Answers & Questions

I used to have all the answers–
or at least most of them
(I have the books to prove it)
a firm foundation of right ideas.

Then I opened the door of my mind
just a crack
and invited the questions inside.

The invitation was not without cost.
I know less now than I once did
for in opening the door
I saw the universe before me.

A prayer for wholeness

God of wholeness,
Father, Son, Spirit,
never lacking or incomplete,
eternally perfect in oneness,
you promised that in the Son,
all things shall be reconciled.

Remind me of my union with you,
always aware of your holy presence
in and around me.
You, O LORD, are never absent,
but I confess that my senses are dulled
by 10,000 distractions.
I want to love you
as you have loved me,
fully and completely and unreservedly.
Let your lovingkindness toward me
ignite my love.

You, O LORD, have filled this world
with those who bear your image
yet each person is uniquely beautiful.
Remove the scales from my eyes
so that I may see with compassion.
Help me to remember that listening is loving
and curiosity is a sacred gift.
To love another is to get dirt on my hands,
just as you did when you formed people
from the dust of the ground.
Whether in agreement or conflict,
let love define me.

As I look inward,
let me see myself as you see me,
not as damaged goods, nor irredeemable,
but as your beloved child
who is infinitely valuable in your eyes.
Let the knowledge of my belovedness
cast aside every doubt I have
about how you see me,
knowing that you cherish me
just as I am right now.

Help me to remember
that when you formed the heavens and the earth,
you called your creation good.
It was full of beauty
and teeming with life,
yet like your people,
your good creation has suffered
the ravages of disintegration.
You have invited me to be a steward of the earth;
let me take up that call with hope and endurance,
remembering that you are reconciling all things.
Grant me the skill
to make good and beautiful things,
remembering that goodness and beauty
are reflections of you.

Where there is hatred, restore compassion
where darkness, light
where confusion, clarity
where where fragmentation, integration
where agitation, peace
where pride, humility
where brokenness, wholeness
and where self-centeredness, love.

I cannot stay silent

I tried watching the debate on Tuesday night, but I soon turned it off. The behavior I was witnessing stirred up old memories.

When I was in junior high, my mom started dating the high school shop teacher. There was a rumor that years earlier, he had been abusive toward his first wife, but he was so charming, it was impossible to believe. He was mechanically gifted and often shared stories about the wonderful things he had done and made and more than once, he used his gifts to help others. Their relationship progressed and they eventually married. Over time though, his grandiosity and narcissism became increasingly evident and along with it, abuse.

He never hit me, but he never missed an opportunity to take shots at me, to remind me of my worthlessness. I regularly heard that I would never amount to anything. Name calling, manipulating, gas lighting, and eye rolling were a daily occurrence. He was verbally and psychologically abusive. He was a malignant narcissist.

When they had been married less than a year, I was selected by my teachers to go to Badger Boys State. My mom and I had a difficult conversation on the way to Ripon College. I somehow found the courage to tell her that if he was still there when I got home, I was going to move in with my grandma. In the days that followed, she found her courage too and moved out.

I wish I could tell you that their separation led to a repentant heart, but it didn’t. His abuse and manipulation only intensified and it definitely took its toll on both my mom and me, but ultimately, leaving was the only healthy option. Sadly, the responses of friends and family were often less than helpful. People were incredulous that someone who was capable of doing good things was so evil.

Now, as a psychologist, I hear stories of abuse and manipulation every day, women and men who live under the terror of narcissists who seek to control and psychologically manipulate them, working to break them down to nothing. Too often, they succeed. The psychological scars left by narcissists are often multigenerational. As Diana Beresford-Kroeger said in her excellent book, To Speak for the Trees, “Trauma casts a long shadow.”  

As I watched part of the presidential debate on Tuesday night, I saw a lot of similarities between the president and my former step-father. I watched as the president rolled his eyes, scoffed, lied, interrupted, and belittled Mr. Biden. This is what abusers do, plain and simple.

To be clear, this was not merely an off night for president Trump. These behaviors represent consistent patterns over time. He talks about how great he is while at the same time demeaning and criticizing others. When he failed to decisively condemn white supremacy but indirectly told a white supremacist group, the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by,” I heard a vailed threat. As a psychologist, I can tell you that other abuse victims perceived the same things, even if they could not put words to it. Like me, many people had to stop watching.

As someone who has been psychologically abused and who also works with abuse victims, let me offer an explanation about why you may have felt the way you did. You were witnessing an abusive narcissist in action. Donald Trump’s words and actions are not simply a difference in personality style. He doesn’t act the way he does because he’s a New Yorker. He is a manipulative bully.

Sometimes manipulative bullies do good things. In fact, narcissists will take every opportunity to make themselves look better, not principally in service to the greater good, but in order to stoke their pride. As they build themselves up, they leave piles of confused and broken people behind them.  

For me, this election is not simply about policy, it is about standing against abuse on a national scale. For me, this election is not about platform, but about speaking out on behalf of the belittled and downtrodden. For me, the election is not simply about difference of opinion, but about using my voice and my vote to speak out against a man who has had four years to “Make America Great Again,” but by his words and actions has left us more deeply divided than we have been for generations. 

Let me also recommend some additional resources:

a prayer written upon my arms

Yesterday, I got my 7th tattoo. When I got first tattoo a few years ago, I asked the artist about the weirdest tattoos he had ever done. Two stood out to me. The first was a model who had a stack of pancakes tattooed on her butt and the second was a person who had a waffle recipe tattooed on her arm. People get tattoos for many different reasons, I suppose. I have given considerable thought to each of mine and to the messages they send, first to me and then to others. They are intended to deeply reflect the things that I value.

  • שָׁלוֹם (Shalom)
  • חָפְשִׁי (Chophshi)
  • be who you are
  • truth, goodness, beauty, strength (King, Sage, Warrior, Lover)
  • LUDIO-Love Up, Down, In, Out
  • integration, wholeness, reconciliation
  • fiat lux (Let there be Light)

I will happily talk your ear off about any of these things, but this morning, I decided to write these into a prayer.

God of heaven and earth,
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,
At the beginning of all things,
you created all that is by the word of your mouth
uttering “Let there be light.”
You gazed upon your creation
and you called it good,
the cosmos was precisely as you intended.
Holy shalom.

Yet infective darkness slithered in,
the world became fragmented
by sin and shame,
all creation disintegrated and hopeless.
In your love and mercy
you saw fit to send a redeemer,
your son Jesus.
In him, I have been set free
from sin’s bondage,
but so often, I forget who I am
and I wander back into dark places.
God, remind me who I am,
over and over.
Let reminders of your grace
constantly ring in my ears.

You have created me in your image and likeness,
giving me the capacity to love all things
with my whole being,
heart, soul, mind, and strength.

God, the world is torn asunder,
I see it every day.
Help me to remember that I am
an ambassador of integration, wholeness, and reconciliation.

Where there is darkness, let me bring light;
where bondage, freedom;
where deception, truth;
where vileness, beauty;
where evil, goodness;
where weakness, strength;
where hatred, love;
where disunion, integration;
where fragmentation, wholeness;
where division, reconciliation;
and where rupture, shalom;
always remembering
who you already say that I am.

What does wholeheartedness look like?

Yesterday, my friend Mark asked me, “What does it look like, feel like, to be wholehearted? How can you tell if you are or if you’re at least moving in that direction?” I spent the day thinking about it. Here were my initial thoughts.

Wholehearted people are present to the moment. They are not overwhelmed with feelings of shame about things they have done or not done, nor are they consumed with anxiety about what has not yet come. They realize that all they have is the present moment and they stay settled in it.

Wholehearted people have ballast. They don’t get easily blown off course when life gets tumultuous. Some call this equanimity. I think in terms of what they “feel” I would say a sense of peace. They are not overwhelmed by emotional shifts, nor are they numb to them.

Wholehearted people are aware of a deep sense of interconnectedness—to God, others, themselves, and to their place in creation.

Wholehearted people are able to consistently live from their true self and not as people pleasers whose identities depend on circumstance. They are free to do things that others may look askance at because they have a profound sense of who they are.

Wholehearted people show up as lights in the world, bearers of truth, goodness, and beauty. They are free from the burden of judgment—of themselves and others. They recognize the humanity and value in others and themselves.

How do we know? I think experience an increasing sense of peace, of shalom, of radiance, of solidity.

What do you think constitutes wholeheartedness?

Those People

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Yesterday, my cousin posted a news article about a woman who had repeatedly punched a 12 year old who was carrying a Trump sign while riding his bike. Thankfully, he reported what happened and it is currently being investigated. I wish I could say something like this crime surprised me, but it doesn’t, at least not anymore. Sadly, I also was not surprised at the comments. People were quick to write that this sort of behavior is “typical” of democrats and we “only hear of democrats doing crap like this.” I don’t know about you, but this sort of animosity fills my Facebook feed every day. I routinely have to resist rushing in to defend “my side” and I am not always successful.

Here’s the thing: The problem isn’t those people. It’s you. It’s me. When we physically attack people for carrying Trump (or Biden) signs, we reveal the evil within our own hearts, not theirs. When we say this sort of behavior is “typical of democrats” (or republicans), we convict ourselves, not them.

Friends, our self-righteousness and divisive attitudes are literally killing us. We make sweeping assumptions about the hearts and motives of people who think differently than we do. We presume that those people are evil, so by extension, we must be good. The consequence of this way of thinking is division, not love, and every single one of us is guilty.

Let me offer a few thoughts:

  • When you feel compelled to share an article critical of those people, pause for a moment. Ask yourself, “Am I honoring their humanity?”
  • When you feel angry about what those people have said or done, ask yourself, “In what ways do I do similar things?” Consider not only your actions, but your words and thoughts, which have a greater effect than you might imagine.
  • When you want to respond to someone who thinks differently than you do, whether online or in person, practice the pause. Ask yourself, “Have I stopped to listen to what they are trying to say?” When we don’t try to listen and understand, we contribute to the hatred.
  • Resist the urge to call those people names.
  • Pray for peace, within the world and within yourself. If you have a hard time praying, consider reading the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi every day.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

Be a Voice for Wholeness & Human Flourishing

A few weeks ago, Andrea Wenburg interviewed me for her Voice of Influence podcast on the topic of wholeness and human flourishing. We talked about neuroscience, spirituality, and creativity. If you want a short overview of why I speak and write so much about the ideas of wholeness and integration, this would be a great place to start. Andrea is not only a great interviewer, she is a great thinker too. I would encourage you to check out her other materials as well.

Above all, do no harm…

I have been thinking about ethical principles for the past few days. Most professional organizations have a code of ethics that their members are expected to observe. Although the specifics may vary from organization to organization, there are often overarching principles that apply more universally. For example, ideas like beneficence (seek to do good to others), non-malfeasance (do not harm others), autonomy (do not infringe upon the freedom of others), and integrity (promoting honesty and truthfulness) are common. These principles work well on paper, but in real life, ethical decisions are sometimes less obvious.

The typical American citizen is not beholden to these same ethical standards; however, I suspect a large majority of us would agree that these are useful ideas to uphold. Doing good to others while avoiding harm to them, respecting their freedom, promoting justice, and living with integrity are all good things. But how do we make decisions when these principles appear to conflict, especially when our decisions feel infinitely complex? We are faced with questions such as: who defines what is good? How do I decide when insisting upon my freedom may bring harm to other people? How do we resolve the dilemma when something that is beneficial to one group of people may be harmful to another group of people? Most of us would also agree that these choices are not easy.

Thus enters primum non nocere, rendered, “first, do no harm.” This phrase is often attributed to the Greek physician Hippocrates, though it is not actually found in the physician oath bearing his name. Regardless, non-malfeasance is a good place to begin. If I am able to reasonably determine that my action or inaction may harm others, it then behooves me to choose an alternative if it is possible. Assuredly, beneficence is closely related to non-malfeasance. Seeking the good of others is virtuous. I would further suggest that for Christians, beneficence is central to our understanding of Christian love.

What has concerned me for some time is what appears to be a tendency to elevate autonomy above both beneficence and non-malfeasance. In other words, we often seem to be more committed to our personal freedom than we are to the well-being of others. We will loudly proclaim “What about my rights?” while seemingly overlooking or discounting the potential harm to others that might come from insisting upon our own way. Too often it seems, at least in 21st century America, our motto has become primum sui iuris (first, autonomy) rather than primum non nocere. I am doubtful that America’s founders saw autonomy as the highest good, although they clearly valued freedom. I am certain that Jesus did not value autonomy as the highest good.

How have we as Christians come to this place where our principal value, stated or unstated is not, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you,” but rather “Don’t tread on me”?

I suspect some people will read my words as rejecting autonomy. I’m not. What I am suggesting is that it appears, to me at least, that our values have gotten turned upside down. Jesus came and showed us how to live as citizens of God’s kingdom in this world, intentionally seeking the good of others and the glory of God. In fact, he went so far as to tell us, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13, NLT). This does not mean accepting the possibility of dying for your faith at some later date, but rather seeking the good of others even when it may cost you something. It means that when we are asked to do something that could benefit others, even though it means setting aside our rights, we will do so if it is reasonable.

If our primary citizenship is in the kingdom of the world, we will doubtless prioritize autonomy; however, if our first commitment is to the kingdom of God, we will seek to do good to others even when it means setting aside our own preferences or comfort.

A Prescription for Wholeness

Spread kindness like wildfire. Ask questions. Cross bridges. Pick up a piece of trash. Say hello. Say thank you, to God and others. Go for a walk. Make eye contact. Consider the lilies. Mend fences. Plant wildflowers. Sit in the grass and watch a bumblebee—it will teach you there is no need to rush. Pay for someone’s coffee. Bake two loaves of bread. Give one away. Pray for those who belittle you. Be kind to yourself. Shed tears when you are sad. Sing show tunes, preferably with someone else. Draw a tree; even a stick tree will do. Savor an orange. When you are angry, breathe deeply and exhale mercy. Listen to “the gift of a thistle” by James Horner. Visit somewhere new. Light a candle; in fact, light three, or a hundred. Play with a toddler. Drink a cup of tea. Read a poem by Mary Oliver, or perhaps Rumi. Write a letter to someone, with real paper and ink. Send it through the mail. Look for goodness. Celebrate beauty—it is everywhere. Listen with curiosity. Sing loudly in your car. Hold someone’s hand. Pet a dog. Bike to work. Buy original art, anyone local will do. Always stop at a lemonade stand and always overpay. Breathe. Do it again. Do you realize what a miracle it is that you are alive?