Just Thinking with Jasper

Jasper, my first grandchild, had a stunning insight recently. We were driving from a movie (Kungfu Panda) at a downtown cinema in Vancouver. We saw some obviously poor people on the sidewalk and I said to him that the church tries to help poor people. He asked me, “How does all the singing we do at church help the poor people?”

Interesting.

I was thinking of trying to answer Jasper’s question and then I remembered what I have taught for years; that an unanswered question can open a relationship for a lifetime. Answers often close down conversations. They certainly close down thinking.

Jasper surprises me how intelligent he is. He is 6 years old and has superpowers like his dad, who is really smart. Brent is not from our side of the family. We are more attachers-emoters than thinkers. (Christine, if you read this, you are really smart and have superpowers too.)

I have come to think that the church is great for attachers-emoters that need to believe something or lots of things, to keep their attachments in check. Otherwise, they would jump on their high horses and ride in all directions at once.

But thinkers are in trouble at church. Most preachers work to have you believe stuff, not think stuff through. This has resulted (humble opinion only) in a paucity of thinkers and a plethora of believers.

Seminaries train their seminarians in how to believe and to convince others on what to believe. Sermons might take 5 hours a week or 20 hours a week to prepare, depending on whether we are more OCD or less. Sermon prep is a thinking process. But then sermonaters preach it like like listeners are to believe it. Not think it.

I have a yearning to preach a sermon or many sermons first saying, “I don’t think I believe what I am about to say, but I am thinking it. Will you think with me?”

I would like to call my churchly friends “thinkers,” rather than “believers” as in “I love being at church with fellow thinkers.” Jasper Patrick McLaren would probably like this kind of church more. So would his dad.

And I don’t think there is a connection between singing and helping.

My New Anxiety Mantra

Anxiety manifests physically before your brain can figure out what’s going on. You might feel it in your gut or in your breathing. But watch yourself to see what happens with you.

Today I was doing supervision with a fellow psychologist and she asks 3 questions of herself when she is anxious. I think that I will try it with myself and I recommend it to you as well.

First question: “What am I anxious about?” and give yourself some time to figure it out. It might surprise you that it is not what you first think it is. If you think a bit deeper, you might find a thread of anxiety that runs throughout your emotional life. And it might not be the current circumstance or tension you are dealing with.

Second, “Whose problem is it?” Most anxious people take on the upset feelings of others in their emotional world (e.g. mothers, teachers, neighbourhood children…) and think it is theirs to worry about. Again, think it through and get to the truth.

And #3: “Is there anything I can do about it right now?” If not, let it go. At least until you figure you need to pick it up again.

Now I have a weird disclosure to make. I use the “Reminders” app on my MacBook to tell me when I should start to worry about something! When I put a time clock beside the thing I am anxious about, my iPhone gives me a ding to remind me to be anxious. I laugh when I see that I have reminded myself to worry. Weird isn’t it? Reduces my anxiety though.

Two Boxes

Some of you know that I am a professor at Carey Theological College at UBC and that I have a private practice in psychology in West Vancouver. In both places I am aware that I work with my head and my heart, sometimes more of one than the other. When I meet people for the first time, I often make quick judgments of them as primarily heart-people or head-people. I guess I put them into boxes.

Box 1 is the empathy-compassion box. These are the pastoral, giving folk I meet. They emote integrity and doing right is most important to them. They might give you their last dollar, as did the New York policeman who gave a street person his warm socks and winter boots (this was reported in the news last week). Heart people are friendly, trustworthy, sociable and want to be helpful. These folk are the “heart” of churches, families, community centres and everywhere people are considered more important that programs. They have high social and emotional intelligence. They think with their hearts.

Box 2 is the competency box – this is the head box and it includes thinking intelligence, the ability to solve problems quickly, express creative ideas and fluent thoughts. These people are often motivated by success. They are typically problem solvers and talkers more than listeners, though they often do both. (At this point, some of you are liable to say something like, “This is exactly like my husband!” but in my meeting of people, women are as often to be thinkers-solvers as men.) The competency people are my go-to friends when I have a computer problem or when I need to consult on a difficulty in my life or in my work. They don’t hold my hand and emit sympathy – they get to the problem and figure out how to fix it.

I have found that Box 1 people (the warm-hearted ones) admire Box 2 people (the competency folk) and that Box 2 people wish they were more Box 1-ish, especially with intimates. Someone said that the difference between thinking with your head and thinking with your heart is only about a foot! However, the distance between head and heart is immense when one is stressed or in conflict. Then we tend to polarize around the value of thinking (“What you are saying is illogical. Can’t you hear yourself?”) and feeling (“You don’t understand what I am saying! Just listen to me.”).

When we first meet people most of us have intuition about whether he or she is more of a heart-person or more of a head-person. And we may warm to one over the other depending on the context. Recently I went to a social gathering that I was not interested in attending and I found myself cornered by a hyper-competent, business guy who wanted to tell me the evils of religion. I told him, “I know something about that” and he carried on without pause. I hoped for a little understanding from him, but his speech was well-practiced and thorough. Actually, I quite enjoyed the discussion once I figured out he was a Box 2 guy and that he was exercising his competency muscles. I flexed some of my Box 2 stuff as well.

It seems to me that intellectual competency and heart ability make for a healthy and soulful dyad in relationships and within ourselves. It also seems to me that this is the best competency in teaching and counselling, the best in conciliating and problem solving (though not the best in argument-winning), the best in movie-watching and in Christmas-present buying. And in novel reading, and friendship-making, and…

Ever Been Stuck?

Of course you have been.

Family Systems Theory considers three indicators of “stuckness.” The first indicator is like tire-spinning, the trying experience when you (or a committee) keep trying harder and predictably producing banal results. Trying to stand up is a lot more difficult than standing up.

A second stuckness is when one thinks in either / or categories, like “I win, you lose.” Binary belief systems produce teeter-totter relationships where if someone is “in” then the other is “out.” Reminds me of couples in conflict. Religions do binary thinking a lot, as do political parties. Makes quitters of even the most faithful. In marriage its called divorce.

The third stuckness is cramping answers into predictable questions, rather than recasting questions in fresh contexts and perspectives. “Business as usual” is all about this — thinking we know the questions, so our task, we figure, is to find answers that fit, rather than “appreciatively inquire.” (Appreciative Inquiry is a great way to focus on new questions.) Of course, its usually more about the question than the answer.

For more Family Systems Theory wisdom see, Edwin Friedman in “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix” (pp. 40-46).