Category Archives: Psychological growth

The power of virtuality: Will teletherapy close the office?

The other day, therapists working with Circle Counseling considered how we are going to manage the new reality of teletherapy. I’ll get to that.

But first, I’d like to think about what is happening to us humans in the age of virtuality, of which teletherapy is a part. I am not sure what virtuality means, completely, but how I am using it is:

you and me, individually, connecting to the great power that is the internet.
You and your screen,
you and your headset,
you and your Oculus, etc.,
accessing experiences, products, and representations of people
outside of embodied, mutual physicality.

I did not bother looking for a better definition. It would be nice if we shared one. We need some kind of common understanding for this new experience, but that will be hard to find. Because part of the facts of living in our new condition is that each of us has our own experience and resulting definition of what just happened. And we don’t need to explain it to anyone, just conform to the rules that let us into different parts of the internet.

There is a new creation occurring

I decided I needed to get serious about what I, my family, partners and clients were experiencing in the solitude of our virtual lives when I happened upon an article in the New York Times about a Japanese man, Akihiko Kondo, who is among a growing number of people who have intimate relationships with animated, but inanimate, characters. He married a fictional character in 2018: “Hatsune Miku, is a turquoise-haired, computer-synthesized pop singer who has toured with Lady Gaga and starred in video games.”

Mr. Kondo is one of tens of thousands of people around the world who have entered into such unofficial marriages. Some of the characters they marry come from manga. Manga is a style of graphic storytelling which is a mainstay of Japanese publishing and popular worldwide. A child of one of my acquaintances lost their job because they are an “otaku.” In their case that meant they were addicted to manga stories in a way that made them unable to relate to reality. Their experience gives me sympathy for Mr. Kondo. I wonder who among my loved ones is losing their hold on reality right now.

The younger my clients are, the more likely they are to feel disembodied. Some are more comfortable with virtuality than merely human reality (as in the many young men who have difficulty with sex because they are acclimated to porn). Many are avoidant, mistrusting of “reality,” which is so uncontrollable. I’ve noted a   vicious cycle. Their relationship with virtuality is often about controlling their anxiety. But virtuality ends up controlling them and creating more anxiety. Those feelings, in turn, require deeper commitment to what controls them.

I am pondering what our wholesale adoption of teletherapy, which I can accomplish in pajama bottoms and never leave the confines of my home (perhaps ever), is doing to the people we want to help. Is using the medium attaching them more securely to it? Can they ever receive what I offer if they never make the effort to know me (or themselves) as a living breathing human? Or is it OK to marry a fictional character?

Where is teletherapy leading?

I practice teletherapy and now have clients from all over the country. NPR is constantly recommending the latest in teletherapy businesses. And even though I am sounding suspicious, I know I have provided helpful therapy screen to screen — sometimes to people who would not have received it otherwise. So is there really a problem? Is there any line at all from teletherapy leading to manga addiction, much less a direct line? I don’t know. I just have a hunch there might be something worth considering.

Months  before the omicron variant hit, researchers were producing articles on how teletherapy was radically changing the practice of psychotherapy. Even as my comrades were talking about what we are going to do, I got on my other screen and found an article from March of 2021 titled, “Will We Ever Again Conduct in-Person Psychotherapy Sessions?” A few of us had already decided, “No.” Others wondered if they wanted to get back in an office. And others were dismayed the question was even being asked because they needed off the screen.

Keep in mind, the researchers I uncovered were writing about research done a full year before Omicron was discovered in South Africa and quickly turned the world upside-down again. Two and more years of adaptation to lockdowns and social distancing is more than enough to solidify a new approach.

After more than a year, the researchers reported positive experiences with online psychotherapy. Long before the pandemic, some cognitive–behavioral therapists had positive attitudes toward teletherapy. Psychodynamic people, like me, were less enthused. In their study, the participants stated the pandemic changed their attitudes toward teletherapy. Over 60% said they now preferred it.

However, 70% of the participants agreed that remote work is more draining. Nevertheless, 78% agreed with the statement: “Remote therapy can be as effective as in-person therapy.” I think screens can suck the life out of us, and I believe the powers that run them are intent on doing just that. But I don’t feel drained by remote work. What’s more, even though I think good work is done virtually, I don’t think it is one to one comparable with what happens in person. I guess that puts me in the 30% of something.

This little piece of research and just looking around will tell you teletherapy is here to stay unless some compelling reason forces us out of the arms of virtuality the same way we were forced into it. We’d have to break a habit.

Click for NY Times article

There are reasons we won’t break the habit

Many clients prefer teletherapy. Thus, I have met entire families as they interrupt mom’s session. I’ve had sessions in several cars. Every session begins with making sure the connections work. Many sessions are interrupted by some glitch. But no one needs to go anywhere and sessions can fit into the catch-all schedules we concoct now. Why rent an office if you can work from a free one?

Vaccinations have made a big difference since the researchers were talking to their participants. But health concerns remain. Many of us can’t risk carrying home some unknown virus to our aging parents, who now live with us instead of virus-ridden care facilities. You may be concerned about what it means to your own health when you think about signing up people you don’t know for therapy — some populations would be more likely to be carrying the virus! If masks are required when new variants strike, that makes in-person therapy not much better, if not worse, than online.

Insurance for teletherapy was set to expire as the pandemic waned. But it appears people will be reimbursed at the same rate for teletherapy by providers. The new online businesses advertising relentlessly will take a chunk of the increase therapists might have realized. But if you already have an established practice on your own, the cost of not needing an office is a nice, needed pay raise.

There are reasons we probably should break the habit.

I wrote my dissertation on an ethical issue, and I often lean into those questions. Teletherapy makes me wonder, “Is confidentiality affected by teletherapy?” I don’t mean “Is Google somehow listening?” But few of my clients have a devoted space to do quality work. Babies come to therapy. Children interrupt. Any number of devices need to be quashed. When at home or in a closet at the office (unless you see execs with a corner suite) there is a sense of holding invasive things at bay. It is distracting. And it is often not private. Confidentiality provides safety. An office overseen by  a caregiver who provides it for caring is a benefit.

I also wonder if doing therapy out of my home is boundary breaking. Maybe you blur your background and hope your head stays in focus. Or maybe you have constructed a background that makes your circumstances appear neutral. But we know where you are. I think many people do good work by visiting people in their homes to do therapy. Some people have little office buildings in their backyard. Good work is done many ways. But I wonder if it serves the unique process of a client when they are enveloped by the personal world of their therapist. Granted, the office can do that too. But at least the office is, by definition, a place where professional services are dispensed, often by a person licensed to give them.

My main issue with not breaking free of virtuality has to do with community. When our therapist group was sharing I felt hungry for more togetherness and most of them voiced similar feelings. Let’s talk about cases. Let’s have dinner. Let’s build some love. We are starving. Yes, we are just coming out of the weirdest two years ever, perhaps. But our starvation is the future if we conform to the changes the pandemic accelerated. I think psychotherapy is best accomplished in the atmosphere of the beloved community Dr. King preached. Attachment issues are best repaired in a place where people attach. Psychotherapy is about our bodies, not just our minds instructing our reactions and feelings. I think people feel it if therapists are not lone rangers, logging in from wherever with whoever.

The new atmosphere of virtuality is an ongoing dialogue worth having. Elon Musk did not spend $44 billion on Twitter instead of climate change action for nothing; he probably wants to be the chief oligarch. The internet domination system is the future. I’m having the dialogue about virtuality quite practically this week. On one hand, just less than half my appointments are in person this week. But on the other, we are flying to Toronto out of a conviction we need to show our faces at an important conference. It is hard to spend the money, time and energy to travel when the governments still feel like protecting their borders (especially getting back into the U.S.!). But really being there and building something planted in creation makes a difference, I hope. Maybe I will have more to say about what not being virtual is like next week.

Your worth: Check your attachment style before you decide

I am writing on Good Friday, when millions of Christians consider the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. The most popular interpretation of the meaning of Christ’s death is well-attested in the Bible: Jesus is “dying for our sins,” as my collection of atonement explanations can show you.

The story goes: We have become creatures unworthy of God’s love, since His justice cannot tolerate the betrayal of our duty to worship and serve him as we should. There are many more specific sins we carry, as you can probably  enumerate, which just makes things worse.  The good news is: we become worthy as God sees us through the lens of Jesus. We are free to live up to our new, official status as individuals saved by the grace of God.

This particular atonement explanation is especially good news for people with the “secure attachment style” they developed as a child. As for the rest of us, we might want to have another look.

Your attachment style matters

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth did us a favor by exploring how we arrive at our sense of worth when they came up with “attachment theory.” This theory of infant development is so common, you’ve probably investigated your own style. I think such investigation is a good idea, as long as you don’t think the label you discover is more than a suggestion or a starting point.

When you consider what the death of Jesus means for you, your attachment style makes a difference. If you do not have a “secure” attachment style, you already felt unworthy of love when you heard about Jesus. So the story above resonated: “I need a Savior because I am unworthy of love.” I have had clients say, “I am perpetually unworthy. My only worth is what God imputes through grace by the work of Jesus.”  Their theology dovetails with their lack of self-esteem. If you keep the theory in your head and don’t let it get muddled up with your feelings, it kind of works; just don’t look too deep.

If you have a secure attachment style, the preacher may have to do quite a bit of work to make you feel unworthy so you can receive the Lord’s worth. I grew up hearing very convincing speakers who made me feel guilty and terrified if I did not confess how bad I was and get saved. But, I have to admit, I felt the love of God long before I was listening in on adult church meetings. I kind of added on “substitutionary atonement” to my general sense of living in God’s grace. Jesus has always been more of my friend than my lawyer.

Your view of yourself may cloud your view of God

One of my favorite descriptions of the atonement is the famous story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. God is described as a worried father of two sons. Neither are securely attached. That might be due to the fact no mother is mentioned in the parable. When their father talks to each of them, he needs to convince both of their worth.

But they were never unworthy. Their father was always sharing everything he had with the older son and was anxiously watching for the younger son to return. God sees us as children whether we are at home, sulking, or coming up the road, skulking. As a parent and grandparent, I understand the Lord’s story of love and hope much better than the courtroom picture of being freed from the consequences of my sin so I can appear before God with impunity. My children were loved little sinners. I saw the best in them.

The work of Jesus is described in various ways in the Bible and that may not be a  mistake. It seems like the ways are tailored to the intended audience and come from a particular style of person. I’m arguing that people with different attachment styles see themselves, God, and the atonement differently — that is realistic and good. I also think it is better to come to God as oneself instead of cramming yourself into a one-size-fits-all rubric from the 1600’s! What’s more I think we need a different side of the atonement at different developmental stages of our lives. At eleven years old, when I was baptized “as an adult,” I needed more substitutionary atonement than I do now.

The Bible’s view of our worth

No one writing the Bible is shy about naming the sinfulness of humanity. If we did not have the Bible, the Spirit of God could use today’s headlines to convince us of our bondage to evil. At the same time, she could use each individual as an example of the wonder of creation. It does not take long to meet up with the work of God alive in each human when you get to know them. In my work, I get to know a lot of humans intimately, and each one, even in their suffering, is amazing.

The Bible shares my view of humans, I think. The writers all obviously think they know God and have something to say, so their personal sense of worth is intact. When they talk about other people, they often reinforce the fact that God sees her creation as good. Jesus talks about his work as rebirth, assuming there is a seed planted in each of us that can multiply. Psalm 139 famously says,

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.

Our own sin and the sin committed against us does wreck us. We need to be saved and we can’t do it on our own. But once I get next to Jesus, I think it is a sin to keep seeing myself as contemptible. Being responsible for being contemptible may be the terrible lesson we learned as a child from which Jesus is trying to save us! If we continue to insist we are unworthy of God’s love, that might be more about our attachment style than God.

Some kids in Mary Ainsworth’s attachment experiments, when left alone with a stranger for a few minutes,  were quite unsure they would again be lovingly received by their mother, or if she would even come back!  They sound like the son who was coming back from feeding the pigs who only imagined getting back into the household as a slave. Other children in the experiments were so sure they would not be cared for, they didn’t even look for any care and stayed alone. If I stretch it, they seem a bit like the other son feeling all alone in the back yard while a party was going on in the house.

Paul, who was certainly good at sinning and felt sin at work in him even when he was writing his dense letter to the Roman church said, as he was ending up his treatise on the work of Christ:

[Y]ou did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17).

Again, in those lines, there is that intimate, parental image right at the climax of his argument. There is no condemnation. The law of the Spirit is greater than any other law. You were always meant to be a child of God and now you know that, not in theory but in experience.

When Jesus bent to taste your death with you, it was surely because he felt you were worth it, wasn’t it? You were worthy even before you were born. You were the sinner worth dying for standing in front of the cross looking at Jesus helplessly. You were always the wonder he knew you could become, just as you were created to be. I don’t think God needs a Jesus lens to look at us. I think it’s we who need the new lens.

Eternal: What does the word mean to you?

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
John 10:10

[T]hose who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.
The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
John 4:14

Does Jesus mean what I think he does?

Jesus came to find us and give us eternal life. So where is it? Is it off in the future and I just need to gut it out until I die? Or is it resident somewhere in all of us and I just need to  become restful enough for it to well up? Insert your own variation of these questions.

Eternal life sounds like a good idea, but most people I know aren’t that sure about it.  I think the “may have” there in John 10:10 sounds conditional to a lot of us, like those metaphorical sheep who hear the Lord’s voice “may,” as in might, have an abundant life. Some self-described “sheep” are still out there looking for that life, and feeling tentative.

And that word to the Samaritan woman in John 4 puts a lot of pressure on her to “drink of the water,” doesn’t it?  — as if she should have already done it and be someone better already. Other desperate people, like her, are thinking, “What if I didn’t take my drink? What if I can’t find the ‘water’ to drink? Is what I’m drinking the water, or not?”

Most psychotherapy clients are searching for answers to such questions whether they consider themselves spiritual or not. There seems to be some thirst-quenching abundance somewhere beyond us all. We feel its possibility.

Jesus is offering an abundant life. He wants us to have it to the full. To the woman at the well he says this life is eternal. In the famous John 3:16 Jesus is quoted promising whoever follows him — whoever believes him and trusts him, eternal life.

Most Christians probably think eternal life is “immortality;” one will live forever — some see that immortality beginning after you die, some see it beginning as soon as you receive it like a cup of water from the Lord’s hand. Others see eternal life as more of a sense of being fully alive in the present — like eternal is the quality of the life, the very life of the Eternal One, the Spirit-life of God welling up within us.

Without thinking much more, what do you say eternal life is? Are you waiting for it? Trying to get it? Hoping for it? Living in it? Is it living in you? Is it making you? What was your first answer?

Becoming and Being

You don’t have to have a right answer. But how we see ourselves, see God, and see life makes a huge difference. Someone told me lately that their life was a curse. To be sure, that made a big difference in how they were moving through the week!

The word eternal invites us into the mystery, the unknown or unknowable reality we sense beyond our present capacity to experience or understand. The mysterious word eternal has two sides to it which some see as mutually exclusive, but I see as two sides of the same coin. However your day flips, you may feel on one side or the other.

The “heads” side of the word eternal might feel more familiar. Some people see eternal life as a long stretch of days leading off into forever. If that’s you and you are ambitious, then you are on a long developmental journey one day after the other. If you aren’t ambitious, then you are waiting out the tribulation you are experiencing because Jesus will overcome for you in the end.

I think this linear, physical, practical view makes sense because we are embodied spirits. I think we will always be aware of time, even in the age to come. From our first breath we are developing. Spiritually, we are becoming full or we are emptying out. I wish we could be serene pools of living water without any evaporation, but I’ve never seen that happen. If we aren’t moving into eternity, we are moving toward death.

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You can see this side of eternity in our marriages. Once we find a person to travel with, we often wish we no longer had to become anything. “Why doesn’t my partner already know what I want and give it to me? How could I have married someone who needs to learn something? Why can’t we just be OK? What happened to the honeymoon?” It sounds kind of silly when those things are written out loud. But that mate you have can set off a longing for eternity, for abundant life, that can’t be quenched very easily. The main characters on Bridgerton develop for a few episodes and enter into bliss. We turn to the lover on the couch and say, “Why are you depriving me? Where is this thing we’ve got going?”

On the other side of the word eternal, some people see eternal life as choosing abundance now. It is living in the present, being fully awake and ready to engage, drawing on that inner spring of goodness.  Richard Rohr calls spiritual life the “eternal now.” The creation itself is a gift of life and by grace Jesus restores its fullness to us. You can hear him calling if you have ears to hear.

I think this nonlinear, spiritual, otherworldly view also makes sense because we all feel the pull of our spiritual awareness – even if only for three minutes when we are touched by a beloved piece of music or when are faced with our mortality. From our first breath we have a sense of being with God.  Jesus comes to us and blows the breath of the Spirit on us and invites us to be refilled, to access what can quench our deep thirst.

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This side of eternity also shows up in our marriages. I wonder if “in touch” people like Richard Rohr might be even harder to live with. If every moment has a deeper meaning than appears, it might communicate to your mate that they are a bit disappointing at times. At the worst, such a seeker can seem a bit tortured, either making sure they are happy or sinking so far into their goodness they don’t really need anyone else. Madam Bridgerton was so blissed out on her late husband that she left it to her unprepared eldest to do the real living.  He almost missed out on his own trip to the well. To his good fortune, he was on Netflix.

Suffering

The bad news about psychotherapy is often: there will be some pain accompanying your change for the better. A lot of people can smell the threat of that suffering even in the Bible verses that promise eternal life. For instance one could reply to Jesus in John 10, “The thieves already came in and stole, Jesus! You know that; they took your life!” A person thirsty for forgiveness and community has surely talked back to Jesus in John 4 saying, “If there is so much water available, why do I feel so dry?”

People come to therapy suffering. They often come to spiritual direction, to church meetings and to dinner the same way. We are all in need of eternal life. I think the sufferers are among the most honest people on the planet. They are asking the all the right questions. Because feeling outside of eternity is terrible.

The way into eternal life begins with welcoming the future or turning into the presence of it right now. We need to move toward or with life day after day. I have been doing that for a lot of days mostly more on than off, I think. I started early, so that’s about 22, 995 days towards death and through it into the promise of eternal life. Like most of you, probably, I’ve recently had a couple of doozies of difficult years. Plus, I am getting old and have to get up and keep moving when my bones ache and heart aches. I have to keep choosing life as things change. I have to change. We suffer.

Before I go, I just want to confess for us that even when I have stumbled into wonderful abundance and when I have turned to swim in the death-quenching water all around me, even when I have done it right and when I have felt at peace, those realities have also caused suffering. I became different, I was different, and I disrupted what others considered normal. I came into abundance and had abundance to share, but people didn’t always take it or even understand it. When I wanted to connect and love, my care was ignored and my chances were stolen. I disrupted myself, too. My opinion of myself had to change because a full me usurped the me who had been protecting against emptiness for a long time.

Becoming and being eternal go together. If you can’t keep going there will be no place to be. If you can’t delight in who you are and who you are in Christ right now, at least a little, there is no motivation to keep choosing and becoming your full self.

However the coin lands, the life and death choices being explored in psychotherapy (and many other places, of course) are about eternal life. We long for the happiness of abundant life. The spiritual thirst we feel implies there is water. Even if we suffer to enter the life Jesus offers, the choosing, itself, makes us more human and more enspirited.

Eradication or remission: With what healing do I bless you?

What do you say when you bless a sick person?

  • “I hope you get well soon” or
  • “I hope you feel better soon?”

Both, of course, are expressions of love and a sick person probably gets the love, no matter what you say. I wondered, however, why I almost always say, “I hope you feel better soon” just like my mother.  Maybe get well, seems like a demand; while feel better is more tentative, more humble. When I say “I hope you feel better soon,” I think it is flavored with, “I am not sure where this is going. I don’t feel comfortable promising wellness. But I am hopeful.”

The other day some Circle Counseling clinicians got into the subject of getting well and feeling better applied to mental health. We discussed whether mental health was more about eradication (well) or more like remission (better). I had never really thought through the difference. Eradication vs. remission is often the tension cancer patients feel, right? They wonder “Is there a cure or will I have to worry forever?” That kind of tension also applies to mental illness. “Does being well mean I am just like I remember good times in my past — a return to normal? Is it acquiring an idealized future — what I always thought I should be?” Or is mental health feeling, thinking and behaving better, beginning where I am now and moving on?

Need to talk about power

I think eradication was paired with remission in our dialogue because people in the U.S. assume power is at their disposal or should be. Around here, successful treatment for many means eradication of the invading illness. Something like “Vaccinations would have provided a no-fly zone against the virus if people had just gotten one, two, three and now four!”

Like I was asking last week, many Americans see healing as an act of power. Should Jesus followers all be like Jesus and eradicate disease and mental illness with a word, a touch, or a prayer? Or is healing more typically resting at the feet of Jesus, having faith in the storm, and persevering in trust? In a powerful country, psychotherapists might lust for power — the power of my work, my touch, my method. I heard a different take when I talked to a person last week who lives half-time in Ecuador. They said it would be much more likely there to see health in terms of one’s relational context and one’s daily process. People there never expect to have power, so they are more comfortable with unpredictable destinations and more attuned to feeling present in their relationships and circumstances. They do not find suffering sinful.

But here, I think it is good for me to answer the questions. Am I more of a psychological technician, eradicating mental illness and discomfort? Or am I providing space for health to unfold? If the latter, I might be able to promise raising your pain tolerance instead of implying all pain is an anomaly. In a recovery mindset, I might admit I don’t know the meaning of your suffering, or whether some ideal of wellness might really be a trap!

I’m glad I travel with people who ask good questions.  At one point last week, I listened to an Indian psychotherapist (his choice of label) explaining why Native people might not take advantage of the services of the counseling center on the reservation. The elders told him the center’s idea of “wellness” was mostly about becoming individualized (as opposed to tribal) and medicalized. If one is poor or constrained by colonization, “getting well” might mean eradicating who one is to become more “white” and more acceptable to the power structure. One’s setting or one’s relationships might be the cause of mental illness, not only what is happening inside. If a person refused mental health care, that might be the same thing as resisting the indignities of colonization, the end of which would likely improve their mental health!

Eradication/Medical model

I was not sure the interesting binary argument we therapists were making between eradication and remission was reasonable. Aren’t most mutually exclusive labels easily placed on a spectrum that meets somewhere near the middle? But once I started looking, I found a lot of eradication models that feel pretty exclusive, mostly coming from the world of medicine, from which psychotherapy emerged. They looked a bit one-sided, as in this definition: “The biological approach of the medical model focuses on genetics, neurotransmitters, neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, etc. Psychopathology says that disorders have an organic or physical cause. The approach suggests that mental conditions are related to the brain’s physical structure and functioning” (link).

I usually love science. It is unintentionally miraculous. But I don’t love it when it dominates us. So I have mixed feelings about some relatively-recent approaches from the medical end of the spectrum that propose and sometimes promise eradication of mental health issues. Here is a collection.

  • A TV station gushed: “Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation is a depression treatment that is “turning lives around in five days.” By adding imaging technology to the treatment and upping the dose of rTMS, scientists have developed an approach that’s more effective and works more than eight times faster than the current approved treatment for the world’s leading cause of disability.
  • The medical terms are Psilocybin and MDMA. The terms you know are ‘shrooms and ecstasy. Psychedelics have resurfaced as a means to treat stubborn disorders. Psilocybin (the essence of mushrooms) has been used for severe depression and MDMA for PTSD. One of my clients ended up in psychotherapy because an uninvited night of ‘shrooms unveiled an inner world he never dreamed he contained.
  • Ketamine injections have become a new mental health industry, lately. The anesthesia has been found useful for treating depression, PTSD, social anxiety and OCD. Mindbloom is the company that a new client connected with; the effects were real, but apparently short-lived for them.
  • I am not sure I think of EMDR as a “medical model” in essence. But it is another way to short-cut lengthy talk therapy. I’ve done some training myself. It gives a lot of authority to the technician. Brainspotting seems, to me, like a more easy going, user-friendly version of EMDR. Both use bi-lateral stimulation of the brain to allow for entrenched feelings and patterns to be accessed and renegotiated.

Remission/Recovery Model

I hesitate to say the “remission” end of the spectrum is more “right-brained,” but there, I said it. While the medical model gets more specific and tiny all the time, right down to your neurotransmitters, the recovery model allows for a wider range of possibilities and contexts for the state called mental health. The documentary Bedlam is one of the latest critiques of the results of the medical model the recovery model seeks to correct.

The recovery model takes a holistic view of a person’s life. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines recovery from mental disorders and/or substance use disorders as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” SAMHSA outlines four dimensions that support recovery: 1) Choices that support physical and mental well-being, 2) a safe place to live, 3) meaningful occupation and participation in the community, 4) supportive relationships of love, emotional availability, and respect.

The recovery model is in direct response to the unmet promises of the medical model. Rather than focusing on “the elusive state of return to premorbid level of functioning” these are more systemic approaches emphasizing “one’s personal ‘resilience’ and control over problems and life” (NCBI). For instance, the medical model makes many promises to alleviate depression, the leading cause of disability  worldwide (WHO). The recovery model is honest about the shortcut approaches that sometimes prove ineffective and discouraging.

In the case of depression, a sufferer is moving toward recovery when symptoms respond to treatment and diminish, however slowly. Remission is achieving a symptom-free state and returning to normal functioning. After several month s of remission, one enters the recovery stage (more). For many people, looking for remission may be more satisfying than never achieving eradication. Finding a new normal, rather than lamenting the lost one, allows a person to live the life they have.

With what healing do I bless you?

I think I can bless someone with “Be well.” Whatever wellness you have in your present state today, I hope you can have it rather than lusting for what you don’t have and condemning yourself for not being healthier. If you don’t see yourself in the light of the medical industry’s “gaze” and label yourself according to your faults, I think you’ll find amazing tools there to use.

I also think I can bless someone with “I hope you’ll feel better.” Whatever process of development or recovery you are in, there is hope of appreciating it, moving beyond it, or suffering it creatively. You have personal resources – some you know about and some which are yet to be fully realized or even discovered. You are valuable as you are right now and there are likely people who can see that. Even when you feel ill and less capable than you desire, what you bring to the community is worthwhile right now and will likely grow in blessing as you learn to love and share your true self.

The hidden work of healing in psychotherapy

When I wrote my dissertation, I had the joy of flying here and there to meet with Christian therapists who formed counseling centers associated with churches. One woman in Chicago was having an awkward time talking about how church life integrated with her professional life. She hadn’t shared very much about how her faith informed her psychotherapy and she hadn’t heard much about what her colleagues thought about it. She sheepishly admitted, “I pray for my clients every day. Do you think that is OK?”

What do you think? Is it OK?

As a client, you may need to talk this over with your therapist, if you want your faith taken seriously. Maybe they don’t pray for you. You may also need to talk to them if that’s an area you did not expect to be a part of therapy, or you don’t want it to be, or you can’t trust them with it. The integration of Christianity/spirituality and psychotherapy is not clear for many people, some therapists included.

This has only happened once, but it did happen when a couple came in for marriage counseling. It was apparent the husband was not feeling it. Arms crossed. Short answers to begin with. But we seemed to be getting somewhere. We made another appointment. But the wife called me the next day and said, “He looked at your website and it looks like you are Christians. He can’t handle that. Thanks anyway.” I still think about that. Circle Counseling is a means for many churches to do the work of healing. But some will not be able to handle the thought that I might be praying for them!

Honestly, given the reputation of Christians these days, I might feel like that man who never came back — I mean, the Russian Orthodox Church is sponsoring a war right now! The MCC Rep for Korea gave an amazing report the other night about our peacemaking efforts there; but he had to note how the South Korean churches are dominated more by capitalism, nationalism and anticommunism than they are patiently and deliberately fermenting the hearts and minds of people into new wine. Christian psychotherapists don’t always know what they are doing either. Even though the guild guidelines include competency in spirituality these days, the teachers seem to sideline it more and more. I think many therapists leave their faith outside the door to their office.

We are healers

Various conversations about prayer and counseling made me want to clarify what I think I am doing. I realized I have an assumption that has kind of been hidden, since I am concerned about people who might walk out of my office at the least hint of Jesus. (That happened once in ten years, and I have not forgotten!). I may not advertise the “contemptible” name Christian, too much but I definitely am a healer in the name of Jesus.

Some people do not think psychotherapy “qualifies” as a healing profession. That’s for actual doctors. I admit I was concerned I might be asked what kind of healing profession I was in when I dashed over to the convention center with all the other health workers to get the vaccine when it first came out. I was afraid I might get a “You are not what we meant” look. But as the mental health crisis deepens in the U.S. I believe, more than ever, we need Jesus to heal us, heart, soul, mind and body.

Back in the 80’s our community took a field trip to the first Vineyard church, led by John Wimber. His congregation separated from Calvary Chapel when they took the call to follow Jesus literally and reluctantly decided that call meant healing people like Jesus did. This conviction was not new at all in the history of the church, but it seemed new to them.  After a lot of failure, a woman was healed, much to Wimber’s surprise. He was in the act of explaining to her husband why not all people are healed but the husband was looking over his shoulder at his wife getting out of bed!  An outbreak of healings and other experiences with the Spirit followed.  The population of the church boomed. Wimber called their new ministry “power evangelism” – people came to faith because they encountered the living God.

The first disciples described in Acts demonstrate the same conviction. I think all Jesus followers have a part to play in healing individuals, societies and the creation. “Power evangelism” is an improvement over “God is not answering the phone anymore;” but it also strikes me as the kind of thing an American would invent and package. Americans tend to think power is their birthright or their birthright has been stolen, one or the other. And don’t get me wrong, I think encountering the Spirit among the people of God in Yorba Linda is great. But Jesus did a lot more work in a hidden way than as a rally leader. He was fermenting new wine more than just crushing grapes.

Hidden spiritual work

Another therapist I interviewed in California during my research had a Bible on her office table and told me she usually prayed with her clients.  I was surprised! I was so circumspect, myself, a person would have to go to the website to find out I was a Christian before they asked me. And many people never find out. I don’t think they need to deal with whatever the Bible symbolizes to them or whatever a white, Christian, male might symbolize to them before we get there.

But I do pray for them. As a Jesus follower, it might be malpractice for me not to pray for my clients! I don’t remember ever praying with one. But I can’t help praying for them. I come with the One who comes with “healing in his wings.”

My work, like the ministry most Jesus followers do, is more along the lines of Matthew 6:6: But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” There is a “hiddenness” to the work of the Spirit. Like it is often said, the work of the Spirit is like salt in your dinner, or yeast in your bread dough, or a breeze coming on you when you sit on your stoop in August, entering in and invisibly changing things.

Healing is more patiently, deliberately fermenting; it is much more about love than power. The church and the counseling center are crucial vehicles for the transformation of the individuals and the whole world but Jesus does the healing. We never see just exactly how he does it.

Ripe in their time

When I am with clients, my prayer is less like an event and more like a presence. I am a living prayer. I am the presence of God’s love. Another interviewee in my research project was not sure what would happen to her if she revealed to her colleagues how she loved her clients. “How could I not?” she asked. I can’t help it, either. And why, in Jesus’s name, would I? As they enter and as they leave (or after I click them in and out of Zoom!), I intercede for them. Sometimes I wake up in the night and feel like praying some more. God is healing all the time. The unceasing prayer I embody is part of the Sprit’s work.

I’ve never had anyone ask me to pray for them. I hope that is because they get the idea what we do is not about me. It’s not about my special prayer. Not about my power. They have access to whatever power they need. The Spirit of God is with them and for them just as I am with God and I am with them and for them. If they did ask me to pray before they left (after they visited the website, I guess), I think I would say, “I’m not sure about that. We can explore it some more next time.”

The Batman: Hope for the victims of trauma

The Batman gets used to the dawn.

Warning. If you are afraid of a “spoiler alert” related to a Batman movie this post might disturb you. But you’ll probably be OK. We don’t go to Batman movies to be surprised. We go to see someone re-imagine a very familiar story.  Besides, the trailer gives away some of the best parts!

To be sure, this overlong, best-Batman-in-my-opinion is cleverly re-imagined. It is so beautifully created I wouldn’t have needed a coherent plot, but I got one. The Batman is a couple of years into his nocturnal crime fighting and things don’t always go too well. He is facing an identity crisis in the daylight as Bruce Wayne (but don’t expect too much daylight in this dark movie), and more crisis in the nighttime as “Vengeance” personified. Everyone is corrupted by wicked elements that threaten to drown (and then actually drown) Gotham City, past and present. The millennial Batman is not sure he is making a difference. And he is sad, mad, and afraid he is turning bad: “They think I’m hiding in the shadows,” he intones in an opening voiceover. “But I am the shadows.”

Post-traumatic growth

The movie is not another origin story; it assumes we know The Batman’s parents were murdered in front of his eyes. His iconic trauma lives on. The Batman has reinforced it by reliving it night after night and attempting to relieve it by wrecking vengeance on anyone who would dominate the good people of Gotham, like his parents were.

So far, his fury does not seem to be making a big difference on the streets. But it takes a toll on The Batman’s scarred body; it undermines the Wayne business empire; and it makes having a relationship with The Catwoman difficult. The movie does not dig into this toll deeply, even though it is three hours long. More time is taken up by chases using the first-generation Batcycle and Batmobile and by splendidly choreographed fight scenes in which the hero uses prototypes of what will become Batman’s famous collection of gear.

The Batman is quick to learn about crime fighting, but he is slower to learn about his trauma. I wondered if the script writers had consulted a book I assigned a class a couple of years ago called The Post-traumatic Growth Workbook. The film reflects the increased awareness people have gained in the last ten years about how trauma can shape us. Some people end up perpetual victims and may even victimize others. But some people use their trauma to become more resilient and hopeful. (Most people land in between). The workbook (which you can use yourself, it is not just for professionals) assumes everyone can be positively transformed by trauma. By the end of the movie, The Batman seems to be validating that hope. In service to that theme, the movie is too short, since it often takes a long time for people to uncover and explore their trauma and find a way out of it and into new patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving.

Bruce Wayne spots his inner child

The inner Batboy

The search for mental health often starts on the outside and works its way into our hearts, a lot like God coming to find us and rescue us in Jesus. Jesus pops up here and there in the movie, but the “caped crusader” is saved from saving himself by a trinity of important people: the likewise-traumatized Catwoman, the injured Alfred, and the newly-fatherless son of the assassinated mayor.

  • Catwoman begins to undo his steely isolation“Maybe we’re not so different. Who are you under there?…Are you just hideously scarred?” (He grimly answers, “Yes.”)
  • The threat of losing his surrogate father reminds him how he has been loved by Alfred and offered the attachment he lost; some bat-tears even well up. – “You needed a father. All you had was me.”
  • But it is the speechless boy the filmmakers make sure you don’t miss. On three occasions time stops; The Batman and the boy lock eyes and make a mysterious connection. Some people say this is Robin-in-the-making. Maybe.

Someone told me a much better idea than Robin, since they experienced Bruce Wayne’s revelation vicariously while they watched the film. This lost boy, who Batman rescues twice, is the image of the batboy suffering within The Batman. As he rescues the boy he is rescuing himself. As he attends to and attaches to this boy, he is attending to his own wounded soul. You can usefully watch the whole movie through this lens. (Even the parts Colin Farrell steals as the Penguin). Try it!

My friend’s moment of truth centered on the scene when the The Batman tries to rescue the new mayor, who understandably, in her traumatized state, is reluctant to take his hand. To our surprise, another hand rises from behind the wreckage. It is the former mayor’s son reaching out. The boy slowly comes into the camera’s view and his formerly unreachable, new friend pulls him from the wreckage. That might be the adult you reaching back to care for that poor orphaned you still stuck in the wreckage of the past. It is certainly the Spirit of God in us overriding our personal rules of life to free us from our victimhood and welcome even the abused parts of us into their dignity and transformation.

The final scenes of mayhem are probably worth the admission price for most of us. But I reveled in watching The Batman assisting in the final cleanup that followed. In the process of cleaning up, he gets cleaned up. The sun rises after a night full of horror and he is out in his mud covered, designed-for-the-dark uniform helping the injured into helicopter stretchers. One youngster won’t let him go, which would probably soften your hardened heart, too.

The movie is not all tidied up at the end, or how could there be sequel (which would be the 14th live-action rendition, and that does not include Lego movies)? The messiness makes it a great movie for the mud-spattered spring of 2022. Many of us feel a post-Covid fear of being stuck in the mud as we watch Russian trucks running on fumes through muck-season in Ukraine. Will we ever get out of feeling victimized by our trauma, newly-experienced and triggered every day? Getting used to the dawn, The Batman realizes, “Vengeance won’t change the past. Mine or anyone else’s. People need hope.”

Your sadness: You may have laughed to keep from crying

The discipline season of Lent is a lot of things to a lot of Jesus followers; that’s how it should be, there are a lot of us. But one thing it is for me, and I know for many others this year: it is sad. I’m grieving my personal losses, but we are all grieving societal losses: 955,000 Covid-19 deaths – a death for every 33 U.S. citizens, two lost years, the lack of accountability for the attack in which Breonna Taylor was killed, the madness in Ukraine, the lack of climate action; it all goes on. I keep Kasey Musgraves close at hand, but it sure feels like it is going to keep raining.

Often used to scorn, not for real feelings

It is not unusual for one of my clients to tell a very sad story with a stone-faced look. I often tell someone, “That story makes me very sad. How about you?” We often discover their sadness has been put away in some far corner of their unconscious because they have never trusted anyone enough to tell the story. Or very early on in their lives, they gave up on sadness because it was useless to feel it. One said, “I did not learn to trust and they did not learn to teach me.” Two said in one week, “I learned to laugh to keep from crying.”

“I had to laugh to keep from crying.”

My prototypical Oklahoma peasant, racist of a father used that phrase as a proverb during my youth. He did not cry much and neither did I. So I can relate to my clients who might not be well equipped to recognize sadness, even if it could manage to get through their defenses against being overwhelmed by it. Oddly enough, but not so odd Heather McGhee can’t name it in her amazing book, my poor father was a strange bedfellow with Tyler Perry’s economically oppressed family, who also used the phrase so much he could turn it into a play. A lot of us laugh to keep from crying.

If you are doing that laughing on purpose, like I think Perry is doing, it might be a good discipline. Laughter is good medicine. If you are laughing, or amusing yourself to death, because you are terrified of feelings that might overwhelm you, then Lent might be a good time to be sad for as long as you need to be, sad until you have passed through it. If you aren’t the sad you are, you might become depressed until you let it pass through.

As with so many human experiences, someone studied how we inappropriately laugh, or display other unexpected behaviors, when we are overwhelmed with emotions. The scientist told the Atlantic author “If you get into a very high or very low emotion that you’re almost to the point of being overwhelmed, you become incapacitated so you can’t function well.” Your emotional regulator will kick in because, “Emotional homeostasis is important for people so they can be in control of their cognitive, social, and psychological functions.”

We laugh to keep from crying because feeling and expressing the overwhelming sadness is too much. We also laugh to moderate our nervous feelings and cry to tone down our ecstasy. A big laugh (or punching the wall) is also a social signal we’re over our limit and need something to stop.

How about an honestly sad Lent?

Many Catholics are still hanging on to Lent as a season of mortification to purify themselves of earthly desires so they can be more like who they think Jesus is (at least these people are). Traditionally, that means mourning the death of Jesus and the sin that killed him. That’s why there were ashes last Wednesday and people are “fasting”  chocolate, or “giving up” things they love but don’t need (don’t give up water). Lent can be like a spiritual boot camp with Jesus in the wilderness. Like I said, there are a lot of variations. I am a long-time practitioner of Lent, to very good ends.

Abraham, Sarah & the Three Strangers, Psalter of St. Louis, Paris, c.1253-70

This year for Lent,  I am disciplining myself in some typical ways but I am also following the example of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Specifically, I am remembering when God called her out for disguising her despair with a secret laugh. There is an amazing little story about her in the Bible. Three strangers come to Abraham’s compound and he welcomes them as “the Lord.” Many interpreters see this as a rare Old Testament revelation of the Trinity. But I am more interested in Sarah hiding in the tent, listening in, than I am in philosophizing.

The Lord appeared to Abraham at the sacred trees of Mamre. As Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent during the hottest part of the day, he looked up and saw three men standing there. As soon as he saw them, he ran out to meet them. Bowing down with his face touching the ground, he said, “Sirs, please do not pass by my home without stopping; I am here to serve you. Let me bring some water for you to wash your feet; you can rest here beneath this tree. I will also bring a bit of food; it will give you strength to continue your journey. You have honored me by coming to my home, so let me serve you.”

They replied, “Thank you; we accept.”

Abraham hurried into the tent and said to Sarah, “Quick, take a sack of your best flour, and bake some bread.” Then he ran to the herd and picked out a calf that was tender and fat, and gave it to a servant, who hurried to get it ready. He took some cream, some milk, and the meat, and set the food before the men. There under the tree he served them himself, and they ate.

Then they asked him, “Where is your wife Sarah?”

“She is there in the tent,” he answered.

One of them said, “Nine months from now I will come back, and your wife Sarah will have a son.”

Sarah was behind him, at the door of the tent, listening. Abraham and Sarah were very old, and Sarah had stopped having her monthly periods. So Sarah laughed to herself and said, “Now that I am old and worn out, can I still enjoy sex? And besides, my husband is old too.”

Then the Lord asked Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Can I really have a child when I am so old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? As I said, nine months from now I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”

Because Sarah was afraid, she denied it. “I didn’t laugh,” she said.

“Yes, you did,” he replied. “You laughed.” — Genesis 18:1-15 GNT

I can relate to Sarah laughing about having a child. Gwen and I will surely not be having one unless God visits us! Even more, I can relate to her laughing “to herself” as part of the internal dialogue she was having about what was happening outside the tent.

When the three strangers arrived, she was an old woman who never had a child. She was supposed to produce an heir to be the favored wife she was. There was no son. Her sadness about her infertility had long ago turned to shame, I think. She probably laughed at herself in the way she suspected other people scorned her. She probably tried not to feel sorry for herself the way she did not want others to pity her, because then the sorrow she carried alone would be out in the conversation, not hiding in the tent.

I think when the Lord asked Abraham “Why did Sarah laugh?” she was still lurking inside. She only came out to defend herself, “I didn’t laugh (I only did it in my head).” But the Lord looked her in the eye and said, “Yes you did. You laughed.” He could have added, “You laughed to keep from crying.”

I am going to try not to laugh off Lent, although I admit I have been trying to keep from crying a bit, so far. I’m writing this because I think you might want to consider what you are doing, too. Lent is not for being sad just because we’re supposed to be sad. It is not a yearly revival of unexperienced guilt, unless you need that. It is certainly not a fast to hollow us out when we already feel hollowed out, unless you need that, of course. It is not for laughing at the fundamentalists, or the superstitious, or oppressed, who tend to do Lent big. It is certainly not a time for the present, popular derision for Lent-observers from people trying to experience their Nietzchean self-creation in spite of “God” — so don’t drink that poison.

I think Lent is a time to open up, however we need to, in order to welcome the risen Jesus — as surely as God came to visit Abraham and Sarah that day. Lent is the story of the crucified and risen Jesus in my own back yard. With Sarah’s help, I am noticing how God zeroed in on the person in the scene who was hidden in the tent with her secret sadness. I suspect the Lord is searching for you, too. That might make you laugh.

I’m uncomfortable being sad. But I have to note that it is the very sad Sarah who receives a miracle baby. It is a truly sad world that will kill the miracle Baby Jesus who then rises as the Lord to visit us again and again. On this year’s Lenten visit, the Lord comes to my sad country, which tried to deny the pandemic and almost a million have died. This time, the Lord comes to the sad me and the possibly sad you, maybe the sad baby you. In that fertile place the seed of resurrection is planted.

The church in the rearview mirror

I went on retreat last week because my class required it. I wanted to go, theoretically, but I had a lot of natural resistance born of the grief I bear over the loss of my community. I’m glad I went. No matter how many times I experience it, it is always a wonder to feel the ocean of grace in which we swim when life is feeling dry.

If you are grieving (and what Covid-experiencing person is not?) or depressed, or in some other state of mental illness (which is the broad plain on which we all stand right now), you probably feel some resistance to doing what is good for you, too. Like someone texts and asks, “You want to get a drink?” You look at your sweats and reply, “Don’t think so. Early day tomorrow.” Then you sit back down on the couch and wonder, “Why did I do that?” Maybe you call them back. Maybe you get another bowl of ice cream. It is resistance. I had some.

My retreat view

Nevertheless, there I was in Brigantine looking up the beach to Atlantic City from the 7th floor of that weird resort that sticks out like a sore thumb. I love to walk on the beach, so I did. I don’t usually walk with headphones in like everyone else, but I did. I don’t know why I retain the Dave Crowder Band in my iTunes worship playlist, but there he was:

He is jealous for me;
loves like a hurricane. I am a tree
bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy.
When all of a sudden
I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory.
And I realize just how beautiful You are
and how great Your affections are for me.

And oh, how He loves us so.
Oh, how He loves us,
how He loves us so!

I sang on the deserted beach, “You love me. Oh, how you love me.” And tears surprised me. I needed to remember. I needed to keep walking, with my afflictions eclipsed by glory.

Don’t hold on to the church that was

I’ve been having a tough time living outside of community for over a year, now. I don’t really move on. I retain a sense of belonging to all the places I have been before. I’ve always left them with a blessing and mutual care. Not this time.

As I read through my journal from the last three months, I came across a moment when I was quite low and felt drawn to sit in the chair before my icon wall and see if they said anything to me. There was Mary Magdalene kneeling before Jesus outside the tomb. He told her, and he told me, not to hold on to him.

This exchange between Mary and Jesus always says a lot. That’s why it became a well-known icon. This time I heard it revealing how Mary is holding on to this splendid moment. Jesus tells her, “There is more to come. Go tell people it is coming.” More specifically to me, I heard. “Don’t hang on to the Jesus that was – as wonderful as that experience was. There is more to come for you and them.” I have been waiting in the upper room, more like wandering in my wilderness. And the time has come.

I finally needed to see my old church in the rearview mirror. I don’t mean like the Meatloaf song, exactly. But I’m sure you’re missing him, too. I mean I had to finally admit the old church is gone (which is fine, things grow and change) and the new church does not want me there. Actually, the email the Leadership Team sent to me had a policy statement for former pastors attached which said something like, “Here’s how you do not exist here for another year and then we can negotiate your return.”

Time to move on

Miller with his workbook

Even though I have this big feeling that bothers me, when I look at the road ahead, as short as my road may be, I know there is an awful lot of beautiful scenery coming. Last week I had two experiences that made the way clearer. I got officially shipped out by my former leaders and I picked up Donald Miller’s book A Hero on a Journey.

I did not like Blue Like Jazz (Miller’s best seller). As it turns out, he also doesn’t like it that much anymore. I’m not super jazzed by his new book either. But he doesn’t think it needs to be perfect. He’s changing. I’m changing. And I am surprised he is helping me.  One of my clients is reading the book, so I thought I’d check it out. Among the many good things Miller does as he channels Victor Frankel, Jesus, and any number of entrepreneur gurus, is to remind me that meaningful lives happen when you are going somewhere you want to go and you name it.

That’s how Circle of Hope got going. It was all about being the church for the next generation. I wanted to go there. I hope that is where it is going now. I may not know much about that because I think people aren’t supposed to talk to me. But I’ve decided to keep going and I trust they will, too. We’ll all meet up again someday. Jesus is still walking beside me, but right now he’s like one of those companions whose step is always a bit ahead of yours. They are with you, but they know the way. As a result, new things happen. Here I am writing memoir style like Miller, assuming you’ll benefit. Here I am looking into what is next, knowing Jesus knows the way just as he has always demonstrated. Who knows what could happen?

This leg of my journey is starting out like the Gotye song that interested me so much in 2013 (and has interested 1.5 billion viewers on YouTube since). There has been a lot of cutting off since 2013 (and remember it’s counterpart “ghosting?”). I got a four-page policy statement detailing how they would “treat me like a stranger.” And yes, “That feels so rough.” It’s a loss. Telling a bit of the story feels like a good way to get moving.

As influential people pushed me toward the edge, I started noticing how many people out there are in the same boat — out to sea in an ocean of pandemic and institutional crises. I had wanted to prevent such disaster in my church with my elaborate transition strategy. But that didn’t pan out. (I’m from The Golden State). I can accept that fact. We are all moving on. Jesus is excellent at finding a new way.

Turn into the wind

I can’t imagine myself living outside the church in the future. I’ve never been outside of community like I am, for now. After I got the email it was final. I wrote them back and wished them well. And I definitely meant that – I love those people and I love their church. Jesus is walking beside them this very moment. Who knows what could happen? I suggested they call me up (or text, of course), now that they have me situated.

Whatever good things I am finding as I hit the road, it is still hard to see that church, the old one and the new one, in the rearview mirror.

And yet it is shockingly easy to turn into the sea breeze and find myself singing

You love like a hurricane. I am a tree
bending beneath the weight of your wind and mercy.
Oh, how you love me!

The ego: We need it, but not as much as we think

When I rediscovered my Goodreads pages the other day, I immediately added my favorite book from last year: The Master and His Emmissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009). In the last twenty years, brain science has greatly increased our appreciation for how our most important organ functions. It has also “discovered” that science, itself, has perpetrated the wrong impression of which side of the brain is the master.

Jill Boite Taylor

The Eurocentric countries, like the U.S., have given their allegiance to the functions of the brain’s left hemisphere, and dismissed the right  — that’s a problem. This was illustrated colorfully in Jill Taylor’s book, also from 2009, called My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Taylor is a Ted Talk expert on the human brain who woke up one morning having a stroke. By the end of the morning the left hemisphere of her brain was totally “offline,” as she puts it. She had no sense of personal identity; she couldn’t recognize her own mother, speak or understand speech, remember the most recent moment of her life, make and carry out a three-step plan, walk, or feed herself, among many other things we take for granted. We know that she eventually recovered those left-brain functions because she wrote the book.

That was fourteen years ago. Since then, the world has become more aware of the functions of the brain hemispheres. But such awareness seems to have made little difference in society or in most of my psychotherapy clients. Do you think it has? Many of us know the brain’s left hemisphere is more logical, rational, linear, and rule-oriented; it’s the problem-solver, enabling us to build buildings, fix the plumbing, pay the bills, stay on schedule, negotiate our social encounters, and speak and understand others’ speech. Many of us have become much more aware that right side of the brain is metaphorical, creative, intuitive, nonverbal, and emotional – which are all things that are unclear, hard to define and measure, and hard to see as important. According to McGilchrist, the left brain finds the right brain wanting because of its imprecision and immeasurability; it is too “spiritual.”

Dr. Taylor saw much of the world through the lens of the left brain before her stroke and was transformed when she lost the use of it. Her empathy was no longer boundaried and she experienced others’ emotions directly, unmediated by rational or “egomental” thought. She felt, wordlessly, whether the person with her liked her or didn’t, cared about her or didn’t, was angry or happy or sad, was at peace or in pain. She was, in effect, involuntarily connected without boundaries to all other people, and to the movements of the Earth. She felt “at one with the source and flow of the universe.”  What’s more, when in solitude she was at peace. Without the baggage of memory, ego, or worry about the future, she was free to experience the inherent wonder of the moment.

To deepen spiritual awareness

Everything Taylor experienced sounds like the fruit of the Spirit to me (see what Paul’s amounts to Paul’s takedown of left-brain domination here). Christians feel the movements of their spiritual awareness, mostly resident in their right brains, as ecstasy, as union with God and creation. We learn to contemplate so we can get to the place Taylor’s stroke caused her to access. Western culture has kept people so locked down, they gravitate towards drugs, my beloved Pentecostalism, political rallies and concerts to experience the basic sensibility pre-Enlightenment people took for granted. I have heard countless sermons about how terrible our “big egos” are and how we must crucify our fleshly self to gain heaven – and ecstasy, peace.

The left side of the brain is considered the seat of the ego, which uses left-brain functions to help us know ourselves and live in the material world. When David Benner describes the ego in Soulful Spirituality: Becomng Fully Alive and Deeply Human (2011), he essentially sees it as synonymous with the left brain.

The ego includes all those mental functions that allow us to perceive, organize, elaborate, differentiate, integrate, and transform experience. Ego is a fundamental psychic structure that secures our reality testing, good judgment, impulse control defensive functions, affective regulation, interpersonal relations, moral orientation, thought process, and much more.

We don’t want to get rid of the ego, all that preaching notwithstanding. We just don’t want it to run the whole show. It is the “emissary” to McGilchrist’s right-brain “master.”

The left brain gives us our capacity to see ourselves as someone. But given that great power, it can function as if it makes us someone. And so it might see itself as needing to save us. We need to be self-aware and self-confident but we dare not become self-sufficient or self-serving.

The right brain gives us our capacity to see ourselves in right relationship. It allows us to live on an appropriately large plain: in touch with heaven and earth, the depth of ourselves and eternity. When the right and left brain are in touch with heaven and earth, we are being saved when we are saving, being found when we are finding. As Jesus says: the one who asks receives, who seeks find, the one who knocks experiences an open door. I think our spiritual awareness transcends brain function but is firmly rooted in it. That is the main reason I want to keep understanding the integration of psychology and Christianity.

Quiet your ego

I keep talking about right and left brain and the domination of our egos. I obviously find it important to understand why we feel so locked into the fears that cause us to flee or freeze or fight, and why we are so committed to the defenses we throw up to protect our fragile egos. Why are truckers blockading Ottawa and using their children as shields? Why are we piling armaments and troops into Ukraine? Why do I continue to dwarf my loves as if I were still ten years old? Why do I keep fighting for my rights with my spouse as if it is life or death situation?

All these terrible things could have many causes, but one we rarely consider is the fact we think reality fits within the limits of the left brain. If we all had a stroke, life would look a lot different. Most of us would die from a stroke like Taylor’s, not make a Ted Talk out of it! So we are unlikely to experience that shortcut to wholeness. Instead, we will have to make our way through a lifetime of challenging choices to quiet our egos. When we first become aware we have been trapped in a locked, egocentric room, leaving it might feel like we are losing our minds.

Again, Benner says:

The pathway to the transformation of not only our egocentricity but our very self is the path of surrender. We must be willing to lay down that which we were previously willing to die to defend. But this surrender of egocentricity is not the same as the elimination of the ego.

We need our ego to be fully human and to become spiritually whole. But we all need to surrender egocentricity, which is not so easy in a society that presumes it.

One of the best results of this terrible pandemic we have endured is so many people deserting their left-brain-dominated pursuits: jobs just for money, obligations that thwart personal desires to appease “the man,” seeing oneself as trapped, letting a feeling of scarcity cause one to overprotect, using the world up rather than protecting it, and more. The long, existential crisis has caused necessary spiritual crises. Left-brained egocentricity has been shown up as inadequate for many people. What appeared to be saving our lives has, in many cases, been shown to be what is destroying it.

Right now, people are crying out against mask mandates so we can all get back to normal. The left brain wants equilibrium. It is the seat of justice. It tends to blame factors outside itself (since it is limited) — outside factors like its counterpart, the right brain, even! But enough of us are seeing, I hope, I hope, that how society is organized and how we have organized ourselves and our spirituality is the main cause of our distress.

Our all-out attempts to preserve our egocentricity is the problem. Be it an inflated ego or a broken one, whether the song is “Slay me, Lord” or “Build me up,” any sense that the ego must save us must be lost so we can find our full life. Like we keep repeating when share the memory of the Lord’s great grace: our lives emerge out of death. In order to live, I must lose what appears to be my life, lose the truncated view of my left brain and my allegiance to the society that traps me in it.

I spend a lot of therapy time massaging the hardened traumas that lock up our memories, reforming the hard words that have shamed us, unraveling the dark masses of unexplored pain that demand to be protected from further harm. Often, fragile egos become strong enough to surrender their dominance and a person experiences the wonder of feeling joy in the wide open spaces of their true, whole selves. I wish that freedom for all of us as we get back to a new normal.

Overwhelm: The feeling and what we can do about it

More and more clients seem to come into a session feeling overwhelmed. In fact, they use the word in the new way we have begun to use it to describe their feeling: “overwhelm.”

I can relate to experiencing overwhelm. The last few years have been the most overwhelming I can remember — maybe for you, too! As for me, I transitioned out of my long-time pastoring work – that would cause anyone some trouble. I was defrauded by a contractor. I moved to a new home. I lost my church community. And, of course, we are still in a pandemic and the country is unraveling – at least that’s what David Brooks says. And then the next climate disaster is in the offing! I have had my peculiar version of the overwhelm most of us are experiencing.

I am feeling OK now, but I am really concerned about those who don’t feel OK. I think they are multiplying and their feeling of overwhelm might be deepening. We have had two years of pandemic isolation to heighten issues we might normally handle well. We need to check on each other. Check on the vulnerable even if you feel vulnerable. We all need to find more community life.

Royal & the Serpent gets it

In June of 2020 Royal and the Serpent recorded a song which depicts the feeling of overwhelm just right. I can’t help but believe the 11 million people who have viewed it feel some kind of community with each other as an artist musically names what they are experiencing.

FYI, Royal and the Serpent’s stage name translates to “Me + My Ego.”  Her given name is Ryan Santiago. She struck a chord with many of her listeners on YouTube:

Youraverageartist commented: “I feel like the beat represents the buildup to an anxiety attack. The beat gets faster and more intense as they sing about being overwhelmed, and then when the beat drops into the wild electric music, that represents the anxiety attack. Then everything is calm and back to normal. You realize that everything around you isn’t any different. These attacks normally aren’t very physical, they happen in your head, although it doesn’t always show to the outside.”

Check up on people who might be feeling this. They might like to talk to you rather than a YouTube audience.

booksandboots commented: I’m 28 and I’ve known about my anxiety since I was 8. This is the first song I’ve ever heard that really captures what it feels like. For me, it’s never gone away. It’s a part of who I am, for whatever reason. Perhaps an evolutionary response to a threat that isn’t there?…

I’m happy to say I haven’t had a true panic attack in over a year, something I never, ever thought would be possible. I had just accepted that was my life: panic attacks every day or multiple times a day. Frozen. Silent….

It also helps to listen to your anxiety, as strange as that sounds. To ask it questions like, “What are you really upset about? Is it that person standing too close, can you do something about it? If you can’t, can you breathe slowly and deeply and try some grounding exercises? If that doesn’t work, can you try to drink some water to occupy your mind in this moment, focusing on nothing else but the water? You can do this. I believe in you.”

And, as juvenile as it sounds, I speak to my anxiety as if it were a child. In a good way. I don’t think of my anxiety as some monster in the closet. It’s just a chemical imbalance that believes it’s helping me stay safe. I explain what reality is to my anxiety and comfort it the same way I would my own child. If my anxiety is here to stay, then we better get used to each other. I can’t walk around hating that part of myself because it doesn’t make the anxiety go away, it makes it worse.

Tender people who are bravely looking OK might not be. Given what we are all facing, who isn’t feeling a bit overwhelmed? I know I have needed to tell my story to people who care about me. Telling it diminished the power of the loss and the trauma. But more loss and trauma is likely to come my way. We need community to face it all.

Signs of overwhelm

Sometimes (and maybe over a period of time), the intensity of our feelings outmatches our ability to manage them. At some point you will probably feel overwhelmed by negative emotions, such as anger, fear, or guilt. Some of us will experience mania and be overwhelmed by euphoria.

If you feel overwhelm, it might be hard to pinpoint why. Usually a collection of stressors contributes rather than one particular event. Your emotions may bleed into seemingly unrelated parts of your life until you are “all stirred up.” Emotional overwhelm may be caused by stress, traumatic life experiences, relationship issues, and much more.

Here are some common signs of overwhelm:

  • You have a big reaction to a small situations. For example, you may panic when you can’t find your keys.
  • You feel physically ill or fatigued and don’t know why.
  • You have trouble focusing or completing simple tasks.
  • You find yourself withdrawing from friends and family.
  • Your emotions color your perception of everything. For example, your grief may keep you sad even during pleasant occasions.

Causes of overwhelm

When we are stressed by the small things in our collection, we might say to ourselves, “This is dumb!” Nevertheless, small things often add up to overwhelm. For instance, it is common for a simple things-to-do list to hijack someone’s brain. That’s because your brain might not see a to-do list, but see the threat of scarcity: not enough time, not enough energy, not enough magical ability to fit everything into 24 hours. Or it might see the threat of failing, the threat of disappointing others, the threat of feeling like you’re not doing enough or might not even be enough.

We react to these feelings the same way we do with other threats. We fight, flee, or freeze. That’s true whether the threat is a bus hurtling toward us or our responsibilities  make us feel like we can’t catch our breath.

Usually, we land somewhere between freeze and flight, numbed out. We avoid. We dig in our heels and resist. If we’re at work we might procrastinate: make a call, do tasks that don’t matter, call in sick. If we are at home we might binge-watch Netflix, stay up late reading things that don’t require thought, sneak off for some porn, buy something on Amazon, or scroll through Instagram.

Remember, your emotions may get overloaded by a single stressor, like surviving a traumatic accident or violence, or losing a loved one. But overwhelm can also occur due to the pile up of many smaller stressors. For example, missing your bus may not feel like too big of a deal by itself. But if you’ve been fighting with your family, having trouble sleeping, and are hungry from skipping breakfast, a missed bus can be the proverbial “last straw” of the day.

A therapist can be a big help. Even if your are in therapy, everyone still needs some community. Check up on people. We are all experiencing the same big things bearing down on you. What’s more, the latest trauma may have dislodged some unprocessed memories. Everyone needs a safe place to tell their story.

Six ways to deal with overwhelm right now.

  1. Ground yourself in the present using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.

When your emotions are flooding, your mind is getting foggy, or your skin is getting clammy, this technique could be a way to get your feet back on the ground and your mind cleared. It’s a classic tool everyone needs in their backpack. Donate it to someone who needs it.

5 – Look around and name five things you can see, right now, from where you are.

4 – Listen and name four things you can hear.

3 – Notice three things you can touch, like the pages of a nearby book or the feeling of your feet on the carpet.

2 – Next come two smells: Breathe in the pages of a book or the citrus scent of the candle you lit.

1 – Finally, name something you can taste: a sip of cold water will do, or even just the taste of your own mouth.

This does two things to interrupt the overwhelm. First, it grounds you in your senses and, more importantly, the present moment. Second, keeping track of the counting and working your way through your senses interrupts spinning thoughts.

  1. Clean up your immediate surroundings.

The phrase “outer order, inner calm” is popular for a reason. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, tidying the area around you restores order to a little corner of your universe and allows you to move forward.

You don’t need to redo the office or redecorate the house. Restrict yourself to things within arm’s reach. Stack loose papers, put caps on rogue pens, wipe away dust or grime. The resulting order will help you feel like you’ve accomplished something and allow you to focus. One time we all went over and cleaned someone’s whole house with them just to give them a boost and allow their emotions to settle and let them feel part of the friendship circle.

  1. Ruthlessly prioritize.

Cut everything that should be done and stick to things that need to get done now. This is harder than it looks for some people since if they change their “shoulds” they will feel disloyal to their family or feel like they are condemning their past self. If someone trusts you, they might let you help them sort.

  1. Stop accidentally multitasking

Trying to work from home and simultaneously keep an eye on the kids, holding a conversation while the TV is on, eating lunch at your desk, leaving your email open while you work, or simply keeping your smartphone at hand 24/7 are examples of things that force you to transition your attention (and then transition it back) hundreds of times a day.

Multitasking works about as well as texting while driving—which is to say, it doesn’t. So if your nerves are frayed, mend them by doing a singular thing at a time. When you’re feeling less frantic, you can go back to googling Beyonce’s net worth while making a sandwich. But until then, single-task, single-task, single-task. You might help your friend do this by asking them to take a walk around the block with you or eat lunch together — community building is also a single-minded task; giving someone else attention and receiving it is a natural way to heal from the pressures of life.

  1. Take the next tiny step.

When you feel frozen in the proverbial headlights of what is bearing down on you, think only of the next tiny step. The next step can be very tiny—only you have to know that you’re inching forward by thinking “Okay, now click on the folder. Now open the document. Now start reading.” Or “Sit up, Put your feet on the floor. Breathe in goodness. Stand up. Stretch slowly” all on the way to starting your day. I am often grateful when someone calls me and I get a chance to tell them what I am planning to do. Just talking to them gets me out of whatever rut I am in and often encourages me to take the next step.

  1. Radically accept what you cannot do or control.

This is the basic stance of faith. We stand in grace and we can turn into the reality of it at any time. God is with us and loves us. You can strategize, organize, and hack all you want, but at some point, you will run into something you can’t do or control. When you do, the only thing to do is to radically accept. Trust Jesus and be one of those good people who can be trusted to listen and care.

Radical acceptance doesn’t mean throwing in the towel. It means allowing for uncertainty and uncontrollability, without struggling like you’re trapped or complaining as if bad things should never happen to you. It is keeping on with what you can do instead of dwelling on what you can’t. (Thanks to Jade Wu).

When you get behind the wheel of a car, you radically accept that a reckless driver may hit you no matter how well you drive. Yet you still do it because you want to get from point A to B quickly. When you fall in love, you radically accept that your heart may get trampled on. Yet you do anyway because love is worth the risk. When you simply can’t meet a deadline without compromising your mental health, you can radically accept you’ll have to be late and you may disappoint someone, because your well-being is worth it.

Just telling a story, thinking things through, letting some feelings settle down or pass through might be enough to deal with overwhelm. Doing it together with Jesus is undoubtedly even better. There are a lot more resources to apply to feeling overwhelm, of course. Your therapist or trusted friend or mentor can help. This post was mainly a means to give you some space to feel some hope and experience some care. I write because I care. I think we need to keep finding ways to check in on each other and build some community. It is an overwhelming time.