is going to take all the time it needs.
  • Grieving is a feeling that passes as newness inevitably comes. Even in grief we can feel the seeds of joy unless we are trying not to. If you lost your husband suddenly to Covid, that grief will have some staying power. But organizing around it would be a mistake. It will probably stick around, like the country remembering 9-11 and its legacy of destructive wars. But if you aren’t walking around on a beautiful day, if you don’t stop to talk, you’ll miss the sunshine of the earth and the love of neighbors that heal grief. You might even miss Jesus.

I will be grief-stricken this week. So many typical troubles will cloud my joy. Institutions like school and church will fail me. And the storms of Covid and climate change are upon us all. There is a lot of grief to go around and quite a bit we did not acknowledge yet. It won’t help to act like it shouldn’t happen or it didn’t. It will happen. How we suffer it and what we expect from it will make a big difference. Acknowledging it will begin the process of opening up new space for joy.

Resistance: The vaccine fight may be an example

My dear friends left their Florida vacation early. They were just in time! Now the Florida ICUs are packed to overflowing with people who refused to be vaccinated. In Philadelphia, where I live, my nurse friend claims the hospitals are not overwhelmed, but they are not sure how long that will last. Once the schools get going they might turn into daily superspreader events!

In the face of all this frightening news, one acquaintance is refusing the vaccine. They said, “I guess you think I am really dumb. But from what I have studied, I seriously think I might die if I let that needle get into my arm.” Thinking I might consider them “dumb” was not dumb. Many people in Philly base their faith on some semblance of science, so anyone who is skeptical of the vaccines automatically ends up in a persecuted minority group.

I am not going to go into the politics of how the vaccinated can turn into the Red Guard and the unvaccinated into the Rohingya, as interesting as that is. I am interested in why some people resist the vaccines. I am interested in the resistance we all feel to change, even positive change, like getting some assurance we won’t die if we are vaccinated.

invisible wall of resistance

Resistance is one of the mysteries psychotherapists (and pastors, social workers, parents) encounter all the time. Peter Michaelson writes

Psychological resistance is like an invisible wall that stands between aspiring individuals and the actualized self they desperately want to become. Bringing this resistance into view is vitally important to our personal development.

People continually bump up against this wall, get knocked back on their duff, get back up, and incomprehensibly repeat the procedure ad infinitum. We don’t even know we’re bumping into a wall. We’re just left feeling confused, dazed, and disoriented, unable to make any sense of recurring self-defeat or self-sabotage.

Why did you come to psychotherapy if you did not want to develop? Why did you get into this group if you did not want to participate? Why did you marry me if you did not want to be vulnerable? Why did you go to the amusement park if you did not want to ride roller coasters? The answer to those questions is probably, “Resistance.”

Relief of Adam and Eve from the Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, dated to 359 CE

Resistance is about shame

The “discovery” of resistance was central to Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis. He was fascinated by everyone’s personal repression project. He, and everyone since, trace the foundation of resistance to shame. If the resistance is becoming visible, it will peek out from behind our various fig leaves:  perfectionism, criticizing, disrespect, self-criticism, preoccupation with appearance, social withdrawal, independence, invulnerability, and our inability to accept compliments or constructive criticism.

If you have been reading the Bible you can see most of these traits in the story of Adam and Eve. We could all tell our personal history and it would look like the Adam and Eve story. We don’t really need to study the Bible to find a story about resistance — we are all listening to the snake charm us into eating the fruit of it. We seem to choose freedom to be alone and against rather than the freedom to be together and moving with God —  even though we don’t really want to.

Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” And He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me some of the fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” And the woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:9-13)

Until our eyes were opened to our own potential for evil, we were fine being naked. No one told us we were shameful. We were fine with our privates and had no need for privacy. But now we sure do!

Does shame make us immune to the vaccine?

Many people have written wonderful books on the subject of shame/repression/resistance. I was just trying to give you the gist of how I see it so I could talk to you about how to respond to people who refuse to get the vaccine.

I think my few clients who are resisting the vaccine may be finding a huge and convenient way to occupy their fear and shame in the cause of their autonomy, much like Adam and Eve arguing with God.  I heard of someone saying the vaccine was like the mark of the beast and they should be brave enough to be deprived of work if it was really the end times — I am so out of touch with Evangelicals I had not heard that connection yet. Another said even if the FDA approved the vaccine they would not allow anything to teach their cells to do things — they immediately referenced the Tuskegee experiments as a good reason to be skeptical. I thought that was at least a better argument.

But their arguments mostly seem based in resistance. We might make a good argument, but we might not recognize our feelings, fantasies, and motives underneath it. Pretty soon we are canceling or rescheduling appointments with our therapists because they might talk about things that don’t fit our narrative. We might forget the work we already did in therapy. We might not remember homework assignments. Those could all be signs of resistance to growth. Shame tends to lock us out of the territory where our feelings run free and we explore without judgment and it tends to lock us into the lame defense systems that delude us into thinking we can protect ourselves from what we fear without faith, hope and love.

Is there a way to change a vaccine-resistor’s mind?

Quite a few of my young, “blue” friends have had a hard 2021 with relatives (often older) who are sure not wearing a mask and refusing to bend the knee to liberal scientists is the cornerstone of their God-given freedom. If one is not up on all the conspiracy theories and misinformation on social media, arguing with them may be even more futile than it usually seems. For example, one of my clients told me about the mysterious deaths their friends reported (third-hand sometimes) about people who had received the AstraZeneca/ Johnson and Johnson vaccine and died of blood clots so thick the usual procedure to remove them was clogged up! That’s a lot of detail! Many people are become experts, they think, on the virus and the defensive cloud of the evidence they collect makes them dig in their heels when it comes to the vaccines.

I think their process has a lot to do with the invisible wall of resistance.  Jennifer Delgado gave some helpful summaries of what it takes to change one’s mind and heart. She says, “We can feel motivated to change, but if something keeps us” from acting, “like fear, motivation will not be enough to overcome the resistance.” Right now, I think many people are facing the most fearsome time of their lives. Many are applying defensive skills they have been developing since childhood harder than ever to resist the threatening change that is upon them.

In the midst, Jesus says:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. – John 14:27

The cycle of resistance to personal change

As they watch people face their fears when they need to change, Delgado and others have referred us to the well-known stages Elizabeth Kubler-Ross noted in the emotional cycle following a death. A pandemic is fear coming at us, but it meets fear coming from us, the fear stored up in us. The false autonomy we protect masks the shame that motivates it. The thought of losing our defense against feeling our fear and shame is terrifying. It takes a lot for us to accept we need to do anything but protect ourselves from it. Making a good decision about vaccines would better come from the fearlessness we gain when we trust Jesus and receive His peace. But trust may not be our knee-jerk reaction.

Regardless of whether we trust Jesus or not, we will likely go through some version of Kubler-Ross’s stages when it comes to the little death we experience when we change.

  • We probably feel paralyzed or blocked when we first confront change. We hit the wall.
  • We may close our eyes to reality and to the need for transformation. We carry on as if nothing is happening.
  • When we can no longer deny the change, we probably react with frustration or rage. At this point the feelings we repressed earlier usually emerge.
  • We try to find a way out of what is already happening. We are moved to avoid it. We don’t fully accept what is evident.
  • We finally accept that change is inevitable. But we do not accept it, which usually leads to irritation or depression.
  • We realize we must react. We look for realistic solutions and new ways to cope which adapt to the new reality.
  • We come to a new homeostasis. We move forward into a new stage of development.

When it comes to arguments about whether to get vaccinated, we might be talking to someone stuck at that second bullet point, someone in denial. They have their reasons for resistance, some of which they might not know about yet. I don’t think people should be bludgeoned because of their lack of development. Jesus is patient with each of us.

As you look at the stages above, you can see that people might get stuck at any one of the further steps toward new awareness or new behavior. How many divorced people are still angry? How many abused people are still depressed? How many perfectionistic people are still dithering about how to let go of their control?

10 challenges for the vaccine resistors

We want to change. At the same time we want to remain the same, or do the same things. We want to return to the garden, but we also just redecorated the psyche we formed outside its walls. For instance, I just finished grandchild “camp” and they thought this year would be the same as the last. Stable grandparents are comforting. The changes disappointed them before they tried the new events.  Change unleashes resistance. The more we face up to it, the greater our transformation might be. In the case of the vaccine, we have heard many people recently hospitalized begging people to get the shot, now that they have been hurled into acceptance by the disease.

I have been trying to get my mind and heart around this invisible wall into which I and many of my clients and fellow church members are colliding. I want to be generous with people who are not “dumb” but are facing tremendous fears in the face of decisions about how to live through the hardest era of their lives. Here are ten things vaccine resistors might need to face, in my opinion, before they can make the choice to get the shot. One or more may reflect the resistance you feel as you are facing any change that pushes your shame button. Be generous with yourself and others.

  • Need to get out of the zone of control. Most of us feel relatively safe in our “comfort zone.” I’ve started calling it the “zone of control” since a lot of people are not comfortable in their status quo even if they are committed to protecting it. If we think what we have done for years will keep working, many times delusionally, there is no reason to change. If the disease has not struck close to home or has been survived, people feel justified in their zone.
  • Need to face fear. Fear is the basis for resistance to change. Usually, we jump into the unknown only if we believe what awaits us is worth it. Fearful, often disinformed people are frantically making a deal, under pressure from untrusted authorities, to risk their lives by accepting the vaccine.
  • Need to learn new things. When we believe we do not have the skills, abilities, or strengths needed to cope with transformation, we often do not recognize it, but resist it. This includes learning about ourselves (and that dreaded shame!). The massive amount of information and disinformation about the vaccines shuts some people down.
  • Need to challenge habits. If we have done things in the same way for a long time, it will be very difficult to change. We rarely just do something new because it would also impact how we relate, think, and feel. We already have ruts in our brain where our habits run free. Our relationships have habits. Our brains and our schedules supply physical resistance to our psychological resistance.
  • Need to be humble. When we perceive change is imposed on us, our first reaction is usually rejection. If we are not consulted, we will likely participate minimally, if at all. Americans might be the least humble people on the planet, so it is no surprise our virus incidence is high, even though we can effectively fight it.
  • Need to go beyond the overwhelm. The Covid years have pushed us over the edge. So many people are anxious and depressed. Our tolerance level for change has been exceeded. We have been overwhelmed so much by events and the media amplification of them, more resistance has developed to stave off further exhaustion and saturation. I think I noted this at the Phillies game last week when almost no one would get ramped up when the screen shouted “Make some noise!” We screened out the noisy demand to make noise. We’re tired.
  • Need to get beyond the either/or. Sometimes change presents a breaking point with some of our beliefs or opinions. Our brain might be fritzed with internal disagreement. “If this is the mark of the beast, I’d better not take it” meets “I am going to be so embarrassed if God does not protect me and the vaccine was a gift I refused.”
  • Need to act. Change usually requires the best we’ve got. Like we say, “Dig deep.” If we can’t marshal the motivation, we might give up on the transformation we desire. A client’s spouse finally agreed to get vaccinated like her mate, but she hasn’t gotten around to it for several months. It must be resistance.
  • Need to broaden one’s capacity. We are often capable of more than we think. Shame diminishes us. Our resistance to change may be due to it occurring when we already feel like we are in a tough spot. “I can’t face one more thing. I am going to wait it out and see what happens.”
  • Need to develop new traits. Some of us are naturally or developmentally more willing to change while others are tied to what they know. If you are suffering from certain mental illnesses you may think you have control over everything that happens to you or you have a low tolerance for ambiguity, you will be more resistant to change. Psychotherapists often diagnose and label people with “illnesses” and those labels end up as identities and those identities end up as strait jackets. You may think you are condemned to not cooperating with your salvation, but Jesus still holds out his hand to you.

I needed to write this for myself, so I hope it helped you, too. We all wake up every day to a world that seems to be hurtling toward disaster: conflict all around, disease, climate change. It is no wonder people resist the vaccine! We were fearful before we had all these good reasons to be fearful!

I found myself resisting my natural empathy as I became frustrated with resistant clients and heard stories from others relating a similar way. But I choose to spread peace with Jesus today. I will not let my heart mimic the trouble I find in people and respond to their fear with fear. I want to learn more about speaking peace to them as they struggle through their difficult process: bumping into the wall of their innate resistance and bending under weight of fear that falls on them no matter how hard they try to avoid it. I certainly do not need to threaten or shame anyone who is already fighting a losing battle not to feel their fear and shame!

Waterworld: The climate prophet as a box office flop

It is “shark week” here at the Big Cousins week (not THAT shark week). So this year Nana and Papa are screening shark-related movies each night by decade, starting with the 70’s. Last night we let a naked lady sneak onto the screen during Waterworld from the 1990’s (think Mad Max on the water, as off the big island of Hawaii). The ice caps have melted, and 500 years in the future the only dry land is on the upper slopes of Mt. Everest, now a roosting place for seagulls. People have forgotten other dry land ever existed and the remaining bit is considered a myth by most.

There are a lot of profound observations in the film which tempt me to tell you the whole plot. But the main one about ice caps is apropos. Isn’t it amazing that Waterworld premiered 26 years ago? During that time the governments of the world began to think about the doom it depicts; the corporations have just recently got on board. And the next generation began to have issues when Greta Thunberg got fed up (don’t miss that link). But people are still debating whether global warming is a hoax — and I don’t mean you, I mean the U.S. Congress! The IPCC put out an alarming report recently and about half the population got alarmed. Then the news cycle moved on to how embarrassing it is to leave Afghanistan the way the army is evacuating — the place the country spent its climate-change-combating money.

At the time it was made, Waterworld was considered the biggest waste of film money ever, since it was the most expensive movie ever made at that point. It had problems. For instance, a million dollar set had to be reconstructed because a hurricane destroyed it. The sets are amazing; there is no CGI, for the most part. Two Pirates of the Caribbean movies subsequently beat it by over 100 million dollars and three Avengers movies are not far behind. Waterworld made a return on its huge investment, but people called it a flop and Kevin Costner got a bad reputation for a while. He and I are about the same age, but he somehow is about $250 million dollars richer. I was there when his profitable “flop” came out. Even now, as I did then, I think I think it was labeled a flop because it proposed the melting ice caps were going to be a problem and vested commercial interests were not yet finished selling the spoils they had pumped out of a world captive to capitalism.

Is there a future for a warming wicked world?

My mostly-tween grandchildren had quite a bit to say about the movie. I’m the only one who mentioned the naked lady. They had a lot of speculation about what land would actually be left when the ice melted and they debated other less-than-reasonable elements of the plot (like where are you refining the gasoline for all those tricked-out jets skis?). I made the point that the people commandeering all the gasoline would be the same ones who tried to develop the mythic place called “dry land” if they ever found it and conquered it. The grandkids vaguely relate to my application of Anabaptist/Celtic/Franciscan theology colored with Kevin Costner/Southern California sensibilities (he started as a Baptist from Lakewood). But I persist.

There was supposed to be a Waterworld 2. But the production was so mired in slander it never quite got off the ground. And Costner was not that interested in doing more. At one point he said something like, “They can just re-release the first one. It makes more sense now than ever.” But people would love to make “Waterworld 2: The attack on Dry Land” (at least that is what I would name it).  It is just too ironic. The ice is melting and dry land is being attacked by fires and floods; hurricanes are lining up to deck Haiti and developers  are still trying to squeeze every ounce of profit out of the housing market before everything changes. It is ironic that everything already changed.

Kevin’s gills

When Kevin and I were about 20, I learned a section of the Bible that is always close at hand when the rulers of the world (and the church, etc.) are not paying attention to reality, but assuming they can make their own:

All you wild animals,
All you animals in the forest,
Come to eat.
His watchmen are blind,
All of them know nothing.
All of them are mute dogs unable to bark,
Dreamers lying down, who love to slumber;
And the dogs are greedy, they are never satisfied.
And they are shepherds who have no understanding;
They have all turned to their own way,
Each one to his unjust gain, without exception.
“Come,” they say, “let’s get wine, and let’s drink heavily of intoxicating drink;
And tomorrow will be like today, only more so.” (Isaiah 56:9-12 NASB)

Waterworld and Isaiah are on the same prophetic page and the same people are not listening.

I woke up this morning and had a couple more conversations with the kids. We were still marveling over the spectacle of imagination Waterworld represents. Those sets! That weird plot! John Dutton was once a mutant? Great stuff. In your face Dennis Hopper!

Palmer amaranth aka Pigweed

People are creative. This is kind of a strange aside here at the end of this piece. But I just discovered that farmers in Kansas are being taken over by a weed from the Southwest which has developed a tolerance for Roundup and other even-riskier weed killers. They may have to cultivate the weed as a food source, since they can’t keep ramping up the chemical bombs they use to kill it. That method is over. They are getting inventive. Organic farmers do not have the same issues with the weed. Maybe the corporate farmers will get more organic! They may finally get creative with the Creator rather than exploitative with the Invisible Hand.

It is pathetic to spend 20 something years on a failed war in Afghanistan, on a doomed method of farming and on debating whether the climate is changing due to human wickedness. All those are much more a waste of human ingenuity than a bloated bit of movie prophecy. But it is still true that when people put their mind and treasure to it, they come up with something wildly creative, like Waterworld, like the church which reinvents itself every generation, and like you, listening to the prophets wherever you find them and probably being one yourself. We might yet make it to dry land — or develop gills!

The love story about God and us: Another version on Netflix

I have slowly been watching The Last Kingdom on Netflix. I hope they don’t disappear it before I am done. It is a surprisingly religious show which my wife should like. But it is also bloody, which she does not like. So I watch it on very rare occasions when I am watching TV alone.

King Alfred’s daughter in need of a rescue

I won’t tell you the whole medieval plot: soap opera, action/adventure, theological Ted talk all rolled into one. The heart of the plot, usually, is what it means to love. Last night King Alfred had to decide whether to give all the treasure of Wessex to ransom his kidnapped daughter from the Vikings (a daughter who fell in love with a Viking and spiced up the plot, since we all hate her husband). Alfred asked his wife if he were being selfish not to let his daughter die for the sake of the country and impoverishing peasants to get the silver required to pay off his enemies. She told him, “Your honor and hers cannot be ruined by the shameful spectacle of leaving the symbol of God’s anointed in the hands of the pagans.” Another advisor told him he was, indeed, betraying his duty as king for the love of his daughter. It was another interesting Christian thought problem. Should the king sacrifice everything for the love of his child? Should the child sacrifice herself for the good of the country? Is justice or love the main question? Is there another way?

Much of the conundrum (in a TV show!) circled around the doctrine of “substitutionary atonement” which began to develop into the preeminent doctrine it is about the time Alfred was king. I am not a fan of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement as it is generally taught, although I work with it since it is one of the atonement explanations offered in the Bible [here is a short explanation of all of them]. At the basis of the explanation is the idea there is always a law to be honored, a principle to be served, some justice that must be satisfied. Jesus pays the ransom due; he takes the judgment we deserve; God sacrifices his own son to save us from the consequences of sin.

This can sound legal and distant, just the facts. It already happened, just receive the gift. In King Alfred’s case there is a deep love to be expressed. He will give all his treasure, even at the risk of denying his vocation as king and risking the capacity of his beleaguered country to survive, because he wants his daughter back. People take the love out of substitution, as if the whole thing is happening in a courtroom. But The Last Kingdom offered a scene that shows how it is the king’s love that offers everything to the evil in which the child is held. He is working with the evil deal that runs the world. He satisfies the false justice and does it extravagantly for the sake of his beloved child. God did the same for all of us in Jesus.

There are other explanations, other ways

As if turns out, the still-pagan warrior who is pledged to Alfred (for a variety of reasons) manages to free the daughter and upend the Viking conquest plans. There are many other ways for God to rescue us, too. The plotline of God’s love for humanity is extensive.

Aethelflaed saved

Sometimes I feel like a pagan warrior surprising one of my Christian clients with an escape route they did not imagine. The worst side of the dogma of substitutionary atonement is the idea that we are so bad we are about to be sentenced to death for our many sins. Justice must be satisfied, because King God must preserve the basis of his kingdom, which is his holiness, his sovereign rule, his law. My clients often feel like a stench in God’s nostrils (as they have been told they are). At best, their inner critic is always matching them up with who they should be according to the law instead of the wretch who causes the blood of God’s Son to be shed. In their heads they know they have been saved, but it is hard to dislodge the deep wound of shame for causing Jesus to die — especially since they are quite sure they will sin again.

On the other side of Christianity, the one before the Roman Empire became the Roman Catholic Church and beget all the other Eurocentric churches, lies J. Phillip Newell and his deep appreciation for Celtic Christianity. This pre-Roman faith is still soundly Biblical but not infected so deeply with the law-oriented dogma with which so many are familiar. Here is his experience of sloughing off the worst aspect of substitutionary atonement as taught in the church of his youth.

I had an epiphany moment in my early adolescence. It came through someone else [than God] who looked to my heart, my mother’s mother. She lived with us when I was a boy. Granny Ferguson, from Banffshire in Scotland, was a presence of unconditional love in my life. I could do no wrong in her eyes even though she knew full well I was a mischievous “scallywag,” as she called me. But she looked at my heart. I knew that to her I was precious….I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there was nothing I could so that would make my granny not love me. And so my epiphany moment came when I realized that Granny was more loving than the God of my religious tradition.

I had been given the impression that God somehow required payment to forgive, whereas I knew that my granny would never need to be paid to forgive me. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and the general religious atmosphere that surrounds the dogma, struck me as a violation of everything I most deeply knew about love, that it is entirely free. Who are the people who have truly loved us in our lives? Could we imagine them ever needing to be paid to forgive? In my mind, it was like the prostitution of God, payment for love. I did not have theological tools at that time to unpack the implications of this realization, but I knew deep within myself that there was something wrong with my religious inheritance.  – Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation by J. Philip Newell (2008)

King Alfred thought his daughter was precious (and so did the Viking who saved her life from abuse in captivity!). She was loved. That’s why she was going to be ransomed. That’s why he made a binding deal for her, as was customary in that time. That’s why King Alfred was willing to give everything.

Love is the heart of the story

But I think Newell has a better answer for the depressed, anxious, fearful and angry Christians I meet in therapy. It may take a long time for many of them to become porous enough to feel the love of others or the love of God. It could take a long time to let the idea of being precious to someone or to God get through their wall of constant self-criticism. They are living the famous line from Groucho Marx: “I do not want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.“ Self-loathing may be human, but elements of the church have made things worse. As a result of bad teaching, many of us look at ourselves in ways God, like Newell’s granny, never would.

Rather than seeing Jesus receiving the sentence we deserve, which is more a reduction of the Bible explanation than the whole of it, I think I might prefer to see Jesus as a wild warrior, driven by love, available at just the right time, against all odds, to save us from what has us in its clutches – like the grip of condemnation that keeps some of my clients committed to their captivity. Many depressed, angry, critical Christians are stuck working out a piece of logic in which the facts are all stacked against them and God is so interested in justice he will kill anyone who stands in its way. They perform goodness to stay off his radar or exact justice to please him. But they would rather be loved. Thank God that is really at the heart of the story!