Remove from Your midst oppression: Why we all need to practice emotional first aid

Ted talk throws new light on a Lenten text from Isaiah.  It is startling, inspiring and awesome when God juxtaposes two seemingly unrelated things and says: “Take a look at these again…this time together.”  That’s what happened to me recently when I listened to a fantastic talk by Guy Winch: Why we all need to practice emotional first aid .

Shortly thereafter read this often quoted Lenten text from Isaiah: Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke? Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own flesh?[1]

I ask you to read the following transcript or view the Ted talk  of Guy Winch [2] Then, reread the Isaiah text, putting your self in place of “those.”

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“I grew up with my identical twin, who was an incredibly loving brother. Now, one thing about being a twin is that it makes you an expert at spotting favoritism. If his cookie was even slightly bigger than my cookie, I had questions. And clearly, I wasn’t starving. (Laughter)

0:39 When I became a psychologist, I began to notice favoritism of a different kind, and that is how much more we value the body than we do the mind. I spent nine years at university earning my doctorate in psychology, and I can’t tell you how many people look at my business card and say, “Oh, a psychologist. So not a real doctor,” as if it should say that on my card. (Laughter) This favoritism we show the body over the mind, I see it everywhere.

1:20 I recently was at a friend’s house, and their five-year-old was getting ready for bed. He was standing on a stool by the sink brushing his teeth, when he slipped, and scratched his leg on the stool when he fell. He cried for a minute, but then he got back up, got back on the stool, and reached out for a box of Band-Aids to put one on his cut. Now, this kid could barely tie his shoelaces, but he knew you have to cover a cut, so it doesn’t become infected, and you have to care for your teeth by brushing twice a day. We all know how to maintain our physical health and how to practice dental hygiene, right? We’ve known it since we were five years old. But what do we know about maintaining our psychological health? Well, nothing. What do we teach our children about emotional hygiene? Nothing. How is it that we spend more time taking care of our teeth than we do our minds. Why is it that our physical health is so much more important to us than our psychological health?

2:32 We sustain psychological injuries even more often than we do physical ones, injuries like failure or rejection or loneliness. And they can also get worse if we ignore them, and they can impact our lives in dramatic ways. And yet, even though there are scientifically proven techniques we could use to treat these kinds of psychological injuries, we don’t. It doesn’t even occur to us that we should. “Oh, you’re feeling depressed? Just shake it off; it’s all in your head.” Can you imagine saying that to somebody with a broken leg: “Oh, just walk it off; it’s all in your leg.” (Laughter) It is time we closed the gap between our physical and our psychological health. It’s time we made them more equal, more like twins.

3:26 Speaking of which, my brother is also a psychologist. So he’s not a real doctor, either. (Laughter) We didn’t study together, though. In fact, the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life is move across the Atlantic to New York City to get my doctorate in psychology. We were apart then for the first time in our lives, and the separation was brutal for both of us. But while he remained among family and friends, I was alone in a new country. We missed each other terribly, but international phone calls were really expensive then and we could only afford to speak for five minutes a week. When our birthday rolled around, it was the first we wouldn’t be spending together. We decide to splurge, and that week we would talk for 10 minutes. I spent the morning pacing around my room, waiting for him to call — and waiting and waiting, but the phone didn’t ring. Given the time difference, I assumed, “Ok, he’s out with friends, he will call later.” There were no cell phones then. But he didn’t. And I began to realize that after being away for over 10 months, he no longer missed me the way I missed him. I knew he would call in the morning, but that night was one of the saddest and longest nights of my life. I woke up the next morning. I glanced down at the phone, and I realized I had kicked it off the hook when pacing the day before. I stumbled out off bed, I put the phone back on the receiver, and it rang a second later, and it was my brother, and, boy, was he pissed. (Laughter) It was the saddest and longest night of his life as well. Now I tried to explain what happened, but he said, “I don’t understand. If you saw I wasn’t calling you, why didn’t you just pick up the phone and call me?” He was right. Why didn’t I call him? I didn’t have an answer then, but I do today, and it’s a simple one: loneliness.

5:42 Loneliness creates a deep psychological wound, one that distorts our perceptions and scrambles our thinking. It makes us believe that those around us care much less than they actually do. It make us really afraid to reach out, because why set yourself up for rejection and heartache when your heart is already aching more than you can stand? I was in the grips of real loneliness back then, but I was surrounded by people all day, so it never occurred to me. But loneliness is defined purely subjectively. It depends solely on whether you feel emotionally or socially disconnected from those around you. And I did. There is a lot of research on loneliness, and all of it is horrifying. Loneliness won’t just make you miserable, it will kill you. I’m not kidding. Chronic loneliness increases your likelihood of an early death by 14 percent. Loneliness causes high blood pressure, high cholesterol. It even suppress the functioning of your immune system, making you vulnerable to all kinds of illnesses and diseases. In fact, scientists have concluded that taken together, chronic loneliness poses as significant a risk for your longterm health and longevity as cigarette smoking. Now cigarette packs come with warnings saying, “This could kill you.” But loneliness doesn’t. And that’s why it’s so important that we prioritize our psychological health, that we practice emotional hygiene. Because you can’t treat a psychological wound if you don’t even know you’re injured. Loneliness isn’t the only psychological wound that distorts our perceptions and misleads us.

7:39 Failure does that as well. I once visited a day care center, where I saw three toddlers play with identical plastic toys. You had to slide the red button, and a cute doggie would pop out. One little girl tried pulling the purple button, then pushing it, and then she just sat back and looked at the box, with her lower lip trembling. The little boy next to her watched this happen, then turned to his box and and burst into tears without even touching it. Meanwhile, another little girl tried everything she could think of until she slid the red button, the cute doggie popped out, and she squealed with delight. So three toddlers with identical plastic toys, but with very different reactions to failure. The first two toddlers were perfectly capable of sliding a red button. The only thing that prevented them from succeeding was that their mind tricked them into believing they could not. Now, adults get tricked this way as well, all the time. In fact, we all have a default set of feelings and beliefs that gets triggered whenever we encounter frustrations and setbacks.

8:54 Are you aware of how your mind reacts to failure? You need to be. Because if your mind tries to convince you you’re incapable of something and you believe it, then like those two toddlers, you’ll begin to feel helpless and you’ll stop trying too soon, or you won’t even try at all. And then you’ll be even more convinced you can’t succeed. You see, that’s why so many people function below their actual potential. Because somewhere along the way, sometimes a single failure convinced them that they couldn’t succeed, and they believed it.

9:26 Once we become convinced of something, it’s very difficult to change our mind. I learned that lesson the hard way when I was a teenager with my brother. We were driving with friends down a dark road at night, when a police car stopped us. There had been a robbery in the area and they were looking for suspects. The officer approached the car, and he shined his flashlight on the driver, then on my brother in the front seat, and then on me. And his eyes opened wide and he said, “Where have I seen your face before?” (Laughter) And I said, “In the front seat.” (Laughter) But that made no sense to him whatsoever. So now he thought I was on drugs. (Laughter) So he drags me out of the car, he searches me, he marches me over to the police car, and only when he verified I didn’t have a police record, could I show him I had a twin in the front seat. But even as we were driving away, you could see by the look on his face he was convinced that I was getting away with something.

10:33 Our mind is hard to change once we become convinced. So it might be very natural to feel demoralized and defeated after you fail. But you cannot allow yourself to become convinced you can’t succeed. You have to fight feelings of helplessness. You have to gain control over the situation. And you have to break this kind of negative cycle before it begins. Our minds and our feelings, they’re not the trustworthy friends we thought they were. They are more like a really moody friend, who can be totally supportive one minute, and really unpleasant the next. I once worked with this woman who after 20 years marriage and an extremely ugly divorce, was finally ready for her first date. She had met this guy online, and he seemed nice and he seemed successful, and most importantly, he seemed really into her. So she was very excited, she bought a new dress, and they met at an upscale New York City bar for a drink. Ten minutes into the date, the man stands up and says, “I’m not interested,” and walks out. Rejection is extremely painful. The woman was so hurt she couldn’t move. All she could do was call a friend. Here’s what the friend said: “Well, what do you expect? You have big hips, you have nothing interesting to say, why would a handsome, successful man like that ever go out with a loser like you?” Shocking, right, that a friend could be so cruel? But it would be much less shocking if I told you it wasn’t the friend who said that. It’s what the woman said to herself. And that’s something we all do, especially after a rejection. We all start thinking of all our faults and all our shortcomings, what we wish we were, what we wish we weren’t, we call ourselves names. Maybe not as harshly, but we all do it. And it’s interesting that we do, because our self-esteem is already hurting. Why would we want to go and damage it even further? We wouldn’t make a physical injury worse on purpose. You wouldn’t get a cut on your arm and decide, “Oh, I know! I’m going to take a knife and see how much deeper I can make it.”

12:51 But we do that with psychological injuries all the time. Why? Because of poor emotional hygiene. Because we don’t prioritize our psychological health. We know from dozens of studies that when your self-esteem is lower, you are more vulnerable to stress and to anxiety, that failures and rejections hurt more and it takes longer to recover from them. So when you get rejected, the first thing you should be doing is to revive your self-esteem, not join Fight Club and beat it into a pulp. When you’re in emotional pain, treat yourself with the same compassion you would expect from a truly good friend. We have to catch our unhealthy psychological habits and change them. One of unhealthiest and most common is called rumination. To ruminate means to chew over. It’s when your boss yells at you, or your professor makes you feel stupid in class, or you have big fight with a friend and you just can’t stop replaying the scene in your head for days, sometimes for weeks on end. Ruminating about upsetting events in this way can easily become a habit, and it’s a very costly one. Because by spending so much time focused on upsetting and negative thoughts, you are actually putting yourself at significant risk for developing clinical depression, alcoholism, eating disorders, and even cardiovascular disease.

14:21 The problem is the urge to ruminate can feel really strong and really important, so it’s a difficult habit to stop. I know this for a fact, because a little over a year ago, I developed the habit myself. You see, my twin brother was diagnosed with stage III non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His cancer was extremly aggressive. He had visible tumors all over his body. And he had to start a harsh course of chemotherapy. And I couldn’t stop thinking about what he was going through. I couldn’t stop thinking about how much he was suffering, even though he never complained, not once. He had this incredibly positive attitude. His psychological health was amazing. I was physically healthy, but psychologically I was a mess. But I knew what to do. Studies tell us that even a two-minute distraction is sufficient to break the urge to ruminate in that moment. And so each time I had a worrying, upsetting, negative thought, I forced myself to concentrate on something else until the urge passed. And within one week, my whole outlook changed and became more positive and more hopeful. Nine weeks after he started chemotherapy, my brother had a CAT scan, and I was by his side when he got the results. All the tumors were gone. He still had three more rounds of chemotherapy to go, but we knew he would recover. This picture was taken two weeks ago.

16:04 By taking action when you’re lonely, by changing your responses to failure, by protecting your self-esteem, by battling negative thinking, you won’t just heal your psychological wounds, you will bulid emotional resilience, you will thrive. A hundred years ago, people began practicing personal hygiene, and life expectancy rates rose by over 50 percent in just a matter of decades. I believe our quality of life could rise just as dramatically if we all began practicing emotional hygiene.

16:42 Can you imagine what the world would be like if everyone was psychologically healthier? If there were less loneliness and less depression? If people knew how to overcome failure? If they felt better about themselves and more empowered? If they were happier and more fulfilled? I can, because that’s the world I want to live in, and that’s the world my brother wants to live in as well. And if you just become informed and change a few simple habits, well, that’s the world we can all live in.”

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Now, reread this Isaiah text, putting your self in place of “those.” Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: releasing myself whom I have bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free my oppressed self, breaking off every yoke? Is it not sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning my back on my own flesh? 

God does not want me to be bound either.  The habits of failure, rejection, loneliness or rumination are modern guises for a lack of trust in God, of love of God and our neighbor, of pride and envy.

Certainly by  sharing your bread with the hungry you will move beyond failure, by bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house you will overcome rejection and loneliness and by getting off the pity-pot and going out and seeing the naked and clothing them you will certainly have no time for rumination.

Maybe some work close to home is what God is calling you to do this Lent.  I know He is calling me to do just that.

Prayers and peace.

[1] Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

[2] http://www.ted.com/talks/guy_winch_the_case_for_emotional_hygiene?utm_source=newsletter_weekly_2015-02-21&utm_campaign=newsletter_weekly&utm_medium=email&utm_content=talk_of_the_week_image. Filmed November 2014 at TEDxLinnaeusUniversity

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Great Meditation of Reconciliation and Healing from the Creighton Ministries

Lent is a wonderful time to celebrate the reconciling love and the healing graces our Lord offers us.  Like all religious experience, it takes preparation.

Preparing

Reconciliation is what God does.  We prepare for it by opening ourselves up, by reflecting upon the areas of darkness in our lives into which God so deeply desires to shine a light.  It might begin with the simple question: Where might God be offering me forgiveness and healing?

If my answer is, “I don’t know,” then I have some reflection to do.  I can examine my life – what I have done and what I have failed to do – and see what graces are offered me there.  If I’ve come through that “era” of saying that any guilt, anything that makes me feel bad about myself, is a bad thing, to be avoided at all costs, then I might have a difficult time coming to genuine sorrow for my sins.  If this is the case, I need to “go to work” on my reflection, asking God to rouse a sense of embarrassment, leading to deep sorrow, for any way I may not have been faithful, honest, loving, self-less or generous – in my relationship with God, with my family, with others.  I can look at each of my responsibilities – as a citizen of a city and a country and the world, a neighbor, an employee, a member of a parish or congregation, as a parent or a spouse or as a son or daughter.  God will always shine light into these important parts of our lives, to help us experience remorse and a genuine desire for forgiveness and healing.  The point here is not ultimately to focus on ourselves.  God always reveals us to ourselves, so that God might reveal to us our need for a Savior.  The focus is on God’s reconciling, healing love.  As John says, “God showed his love for us when he sent his only Son into the world to give us life.   Real love isn’t our love for God, but God’s love for us. God sent his Son to be the sacrifice by which our sins are forgiven.1 John 4:9-10

It may be that I have experienced troubling guilt – coming out of deep childhood trauma or a long-standing sense of shame  This may plague my ability to feel good about myself at all, and therefore to be able to reflect upon my sins – the ways I fail at loving.  I can still prepare for genuine reconciliation by preparing to better trust God’s love for me, based upon two convictions:  First, God’s love is un-conditional.   It is not conditioned on my being better, or my overcoming anything, or even my being good at all.  God just loves me.  I am always precious in the eyes of the One who made me and desires to embrace me with the gift of complete freedom, in everlasting life.  Secondly, God knows everything, including what I’m struggling with or suffering under.  And, the God of all compassion, understands me and loves me.  It may be that my greatest sin – the place where I need the greatest sorrow and desire for forgiveness and healing is my lack of trust in God’s complete and unconditional love for me.  We can be certain that that is a gift God deeply desires to offer me.

It may be that when I ask myself the question about where God might be offering me forgiveness and healing, I might first come up with a single thing that seems “big” to me.  I might say, “I feel sorry for how I treat my spouse or my children.”  I might focus on a long established habit of self-indulgent sexual fantasy, pornography on the internet or masturbation.  I may felt most sorrow for what I fail to do – all the “good intentions” that never make their way into action.  It is so important not to stop there.  None of the “big” things about which we might immediately feel sorry for sums up all of who we are before God and others.  They may be very important in giving some clues or some leads in identifying some larger patterns.  For example, if a “big” thing that worries me is that I tend to be “loose” with the truth, at times, I can ask what that means, what it reveals about me.  I may discover that the real pattern of sin has to do with a deeper dishonesty or lack of integrity: hiding from God; leading a double life; not being who I really am called to be; trying to manage my life on my own terms; manipulating others for my own needs and desires.  When the Light of God’s love shines into this level of self-awareness, then I am touched by a powerful experience of reconciliation.  Even here, in a place I might be most embarrassed and feel most naked, God is loving me and offering me wholeness and joy.

Celebrating Reconciliation

Reconciliation is what God does.  Receiving it and celebrating it is what we do.   For those of us who are Catholics, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a most natural way to celebrate God’s reconciliation.  We used to think of this sacrament as only about “confession” – that it was like a dumping ground for my sins, where I got forgiven, and I had to “pay a toll.”  One of the great recoveries in our Christian history is to re-discover the meaning of this sacrament.

It is God who forgives sins.  And God forgives us the very moment that we come to the experience that we need forgiveness (which itself comes through God’s grace).  At that moment, I feel sorrow and a desire for forgiveness and healing.  In that moment, I am reconciled with God.  The reunion, the bond, the connection, the joy are all there.  Three more things remain:  to receive it deep within my heart, to celebrate it, and to participate in the healing process.

When I experience God’s forgiveness and love, I am invited to savor it and let it touch me deeply.  Experiencing compassion, patience, understanding, and forgiveness is itself transforming.  If I fail to appreciate what I have just received – freely and undeserved – then I will take it for granted and risk moving on without a real healing happening.

Then, I need to celebrate the reconciliation I have received.  In the Sacrament of Reconciliation – individually or in common – I have the wonderful opportunity to ritualize that celebration.  In the Sacrament, my personal journey is joined with the mystery of God’s saving love, as seen in the scriptures, and in God’s desire to save us all.  There, in ritual form (even if it is just me and the priest) I “step forward” and admit that I am a sinner, express my sorrow, and I name the places in my life where God is shining a Light into what I have done and what I have failed to do.  Then, God’s forgiveness is proclaimed “out loud” – for me to hear and rejoice in:  “May God grant you pardon and fill you with God’s peace.”

An integral part of the reconciliation involves the healing process.  If I sprain my ankle, the doctor will offer me a number of therapies for healing – ice, for the first 24 hours to reduce the swelling, wrapping it, elevating it, and then gradually and carefully using it, until it is healed and strong again.  Part of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is to seek and practice a “remedy” or “medicine” for the healing I desire.  Often that will simply be prayer.  Often, expressing my gratitude to God is one of the most important steps on the road to recovery from my independence from God.  Sometimes, I will need to practice a therapy that is more carefully planned – making choices about what I can practice doing and what I can practice avoiding.

May our Lord grant us all the gift of reconciliation, and may we all receive it and celebrate it well in the holy days ahead.

http://onlineministries.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/Lent/reconciliation.html

Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight. [1] [Mt 3:3]

Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight. [1] [Mt 3:3]

  • A voice proclaims: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! [Is 40:3].
  • It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: “A voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’” [Mt 3:3]
  • He said: “I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert, “Make straight the way of the Lord,”’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” [Jn 1:23]

Three versions of the same message…the original prophecy in Isaiah, the passage used as third party identification for the Baptist in Matthew, and the Baptist’s own use of a conflated version of the passage as his calling card…Having said all that, what does this enigmatic phrase mean…How do I prepare the way of the Lord, let alone make His paths straight???

What is this “way of the Lord?” Later on, Jesus will call himself the Way. Are they the same Way or only related, since both originate from the Lord? And since this is before Jesus appears on the scene, how am I to interpret “the way” in pre-Jesus terms.

Interestingly, the first occurrence of “way” in the Hebrew Scriptures is: When he expelled the man, he settled him east of the garden of Eden; and he stationed the cherubim and the fiery revolving sword, to guard the way to the tree of life. [Gen 3:24] I don’t think that this was by accident. First, God does not do things by accident, and second, the Holy Spirit does not inspire the writers of Scripture to write anything by accident. This being said, I must conclude that “the way” has to do with how one reaches and eats the fruit of the tree of Life…which becomes even more true in the New Testament where Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, [Jn 14:6] and insists that unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. [Jn 6:53] Thus, we come full circle: God has given us a “way” to the tree of life in His Son, Jesus, and we can eat Him and have life eternal.

The second occurrence clarifies another aspect of the “way”. The LORD is pondering: Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do about Sodom. [Gen 18:17] In reasoning that He should tell him, He states: Indeed, I have singled him out that he may direct his sons and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD may carry into effect for Abraham the promises he made about him. [Gen 18:19] Here, the “way” is adherence to God’s plan for mankind, doing what is right and just.

To what is right and just means to follow Jesus, for the right and just way now is defined by Jesus; He is the way. To me, to you, to each and every person that ever lived, yesterday, today, tomorrow, Jesus says, “Follow me.” [Mt 9:9]…when we hear the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” we are prompted by the Spirit to answer “Here I am,” I said; “send me! [Is 6:8]…when we are called in a dream: Susan! James! Kim Jung! Aslam! Solomon, our Eli tells us to reply: Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.[1 Sam 3:9]

What does “doing what is right and just” mean today, here, now, in 2015. The rest of the references to “way” in the Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament mostly are the myriad of references to direction or usual course of action. These are mirrors of my ways, to where I go and what I do…the mystery of God’s will is that it is fulfilled in the everyday, little things of life. I use to think that God’s will was something huge, dramatic, saving the world, feeding the starving millions, stopping the violence of the world…and it is. But my part in those efforts, in His plan for humanity, for salvation, in that preparing the way of the Lord, in that straightening His paths, is a very teeny, tiny part of the whole effort, the whole working of the one Body of Christ, the whole groaning of creation. My little effort today, in this minute, caring for this family, these dogs, praying for this person, buying this can of food for the pantry, smiling at this person, changing this diaper, writing this report, putting up this stud, dealing with this customer, attending this Mass, taking this shower, putting one foot in front of the other…this is my answer to His call, my repentance, my “making sorry,” my preparing the way for the advent of the fullness of His Kingdom, my straightening out His paths in my own life, my own family, my own town, my own corner of the world, making it His world,…This is my not just saying but doing sorry for the my sins.

This straightening includes giving food to the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the ill, visiting prisoners [Mt 25:35-36]. This path includes going and making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit [Mt 28:19], every moment of every day, at work, at home, at the store, at the mall, in little ways, being nice to this cashier, smiling at that stranger, helping this old man cross the street, carry his groceries, get up the stairs…ways of making disciples of all, when necessary using words.

This is the preparation of the way, the straightening of the paths on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis…doing the will of God as it is knocking on the door of my life right now. This is the “daily” in the phrase: If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. [Lk 9:23] So pick up that knife and chop that salad, yank the cord and start up that motor; put on your boots and shovel that snow, open up that laptop and type out that report, take your smart phone and text that apology, turn your head and smile that smile, that reaching out and touching someone who needs a boost right here, right now…and watch those paths straighten out in front of you. Amen. Alleluia!!!

[1] Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.