Monday, February 1, 2010

Helplessness & Haiti

It's been over two weeks since the earthquake devastated the people of Haiti.

Tens of thousands have died, including people you may know. And along with a desire to help, and a deepening sense of helplessness as we watch that impoverish nation respond, I am struck by a familiar conflict, or perhaps it is an observation about human life.

I continue to wonder how my life can go on in its normal way while massive, untold despair, suffering and death occurs around me. It's the same experience those who suffer grief describe: how does the world continue on its way while my life seems to have stopped?

I struggle with a low-grade angst; not a guilt exactly, but close to it. As if I have witnessed a massive car crash from the safety of my own vehicle and go careening by, with just a glance in my rear view mirror. I continue on, glad it wasn't me in that car, confident someone more capable is responding.

I believe this soft anguish reflects this existential truth: we are single human beings. We are separate from one another at birth, and will die that way. In between, we live daily life as multiple connections. When connections are broken, by suffering we cannot solve, or death we cannot stop, we are brought up short by the truth of our singleness of self.

What is grief but the crashing in of this solitude, and the choice to risk connecting again?

Kyrie eleison.    Lord, have mercy.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Church in Recession : What Now?

My occasional column for the Savage Pacer was just published yesterday. I wrote about the financial free fall the mainline denominations are in with the current recession. If you want to read the full column, go here.

Here's my concluding paragraph:
The storm that my denomination finds itself in will one day blow through, and a different way of being the church in the world will have to be found and lived. In every generation, it has never been the largest, the wealthiest or the most powerful church that makes a difference in the world. It has always been the individual person of faith, who joins with others with that same hope and vision, to feed the hungry, protect the innocent, lift up the fallen, and proclaim God’s vision of peace. It’s the lives of the faithful that proclaim the truth of the Gospel, not their buildings, or budgets, or institutions. And that reality is what holds me, and I hope, holds you, in the midst of our current religious storms. 

I believe what I wrote; that size and prestige don't make a church. But money does matter, in all things that a church wants to do. While I am curious about how this is all going to shake out, I have to tell you, I am very worried for every pastor and career church worker I know. The stress on them in these many months of recession is enormous, and everyone on their leadership board is looking to them for answers. There aren't any right now, except to hold on, keep doing what is done best, and press toward a different future.

I can't stress enough the need for every pastor and staff member to mind their own mental health right now. What once was standard procedure is up for grabs. What once was a 'steady as she goes' ship is one that is seriously imperiled by its own failures and the hurricane of economic shrinkage, and is taking on water. I pray that those leaders care for themselves, for they are those to whom we look for leadership and courage in difficult times.

I was finishing seminary and waiting for my first call during our last major recession. I am glad to not be doing the same again now. Pray for those leaders and students preparing to serve, their loved ones and families. It's going to be a very bumpy ride.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Economy: Learning to Trust Again

We are designed to be trusting animals, you and me.

Paul Zak, professor of economics at Claremont University, and researcher in the emerging field of "neuroeconomics," discusses the way human brains work when we interact with one another in a APM Speaking of Faith broadcast from July, 9, 2009. Here's the link: http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2009/neuroeconomics


I urge you to take the time to listen. Zak asserts that the brain hormone oxytocin, the same hormone that is released in the brain of women while nursing, and in all of us during sexual arousal (the attachment hormone as I have come to think of it) is released in 98% of us when we interact with one another with trust. And this is particularly important, he asserts, in our interactions around money. We tend, he says, to begin with trust, and when trust is reciprocated, that trusting is reinforced. This is how an economy functions; we fundamentally trust one another. In particularly stressful times, the natural levels of our trust hormone go down.

When we are hurt by someone untrustworthy, another hormone, testosterone, is released in the brain and we universally demand revenge or justice. (He mentions the Enron failure and investment manager Bernie Madoff as key examples of this response.)


So in the large scheme of economic life, we are primed to be trusting, emotionally driven people in the market place. My takeaway? When our trust returns more fully, the economy should begin to restore itself.

This research has me thinking about how amazing it is that we are naturally designed to trust one another, and what to think about those 2-5% of human beings who lack this capacity. It explains to me something of what happens to those we think of as psychopaths, those who lack the capacity for human empathy. Perhaps one day, we will be able to run blood tests and brain scans and know more about how to treat the most violent among us. But that is a post for another day.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

And Furthermore

While pain is the energy that moves us toward change, the absence of pain isn't enough to sustain it. This is one of the factors that makes change so hard: we experience the lack of pain as relief, as a kind of balance or homeostasis. We tend to rest there; we're comfortable again.

We take a few pills, and our pain decreases. We see a therapist once or twice, and we don't go back. Many of us aren't really that interested in change. We just want a rescue from pain.

Pleasure is what I think is on the other side of relief. In order to move us from pain to relief to change, human beings need regular, positive reinforcement. We need to really feel that our effort is giving us something new and different than just relief; it's creating a welcome, desired difference. And that difference needs to be sustained in order for us to trust our effort is working. We need positive, consistent reinforcement of our efforts. In other words, rewarding ourselves keeps the balance tipped in the right emotional direction.

Take weight loss, for example. Many of us know that we want to have smaller, lighter bodies, but that it takes a great deal of effort to change our food intake. Most of us can create some small amount of weight loss, generating a sense of relief, but if we don't see regular, sustaining difference, we lose our energy. This is part of the argument among weight loss professionals: should clients weigh themselves daily? On the one hand, small amounts of loss may be visible from day to day, creating a positive reward. On the other hand, not seeing the desired difference can steal motivation fast.

Many of us who try to lose weight give up our efforts when the scale is stalled. We haven't been able to get the reward we need to sustain our effort. The same holds true for other habits of body and mind, like smoking or drinking. If we don't constantly work to boost our sense of pleasure and reward for our new behavior, relief will not be enough to keep us there.

If you are attempting a change process this year, and really want to make it work, make sure you have personal rewards built in to your efforts. What is it that gives you a healthy sense of pleasure? Make a list and figure out how you can add those activities, things, and experiences into your life as rewards for your sustained effort. When you see the change you want, focus on how that change feels in your mind and body, and then create a small, reinforcing reward. It's what keeps our minds moving forward on that narrow, rocky road of personal change.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Be It Resolved

I think about change for a living.

Psychotherapy is an interpersonal process meant to help people achieve personal goals. It's a form of reflective conversation. Clients talk; I ask questions, make observations, teach them models that describe their experience. Our sessions remind them they are not alone in their private pain or struggle, and that some real things can be done about it.

It's an assumption in my field that people can't change until they are ready. Until, (in my theory of change), they feel enough pain that they are ready to move away from the familiar and attempt something different.

That's why most New Year's Resolutions fail. Most of us who make these promises haven't really reached that critical change place of too much pain. Those who do, who have prepared themselves with reflection, remorse, planning, and hopefulness may be successful. They will be the ones who used the calendar to prepare themselves for the new behavior, thinking and emotion that change requires.

The rest of us will fizzle out in a day, a week, a month. Frustrated, chagrined, shrugging off another attempt at New Year resolutions without much thought.


If you are interested, like I am, in how human beings change, I recommend a book to you: Changing for Good, by James Prochaska. Prochaska has studied how people change themselves, such as quitting smoking or drinking cold turkey. He has found a common change process that we can duplicate when we are seriously interested in making changes
in ourselves, or helping others do that for themselves.

As for me, I have personal goals, but I try not to link them to the calendar. I try to pay attention to the level of distress I feel before I attempt change, knowing that I will probably fail if I keep sliding into acceptance or denial. There is a level of comfort in ourselves that keeps us stuck. Turn up the heat a bit, and we will feel the interior pressure more vividly, making us more willing to create change.

Best wishes to you for turning up your internal "heat" as you look to 2010. What kind of change are you pushing yourself toward this year?