Sunday, November 28, 2010

Signal-noise distinction

November 18, 2010

Dear friends,

This week I have been thinking about change in the context of response to stimulus. What are the factors that lead people to change? And, to bring the question home, how aware am I of those factors that influence change in me, the therapist, the woman, the practicing Christian?

As I often do, I began thinking by looking at my environment. Everywhere I looked I found advertisements for not-to-be-resisted “bargains” that would become available on Black Friday. What, I wondered, were the carefully placed “carrots” in these advertisements that were designed to change savers into spenders, to change “satisfied with what I have” into “have to have more”? Some “carrots” were easy to spot; others were less obvious, more subtle, more indirect and seductive.

I was reminded again that discernment is a learned skill. It is not easy to distinguish the real ore from “fool’s gold,” the valuable from the merely expensive, classic innovation from the temporary fashion of the moment, the “elegance and parsimony” of truth from the convoluted syllogisms of logic.

In the language of communication theory, we have to learn to distinguish the signal from the noise in which it is embedded.

On this first Sunday of Advent, I am challenged again by the old story that is ever new to me. Mary and Joseph went to register in response to Caesar’s edict, but they went to Bethlehem because Joseph was of the house and lineage of David. It must have been difficult—very difficult—to hear the signal “You are my chosen people,” in the noise of Rome’s “You hold life itself only at Caesar’s pleasure and power.” It must have been nearly impossible to hear God’s signal “Immanuel!!!” in the noise of that helpless baby’s cry (it came, you remember, from a Jewish peasant’s infant born in a barn). So far as we know, it was only the shepherds—simple rural folk, minding their flocks in the dark—that heard that angel chorus, and saw for a blinding moment those incredible, terrifying beings who had come from heaven itself to signal Messiah’s earthly birth.

Distinguishing signal from noise has never been easy, then or now.

In this harried holiday season, what God-signal are you seeking to distinguish from the noise of the world around us?

Seeking with you to hear the only signal that, in the end, really counts.

See you next week.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Boundaries on consumption anyone?

November 21, 2010

Good afternoon, friends,

It seems to me that Thanksgiving produces an odd combination of behavioral absurdity and good advice. Who can argue against a day dedicated to deliberate focused gratitude? But who can explain the logic of our culturally crafted absurdity of linking gratitude with an orgy-level of consumption? What is logical about celebrating the life-sustaining gift of food by eating too much? How does it make sense to follow this over-the-top consumption with a day in which gratitude for goods and materials is marked by a head-long rush into a massive shopping binge? Eating too much seems to me an odd way to be thankful for food; buying more "stuff" seems an equally odd way to be thankful for what we have.

Now having elected myself the Blogging Thanksgiving Scrooge, a note, the usual these days, about change.

Gratitude, rightly considered, is a conscious deliberate attitude of thankfulness. When gratitude is accompanied by an emotionally logical recognition of the object for which we choose to be grateful, such thankfulness can be--almost always is--a powerful change agent. We tend to respond joyfully to those things for which we are grateful.

Had an interesting lesson this week in regard to this kind of change.

One fine afternoon I devised an adventure for myself and my walking stick, but before the adventure ended I had to cross what was for me some difficult terrain. A young woman came running up behind me as I was making my last assault on some Mt. Everest type stairs; she waited patiently until I had labored my way to the top. Then, seeing that I had safely arrived, she ran in graceful easy strength to the top of the stairs without taking a second breath. When she reached me, she stopped a moment to speak.

"Isn't it wonderful to be able to walk?" she said. Then, with a gracious smile she added, "You're doing rather well," and was off, but the breath of her gratitude changed me.

I had unwisely taken the long way around the lake, and navigating the Mt. Everest type stairs that climbed to the walkway over the dam had been a consequence of that decision. But somehow, my weariness and my impatience with my slow progress began to evaporate. I thought, "It is wonderful to be able to walk. I am grateful--so grateful--to be walking this beautiful autumn day." And in a way I cannot explain I began to feel joyful--joyful about my sturdy shoes, aware joyfully of my beautiful stick that kept me steady, joyfully conscious that in the long cycle of my life I had been granted one more light-filled autumn day and the strength both to go adventuring and to find my tired way home.

It seems to me that gratitude and awareness, not consumption, are the precursors to joy. What do you think?

See you next week.

Seeking with you a more Kingdom-focused life,


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Limitations on change?

November 14, 2010

Good afternoon, friends,

When I sat down to write, I discovered that my head was still occupied with change and the self-talk issue we thought about last week.

Our culture teaches us the idea that we can become whatever we think--or dream--we can be. Last week's blog left us watching Aldonza in the Broadway version becoming the Lady Dulcinea. This successful play show-cases the power of self-talk in the terms of our cultural narrative--we can become whatever we think, or dream.

My desire to have an additional word about the Aldonza-Dulcinea transformation stems from the confusing combination of truth and error in this picture. What we tell ourselves changes us--no doubt. There is no question about the power of self-talk to elicit change. However, there is another question to consider: Is there something that we humans cannot talk ourselves into?

Oddly enough, the answer appears to be yes--we cannot talk ourselves into true goodness. In a recent blog we talked about the human impulse to break the speed limit. We noted that we can indeed talk ourselves into law-abiding behaviors by self talk that reminds us that if the patrolman sees us we are in big trouble. But we also noted, with some amusement, that this change is temporary--over the hill, around the curve and across the bridge, the obedience to the speed limit vanishes. Self-coerced change is often disappointingly transitory as most unsuccessful dieters know. Law conforming behavior, we discover, can be produced without an accompanying change that makes the heart embrace the Law as good. Honest employees can become embezzlers given opportunity. In life, unlike Broadway, we can learn to behave in ways that earn social approval without changing the dark impulses of our hearts.

It is change at this deep level of the heart that God works toward. It is God's insistence upon changed hearts that led to the intense debates between Jesus and the "good people" of his culture. They were shocked and offended to be told that their good behavior was not enough. The limitations of self-talk to provide this level of heart change led Jesus to tell Nicodemus, gifted teacher and faithful practitioner of the Law, that he must be born again.

The "born again" phrase in the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus has been widely lifted out of context and misused. As a result, in our culture at large "born again" often serves as a code word for an unattractive fundamentalist mentality and a rigid rule-oriented pattern of religious life that is widely ridiculed. This is not at all what Jesus was talking about with Nicodemus.

In reality Jesus was looking with Nicodemus at the limits of self-talk, even using the words of Torah, to produce the depth of change that God desires. Nicodemus, properly using the language of the Law, had produced in himself good behavior that was publicly apparent. Jesus did not question either Nicodemus's knowledge of the Law or his good behavior. What startled and confused Nicodemus was Jesus' insistence that Nicodemus needed something more than more good thinking--he needed a new life, a life produced by the Spirit.

The Aldonza/ Dulcinea transformation has a seductive fairy-tale quality that makes wonderful theater but a totally unreliable principle by which to live.

Sorry, folks, it's not that easy.

How can we change beyond the limits of self talk?

See you next week,


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Impossible dreams?

November 8, 2010

Dear friends,

This week I have thought about change--no change!! (Smiles.) Actually, what I have been considering is the complex power of language to evoke change in behavior.

While wondering about this, I talked briefly today with friends about Don Quixote. You may remember that in Cervantes's tale Don Quixote accompanied by his faithful servant Sancho Panza set out as a knight errant determined to right the wrongs he met in a suffering world. The story is a great one, and worth reading at a number of levels.

The issue of language and change was not a major theme of Cervantes, but the story provides material for thought about this none-the-less. One incident occurs in the infamous confrontation of Don Quixote with the windmills. Don Quixote identified the windmills as giants. He then rode furiously into battle with them only to be unceremoniously knocked off his horse. There was little appreciable damage done to the windmills, but Don Quixote was much the worse for the adventure. At another point, Don Quixote identified a flock of sheep as an army. Despite his good intentions, his confrontation with the sheep (army) was little more successful than his confrontation with the windmills (giants).

The limits of language to evoke change seem quite apparent: windmills remained windmills, and sheep remained sheep. Don Quixote, however, acquired numerous dents in his armor and bruises both to his body and pride as a result of his linguistic adventures. Change resulted as injury to the one whose deception about reality was reflected in the misuse of language.

In the novel, Aldonza was a neighboring farm woman whom Don Quixote dubbed the Lady Dulcinea in whose honor Quixote was undertaking his quest. In the text, Aldonza does not herself become aware of this alleged new identity.

However, when Cervantes's novel was made into a Broadway musical, The Man of La Mancha, the script recast Aldonza as a maid in the inn, who first angrily rejected the identity Quixote had ascribed to her, then began to believe it with transforming yet tragic consequences.

It is interesting to consider the adaptations incorporated into the romanticized rewriting of Cervantes's novel that made it successful as modern theater, but perhaps most interesting (at least in the context of the relationship between language and change) is the development of Aldonza as Dulcinea. To change the name is to change the identity, according to the Man of La Mancha script.

I wonder: if I condemn myself, do I make myself a guilty person? if I believe that I can persevere do I make myself resilient? What was the force of language that shaped Aldonza into Dulcinea? Is it significant that this change as it occurred in the Broadway production is absent from the novel? What meaning should we assign to Cervantes's decision in the novel to keep Alzonza ignorant of her assigned exalted identity? If Aldonza had known she was "Dulcinea" in name would she have become "Dulcinea" in character?

John the Apostle thought about language and change. He wrote: "See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God: and so we are. . . . we are God's children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we shall be like him. . . . And everyone who thus hopes.. . purifies himself. . . " [1 John 3:1-3].

What name do you give yourself in your private inner world? Who do you say that you are?

Thinking with you about the way self-talk shapes identity and evokes behavior.

See you next week.