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.

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. 

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.

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. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 5—Addiction and Recovery

Phone Addicts, by Jeanne Menjoulet from Wikimedia Commons

Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
    Who has strife? Who has complaining?
Who has wounds without cause?
    Who has redness of eyes?
Those who linger late over wine,
    those who keep trying mixed wines.

(Proverbs 23:29-35)

On Monday I wrote about habits and our unique ability to program ourselves. This ability has a downside that we call “addiction.”

I need to point out that describing someone else as “an addict” is no longer considered appropriate. The label is totalizing, and implies a value judgment instead of seeing someone as a human being with a substance abuse problem, or a human being struggling with addiction. If we frame addiction as a dis-ease or a disability, if we recognize it as a public health problem, then the we start to recognize the word “addict” as pejorative, like calling someone a “cripple” or a “junkie.” But if someone chooses to refer to themselves as an addict or a recovering addict, it can be a term of solidarity or empowerment.

I think it’s important to talk about our choice of these terms because of the role that we assume “choice” plays in addiction. I pointed out last week that our behavior feels free or constrained based on our subjective experience of power. We can debate whether or not we have free will or our actions or predetermined, but that discussion is philosophical and abstract. Free will is a subjective experience: I only feel free if I can consider my options and weigh the consequences.

Addiction has several components, of course. First, our bodies’ adaptability and their ability to maintain homeostasis means that we can develop physical dependence on a substance. If I don’t drink my customary cup of coffee in the morning, I may get a headache or feel sluggish. It’s not the kind of withdrawal that will kill me, and I am relatively free to say the suffering is worth it if I want to wean myself off of my caffeine dependence. Someone with a severe physical dependence on alcohol or heroine, on the other hand, can die if they discontinue using. Detox for severe addiction often requires the use of supplemental drugs or medical care.

Second, there is a social component. People with a substance abuse issue may warp their relationships to get the substance they want or to hide their addiction. They may steal from family members. They may lie to hide their problem. Addicted friends may supply them with their product. This relational component has what we call “circular causality.” There may be friends or family members who adjust their behavior to the pattern as well, or it may be a relationship issue (abuse, manipulation, or codependence) that contributed to the addiction in the first place. Either way, relationships adjust to support the addiction instead of the person. In order to overcome the addiction, relationships may need to be renegotiated, severed, or mended.

Third, there is a neurobiological component, which is the part we think we have the most control over. Even here, our control is limited. Addiction is frequently not about will power at all. Using brain scans, we can see that people make decisions before they are conscious of their decision. We actually decide before we are aware of deciding. For example, when I began intermittent fasting, I decided that I wouldn’t eat from 8:00 PM until noon the following day. But I found myself in the kitchen one morning eating tortilla chips before I knew I was hungry without any memory of deciding to break my fast. There was no “decision” I was consciously aware of, so I never had an opportunity to exert my “will power.” I was on autopilot. These automatic, unconscious decisions are why I can drive to a destination with little memory of the actions I made to get there.

Finally, a component that doesn’t get enough acknowledgment is the systemic one. The World Health Organization defines problem drinking as more than two beers a day for a man, or one beer a day for a woman. Here’s the thing, though: If everyone in the world drank this much alcohol, the alcohol industry would go out of business. In other words, there are a few people drinking so much that they take up the slack for the rest of the world! Alcoholism is what keeps the alcohol industry afloat. There is a lot of money devoted to advertising alcohol and getting it into the hands of addicts. When an alcohol advertisement includes the admonition, “Drink Responsibly,” you ought to remember that they don’t mean it. The only reason they include this language is so that the public will be reluctant to regulate the industry. It is a way to remind us that whether or not someone drinks is their “individual choice.” In a similar way, big tobacco spent millions of dollars to lie to the American public about their own research on the addictive quality of cigarettes. Addiction is big business.

If we zoom out to this macroscopic level, we can see that we as a society are addicted to fossil fuels, to cell phones and social media. The social addictions are ways that we choose to be unfree. We program our social behavior and reinforce it systemically with subsidies and policies. I would argue further that we are addicted to violence and violent religion.

The process of healing addiction involves not only reprogramming ourselves, but also restructuring our environment. We have to create new internal and external processes that will bring our unconscious decisions into our awareness. Only when we can become mindful of our actions and consider them do we begin to feel free. Only when we become aware of the larger forces at play can we help to free others.

Freedom-Giver, free us from our addictions, both personal and social.
Help us embrace our power to choose.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 4—Habits of Mind

A lady writing at a desk, by Master of the Female Half-Lengths, from Wikimedia Commons

One of the unique features of human beings is our ability to program ourselves. The neural pathways we use most get reinforced. This means that we can decide to acquire a new behavior — like flossing our teeth, or doing yoga, or tidying up — and that behavior becomes a habit. At some point, we no longer have to “decide” to do something, because our previous selves made a good decision for us!

I was reminded of this last year when I began intermittent fasting. One morning I found myself in the kitchen, eating tortilla chips, without any memory of how I got there. It was automatic! I never “decided” to break my fast. It just happened. There was never a moment where my “will power” failed because I wasn’t even conscious of the decision. It opened my eyes to how difficult it is to change behavior, and that I would need other strategies to help me acquire this new fasting habit.

But we can reprogram ourselves the same way, so that good behaviors also become habits. I remember being a kid and how I hated to “waste” time brushing my teeth. I am grateful to that kid for creating that habit. I no longer feel that caring for my teeth or my body is wasted time.  

A good life is built out of such habits. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says that good habits are like compound interest: they don’t seem to make much difference after one day, but after a year the results are hard to ignore. We don’t need to make huge changes to our lives at the New Year. Tiny, incremental changes over time make huge differences in our lives.

This is why God told the Israelites about the commandments, “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 6:7). Linking a new behavior to an old behavior was a way of repeating and reinforcing. Making it part of a community practice was a way to create habits of mind that would make people truly free.

People can debate whether we have free will or whether our actions are predetermined, but this much is undeniable: when we “program” our brains with good habits, we feel more free. When we program ourselves with bad habits, we feel constrained. I believe that freedom is not just having unlimited options and choosing something at random. Freedom is the experience of our own power to create change.

Addiction destroys this sense of freedom. We find ourselves doing the thing we hate because something has hijacked our brains’ programming. This “something” can be a drug, a cell phone screen, or the excitement of gambling. It takes an enormous amount of mental energy to create new neural pathways and reinforce different behaviors instead, and it is especially difficult to do on our own with conscious “will power.” We need external supports, reminders, human contact, to give us new options and expand our freedom.

Acquiring a habit can be like hacking a new path through a forest. It is slow, difficult going. But years of daily walking along that path make it wider and more permanent. It is the same way with creating new neural pathways and new habits.

God who liberates and sanctifies, make us both free and disciplined.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 3—Trauma and Healing

Broken Branch, by Olivia Danielle Ruiz, from Wikimedia Commons

“Trauma” has entered public discourse in a big way this year. We are dealing with the collective trauma of terrible national leadership and a bungled response to the pandemic. This is not a partisan statement, but an observation of fact: a quarter of the world’s coronavirus deaths are in the United States, and the disruption has affected everyone’s mental health.

There is also a growing awareness of generational and racial trauma, the long-term effects of living with countless incidents of discrimination, microaggressions, and stories and images of police brutality and vigilante violence against black people.

And while America’s endless wars in the Middle East have created huge populations of people with PTSD, the most common form of PTSD is from sexual abuse and assault. Collectively, our society has remained quiet about this kind of PTSD because it mostly affects women. The silence protects those in power, but we have begun to see the wall of silence crack.

Our brains are excellent at keeping us alive, and so they learn especially well from terrible experiences. Neural pathways become very efficient at making us reactive and at telling us to avoid certain situations. Unfortunately, these responses can also reduce our quality of life and cause other health problems.

The solution is not as simple as changing one’s attitude. Proverbs speaks against common misguided efforts to deal with grief and trauma: “Like vinegar on a wound is one who sings songs to a heavy heart” (Proverbs 25:20). The Bible admonishes us to avoid facile words: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).

Recovery and healing from trauma may involve re-training our brains. It can be difficult work, but I believe it is divinely-appointed work. The word “salvation” means healing. It shares the root word “salve,” an ointment applied to help the body’s natural healing process. I believe we and the world we live in are equipped with natural healing abilities that only have to be unlocked.

And, of course, the best way to heal the world is to stop trauma from happening. We work to create systems of justice and peace so that the natural work of healing can take place.

God of healing and hope, apply your salve to our world, our psyche, our selves.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr.