David’s story continues:
“I have reached a point in my life where what I know about God and my Christian world view is not adequately addressing a growing discontent and sense of unease. I’m coming up short. This is not to say that I am ready to jettison my core beliefs; far from it. Who wants to live in a house built on shifting sand? And it is not that I don’t see Christ working in this world and even in myself. But I’m beginning to see that a relationship with God based exclusively on facts and reason is contributing to a sense of isolation. When I was young, ambitious and things were going well I thought myself as living a reasonably authentic life based on rational beliefs. I may have been naive. I am both an emotional and rational being. Reason and belief alone might not be enough to ‘finish well.’ I suppose it was inevitable that God would see to it that I reached this point.” And, finally, I’ll need to get past my reluctance to navel-gaze. As Socrates was reported to say, ‘The un-examined life is not worth living.’
So, David and I – a very willing co-traveler – are carefully working through a second book. The first, ‘Walking with God through Pain and Suffering’ by Tim Keller, was read through my 9 months of cancer therapy. The second book, ‘Anatomy of the Soul’ by the Christian psychiatrist Curt Thompson takes a different but equally well-grounded approach in addressing suffering, longing and discontent. I suspect that Thompson’s approach will move David significantly outside his comfort zone.
Anatomy of the Soul provides some interesting information about our neuro-biology and spiritual practices, including our interaction with scripture and connections with other people. The book also provides practical exercises to assist in our movement to a better integration of soul and mind as we venture into the territory of being known- “one of God’s passions for us”.
“Transformation requires a collaborative interaction, with one person emphatically listening and responding to the other so that the speaker has the experience, perhaps for the first time, of “feeling felt” by another. The interpersonal interaction exposes these functions of the mind and facilitates the integration of various layers of neural structures and brain systems, which in turn creates new neural networks.” Curt Thompson.
Thompson explains that God is at work here. He created our brains and wants our story to intersect with His. When we allow this to happen we move into deeper security, joy and confidence in knowing we are loved by God. From this place of really knowing we are loved by God we are more inclined to bring about the changes in our world that reflect ‘God’s Kingdom here on earth as it in heaven’.
(However,) “God never connects with us simply to make us feel safe or loved. His transformation always includes a command (a word against which our tendency is to rail) to follow him to the remaining places within ourselves and the world where darkness, cruelty, injustice, and rebellion persist. He invites us to go into deeper places within ourselves and within the world, both ventures requiring a greater degree of faith, hope and love.” Curt Thompson
It is here that I think David is going to be helped most. My cancer may not have started his angst but it certainly added to it. His feeling of inadequacy in always being my comforter brought out some deeper stuff. The kind of stuff that our brains are designed to shield us from or expose in us, depending on what is at stake. Our brains, amazing organs of human and divine connection, were created by a God who delights in being known by us as well as delighting in knowing us. Telling the stories of our lives connects the different parts of our brain to assist in creating new neural circuitry of peace and understanding. In addition, telling our stories to trusted individuals not only transforms our minds but also transforms the brains of our listeners.
Aside: As a mental health therapist I have experienced this listener transformation many times with various clients. It wasn’t until I read Anatomy of the Soul that I came to appreciate this as a good thing. Most in the mental health profession caution practitioners to stay objective and secure in their emotional boundaries. This makes sense up to a point but it leaves out something profound and inherent to our shared humanness.
Deborah, eventually started telling her story of neglect and loneliness as a child and teenager. Together we were trying to make sense of the anxiety attacks that were making her life miserable. She humored me as I asked her to tell the story of a very fragile childhood. She was not sure that it had anything to do with what she was currently dealing with because as she put it, “that was a long time ago and I can’t see the connections to what I am enduring now. After all, I am a 45 year old woman who has a good marriage, 2 great kids and a strong relationship with the Lord. I just don’t get why I am dealing with this”. An unexpected emotional collision of unresolved childhood hurt and abandonment with her first child leaving home for college would be the catalyst that brought her to me. She would later come to see that there was a connection between her insecure childhood and her anxiety attacks The point of this story is not to delve into her issues (Deborah is not her name and I have changed some of the circumstances of her story) but to mention something that happened in the telling of her story that was pivotal in healing. As she described the abandonment of her mother and the remembered feelings of loneliness, sadness and fear; a picture of my grandson who was the age that this woman was at the time of her story came uninvited to my mind. My grandson experiences safety, love and support from parents who are deeply devoted to him. Deborah, as a small lonely frightened child, came to my mind immediately following my grandson’s image and without intention my eyes welled up for her. Deborah took notice and as she did, her story became more emotionally experienced. She was “feeling felt”( a term Thompson uses taken from Dr. Dan Siegel).
and thereby more deeply connected to me. I, too, was feeling more connected to her and also sensing a more compassionate- me emerging from her story; a compassion that would reach beyond the four walls of my office.
We share a common image bearing status with others, whether they are clients or not. Made in God’s image we are also invited to know Him and be known (a kind of human and divine (small t) trinity). Our brains, intricately mysterious organs made by God are somehow structurally altered by our human connections. There are benefits not only for us but for the world as this knowing frees us to be unencumbered agents of justice and change.
How will David experience “being known by God?” How will I? Knowing things about God won’t necessarily get us there. Objective truths are important. Language, definitions, classifications, labels and propositions are soaked up by our human brains like sponges. We are designed for it. But the experience of being known by God and by others does not necessarily come by these ways. We aren’t just homo-sapiens because of pre- frontal cortex superior development. We are also human beings with brains designed to love and be loved. God our creator is love. Why would he not create our brains with such a grand design in mind?