Category Archives: Spiritual direction

Parker Palmer and the trouble with autonomy

The psychological work of exercising healthy autonomy is challenging when it is seated in individualism and seeded with identity politics.

Part of a “heritage ride”

According to the Richmond Co Daily Journal, Jacob Mumford decided to hold a “Heritage Ride” after seeing news reports about calls to ban the Confederate flag. He said about the demonstration, “It don’t represent racism. It just represents my heritage, being raised in the South, Southern pride. That’s all it means to me.” He was trying to be someone, the newspaper was reporting it, the country was protecting it.

Mumford was reacting to the great cleansing that began after Dylan Roof murdered nine loving people in an historic Black church in Charleston. In 2015 the National Park Service ordered all Confederate flags and merchandise to be removed from all parks under the agency’s direction, including Fort Sumter and Gettysburg. By 2021 the massive Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond was removed, symbolizing the ongoing deconstruction of white supremacy intertwined with everything American.

The untwining is far from over and the pickups still parade. Alongside the Confederate flag a driver often has the yellow Gadsen flag, as in the picture above. It is the flag with “Don’t read on me” on it. “Don’t tread on me” has been an assertion of national autonomy for over 200 years, and now personal, pickup autonomy. I saw the same display in Lansdale the other day.

Christopher Gadsen designed his anti-British flag in the run-up to the Revolutionary War. The timber rattlesnake on it was something of a Colonial-era meme, evidently created by Benjamin Franklin. The snake is unique to the Eastern U.S. and came to symbolize a new country ready to bite anyone who stepped on it. The symbol stuck around. You can get a specialty license plate with the Gadsen flag on it in nine states. You can say your license plate is about “heritage,” but Gadsden was a slave owner and trader, who built Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston, South Carolina. As many as 40% of enslaved Africans who were brought to the U.S. first arrived there. You can say it is about southern pride, but don’t leave out the white supremacy and dread people feel when the pickups parade. I felt some fear when I saw one on the Turnpike!

Around the Time the Philadelphia Union was using the flag in 2006, the “Tea Party,” anti-tax Republicans began using it. They used it to communicate the U.S. government had become the oppressor threatening the liberties (I would say the unhealthy sense of autonomy) of its own citizens. By the time it was prominently displayed at the January attack on the U.S. Capitol, white men were flying it on their pickups to communicate they would not be replaced, not be tread on – especially by Blacks and not by immigrants “flooding the borders.”

Fighting for freedom

In the United States, liberty is life. Like the slave-capitalism that dominates it, the powerful dole out freedom to their tribe. But even the lowliest feel a taste for “freedom,”  for individual rights, to be one’s unencumbered self able to make as much money as they can. Even Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen, whose great wealth and power make them free, echoed this urge in the title their recent book Renegades: Born in the USA. As he was selling the book via NPR, Obama said,

So the truth is that either we tell each other stories that allow us to see each other as fellow travelers and humans, or we have conflict and clash, and whoever gets the most power wins. And I would argue that at its best, America’s been able – with a pretty major exception in the Civil War – to try to make progress and perfect the union without resort solely to violence, solely to power.

I keep wondering if the authors were riffing on Taylor Swift’s “Renegade” in which she sings, “You wouldn’t be the first renegade to need somebody.” They might have subtitled their book, “Meditations on our recovery from ‘Don’t tread on me.'”

I connect the search for freedom in all its perverse and noble forms as part of our drive to achieve the healthy autonomy we need as humans to become our true selves. It is the natural movement Paul describes as leaving the old self behind and taking on the new self restored in God’s image. We all need to have an experience of I AM in relation to God just like Jesus demonstrates His place in the community of the Trinity. The Gadsen flag states “I am an expression of power” the Jesus-follower insists “I am an expression of right relationship with Love.”

Nurturing good autonomy

How we do psychotherapy and relate in other ways requires many choices about how to handle everyone’s need for autonomy and our perverse lust for power.

I think “good autonomy” is when a person gets a sense of their true self operating freely. It is like the experience of getting the training wheels off the bike, feeling your own balance, moved by your own power, and even pedaling out of your parents sight and control. It is the freedom Paul writes about in Galatians: a life not defined by law, but confident in one’s reality as a person made in God’s image, the beloved of God whose life is eternal in Christ. I think of that autonomy as “I am-ness.”

There is a dangerous autonomy, however, lurking in the word. Nomos is Greek for “law”. Auto-nomos mean “makes its own laws.”  It would be great if Palestinians had this political right. It is not so great when individuals assume they are a law unto themselves and must be. One of my grandsons calls his brother the “dictator from the second grade” because he does think he should make all the rules. I think that is an example of what dangerous autonomy can do to community. When we, as therapists, parents or leaders protect someone’s autonomy to be themselves and make their own rules  as if their freedom should be inviolable, we do them a disservice. We may condemn them to be alone, going their own way according to their undisturbed thinking and feeling. We can hope God is disturbing them, which is usually the case, but the weaker among us could get the impression they are on their own and should be, even though they are connected to various communities and are part of creation.

Protecting a person’s personal freedom as a primary goal might be like giving them a bike so they can figure out how to ride it on their own. Personally, I was a bike-stealer as a child. I stole the neighbor’s bike and rode to kindergarten (which was illegal). I parked it in the rack right in front of the principal’s glass-paneled door. I stole my brother’s big bike when I was not tall enough to reach the pedals and crashed it into the curb. My father liked my gall but had to punish me anyway. My parents often left me alone to figure stuff out — and I did. But I also felt alone, which is worse than not figuring things out. And their neglect/appreciation for my independent spirit may have made me a little thief. It is in mutuality we thrive. Subject to a spirit of individualism in the U.S. and painfully alone, a lot of people can’t even give a full body hug because it feels like a violation or improper. What they need more than autonomy is to attach to God and others.

The best autonomy is mutual

The dialogue in the Bible about autonomy is all about having a relationship with God, first of all, then loving others. Jesus followers teach each other to accept every person and love them as they are right now. Such teaching includes freedom but also includes mutuality. My deepest freedom comes from right relationship. In love, my present limitations and boundaries are accepted and maybe even admired. In love, none of us are a law to another; we are all gifts who should be respected.

One of my psychotherapy clients wondered out loud if I knew a lot of thirtysomethings the other day (which I do). He doubted people could connect like I described healthy attachment. But I persist. Parker Palmer helps me persist. He is a gift from the Quaker homeland in Philadelphia. He added to the spirit of what I am trying to say in his well-known essay A Place Called Community. When he wrote his piece in 1977 I was in seminary and about to experiment in autonomy-defying intentional community – which was an irreplaceable education in love, truth and growth in the Spirit.

In his essay, Palmer says:

  1. If we promote autonomy in the individualist, psychotherapeutic and political sense we set up a society of dissociated individuals most suited to authoritarian government
  2. Mental and spiritual health is never just about oneself. It happens in our common suffering in the web of humanity. We build community to encourage health.
  3. Connection always breeds problems. Not connecting and leaving people alone in their autonomy creates even deeper problems.

When you fly the Gadsen flag or react to the flag as if it has power, you might be surrendering your healthy autonomy. Like Obama worries, we could get stuck in a perpetual fight for individual freedom. True renegades end up in friendship and mutual creativity, they appreciate one another’s true selves, and so undermine the endless power struggles of the world.

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 shows 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 theater we are in the position of the projector, so the theater 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 this very day, 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 parts 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).

Living Water for climate change action: The parable of the pines

A cheerful forest ranger told us amazing and troubling facts about the giant Sequoia trees we visited last week. She told us Native Americans knew how Sequoia reproduction worked, requiring fire to melt the seed cone’s covering and ash for a seedling’s first meal — but the “pioneers” ignored the natives, or did not bother to ask. The western states still haven’t become devoted to sustainable forest management.

Click pic for Fresno Bee article

That was not the most troubling part of the ranger’s talk, however. She added a line or two about climate change that kind of made me sick to my stomach. The striking landscape of the Sierras is somewhat despoiled by dead pine trees, as in the picture above. I could see the same thing if I went to the Pine Barrens in New Jersey. But those gray skeletons really stick out in my native California. Where are the trees of my youth? The bark beetles attacked them and killed them. You can read about the beetles here.

To my horror, I found out climate change (NYTimes link) is finally attacking the giant Sequoias, in like fashion, even though they have adapted and endured for centuries. A few of them might be over 2000 years old! They have withstood pests, fire and people, until now. The horrible air pollution of the Central Valley of California is ruining the air they breathe at 6000 feet! What is worse, the warming climate brings new opportunity for bugs seeking to colonize new trees. The drought in California weakens the amazing Sequoias. They can withstand periods of dryness but not what has happened for the last twenty years.  The bugs are just beginning to discover how weak they are after centuries of being remarkably impervious to insects.

I came away with a parable the trees told me. The story I hear is: Once there were trees planted by the water. They flourished. Humans disrupted the natural flow, even the cycle of the earth, and the land became dryer and dryer. The trees became susceptible to destruction by opportunistic forces. So it is with a people. So it is with a person who is not replenished with Living Water.

We need to act

My first application of this parable is to devote myself to advocating real action to reverse the processes that have warmed the climate. Like the NYTimes article linked above reports, we can’t stop the climate from warming a degree more; it’s going to happen. But we could stave off further catastrophe. If there is any reason to be born in the American Empire, it must be to demand that every power possible is exerted to save humankind from being weeded out like a pine forest. Covid-19 could just be the beginning of the disasters we face.

My starting place for action is the church, since that is where I find the faith, hope and love to do something, not just talk about it. The church is experiencing something of a post-Covid climate change of its own these days, in general, in which people mostly fight rather than find reconciled ways to act. But I don’t have another place to go since it is the body of Christ. That ecosystem is the most resilient and adaptable society on the planet so I trust it will survive the 20’s.

After the church, I have been looking for action-oriented groups with whom to partner. I can at least give them money, although I intend to give them more time and love. MCC has been attending to the need for years. I have been asking around and have begun to zero in on further good groups (see the comments for a few of them). I wish there were more. Big Christian organizations, big non-profits and governments all have an underfunded department, it seems, that pays lip service to climate change while the institution keeps talking about itself. Didn’t Donald Trump raise $100 million in the first quarter to keep blaming immigrants for the virus spike in Florida? (He decamped to New Jersey, of course, abandoning Mar-a-Lago). That’s an extreme example of talking about yourself. If you have a favorite association please add it to the comments so we can get busy!

We need Living Water

My second application of the parable is to check my bark and inspect my loved ones for signs of distress. When my ficus tree showed scale, the first treatment offered was “make sure you are properly watering  the tree.” Being well-watered is the tree’s first defense. This truth directly applies to the spiritual life that sustains direct action in a pestilence-ridden world.

  • If you are a fellow psychotherapist, you are dealing with traumas that will wear you out if you are not sustained spiritually. This does not mean listening to a podcast at the gym or procuring a proper thought somewhere; it means enjoying direct access to Living Water. You are involved in a spiritual restoration project with every client and it requires spiritual resources.
  • If you are a Jesus follower (as many of my clients are, as well as my directees), we need to pray. So many of us read a book, listen to a speech, or do things that require headphones and call that a personal spiritual life. It is not enough. Those habits, on their own, cause spiritual drought. All that learning and relating to wise people is good. But if it does not lead to our own relationship with God in real time, it is more like living in a polluted atmosphere of overheated thought instead of resting in the cooling, restorative Living Water. I think my “life in the spirit” category in the right column could provide further, practical help.

What do I do when I find beetles laying eggs in my weakened spiritual bark?

First, I need to look for them and not assume having little water and being bug-infested is normal. The world allowed millions of the trees it did not cut down to be killed by climate change. We are also susceptible to such destructive forces and need to fight for our lives inside and out. We have choices we can make. Even if they are small ones, they add up.

Second, I can stop cooperating with people and institutions that suck the living water out of me until I can gain enough strength to go back and provide some water. Married couples I counsel often refuse to admit that they can individually change the terrible dance they dance with their partner simply by refusing to mirror their partner’s steps! Change the pattern, turn into something better even if the present regime cries foul.

Third, I must spend enough time with God so my roots actually soak up living water. Like a tree, yesterday’s drink does not last forever. Our spiritual lives are organic like that; we need living water sources to live. We are often told our bodies are 90% water. In spiritual terms I’d say we are 100% living water and 100% organic or we are less than fully alive.

Fourth, I can fight off the bugs. We stand up against death in as many ways as we are all unique. Sometimes we get together like an army. I’m looking to join up with allies right now to advocate for effective action on climate change so my grandchildren have a habitable planet and so I do not disgrace myself before my Creator by doing nothing. I won’t be waiting until I am sure I am taking perfect action before I take some steps. This post is me taking a step in the way I do. But I will find even better ways to make alliances and act. When we take action, we solidify our good intention into real attention. Who and what we attend to makes a big difference as to who we are becoming and what we can do.

This past week I attended to myself, my family and the Sequoias. God was in the midst. Turning that way turned on some light and illuminated further steps along the way to wholeness. God bless you on your own journey into what is next.

Share what you know in the comments please.

Seeing the curse coming — redux

This is among the first posts I ever blogged. I am on vacation (again) this week, but I thought I would repeat this, since it still makes sense.

Death of Jezebel — Gustav Dore

The other day when we were reading Psalm 109 during noon prayer, we understood it completely wrong. We heard verses 6-19 like they were the psalmist pronouncing a long curse on someone. It was hard to take thirteen verses of curse! Sometimes the Psalms get a little rough for us, since we’ve all been taught to keep our emotions subject to our theories and politics. We’ve had to get used to all that angry talk and wild reactions in the Psalms jarring our sensibilities a little – this one, however, just seemed over the top:

“May his children become orphans

            and his wife a widow.” (v.9)

 

Who would say such a thing?! We were uncomfortable reading it.

The prayer starts off in a way we could relate to more easily:

 “In return for my love they accuse me,

            though my prayer is for them.

And they offer me evil in return for good

            and hatred in return for my love: (Psalm 109:4-5)

 

That we could pray. We’ve all been abused and misunderstood. I’m not very good at seeing it — but I am sometimes hated. I’m usually shocked when I find out about what someone feels about me or says about me, but sometimes I do find out I have an opponent who doesn’t mind taking me out behind my back. In return for my love, they hate me.

No, the curse is coming at me!

We thought what came next was the Psalmist pronouncing a long curse on the people who returned hate for love:

“Appoint a wicked man over him,

            let an accuser stand at his right…

Let his days be few,

            may another man take his post….

May his offspring be cut off,

            in the next generation his name wiped out”

 

It was going on and on. One of us finally said, “Whew!” Because we usually think – “If it is in the Bible, then it is an example for us.” If the Psalms are a prayer book, this is a wild prayer! We were a little hesitant to say the prayer.

We didn’t understand that vv. 6-19 is a quote of what someone else is saying about the psalmist, not what he is saying about them. The prayer is about being taken out, being hated, being attacked by an evil person. He ends up crying out for mercy:

“And You, O Lord, Master,

            act on my behalf for the sake of Your name,

                        for Your kindness is good. O save me!

For poor and needy am I,

            and my heart is pierced within me.”

 

Out of touch with the forces against you?

My realization from a few days of using this Psalm and studying it is I get surprisingly out of touch with the forces that are coming against me! Evil and its allies want me destroyed. You may have the opposite problem and think I am kind of nutty, since you’re effectively paranoid all day — so have some mercy. I had such a resistance to pronouncing a curse that I didn’t see the curse coming at me — even in the safety of my own prayer book!

In Celtic Daily Prayer today, it says “Our society teaches us to be suspicious of what is good, and to listen passively to whatever is evil.” We may not even be aware that evil is coming at us! When it does, we may invite it in for a drink because we are committed to being nice, or at least committed to appearing nice. I want to love and trust first, but I don’t want to be nice to evil. Even worse, I don’t want to impassively stew in what’s wrong until it cooks me.

So I recommend some appropriate drama today. Let’s pray it together: “I am surrounded! I am needy! Save me!” Let’s be appropriately concerned that we might be mean to someone. But for those of you like me, let’s be appropriately aware that we have opponents. We’re doing good things and they will be opposed. We are made good in Jesus and we, because of that good at work within us, are dangerous, as far as the Lord’s opponents are concerned. They will try to take us out.

The living water bubbling up in the Nazareth of you.

Nathanael Under the Fig Tree — James Tissot

When Philip told Nathanael about Jesus of Nazareth, he responded “What good can come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46)

That response probably made it into the Bible because Philip never let Nathanael forget the look on his face when Jesus, the Nazarene, revealed who he was with a scripture-filled personal introduction. The fact is, Nazareth, where Jesus lived, comes from the Hebrew word for “branch.” Jesus is the Branch growing out of the stump of the Kingdom of Israel just like Isaiah prophesied. Amazing things grow in surprising places, it would seem.

Nathanael did not see the possibilities resident in the out-of-the way Nazareth. The glory in Jesus had not been revealed to him before he dismissed it. And, as I suspect he soon found out, the faith and character Jesus called out in him that day, although they were hidden under his initial scornful response, could be found in the outlying and hidden places in him, and could be chosen and lived.

Finding living water

Many of my psychotherapy clients and friends are not living out great faith in Jesus, but they can certainly dip their toes in living water if they don’t scorn the unlikely places it can be found in them.

Apparently, one of Karl Jung’s favorites parables touched on this truth. It is about the water of life and how it made itself known, bubbling up from a deep well in the earth without effort or limit. People drank the clean pure water and were nourished and invigorated. But humankind did not leave it at that. Someone eventually fenced the well, charged admission, claimed ownership of the property around it, made laws as to who could come to the well and put locks on the gates. Soon the well belonged to the powerful and the elite. But the water stopped flowing. The thieves were so engrossed in their power systems and ownership that they did not notice the water had vanished. But some dissatisfied people longed for it and searched with great courage until they found where the water bubbled up again. Soon that well suffered the same fate. The spring took itself to yet another place – and this thread winds through the story of humanity. It is a sad story, but the wonder is that the water can be found if one searches.

My clients, and probably you, are on the search. Usually, what quenches our thirst for life and love dries up and we become dissatisfied. Or maybe we have been cordoned off within some fence around a dry well, waiting for a bubbling up that never happens anymore.  Or maybe we have been fenced out from someplace which might have what we need by some powerful elite or thieves. Our angst usually intensifies after we have found our place in society and come to the end of the left-brain logic that makes it such a prison. We feel there is more. But we just can’t get to it.

Many people are like Nathanael who can’t imagine that “more” they crave coming from some  “Nazareth.” Many people fail to find their God-given living water because they are not prepared to search inside, especially in the parts of themselves they disown. Nathanael heard “Jesus of Nazareth” and was sure nothing good could come from there. Jesus looked at Nathanael and saw his heart. This is not always the case, but, as a result, Nathanael quickly looked past his ignorance and scorn and saw who he was meeting, and in that meeting met himself.

The Nazareth within

Psychotherapy is not the only place this happens, of course, but it is one place in which people can begin to explore that “Nazareth” place in themselves, even that place that seems as dead as a stump, and see what might be sprouting.

Most of the time were are looking outward with a face that allows us to fit into our family and society. We’re also looking out because we are afraid of what people might do to us if we don’t! When we look in we often retain the same fearful outlook and just find the elements in us that don’t fit in or don’t make us lovable. The fear we have of others also makes us afraid of what the hidden things in us will do to us if we let them get up into consciousness. In some sense we look at the deep places in us as a “Nazareth” — and what good could come of that? You might not think that way, but a lot of people do. It is easy to hear the rattling of skeletons in our closets. We scorn that Nazareth in us.

During Easter week in 1916, Teilhard de Chardin, the famous Jesuit priest and scientist, was in the middle of the Battle of Dunkirk as a medic. He said as he suffered with the casualties, and as he trembled with the earth when bombs blasted out craters, he felt the Presence of Love being wounded. This would certainly be a strange “Nazareth” in which to meet up with living water! But one of his famous prayers was first prayed at Dunkirk: “I love you, Lord Jesus. You are as gentle as the human heart, as fiery as the forces of nature, as intimate as life itself.”

That moment when you tasted living water

Not all of us could be compared to a psychological Dunkirk! But we have suffered. We carry the wounds of personal conflict and the corporate memory of all the violence that mars history. It is stuffed into places in our hearts and minds we never want to visit. We also have desires and gifts that have also been relegated to “useless” or “despicable,” since they live in the “Nazareth” we are. It hard to accept the wonder at work in us — to see the wells where the living water irrepressibly bubbles up, and drink it.

The missing keys

The other day I thought I remembered leaving the keys to my office in a door as I went to get something from my car. I went and looked and could not find them — not left in any doorknobs, not in my car, my bag, my desk or anywhere in the office! I began to think I was a fool who had let my keys get stolen by someone who would rob the office later in the night (What good can come out of Nazareth?!). So I sat back and prayed, “Lord please help me find my keys.” I immediately scorned my babyish prayer but stuck with it anyway and retraced my steps. I was back out on the sidewalk when someone called to encourage me. As I stood there talking, I looked down and there were the keys in a very unusual place! Should I really see Jesus loving me via an infantile prayer, through a coincidental phone call, in such a Nazareth? Sure! I am searching for the next place the living water is going to bubble up.

That little example is like what my clients are experiencing as they see into what is buried in them looking for something they know is lost but have little hope of finding and feeling a lot of fear about what will happen if they don’t. The little encounter of Nathanael and Jesus shows the disciple getting a good taste of living water even though he initially had no hope in who Philip had met. He thought Jesus was a nothing and it turned out that Jesus showed him how he was not a nothing. May you have such friends who let your scorn pass and turn around and bless you.

Jesus upended Nathanael’s view of himself by naming the wonder in him, also coming from a Nazareth-like place like him! As a result he saw the wonder in Jesus. When we look in ourselves with sadness or shame, we do well to keep looking. In unexpected places we can find light in our darkness. It is very likely in the sadness and shame we will find Living Water looking for us!

Assert right-brain solutions to left-brain problems — like Jesus

Life caught in the clutches of the left-brain world

Several of my psychotherapy clients this year have, again, taught me to take the Bible seriously. I keep pondering this verse when they are talking to me: “Jesus said to them, “I tell you the solemn truth, before Abraham came into existence, I am!” (John 8:58 NET)

This assertion scandalizes the people with whom Jesus is arguing. The theory-bound, principle-following, control-oriented Jewish leaders of the time, who, in their own way, reflect the power-mad, bureaucratic Roman Empire which dominates them, are flabbergasted by this no-account Rabbi. He has powers beyond their imagination, he reframes their history in a way they can’t see and, most of all, he lives at home in love with a sense of his endless uniqueness over which they have no sway. Their arguments still seem comical and sad in the face of the Lord’s “I am.”

My clients, my comrades in the church and everyone, really, are caught up in a similar drama. The pharisees of our day are winning. The sense and assertion of our own endless, unique “I am” is very hard to hold onto, even when it feels “right there” and ready to grasp.

Left brain ascendancy

I wrote about Jesus teaching us to have our own sense of “I am” last year: I matter; The terrible, wonderful I AM. But lately I have so much more evidence to support my intuition since I became an Iain McGilchrist fanboy!

I have just been schooled by McGilchrist’s masterpiece The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World [Summary in The Atlantic]. In that book he makes a fascinating case for why the world works like it does these days, dominated by the limitations of the “left brain.” As a result, the church, in general, and my clients, in particular, are struggling against significant odds to come to a sense of their true selves. We’re having a hard time having a whole-brain experience of life in the here and now. We seem to have lost our appreciation for our intuition about life beyond our present understanding. I applied some of my new insights a couple of weeks ago in my post Is there anything that does not meet the “eye” of the left brain?

McGilchrist is having similar troubles. He “admitted in private that his text is heavily religious in inspiration. Yet if this were highlighted, he warned, many scholars would not bother to read it” (First Things). We are all under significant left-brain/scientific/
bureaucratic/legalistic/materialistic pressure all the time. We often try to find ourselves within a left-brain view of self and that world that is not big enough for what we experience and intuit.

In the conclusion of his book, McGilchrist summarizes how the “master,” the right brain, has been betrayed by her partner, the left. Here is a taste:

The right hemisphere, the one that believes, but does not know, has to depend on the other, the left hemisphere, that knows, but doesn’t believe. It is as though a power that has an infinite, and therefore intrinsically uncertain, potential Being needs nonetheless to submit to be delimited – needs stasis, certainty, fixity – in order to Be. The greater purpose demands the submission. The Master needs to trust, to believe in, his emissary, knowing all the while that that trust may be abused. The emissary knows, but knows wrongly, that he is invulnerable. If the relationship holds, they are invincible; but if it is abused, it is not just the Master that suffers, but both of them, since the emissary owes his existence to the Master. [Lecture on Youtube]

He has a lot of science and history to back up his conclusion. I offer a snippet to note how similar his argument sounds to the one Jesus is having with his detractors in John 8. Jesus is God delimited, submitted, and risking trust. The quote also sounds like an argument many of us are having in our minds and hearts about how to be incarnate as a being with endlessness built into all we experience.

Approach the left-brain world as I AM

Two experiences this week pointed out some common challenges we are all facing as we bump up against the domination of left-brain thinking.

I watched members of the Floyd family last week and marveled at their adaptation to the crazy world of law and media into which they decided to enter. How they became spokespeople for the worldwide movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd has been painful, if inspiring, to see.

As they spoke at the sentencing hearing for Derek Chauvin, talk about justice by the court and media was reduced to minutia about sentencing guidelines and chances for further justice when the case goes to another territory of the bureaucracy about which no normal person really knows. The judge made a point to say that emotion was not going to be part of his judgment, as if to say the outrage and grief of the world did not finally put a murderous policemen in jail. He pointedly diminished the courageous vulnerability of the family as they faced a worldwide audience and an abusive legal system into which racism is deeply baked.

I think many of us who care about eradicating racism face similar problems with the left-brain problems that need right-brain solutions.  The consultants guiding our church’s leadership team through a process of racial awareness has spawned a host of conversations about how this new way to monetize equality has invaded almost every setting we inhabit, at least those who work in a bureaucracy that can be ignorantly racist. Analysis and principle-driven reorientation offers a left-brain solution to a left-brain problem — as if a bureaucracy could gain some self-awareness and a better abstraction would right its evil ship. Jesus was using the circumstance in which he found himself with his characteristic sense of being “I am.” He was present. He refused to relate on their terms.

I had several conversations with clients and acquaintances who do not intend to get vaccinated against Covid-19 and its variants. I realized my condo tower, mostly inhabited by Black people, is not lifting the requirement for masks because many people are not vaccinated and don’t intend to be. Twenty-three states have vaccinated less than half the eligible population. In the Congo there is no vaccine to be had at all, I heard last week from MCC workers.

Talk about health is reduced to suspicion about the genetic tinkering of the vaccine.  I am amazed at the research people have done! I continue to find a mistrust of science I have not seen, first-hand, until recently. I mistrust science because it trusts itself so completely. But many people mistrust it because they know it does not love them. Black families in Tuskegee were used as experimental animals and many people feel they dare not forget that. I heard, “What’s to prevent them from using the whole population as an experiment with an untried methodology?” My clients show some breathtaking logic as they are constantly make arguments which make them more and more anxious, trapped in their immanent frame.

When churches, not just ours, are considering how to “reopen” now that restrictions are lifted, they are often thrust into a left-brain argument about justice and equality in yet another way. What about the people who are not vaccinated? Can you really insist that someone get get the shot to be accepted? These endless arguments we have are often subject to the limitations of the left brain. Wisdom is not respected. Community is not an instinct. Love seems unreasonable, since the left brain is only about rationality. Jesus faced some thorny questions all the time, it seems. He usually answered them by being someone acting in grace as he was speaking. He was never a theory.

Isle of Skye

Asserting I AM

Jesus keeps teaching us about how to be ourselves in the grace of God in the face of a world in which the powers mostly believe in themselves. I think the pendulum might swing back, as it has in the past, toward right-brain awareness. And I hope the church, presented by us and millions around the world, will push that pendulum hard by being ourselves in truth and love. Iain McGilchrist seems like a good person with whom to team up in that cause.

He lives on the Isle of Skye off the western coast of Scotland — very trendy, but also still off the beaten path. I imagine him as a tweedy philosopher lighting his pipe with a twig from the fire.  I think his sensibilities reflect Robert Louis Stevenson’s lyrics to the Skye Boat Song:

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Like I think McGilchrist does, my clients often have an old, unnamable tune emanating from their right brain that gives them a feeling that something has been lost. They are on the boat to someplace unknown looking for their lost selves when they come to therapy. They soon recall how their soul imagines sailing over the horizon to someplace better. They can’t help it.

As soon as they let their imagination sail, their left brain often kicks in with innumerable obstacles to why they can’t embark. These days it is all about the “economy” (a left-brain invention assumed to form the parameters of possibility). Then it is all about their own incapacity (often scientifically verified on the internet). Then it might be their situation (racial or education challenged) and their unbelief. The last one is probably primary.

Like the Pharisees degrading the uniqueness of the Son of God, so many dear people I know degrade their own uniqueness as a child of God. Unlike Jesus, they do not matter-of-factly assert it and confront all the other challenges from that basis. Their brain is out of balance with their out-of-balance society. But they know that something more is possible; they can feel it, and they press on.

Patsy Cline leads the way after the midnight of the world

Before she ever met Loretta Lynn or sang Willie Nelson’s song “Crazy,” Patsy Cline was in a head-on collision. Last week marked the 60th anniversary of that rainy day in Nashville when she was riding with her brother John on a two-lane road when a passing car came roaring toward them as they topped a hill. Cline was thrown through the windshield onto the hood, while John, who had been at the wheel, ended up with a puncture in his chest and cracked ribs. In the other car, a woman and her six-year-old son were killed. Unaware of how badly she was injured, Cline told the EMTs at the scene to take care of the others.

The admitting physician said she was a “gory mess” when Patsy arrived at the hospital. Her scalp was peeled back; she had a deep gash across her forehead from temple to temple, crossing  her right eyebrow, the bridge of her nose, and her left eyebrow; she also had a dislocated hip, a broken wrist, and enormous blood loss. Twice, the doctors thought they lost her. She told a visiting minister about her near-death experience, “All my life I have been reaching for God and today I touched him.”

Looking beyond despair

Patsy Cline had a complicated relationship with God and everyone else, as most people do who have been sexually-abused by a parent and raised by a raging alcoholic. Singing seemed to save her, even though she put some distance between herself and Jesus. She loved to sing gospel music as a child and recommitted herself to it after the crash.

I have often found her music to be something of a spiritual experience. The pain in her voice keeps me grounded and her perfect-pitch genius transports me. Long after her death in a plane crash in 1963 (a bad year: Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis, JFK, and Patsy Cline), I bought her Greatest Hits album on vinyl in 1992 and about wore it out. That album camped at No. 1 on Billboard‘s chart for 165 weeks. In 1995, along with Peggy Lee , Henry Mancini, Curtis Mayfield, and Barbra Streisand, Patsy Cline was inducted into the Grammys Hall of Fame.

The other day I recorded her first hit, “Walkin’ After Midnight,” on the international karaoke app, Smule, and have been singing it ever since. I realized the way she sings it turns a clever little song about a lost romance into her own song of longing for love and even searching for God in the mysteries of the night. I think fans love her because they yearn like her, at least I do.

You can get a worship song out of most pop love songs — or at least a song of salvation or damnation, because most of us have jettisoned God and put our poor love-mate in God’s place, which often works out rather poorly. I think Patsy moves the other direction; she puts a little gospel into whatever she sings. You probably do too.

We’re all wandering around in the dark

Right now, the world is definitely “out walkin’ after midnight!” Many of us still feel anxious and bereft – it became a habit last year. We can’t sleep. We are still desperately searching around in a lingering darkness. I can’t talk to anyone without feeling their palpable loss of 2020. One in four of us are mourning the loss of a loved one or acquaintance. The U.S. has lost 600,000 people to the virus! The number of deaths will likely surpass the previous record of loss to the Spanish Influenza. All over the world the stats tell a terrible story, but the grief gives us the true picture. We lost a year, kids lost school, we lost jobs and we lost each other. The church was shown to be a crucial community, since many of us lost Jesus without it.

So this little Patsy Cline song turns out to be a good God song to sing as we are walkin’ after the midnight of the world.

I go out walkin’ after midnight,
Out in the moonlight,
Just like we used to do. I’m always walkin’
After midnight searchin’ for you

I just want to affirm your search. Yes, it feels dark for a lot of us. People are piling into restaurants, but we still feel depressed. It comes in waves. We got disconnected. We’re searching. God sees.

I walk for miles along the highway.
Well, that’s just my way
Of sayin’ “I love you.” I’m always walkin’
After midnight, searchin’ for you.

We’re on a new journey. I love the faith of taking a step in the dark as a way to say, “I love you.” I am taking many steps in just that way since I ended my long work as a pastor in my beloved church. We are all stepping out into what seems at least a foggy future every day. God hears. Jesus is searching for us.

I stop to see a weepin’ willow
Cryin’ on his pillow.
Maybe he’s cryin’ for me.
And as the skies turn gloomy,
Night winds whisper to me.
I’m lonesome as I can be.

I love the picture of the willow crying on his pillow! Night winds are whispering in the gloomy, dim, moonlit skies. We’re lonely. I often feel lonely after a day of seeing people! I’m carrying some residual loneliness from my isolation and I sometimes feel like a stranger in the new place of the summer of 2021. I don’t think we can underestimate how long our recovery from the pandemic might take. For one thing, people are still dying of the latest coronavirus all over the world! What’s more, there are after effects which are yet to be seen. We’re grieving. We’re afraid. God knows.

I am glad Patsy Cline gave me a song to help me sing out all this trouble before I tried to control it all or just distract myself from it. Maybe she will bless you too on your way into the dawn.