Becoming Me

One of the projects I’ve been working on recently is research into the development of religious identity as a contextual component of overall identity development. I had the opportunity over the summer to work with two of my professors to write a paper that will be published this fall, which is very exciting! I used that project as a springboard to launch me into some new research that I can hopefully continue to pursue after my schooling ends.

I’ll be honest, when I initially set out on my research, I was biased. I was on a mission to prove that religion (and in particular, Christianity) can be dangerous because it is often used to oppress and marginalize people groups who do not fit within the established teachings of the church (or other religious body). Certainly, that is a narrative that exists and needs to be addressed. Denial of a dark history and present problems does not resolution bring (see my post on history). There is plenty of research showing that aspects of religiosity are associated with various forms of mental illness, issues in identity development, engagement in risk behavior, and marked intolerance for “others” that are outside of the religious group. And yet religion has also been established as a positive influence in development, with various measures of religiosity being associated with prosocial behavior, avoidance of risk behaviors, and resiliency in times of stress.

So, the question is, why is religion a positive force in the lives of some individuals and communities and an oppressive force in others?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the degree to which an individual continually feels accepted by his or her religious group. We all go through different stages in the development of an identity, and we have a basic need to feel accepted and loved for who we are. Perhaps this explains the incredible conversion experience that sometimes happens when an individual who has felt rejected in other facets of life finally finds acceptance in the arms of a loving God. Specific religions, however, such as Christianity, typically draw boundaries at some point to indicate who is “in” and who is “out”; there are certain sacrifices the individual must make in order to be accepted as a member of that community. This happens in every facet of life; whether it be following a dress code at work or keeping your lawn well-groomed as a requirement of the neighborhood in which you live. Certain behaviors are deemed as dangerous, either for spiritual, moral, or physical safety reasons. So what happens when a salient part of one’s identity is deemed as inherently wrong by one’s religion?

Say, for example, that I have been attracted to men for as long as I can remember. I have prayed multiple times for this “desire of the flesh”, to borrow from the Apostle Paul, to be taken away but nothing changes. I still feel deeply connected to my religion and God and finally come to recognize myself as a gay man. If I belong to a religion that accepts this choice, I will likely continue on happily in that religious tradition. But if I belong to a group that tells me the love I feel is sin, and must be dealt with, and perhaps I just have to be alone for the rest of my life, then I have a choice to make. Which part of my identity is more important?

Or, say I grow up asking a lot of questions and always have doubt about what I am taught. If I am growing up in a religion that is okay with a sense of doubt, then I will likely flourish in my development and happily continue on for years. If, however, I receive the message that questioning is bad and I should just “have faith”, then I feel as though a driving part of my identity is bad, so I attempt to repress it in order to continue gaining acceptance in my religious group. As I have written about before, repression does not make anything go away, so two parts of my identity are in conflict.

The question of how this conflict is resolved, or whether it is resolved is of critical importance. If I am able to gain acceptance from my religion, my family, or another positive social reference group then I will be more likely to reach a resolution to the conflict and experience positive outcomes. If, however, I am unable to gain acceptance, then I have a choice. I can either find a group that will accept me as I perceive myself to be (whether this group be a positive or negative influence, we cannot underestimate the power of acceptance and a sense of belonging) or I can attempt to remove or “work through” the part of my identity that is deemed as unacceptable. The latter, unfortunately, has been linked with numerous adverse outcomes.

I have much more research to do, with many more thoughts to come. For now, I think it is an important conversation to start.

Feel free to share your thoughts and reactions by leaving a comment below!

Great Barrier Reef

My wife is in Australia right now, doing amazing things. Check it out!

aqua jordana

Leaving the dock at dawn, I watched the sunrise over the Pacific Ocean.  Two and half hours in a boat to our research site didn’t seem like trouble at all, especially considering the stunning views and blue water.

Image

There was plenty of time to explore the dive boat and of course, to take a photo in honor of my favorite explorer, Jacques Cousteau.  ImageSnub-finned dolphins (endangered) porpoised alongside the boat, and one did a magnificent side breach off on the distance.

Our destination was Load Stone reef, and once we got there we were all of course thrilled.  The mission of the day’s dives was to investigate the reef, refine our fish and coral identification skills, and practice our navigation (we certainly also had a load of fun along the way).

It may be odd to say that the first moment I had my head underwater the scenery was…

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Don’t Know Where We’ve Been

I recently watched “Religilous” with Bill Maher and honestly rather enjoyed myself.  While I would likely try to approach people in a slightly less abrasive manner (though I was rather impressed with how he managed to end most of his interviews with laughter and sometimes even a hug), I thought he made some really important points about the dangers of settling into a type of intellectual complacency in which we think we have all the answers and just stop asking questions.  The movie ended with song lyrics that said “we know where we’re going, we just don’t know where we’ve been”.

In classic psychoanalytic theory, there is this notion that the goal of psychotherapy is to bring the unconscious aspects of our identity that guide and motivate our behavior and thinking into the active conscious.  This is essentially a journey toward a fuller understanding of oneself and one’s place in the universe through increased awareness.  Part of increasing awareness is facing our history, dealing with the hurt, and owning up to our mistakes.

But history scares us.  It is often easier for us to deny history than to face it because we are terrified about what it means for us.  We’re afraid of the negative emotions that sometimes come with facing our history.  We find it easier to maintain a forward looking focus that does not require us to do the hard work of facing our past.  Don’t cry over spilled milk.  Unfortunately, this essentially never works out as we hope.  Ignoring a problem does not generally make it go away, it just drives it further into our unconscious.  We think it’s gone, but it’s still there, influencing our thoughts and behavior without our awareness.

Here’s why I think we all have a vested interest in participating in this process of facing our history and becoming more self-aware.  Because each of us, whether consciously or unconsciously, have an impact on the world every single day of our lives through what we’ve done or what we’ve left undone.  And we will continue to have an impact.  I personally want to do everything I can to ensure that the impacts I leave are growing in a progressively positive manner.

It’s hard to know where I’m going if I don’t know where I’ve been.  How do I know I’m going in the right direction?  Or am even on the right path?

Re-authoring

I’ve been spending some time going back over some of the work I did in my studies this semester, attempting to synthesize and solidify my learning from multiple courses and reflecting back on some of the key moments of realization I experienced.  I wrote a couple posts ago about narrative therapy, which is based on social constructionist thinking and the work of Jean Piaget.  The idea is that we create meaning based on how we perceive the environment around us.  If I grew up in a social environment in which I was taught that the sky is green, I would believe that the sky is green until convinced otherwise.  We see evidence of this all the time, such as when two people experience the same situation in a very different way.  I often have discussions with my wife in which we have very different memories of the way in which a particular situation played out.  Does that mean one of us is wrong, or simply that we perceive differently?

According to narrative thinking, these perceptions form the narratives or lenses through which we continue to interpret future experiences.  When these narratives guide us to interpret experience in unhealthy ways, we tend to get bogged down with problems.  This is where re-authoring comes into play.

The notion of re-authoring highlights one of most amazing evolutionary adaptations of the human brain: we are able to change the way in which we perceive reality.  It is when we lose site of this ability that we feel stuck and unable to move forward.  What could be more self-empowering, and more indicative of the ability to effect change, than the realization that we can actually change the way in which we perceive our story, thereby changing the way we experience our story, and thereby becoming empowered authors of our own stories.

The Path

A young man set out to walk upon a path.  While on the path, he encountered other walkers. One was an elderly gentleman who required the aid of walking sticks in order to make the walk easier on his aging body.  Another was a young woman who walked with an animal companion for comfort and for safety.  Yet another was a pair of lovers in their middle age, holding hands and smiling gently as they remembered how it felt to be young and imagined how it would feel to be old.  All of the walkers came from different regions, spoke in different tongues, believed in different gods, and devoted their respective lives to different causes.  They each experienced the path in a different way, at times even walking in opposing directions.  

And yet, they all walked the same path.  

Making Sense of My Life

I have been in finals mode for the last couple weeks: staying up late and sleeping in, showering only when I remember to, not keeping my beard well-groomed and, much to the chagrin of my bride, not doing a great job keeping the house in cleanly order.  But I always like this time of the year, especially when the final projects involve a synthesis of learning and reflecting back on the content of the semester.  One of the projects I completed this semester was a Genogram, which is sort of like a family tree but with therapeutic details like relationships that are distant or fused, mental health and substance abuse issues, loss and grief, etc.  Along with the assignment I wrote a reflective piece and I thought I’d share part of it here.  It feels slightly odd to share something this personal in a publicly visible place but I decided long ago that part of my writing and career would always be to maintain a brutal sense of honesty and genuine vulnerability.  Besides, it’s not like anyone actually reads this thing.   

I spent some time on the phone with my father as part of this project and gained a fascinating perspective about my motivation to build a career in the field of psychology.  I was raised in a fairly conservative evangelical Christian tradition that I later rebelled against.  I felt forced to believe something that never made sense to me.  This has created an occasionally contentious relationship with my father as I struggle with the faith tradition to which he has committed his life’s work.  One of my lifelong concerns has been a desire to build a career and accomplish things that would elicit pride from my father, the desire of any son.  I tried both of his career paths, church ministry and teaching public school, and neither one of them fully made sense to me.  One of the biggest things that excites me about a career in psychology is that my job will never be to convince anyone of anything.  Rather, my role will be simply to listen, provide education, and try to objectively empower and guide people toward making their own decisions.  I was raised in a faith tradition that taught me the only way to truly save people was to convince them to believe in Jesus.  That was so exhausting for me and I lived under a constant state of chronic stress that I wasn’t doing enough to save the world in the name of Jesus.  It has been hard for me to understand how my father could be happy in that type of ministry.  I was inadvertently projecting my own baggage onto him and his life’s work.  

I learned that a few years ago my father completed a similar project as part of one of his classes in a Doctor of Ministry program.   In talking with him about the project, I understood why Christianity is so important to my father.  It’s the same reason Psychology is important to me.  It helps to make sense of life.  My father saw multiple people in his family experience redemption through Christianity, leading to more healthy and fruitful lives.  The story of and belief in Jesus was redemptive for him and he has helped many other people throughout his life to experience that same healing and redemption because it also made sense for them.  What was redemption for him, however, resulted in feelings of bondage for me.  I felt bound to behave a certain way, to believe certain things, not ask certain questions, and get everyone in my life to think and believe the same way even if it didn’t really fully make sense to me.  I just needed to have faith and press on.  

As it turns out, my father and I are quite similar though our paths may look different.  His job is to meet with people individually and provide counsel, share teachings to larger groups on a regular basis, and publish his thoughts in writing.  That is exactly what I want my career to look like.  The process will be the same but the substance will be slightly different.  Conceptualizing my relationship with my dad in this way allows me to move beyond my boyhood desire for his approval and begin to learn from him as a fellow adult.  As I move beyond those boyhood insecurities and feel confident in my career choice for myself, I begin to see that there is much I can learn from my father.  He has spent the last 20 years ministering to people and has countless lessons from which I can learn in my quest to build a successful career in Psychology.  I hope that we can continue to learn from each other.

Neurotic

I just finished writing a paper on family narrative therapy and it got me thinking about the nature of reality.  Here’s an excerpt:

Narrative therapy is based on social constructionist thinking, which purports that meaning is not something that simply exists; rather, we construct meaning and our specific ways of understanding the world based on the interactions we have with our environment.  The consequences we experience from these interactions teach us, at a young age, certain principles and established truths about the reality in which we live.  These established truths then influence the way in which we interact with our environment in the future.  Subsequent experiences can challenge, confirm, or alter our understanding and continue to construct meaning.  Often we as human beings are indoctrinated into narrow ways of thinking about ourselves and the possibilities that exist for us.  The meaning that we construct based on our experiences can often result in narratives or schematic frameworks that we utilize to continue interpreting future experiences, thereby extending the problem-saturated story.  We also are often influenced by oppressive cultural narratives, which tell us how to properly function in gender and various other roles.  When the stories that we adopt lead us to perceive experience in unhelpful ways, we tend to get bogged down with problems.  The goal in narrative therapy, then, is to alter these stories in a way that results in more healthy and productive ways of interpreting experience.

Merriam-Webster.com defines neurosis, in part, as a mental disorder accompanied by a less distorted perception of reality than psychosis.  Which, to me, begs a question.  If we all perceive reality in slightly different ways because of our experience-based schematic framework, aren’t we all just a little bit neurotic?  

 

Like a Child

I was listening the TED Radio hour today (as I’ve become accustomed to do lately while attempting to get my ass into shape on runs).  This particular episode was called “Unstoppable Learning” and featured a discussion with a Psychologist named Alison Gopnick who introduced herself by saying “I study babies and young children and what they can tell us what it means to be human.  After all, we’re just babies and young children that have been around a little bit longer”.  I was fascinated to hear Dr. Gopnick describe her research, which suggests that the minds of babies are like the minds of “the most brilliant scientists”.  It reminded me of some reading I did back in undergrad about the activity in a young child’s brain and how they are capable of more learning at that stage than any other but do not yet have the adaptive skills to communicate it in a way that we as adults are able to understand.  I was most fascinated when Dr. Gopnick started to talk about an experiment she ran in which she presented a baby with crackers and broccoli.  She made facial expressions and used vocal inflections to communicate a distaste for crackers and a preference for broccoli.  When she asked the baby to share with her, to give her some of what she liked, he gave her broccoli.  Dr. Gopnick stated that this shows the child going beyond empathy; it suggests a journey into altruism in which the child is actually taking the perspective of another person into consideration.

At the end of this particular interview, Dr. Gopnick said something that really hit me, “if what we want is to have open-mindedness, open learning, imagination, creativity, innovation, maybe at least some of the time, we should be getting the adults to start thinking more like children”.

What was it that Jesus said about letting the little children come to him?  Only children can enter the kingdom of heaven?

What if heaven was when we all saw the world like little kids, without the rigid boundaries that we have set up for ourselves?  What if we could truly understand other people’s perspectives?  Lion laying down with a lamb?  What if heaven could happen now?

Just wondering.

Mosh It Out

I watched a great movie over the weekend called “Manic”, about an adolescent male (played brilliantly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who nearly bludgeons a kid to death at a baseball game and is subsequently admitted to an inpatient unit.  Throughout the film we see other adolescents with a myriad of issues from being molested by a stepfather to being raped by a friend to being completely ignored and emotionally abused by parental figures.

As I watched the film, I was struck by how much pain there is in the world and it honestly moved me to tears.  Why should a 13 year old boy have to live with the trauma of being molested and raped multiple times by a stepfather?  Why should a 16 year old have to deal with not only the early death of his father but also the fact that memories of his father involve bouts of drinking and abuse?  I happened to watch this movie on a day that I was feeling particularly sorry for myself because of a few struggles that paled in comparison to what I was watching on the screen.  The world has enough pain on its own without me adding more to the mix.

There is one scene in particular in the movie that really struck me and I wanted to share it here.  Through group therapy, individual sessions, and time spent simply talking and playing games in the common area, these youth have begun to process some of the intense emotions that have been locked in for so long and found their expression in ways that are a danger to self and others.  There are intense interpersonal conflicts and alliances that form through this process, but there is one moment in the film in which they all come together in a Gestalt-like release of emotion while moshing to a Deftones song.  Even Zooey Deschanel’s character, though she watches from the sidelines, seems to gain insight from watching this all unfold around her.

My favorite part about this scene is delivered by Don Cheadle, playing the staff psychologist, who sees the scene and seems to understand the importance of what lies beneath.  While most adults would view this as a group of rowdy teens disturbing the peace and causing destruction, he sees something else.  He sees a group of kids who have been forced to grow up far too quickly in a world that is far too painful.  He sees that while it is important to teach kids respect and healthy ways of expression, perhaps the power of this shared emotional experience outweighs the potential damage done by allowing it to continue.

After all, the emotion has to come out somehow and there are much more destructive ways of expressing it.  

Do It Anyway

I attended a meeting yesterday of a group called Koinonia; a greek word that connotes meanings of community and participation.  This particular group is a weekly gathering of graduate students at Loyola University Maryland to discuss issues of faith and spirituality.  Yesterday our topic of conversation was the notion of forgiveness.  At the end of the hour-long meeting, the leader shared a prayer that I thought was quite profound and hit me square between the pockets.  It is called “Do It Anyway”, and is reportedly attributed to Mother Theresa.

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.  Forgive them anyway.  

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.  Be kind anyway.  

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.  Succeed anyway.  

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.  Be honest and sincere anyway.  

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.  Create anyway.  

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.  Be happy anyway.  

The good you do today will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.  

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.  

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway.