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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Getting Back into My Right Mind

As she nears the end of My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor talks about how she enjoyed having a less dominant left brain for a while.  The damage caused by her aneurysm suppressed and damaged many of the logical and linear functions of the left side of her brain.  For a while she was almost completely in touch with the right side of her brain without the interference of the time-conscious, duty-bound, task-oriented left hemisphere.
"From a neuroanatomical perspective, I gained access to the experience of deep inner peace in the consciousness of my right mind when the language and orientation association areas in the left hemisphere of my brain became nonfunctional" (page 135).
It's not that she wishes she could dispense with that dominant and domineering left hemisphere.  Instead she strives for a clearer neurological balance between the characters of the two hemispheres.
"Creating a healthy balance between our characters enables us the ability to remain cognitively flexible enough to welcome change (right hemisphere), and yet remain concrete enough to stay a path (left hemisphere).  Learning to value and utilize all of our cognitive gifts opens our lives up to the masterpiece of life we truly are" (page 138).
This description of her longing to retain some of the benefits of trauma struck a chord with me.  During Anne's hospitalization and after her death, I wrote poetry.  It's not the first time I have waxed poetic, but it had been many years since I had written anything of artistic depth and quality.  All that energy had been poured into sermons and classes and articles and books.

Could it be that the helplessness of my situation had stunned my left brain dominance for a while?  I don't know.  It is speculation at best.  Perhaps, however, the part of me so used to being in control just went into shock for a while when everything descended into chaos.  

I didn't experience anything close to a "stroke of insight."  At the same time, I was in touch with art, music, poetry and dance in ways that I hadn't considered for decades.  I wonder what was happening.

I'd be interested to know if anyone has tested left-brain dominance in the newly bereaved--especially those of us who experienced sudden losses.  A functional MRI study of such subjects might be very interesting.

In the meantime, I too worry about losing some of the real benefits of a traumatic experience.  I haven't written much poetry in the last year--back to sermons and studies and books (and blogs).  I'm less in touch with music and spend very little time listening these days.  I fear that my left brain is back in charge, and I'm not sure I like the current administration as much as I used to like it.

As I reflect on Bolte Taylor's experience, I think I need to return to some more creative pursuits in writing and music.  I miss that lovely right hemisphere being more active (or allowed to be).  It's time, perhaps, to get back into my right mind a bit.

Stroke of Insight

I'm reading Jill Bolte Taylor's book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey (New York: Viking Penguin Group, 2008).  The author suffered a rare, congenital and traumatic brain aneurysm at the age of 37.  She was a well-known, up and coming neuroscientist with a Harvard Degree and remarkable future prospects.  The aneurysm reduced her to an unspeaking, non-reading, barely walking infant in an adult body.

Her survival was miraculous and a tribute to the power of prompt and competent medical intervention, treatment and care.  Her recovery is a remarkable journey of hope, determination, clarity and simplicity.  Her testimony is remarkable.  

She took the time, energy, and effort with the help of a therapist to reconstruct the actual experience of her stroke from an insider's perspective.  Rather than the uniformly terrifying and macabre experience we might expect, she found it to be a spiritual journey into the peace and tranquility of her right brain, even as her left brain lay awash and traumatized in a flow of blood.  She devotes a chapter in her book to describing the experience in exquisite detail.

In part I read this account to have some little insight into what Anne might have experienced when her own brain was assaulted.  Her brain trauma was in a different location (the mid-brain) with far more devastating consequences.  Nonetheless, I find some comfort in hearing that Jill Bolte Taylor did not experience overwhelming pain or terror as her brain was under attack.  

Instead, she experienced a developing sense of peaceful detachment and connection with the universe.  For Jill Bolte Taylor it was a spiritual experience of grace and peace.  I don't know if Anne had any such experiences as her conscious mind left her.  I hope she did.

A delightful fringe benefit of the book is chapter thirteen, entitled "What I Needed Most."  It is a list of those ways of support she found most helpful.  What I discovered was a list of things--most of which I needed in my early days of recovering from Anne's death.  Let me list a few.

  • "I desperately needed people to treat me as though I would recover completely."  I found nothing so debilitating as the "Oh, you poor, poor man" look that I received from so many folks.  It was true, and the sentiment was intended to give love and support.  What I saw, however, was pity rather than empathy, despair rather than hope.
  • "My brain needed to be protected from obnoxious sensory stimulation, which it perceived as noise."  I craved alone time to think and process and reflect and rest.  At times I was too isolated and that wasn't good.  It was impossible for people around me to be able to tell when I needed what in this regard.  I'm sorry about that.  But my available mental and emotional resources felt so limited, that most social interaction for a while seemed painfully overwhelming.
  • "I needed people to love me--not for the person I had been but for who I might now become."  I am still wrestling with that one a bit.  Others in my life could go back to their lives. I had to choose how to go on in new and different ways.  I didn't always receive support for changing.  I didn't receive support for remaining the same.  It was very confusing.  People with a little distance from me expect me to be the same person and the same pastor I was before all this happened.  I don't think I can do that, and I don't think I want to do that.
  • "I needed those around me to be encouraging.  I needed to know I still had value.  I needed to have dreams to work toward."  I felt like I had failed in the biggest test of my life.  I hadn't saved Anne.  It took some months to get over that sentiment and the shame that came with it.  It still sneaks back to get me whenever I feel like I have failed at something else.  My focus on choosing hope is as much personal therapy day to day as it is an effort to share with others.
  • "I had to define my priorities for what I wanted to get back the most and not waste energy on other things."  I'll say more about this one downstream, but it is still part of my thinking and deciding.  The loss of a loved one changes a person's priorities.  I disengaged from so much of life for a while.  It is still a daily decision on my part regarding how much to re-engage.
I'll be interested to hear if these statements resonate with others who have experienced traumatic loss or change.  They did for me.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Choosing How to Remember

When it comes to the ongoing relationship with a deceased loved one, how can we go forward in a healthy way?  The most important thing I learned in my experience, conversation and study was that this relationship can be a healthy thing.  It is not, by definition, pathological.  It does not, by implication, make me crazy.

The second thing I learned was that I could make choices about the nature of this ongoing relationship.  Not only could I make such choices.  I needed to make such choices if I was going to move on into life without creating a segregated space of unhealthy fantasies in my brain.

One of the things that jolted me a bit in that regard was the writing C. S. Lewis did in A Grief Observed.  This is one of the few bereavement books that I found useful early on. Lewis wrestled with the temptation he felt to love the memory of his beloved Joy Gresham.  In the book, of course, he refers to her as "H."  He writes, "It was H. I loved.  As if I wanted to fall in love with my memory of her, an image in my own mind!"

That is, perhaps, the temptation we all experience at some point--to turn the memories of our deceased loved one into a sort of idol we worship.  What we discover is that the image becomes a burden rather than a gift.  I was fortunate to see the movie, Inception, at about this time.  One of the many challenges that movie poses is precisely this one--dealing with the temptation to turn memories into reality in order to escape the pain of Reality.

Lewis describes it this way.
"But the image has the added disadvantage that it will do whatever you want.  It will smile or frown, be tender, gay, ribald or argumentative just as your mood demands.  It is a puppet of which you hold the strings...the fatal obedience of the image, its insipid dependence on me, is bound to increase."
The problem with memories is that in the one sense we most desire, they are not real.  So we must choose how we wish to honor those memories and reconstruct the relationship with the deceased loved one that is real.

The first healthy choice is to be grateful.  Gratitude is the chief tool for letting go of the pain of loss and embracing appreciation for what we had.  The opposite of gratitude will be bitterness.  Gratitude, even for the tragic loss itself, frees us to live.  Bitterness locks us in a self-imposed prison of pain.

The second healthy choice is to learn from our memories.  What kind of person was I in that relationship?  What kind of person am I now?  Am I really so different?  What kinds of new starts can I embrace to grow and develop and flourish (we'll look at grief and personal growth downstream somewhere).  I learned about myself and the world through my life with Anne when she was alive.  I can continue to learn about myself, perhaps like never before.  The difference now is in the content of the learning, not the process of learning.

The third healthy choice is to refuse to compare.  Is my life now better or worse than my old life?  That's a painfully useless question.  My life is different.  Some things are worse.  Some things are better.  There is no objective "control" to help me determine an overall assessment.  And what difference does it really make?  I miss some things from the past.  I'm glad to be rid of other things.  That's how life works.

Paul's words in Philippians 4:12-13 are powerful for me here.
"I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me."
 You have choices about how to build that ongoing relationship.

The Tie That Binds

In the previous post, I shared the current psychological assessment of continuing bonds with the deceased.  In the Culture of Bereavement Orthodoxy, with its continuing Freudian framework, such continuing bonds are by definition pathological and must be severed if there is to be healthy recovery.  

Attachment theory (following John Bowlby and others) suggests a more complex view of continuing bonds.  There are dual processes at work--gradual deconstruction of the former relationship with the deceased loved one and reconstruction of life and identity (and hope) that includes a different and non-physical bond with the deceased loved one.

Are there indications that the continuing bonds are not unfolding in a healthy and life-giving way?  Nigel Field summarizes some of the research and thought in this regard.  We all know that loss and grief can be experienced in settings that don't involve death.  It is separation from the one we love that initiates the experience of loss and feelings of bereavement.  When we experience that separation, we engage in "search behavior" to restore the relationship.

Field points to how we all keep some of our deceased loved one's possessions just as they were before she or he died.  
"Maintaining the deceased's possessions exactly as they were prior to death also may reveal expectations and hope that he or she will return.  These CB [continuing bonds] expressions reflect a working model of attachment to the deceased that as yet has not assimilated the reality of the death...these expressions are understandable early on after a death as a natural response to the separation and thus should not be interpreted as pathological" (Handbook of Bereavement Research and Practice, page 120).
This is where most of us start our process.  We can't let everything go at once, and we shouldn't.  It takes time and experience, tears and remembering, anger and gratitude, before we can let go of these "search behaviors."  It is not pathology or lack of faith or denial.  This is what we do, for a while.

If these behaviors continue, however, then we are not engaging in healthy reconstruction.  Field reviews the literature of attachment theory which "suggests that the failure to maintain a clear boundary between the living and the dead, such that the experience of CB is segregated from the knowledge that the other is dead, is the key factor in determining whether a CB expression indicates an unresolved loss" (page 123).

If our efforts to maintain the memories of our loved one help us to deny that our loved one has died, then we may have some issues to address.  Sometimes we are so desperate for our loved ones that we create a "denial zone" in our thinking for them--a little space where we can try to believe that they haven't died.  That is the "segregated knowledge" Field mentions.  If our memorial caches are tools for maintaining that illusion for a long period of time, then our grief is not moving toward healing.

Field also summarizes the understanding of how the continuing bonds may affect our understanding and decisions.  Anne was in charge of the day to day "business" of our household.  I knew I couldn't do it exactly the way she had done it.  I did find it helpful, however, to stick with systems she had put in place.  I did find it helpful to ask myself, "How would Anne handle this?"  I did find myself at some moments of despair and confusion crying out, "Anne, what should I do now?"

Those were healthy expressions of grief and continuing bonds.  I don't continue those expressions now (although I use her filing system for tax records and it works well).  I have reorganized my life and let go of all but a few items in my memorial cache.  The relationship we have--now as sister and brother in Christ forever--continues.  It has been reorganized, however.  

And as a Christian, I know that it has been reorganized on the basis of Jesus Christ.  So it is a connection for all eternity.  That connection is not as husband and wife.  That relationship was for this life only.  The real continuing bond we have is in the Lord, and that transcends all our human connections.

No, You're Not Crazy

The grieving person asks, "Am I normal?"  This question arises with some urgency when we experience an ongoing relationship with our deceased loved one.  I have yet to meet a bereaved person who does not report some element of an ongoing relationship with the deceased loved one.  Psychologists who study such ongoing connections refer to this phenomenon as "Continuing Bonds" (CB).  Nigel P. Field summarizes the work in this area in an article called "Whether to Relinquish or Maintain a Bond with the Deceased."  That article is chapter 6 in the 2008 edition of the Handbook of Bereavement Research and Practice.

"There is increasing recognition in the bereavement literature," Field begins, "that the bereaved often maintain their attachment with the deceased and that this is an integral part of successful adaptation to the death of a loved one" (Page 113, my emphasis).  

All of us who have lost a significant loved one feel some ongoing connection in the first several months after the death.  We might be unable to part with clothes or memorabilia of our loved one.  We might be unwilling to change the bedroom or move the furniture.  We might hear our loved one speaking to us or see signs of our loved one's presence or activity in our daily experience.  We might keep some beloved and meaningful items stored away for the rest of our own lives.

Is this normal?  Am I normal when I have such feelings and experiences?  Contemporary research tells us that such feelings and experiences are the statistical norm and thus quite common.  We have been led to believe that such connections are pathological because of the dominant Freudian paradigm that used to inform much of bereavement counseling and therapy.  In that paradigm, the goal was to relinquish the connection to the loved as soon as possible.  Such therapies would often force the issue with the client in painful ways.  Continuing bonds were seen as neurotic attempts to deny the reality of the death.

More recent theory and study give a more complex, nuanced and realistic view of our experiences.  Field suggests, "the goal of grief work from an object relationship and attachment perspective does not involve detachment per se; rather, the goal involves a reorganization of the relationship with the deceased that accommodates the reality of the ending of the physical relationship" (Page 115, my italics).  

In other words, healthy grieving does not require a termination of continuing bonds.  Instead, healthy grieving involves choices about how to adapt to a new relationship with the loved one who is no longer physically available to me.

The question is not about whether I should have such a relationship.  Instead, the task is to choose a relationship with my deceased loved one that allows me to do two things.  First, that ongoing relationship must allow me to acknowledge and accept the fact that my loved one has died.  Second, that ongoing relationship must not interfere with my ability and willingness to move forward with my own life as it is now.  The technical terms for these two inter-related processes are "deconstruction" and "reconstruction" (See pages 117-118).

These processes are not immediate realities.  Each takes time to unfold and develop.  The sense of an ongoing physical relationship with a loved who dies fades slowly and shouldn't be rushed.  I felt Anne's presence and even heard her thoughts and voice many times as I took long and solitary road trips in those first months after she died.  At moments those experiences brought me to the paralysis of tears.  But at other times I found those experiences deeply comforting and full of guidance.  

We can debate the nature of those experiences--Anne still speaking to me from heaven (my view), my subconscious processes using her memories to get my attention (perhaps the view of secular psychologists), or pain-induced hallucinations (hardly anyone's view these days).  However, we do not need to surrender to the old paradigm that such experiences are uniformly signs of pathology.

For most bereaved folks, the experience of continuing bonds is very intense in the first months of bereavement.  That experience then decreases in intensity as the time passes and a new life is constructed.  Keeping everything just as it used to be is all right for a while.  If, however, we establish a permanent "exhibit" of our loved ones life and that "exhibit" interferes with our needs to move forward in life, then the continuing bonds become a problem.   

How can we know?  

The people around us are often not a very good gauge for this.  Our family and friends typically try to impose two conflicting expectations.  On the one hand, they often expect us to be sadder and more debilitated than we feel.  Then they wonder if we're "in denial" when in fact we might just be pretty resilient.  On the other hand, they are taken aback when we seek to move forward and let go of parts of our loved one's life.  Then we can be accused of not having had deep enough feelings for our loved one.  So don't rely on those closest to you for the best advice on this.

If after a year, the ongoing relationship with your deceased loved one is more of a burden than a gift, perhaps something is not quite right.  But that is a very loose rule of thumb.  Each of us has different processes and needs.  All we can really do is check our experiences with people we trust and reach for the life and healing that God wants to give us every day.

Are you normal?  I don't know.  What I have really found is that "normal" is not as great as it's cracked up to be.  I can be sure that I'm me.  And that will do, thank you.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Indelible Memory

Anne died in November.  I didn't get around to updating the deed on the house until the middle of December of that year.  I went to the county recorder's office and did what was necessary.  I presented the death certificate.  I said several times that my spouse had recently died and that I needed to update the deed.  The clerk was pleasant and helpful.  I was reserved and morose.  When we were finished, she said somewhat automatically, "Happy holidays!"

I was stunned and offended.  Now at the distance of eighteen months, I am not so troubled by the exchange.  On the one hand, at the moment, I couldn't believe that my situation had so little impact on her awareness.  I felt like I had walked into the office naked, and she had taken the slightest notice.  I know now that's not true.  Moreover, it seemed like one more sign that Anne was simply going to disappear from the world, unmarked and relatively un-mourned.

That wasn't true either.  I was highly sensitive and primed for any slight.  I was also so very normal, I think, in my response.  I didn't want to acknowledge the guilt I felt for erasing her name from yet another legal document and record.  I turned my own guilt on to that unsuspecting and professionally cheerful clerk.

A friend of mine who recently lost a spouse put it this way.  "I feel that everything I do, I am erasing him."  I'm grateful for permission to share that honest and poignant sentence.  Yes, I know.  I took Anne's name off the house, the truck, the insurance policies, the pension beneficiary designations, the credit cards, the student loans--everything.  I also felt at many points that I was erasing her.  I gave away her clothes and shoes.  I moved furniture and rearranged the bedroom.  Moment by moment the physical traces of her faded from view.

I am fortunate to have people in my life, however, who understand the importance of sorting and sustaining memories.  My spouse, Brenda, has been wonderful in teaching me the value and healing power of gratitude at ever step of our journey together.  "The reason gratitude works to increase life satisfaction," Martin Seligman notes in Authentic Happiness, "is that it amplifies the good memories about the past: their intensity, their frequency, and the tag lines the memories have" (page 75).  

Whether it is a piece of kitchen equipment that we still use from my former life or the ways that Anne trained me to be a better husband, there are still many times we say out loud, "Thanks, Anne."  And there are as many times that I still say, "Thank you, Lord, that I had Anne in my life for over three decades."  A fringe benefit of all this, of course, is that I am much more deeply in touch with my gratitude for my second spouse, Brenda.

We have put time, money, and effort into creating meaningful and enduring memorials to Anne.  We have given scholarships to nursing students and to a Tanzanian pastor.  We have donated worship furnishings to the center that provided her hospice care.  We invest in causes and projects that meant something to Anne and mean something to us.

Of course, I am a Christian.  The real memorial to Anne is her life which is "hidden with Christ in God" as the New Testament says.  Because we are Resurrection people who live by Resurrection hope, we know that nothing good will be lost.  All the good Anne did in her life will be redeemed and renewed in the New Creation.  That is the memorial for eternity.  It is God's memory of Anne that matters the most.

Grieving from Your Strengths

In Authentic Happiness, Seligman describes the meaningful life as one lived using "your signature strengths in service of something larger than you are" (page 249).  I've discussed that a bit upstream and will certainly come back again to the notion of a meaningful life.  But in this post, I want to take his statement in a bit different direction.

I think the healthiest grieving happens in the context of our signature strengths.  I found that dealing with my bereavement from the place of my strengths provided the most effective healing, the greatest sense of personal peace, and a real path forward out of the darkness.  Wallowing in my weaknesses made things worse and suggested to me that there might not be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Some of my strengths gather around curiosity and love of learning.  I studied grieving--the theology, psychology, sociology of it--for all it and I were worth.  And obviously, I continue that pursuit.  Some people gently suggested that this was an effort to control what had happened in my life.  Of course it was!  That's part of what study is all about.  Only the most arrogant of students ignore that neurotic element in the love of learning.  Having a neurosis isn't a bad thing.  The question is, how do you use it for good?

I wanted to take my experience, learn everything there was to learn, wrestle it to the ground, and say, "There, I understand you much better."  I am doing that, and since learning is one of my strengths, that process helps me to heal and move forward.  Other folks may have perseverance, for example, as a strength.  These are, I suspect, the folks for whom waiting and making no changes for a year works.

That was never a real option for me.  My strengths lead me to the future, to change, to adventure and risk, and to challenge.  Whenever I let myself get stuck in inaction, I felt like I wanted to die.  When I could learn something, try something, take a step in some new direction, then I felt alive again.

Loss and grief debilitated me at many points.  When that happened, I learned what I could do.  First, I could take a walk.  Second, I could meditate for a while.  Third, I could go learn something.  I don't know that such a path would work for someone else, unless that person had my strengths.  But I worked and works for me.

Another cluster of strengths for me orbit around the whole notion of creativity.  Writing is an important outlet for me.  In the depths of trauma, I wrote poetry.  I'll share some of that here at some points.  Most of the time, I write rather dry academic prose.  I know it may not stimulate anyone else, but creating a new paragraph about something that interests me is a life-giving activity.  I always feel better.

I think that if I were to engage in bereavement coaching now, I would begin by inviting my client to take a signature strengths inventory.  I like the inventories at www.authentichappiness.org and especially the VIA Character Strengths survey.  If my client had the emotional energy, I would encourage her or him to read Authentic Happiness or Seligman's newer book, Flourish.  Then we would work together to design some life activities that would enhance my client's strengths.

In the Culture of Bereavement Orthodoxy, I think this program might be labeled as a form of denial.  If one finds that to be a useful label, so be it.  Freudian expelling of and expounding on all manner of feelings in a cathartic emotion-puke session is not all that helpful.  In fact, it may make things worse.    More on that downstream somewhere.  Choosing a path forward based on personal strengths is a path toward hope-based action.

If you haven't taken a strengths-based inventory, the authentic happiness web site is free for a simple registration.  Your anonymous data is included in the growing academic database that continues to fuel research in this whole area.  If you would like some engage in some conversation or coaching on how to use those signature strengths, don't hesitate to be in touch.

Hoping When There Is None

How can we choose hope in a situation that is hopeless?  The structure of hoping derived from the psychology of hope offers some real guidance in this matter.

In a genuinely hopeless situation, you really can't get there from here.  In the ICU, we first hoped that we might get Anne back as she was before her illness.  Quickly it became clear that this goal was no longer available to us.  It wasn't a conscious process, really, but we chose different goals to fulfill our larger purpose.  If you can't get there from here, then you have to do something to change the "there."

That larger purpose hadn't changed--to love and care for Anne no matter what.  We needed, however, to re-frame the ways we could live out that larger purpose.  Instead of working for restoration, we now sought a way forward and beyond the limits of her condition.  

At first that goal was going to be life in a care facility.  Later, that goal became making her comfortable and stable enough that she could die at home.  We were able to accomplish that goal.

When things are hopeless, it may be necessary to seek alternative pathways to the future.  That is often very difficult for folks under stress.  Thinking about alternatives requires flexibility and creativity.  Crisis, as we have noted in earlier entries, narrows our thinking and imaginative capacities.  I was fortunate to have been studying ways to reach Alzheimer's sufferers with effective pastoral care.  Some of those methods, such as "memory tunneling," were useful in making connections below the conscious level with Anne.

Of course, we were in a hospital intensive care unit.  We received massive amounts of medical help and personal support.  We also gave help in the process.  We did all we could to give the physicians accurate updates and to assist the nurses whenever possible.  We found ourselves doing a fair bit of coordinating among the various specialists--who often talked to one another by way of charting.  We encouraged the student nurses who cared for Anne and taught them a bit about the things we were trying to accomplish.  Help flows both ways along the same path.  The more we gave, the more we were able to accept.

And we had to re-frame our own identities in this situation.  Were we family members of the victim?  Yes, but we couldn't remain in that status.  We wouldn't be relegated to the waiting room.  We saw ourselves as part of the team of care-givers.  When that was no longer possible, we saw ourselves as grateful former caregivers who had done all we could.  We saw ourselves as advocates for Anne's care and comfort.  And we remembered that we were witnesses to the healing and comforting power of Jesus Christ in our lives.

None of it saved Anne from dying.  That was beyond hope in this life.  But that doesn't mean we were without any means at all.  Looking at the various elements of hope can equip us to make choices that will move us forward.  Hope is present confidence in a better future.  We can do specific and concrete things to build that confidence.

Monday, May 28, 2012

From the Eye of the Storm

One of the fringe benefits of research and writing is that I get to stumble across wonderful articles and books I would never encounter in "normal" life.  Here is one of those articles, entitled "From the Eye of the Storm, with the Eyes of a Physician" by Hacib Aoun.  You can read a facsimile of the article at

This article is adapted from the eleventh annual David Rabin Memorial Lecture at Vanderbilt University.  Aoun is a physician who contracted HIV-AIDS as a result of an accident with a capillary tube of blood  It took a few years, but that encounter lead to the development of HIV-AIDS and related symptoms.  More than that, it gave Aoun the "opportunity" to experience physician care as a patient.

I was particularly taken by the author's words about hope for those who cannot be cured.  "In cases without easy answers or for which no effective therapy is available," Aoun wrote, "even the simple feeling on the part of the patient that the physician is doing all that is possible has an important therapeutic effect."

The article took me back to those ten days in the Intensive Care Unit on 6-North at BLGH-East.  It was clear from the first MRI that there would be no real recovery for Anne.  The lesion in her mid-brain--the size of a quarter--was definitive and probably deadly.  So what was to be done?  One physician later that first day put it bluntly.  "There is no hope of recovery," he said.  "The kindest thing you can do is to end this now."  

Of course, he was correct in his diagnosis.  He was completely wrong in his care.

"A good doctor goes through the struggle of an illness with you," Aoun writes, "providing support while protecting your dignity and independence, and searches constantly for better options for your care."  In contrast was another of the specialists who visited us several times a day.  He too noted that the prognosis was grim.  Then he made a diagnosis of those who loved Anne.  He agreed that we had to try everything first.

"It's true." he said, "Where there is life there is hope."  Whether his personal faith as a Christian informed his clinical practice, I cannot tell.  He did, however, choose to see us as people first and to walk with us in our campaign to reach Anne, even if that connection was at the most rudimentary and primitive level.

"Hope is the one thing," Aoun reminds his colleagues, "that even if we cannot push ourselves as physicians to provide, we should at the very least not deny.  To most patients with grave afflictions, hope is the only fuel that keeps them going."  That is true for the loved ones of the patient as well.  

The die was cast for Anne long before we were aware enough to take any real action.  For those of us who would continue this life without her, we needed to know that we had pursued medical hope to the final conclusions.  Then we could relinquish her to the hope that does not disappoint us.

Getting and giving help is one of the elements of this method of life called hope.  We were fortunate to have a number of physicians and nurses willing to walk with us on the journey, even though they knew the outcome was virtually certainly and certainly grim.  We had folks with us who fit Aoun's description of the good physician.  That physician is one who will say, "I understand that this illness is happening to you, but we will face it together."

After some time has passed, I see that this is what it means to be a good pastor as well.  The advantage we pastors have, of course, is the privilege to point beyond the limits of this life and to declare the hope that lives beyond this life and defeats Death itself.

We pastors get to preach and teach and care from the eye of the storm with the eyes of the Great Physician.

Seeing Hope

C. Richard Snyder quotes Samuel Coleridge, who said, "Hope without an object cannot live."  Hope is, of necessity, anchored in some future outcome, purpose or reality.  Hope is present confidence in a better future.  Snyder's first and fundamental insight into the psychology of hope is that actual hopes must be anchored to a concrete goal.

Moreover, the hopeful person must perceive that the goal or goals have the real possibility of being achieved.  In this way hope is not mere wishing or fantasy.  Snyder defines goals as "any objects, experiences or outcomes that we imagine and desire in our minds" (Psychology of Hope, Kindle location 172).  This means, I think, that real hope must be rooted in some previous experience or existing information available to the hoping person.  Otherwise the imagination and desire in my mind are, by definition, fantasy.

For example, let us say that I have a flat tire on the freeway.  My spare tire was stolen a week ago.  So I hope someone might stop to help me.  I know from experience what that might look like in general.  I probably do not use energy hoping for a specific person or vehicle to stop (unless I have already called someone).  Anyone will do, if that person has the right tools and the right attitude for the rescue.  I form this hope on the basis of previous experience and information about help along the highway.

I labor this point a bit because it seems to run counter to the description of hope in Romans 8:24ff. (NRSV). "For in hope we were saved.  Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what is seen?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience."

The context of Paul's argument makes it clear that what is "not seen" is the ultimate adoption, "the redemption of our bodies."  We have not yet seen the final outcome that will arrive with the New Heaven and the New Earth.  But we have seen plenty of other evidence.

In fact, our Christian hope is rooted profoundly in what we have seen, heard and known.  "We declare to you what was from the beginning," writes the preacher in First John, "what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life..."  Malina and Rohrbaugh note that this is a description of the "complete human experience" (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, page 56).  

N. T. Wright, in The Resurrection of the Son of God, describes the parallel discussion in 2 Corinthians 4:16-21.  In that paragraph Paul is also clear in distinguishing between what is "temporary" and what is "eternal."  The danger, Paul says, is not that we might engage in wishful thinking.  The danger, he declares, is that our vision would be clouded by adversity and suffering.  We might lose sight of our Resurrection hope if we think that God's victory in Christ will spare us from that adversity and suffering.

In fact, Paul says in Romans 8:24, we are saved "by hope."  This may well be a dative of means in the Greek.  Hope requires a content object or goal.  For us that concrete "object" is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and God's victory of sin, death and evil.  The Holy Spirit holds that reality before our eyes day in and day out.  In 2 Corinthians 5:5, Paul reminds us that God has prepared us for this vision by giving us the Spirit as the "guarantee."

"So we are always confident," Paul continues, "even though we know that while we are home in the body we are away from the Lord..."  Because we have the Spirit-driven vision of the Resurrected Lord with us always, our Christian hope is rooted in a real and concrete object.  

Snyder has the psychology right.  Hope is anchored in a concrete reality.  We declare that reality to be  the Resurrection.  We access that hope by the power of the Holy Spirit today and every day.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Positive psychology wanders on the boundaries of what once was the territory of theology and philosophy.  In my understanding of the psychology of hope, the "E" in I-HOPE (Identity-Help-Optimism-Pathways-Ends) stands for ends or purposes that matter.  Pursuing ends and purposes that matter, that have significance beyond personal survival, pleasure and comfort--this pursuit is a necessary condition for a meaningful life.

To his credit, Martin Seligman tackles this area of thinking--albeit briefly--at the end of his book, Authentic Happiness.  He offers these definitions.

The pleasant life "is wrapped up in the successful pursuit of positive feelings, supplemented by the skills of amplifying these emotions."

The good life "is not about maximizing positive emotions, but is a life wrapped up in successfully using your signature strengths to obtain abundant and authentic gratification."  This definition may sound remarkably self-serving, but in fact these strengths include virtues such as gratitude and generosity (at least for some of us).

The meaningful life, Seligman concludes, "has one additional feature: using all your signature strengths in the service of something larger than you are."  Living all three , he asserts, "is to lead a full life" (quotes from page 249).

Why living for something or someone beyond ourselves should be a necessary condition for a meaningful life is not clear in the remaining pages of the book.  Seligman and others seek an evolutionary basis for such a supra-personal ethic, and in particular Seligman is taken by Robert Wright's arguments for human self-transcendence in Wright's book Nonzero.

In  conversation with Wright, Seligman notes that people of faith "already are leading lives they believe to be meaningful, and by my notion are meaningful" (page 257).  Seligman is focusing on the non-theists and skeptics in his efforts to construct an exclusively evolutionary account of supra-personal ethics and self-transcendence.

I'll spend more time looking at those arguments in the future.  At this moment, I want to dialogue with Seligman according to a simple canon of science.  If he concedes that people of faith have identified and live according an external source of meaning, why is that not enough for him?  Why would he choose to complexify the issue at this moment?

The principle of simplicity might encourage him to embrace a system of meaning that already works for billions of humans and which he acknowledges provides the basis for a meaningful existence.  He does not embrace such a system of meaning and seeks a more complex and less substantial source of meaning and purpose.  Curious.

He might wish to argue that people of faith find meaning in something that is not "real."  If that is the case, then his argument for seeking another source of meaning makes some sense.  His affirmation, however, that people of faith live meaningful lives is puzzling.  Is existential commitment to a possible illusions a way to live a life of meaning and purpose?  That is an odd thought for a scientist to have.

Of course, we Christians assert that our hope is rooted in something very real.  After all, every Christian hope is hope in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And we are sure that the Resurrection is very real indeed.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Sacred Time


“I couldn’t find anyone to tell me each minute, whatever I experience is a valid, beautiful moment—however tragic it is.  That’s what I needed to hear: Grief is a sacred time in our lives, and an important one…I’m looking at grief as a transformational process…the time that starts when something happens that turns our world upside down and we lose our old normal, until the new normal begins.”--Melodie Beattie, The Grief Club, pages 4-5.
 I connected with this description the first time I read it.  I didn’t know for a while, however, that this was what I needed—and what I still need.  I was firmly formed in what I call the “Culture of Bereavement Orthodoxy” (to which I have given the affectionate acronym, “COBO”).  I thought I knew what grieving was about.  Grieving was a process of recovery from a mortal wound.  Yet, I knew this wasn’t right.

I knew from my own experience and observations and work that “recovery” simply doesn’t happen.  “Recovering” does take place, but that’s different animal altogether.  I knew from writing about forgiveness that recovering from a deep hurt requires integrating that hurt and the associated scar tissue into a new identity and a new understanding of God, myself, and the universe.

Beattie has it right.  Grieving is about transformation rather than recovery.

I must describe my current life as better than ever.  Any other description would be untrue.  I have a wonderful life eighteen months after Anne’s death.  Yet, that description seems overloaded with difficulties.  I had a wonderful life once before as well.  Now I have a different wonderful life.

Some people and relationships and things have traveled with me into this “alternative” future.  Some people and relationships and things have taken a path now separate from my life.  Some people and relationships and things have remained fixed in my past and have been perhaps even been discarded.  So the image of “better” is a very limited one.  It’s a different wonderful life.  I had no reason before to imagine or envision such a life.  I have no reason now to imagine or envision a life other than the one I have.

In an article on “continuing bonds” with the deceased, Nigel Field talks about the process of transformation.  I will discuss the whole idea and experience of continuing bonds on another day.  Field, however, describes the two dimensions of this new life as “deconstruction” and “reconstruction.”  Deconstruction requires relinquishing the “expectations, beliefs and goals” connected to the former life. 

In neurological terms, these former expectations, beliefs and goals are well-worn chemical and electrical pathways.  They don’t fade from consciousness right away.  It does indeed take time for those “old-normal” experiences to subside and to be less painful.  It took a while for me to stop feeling like a stranger in the midst of my new life and to start seeing my existence once again as truly “mine.”  That’s what the process of deconstruction feels like from the inside.

The other dimension is “reconstruction.”  A whole new set of pathways and pathway networks gets built one experience, memory and challenge at a time.  That new set becomes the “new-normal.”  We really are all in that process all the time.  It is, as I have noted before, simply the pace of the deconstruction/reconstruction dance that makes things uncomfortable.

That dance is the indeed the time of mystery, I think, to which Melodie Beattie refers.  More and more, I am awed by the new joys and hopes that have come in the midst of loss and grief.  I have been surprised repeatedly that this is how things are really supposed to work.  It really is the case that grief is replaced by gratitude.

From Happiness to Hope


I just read an article entitled “15 Things You Should Give Up on to Be Happy.”  You can find the article at http://www.purposefairy.com/3308/15-things-you-should-give-up-in-order-to-be-happy/.  I recommend it to you.

If you give up on those things, however, what thoughts, intentions and behaviors will you put in their place?  I’d like to put the items from the "15 Things" article into a framework and then make a few suggestions.  The framework will become familiar to those who read this blog regularly.  It is the acronym “I-HOPE.”  I’ll put the various statements into these categories.

I=Identity:
1. GIVE UP YOUR NEED TO ALWAYS BE RIGHT
8. GIVE UP YOUR NEED TO IMPRESS OTHERS
10. GIVE UP LABELS

These unproductive behaviors are often rooted in a poor sense of myself.  If I am uncertain about who I am and what my value is, then I will be unwilling to concede anything to anyone else.  Choose to be in relationship rather than just being right.  Impact others rather than merely impressing them.  Engage others as people rather than entombing them in labels.

H=Help:
2. GIVE UP YOUR NEED FOR CONTROL
6. GIVE UP COMPLAINING
12. GIVE UP YOUR EXCUSES

Most of us would rather die than ask for appropriate help.  But help runs in two directions.  Those most able to ask for help are those most willing to give it.  Giving and receiving help make up a strategy for hopeful living.  Control is an illusion unless it is self-control.  Complaining is a way to vent energy without taking responsibility.  Excuses are roadblocks to effective action.  Do what you can.  Describe things as positively as possible.  Look for solutions rather than excuses.

O=Optimistic Thinking Styles:
3. GIVE UP ON BLAME
4. GIVE UP YOUR SELF-DEFEATING SELF-TALK
5. GIVE UP YOUR LIMITING BELIEFS
11. GIVE UP ON YOUR FEARS

Optimistic thinking styles see bad things as temporary in duration and limited in scope, and good things as permanent in duration and pervasive in scope.  Blame stops progress.  Poor self-talk creates a negative spiral of poor performance.  Using words like “always” and “never” about yourself will close doors that God wishes to open.  Fear is not an illusion (no matter what this article says).  It is, rather, a temporary warning system that allows us assess threats and to take proper action.  Face the fear and then move forward.

P=Pathway Flexibility:
7. GIVE UP THE LUXURY OF CRITICISM
9. GIVE UP YOUR RESISTANCE TO CHANGE

There is always another way forward, if we are willing to make the changes necessary.  Creativity is a critical element of hopeful living.  Often the alternative pathways involve help and support from others.  Is there another right answer to the problem you face?  Is there someone else who needs to walk with you on this part of the journey?  Is there another direction you can go to move into a happier and healthier future?

E=Ends/purposes that matter:
13. GIVE UP THE PAST
14. GIVE UP ATTACHMENT
15. GIVE UP LIVING YOUR LIFE TO OTHER PEOPLE’S EXPECTATIONS

Are you giving your life and energy and love to goals and purposes that really matter to you?  Fixing the past is not very productive.  It may be necessary to make amends where possible.  However, it is the present where action happens and plans can only affect the future.  Living for a purpose greater than myself (and beyond trying to satisfy others) is the great payoff of hope-filled living.

Give up these fifteen things.  Put hope-filled living in their places.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Forty Percent


If only I lived in sunny Arizona or the Colorado Rockies or on Maui—then I would be happy.  If only could win the lottery or pull a big combo on the slots—then I would be happy.  If I had a better car or a nicer house or a cushier job—then I would surely be happy.  

We attribute the overwhelming majority of our happiness to life circumstances.  Then we bemoan those circumstances and remain victimized by our own unhappiness.

In fact, life circumstances contribute only a modest amount to overall and continuing happiness.  In “The Architecture of Sustainable Happiness” (2005) Lyubomirsky, Sheldon and Schkade give a description of the consensus understanding of the psychological sources of ongoing happiness.  Fifty percent of that happiness is rooted in a genetically determined personal “set point” (see a previous post entitled “No Set Point Yet”).  Forty percent of that happiness is defined by intentional activity designed to promote personal happiness.  So only ten percent of ongoing happiness is really determined by life circumstances.

So we blame ninety percent of our unhappiness on ten percent of the actual cause of that unhappiness.  And we look to that ten percent to provide ninety percent of our ongoing happiness.

Some life circumstances can have small but lasting impacts on happiness.  Marital status is probably the most impactful life circumstance, and this appears to be true across cultures.  Married people on average and in the aggregate are happier than those who are not married.  Job satisfaction has some marginal impact on personal happiness.  Financial security at a modest level favorably impacts personal happiness.  Wealth, however, is at least as likely to reduce happiness as it is to increase ongoing personal happiness.  Money can buy a little bit of happiness, but the effect runs out pretty quickly.

So, happiness is a choice.  It is, however, a choice that depends on taking intentional actions to make oneself more happy.  In that sense, happiness is indeed “an inside job” as has often been said.  Have you ever been asked by someone, “Are you happy here?”  That question makes less and less sense to me.  I understand if someone asks me, “Are you satisfied with your job?”  I can understand if someone asks me, “Do you have concerns or worries or fears or anxieties?”  I can understand if someone asks me, “Do you agree or disagree with the direction we’re taking?”  Those are social and organizational questions, and the answers depend on others in addition to me.

“Are you happy?”  That is a question whose answer lies, insofar as change is possible, within me much more than outside of me.  I can take actions to enhance my personal happiness.  I can connect to my sense of gratitude regularly.  I can help someone who has a need.  I can take a walk.  I can pursue my passions. I can exercise my gifts in my work, my relationships and my service to others.  I can connect to worthwhile purposes greater than my own selfish needs.  I can play.

I can do things to enhance the forty percent that is susceptible to change.  You can as well.  In this way, my happiness is never held hostage by others.  I am not an unhappy victim of circumstances.  I can find other paths, other options, other roads to a happy life.

If only I could be happy.  Oh, wait!  I can!

Help that Really Helps

What has really worked for me?  That is, what sort of help actually helps?  What can I do to impact the forty percent of my happiness range that is amenable to adjustment?  I have pursued a number of new behaviors, practices, thoughts and lines of study that have lead me into a new way of living.  I pursue these in a variety of ways and in different frequencies.  I find them all to be helpful in various ways.

Prayer and meditation: Brenda and I use daily devotions and written meditations morning and night.  We read aloud to one another and also have our own times of personal prayer and meditation.  At times of stress I use techniques of mindfulness meditation that I learned in the first weeks after Anne's death.

Helping others in similar circumstances: I learned this in recovery materials and conversations.  Few things make me feel better at low times than reaching out to someone else who might benefit from a conversation.  That's often another widower (amazing how many I know).  Sometimes it's someone who is bereaved in another way.  I don't have answers, but I can be of support.  And we both feel better when we're done talking.

Serving others with no thought of reciprocal benefit: working with Table Grace Cafe as a volunteer, serving at the First Lutheran Church food pantry, serving as a volunteer mediator and facilitator--these have all been important and continue to be important in my happiness project.

Gratitude practices:  gratitude lists, gratefulness prayers, gratitude letters, speaking gratitude to others, savoring the sweetness of the moment--these all make a difference and don't cost a thing.

Optimistic thinking practices: There will be more on this downstream.  But I have benefited a great deal from the "Learned Optimism" work of Martin Seligman and others of his ilk.

Twelve-step recovery meetings and literature:  I have found more help and support in AA literature and meetings than in any bereavement recovery materials (except for Melodie Beatty's The Grief Club, and she's completely wired into the recovery movement).  Bereavement is also a chronic condition of the will and the spirit.  The twelve steps are about living, not merely about not drinking.

Exercising choice over how I feel: This is an epiphany for many of us at some point.  I can decide, most of the time, how I feel.  I can decide, all of the time, what to do with my feelings.  Happiness, as they say, is an inside job.

Using my signature strengths as part of the process: I am a learner.  I am curious.  I am strategic.  I am empathetic.  I have tried to use these strengths as often as possible to move into this new life.  The journey will be different for someone with different strengths.  But knowing my strengths and then cultivating them has been very important in the last eighteen months.  A free resource for strengths identification is the VIA Survey of Character Strengths at www.authentichappiness.org.

Physical exercise and activity: When in doubt, take a walk.  That rule of thumb has made my life better many times.

Play: Whenever possible, have fun.  Make it a game.  Use the imagination.  There is no scientific proof that life is serious.  I'm still working on (playing at) this one.  But I'm getting better at it.

And Now For Something Completely Different

As I work my way through this positive psychology and hopeful theology stuff, I run across all manner of information about other areas of life, church, family, marriage and friendship.  I find that this body of work may have some interesting things to say about how to conduct stewardship campaigns in local congregations.  The key to greater giving may rest in making people happier.  Martin Seligman reports the following.
"In the laboratory, children and adults who are made happy display more empathy and are willing to donate more money to others in need.  When we are happy, we are less self-focused, we like others more, and we want to share our good fortune even with strangers.  When we are down, though, we become distrustful, turn inward, and focus defensively on our own needs.  Looking out for number one is more characteristic of sadness than of well-being." (Authentic Happiness, page 43)
Perhaps congregations ought to spend six weeks each year doing everything possible to make congregants happier.  Then at the height of the happiness curve, hand out the pledge cards and watch the numbers jump!

I am only half-facetious here.  I once had a parishioner who suggested that I preach a series on being happy.  I looked at him like he had seven heads.  I didn't see such an emphasis anywhere in the Bible, I said.  

I'm sorry, George.  You were right.  For example, "God loves a cheerful giver."  The word for "cheerful" is the Greek root of our English word, "hilarious."  We Christians believe (at least in theory) that it gives God joy when people discover the happiness that comes from giving.

After we meet basic needs for sustenance and comfort, money buys no more happiness.  "The change in purchasing power over the last half century in the wealthy nations carries the same message: real purchasing power has more than doubled in the United States, France, and Japan, but life satisfaction has not changed a whit" (Authentic Happiness, page 53).

The things that make people really happy are time spent with loved ones, helping others in need either directly or financially, pursuing meaningful work, and playing.  Those folks who pursue money as an end in itself are actually less happy overall: "at all levels of real income, people who value money more than other goals are less satisfied with their income and with their lives as a whole..." (Authentic Happiness, page 55).

So my proposal is this.  Survey the congregation for personal happiness and/or gratitude at the beginning of the campaign period.  Free surveys are available quite readily at www.authentichappiness.org.  Then challenge members to do things to make themselves truly happy: spend 30 minutes a day focused on loved ones, identify a new charity and give money to it every day, work in a homeless shelter or soup kitchen or nursing home or...spend time playing every day, get some real physical exercise every day.  Focus the sermons and worship on what makes for real happiness and invite people to share their happiness testimonies.  Re-do the surveys at the end of the period and document the changes (people will be happier).

Then ask for the money.  It may be that we have approached church stewardship from the "demand" end of the equation for far too long.  Here is a way to get at the "supply" end.

Yes, That's Me


What does a traumatic experience do to my sense of identity?  Personal identity is a slippery thing, a moving target, the wave front of an individual history.  It is made up of physical continuity, a mass of memories continually reprocessed, my reflections both in the mirror and in the eyes of those who know me.  Identity is the ongoing story I tell me about myself.

For the most part, that story unfolds gradually and steadily and incrementally.  We are made to perceive rapid changes best, and to impose continuity on a series of discrete frames when the change is slow.  That’s what makes it possible for us to watch motion pictures and to see continuous movement rather than a herky-jerky set of still images in series.

It is the speed of change rather than change itself that is the issue when trauma strikes.  I can’t be sure how and what and who I might be if Anne hadn’t died.  There is no trauma-free doppelganger Lowell who provides an experimental “control” for comparison to my life.  But I do find myself adjusting to, adapting to, re-calculating and re-discovering who I am.  I find myself doing that in ways that I have never before experienced.

For example, I am fifty pounds lighter than I was eighteen months ago.  There are moments when I still do a double-take at the mirror—wondering who that stranger is looking back at me.  He looks a lot like my dad did at about age thirty-five.  Sometimes I have to say out loud, “That’s you, you silly ass.  Get over it and on with it!”

I’m not unique in my experiences.  Events in my life are not even uncommon.  Lots of people drop big pounds in a short time.  Lots of people change jobs or careers.  Lots of people lose spouses in sudden, tragic and dramatic ways, and often still with kids at home.  Lots of people re-marry in relatively short order—especially males.  Lots of people go through various combinations of such rapid changes.  So this sort of thing happens to people all the time.  I’m not special.  Of course, it hasn’t happened all that often to me.

It seems that basic identity doesn’t change all that much over a lifetime.  The psychological set point for happiness is genetically determined within a certain range (although trauma can drive it into the lower end of the range).  Personality traits tend to be consistent over time.  Personality strengths remain relatively unchanged over the years.  Identity structures really are fairly stable, although memory is notoriously plastic and undergoes revision throughout a lifetime.  The content, experiences, and activities lived out of and through those structures are the elements that change.

What kind of parent and spouse am I now?  What sort of pastor can I be—compared to what I vaguely remember that I used to be?  If the substance of my identity is relatively constant, why do I feel so different about myself and about life in such deep ways?  The foundation and framework of existence haven’t changed, it would seem.  But the superstructure and functions have been altered significantly.

I find that I am more emotionally vulnerable in short bursts and more emotionally resilient in the long run.  I find that I pay far more attention to gut feelings and intuitions.  I am more open to the future and less certain about precisely what I ought to be doing with myself.  I am less subject to bad moods that last.  I am more grateful and also sometimes more grumpy.  I am even more deeply connected to the transiency of life and to the beauty of the world.  I know the power of the Resurrection gospel like never before.

What I am coming to realize is that struggle and suffering can have the effect of making me more fully me…if I can allow that growth to happen.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Savoring Contentment


Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment…” (1 Timothy 6:6).

Barbara Fredrickson continues her discussion of four emotion “families” by describing “contentment.”  She argues that contentment is more than mere “pleasure” in the moment.  Rather contentment, she asserts, “arises in situations appraised as safe and as having a high degree of certainty and a low degree of effort.”  When we are contented, we extend the momentary pleasure into a reflective stance that enhances our relationship with ourselves and the world around us.

Fredrickson’s description makes the following points:

·   Contentment is not mindless passivity.  Instead, real contentment leads to a deeper awareness of myself and the world around me, to “a mindful broadening of a person’s self-views and world-views.”
·  Contentment is the result of our experience of “flow” (we will come to the work of Mike Csikszentmihalyi downstream).
·   Contentment “creates the urge to savor and integrate recent events and experiences creating a new sense of self and a new world view.”


That third bullet point has produced a small sub-discipline (and consequent job security) for positive psychology researchers.  Fred B. Bryant and Joseph Veroff are the authors of the book, Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience (http://www.amazon.com/Savoring-New-Model-Positive-Experience/dp/0805851208).  If you want a practical application of their insights, you can watch Martin Seligman’s brief talk on how to spend less and savor more at Christmas in depressed economic times (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_C7tTY4b0Pk).

Bryant and Veroff have tested the experience of savoring with thousands of undergraduate students (sometimes it seems that this is the chief reason to enroll students in large research universities—to have an adequate pool of test subjects).  They describe five techniques to encourage and facilitate the urge to savor.

·      Sharing the experience with others
·      Memory-building through actual, physical media and/or through intentionally preserving memories and mental images
·        Self-congratulation that takes pride in real accomplishments
·        Sharpening perceptions—that is, becoming a more educated and appreciative consumer of the pleasures in your life and creating the time and conditions to wring the maximum reward out of every pleasurable experience
·        Absorption, which is letting yourself go fully into the experience without judging the experience or moving on to the next moment.

If you think about the most pleasurable recollections you have, I suspect that some or all of these practices will have been part of forming those recollections.

One of the places where I have experienced such savoring has been on fishing trips to the Canadian wilderness.  I love catching fish and enjoy the “production” end of the process.  There comes a point in each trip, however, where that need to acquire big fish has been satisfied.  I can feel the mainspring of my spirit release, and then the savoring can begin.  The beauty of the lake becomes almost tangible.  My heart and breathing slow.  My awareness increases even as my thinking processes go quiet.  I am content, at rest, at peace, whole and slow.  Time nearly stops its movement.  God is enough.  The world is enough.  I am enough.

Where do you find contentment?

Curious and Playful


Barbara Fredrickson’s article and subsequent work are too big and important for just one post (or one small mention in a book on Choosing Hope).  In the previous post, I discussed the “Broaden and Build” model she proposed as a way to study, analyze and understand the positive emotions.  Her work was another important foundation stone in the edifice that has become positive psychology.

In her article, she goes beyond a theoretical framework and describes the benefits of pursuing the positive emotions with discipline and vigor.  She examines four “emotion families” and in the course of those discussions identifies a number of desirable benefits.

Take, for example, “play.”  Here you can see a pose we witness dozens of times every day at our house.  This is the “invitation to play” stance that our puppy, Bella, adopts to entice us into games of fetch, tug of war, tag, keep away or any other playful activity she can create.  Play is one element, according to Fredrickson, of the experience of joy.  The desire to play is hard-wired into all thinking creatures and promotes all manner of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.  In addition, play is practice for the full and creative life we experience when we are at our best.

I would recommend the book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.  Stuart Brown, M. D. (with Christopher Vaughan) discusses the nature of play, why we play, and how to live the playful life.  Early in the book he writes,
“Of all the animal species, humans are the biggest players of all.  We are built to play and built through play.  When we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality.  Is it any wonder that often the times we feel most alive, those that make up our best memories, are moments of play?” (Page 5).
We will come back to Brown’s book and insights in some future posts.  Know this, however.  When you are stuck, down, frustrated or bored, you have the permission of serious psychological researchers to go out and play.

Fredrickson discusses the emotion family she calls “interest.”  When we engage with the unknown, the intriguing, the novel and the mysterious, we feel interest.  This discussion engages me (you might say that I’m interested in it), because one of my signature strengths is curiosity.  Curiosity is a member of and perhaps the senior member of the Interest family.  

If you are a curious person, or would like to become more curious, then you’ll want to get to know the work of Todd Kashdan.  I just finished Kashdan’s book, called Curious: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life.  Kashdan is relentlessly curious about curiosity.  You can make his acquaintance on YouTube and see him sport the fruits of his other passion, weightlifting (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPpVxZRqRc8).  Kashdan proposes that curiosity is “the central ingredient to creating a fulfilling life.”  We can debate that as we continue this conversation.  

In any event, he notes that “being curious is about how we relate to our thoughts and feelings.”  It is, he asserts, about “how we pay attention to what is happening in the present” (page 3).

Spend some time today cultivating these two attitudes that lead to actions: play and curiosity.  Don’t judge your thoughts and feelings during these times.  Don’t fret about how you could be using the time for something more productive.  Just experiment a bit today (and maybe tomorrow and the next day).  Then you might report in the “Comments” section about the results of these experiments.

Broaden and Build


In 1998, Barbara L. Fredrickson of the University of Michigan wrote an article entitled, “What Good are Positive Emotions?”  The full article is available at

Up to that point in history, most psychologists had found human experiences such as joy, interest, contentment and love rather uninteresting.  We may all wish for an abundance of such positive emotions, but they didn’t do much to stir the blood of researchers and psychotherapists in the twentieth century.

Negative emotions—fear, anger, panic, anxiety, hatred, depression, shame, and the like—were far more interesting and thus far more heavily studied, analyzed and treated.  Fredrickson noted that the positive emotions were harder to characterize and quantify.  Second, these positive emotions aren’t necessarily attached to specific situations in the way that fear, for example, can be linked to the fight/flight/freeze response.  Negative emotions signify the presence, in many cases, of problems.  And, as the author noted, “problems demand attention.” 

Third, theorists had assumed that all emotions—negative and positive—functioned according to the same models.  Perhaps, however, positive emotions worked in a different way.  If that were the case, then it wouldn’t be surprising that studying them like their negative cousins would be neither successful or productive.

Fredrickson proposed a new model for understanding positive emotions—what she called the “broaden and build” approach to the study of such emotions.  She suggested first “that many positive emotions broaden a person’s momentary thought-action repertoire.”  

Think about those times when you are fearful, panicked, anxious or angry.  Your mental focus narrows.  Your physiology prepares you for action.  You are not considering a variety of options for response.  You are prepared to strike like a coiled snake.  In the presence of a real threat, this is a useful position.  Of course, in the presence of most of our life experiences, that sort of hyper-priming for reaction just makes things worse. 

Negative emotions tend to narrow “a person’s momentary thought-action repertoire.”  Positive emotions make us more flexible, creative and open to input.  Positive emotions make us less reactive, judgmental and rigid.  This is the “broaden” part of her model. 
“Whereas negative emotional traits such as anxiety and depression predict a local bias consistent with a narrowed attentional focus, positive emotional traits such as subjective well-being and optimism predict a global bias consistent with broadened attentional focus.”
Do you want to be better at problem-solving, test-taking, compassion, team-building, selling, and a raft of other creative endeavors?  Work on your positive affect and broaden your psychological focus.

In addition to these “in the moment” advantages, Fredrickson pointed out that positive emotions build physical, intellectual and social skills and resources which can be accessed later under stress.  This is the “build” part of her model.
“Importantly, these resources are more durable than the transient emotional states that led to their acquisition.  By consequence, then, the often incidental effects of experiencing a positive emotion is an increment in durable personal resources that can be drawn on later in other contexts and in other emotional states.”
Do you want to have additional resources available for those times of stress, fear, anger and depression that land periodically on each of us and all of us?  When things are good, practice the disciplines of love, gratitude, play, imagination, physical exercise, and friendship.  You can justify those time expenditures to yourself (if you’re one of those folks who needs to do that) as making deposits in your psychosocial bank account in preparation for later crisis withdrawals.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” (Galatians 5:22).  If you know where and how to look, the Christian Bible has its share of insights into positive psychology.