Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 14—When I’m Sick of Gratitude

Signs of gratitude for firefighters fighting the Grizzly Creek Fire, by White River National Forest (U.S. Forest Service). From Wikimedia Commons.

I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple
    and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;

for you have exalted your name and your word
above everything.
On the day I called, you answered me,

you increased my strength of soul.
(Psalm 138)

During the month of November, we are bombarded with admonishments to “be thankful.” Sometimes I find the constant barrage of sanctimonious advice irritating. It can actually put me in a foul mood: I don’t want to be thankful, and I don’t particularly want to be reminded and told and preached at by greeting cards, shared memes, and news articles on the mental health benefits of gratitude addressed to everyone and no one in particular. This year, in the midst of a pandemic, reminders to be grateful grate on my nerves!

This irritation is actually a reminder of how gratitude works, because gratitude is a function of attention, and in our advertising-saturated world, our attention is commodified. Billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg make money by manipulating our attention, capturing our eyeballs and measuring our attention in milliseconds. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram know exactly how fast you scroll, and use algorithms to make you linger over advertisements. Advertisers may use the word “gratitude,” but they make their money on our restlessness, boredom, and dissatisfaction.

The irritation I feel at having a multibillion-dollar company tell me to slow down and smell the roses is more than mental anger at its hypocrisy. My frustration is biological. My Grinch-like attitude is the function of a distracted mind.

It doesn’t change the truth of the importance of gratitude, though. David Steindl-Rast says that gratitude is the foundation of spirituality. In order to be thankful, to feel gratitude, we have to refocus our attention. It is difficult to be grateful when we are in a state of distraction.

This is why simple disciplines like meditation and keeping a gratitude journal are so effective. They are the complete opposite of the endless scrolling of social media. They are tools that help us to refocus our attention on the simple pleasures of being alive: I woke up today. I can take a deep breath and smell the air. I can see beauty in a fallen and decaying leaf which leaves behind a fragile, skeletonized system of veins.

The author of the psalm above says that an answered prayer “increased my strength of soul.” We don’t know what the prayer or the answer was, but pausing to be grateful, to focus our attention on the goodness of the gifts we receive—bidden or unbidden—makes our souls stronger. Gratitude increases our resilience and helps us make it through tough times.

If we want to feel grateful, it helps to go somewhere quiet and away from screens. I invite you to do it now.

Prayer:
Giver of all gifts, Source of all grace, I am grateful.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 13—Religion and the Brain

image by Mikael Häggström, M.D.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
(Psalm 139:14)

I’ve been interested in the neuropsychology of religious experience since I first read William James in college. As a pastor, I’ve talked to plenty of people who wonder if their mystical experiences, transcendent visions, or sense of calling are “genuine” or simply “all in their heads.” “Did God really speak to me, or am I going crazy?” is a common question.

It doesn’t help that so many mental health problems are related to religion. People do have religious delusions. Sometimes their anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder attaches to a religious idea, and they fear that they might accidentally sin or incur God’s judgment. People who are depressed may feel that God hates them or is out to get them. LGBTQ people have been subjected to so-called “conversion therapy” that leaves lasting trauma.

But religion can also be associated with good mental health outcomes. People who have supportive religious communities are often more resilient in the face of trauma. Adolescents have lower probabilities of risky behavior. LGBTQIA folks who have supportive religious communities often report high levels of life satisfaction. And William James pointed out that having “saints” and mystics to emulate and aspire to benefits humanity as a whole.

There are certain ways that religious practice changes your brain. We know from studies of Buddhist monks and Carmelite nuns that contemplative prayer and meditation—what the researchers call a “self-stimulating brain reward system“—can alter the function and even the physical structure of the brain. Mindfulness meditation is often prescribed as an intervention for anxiety and depression.

The prefrontal cortex, responsible for attention, is one of the places most clearly affected by prayer and meditation. Some areas of the parietal lobe respond differently: they relax. These areas are responsible for the distinction between ourselves and the rest of the world, the barrier between “self” and “world.” When this area relaxes, it may help us feel connected to the rest of the universe or to God. Attention and connection are two areas of our brains we can train with practice.

Moreover, prayer and meditation seem to quiet the “default mode network,” the systems in our brain that are often responsible for the story-telling function of our brain. The DMN is what keeps us thinking about the future and the past and often keeps us ruminating or worrying.

When stimulated, the temporal lobe sometimes creates a sense of presence, as though someone is in the room with us. People who are about to have seizures sometimes report this feeling. It’s not clear to me that this is necessarily a particularly religious experience, but it certainly could be.

Certain neurotransmitters are also associated with mystical-type experiences. DMT (dimethyltryptamine) is a psychedelic compound that appears to be produced naturally in our brains. It may be responsible for some of our more trippy spiritual experiences, but it, too is associated with changes in our default mode network, feelings of connectedness, and heightened attention and fascination.

So when people ask me about whether their religious experience is “real” or “all in their heads,” I shrug. ALL spiritual experiences are also brain experiences—at least for human beings. We cannot imagine having an experience without our brains. When you see a beautiful painting or fall in love, your brain gets involved. You may even feel it in your body, as a warmth or pressure in your chest, or goose bumps on the back of your neck. It is a biological as well as a spiritual experience.

We still have so much to learn about spirituality and the brain.

Prayer:
Creator of the Cosmos and my brain, I give you thanks that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 12—Being Outside

Two Paths Diverged… by Ché Lydia Xyang. From Wikimedia Commons.

On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
(Revelation 22:2)

The pandemic has forced more people to stay at home, but it has also forced more of us outside. We are going outside to lessen the monotony of being indoors. Meeting others outside lessens the chances of passing on covid-19. The sun disinfects us.

Collectively, we are experiencing the benefits of being outside at a time when a flurry of research is pointing to how nature-deprived we are. It turns out we needed this healing for a long, long time. Covid-19 has forced us to confront it.

Below is just a sampling of the recent research into the physical and mental health benefits of being outside. We’ve learned that bacteria in the soil and aromatic aerosols from trees affect our brains and bodies. We’ve learned that forests communicate and act as one large organism. We’ve learned that interacting with that organism gets us out of our patterns of ruminating and into our sense in the here-and-now. We’ve learned that being outside and getting our hands dirty lowers our heart rate and stress levels. We’ve learned that walking in forests boost our immune systems, increases our ability to pay attention, and even fights cancer.

All of these mental and physical health benefits are important. Most of us could benefit by spending more time outside. But nature is not just something that we take, like a drug, so that we can increase productivity and be more effective indoors.

As we intentionally spend time outside, a more profound shift can happen in our state of being. We begin to understand that human beings and nature are not separate. Our culture tends to think of “human beings” and “nature” as two distinct realms, in part because of the way we objectify the earth and conceptualize our place in it. But the truth is we are part of both a tamed “human world” and a wild “more-than-human world.” This term, coined by author David Abram, helps us consider ourselves in relation to the rest of the planet.

I am currently in training to be a Nature and Forest Therapy Guide, in part because I believe it is my responsibility as a pastor to help the 21st century church turn away from a toxic theology that treats the earth as if it were disposable. I take very seriously these words about protecting life on this planet:

“I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

Gus Speth

Spiritual and cultural transformation is my job. It’s what I’ve been called to do. And too often, Christian pastors have scorned the creation God loves. This toxic theology has practical consequences, leading not only to terrible policy that harms the planet, but to a population of people who increasingly feel sad, alone, and hopeless.

If we want to develop a public health policy that takes mental health seriously, I believe we need to help people fall in love with this planet and with the more-than-human world. I think the authors of the Bible knew that the leaves of trees could heal the nations.

Prayer:
Creator and Lover of the World, we tell the story of how you so loved this creation that you would even enter it yourself. Help us to do the same thing, to enter creation fully and bodily, so that it can teach us how to be more human and more alive.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 11—Boundaries And Intimacy

The Group Bond of Ducks, by Santrina HUYNH, from Wikimedia Commons

Why should you be intoxicated, my son, by another woman
    and embrace the bosom of an adulteress?

(Proverbs 5:20)

The book of Proverbs also has a lot to say about infidelity. It’s important to observe that there is a lot of cultural misogyny in its pages; “the adulteress” is blamed for being a snare. But this also serves as a metaphor for folly—we do stupid, short-sighted things because we fail to see the big picture.

This boundary violation is not merely a moral problem; it is a systemic problem.

What Townsend and McCloud observe in their book Boundaries in Marriage is that infidelity is usually caused not by seduction, but by intimacy, and intimacy is a function of boundaries. One of the most common scenarios for infidelity is when one spouse gives up talking about a problem or a part fo their lives with the other spouse. They have allowed a new boundary to form between them. A wall has gone up.

At the same time, one of the partners starts talking about their marriage problem with a third party who is not a professional. Instead of seeking a counselor or pastor, they talk to a coworker. If they gripe about their spouse or share feelings they can’t share with their spouse, they’ve opened a window into their lives for this other person. They share something with this third party that they do not share with their spouse, which creates a sense of intimacy. Now this new pair already have a shared secret.

When we look at case studies of infidelity, we can sometimes trace it back to a systemic problem in a marriage that existed well before it became an emotional or sexual act. One or both spouses ignored the problem because it was tolerable—until it wasn’t.

What applies to marriage specifically applies to all relationships generally. We simply don’t have time for all the people in the world. We only have brain space for a handful of close relationships. Our limited time and social energy is why friendships ebb and flow. What we share with some that we do not share with others creates a sense of bonding, a level of trust that reinforces itself the more vulnerable with each other we become. Our friends are people about whom we often say, “I can tell them anything.” We may trust our friends with our secrets, with keys to our home when we’re away, with care of our pets and other loved ones. We ask them to babysit. We take them on vacation. In good relationships, trust becomes a virtuous cycle.

We all have a public face and a private, interior world. If I share with you how I really feel or who I really am, something I don’t feel I can share with everyone else, it creates intimacy and trust. This applies to many parts of our lives we keep private, from our physical nakedness to our internet passwords, stories of our childhood to social gossip.

Of course, we all have different risk tolerances for the boundaries we create. Some people have few secrets and trust many people. Some of us are more reserved. Being “too open” or “too reserved” are relative ideas. Our boundaries only become a mental health problem if our behavior makes us lonely or chronically wounded, or if it damages relationships we find important.

It works the other way, too: People with social anxiety may long to connect deeply with others, but find it difficult to develop the intimacy they want. People who have a poor sense of identity may have few boundaries because they look to others for their sense of self.

Prayer:
Beloved, the Quran says that you are closer to us than the jugular vein. Give us a sense of intimacy with you that allows us to negotiate healthy boundaries and life-giving relationships with other humans.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 10—Boundaries Against Harm

You shall not pass!

An enemy dissembles in speaking while harboring deceit within;
when an enemy speaks graciously, do not believe it, for there are seven abominations concealed within;
though hatred is covered with guile, the enemy’s wickedness will be exposed in the assembly.
Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on the one who starts it rolling.
(Proverbs 26:24-27)

The book of Proverbs has a lot to say about fools, liars, and enemies.

I think it’s important, in this contentious season, for Christians to acknowledge that Jesus told his followers to love their enemies, but he did not say that they would have no enemies. In fact, in the same chapter he tells his followers to love their enemies (Matthew 5:43-48), he says that they can expect persecution (verses 11-12). He tells his disciples to “beware the yeast of the Pharisees,” and says that religious leaders “tie up heavy burdens for others” that they do not bother to lift (16:6, 23:4). He himself would be betrayed by a friend, thrown under the bus by religious leaders, and turned over to Roman authorities who used crucifixion as a way to terrorize the populace and advertise their authoritarian version of “law and order.”

Enemies exist—but we don’t have to be enemies in return. This is also part of a healthy boundary. Setting a boundary is not an invasion of someone else’s privacy or an imposition on their right to live. It marks where my control stops. I cannot control other people, no matter how hard I try. I cannot make them love me, or act appropriately, or believe certain things. For me to have healthy boundaries, I also have to acknowledge theirs.

This is why the Proverbs’ writing about enemies isn’t just talking about other people: it’s addressed to me. “Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on the one who starts it rolling.” The act of doing harm or nurturing animosity can harm us. Whenever I read this, I think of Wile E. Coyote.

You can see it coming, can’t you?

The world does have its share of fools, liars, abusers, bullies, thieves, and Wile E. Coyotes. It is not “unloving” to acknowledge this reality, or to name folly, lies, abuse, bullying, and thieving. We may not be able to control the behavior of others, but we can establish boundaries which keep our physical and mental health safer. And we do not have to respond in kind. We can respect other peoples’ boundaries. The Road Runner doesn’t respond with violence, but with a kind of judo, using Coyote’s machinations against him.

Yes, I realize it’s just a cartoon. Real life doesn’t have the kind of instant karma of Looney Tunes. But there is still a wisdom in its teaching.

It’s also important to recognize that in real life, “enemy” is not a static category. One of the sayings of community organizers is, “We have no permanent allies, and no permanent enemies.” We acknowledge that relationships change. We have the power to set new boundaries, or redraw old ones, even with people who may disagree with us.

In our present moment, I find that masks are a good illustration of this concept. These days when I meet someone in person and one of us isn’t masked, I simply ask, “What’s your risk tolerance? Would you rather stay masked, or is physically distanced okay?” This way I’ve given them an either / or option. (This is also a good strategy to use with toddlers! Give them a choice of options, and they are more likely to comply). I also have no problem asking other people to mask up when distance isn’t an option, but I don’t automatically assume they are an enemy. I find that if I ask, “What’s your risk tolerance?” and give them a choice, I make them aware that I’m willing to negotiate with them, but that I have boundaries.

While there are a few liars about the current pandemic (like our current president), and many people who are taken in by such lies, I try to see this as an opportunity to make the ideas of boundaries and consent more explicit in our social life. I can behave with integrity and respect, even if other people find it difficult to do so. If someone won’t respect my boundary, I do not have to be in relation to them.

These boundaries—the ones we set for ourselves—can be the most important ones of all.

Prayer:
God of boundless grace and gracious boundaries, you have designed a world in which we are most connected to others when we have a strong sense of self. Help us to be people of integrity, respect, and clear boundaries.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 9—Healthy Boundaries

by TriviaKing, from Wikimedia Commons

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 
… Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.
(Matthew 7:1-2, 6)

These two verses snuggle side-by-side. Jesus commands us not to judge, and in the very next breath tells us not to waste energy on difficult people. His followers have no end of trouble with this boundary. I count myself in that group.

We discover our first boundary when we are infants or toddlers: I end here, at the boundary of my skin, and the rest of the world is “out there.” There is a separation between my “internal” world and the “external” one. There are parts of our brains that are responsible for this distinction between self and world, and we can see them light up on fMRI scans. When people who meditate deeply feel that they are one with the universe, these parts of the brain decrease in activity.

We develop relationship boundaries soon after we develop a sense of self. Young children start to distinguish between “family” and “stranger,” and may shy away from people they previously welcomed. As we grow into adolescence, we continue to develop and expand our group identity. We determine group boundaries, negotiating over and over again who “my people” are. During this process, some of us may have a hard time finding a balance between separation and enmeshment, learning to trust or mistrust parents, authority figures, friends, and love interests.

Henry Cloud and John Townsend use an architectural analogy for the importance of boundaries: relationships are made up of walls, doors, and windows.

I imagine my own house that has a wide porch, a small yard, and a sidewalk. Nearly anyone is welcome to hang out on my porch. The amount of trust and intimacy in our relationship determines where someone can go after that. Friends can come inside and have a drink. Close friends and family can hang out in the kitchen, or even walk into our messy rooms. Only a very few are welcome into bedrooms or private areas. People I trust may even be welcome to walk into the house unannounced. But if I do not trust someone or they have malicious intent, they may not even be welcome in my yard.

In our spiritual life during this contentious political time, I see a grand renegotiation of so many boundaries. There has been a massive loss of public trust. We have changed our opinions about acquaintances and even family. Many people are struggling with what kind of boundaries they need to apply.

Jesus’s call to refrain from judgment sometimes seems to push against the call to honor our own boundaries and protect our energy. I suspect that when Jesus was preaching these two lessons, he had in mind a certain religious tendency to offer unwanted help and correction. “I know you think you’re helping, but please shut up,” could be one way to paraphrase this lesson. “It’s good neither for you nor the other person.”

I do not think this takes away from our duty and calling to forgive others, promote love, and challenge injustice, but it reminds us that sometimes the most loving thing we can do is to choose not to interact with someone.

Prayer:
Love that lights up the universe, thank you for the shelter of healthy boundaries. Help us to be hospitable and secure, so we may live and love without fear.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 8—Accepting What Is

Depiction of the concept of soul (Ātman) in Jainism, by Vijay K. Jain, 2012. From Wikimedia Commons.

stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Matthew 6:34

One of my favorite learnings from the study of Buddhism is this notion that though suffering is inevitable, manufactured suffering is not. We manufacture suffering by living in the past or the future, letting regret or worry impinge upon our present experience now. Jesus asks, “Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life?” (Matthew 6:27).

In the midst of an election season and a pandemic, living in a world situation that makes it difficult to make long-term plans, I often find myself frustrated and anxious. I resent that I could not take a vacation this summer.

But if I live in my head in the past or the future, I miss the present moment. I am relatively safe. I have my family with me. The sun is shining. Can I add to my life by worrying? Of course not.

And there is a big difference between worrying and problem-solving. In fact, worrying spends psychological energy that I could be spending on fixing real problems. Worrying is a process of thinking about something and then trying to put it out of mind. We want to avoid it, but our brains keep putting it back in front of us, because our brains are trying to keep us alive.

Problem-solving means changing my behavior. It involves putting the problem squarely before my attention, determining what action-steps I can take to affect the problem, and committing to implement them. Once I have committed to action, whenever I feel inclined to worry, I can remind myself that I am doing what I can to address the problem.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is about being fully conscious in the present in order to create behavior change for the future. It has several philosophical similarities to Buddhism. We do not achieve change by resenting our present circumstances, ruminating on the past, or dreading the future. We create change by becoming aware and appreciative of our conscious experience in this moment, being fully present and fully alive.

Does it sound too simple? Like Buddhism, ACT invites people to simply try it out. If it doesn’t work, we can always go back to worry and regret later.

Prayer:
Author of time, you stand in the future and in the past, and all space and time for you can be rolled up like a scroll. Help us to encounter you here, in the present moment, which will empower us to transform our own time.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 7—Dealing With This Week

Antiquities Museum, Cairo, Egypt

Whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction so that we could have hope through endurance and through the encouragement of the scriptures.
Romans 15:4

There were only two of us who ventured through the claustrophobic, sloped entrance to Djoser’s pyramid. It was a 3-feet square tunnel, which meant that I spent most of the downward journey squatting or on my knees. The rest of our tour group stood outside, having already seen the larger, more famous version at Giza. This more ancient version wasn’t as impressive, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to step inside a tomb made 2,600 years before Christ. The builders of this pyramid predate our stories of Abraham by a thousand years. By the time the Hebrews were in Egypt, the Egyptians had likely already forgotten how the pyramids were made. Today, one-hundred eighty generations have elapsed since they sealed their dead king inside.

Me at the Djoser Pyramid at Saqqara, 2007

The tomb had been robbed multiple times, and even the white limestone slabs that once decorated the interior were gone. Once we were inside the black granite box in the heart of the pyramid, with some unimaginable amount of stone above us, we turned off our flashlights and just breathed in the ancient space. It was eerie and perspective-shifting.

In that space, the Biblical story suddenly seemed smaller. When Christians read the Bible, they often have a sense that its stories are as old as the world because Genesis claims to describe that prehistorical time. But human history is far older. Humans invented writing around 3500 BCE, a thousand years before the pyramid in which I stood (2600 BCE), and Abraham wouldn’t show up on the scene until nearly a thousand years later (1700 BCE).

These time scales boggle my mind. Only a thousand years ago, what we would recognize as the English language didn’t exist, and the Normans hadn’t yet invaded England (1066). A hundred years ago, our country had just finished its involvement in World War 1, and had entered the “Roaring Twenties.”

As a pastor and student of the Bible, I tend to place our present political and social crises in historical terms. It helps me deal with the stress of the current moment and the current election, because it seems smaller when I consider the sweep of human history. Tyrants die, old bigotries fade and new ones emerge. Political and religious movements come and go.

Our favorite stories are often about people who lived through great traumas and pivotal events in history or some imagined post-apocalyptic future. Sure, we tell stories about kings like David, but also about Ruth and Naomi and Boaz, regular people involved in the everyday drama and struggle to live. We tell the stories of Anne Frank and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, neither of whom survived the Nazi death machine, but who left a profound mark on our culture. Viktor Frankl, who did survive, changed the world with his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Part of the way we make meaning is to tell about reformers and revolutionaries like Harriet Tubman, or Martin Luther, or John Wesley, who all lived through times of great upheaval.

In the scripture above, Paul, writing two thousand years ago, says that these histories were written down to encourage us. He was right.

On the day after All Saints Day, I remember these ancestors who offer wisdom and life lessons on how to deal with political and social fear, stress, and hope. They persisted. We will, too. And we are better able than those with no historical consciousness to see that the moral arc of the universe is long, but that it bends toward justice. For those of us who have a historical consciousness, history is an unfolding, a continuation of the themes of human vice and virtue, greed and charity, ignorance and learning, forgetting and remembering.

We will be the ancestors of others. We are not passive observers of history, but its creators. We are creating a future for them, and shaping the stories they will tell.

Prayer:
Author of history, Creator of time, guide us to co-create a future with you that our great-great grandchildren and grandniblings will be able to enjoy.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Alien Peer-Pressure

The Pillars of Creation, NASA, from Wikimedia Commons

We’ve made some amazing space discoveries this year: water on the moon, potential life signs on Venus, many possible habitable worlds in other systems.

I dare to daydream sometimes. One daydream hope for humanity is that we not only discover intelligent alien life, but that the peer pressure of other sentient beings in the universe causes us to clean up our act. My hope is that rather than engaging them as colonizers or colonized we’d be freakin’ embarrassed, like when you find out that company could be coming over and your house is a mess. They need not even be super-enlightened beings to exert such peer pressure; just slightly more thoughful than we are.

The aliens would be like, “wait, you’ve got so many resources — why do you let so many people go without food, homes, or basic medical care?” And our leaders would be like… “well, uh…” And they would be like, “And why do you let industries pour their crap into your water? Why do you foul your atmosphere? Why do you shit where you eat?” And our leaders would stare at their shoes.

I have to admit it’s a faint hope for change, seeing how we treat other life in the more-than-human world we already inhabit, and how horribly we treat other human beings even when other people are looking (like separating asylum-seeking parents from children—who does that?). But man, I love the idea that we could be shamed by alien life into becoming the kind of species Gene Roddenberry thought we could be. I love the idea that large numbers of people could have their consciousness raised, that we could experience a global awakening and start asking ourselves why we hesitate to make life better for everybody *right now* when it is totally within our ability.

Maybe we’d look at ourselves the way we look at cholera-stricken people in past centuries who burned witches, pooped near their drinking water, and refused to wash their hands, and we’d be ashamed because it’s fine when you don’t know any better, but when you do it’s just stupidity, right? We could see that we’re still operating in this laughably narrow-minded anti-scientific way, sabotaging our own communities and our planet.

Look, even in my most hopeful daydreams, I imagine that we’d have our ignorant ruling class and their pundits preaching about preserving “our sacred way of life,” which is essentially manufacturing poverty and oppression for any being lower on the hierarchy, digging up oil and belching climate-changing gasses into the sky; but I do have this belief, perhaps naive after four years of this awful administration, that there are some self-interested human leaders who can be shamed or socially pressured into appropriate behavior. Some leaders still have a conscience, right? Somewhere, even scoundrels want to be *perceived* as virtuous?

And since they seem to have become immune to garden-variety human shaming, I’m hoping maybe *extraterrestrial* shaming would make them at least pretend to give a rip about other people. A science-fiction version of the End Times, you know: “Jesus is coming — look busy.”

Then again, I’ve lived in Alabama for most of my life, so I know it’s possible that the citizens of Earth might decide to be *proud* of living in the Alabama of the Galaxy, proud of living in our own filth and boasting about the way we create suffering for ourselves. “We dare defend our right to ruin our planet.”

I’m hoping that when we do discover alien life, we start to realize that the life we have here is just as awe-inspiring and precious, and there is so much waiting to be discovered right under our noses. I hope we learn to appreciate this planet the way we might an alien one. I hope we learn to see that our manufactured suffering is so completely unnecessary.

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 6—The Problem-Solving Organ

image by Mikael Häggström, M.D.

The righteous have many problems,
    but the Lord delivers them from every one.

Psalm 34:19

One of the most frequent pastoral questions I get is, “Why can’t I get over this?” “This” can be just about anything: a worry about the future, a spouse’s infidelity, a deep regret about the past, a remembered trauma, guilt over not feeling forgiveness. We are often taught by our religious tradition to “let go and let God,” but we can’t seem to figure out how to let something go. What muscle do you flex or relax? What would it actually feel like? What if I really, really want to let go of something, but my brain just won’t seem to release it?

People of faith sometimes turn to supernatural explanations. “Satan keeps reminding me” is one way I’ve heard it phrased. While I may disagree with the theology of this claim, I have to acknowledge it can be a helpful way to frame things. If I’m having intrusive thoughts that I find disturbing, it may give me some relief to attribute those to the devil. “You’re don’t deserve love,” for example, is something I can clearly label as a lie. If blaming the devil helps me cope by pushing those thoughts aside and focusing on other things, it’s not a bad strategy.

I’m not hip on this strategy, though, because often it leads to people getting more caught up in imaginary battles with demonic forces. Mental health problems can certainly feel like struggles with demonic forces, and people do go through their own personal hells—but I prefer a more practical, humanizing approach.

Your brain is a problem-solving organ. Its primary role is to keep you alive. Sometimes it stimulates you to act with fear, anger, stress, or love. But here’s where it excels: even if there is no current threat on the horizon, even if things are going pretty well for you, it’s always solving problems. It is playing out “what if” scenarios in your imagination. It is dredging up memories and puzzling over them to see what insights it can glean. It is practicing for the next time you encounter a problem.

So when a bear isn’t chasing you, or you don’t have a looming work or school deadline, and you are sitting in relative peace drinking tea, your brain, sensing that you are enjoying a moment of quiet, decides, “Aha! Now we have some time to look through our memories and learn lessons from the past.” So a particularly painful or embarrassing moment pops into your mind. You remember how a loved one hurt you, or how you made a fool of yourself, or a frightening moment.

If it can’t find something suitable from the past to examine, it may create a hypothetical situation in the future. It will introduce worry and dread. How will you afford your kids’ college? What happens when the climate changes? What happens if the wrong person gets elected? What if you can’t register for the prerequisite class you need?

You may wince at the memory or sigh at the worry, but this is your brain’s way of trying to keep you alive. It’s trying to learn lessons and avoid pain in the future. Now, it may be that there is nothing to be learned from the memory or the worry. It may be that what hurt you in the past or threatens you in the future is either not so bad or unavoidable. But that’s not going to stop your problem-solving brain from doing its best!

This is also why negative events and negative emotions generally get preferred treatment by our brains. We are wired to learn to avoid threats to our security, so we tend to key in to negativity and danger. There is certainly a lot of negativity and danger in the world right now, so it means a lot of us are in a constant state of low-level stress.

If you are a believer, it may help to remember God gave you this wonderful brain. And instead of berating yourself for failing to forgive, or for worrying and not having enough faith, or wondering why you can’t let something go, or for not feeling that “peace that passes understanding,” regard your own brain with compassion. It is trying to keep you alive. Its primary goal is not equanimity: it is survival.

“Silly old brain,” you can say, petting it gently. “Thank you for trying to solve these problems, but your problem-solving services are not required at this time. There is nothing to be learned from ruminating on the past or dreading the future. Let’s just be in this moment.”

This is how we learn to let go. Not by trying to figure out how to let something go, but by letting go of letting go, by recognizing that our failure to forgive, or our fear, or our regret is simply a human response to a messed-up world. It is not wrong to be angry, or afraid, or restless, or sad. It just is. Your brain is going to continue to do what it does best, which is to solve problems. Trying to put it on a leash will be counterproductive. Let it play, like a child with a new toy. Eventually it will get bored and move on to something else.

What you can do is accelerate the process. When you want to get an annoying toy away from a child, the best thing you can do is start playing with another toy. Usually they will notice you, put down the noise-making battery-powered truck, and join you in playing with Legos. At that point, you can quietly take the offending toy away and place it on the shelf.

See, you aren’t battling Satan. You are dealing with a lovable toddler who has an annoying toy. And the best way to refocus your child-like problem-solving brain is to entice it to some better problem to solve.

Prayer:
God, you are both the question and the answer, the problem and the solution. Draw me into your creative world.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr.