living again, for the first time

I realized that I must live over again the years which I had lived wrongly…I went over my life…like a man who after travelling a long, featureless road suddenly realizes that, at this point or that, he had noticed almost nothing without knowing it, with the corner of his eye, some extraordinary object, some rare treasure, yet in his sleepwalking had gone on, consciously aware only of the blank road flowing back beneath his feet. These objects…were still patiently waiting at the point where I had first ignored them, and my full gaze could take in things which an absent glance had once passed over unseeingly, so that life I had wasted was returned to me…I did not feel so much that I was rediscovering the world of life as that I was discovering it for the first time.

Edwin Muir, An Autobiography

Palmer on false communities

Beyond all these sociological distinctions between true community and false, there is a theological way of expressing the differences which brings us to the heart of the matter. False communities are idolatrous. They take some finite attribute like race, creed, political ideology, or even manners, and elevate it to ultimacy. They seek security by trying to make timeless that which is temporal; by pretending that which is shaky is firm; by worshiping that which should be viewed critically. They confuse their own power with the power of life and death. False communities are ultimately demonic, which is not to say that true communities are divine, for both retain their human character.

Parker J. Palmer
A Place Called Community

the whole slippery slope fallacy / analogy
makes the added assumption that you

started out at the top / in the superior position
but if that were really the case / if I started

at the summit and slid to the bottom
wouldn’t it have been easier than it was?

it felt more like an arduous exhausting
climb which leads me to believe I might

have started at the bottom / where you can
only see what’s in front of your face

where you can only see what’s obvious
where you can only take things literally

where you can’t see with the eye of a bird
with no concept of where you are in the world

you think you ARE the world

what happens when you realize you didn’t start out
on top of the mountain and slide down into a pit

you started at the base, felt the itch to climb
and see the world for what it really is

and oh my god what a view.

Marla Taviano, Unbelievable

a gray numbness

I’ve been living under gray skies, though I cannot remember for how long. Weeks? Months? Longer? My sense of time is distorted as days and weeks bleed together, a bland landscape laid out before me. My life lacks rhythm and every day feels the same. My alarm is set for 4:45, but I am often awake long before that. I lay in the dark, wondering if sleep will find me again, but knowing that it probably won’t. I spend time at my desk reading, journaling, and sometimes praying–if I can find the words. I shower only because I must. I still go to work every day and I am still good at my job. It’s been about four years since I missed work, but then it was because of unrelenting anxiety. I come home, praying that we do not have anything scheduled because I have to psych myself up even for those things I “enjoy.” I would rather watch re-runs of Derry Girls.

I have had a number of acquaintances reach out lately, wanting to connect. Although I am grateful for them, I am often exhausted by the thought. Responding, even by text, takes considerable effort and I put it off as long as I can, but I am too much of a people pleaser to ignore messages indefinitely. I have a small group of friends with whom I intentionally spend time and who have been good for my soul; any more feels overwhelming.

I am rarely sad. People who have never lived through a depressive episode often assume that depression is a really deep sadness; however, although sadness may be a cardinal feature of depression, it is not a required symptom. For many people like me, anhedonia–a loss of the ability to enjoy what was previously enjoyed–is the principal symptom. Although I still enjoy certain things, my general emotional tone is bland. I have often said that one of the first cues for my depression is a loss of interest in reading.

Depression can also include a variety of other symptoms–guilt, shame, worthlessness, self-criticism, concentration difficulties, thoughts of self-harm, changes in sleep (mine is decreased) and appetite (mine is increased), and a loss of sex drive, to name a few. You see, depression is not a unidimensional construct. Although there are commonalities, how I experience depression differs from how my friends experience it.

I am in the process of switching medications. Last week, Heather asked me, “Do you think it’s time to adjust your meds?” Unhesitatingly, I said, “Yes.” My sertraline isn’t cutting it anymore. I have also been re-listening to the audiobook, An Undivided Life, by Parker Palmer for the umpteenth time. Palmer is one of my favorite authors and his ability to talk about depression from the inside is a welcome friend. On Sunday, after my friends Mike and Josh provided space to talk about my depression, I sent them a quote from Palmer who said “There is no fix here; there is maintaining presence and bearing witness.” My small group of friends hold this space for me.

Most of us don’t know how to deal with depressed people. Their misery makes us uncomfortable, so we are quick to offer suggestions. “Have you tried_______?” Many words have filled in this blank: exercise, prayer, meditation, going to church, going outside, drinking enough water, reading the Bible, eating better, sleeping more, sleeping less. Undoubtedly, these are good things to do, but too often, because suffering makes us uncomfortable, we bypass another’s pain to offer helpful solutions. (It has often been said that Job’s friends did their best work in the first week when they simply sat with Job rather than trying to find solutions). In fact, this tendency is so common in certain religious circles that there is a term for it–spiritual bypassing.

Why did I write this? Because for me, writing is one of the most therapeutic things I can do. To share my experience and have another say “me too” has been helpful to me. As a neuropsychologist, I know that I am not alone in my experience, but sometimes, I also need to bring my own darkness into the light.

on first choices

I haven’t always gotten what I’ve wanted. Indeed, some of the best things in my life have happened because I didn’t get my first choice.

After graduating from Northwestern College with a degree in psychology, I wanted to get a PhD in psychology. I applied to several doctoral programs and one master’s program as a fall back. I didn’t get in to the doctoral programs, so I went to Mankato State University 27 years ago, which is where I met my wife.

After finishing my master’s degree at MSU, I again applied to a number of counseling psychology doctoral programs, but I really wanted to go to the University of Notre Dame or Virginia Commonwealth University. My undergraduate mentor had gone to Notre Dame and I had seen the movie Rudy, so it was one of my two top choices. VCU was my other top choice because Ev Worthington, a renowned forgiveness researcher, was a professor there and I wanted to continue my work studying forgiveness. I was admitted to neither. However, I did get into the University of Iowa, which is one of the top counseling psychology programs in the United States. It wasn’t my first choice, but my training was top notch. More importantly, I was exposed to, and then immersed in, neuropsychology, which became my chosen field. At the other two places, I would not have had that opportunity, but at the University of Iowa, the neuropsychology tradition was among the best.

When I applied for internship, my first choice was the University of Florida. I even bought a Gators hat because I was sure that I would get in, but UF chose other people. Instead I went to the Ann Arbor VAMC/University of Michigan, and again the training was top notch. I was able to work with a number of great mentors, but I was especially grateful for Kenneth Adams, who was not only a top notch neuropsychologist, he was an exceptional clinical psychologist and was board certified in both. He taught me the importance of a broader psychological understanding in my work as a neuropsychologist.

Finally, my first choice for residency was a functional imaging fellowship at the University of Michigan. It would have allowed me to pursue a research career in functional imaging, and to stay in the Ann Arbor area, which I loved. But I didn’t get it. Instead, I was accepted into the neuropsychology residency at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and I cannot imagine having had better training. The strength of the faculty, the breadth of opportunity, and the friendships developed were second to none.

Looking back, I am grateful for each and every “second choice.” I cannot imagine what my life would be like if I had always gotten my first choice. My life is proof that the Stones were onto something when they sang, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”

truth as a “thing” versus a process

First, regarding the left hemisphere:

From everything we know about the hemispheres, we would expect that, in the left hemisphere’s world, truth would be conceived as a thing, rather than a process. Truth, this thing, would be conceived of as existing in the realm of subjectivity (in the mind) as a suitable representation of something conceived of as existing in a realm of objectivity (outside the mind). From this point of view the way to approach truth would be to start with a secure set of facts, and then work upwards by rules of logic, to a series of other facts, putting one secured item on top of another, to build the pyramid of (represented) truth.

The Matter with Things, 382

Regarding the right:

So how would the right hemisphere conceive truth? Rather than conceiving it as a thing, it would experience it as a process, one that, in this case–not just for now, but in principle–has no ending. More importantly, it would see that truth is a relationship. Instead of seeing a subjective realm and an objective realm which should as near as possible mirror one another, it would see a constant reverberation between two (never completely distinct) elements within our consciousness–thoughts and experiences–whereby they ‘answered‘, or co-responded to, one another; this even better accord, or attunement, would be the evolving truth. It would be intrinsically incomplete, but constantly in the process of completing itself; and uncertain, though constantly approaching nearer to certainty; incapable of being grasped except through embodied being, through a consciousness that is in the fleshed and engaged in the world. We would find out what was true only by testing it on the pulse of experience–whether it corresponded with the totality of our experience, not just with one (cognitive) part of it. Because of this it would be unique and necessarily many-stranded.

The Matter with Things, 384

What might be the implications of McGilchrist’s thinking about modern theology, and especially regarding notions of the Trinity?

hemispheric processing and western thought

I am about 50 pages into McGilchrist’s latest book, The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. He is expanding upon the hemispheric thinking he so eloquently described in his book The Master and His Emissary.* Much of our modern thought is dominated by left mode** processing, which is thought to be logical, linear, and reasonable, but it is poor at appreciating the big picture.

McGilchrist writes, “The left hemisphere is aware of much less of what surrounds it–‘sees less,’ in all senses, than the right. It is less tolerant of ambiguity and tends towards exclusive ‘either/or’ thinking; the right hemisphere is more inclusive, inclined to ‘both/and’ thinking” (p. 44).

The implications for this thinking seem relatively obvious in much of western thought and, by extension, western (primarily evangelical) theology. As good as the left hemisphere is at analyzing details, it is exquisitely unaware of what it does NOT know, which is problematic. The same is true of much of intellectual and theological certainty.

*Most of the pop-psychological literature and thinking about hemispheric (left brain/right brain) differences is, frankly, BS. However, McGilchrist is no pop psychologist and has spent a lifetime exploring the science behind hemispheric asymmetry and the implications.

**I prefer the term “left-mode” to “left-hemisphere” because it seems to me that it is the processes, rather than the anatomy, that matter.

wretched theology

Earlier, today, I posted the following thought experiment on my Facebook page.

Do you believe it is a good parenting technique to tell your children they are wretched and that it is a damned lucky thing that we are such loving parents that we accept them anyway? Or that everything they do is bad, and the only good thing about them is that we love and accept them?

Some of the first comments suggested that people may be questioning my sanity, or at least my psychological stability. Regardless, let me be crystal clear–I do not believe these ideas represents good parenting, nor do I say them to my children. I proposed the scenarios as a reflection on how a theology grounded in depravity understands God’s parenthood, what some have referred to as “worm theology.” Briefly, according to this theological understanding, what is truest about us after the fall (see Genesis 3) is our sinfulness. According to the doctrine of total depravity, everything we do, think, feel, or say is tainted by sin (though to be clear, it does not say that we are as bad as we can possibly be). Unfortunately, this theological understanding often skips past the deeper truths of Genesis 1 that say that all people were created in God’s image and that God called his creation very good.

The dialog on my thought experiment was rich (Really, you should go check it out here) and overwhelmingly, people thought that the scenarios I described were unhealthy and even abusive. Even when people acknowledged helping children to understand that they are sinners, or that their behaviors or character need correction, no one agreed with the questions as I presented them. And yet…and yet, many of have no trouble with assigning this language to God, whom we allegedly believe is infinitely loving. As Christians speak or sing about God’s love, it is common to refer to themselves as “wretched sinners.” When we use that language for ourselves, at what point does it begin to negatively affect our understanding of who we are as God’s beloved children? How does it affect how we begin to treat others?

How might things be different if we started from an earlier place? What if we believed that the truest, most essential thing about us is that we are God’s beloved children, regardless of anything else? What if, in light of a more compassionate self-understanding, we were comfortable acknowledging the brokenness in our lives, but realize that it is not our sin that defines us? What if God is absolutely, relentlessly wild about us? What if God’s anger is about those things that damage and disintegrate God’s image bearers and not about people themselves?

every cell

In me, everyone has an identity. You are who you are because I AM who I AM. Because I am gracious, have faith that I will strengthen you by my Spirit who dwells in you. Even your trust is one of the many gifts of my grace. In my Son, you have everything you need. In his love, I have placed you exactly where I want you to be. I have given you my Spirit so that you can begin to see how high, how wide, how deep, and how vast my love is for you. My grace has broken your heart wide open to know the love of my Son, which is infinitely greater than anything you could imagine. By my Son’s blood and my Spirit’s power, I have infused every cell in your body with my fullness.

Ephesians 3:15-19
Letters to the Beloved

love fuels God’s kingdom

So now what? You are utterly free. Because of my grace, there are no demands on you. You may do whatever you wish because the law has no bearing on your salvation. If what I say is true, does that mean you should continue in self-centeredness and pleasure-seeking? Beloved, if you choose to live that way, I will love you no less, but my Spirit will continue the work of changing your affections. As you internalize my message of grace, your motivations will begin to change. You are already moving from self-centered hedonism to other-centered service. Servanthood is the fruit of my love growing in you. Do you want to know how to follow every rule and regulation written in my word? Simple. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.. Love is the fuel that runs my whole kingdom. When you are stuck in self-centered living, do not be surprised when you are the one who loses it all.

Galatians 5:13-15
Letters to the Beloved