Still taking a bit of a break, generally, for blogging. Trying to finish up my book, “Dynamics in Pastoral Counseling.” I have finished my part, so my wife is going through it now. Still with all of the theses and dissertations and books I have to go through, I struggle to be motivated to do MORE typing. But here is a link to a post I just put on my other blogsite “Adventures in Pastoral Theology.” It is a part of the above book… still very much in the rough.
We do a number of tests at our counseling center. We have partners in our work who are psychometricians, but we generally have little to do with tests that are built around DSM-V. We tend to focus on tests that are more valuable in pastoral counseling, and ones that lead more towards conversation than formal diagnosis. Nevertheless, tests are often seen as valuable for self-awareness and making changes for the future. But what changes?
We like to do some simple tests in terms of relationships, conflict management, personality types, and leadership style. Most of these don’t measure linearly a certain pathological quality. Most of these look at categories that have both good and bad aspects to them. So if one looks at personality type tests such as Enneagram or Myers-Briggs, the presumption is that each type has strengths as well as weaknesses, and that the world is ultimately a better place because of the diversity of types found in society.
So what do you do with this information? Here are three possibilities.
Work to Your Strengths. When a person takes a vocational aptitude test, or perhaps one in “spiritual giftings” or spiritual temperaments, one is often instructed that the strengths should guide one in what to focus on in terms of job, ministry, and self-growth. It kind of makes sense. If one is good in math and science, then one’s career should probably be one that utilizes and hones this aptitude.
Work on Your Weaknesses. This takes a more holistic view, and can apply to certain types of tests. With NCD (natural church development) the theory is that the weakest area of a church is the limiter to growth. Focusing on strengths will do little. For humans, we may be healthy physically, psychoemotionally, and spiritually, but weak in terms of socialization (for example). To be a healthy human being, we should be healthy in all of these aspects, and so working on socialization is important.
I would like to add a third perspective.
YOUR GREATEST STRENGTH… IS YOUR GREATEST TEMPTATION
One could argue that this is a bit of a mix of the previous two. It addresses the fact that strengths are important and need to be directly acknowledged and worked on. It addresses the fact that weaknesses are also important in that over-reliance on strengths may ultimately prove harmful.
By what do I mean by the statement “Your greatest strength is your greatest temptation?” I will start with a personal example. I am an analytic type. Being the administrator of a counseling center, I would like to say, “I minister to papers so that others can minister to people.” This was a similar view that I had when we were organizing medical missions events. While the three Rs (Reading, ‘Riting,’ and Research) may be my strength (Paperwork over People), I allowed that side to dominate my activity. I avoided dealing with people and doing counseling, and focused on activities that involve being in front of a computer (like now).
But I had to grow. Growing wasn’t to focus on my strengths, allowing areas of weakness to languish more and more. At the same time, neither was it ignoring my strengths to focus on my weaknesses. I looked at my strengths as important, but also a temptation to be unbalanced. To embrace balance I value my strengths but be careful not to focus too much on these strengths alone, but invest time and energy in my weaknesses as well.
This perspective has importance of other areas as well.
Consider the Love Language test. It seeks to demonstrate what is one’s primary way in which one identifies love in self and others. The five are: Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service, and Physical Touch. Your primary “love language” tells you how you best identify loving behavior of others and how you generally show love to others. None of these are wrong. In fact, all of them have value… at times. The problem is that in relationships one may find that the two may have very different love languages. So one really needs to become love “bilingual.” This neither rejects one’s strength, nor fully embraces it. Additionally, in a work environment, physical touch or quality time may not always be helpful or practical to encourage employees. One may need to learn to value words of affirmation, for example. One’s strength is neither good, nor bad… but it can be a temptation.
Consider Conflict Management. There are different strategies for addressing conflict. Some may typically work better than others, but all work okay in certain situations. Sometimes combating is best while at other times compromising, collaborating, acquiescing, or even avoiding may be the most successful. The issue is not which one is best, but the risk of utilizing one’s preferred method indiscriminantly. It is good to be good at what one is good at (a truism certainly) but being good in one area may tempt one to use it at inappropriate times.
Ministry. We teach chaplaincy (CPE) at our counseling center. We teach seminarians how to utilize basic pastoral care skills to provide care for those in the hospital (and other settings). But often trainees fall into temptation and utilize their own strengths inappropriate. We had a trainee from a Charismatic Christian background who would go around praying over the dying and declaring them healed. (This was problematic to deal with when the patient would die— giving false hope and confusion for the family.) Another from an Evangelical background, would start out trying to do pastoral counseling and active listening, and then quickly drop into a canned evangelistic routine. (I can assure you that having a chaplain talking to a sick person who is undergoing diagnostic testing is not being helped if the chaplain suddenly says, “So where do you think you will be if you die tonight?”) We have had nurses take chaplaincy, and they struggle to avoid focusing on medical symptoms and giving medical advice.
Learning one’s strengths can be useful… but only if one learns how to utilize that knowledge.
Teaching Interreligious Dialogue here in seminary, I decided to write my own book because I did not care much for the books that already exist in that topic. I was planning to give my latest group of students a “beta” version of the book to review. However, in a rare burst of energy I finished the book during Christmas break and published it online. (It is available HERE.)
Anyway, I still wanted comments from my students. I got some good ones back. Some small grammar problems were identified that I missed (isn’t that always the way it is?). My illustrations were useful but not aesthetically pleasing (as one of the few people on earth to have ever failed a 6th grade Art class, I am clearly “aesthetically-challenged”). They recommended that I add more examples (Yup. Good point). And they noted I should work more on some aspects of my discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Absolutely. But I got one comment from the quietest student in my class. She mentioned that I should add a chapter on listening.
Of course!! Why did I not add a chapter on listening? In all my stuff on pastoral care, I emphasize listening. Lately, when I was leading a graduate level seminar on counseling, the group facilitator asked me what was the single most important skill that the students need to learn. I said it was to listen— since pastors do not like to listen.
Our training materials at our counseling center discuss issues of active listening, empathetic listening, head-level versus heart-level listening, as well as techniques to draw out more from others.
Even in the Dialogue book, I emphasize the idea that as one of the two in dialogue, one should should seek to listen more and talk less, especially in the stage where one is seeking to gain understanding and insight of the other.
So why did I not add a chapter on listening? I don’t know… perhaps it was because that topic was already in our pastoral care book. But that is hardly an excuse. Interreligious dialogue is one of a couple of major topics where Missions and Pastoral Care intersect (another is Missionary Member Care). The fact that listening was covered in our Pastoral Care book in no way suggests that it is not highly important in Interreligious Dialogue.
And let’s be honest. Most all of us are horrible at listening. We tend to hear, but not listen. This is even more true in interreligious dialogue where there is the temptation to think in apologetics mode— where the time alotted to the other in talking is used by oneself more in coming up with ways to undermine the other’s point, or to come up with a very persuasive statement— not to listening intently and respectfully.
Hopefully next year I can come up with a Rev. A to the book. At that time I will most definitely add a chapter on listening. Better figures? Not so sure about that, but we shall see.
Over the years I have been fascinated by those Christians who regularly point back longingly to a time in history that they identify as ideal or idyllic— especially from a Christian perspective. Some look back to the 1950s. Some look back to the early years of their own faith tradition (whatever period that may be) with the pillars of their faith. Some American Christians point back to the “founding fathers of the US, or to the time of the Puritans. Many go back to the first century church.
I have always wondered why. Even a casual student of pretty much any period of history would find a lot that Christians would (or should) feel ambivalent or even uncomfortable about. One of the challenges I have in teaching missions is that in so many periods in missions history, it is hard to find things that are commendable. But they are there. There is beauty in times of ugliness, and ugliness in times of beauty.
But I do wonder what makes people want to view the past in an idealized manner? Consider this verse,
Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions. Ecclesiastes 7:10
One would think that Christians would avoid expressing nostalgia if for no other reason than to avoid being declared unwise. But the fact that nostalgia was an issues over 2000 years ago suggests that it is an issue of humanity, not simply of our times.
A present belief is that nostalgia becomes more pervasive in times of uncertainty and anxiety. In these times, the world seems dangerous or at least uncomfortable. A response to that is to embrace a form of exoticism (temporal exoticism, if you will). Exoticism is the belief that some other culture or place is kind of awesome, while our own place or culture stinks. Exoticism is built off of ignorance. Distance obscures unpleasant details. While it has been said, “Once they’ve seen Paris, it is hard to get them back on the farm,” it is probably more true that “Once they have embraced an idealized vision of Paris, it is hard to keep them from leaving the farm.” For “Temporal Exoticism” the far off place is far off because of time, not space.
For Christians, what are some things that can lead to nostalgia? A few thoughts.
A feeling of lack of control or power. When we have power, or the perception of power or control, we tend to be less anxious. This may not be a universal thing. The feudal system placed people in a position of no political or economic power, yet anxiety most likely came from uncertainties about illness and weather, not the fact that their daily existence was in the hands of the lord of the land. But in the present era in the West, where autonomy is given great priority, lack of control can be highly stressful. (It is strange that Christians feel this sort of lack so acutely when Christianity was built on the presumption of having little to no political or economic power.) People who feel this as a stressor look back to a time that is more triumphalistic or where their own worldview was seen as universally appreciated.
Pluralistic communities. For many people it is stressful to be around people of other cultures or faiths. Living in a culture that is almost entirely unlike the culture I was raised in, I struggle to understand this. However, I met people from my home culture who now live in the culture I presently dwell in who seem to live in a state of continuous trauma. They look fondly back to the time before easy transportation when monocultures were prevalent. It seemed safer back then. But was it?
Progressives. The term “progressive” is so loosely used for so many situations that it is pretty close to meaningless. But I suppose that gives me the right to appropriate the term. In this case, I am using it to refer to those who tend to judge the past based on present ethical perspectives. As such, they often disrespect the same periods of time that are embraced by the nostalgic Christians. Nostalgia may be a way to reduce stress by creating a somewhat false narrative, but when others try to crush that vision, the result is an increase in stress. This increase in stress can lead some to “double-down” on the fantasy.
The reality, however, is that history is messy. Consider, for example, a church of which I have a connection. It is a fairly old church and when one looks at the earliest church rolls, one finds that there were slaves who were members of the church. One can look at that with horror— Christians who went to church and yet “owned” other human beings. Such horror is quite understanable. Of course, if someone else looked at the same situation, they may say, “Isn’t it wonderful that these Christian slaveowners cared about their slaves enough to be concerned about their immortal souls! Oh yeah, and isn’t it nice that these slaveowners recognize that their slaves have immortal souls!” I think you may see how the ambiguity of the situation can be difficult for people to wrestle with so they embrace a one-sided perspective. Shortly after the American Civil War, the slaves associated with that church were emancipated. They formed their own separate church… which still exists to this day. Should one feel good that former slaves now have self-determination in terms of religion, or should one feel bad that a church could only be racially integrated when there was legally mandated “caste” system in place?
I hope I don’t have to point out the ambiguities of the 1950s in America or of colonial expansion of Christian nations. Some unambiguously bad things like the Crusades also become a bit more murky when one realizes that it was an evil response to past evils of others. Pretty poor excuse, but an excuse nonetheless.
I think we grow as people when we address the ambiguities. It is okay to look at King David in the Bible as a great hero of the faith, but it is also okay to look at him as a self-righteous self-serving monster. But maybe better than either of these is that King David was a man who (truthfully) did many many bad things, (it is kind of awesome that the Bible portrays a man of faith who was an adulterer, a horrible father, a mercenary, and a racketeer) and yet when challenged in his failings was able to humble himself and seek forgiveness. Not many kings outside of fairy tales do that. The ambiguous human is best I think. Heroes and monsters are caricatures. We learn better from humans than we do from caricatures.
Nostalgia is sometimes identified in two forms: restorative and reflective. In restorative nostalgia, there is the desire to return to a time—- a time that did not truly exist. Reflective nostalgia may be more benign… perhaps even beneficial. To have a time that one can reflectively look back with pleasure does not necessarily have to be done “with rose-colored glasses.” For example, one may look back fondly on one’s time in high school… while still being well aware that there were aspects of high school (puberty, bullying, social awkwardness, and fears regarding the future) that one remembers vividly.
Perhaps, if one seeks to find value in nostalgia, it can be done reflectively… enjoying some aspects on the longing, while still embracing realistically that one can never truly go back (and that returning to the past would, in fact, be a very bad thing).
For fun, I guess, I Googled “Prisoner 109104.” Somehow the first word, ‘prisoner’ was ignored and the focus was on the number. The various iterations came up with the top search results being that earlier this year the the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the New Orleans Pelicans by the score of 109 to 104.
I was hoping to find a result
pointing to Viktor Frankl. He was a psychologist who lived from 1905-1997. He was a prisoner in the German concentration camp system (he was moved around a few times) until he was liberated by Allied forces in 1945 (most of his family, including his wife, were not so fortunate). He served as a physician and as a specialist in “psychohygiene” to help prisoners deal with their shock and grief.
After the war he wrote of his experiences. In his time in one of the more horrible and unjust settings one could imagine, he noted those prisoners who thrived and those who faded. He recognized that people who felt they had something to live for did better than those who did not. Out of this came his most famous book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
In his later psychological work, Frankl was known to often ask his clients an interesting question. The question was:
WHY DO YOU NOT COMMIT SUICIDE?
That sounds a bit harsh, and arguably it may be a bit too direct to be appropriate for most. However, written text fails in that it misses the context of the question, the body language, and voice intonation. It also does not take into account that it was spoken by a man who lived in a place with seemingly NO HOPE, and yet did not succomb to that hopelessness.
It is a good question. I went through a time of deep sadness many years ago, perhaps even (undiagnosed) clinical depression, where I thought about ending my life. Why did I not? As a Christian it might be tempting to say that it was because of God. If I was from a different religious tradition within Christianity, I may have thought not to end things because of fear of hellfire. But I did not, because I did not believe that. If God damned us for wasting the gift of life, all of us could be found guilty to a greater or lesser extent. Much of our lives are wasted. God’s forgiveness to those who trust in Him is beyond our imagining.
It was that same trust that meant that I knew God’s love to be with me even if I disappointed Him. God WAS the reason that I knew that my time of sadness would eventually pass. I was not in free-fall without a safety net to catch me. So God was part of the reason that I kept going… but was not the only reason, and maybe not even the main reason.
What kept me enduring was family. I knew that there was nothing I could say and nothing I could write that would make this okay with my parents. (This was before I was married.) To take my life would have been a monstrous evil– burden– to place on them. I could not do that.
Some say suicide is selfish. In a way it is— but it is also a failure to recognize a greater meaning or purpose that transcends the momentare feelings of hopelessness.
I suppose that is part of the reason I love the book of Ecclesiastes. It honestly addresses the issues of meaning and hopelessness. I have heard many say that Ecclesiastes has two sections— a Wrong View section (most of the book) and a Right View section (the very end of the book). It sometimes makes me wonder if these people have actually read the book. It honestly addresses the mistaken purposes or hopes that people base their lives on, whether it be on popularity, power, pleasure, wealth or other things. Addressing the vain-ness of these pursuits is thoroughly accurate. They are indeed chasing after the wind.
Integrated into the entire sermon, not just the final two verses, are two answers that the writer wants us to take away from it:
1. Fear God (and in so doing keep His commandments)
2. Find joys in the seemingly meaningless thing that constitutes one’s life.
We live in a time when more and more people question having a purpose in life worth living for. According to Befrienders Worldwide (https://www.befrienders.org/suicide-statistics), suicide rates have increased 60% over the last 45 years. Considering that world population has also increased greatly during the same period, there is clearly a huge increase in actual suicides. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2020, a suicide will occur once every 20 seconds. Since there is about 20 attempted suicides for each “successful” one, I guess that means that by 2020 there will be approximately one suicide attempt every second (nearing 100,000 attempts a day, and over 30,000,000 per year).
As Christians, the hope and purpose that we have for the people of the world is NOT cool and uplifting songs. It is not Christian self-help. We have revelation of God (our Creator, our Designer) of both His benevolent intent for us eternally, and His desire to give us both joy and meaning now. We also have socialization— family— of a community of faith that contrasts the growing alienation in the world. We, as the church, should not underestimate this.
I would not be as blunt as Viktor Frankl in asking “Why do you not commit suicide?” but it is still a good question.