For most of its history, clinical psychology has been preoccupied with neurosis, psychosis and everything that can go wrong. In the twentieth-century, however, many psychologists began to shift their emphasis and take an interest in studying health and normality. A central question they began asking is, “what do things look like when everything is working properly and can that be learned and replicated?” This has led to extensive research into the brains and behaviors of people who report high levels of happiness and well-being.
One of my favorite movies is the 2002 science fiction film Equilibrium. Written and directed by Kurt Wimme, the film is set in a future society called Libria. In Libria it is against the law to feel.
The main character of the film named John Preston (played by Christian Bale) is a law enforcement officer. He is tasked with destroying objects that could incite emotion, including art, poetry and classical music. He is also required to kill rebels, known as “Sense Offenders”, who choose to experience illegal emotions.
The citizens of Libria have been brainwashed into believing that feelings are the cause of war, suffering and conflict. Accordingly, most of the citizens in Libria willingly participate in their own enslavement by taking a daily injection of a drug, known as Prozium II, which suppresses all emotion.
I couple weeks ago I was speaking on George MacDonald and the Imagination at the Gold Country Gathering hosted by my parents. A number of people at the conference heard I was an Eastern Orthodox Christian and wanted to know more about Orthodoxy and why I converted to it. It’s always hard to answer questions like that in a short space of time. But part of the answer has to do with the rich tradition of spiritual psychotherapy found within the Orthodox Church. I touched on some of that in my 2016 OCAMPR talk in which I offered an Eastern Orthodox perspective on the psychology of gratitude. I thought this would be a good time to re-post my talk here for some of the new readers I recently picked up. Nothing I mention concerning the spirituality of gratitude is unique to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but for me it was only after joining the Orthodox Church that I found out about this teaching through visits to monasteries and reading the examples and teachings of the saints revered in our tradition.
When Renee was a child, her family had to move around a lot for her father’s work. Every few years Renee found herself in a new community, a new school, and having to make new friends from scratch. It was difficult for Renee to make new friends since she always expected to be uprooted again. Not surprisingly, Renee had become very shy and suffered from mild forms social anxiety.
When Renee was seventeen, her family finally settled in a small town in Colorado. Having been assured by her parents that they wouldn’t be moving again, Renee desperately wanted to make friends in the new community. She especially wanted to have a boyfriend. At the same time, however, Renee was scared of forming relationships.
Self-esteem, self-compassion, self-love, self-care. These are all hot topics in modern culture. As Christians it is sometimes easy to dismiss all these concepts as stemming from our systemic “focus on self” instead of thinking carefully about what these concepts actually mean and how they relate to Biblical teaching.
Before jumping into this topic, it should be noted that the fact that a concept has to do with the self does not automatically make it suspect. As we grow from spiritual sickness to spiritual wholeness, sometimes we need to focus on the self, just as a person who has a weight problem sometimes needs to focus on his weight, or a person with a broken leg needs to focus on his leg.
This post was originally published back in April, but I am reposting it after adding some more information on Stoicism and adding footnotes to the source material used in my research.
Ryan and Claire came from very different backgrounds. When Claire was growing up, she lived in constant fear of making her father angry. To the outside world, Claire and her six siblings appeared the very model of well-behaved children. In fact, once they were even featured on the cover a homeschool magazine. However, few people knew what life was really like for them—how their father would fly off the handle at the slightest provocation and how all the children lived in fear of making him upset. Claire developed a habit of keeping her deepest thoughts and feelings bottled up inside, sometimes even hidden from herself. As an adult, Claire was terrified of conflict and tended always to say what she thought the other person wanted to hear instead of expression what she really felt.
A couple years ago, while doing some work in London, I found myself with an eight day gap in my schedule. I decided to take the train to the quiet countryside of Essex where I had heard there was a Christian monastery that offered free accommodation to spiritual seekers.
As I sat in the train, watching the English countryside whiz by, I thought of a conversation I had a couple days earlier with the receptionist at the London hotel where I had been staying. The receptionist, a young Italian lady named Francesca, had a sharp elegant-looking Roman nose offset by soft dark eyes. She told me she had immigrated to the UK just a month before, after the severe economic conditions in Italy had forced her to come to London in search of work.
In our culture, the main distinction we tend to make about emotion is between emotions that are pleasant vs. emotions that are unpleasant. But that isn’t the healthiest way to think about emotion, not least because it can lead to the assumption that unpleasant emotions should be avoided and pleasant emotions sought. Instead, it is better to think about emotions that are rightly orders vs. emotions that are disordered. Some rightly ordered emotions can be pleasant or unpleasant, just as some disordered emotions can be either pleasant or unpleasant.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322) helps us to understand the distinction between rightly ordered emotions vs. disordered emotions. Aristotle taught that properly ordered emotions play an integral role in correct thinking as well as in helping a person’s appetites be regulated by virtue. Accordingly, emotion is a type of perception—an “appearing as”— that undergirds moral thinking and decision making. For example, we feel anger when we witness an action that appears unjust, or we feel pity when we see someone suffer from evil. Rightly ordered emotion is thus integral to the concerns by which we perceive the world as moral agents. But it is also possible for disordered emotion to obscure our perception of the world. For example, if I feel envy at the good fortune of another, then my ability to rightly perceive the other person’s situation has been obscured. The goal of education, especially the education of children, is to cultivate proper habits, including the habit of responding to situations with the right emotional reaction. Without properly ordered emotions, it is impossible to achieve eudaimonia, a Greek word that is often translated happiness but more properly conveys the idea of human flourishing.
Last week I got a biography from the library about the relationship between Viktor and Elly Frankl, titled When Life Calls Out to us: The Love and Lifework of Viktor and Elly Frankl. In the book’s introduction, the author has a discussion of Frankl’s opposition to the Human Potential Movement that became a dominant feature of American discourse in the second half of the twentieth-century.
“Frankl was a major voice in humanistic psychology–a loosely connected array of approaches that arose in the United States in the mid twentieth century. It counteracted the dehumanizing tendencies of both psychoanalysis and behaviorism, which predominated at the time, and offered a more optimistic and less deterministic view of human nature. Frankl anticipated the distortion of humanistic psychology into the American ‘human potentials movement..’ That movement asserted that we all have a right to personal happiness as well as virtually limitless potential to attain it…. At the extremes, the human potentials movement has left many in the clutches of an individualism that plays a role in the loss of community, in the breakdown of marriages, and in boredom, promiscuity, loneliness, greed, addictions, abuse, and other forms of violence….
To Frankl, the human potentials movement and its promise of boundless individual growth and happiness were a pip dream from the start. To him it was a wishful fancy to gloss over the guilt and pain and death that go with being human, to sidestep our personal responsibility to others and the world, to overlook the capacity of people to suffer courageously–even to bring good out of unavoidable adversity–and to ignore the fact that all human beings are capable of extraordinary evil as well as extraordinary good….
When it comes to suffering, self-fulfillment teaching tends to evade, deny, or trivialize it as something abnormal and fleeting. Frankl not only underscored suffering as a normal part of human experience, but he asserted the real possibility of finding meaning in it when it cannot be avoided. In the Holocaust he himself faced incomprehensible evil and loss–after that he was never able to offer a quick fix, to suggest seven easy steps to perpetual joy, or to spell out the secrets for health-wealth-happiness. Rather, he summoned the human spirit to its triumph of love, in service, and even in suffering.”
This post has been incorporated into my recent article on Thinking Errors