Or as Albert Schweitzer put it when asked to name humanity's most pressing question, "Is the universe friendly?"
More and more people question whether anyone or anything is watching out for us on a cosmic level. The "new atheist" authors are convinced that any belief in God is sheer foolishness. The complexity of life and the overwhelming suffering in the world leave many of us beset by doubts. Yet doubt is a part of life. Many years ago I heard the rector of the St. Paul Seminary say, "Anyone who has never doubted is either a liar or a fool." While I know a few people who've been gifted with an unwavering faith, most of us wonder, especially when times are tough.
Often the debate rests on what appears to be a logical argument between science and religion. I would hold that science and religion ask different questions. Science can tell us that rainbows occur when light is refracted through water droplets, perceived by our eyes and processed by our brains. Science can't explain why 99% of the human race call rainbows beautiful, and why our first response to a rainbow is to catch our breath and stop in wonder - at the beauty, not the physics.
The God/science discussion is obviously way more complicated than that simple summary. My point here is that the scientific method has its limits. We make the biggest decisions of our lives - who and whether to marry, whether to live a generous or an exploitive life - on something other than logic and careful measurement. Our best life decisions don't ignore logic, but they are heavily influenced by intuition and the heart. So an intellectual debate about the existence of a Divine Being is only part of the search. Another path is the road toward encounter.
My husband told me this morning he saw what he thinks are fox tracks in the snow in our back yard. A debate about the existence of foxes and their usual habitat will not tell me whether he's right. The only way I can know for sure is to keep watch - quietly and patiently. If I don't see a fox, it doesn't mean there are no fox in our neighborhood. If I see a fox tonight, there is no guarantee I will observe a repeat tomorrow night. The fact that fox are unpredictable does not mean they don't exist. The fact that spiritual experiences are not as predictable as gravity does not mean they're not real.
My purpose is not to try to prove that God exists. I do want to suggest that by watching carefully, over a period of time, we may encounter something unexpected. I also suggest that, barring an outburst of grace, without a patient search we can't arrive at an answer.
We can argue the Sacred out of our world, or we can set up camp and watch for its presence. Spiritual practices up our chances of catching a glimpse of the fox in our woods. Some practices equip us to watch solo. Some offer us the benefit of other seekers' wisdom, experience and company. The percentage of people in the world who know how to track an actual wild animal has dropped dramatically over the last century. Linking up with skillful tracker can increase my chances of seeing an elusive fox.
Industrialization has taken a toll on our spiritual as well as our physical environment. We are short on space in our lives to notice God's action, and we've found some of our guides to be seriously flawed. Yet true guides are abundant, especially if we look back into our spiritual history. Saints and heroes like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Francis of Assisi, Desmond Tutu and Badshah Khan would all say they could not have achieved what they did or become who they were without strength that came from beyond themselves. We have nothing to lose but a little time if we decide to learn some of their techniques for following tracks in the snow.
Photo credits: Christopher Michel, Flickr; Peggy Cadigan, Flickr
A long time ago, when Sigmund Freud first started talking about the inner workings of the human mind, the conversation was pretty grim. Attention focused on what was wrong with people: hysteria, neuroses, complexes, fixations. For decades psychologists and psychoanalysts worked earnestly to help clients rid themselves of these sometimes-crippling disorders. As psychology fought to be taken seriously, researchers carefully studied a wide range of human dysfunction, offering important new insights to the world.
Which was good, but in hindsight a little lopsided. Around twenty-five years ago a few rebels started noticing that very little was being said about the positive aspects of human nature. Research on qualities like altruism, love or joy was almost nonexistent, and positive emotions were rarely mentioned in the professional literature. In time the field of “positive psychology” was born, and new research heralded our capacity for resilience, compassion and healing.
About ten years ago I stumbled across an article written by Dr. George Vaillant, a researcher and professor of psychiatry at Harvard University. Dr. Vaillant pointed out the existence of what he called “spiritual emotions.” He noted that spiritual emotions like gratitude, compassion, joy, awe, trust, love and hope all direct us beyond our own survival toward something greater. He drew on the work of Barbara Frederickson, who points out that such emotions prompt us to cooperate with others to create new and better solutions. Fear, on the other hand, causes us to narrow our focus and grow rigid and reactive in our thinking.
The article caught my attention and I’ve returned to it many times. Vaillant offered me a new vantage point for responding to our troubled times. These days when I look at religious or political institutions I see structures in trouble. Those structures are essential to life together, especially when we live together in large groups. But when they get unbalanced they can be like an overloaded freight train rounding a curve too fast. We’re seeing a lot of high-speed teetering these days.
If dogma and institutions are the bones and muscles of religion, I would see spiritual emotions as the heart and circulatory system. To paraphrase St. Paul, we can’t live without bones or muscles, but we also can’t expect femurs or biceps to feed themselves. Spiritual emotions provide the energy and healing power we need to keep us going.
George Vaillant is now in his eighties and graciously carries the wisdom of age. Over the years his message has become ever more focused: the foundation of human thriving is love. He reminds us that happiness arrives more surely as a byproduct rather than an object of our actions. When we try to make ourselves happy we often just make ourselves tired. When we remember to be grateful, to forgive, to pay attention to the hearts of the quirky people around us, we are often, as C.S. Lewis said, “surprised by joy.”
Vaillant sums it up, “Happiness is the cart. Love is the horse.”
Click here for his TED talk.
Photo credit: Jaroom Photography, Flickr
It's no secret our congregations are greying. St. Mary's Press, longtime Catholic education publisher, is researching and responding to the absence of so many young people from our pews. Their most recent blog post features a conversation between me and senior editor and wise counselor Jerry Ruff. Find it here:
Common wisdom used to claim our intellects were supposed to conquer our emotions, and certainly we’ve all gotten into trouble by being carried away with anger or captivated by some temporary obsession. But emotions also inspire people to great things, and researchers have recently discovered emotions play a central role in our so-called “intellectual” capacity to figure things out and remember.
So emotions are a mixed bag, and we experience conflicting emotions all day long. How do we sort them out, especially on the spur of the moment? How do we know what we’re “supposed to” feel? I’ve been puzzling over this question for a long time, and finally came up with a way to think about emotions. I believe they fall roughly into the following four categories:
Positive spiritual emotions like gratitude, compassion, awe, joy trust, hope, love, inspiration
Painful spiritual emotions like grief and contrition
Survival emotions: anger, fear and desire
Counterproductive emotions: resentment, anxiety and depression
Each category has distinctive characteristics and invites a different response. We’ll focus on positive spiritual emotions for the moment.
So What Is A Positive Spiritual Emotion?
Spiritual emotions occur when we transcend our own small selves and connect intuitively and emotionally with our deepest selves, other people, and/or God. Think of someone you would consider spiritually great. This person may or may not belong to your faith tradition, if you have one. You probably don’t agree with everything they say or do. They may not possess all of the qualities in our first list above, but most likely they’re strong in at least a couple. They’re buoyed not just be their convictions but also by a mysterious inner state.
That inner state or spiritual emotions can prompt us to take action or result from an outside circumstance. Sometimes we take action based on a surge of gratitude or compassion; other times a sunset or a baby’s laugh brings on gratitude and we just hold it - or are distracted and pass it by.
We’ve all had the experience of white-knuckling through a tough decision, overriding our emotional response every step of the way in order to live faithful to our convictions. Those moments are admirable and important. They’re also really hard to sustain. How do we shift our insides to a place where our emotional default not only feels better but also helps us be the person we want to be?
We can’t manufacture spiritual emotions, but we can cultivate them. We can choose activities and situations where we catch them from other people. We can become more aware of habits that steer us toward unproductive emotions like anxiety, resentment or depression. We can develop - but never guarantee - our capacity to receive them by grace from God.
Because we need them. And the world needs us.
Photo credit: Josh Sullivan, Flikr
A rubber ducky bobbing back to the surface, an irrepressible grin plastered on its face.
An 8-year-old Labrador Retriever that still hasn't learned when enough is enough.
A young woman who stays emotionally whole in spite of being abused at home and in foster care.
Nelson Mandela seeking peace with his captors after spending 27 years in prison.
Examples of resilience? Yes.
Equivalent? Not quite.
The dictionary defines resilience as
1. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and
2. the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape.
Rubber ducks fit those definitions. They’re designed to stand up to babies who delight in shoving them underwater and watching them pop up into the air to land on their little flat bottoms. Rubber ducks may be cute, but they don’t learn and they don’t change.
Spiritual resilience asks more. Spiritually resilient people like Nelson Mandela or a family abuse survivor learn from their underwater moments and emerge more balanced, more persistent and wiser than before. They feel their pain and transform it. We feel the strength of their brave hearts and want to become more like them - at least for a little while.
We instinctively recognize spiritual resilience when we see it, even if we can’t name it. Spiritually resilient individuals can be found all over the world, though some circumstances seem to produce them more readily. Our times cry out for people who are courageous, generous, hopeful and kind. Learning the skills of spiritual resilience can help us become that - and bring us greater joy along the way
In this blog I’ll explore spiritual resilience with you: what it is and how we can develop our capacity for it. We’ll see what we can learn from psychology, neuroscience and our own Christian tradition. Our project will center on developing the key spiritual emotions of gratitude, awe, hope, joy, trust, love and compassion.
We can all be the better for it.
Photo credit: Dennis Hill, Flickr