Turning Emotional Sufferings into Spiritual Profit

In the early fifth century, the great preacher of the early church, St. John Chrysostom (c. 349–407), made an enemy of the Empress Eudoxia. He had provoked the wrath of the empress by speaking out against an image she had erected of herself directly across from his church, the Hagia Sophie Cathedral. When games were played in front of the idolatrous image, this distracted worshipers from the prayer services. In 404, Empress Eudoxia sent soldiers to carry St. John into exile, hoping thereby to silence him. There followed a period of persecution against those who supported the exiled preacher. Soldiers forcibly broke up church services of those who were loyal to St. John, abusing the worshipers and even stripping ear rings off the women, pulling off parts of their ears in the process. Some of St. John’s followers were even tortured and killed.

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Counsel for Emotional People Struggling With Temptations

The sixth-century desert father, Dorotheos of Gaza, gave some very helpful wisdom for emotional people struggling with temptation and/or afflictions. (From Discourses and Sayings):

“God does not allow us to be burdened with anything beyond our power of endurance, and therefore, when difficulties come upon us we do not sin unless we are unwilling to endure a little tribulation or to suffer anything unforeseen. As the Apostle says, ‘God is faithful and will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we are able [to endure].’ But we are men who have no patience and no desire for a little labor and [no desire] to brace ourselves to accept anything with humility. Therefore we are crushed [by our difficulties]. The more we run away from temptations, the more they weigh us down and the less are we able to drive them away. Suppose a man for some reason dives into the sea: if he knows the art of swimming, what does he do when a great wave comes along? He ducks under until it goes past and then he goes on swimming unharmed. But if he is determined to set himself against it, it pushes him away and hurls him back a great distance, and when again he begins to swim forward another wave comes upon him, and if again he tries to swim against it, again it fores him back, and he only tires himself out and makes no headway. But if he ducks his head and lowers himself under the wave, as I said, no harm comes to him and he continues to swim as long as he likes. Those who go on doing their work this way when they are in trouble, putting up with their temptations with patience and humility, come through unharmed. But if they get distressed and downcast, seeking the reasons for everything, tormenting themselves and being annoyed with themselves instead of helping themselves, they do themselves harm.

“If painful experiences crowd in upon us, we ought not to be disturbed; allowing ourselves to be disturbed by these experiences is sheer ignorance and pride because we are not recognizing our own condition and, as the Fathers tell us, we are running away from labor. We make no progress because we have not squarely taken our own measure, we do not persevere in the work we begin, and want to acquire virtue without effort. Why should an emotional man find it strange to be disturbed by his emotions? Why should he be overwhelmed if he sometimes gives way to them? If you have them inside yourself why are you disturbed when they break out? You have their seeds in you and yet you ask, why do they spring up and trouble me? Better to have patience and go on struggling with them and beg for God’s help. It is impossible for someone struggling against his evil desires not to suffer affliction from them.”

Struggling Towards Holiness

Russian Christians frequently emphasize the concept of spiritual struggle, as encapsulated in their word “podvig.” There is no English equivalent for podvig, but the term conveys the idea of a good hardship, a spiritual struggle, a God-ordained difficulty.

“I think I might stop being a Christian,” my friend said, a few minutes after comfortably situating himself in my office.

“Why?” I asked. “Have you stopped believing in God?”

My friend, who we will call Trevor, pondered silently. A few days ago Trevor had asked to meet to get some advice about a personal crisis he was facing. But the conversation had quickly turned to his more general struggles with Christianity.

I renewed my question: “Is it because you’ve stopped believing in God that you are considering giving up Christianity?”

“It’s not that, Robin. I still believe in God. But I’ve been at this Christianity thing for over six years now, yet I’m still struggling with the same sins and addictions as when I converted. People keep telling me I need to rely on the Holy Spirit to help me, but however much I pray and ask for help, it never gets any easier. I just can’t achieve victory over the sins in my life. Why isn’t the Holy Spirit helping me?”

As Trevor continued to share, I learned how well-meaning Christians had been telling him that he needed to abandon the struggle and “let go and let God.” The problem was that victory over sin was part of the criteria these Christians were using to determine whether Trevor had fully “let go.” Trevor had also been told that because he kept sinning this was proof that he was struggling in his own strength. Moreover, he had been told that the difficult Christian life is a failed Christian life, since a life defined by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit will be characterized by rest not difficult struggle.

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Customized Communication in a Virtual World

The year is 2060. Professor Updike stands to take the podium for the keynote speech at his university’s annual communications conference.

Professor Updike is a clean-shaven African American man in his mid-forties. To the audience, however, these details are irrelevant. Everyone in attendance is wearing virtual reality glasses—a technology that allows each person to customize their own reality and seamlessly overlay that reality onto the physical world. This technology, at one time experimental and cumbersome, has now become normal and ubiquitous. In fact, it has become unusual not to see people wearing these glasses, although there remain some neo-Luddite holdouts in the rural areas.

Through their VR glasses, some people see Professor Updike as he would have looked twenty-five years ago as an undergraduate. Others have adjusted their VR settings to see him as a white person, or another race of preference. For still others, the professor appears to be giving his speech completely nude.

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Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life

In his book How Dante Can Save Your Life, the journalist Rod Dreher tells of his return to Starhill Louisiana, the community where he grew up. Rod expected to happily reintegrate with his family, but instead found a web of troubled relationships and misunderstandings. The stress of the family problems was so great that Rod descended into anxiety, depression and fatigue. With his immune system compromised by the stress, Rod contracted a debilitating—and potentially life-threatening—virus. Rod’s rheumatologist urged him to flee from the stress by relocating again. This advice seemed to make sense given that his disease went into remission during the times when he was away from the Starhill community. However, instead of packing his bags and leaving the area, Rod decided to follow his wife’s promptings to see a therapist.

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Struggle to Find Your True Self

One of the most intriguing characters in all of literature is Dr. Alexandre Manette from Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities.

For eighteen years, Dr. Manette had been imprisoned in the Bastille, during which time he progressively descended into a state of chronic depression. The trauma of almost two decades of solitary confinement eventually resulted in Dr. Manette losing his mind and becoming merely a shadow of his former self. Upon his release, the doctor’s senses gradually returned to him under the gentle care of his daughter, Miss Lucie Manette. Even after being restored to health, however, he continued to struggle against the fruit of his long captivity, a struggle that involved occasional relapses. Throughout his quiet and relentless struggle, the doctor was completely absorbed with serving his family and friends, and even risking his life to meet their needs.

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Orthodox Spirituality and Self-Care

What role does self-care play in the spiritual life? Earlier this year someone suggested to me that self-care is basically selfishness. I can understand why someone might think that: after all, Christianity teaches that we find our true self, not by grasping good things for ourselves, but by giving our self away (Luke 9:24). The message of the gospel is that we become more truly ourselves when we strive to fulfill the needs of others, preferring other people’s wellbeing to our own (Romans 12:10; Matthew 20:16). But does that mean that we should eschew any focus on our own wellbeing and self-care?

I don’t think so.

One of my favorite books is the letters that St. John Chrysostom (c. 349–407) wrote to Saint Olympia (c. 361/68–408). These letters were written after the Saint was exiled from Constantinople where he had served as a pastor. Through the correspondence, St. John continually admonished St. Olympia to attend to her emotional self-care, and to take care of her own needs in order that she can be effective in helping others.

The Eastern Orthodox psychologist and professor, Dr. Albert Rossi, made the same point in his book Becoming a Healing Presence.

“On an airplane, as a flight prepares to depart, the flight attendant tells the passengers that, in case of an emergency, oxygen bags will drop from overhead. Those passengers with infants will receive two masks. The adult is to put his or her own oxygen mask on first, and only then put a mask on the infant.

For me, as an Italian grandfather, those instructions are counterintuitive. I want to give my life for my grandchild, to care for her first, and then myself. But—and this is a big but—if I truly love my granddaughter, I will put my own oxygen mask on first, then hers. The sequence is vital to my granddaughter’s survival. If I don’t take care of myself first, both of us might be lost.

The oxygen mask example is a model for becoming a healing presence to others. If I don’t take care of myself first, I have nothing to give to others. People seek me out as a counselor and expect that when they come into my office, I have time and energy for them. They don’t need a tired, grumpy, sleep-deprived, inattentive, and self-absorbed counselor. The only way I can have something to give is if I have allowed Christ to care for me first and foremost. There is no other way.

I begin to care for myself by centering my being, my soul-mind-body. I allow Christ to center me by gradually becoming still inwardly, which is no small task in today’s environment.”

Listening: the Cornerstone to Healthy Relationships

couple listening to each otherLearning to lovingly ‘tune-in’ to what another person is feeling is ultimately an act of attentive love and self-donation. I’m increasingly convinced that in our age of distractions, inattention and scattered focus, the greatest gift we can offer someone is simply to listen. For many people, the most they can hope to receive is a few “likes” to something they posted on Facebook—a crude substitute for genuine listening. But when we really make ourselves present to another by truly listening, this is healing. It is healing because it assures the other person that she (or he) is valuable, that she doesn’t need to feel shame about her vulnerability and pain, and that I love her not in spite of her vulnerability and weakness but because of it. For relationships to be healthy, we need to know how to suspend what we think and put ourselves in the mind of our friend, even when we think our friend may be wrong. This doesn’t mean we have to pretend to agree with what the other person is saying, but at a minimum we should be able to appreciate where they are coming from, to listen to their heart, to imaginatively relate to experiences that may be far removed from our own. Empathy enables two people who are vastly different to share experiences, to participate in each others’ struggles, sorrows and joys. To be empathetic requires imagination, creativity, and what psychologists call emotional intelligence. One example of how imagination helps with communication is when it comes to refraining from assuming that what the other person means is what I would mean if I said the same thing; instead we should be able to imagine things from the other person’s perspective. We also shouldn’t be too quick to assume we know what the other person is trying saying, but should be able to say “Is this what you mean?” or “This is how I’m hearing what you’re saying, is that right?” Above all, we should learn to listen non-defensively in a way that helps the other person feel that it is safe to open up. Healthy relationships require opening ourselves up to another, getting outside of ourselves and entering into the other person’s mind. How many divorces could have been prevented if the parties had only been willing to slow down and work at listening, really listening, to what their partner is trying to say? Such attentive listening is hard work. It is hard work because it requires attentiveness, just like the rewards of reading poetry, listening to classical music, or learning Latin require a similar type of patient.

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What is Emotional Intelligence?

What is “emotional intelligence’ and why is it important? That was a question I addressed in ‘Best Kept Secrets About Brain Fitness: a Conversation with Graham Taylor and Robin Phillips (Part 1).’ Here is the explanation I offered about what emotional intelligence is and why we should all work to cultivate it:

In his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, psychologist Howard Gardner expanded the notion of intelligence to include multiple different modalities. One of the most important of these is the category that many psychologists call emotional intelligence but which Gardner termed “Interpersonal Intelligence.”

Emotional intelligence involves the ability to recognize our feelings as they occur and thus to increase the gap between stimulus and response. But emotional intelligence isn’t just about recognizing and managing our own emotions, because clinical studies have established that the same mental muscles involved in attentive perception of our own moods and feelings also form the basis of emotional-intelligence-golemanattentive perception of others people’s emotions and needs. So emotional intelligence is both self-directed and others-directed. And it’s so important practically. As I pointed out in my essays on attentiveness, a high level of emotional intelligence is absolutely necessary in order to have successful relationships, to self-regulate our emotions, and effectively to navigate the challenges of life. In fact, many researchers now believe that emotional intelligence is even more important than IQ. This was the thesis of Daniel Goleman’s ground-breaking 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Goleman didn’t discover the concept of emotional intelligence, but he’s the one who popularized the concept and made it a household term. Thanks to the work of Goleman and others, it is now widely accepted that emotional intelligence plays a far greater role than we ever realized in all the things that matter most in life. In his book Search Inside Yourself, former Google-engineer-turned-mindfulness-guru, Chade-Meng Tan, showed that emotional intelligence even plays a central role in jobs that we might expect to only require good brain-processing power, such as the work of programmers, engineers and technicians.

Research is increasingly showing that emotional intelligence involves neurological skills that can be developed with practice, and so it is absolutely crucial that this skill be at the center of any discussion about brain fitness.