Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Thinking, Feeling and Well-Being

Our ideas drive our emotions; our thinking is the foundation for our feeling. When my neighbor turned away from me, I thought that he was rejecting me and felt hurt. However, after my thinking changed, and I learned that he was depressed and turned away from everyone, I felt differently about him.

In a similar way, I had been upset with my wife, who had been making numerous calls for three consecutive nights, after I had gone to bed. However, when I later learned that she calling to organize a surprise party for me, my feelings immediately changed.

The way we conceptualize the world determines how we will feel about it. This principle also pertains to our philosophies and theologies. As a Christian, God has made this principle real for me in a variety of ways.

I had grown up experiencing waves – even tsunamis – of self-contempt and feelings of condemnation. Even after coming to Christ, I continued to experience these overwhelming feelings. However, as my thinking changed and I grew in the understanding that “there is no condemnation for those who are Christ’s” (Romans 8:1), these intense feelings began to subside.

Likewise, I struggled with feelings that I was a second or third-class Christian – a reject. However, as Scripture began to change my thinking, my feelings changed correspondingly.

Regardless of our worldview, this principle of the power of our thoughts still pertains. For example, many today believe that we are no more than animals, albeit advanced animals. However, if we think this way about our fellow humans, gradually, we will also feel this way (and even act this way). The reason that it is gradual is that it takes a while to replace all of the old thinking patterns and social cognitive and legal structures.

For instance, the law communicates that there is something sacred about humanity. It forbids us from eating humans, placing them in zoos, or even turning them into rats for medical experiments. In other words, the law still says that we human are qualitatively different from animals.

Our worldview will also impact our psychology and quality of our lives. I gradually came to understand that suffering was not a sign that God hated me, but instead, a sign of His love and that He is character in my life. This thinking changed my orientation towards suffering, making it acceptable.

Had I instead believed in karma, my suffering would have presented a double-whammy. The first whammy is the pain; the second whammy is the conviction that I must have done something horrible to deserve it. Likewise, when a child is born crippled, not only does he have to deal with the infirmity, but he also has the burden of thinking that he is less deserving than others. Besides, he is also stigmatized.

Others understand their suffering as proof that God doesn’t exist and consequently that suffering is purposeless. However, this understanding deprives them any appreciation of the positive role that suffering might play in their lives.

Suffering can also last. Therefore, belief in a joyous eternal life with my Savior enables me to look beyond my present circumstances. However, for those who deny an afterlife, only their present circumstances are left.

If our thinking is so critical to our feeling and quality of life, what does this say about psychotherapy? About psychotropic medication? Medication does not address our thought life – our worldviews. Instead, it addresses what is relatively superficial – our feelings. If our thoughts are determinative, psychotherapy must be able to address, not only the thought life, but also the philosophy of life.

This means that the therapist must be a philosopher/theologian. If the therapist ignores this dimension, then she ignores what is of supreme importance. However, not any philosophy is adequate. It must be a philosophy that embodies the truth.

In order to drive a car, we need accurate feedback from our eyes. Inaccuracies can cause a fatal crash. This, of course, is an extreme example. However, this principle pertains to all life. Whatever we manage, whether it’s a car or our lives, we require accurate understanding and feedback. This means that we have to understand what it is that we are managing. Our philosophy of life matters! It is therefore essential that we understand human nature and know how to nurture it.

In contrast to this notion, some have argued that human nature is a blank slate on which we can write anything we want and live in any way we want. Without a nature, there are no natural constraints. Anything goes! However, as the many schemes to reprogram the human core have shown, there are evidently certain fixed parameters, beyond which we cannot proceed. For instance, despite the obvious appeal of an open marriage, our nature has proscribed this institution.

If our nature is blank, then there is nothing to learn about it. If it isn’t blank, then we have to learn about its parameters and how to live within them. How can we do this? For me the answer is easy – “Read the Bible.” However, for those who do not believe that the Bible is the Word of God, perhaps there are other ways they can learn about human nature. We can ask the question, “What truths enable us to maximize our lives and manage them effectively?”

With the growth of “positive psychology,” there is a growing consensus regarding the healthfulness of certain beliefs or ideas – the belief in other-centeredness, charity, forgiveness, gratefulness, taking responsibility for our actions, living according to our moral code, and trusting in a Transcendent power. Try it out, as the Psalmist advises:

  • Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him. (Psalm 34:8)
Jesus put it like this:

  • If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. (John 7:17)
Just “choose to do God’s will.”

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