Category Archives: Psychology

Ought mentality

“As John Eudes pointed out, the ‘ought mentality’ is closely tied up with the identity struggle. As long as I am constantly concerned about what I ‘ought’ to say, think, do, or feel, I am still the victim of my surroundings and am not liberated. I am compelled to act in certain ways to live up to my self-created image. But when I can accept my identity from God and allow Him to be the center of my life, I am liberated from compulsion and can move without restraint.” – Henri Nouwen in “Reaching Out” – one of the best books I’ve ever read…

Costly experiences, vulnerability and convictions…

“The more costly an experience is to us, the greater its significance in our lives and the more it occupies our minds – and also the more we are afraid of its being misunderstood, or that it will be cheapened by some misapplied remark or suspicion. The more refined and subtle our minds, the more vulnerable they are. When we are alone we are haunted by doubts about the genuineness of our deepest intuitions and feelings…Thus, although we are made to suffer by reason of the discordance between our personage and our person…nevertheless, we carefully foster it for fear of having our person hurt if we reveal its most precious treasures. This is often what happens with our artistic, philosophical or religious convictions. We feel they are still too fragile to stand up to being judged and even brutally contradicted by others. But our convictions are never really clear and firm until they have been expressed and defended.

-Paul Tournier (The Meaning of Persons)

For me this is very true. Those experiences which have made the deepest impressions in our lives are usually the ones we are least willing to address. Whether implicitly through repression or explicitly through denial, we simply do not want to face up to the pain of talking about our darkest moments, fears or doubts. And yet God, in His infinite wisdom, created us in such a way that communication and sharing are prerequisites for full healing, wholeness and hence happiness. First we need to find people who we can trust and who will truly hear us, and then we need to be those people to others.

A different drum…

‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away’ – Henry David Thoreau

This notion of dancing to a different drum is giving me comfort and helping me to understand, process and conceptualize my own life and the lives of some of my friends. When I was travelling in Europe last year with a very good friend of mine, she told me something extremely profound. While I was going on about how weird and eccentric all these Europeans were and judging them, she just said “It’s not wrong, it’s different“. Needless to say she was bang on the money, and subsequently this has become my motto whenever I travel.

For most of my life different and wrong were synonymous. Society, religion, families, friends and companies all have a vested interest in valuing conformity. While they may differ on what type of conformity, it is conformity nonetheless. In His supreme wisdom, God has made us different. This is a fact. We have different personalities, different strengths, different looks, different families, different everything. God doesn’t make mistakes (fortunately for us!). We need to be comfortable embracing our individuality, which is that part of ourselves which is different to others. Too often we conform to what we believe is expected from us or what is ‘correct’ or acceptable. We need to recognize uniqueness, both our own and others. Not only in physical attributes but also in cultures, ideas, feelings and thoughts. I am too quick to box people into my own framework of reference. First into ‘Right’ or ‘Wrong’ and then into an innumerable number of subsequent boxes in each branch. This process is not so bad (this is basically what thinking is) what’s bad is that the first branch of the tree is ‘Right or Wrong’. Premature-judgement is my double-barreled middle name!

Sometimes different is wrong. We cannot be so sensitive to differences that we adopt relativism in its extreme. There is absolute truth: Truth, and there is absolute knowledge: Knowledge. These systems or entities are not man-made or man-defined – they are creations of God. We dare not tread on His toes and try to categorize as unequivocal ‘Truth’ that for which there is a legitimate difference of opinion. That would truly be foolish.

Maybe you also have friends who are breaking the mold and you don’t know what to make of it. Then you, like me, should conclude: Perhaps they are just dancing to a different drum. Let them dance!

Judgment and Empathy

When we judge people, we forgo the opportunity to understand them and their situation. When we judge people, we are assuming a position of superiority such that, since we are no longer ‘on their level’, we are unable to understand what they must be feeling, how they might have been hurt in the past or what the journey of life has been like for them so far. In short, we lose the ability to empathize with them. This is the gist of my latest epiphany, which I’ll try and explain below…

Empathy: The picture above is that of a Rubic’s Cube for the blind. As I’m sure we all know a Rubic’s cube normally has different colours on each square, with the aim being to make each side only one color. This seemingly innocuous game is exceedingly difficult fora blind person. To have to feel the braille on each square to know what color it is and then remember the position of each color and so on.

If I saw a blind child playing with this Rubic’s Cube, I would instantly think “Ag shame, I feel so sorry for that child – life must be so difficult for him”. Traditionally we would call this pity.

For those not familiar with South African culture, and more specifically, the Afrikaaner sub-culture (of which I am becoming increasingly acquainted) the words ‘Ag shame’ are almost universally applied to situations of pity. If someone has had a really bad day, if someone’s dog dies, whatever it is ‘Ag shame’ can usually be said, with differing degrees of sincerity depending on the situation. The problem with ‘Ag shame’ is that if one looks a little deeper, you’ll see that we are actually putting ourselves in a superior position to the other person. If we say ‘Ag shame look at that beggar’ (we are rich and don’t have the problems of poverty), ‘Ag shame man, he failed his exams’ (we passed our exams) etc etc. While the analogy only goes so far, and there are notable exceptions, I still believe that often when we pity someone, we are actually judging the person in our heart since we see ourselves as superior. To put it more mildly, because we identify ourselves as being in a position of superiority, we are unable to sympathize or empathize with them.

The reason why I am telling you all this, is that recently I have started to realise the importance of empathy in the life of the Christian. Empathy is defined as:

empathy: identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives

Using the example of the Rubic’s Cube above, pity is feeling sorry for the kid, empathy is truly understanding what it must be like for that kid. What it’s like to wake up and not see light or color. What it feels like to never have seen what your face looks like in a mirror, or to never be able to appreciate the vistas of nature. What it will be like for him to be unable to see his child ride a bike one day or see the expression on his daughter’s face when she gets married – that is the beginning of empathy. Because this is so difficult, people often say that you can only emapthise with someone if you have actually been through what they are going through, otherwise you are sympathizing. For example, my grandparents are dead therefore I can empathise with someone else whose grandparents have recently passed away. If I hadn’t suffered that loss I would only sympathise.

While technically the above distinction between empathy and sympathy may be true, I am going to take it that it is possible (albeit difficult) to empathise with someone who is going through, or has gone through, something you haven’t. So you may be asking, why do you care so much about empathizing, and the answer is that I believe it is fundamental if we are to heal broken people and since we too are broken people, to experience healing ourselves.

As I mentioned earlier, when we judge people we lose the ability to empathise with them. Empathizing with people is ESSENTIAL if they are to feel comfortable opening up and revealing their innermost painful secrets and those areas in their life which are fraught with insecurity and doubt. This opening up is necessary if the person is to be healed, whole and free.

On a more practical level, it is in true dialogue or conversation that  empathy becomes vital. When someone’s person/spirit feels that you will not judge them and that this is a safe environment, they will open up to you and talk about their hopes and fears, their dreams and desires. When people feel they are being understood and that they are valued, frank conversation can be profoundly significant. Particularly when people are talking about their failings, their past or their insecurities, empathy and non-judgement are prerequisites for such a conversation.  Not only does empathy encourage people to open up, miraculously, it is one of the key ingredients of healing. The Holy Spirit works through us most powerfully when we are filled with compassion (compassion and empathy are closely linked!). Think about it in your own life: which are the conversations that changed your life, the ones where people told you all the neatest theology and the 10-steps to well-being or the ones where you true friends just listened to you? On this topic Paul Tournier in “The Meaning of Person’s” says:

“The people who have helped me most are not those who have answered my confessions with advice, exhortation or doctrine, but rather those who have listened to me in silence, and then told me of their own personal life, their own difficulties and experience….those who impose upon us their ready made solutions, writes one of my patients, ‘those who impose upon us their science or their theology, are incapable of healing us”

This is so true and yet in most situations, instead of listening, we still persist in offering advice and theological pointers. I am a firm believer in the importance of theology, teaching and seeking advice, but often we are too quick to offer these when they are not called for. By that I mean that providing theological advice is not what people need when they come to you to share their innermost feelings. To quote Tournier again:

“Paradoxical though it may seem, the true dialogue is by no means a discussion…it is important here to make a distinction between intellectual argument and personal encounter. Answer ideas with ideas, but answer the person with the person. Then often the heart’s true response is silence.”

I think that one of the reasons we do this, is because we don’t know how else to respond and when faced with such uncertainty we revert to what we know: advice and theology. To use a proverb: “When you’ve got a hammer, every problem looks like nail”. More than likely it is because we have not empathized with people. I think if we truly knew what some people have gone through we would not be so quick and flippant to offer our 2 cents of advice.

So I think what I’m saying here is that every day we are faced with situations where we can either judge people or try to understand them- but they are mutually exclusive. The Gospels frequently talk of Jesus being filled with compassion. Seeing a naked adulteress doesn’t arouse compassion unless you try to understand her and her situation: ‘How desperate must she be to have sold her own body?!’, ‘How degrading this must be for this poor woman?’ etc. And this is not just for that woman 2000 odd years ago in Israel, it is also for us here and now: Jesus is our high priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses (Heb 4:15). There are numerous scriptures speaking of showing mercy, compassion and love (all closely linked with empathy) and many other scriptures deploring us judging others, being prideful and not freely showing the grace which we have so freely received.

So the next time you are faced with the choice: judgement or empathy…please try and understand.

Change, pain and growth…

I really love this picture!  I know it is primarily politically orientated, but like most things which are true, it has almost universal application.  For me, it spotlights my tendency to appease the problems in my life with coins rather than real change.  Genuine change means I have to face the problem head on, it means I need to go through a process of legitimate suffering and often mourning. These processes are painful and I hate pain. I avoid pain at almost any cost. Physical pain, emotional pain or spiritual pain…I hate pain***. I know this is simply part of the human condition and something that everyone faces. In the right context it is an extremely important quality we have: “touch a hot stove–>Pain–>REMOVE HAND!”…but in other situations this wonderful attribute stunts our growth. Sometimes we have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death before we get to the green pastures (Psalm 23).

*** Aside: I’m really big into psychology at the moment…and it’s really helping me to understand so much more about myself and others…for example, I wrote the previous sentence about my tendency to appease personal problems with coins rather than genuine change, using ‘we’ instead of ‘I’. This may seem like a small thing or that I’m being pedantic by even identifying this, but it is actually very indicative of a problem that I have. By identifying myself with others who have similar problems {or more accurately attributing my problems to others as well} it feels more acceptable, less ‘wrong’ and less urgent to face the issue at hand…I need to accept personal responsibility for my problems and stop seeing myself as part of a crowd of people – personal responsibility for our present state of being is a hallmark of mental health and maturity…I will try to use ‘I’ and not ‘we’ and ‘me’ rather than ‘they’, when talking of my own problems

I know this truth, and have known it for a while, yet I still avoid the pain associated with growth and maturity. I throw a few coins to the wise man inside of me who is not asking for my coins but asking for real change. I can appease my conscience for a few more days, telling myself that I really care about my poverty and that I want to do something about it, but inside – in the recesses of my person I know I need to face it. To go into the cave and look at the monster and say “I see you. I see the size of you. I see you are ugly as sin. But more importantly I see that the hand of God is with me to defeat you. And I will defeat you”.

This reminds me of the lions in the Pilgrim’s Progress. Read below:

“So I saw in my dream that he made haste, and went forward, that if possible he might get lodging
there. Now before he had gone far, he entered into a very narrow passage, which was about a furlong
off the Porter’s lodge, and looking very narrowly before him as he went, he espied two lions in the
way. Now, thought he, I see the dangers that Mistrust and Timorous were driven back by. (The
lions were chained, but he saw not the chains.) Then he was afraid, and thought also himself to go
back after them; for he thought nothing but death was before him. But the Porter at the lodge, whose
name is Watchful, perceiving that Christian made a halt, as if he would go back, cried unto him,
saying, Is thy strength so small? Mark 4:40. Fear not the lions, for they are chained, and are placed
there for trial of faith where it is, and for discovery of those that have none: keep in the midst of
the path, and no hurt shall come unto thee.
Then I saw that he went on, trembling for fear of the lions, but taking good heed to the directions
of the Porter; he heard them roar, but they did him no harm.”

This willingness to face the problems in my life is not a once-for-all decision. Every day, in every challenge, whenever the Holy Spirit highlights the monster lurking in the dark corners of my life, I need to decide whether I will face it head-on and deal with it, or throw some coins at the problem.

Perhaps you also have some monsters in your life…lurking under that facade that has become so normal. Don’t throw some coins at the problem when God highlights issues in your life – face it with open eyes and unafraid – God is with you. And then we will say as David said to Goliath:

1 Samuel 17:45-48 (NIV)

45 David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the LORD will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 47 All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

“In the company of Jesus there are no experts, only beginners” – Jason Upton ‘Between the graveyard and the garden’

This Impersonal World

“One effect of the increasing uniformity of life and of the crowding of people together in huge populations has been to mould vast numbers of them to a standard pattern. It is frightening sometimes to watch the crowd go by, catching the same bus every day so as to arrive at the same time at the same office or factory, in order to perform some excessively specialized operation never requiring of them anything but the same robot-like movement.

They have become merely cogs in the machine of production, tools, functions. All that matters is what they do, not what they think or feel. In any case their thoughts and feelings are similarly moulded by propaganda, press, cinema and radio. They read the same newspaper each day, hear the same slogans, see the same advertisements.

…For their part those who aspire to live like real persons  and not like automata find themselves caught in the toils of a mass society, against which originality rebels for a time, and then grows weary and is extinguished. The more people there are crowded together, the more does the herd-instinct develop. The massive undertaking in the long run turns its participants into automata. I have often had to quote a remark made by Professor Siebeck: ‘It is the calling that creates the person'”

From the chapter “This Impersonal World” in The Meaning of Persons by Paul Tourier

“One of our problems is that very few of us have developed any distinctive personal life. Everything about us seems secondhand, even our emotions. In many cases we have to rely on secondhand information in order to function. I accept the word of a physician, a scientist, a farmer, on trust. I do not like to do this. I have to because they possess vital knowledge of living of which I am ignorant. Secondhand information concerning the state of my kidneys, concerning the effects of cholesterol, and the raising of chickens, I can live with. But when it comes to questions of meaning, purpose, and death, secondhand information will not do. I cannot survive on a secondhand faith in a secondhand God. There has to be a personal word, a unique confrontation, if I am to come alive!”

-Alan Jones in Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled”