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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
We all know how important it is to find silence in our lives, time and space to step back for a moment and put things in perspective. It keeps us from rash emotional responses and helps to make better decisions. It seems that discussions of the need for silence take the forefront at this time of year, during the season of Lent as we await (depending on your faith tradition) Easter, the spring season, and new life taking root after a cold winter.
I always had trouble with finding silence and have often struggled to grasp what this concept really means. I tend to live continually in my head. My wife gives me a hard time because of my selective memory. I remember some things crystal clear while others bring no recollection for me at all. The truth is, I am usually hearing so much noise in my head that at times there is simply no room to process anything else. I have always had a difficult time living in the moment. I am usually functioning in the moment but living in the regret of the past or the fear of the future.
People have found many ways to be in the moment; some healthy, like meditation or exercise; others not so healthy, like excessive use of drugs and alcohol. Either of these paths could lead to trouble in excess, I suppose. If working out begins to interfere with your daily life functioning, perhaps you have a problem. The point is that we have a basic drive to find ways to silence all the noise in our head so that we can live and thrive in the present moment, not worrying about tomorrow as it will have enough worries of its own. And not living under they oppression of past mistakes but rather allowing them to teach their lessons and then move on.
This all sounds remarkably similar to teachings I grew up with but didn’t make much sense to me. Didn’t Jesus talk about this? Also Buddha, I’m pretty sure. Maybe Muhammad as well?
I was on a hike with my dog Oliver yesterday in Gunpowder Falls State Park and I experienced what it feels like to be fully present in the moment. It was incredibly refreshing. As I stood on the bank of the river, slightly off the beaten path, I was fully consumed by listening to the sound of the river flowing over rocks, smelling the brisk winter air and feeling it invade my nostrils and brush harshly against my skin, admiring the way in which the water move so effortlessly over rocks and around turns. Nothing else mattered in that moment.
I found my silence.