Spirituality and Mental Health: Critiquing Your Own Religiosity (Even if You Aren’t Religious)

Posthumous Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustine Monk by Lucas Cranach the Elder, from Wikimedia Commons

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
(Romans 12:3)

There is a tendency for religious people to get carried away with their religiosity. People have flogged themselves with whips or worn hair shirts to “mortify the flesh” (which is the way the ancient King James language renders Romans 8:13). Monks who fasted sometimes worried that if they swallowed their own saliva, God would hold it against them for breaking their fast.

Sex is one area where religious people get especially carried away. Religious people throughout history, tormented by the idea that sexual arousal or pleasure is sinful, have policed their thoughts for any hint of lust. If they let their eyes linger on a lingerie advertisement or nude painting, they feel they have violated Jesus’s words from the Sermon on the Mount: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29). They hear these words literally and spend their lives terrified of hellfire, though presumably it was God who created us as sexual beings and, perhaps through some oversight, established sex as the way human beings would reproduce.

People who sought out life in a monastery were often trying to escape their mental torment, but they found they could not escape themselves. The monk Martin Luther would go to confession multiple times a day. He couldn’t feel confident that he was truly sorry, or that his plea for forgiveness was genuine enough. He imagined God as a bright light that illuminated all of his sins. He had a spiritual conversion, though, when he realized that the light was not God: it was the devil. Martin came to understand that Jesus’ work had made his own sinfulness irrelevant—God loved him enough to forgive those sins. Why should he doubt God’s ability to forgive him, or that forgiveness require him to gin up some “real” guilty feelings? His personal conversion transformed not only his own theological thinking, but started the Protestant Reformation.

So it was that many monastics learned to be gentle with these zealous tendencies, because religiosity often masks deep wounds or insecurities. Wise monks wrote about the dangers of “heroic faith,” the tendency for us to try to impress God or win some kind of cosmic virtue contest. Roberta Bondi, telling stories of these ancient monastics, writes,

Beginners in the desert had to learn to be humble, that is, to abandon the heroic image of the self and learn to believe that all human beings, themselves included, were weak and vulnerable. They had to learn instead to take up appropriate tasks, and appropriate tasks for weak and vulnerable human beings are ones that can actually be performed… How much easier it is to daydream about the dramatic acts of love and self-sacrifice I or the church might make to prove our love of God or neighbor!

Bondi, To Love as God Loves, p. 47

An abbott of a monastery prescribed an unusual therapy for one of his monks who was worried about his own sinfulness: he told him to steal small things from his fellow monks. The abbott would then return the items at night. Today, we can see that this was a form of exposure therapy. The abbott was training the young monk to worry less about his sinfulness by prescribing theft.

The human tendency toward heroic moralism is not merely a religious one. I find the same sorts of guilt, doubt, and self-incrimination in activist and social justice circles. The language is often just as harsh and unforgiving. Sometimes it does rise to the level of mental health problem: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder expressed in religious terms is called scrupulosity, which Joseph Ciarrocchi explores in his book The Doubting Disease.

But even if our doubt and self-recrimination doesn’t rise to the level of a clinical disorder, it’s important to recognize that even God doesn’t want us to be too religious. Our job isn’t to become moral heroes. It’s more important for us to learn to be truly human in solidarity with all the other weak and vulnerable humans on this planet.

Prayer:
Author of Life, wherever our religion works against on your desired flourishing for all of creation, help us to humbly critique our own religiosity.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Protect Your Melon

A bike helmet, by Jef Poskanzer, from Wikimedia Commons

But Jael wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground—he was lying fast asleep from weariness—and he died. Then, as Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went into her tent; and there was Sisera lying dead, with the tent peg in his temple.
(Judges 4:21-22)

On TV, people are always getting knocked out. It isn’t uncommon for a main character to lose consciousness several episodes in a row, or even twice or more in one story. They lose consciousness by getting punched in the face, hit on back of the head, being too close to an explosion, or falling more than three times their body height. Most heroes in action shows are probably walking around with TBI—traumatic brain injury.

In real life, losing consciousness for any of these reasons would mean a visit to the emergency room. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show in which someone recovering from being knocked unconscious got adequate first aid. They just hop up, shake their heads, stagger a bit, and keep going. At the very least, they should be checked out to see if they are alert and oriented. The problem, of course, is that ER visits in the United States can take six hours (sometimes less in countries where there is universal health care), and by the time the patient gets discharged the nuclear codes would have already been stolen or the love interest would have been kidnapped.

This is probably why I’m not a screenwriter.

To protect your mental health, it is important to protect your physical health, and the most important physical piece of you to protect is your brain. Our fragile melons are balanced on top of our spindly necks, like bowls of jello resting on top of a spring. Violent shaking or rapid deceleration are not good for the contents.

This is why we wear helmets when doing construction, or riding a horse or bicycle, or going into combat. I once heard someone ask a cyclist why he wore a helmet, and he replied, “Because my head is where I keep all my favorite stuff.” Indeed, everything that is most important to us we keep in our heads: our hopes and dreams, our memories, our love, and the mental representation of the entire universe. My dad, who is a mental health counselor, has been saved more than once by a bike helmet. I take this stuff pretty seriously.

(There is some debate among cycling advocates about helmets, and whether or not helmet use creates a greater public perception that cycling is dangerous. Some research suggests that cars tend to give more space to cyclists who do not wear helmets, so wearing a helmet actually increases the risk you will be hit by a car. In an ideal America, we would have protected bike lanes and a robust cycling culture, like the Dutch, where cycling is a casual and accepted way to commute.)

There have been major advances in neuropsychology in recent years. We can even see the brain working with fMRI scans. This not only helps us understand TBI, dementia, and other forms of pathology, but also has a cultural impact: More parents are refusing to let their kids participate in football. One study in Arizona found that between 2015 and 2018, youth football participation had dropped by 25%. This mirrors that national decline more broadly. Some pediatricians point out that concussion is not a major problem among kids in contact sports, because they are lighter and have less momentum, but most recommend getting exercise some other way than football. I’m not a big football fan, but I do live in Alabama, and even I have some sadness that the sport will probably mirror the decline of boxing within a generation. Risking kids’ brains just isn’t worth it.

I think we can ask interesting philosophical questions about whether the brain is the same as the mind, and how we compose our sense of “self.” We discuss brain health and mental health most often when there is some kind of pathology, like dementia or chemical imbalances. But brain health should be important to everyone with a brain. One of the best ways to preserve our mental health is to protect our brains.

Prayer:
Thank you, God, for this amazing network of neurons. I don’t know where I’d be without it.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Starting Over (And Over)

The late leaves hanging on the plum tree, by cogdogblog, from Wikimedia Commons

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
(Isaiah 43:19)

One thing most spiritual traditions share is an openness to the possibility of starting over. We experience time as a succession of moments, and each one is new. This means we have the freedom to create and explore new possibilities in our lives. We can create new habits or extinguish old ones. We can change our lives. While nature, nurture, and the systems around us shape our behavior, we experience the freedom to create new behaviors and relationships.

This is one reason the New Year is a popular time to make resolutions. The first day of the year, or the school year, tends to be a hopeful time of change, and we can, in the language of yoga practice, “set an intention” to do something. When we set an intention, we are acknowledging the moment’s newness and possibility. It may be an action, or it may simply be a frame of mind. We are experiencing this. It is happening now.

Forgiveness is one such possibility. That’s an expression of interpersonal freedom. We can remake or transform our relationships. We can let old grudges go and start over.

In common discussion, we often speak about forgiveness and accountability, or forgiveness and ending a bad relationship, as if they were opposites. But they are not opposites. Both are expressions of the freedom we have to remake or transform how we relate to other people. I can let grudges go. I can also let abusive or toxic relationships go.

We can also extend this same grace to ourselves and our past behavior. Although we may make resolutions to change habits in the New Year, when we fail or don’t meet our goals, we get discouraged. But if I approach each moment as new, I am always free to start over.

My father likes to say, “If you start over often enough, you eventually begin to look consistent.” One way to change our behaviors and relationships is to see every moment as new, and the possibility of starting over as always before us.

Prayer:
Author of all things new, help me to see the newness of this day.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Spiritual Bypassing and Clergy Leadership

They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
    saying, “Peace, peace,”
    when there is no peace.
(Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

“Spiritual bypassing” is a way of avoiding or repressing uncomfortable emotions. It’s using spirituality or spiritual practice to side-step hard internal work. While the term was coined by a Buddhist psychologist, it has become more widely used to describe ways that (usually white) folks retreat into religious or spiritual clichés when confronted with social analyses or interpersonal interactions that make them uncomfortable. As in, “we just need to love more” or “judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.” These are fine words in context, but when used to sidestep hard issues, deny the lived experience of marginalized persons, or deny oppression, they become spiritual bypassing.

Lots of Trump-voting folks who are mortified by what happened yesterday are doing spiritual bypassing right now. It’s easier than reckoning with cognitive dissonance or simply being wrong.

Spiritual bypassing is the rhetorical ally to bothsiderism and generic complaints about the human condition. It provides an enabling smokescreen for privilege. It is behind most calls for “unity” without repentance or a change in power relations.

And spiritual bypassing it is regularly modeled by pastors and preachers who are reluctant to address issues of justice from the pulpit.

It is a hard and very fine line to walk when you are trying to hold a polarized community together (like the United Methodist Church), and I am glad that I have the freedom to be as plain-spoken as I want to be with my own congregation. But many leaders in our denomination could give a master class in spiritual bypassing.

It takes a personal toll. I suspect for clergy, it may even be form of “moral injury.” It leads to burn out. Like cheating on a test, the person who employs spiritual bypassing is denying themselves the opportunity to grow. But when you have to internalize it for a whole community, it hurts like hell. I’m afraid that a lot of our language about leadership for clergy normalizes this feeling. But we can resist and heal by naming it. It’s called spiritual bypassing.

Prayer:
Author of Peace, grant real us peace — peace with justice — personally and socially in our world.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Becoming Aware of Cues

Bellender Chocolate Labrador Retriever, 2016, by Wald-Burger8, from Wikimedia Commons

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.
(Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

People had been training dogs for nearly ten thousand years before Ivan Pavlov described a “conditioned response.” He observed that if you ring a bell before you feed a dog, eventually the dog will associate the bell-ringing with getting fed and begin to salivate before the food even arrives. This is called “classical conditioning,” and it is one building-block of behavior change. We animals easily link one stimulus (a bell) with another (food) and it can cause us to respond, consciously or not, to our environment. When I hear the mail slot on our house open and close, I associate it with getting mail, and I feel a sense of curiosity. I’ll probably go check to see what the mail carrier has brought us. We call the sound a “cue” or a “trigger.”

The other building block is “operant conditioning.” If a rat pushes a level and receives some food, it learns that its behavior is linked to a reward. It is likely that when it is hungry, it will push the lever more.

These simple principles—classical and operant conditioning—are responsible for most of our daily behavior. I wake up in the morning and feel groggy, but the scent of freshly-ground coffee hits my nose and I start to crave it. Here’s the crazy part: I don’t even have to drink the coffee to feel more awake! I’ve been conditioned, like Pavlov’s dogs, to have a certain response to the scent of coffee. And through cues, repetition, and rewards over many days (wake up tired -> drink coffee -> feel refreshed) I’ve used operant conditioning to create a habit in my morning routine.

I think of this process in both behavioral and theological terms. The author of Deuteronomy in the passage above knew that it was not enough to say, “Keep these words in your heart.” The author added, “recite them when you lie down and when you rise.” They knew repetition was key to making something important in your life, and building into a morning and evening routine was the most certain way to give it priority.

We human beings are animals, and we learn things through repetition, by forming and strengthening the neural pathways along which electrochemical information moves. Ideas and experiences don’t just float around in the ether—they are embodied in proteins and neurotransmitters, incarnate in sound, smell, saliva, and morning routines.

This is why we don’t form or break habits through sheer willpower. I usually can’t simply decide to change my routine behaviors. I have to set up cues and rewards to train myself in that direction. For example, if I want to run in the morning, I may set out my running gear the night before. If I want to remember to set out my gear, I may need to create a reminder on my phone.

Or maybe my phone is the habit I’m trying to break. If I want to be less distracted and check my phone less often during the day, I may need to reduce the cues in my environment that cause me to reach for it when I’m bored or curious. If standing in line has become a cue to check my phone, perhaps I can carry a book with me when I know I’m going to be standing in line at the grocery store or the DMV. Part of this process is simply learning to recognize the cues that cause our automatic behaviors.

Becoming aware of our triggers and rewards is key to changing our habits. For all our lofty thoughts and goals, we humans are still animals. Our complex behavior is built on fairly simple principles.

Prayer:
God, may you be my first and last thought of the day.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Making New Year Resolutions “Sticky”

Photo of German mountain biker Kai Saaler in Finale Ligure, Italy, from Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Finale_Ligure_2018.jpg)

The appetite of the lazy craves, and gets nothing,
while the appetite of the diligent is richly supplied.

(Proverbs 13:4)

We generally don’t notice our habits. They happen so automatically that they barely register. They can be helpful or annoying, but our language reflects how strong they are: we talk about “breaking” bad habits, as if they were wood or stone. Our ability to create automatic behaviors is actually a superpower.

That’s one reason I think the scripture above can be misleading. A judgmental person will read it this way: “The world is made up of two kinds of people: the “lazy” and the “diligent.” If you work hard and have willpower, you can achieve your desires. But if you are lazy, you will be in want all the time.”

But this is a naive view of human behavior. Here’s the critical question: How does the author know? How does the author know the experience of a lazy person, and the strange feeling of wanting something, but not feeling strong enough do something about it? Paul was more introspective: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19).

“Lazy” and “diligent” are character judgments. The words don’t actually describe what motivates people or how they change their automatic behaviors. Moreover, everyone has the experience of wanting something, but being frustrated at changing their own behavior to achieve it. “Lazy” is a word we apply when we are frustrated at someone’s behavior, whether that person is someone else or ourselves. We don’t generally change our behavior by simply gritting our teeth and applying willpower. I can shout “Be diligent!” at myself all day long and only succeed in shaming and demotivating myself. Unfortunately, this is often people’s experience with New Year Resolutions: they set goals for the things they want, but don’t consider the steps needed to achieve them. When they experience a setback, they become judgmental of themselves: “I just don’t have enough willpower.”

Most of us also have the experience of mastering some kind of automatic behavior, but these are easy to overlook once we’ve achieved them. After nearly fifty decades on the planet, I don’t have to exert “willpower” to brush my teeth—I just do it. I’ve mastered the complex set of behaviors involved in driving a car so well that I can daydream, or listen to an audiobook, or carry on a conversation with a passenger at the same time, all while paying attention to traffic patterns and following the relevant laws (usually). And though it took me a while to normalize only eating during an eight-hour window, I no longer have to think much about fasting. Habits fade into the background and we no longer notice them. If we took the time to make a list of our good habits, most of us would probably find we are very diligent about some things.

“Diligence,” then, is about becoming adept at creating good habits, programming ourselves for automatic behaviors that help us rather than hinder us. The processes for making New Year Resolutions that stick is the same for any goals we set for ourselves. I’ll look at these processes more in the next few devotionals.

Prayer:
We are fearfully and wonderfully made! Thank you, Creator of Life, for endowing me with the ability to program my own brain.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Faith and Narrative

Painting by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato

Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn
(Luke 2:4-7)

This is a hard Christmas for a number of reasons. We are simultaneously going through an economic recession, a pandemic, climate crisis, and an unstable political season. It is not unusual for us to experience a “Blue Christmas” during normal times, but this one is particularly fraught.

This is one reason why the Christmas narrative provides comfort. It tells the story of a turbulent, messy time: Mary delivers Jesus in a guest room away from home. The family has to flee as refugees and live for a time in exile. Re-telling the whole Christmas story from both Matthew and Luke (and not just the happy bits) reframes our own experience of an unpredictable world.

It’s also worth noting in the story that whenever supernatural beings show up to announce God’s activity, they start by saying, “Don’t be afraid” (Luke 1:13, 1:30, 2:10; Matthew 1:20). The message once again reframes the context: you are not alone. Though the world may be scary, there are divine beings in our corner.

“Reframing” is also a technique used in therapy, helping folks see a situation from a different perspective. I listened to one therapist do it this way: A woman said she had a tendency to date problem men, that she would initially be attracted to them but eventually find that they were emotionally immature or lazy. She wondered what was wrong with her. The therapist said, “It doesn’t sound like you have a problem picking men. It sounds like you are brave, that you know what you want, and that you would rather end a relationship than settle for misery. It sounds to me that you are actually very good at picking a partner. Have you ever thought of yourself as brave?”

Faith narratives help us reframe life problems in a similar way. We see in our own lives the same crises faced by epic heroes. The personal is often political, spiritual, and cosmic: our lives are echoes of the divine drama.

I said above that this reframing provides comfort, but it does more than that: it is a well of spiritual power and healing. This present crisis is revelatory, both personally and politically. It reveals relationships that are important and social problems that need to be fixed. It exposes hidden intentions and systemic failures. When we see our own stories as reflections of the divine story, we connect with a cause that is larger than ourselves. Reframing it this way helps us recognize our own power that we can exercise together. We may not feel brave, but we are making brave choices all the time.

Prayer:
Though we are afraid, Lord, give us courage in the midst of our fear. Reframe our stories in light of the cosmic narrative you are telling.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Staging Family Holidays

By Dietmar Rabich, from Wikimedia Commons

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—this is the first commandment with a promise: “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord..
(Ephesians 6:1-4)

For most of us, when we think about how our family will spend holidays, we think about traditions, memories, and the kinds of experiences we want to share with loved ones. I remember gathering at my grandparents’ house for Christmas Eve. The kids would complain that dinner was taking way too long (because we were eager to get to the presents). We would be shuffled into the back bedroom for “Santa’s visit.” We would hear the sleigh bells ring, and then the adults would bring us back into the family room to see what Santa had delivered.

I say this as though it’s something that happened every year, but the reality is that it may have happened a handful of times. In my mind, it became iconic: this was what Christmas “should” be like. It was magical and exciting, and it’s the same kind of experience I wanted to share with loved ones.

I’ve just shared what this experience looked and felt like from the inside, as a participant. But if I view the same experience from the outside, as a sociologist or an alien from another planet, I look at it as a set of practices, rituals, and values. In research on families and holidays, sociologists talk about how family practices are “staged,” or how family is “done.” There is no “right way” to do Christmas or do family, but for participants who value the holiday, there are certain things we want to get out of it. We stage Christmas—we perform it. (And there are certainly practices and rituals we miss in this time of pandemic.)

The process of staging can lead to stress and fatigue. Every year preachers lament the commercialization of Christmas from the pulpit, and we tsk-tsk about missing “the true meaning of Christmas.” There are tropes in movies and TV about spending time with family we can barely stand. We are frustrated when the holiday doesn’t meet our expectations, and delighted when it delivers moments of meaning or spiritual insight.

Family conflict can intensify around holidays. When we are with family more, there are more opportunities for conflict, just as there are more opportunities for bonding. I think it can be helpful to think about how we “stage” family, and how we “perform” celebration of the holidays, and to acknowledge that logistical problems are simply part of this mix. Especially in a time of pandemic.

It can be useful to switch perspectives, viewing the holiday from both “inside” and “outside,” valuing the memories and experiences the holidays bring, but also seeing it as a set of practices and rituals that may or may not meet our expectations. I think if we are honest and explicit about our own expectations and disappointments, our own values and what we want to share with family, we can be more open to receiving whatever good experiences fall into our laps.

In the above scripture, I’m struck that the writer notes that “honoring father and mother” is the first of the ten commandments to come with a promise: “so that you will live long in the land.” The author points out that there is something about family bonding that creates stability and a good quality of life, and they quickly add that parents likewise have an obligation to children.

However you are staging Christmas this holiday season, I hope that you will be gentle with yourself and others. This COVID Christmas will not likely meet our expectations of Christmases past. But if we are able to release some of those expectations and acknowledge our disappointment, it may surprise us with gifts anyway.

Prayer:
Lord, hallow our days and let them truly be holy-days. Help us to find beauty and meaning in unexpected places, and give us memories of our beloveds that we will treasure.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 15—Seasonal Affective Disorder

A sun pillar forms as the sun rises over the Arctic plain, by Harley D. Nygren, from Wikimedia Commons


Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

(Exodus 20:21)

You may remember “rods and cones” from high school biology. These are the photoreceptors in your retina that absorb light and transmit signals to your brain. You can think of them like the pixels in your eye camera. Rods absorb low light and let us detect brightness. They are most effective for our night vision, and when you walk by the light of the moon, you see everything in shades of silver and gray. Cones detect color and more subtle differences; when the sun rises, the world is crisper and colors pop.

In addition to rods and cones, your retina contains the melanopsin system. Melanopsin is a photopgiment that was first discovered in light-sensitive frog skin, before we discovered receptors in our eyes that use the same chemical. It is crucial to the function of clusters of nerves called “intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells” (ipRGCs).

These nerve clusters transmit directly to parts of your brain responsible for your circadian rhythms, interrupting the production of melatonin (which makes you sleepy). One of the odd side effects of this system is that some people who are image-blind can still regulate their sleep cycles to the sun! In other words, they can’t “see” images, but their brain knows when the sun is shining.

There has been a lot written about the way light—natural and artificial—affects our sleep cycles and moods. We are spending more time inside, not only because of the change in the weather but because of the pandemic. Human biology evolved to be outside, and many of our modern psychological problems are made worse by exposure to screens. As our physical activity level goes down (and it’s usually lower in the winter), we get fewer opportunities to produce natural mood boosters. We are not sleeping as well. We are stressed. We are in brain fog. And the darkness exacerbates all of it.

A lot of this seasonal moodiness is natural. Our bodies are responding to a change in the seasons, telling us to conserve energy because wild forage will not be as abundant. We feel more drawn to carbohydrate-heavy foods. We want to snuggle with loved ones, not just for warmth but for comfort. All of this is natural and helped our ancestors stay alive. But it becomes a “disorder” when it makes it hard for us to function.

I think it’s important not to pathologize these natural experiences of being human, but at the same time to recognize some of us are especially sensitive to this seasonal change. There are some things we can do to help, and you may be familiar with them: getting outside, especially in the morning, to let the morning sun regulate our melatonin production. Staying off screens a few hours before bed. Using special bright lights to give us an artificial “sunshine boost” —again, especially in the morning. We purchased a “happy light” last year and I think using it makes a difference.

But I think it’s also helpful to reframe the darkness, to see it as a friend. There has been a trend in theological circles lately to rescue “the dark” from its religiously negative connotations. In the passage above, and in several Psalms, the authors describe God as dwelling in “thick darkness,” a darkness so deep you can feel it. These mystics describe the darkness as the place of germination, where buried seeds send out their first tender filaments to probe the rich, dark soil. It is the darkness of the womb, where we first hear our mother’s heartbeat. It is a place that forces us to rely on other senses besides sight. Darkness can be healing. Darkness can be welcome. It is in the “valley of the shadow of darkness” where the author of Psalm 23 says God guides us with rod and staff, giving us comfort.

If you feel thick darkness around you this season, in this winter of COVID, remember that it’s in the darkness that God does some of God’s best work.

Also, put on a coat and get outside.

Prayer:
Dweller in Darkness and Source of All Light, walk with us in both night and day.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

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.