Archives for the month of: January, 2014

I like this quote that has been misattributed to Edmund Burke:

All that is required for the triumph of evil is that good men remain silent and do nothing.

I would rephrase it to say:

All that is required for the triumph of evil is that good men remain nice and do nothing.

I’ve been reflecting on how niceness is sometimes held in such high esteem as a virtue to aspire to. It almost seems like one of our end goals of character development is to be a “nice person,” but I’m realizing more and more how it can be a liability and can come into conflict with being good. I’m not knocking the character traits that are associated with niceness: kindness, politeness, generosity, flexibility, courtesy, pleasantness, likability, patience, forbearance, agreeability, harmony. Unfortunately, I feel that two cultures (Asian American and evangelical Christianity) that influence me both promote niceness, so when you add blend the two together, it’s a double whammy of niceness. I’m too nice. And then when I finally need to set a boundary (because in my niceness, I’ve let people push way beyond normal boundaries), I lack practice on doing it graciously, so I switch from being nice to being too harsh, almost like Jekyll and Hyde.

It’s no coincidence that the institutional archenemy in C.S. Lewis’ third book of his Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength, is called the N.I.C.E. (an acronym for the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments). Being nice, as an end, can defeat being good because there is nothing in the body of niceness that specifically promotes being true and authentic to oneself, standing firm, and acting in the face of deeply held conviction. Instead, being nice to an extreme can translate into being overly accommodating and lacking boundaries, and there is an undertone of simpering, people-pleasing, passive enabling, and conflict avoidance. In contrast,

Jesus sure wasn’t being nice when he cleansed the temple by overturning the moneychangers’ tables in Matthew 21. I think we tend to value people who remain totally calm, collected, and level-headed. But I really don’t think that Jesus was “calm” when he overturned those tables. I am not saying that he was flying off the handle with rage and letting it control him, but at the same time, he wasn’t exactly politely and meekly going around to each table and saying, “Um, excuse me, would you mind not doing this anymore? Thank you.” It was more like, “This is outrageous and totally unacceptable, and must stop immediately. I’m going to drive that lesson home without mincing words.”

Jesus is good but not nice.

Aslan is good but not tame.

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A quote from theologian Richard Rohr:

My scientist friends have come up with things like ‘principles of uncertainty’ and dark holes. They’re willing to live inside imagined hypotheses and theories. But many religious folks insist on answers that are always true. We love closure, resolution and clarity, while thinking that we are people of ‘faith’! How strange that the very word ‘faith’ has come to mean its exact opposite!

We often pit faith and intuition against reason. This false conflict has often led us to abandon our brains at the door in terms of faith — so many times I have been told (rebuked), “Stop thinking so hard about this. Just have faith and ignore your doubts.”

As someone who has been given a fine mind by God as a gift, I recoil against statements like that because I think that God meant for me to be a good steward of my mind. It’s about bringing the left brain (reason and linear thinking) and the right brain (intuition, faith, creativity, mystery) together in harmony and integration. This is how they work the best. This is the goal of living wholeheartedly.

No surprise, I’m in the middle of reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Dr. Brene Brown, and through her research, she has found that intuition is actually a product of the reasoning process (p. 87-88):

…psychologists believe that intuition is a rapid-fire, unconscious associating process–like a mental puzzle. The brain makes an observation, scans its files, and matches the observation with existing memories, knowledge, and experiences. Once it puts together a series of matches, we get a “gut” on what we’ve observed.

More importantly, our intuition does not necessarily always produce the exact right answer we’re looking for, but may signal to us that we need to collect more information. However, in my quest for certainty, I’ve often ignored my gut instinct, and have a tendency to poll other people for their opinions on the situation at hand, and my experience does reflect hers (page 88-89):

When I’m making a difficult decision and feel disconnected from my intuition, I have a tendency to survey everyone around me. Ironically, since doing this research, surveying has become a red flag for me– it tells me I’m feeling vulnerable about making a decision.

Good grief. Lord, help me! I’m a researcher too by vocation, and I fall in the exact same camp here. I have made a living out of extracting opinions and information from people. And it’s in the quest of eliminating uncertainty and minimizing risk. I avoid making my own decisions because I’m afraid that I might be wrong. The perfectionist in me is afraid of making decisions and wants something really certain. And how long will it take to realize that so very little in this life is certain, especially our earthly circumstances?

So here’s how Dr. Brown defines intuition based on her research (by the way, she has interviewed 13,000 subjects on connection/vulnerability/shame to date, and all her work is based on grounded-theory research):

Intuition is not a single way of knowing– it’s our ability to hold space for uncertainty and our willingness to trust the many ways we’ve developed knowledge and insight, including instinct, experience, faith, and reason.

She then goes onto discuss how faith and reason are not enemies, but our fears of being wrong and our need for certainty pit faith and reason against each other. “Many forms of fundamentalism and extremism are about choosing certainty over faith.”

Faith, as defined based on her research, is:

a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and our strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.

That is not too different from the definition of faith according to Hebrews 11:1–

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

In the end, vulnerability and connected living means embracing and acknowledging uncertainty, and living, stepping forward, daring greatly in the midst of that.

Surviving Anxiety,” the cover article in this month’s issue of The Atlantic, demonstrates a great deal of courage on the part of its author, Scott Stossel, the editor of this magazine. It is in the same vein of everything Brene Brown espouses in terms of sharing and owning one’s story, especially all the shameful parts one would want to keep hidden. Stossel writes about his own lifelong struggle with anxiety, all the treatments he has tried, and how he lives with it. I think it’s the best article that I’ve read in this magazine.

I squirmed when I read Stossel’s account of what happened when his anxiety caused him to have to use the bathroom at the Kennedys’ estate in Hyannis Port, and the toilet overflowed…. And then he ran into John F. Kennedy, Jr. But I think most of us can empathize with doing something where we’re like, Oh crap, (I guess, in his case, it was literal) this is so embarrassing and I’m never going to be able to show my face again. But even though it was so very hard to read this tale of woe, my admiration for Scott Stossel deepened — that he could embrace his own story with his whole heart (which is what courage is all about — putting your heart into your story; coeur, from which the word courage is derived, is French for heart).

The concluding paragraph is bittersweet, commenting about how anxiety is both a blight and a blessing… It reminds me of the same paradox that Henri Nouwen writes about in his book, The Wounded Healer. Or of Ransom’s wound in C.S. Lewis’ final installment in the Space Trilogy.

 

In his 1941 essay “The Wound and the Bow,” the literary critic Edmund Wilson writes of the Sophoclean hero Philoctetes, whose suppurating, never-healing snakebite wound on his foot is linked to a gift for unerring accuracy with his bow and arrow—his “malodorous disease” is inseparable from his “superhuman art” for marksmanship. I have always been drawn to this parable: in it lies, as the writer Jeanette Winterson has put it, “the nearness of the wound to the gift,” the insight that in weakness and shamefulness is also the potential for transcendence, heroism, or redemption. My anxiety remains an unhealed wound that, at times, holds me back and fills me with shame—but it may also be, at the same time, a source of strength and a bestower of certain blessings.

This 3rd TED talk I found by Brene Brown, “The Price of Invulnerability,” is kicking my butt. She says, “You cannot selectively numb emotion. When we numb the dark emotion… we by default numb joy.”

I realize that it is hard for me to receive joy — Brown calls this “foreboding joy.” When something good happens, I start wondering, when the other shoe will drop, when will the joy be ruined and taken away from me, instead of simply and fully receiving that joy as a gift of the present moment, no matter how long it will last. In other words, I am unable to live with open hands, openly receiving and letting go of what God gives and takes from me.

What really struck me was this research finding Brown cites:
“[I]n addiction studies, an intensely positive experience is as likely to trigger relapse as an intensely negative experience.
If vulnerability is a sharp edge, there may be nothing sharper than joy. — To let yourself soften into loving someone, to caring about something passionately, that’s vulnerable.”

I keep desiring an intensely positive experience because it feels like I’ve experienced a long string of very negative experiences and I keep thinking that positive experiences will somehow erase, blot out, balance out the negative. But the question is, would I even be able to receive an intensely positive experience if it happened to me, or would I just numb it out somehow? That would be very tragic, and I suspect that I would be closer to numbness on the spectrum of possible reactions.

I’m onto my next Brene Brown book, The Gifts of Imperfection. It’s convicting thus far. On the topic of self-sufficiency vs. giving and receiving help, she writes (pages 20-21):

One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on “going it alone.” Somehow we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we’re very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It’s as if we’ve divided the world into “those who offer help” and “those who need help.” The truth is that we are both….

Until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help….

The Wholehearted journey is not the path of least resistance. It’s a path of consciousness and choice. and, to be honest, It’s a little counterculture. The willingness to tell our stories, feel the pain of others, and stay genuinely connected in this disconnected world is not something we can do halfheartedly.

To practice courage, compassion, and connection is to look at life and the people around us, and say, “I’m all in.”

This is convicting b/c I feel like I’m in a season where I seek help and support from others, and yet I still have trouble with completely openly receiving it. I hold judgment against myself as being weak and needy (one of “those” people whom others like to avoid and/or pity), and then attached to that judgment, I don’t feel like I can much to offer others in terms of assistance. Neither of these are true and are somewhat rooted in playing the victim. And this attitude of looking down on myself and seeing others as more powerful marks the difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy consists of two equals helping one another (DT Niles: “Evangelism is just one beggar telling another where to find bread”), which is quite different from sympathy, which reeks of a power dynamic (Here, let me, being so much stronger and well-resourced, help you, being so much weaker and more pathetic, and boy I hope I am never like you). The truth is we all have a lot to offer each other and we all also have a lot of need that we cannot fill by ourselves (and there is no shame in that), and that’s why we have community and that’s why we are biologically wired for connection.