Positive Presence 9/6/15

Rm. 12:2, 9; Phil. 2:14-17

Peter Krieger was sitting in the cardiologist’s office after a brush with angina, filling out a questionnaire on his lifestyle for the physician. He was asked to describe the incident that landed him in the office, a relatively benign event, yelling at the umpire at the Jets game until he felt this pain in his chest and became dizzy, had to sit down and the Event staff ushered him to a hall with his son, so the EMT people could do their thing and finally release him to go home.

The form asked if he had experienced any other ‘lightheadedness’ and he was thinking to himself that he would probably not share that the previous Thursday night, he’d gotten home after everyone was asleep after a business dinner and he was watching the late night news channels with an interview from one of the real boneheads in Washington and he’d started off jeering and ridiculing the television set that broke forth into something of a low-grade tirade that was just  about to reach a full throated vent when he felt a spinning sensation, sat down abruptly, thought he might faint, waited it out and finally schlepped upstairs to his bedroom.

The form asked if he had higher than normal stress at his job? A series of images flashed through his head of awkward meetings and tense discussions that had followed the last year and a half of a merger that didn’t fit together nearly as well as predicted. He rolled his eyes not entirely knowing whether to answer this sarcastically or seriously.

“Are there stresses at home?” He had images of his teens, one of whom God couldn’t motivate to focus and another perpetually killing someone in the latest video game. He rolled his eyes.

Like the proverbial frog in the slowly warming pan of water, Peter didn’t quite notice that his frustrations had been mounting and so was his anger. And as he vented that anger, it somehow seemed like there were even more things to be angry with, crap from the commute, inane government regulations, idiotic bureaucracy. And then there was, of course, the evening news.

He didn’t realize just how much of his day alternated between sarcastic incredulity, annoyance, low grade rage, and venting. Not until, he almost had a heart attack. He is not alone. There are a number of risk factors for heart attack, smoking, weight, diet but it may well turn out that the number one instigating cause for heart attack is anger.

Our anger and fear have to be intentionally managed as it turns out because they originate from the primal part of the brain, one step above our autonomic responses like breathing in your sleep. Anger serves us well to put us in high alert, but it also triggers aggression, it diminishes our ability to think clearly, it diminishes our ability to see the bigger picture, and it stimulates hostility.

The good news is that we over ride our primal emotions with our higher emotions from the pre-frontal lobe: compassion, understanding, cooperation, love. You can watch it on a screen now, largely it appears what neurologists have been doing for the past 15 years.

What really grabbed their imagination in this first generation of observation was what they refer to as the ‘plasticity’ of the brain. We can actually change the neural pathways and grow more adept in being emotionally expressive and integrated. They noticed how much of our daily habits formed for us ‘closed loop feedback mechanisms’, so that if you engage your anger, you find more things to be angry about and engage your anger again. We tend to re-inforce what we are already doing and find better reasons to continue in like vein.

Conversely, if you begin and end your day reflecting out loud on a couple things that you were grateful for that happened during the day, you will become more attentive to how many blessings make up your existence. We can actually watch on a screen the way that the brain pathways for our gratitude become more richly patterned the more we use them. What it means is that we have substantive spiritual control over a range around our given disposition.

When I was in college the faculty at Wake Forest used to referring to the budding discipline of sociology as ‘the science of the obvious’. In some ways today, I would characterize the budding discipline of neuro-psychology as the ‘science of the anecdote.’

We revered St. Paul in the early church because every one of his letters speaks about how the spiritual community focuses us in these ways that transforms us personally and positively. Regardless of the theological question that he was trying to answer from various churches that he started, he would always speak to how the gospel transforms the way we live. What is the fulfillment that God wants for us as we live our lives?

The psychology department has only started asking that question about our emotional selves for the past 15 years but their early answers are suggestive and they remind us in the spiritual community why we do what we do.

The biggest insight comes as no great surprise to my generation. We’ve over-valued the benefits of intelligence. In fact, if you keep telling little Winston that he is so smart that his stellar report card and test scores will march him into the top colleges and the doors of opportunity will swing open after that, we are unwittingly setting our children up… for failure.

We’ve sensed this to be true for quite some time, which is why the SAT is such a poor predictor not only of success in life, but success even in college. IQ is simply not enough.  There was an article in the New York Times magazine that[i] featured some Middle School educators from New York that were concerned that their students who had been given top drawer educations were nevertheless a good deal less than elite on their actual graduation rates from college. The school had been selecting students by using IQ as their overwhelming criteria for valuation. IQ turns out to be way too narrow. But it is easier to measure IQ than the other two or three dimensions for a rounded life of success and meaning. Intellect is important, but it is not exhaustive or even predominant.

When we actually started trying to identify the qualities people had who were academically successful at the top level, we discovered, not surprisingly, that equal in importance to raw intelligence was the ability to focus. I would suppose that half the parents of Middle school boys in our country could have told you that.

And I suppose it is no great surprise that when you look at the lives of people we label genius, like Sir Isaac Newton at Cambridge University for his Principia Mathematica, they have in common??? … this extraordinary ability to concentrate and focus. As a result, they execute unbelievably.

And the good news is that our attention is largely like a muscle. You can make it much stronger. All of our spiritual traditions have already discovered this in the discipline of prayer. As Christian mystics, Sufi Muslims, Jewish Kabbalists and Buddhist monks already know, meditation is much more effective than alcohol. Like our need for sleep, we simply perform better if periodically enter into a deeper meditative state. It doesn’t just renew us, it appears that it has more indirect benefits that are broader and substantive than we have yet been able to study. It appears that it helps us become aware, able to focus our attention longer, able to concentrate our focus consistently.

Another dimension for academic success but for success in our life and our families, is to develop our Emotional Quotient. Unfortunately, we generally stop grading for this in kindergarten. You remember that section from your child’s pre-K report card that dealt with socialization and deportment. You may remember the entry that began, “Shares toys with others in the sandbox” and your little Mary Beth got a check in the box that said, “Needs improvement”.

Turns out it was a mistake to stop grading this and valuing it. It turn out that emotional agility is critical for achieving academically and more critical for achieving success in our career and in our in life. How good are you at sensing how people are doing around you? How good are you at anticipating what it is that they need, so that you can put them in good space? How good are you at getting your needs met in a way that works for your loved ones as well? How well can you soothe your spouse or your relatives when they are upset, rather than, say, adding to the fire and making a bad situation worse? How good are you at creating an environment where those around you can flourish?

I was humored reading one study on creating a positive environment. I’d learned it from one of my great grandfathers when I was 4 and he was 90. As a wee child, I might have been scared to visit him with all the funny smells of old age that were in his part of the house, but I have only warm memories.

Why? On his desk, he kept one of those wonderful glass containers with a glass lid on it that dotted the general stores of the South in the 30’s. As soon as I walked back to see him, he would motion me over to that jar and ask me to get out a couple pieces of chocolate. Before we ever spoke, we’d both stand there eating some chocolate and he would smile at me. After I left, he would always call me back one more time to take another piece of chocolate for the road. You know, I have nothing but fond memories of the man.

Our neuro-psychologists did a series of studies on the “resonance of positive associations”. You are far more likely to get a positive response to your request if you first offer them something sweet.

And the effects of positive resonance are broader and more subtle than you might imagine. When we studied physicians, we discovered that physicians will make more accurate diagnoses with just a piece of chocolate before the exam. The speculation is that a small stimulus of “emotional positivity” disposes us to pay deeper attention. We have also shown that engaging our positive emotions have a heliotropic effect. That means that our positive emotions dispose us to broader thinking as well as a disposition of openness.

This literature reads like the anecdotal wisdom of the past that we read from St. Paul. He wrote to the Church at Philippi because the two women who led the church were having a fight and about to break up the congregation.

Never mind that Paul is writing from Prison where the Romans have wrongfully jailed him, never mind that he is losing his appeal, and never mind that he is about to die.

But just like your children, these folks are having a fight anyway, irrespective of what you are going through and the want St. Paul to settle it. St. Paul writes to them and tells them that he has learned, spiritually, to engage his contentment, his serenity in all situations, even those where our only real option is to simply suffer on through.

He says, be like the Christ. And what does that look like? It is not argumentative or angry. No, shine from within. Hold fast to what is good, he says in Romans. Genuinely release the love with each other in a mutual manner. Bless others and create a shared harmony.  Find a place for everyone.

Now we just put statistics to these insights and can show that if you live like this you generally much more likely to live longer, to love your life more, to think more comprehensively, to make more money and have a more fulfilling work life-  and… you are more likely to have a better romantic life. And, I’m glad to report, you are much more likely to attend church.

I was listening to Brian Leher on NPR this week interviewing a woman that has recently written a paper on cyber-bullying, with some of our New York area school counselors calling in. What all of them agreed on was the need for some comprehensive growth among our adolescents so that they might grow into becoming emotionally attuned people.

They were speculating on the indirect influence of reality TV shows like ‘the Jersey Shore’ where you lift dysfunctional behavior to a level of celebrity. Sarah Bunting is undoubtedly right that reality TV is a spiritual junk food you get addicted to because you love to feel superior to these people. But we know our children are influenced by celebrity in ways different from adults?

One of the experts wondered if we are inadvertently validating these unbecoming emotional characters, especially if our children are also witnessing this same dysfunctional behavior exhibited by their parents or extended family members. Are we creating a culture of drama? And do we really want that?

What really struck me in the new research is the fundamental validation of one of the principal ideas handed down to us from the Bible.  Quite the opposite of the catty, narcissism of reality TV, if you actually want to find a fuller, more meaningful life, start and end your day, with a spirit of gratitude. Give thanks for what you appreciate in those right around you. What a great tradition for couples to do, for parents and children.

And some of the other attributes of emotionally resonant people? They engage in

joy, which for humans is mostly to be found in deep and meaningful relationships- our friends, family, our spouses.

Developing amusement and a sense of humor to get through difficulty and awkward moments…

Being curious and interested…

Having a positive sense of pride, self-respect, self-esteem, taking yourself seriously.

Having inspiration, looking up to role models, motivating yourself to actualize your potential and hopefully, becoming a person that inspires other people.

Developing serenity. Cultivating a meditative space, putting yourself in places that evoke the deeper calm.

Opening yourself to wonder, the sense of awe that I had the first time I saw an iceberg or swimming with the sea turtles off the North shore of Oahu.

Being loving and opening yourself to receive the love of other people.[ii]

How these become manifest in your life is highly personalized to you. But I am becoming more confident that we will develop a consensus set of values, characteristics, and practices that will help us to develop an emotionally rounded life. This has certainly always been one of the primary goals of Christianity. We want to have the most realistic portrait of human nature to understand what God wants us to do with our lives and what we are to become.

It is true that in history we  Christians probably got a little over-zealous in our depictions of human sinfulness but the over-arching goal was to have a realistic understanding of our potential and our limitations.

Today, scientists are prone to put the same observation like this. As Barbara Fredrickson put it in her research at Chapel Hill, the target is to create a 3:1 ratio. For every engagement of your negative emotional side (your anger, your fear, your sarcasm, your cynical and snide self, the snippy, the selfish), you need two doses of engaging your positive side.

I love that. I can see spouses this afternoon. “Okay, Mr. Grumpy, bring me two portions of the positive side?”

Professor Fredrickson has a wonderful little summary paragraph. She says we all want to find happiness, but we Americans have been coaxed by Madison Avenue to look for it in the wrong places. “We look for happiness in higher salaries, more possessions, or bigger achievements. Or we fixate on the future, when our dreams will come true that will make us happy.” It isn’t the extra of busyness at work but connecting with our children. “We unwind with martini’s rather than meditation.” We lift weights rather than walk in nature. We follow fad diets rather than eat smaller portions. We watch TV or surf the internet rather than read a book. We write e-mail rather than poetry.”

I’m glad that you are in church today, resetting the system towards emotional roundedness. We intend to co-create a community here where we can all become emotionally attuned, morally substantive, and spiritually richer. We want to expose our children to this side of ourselves, this side of our family, our friends.

There is a wonderful little parabolic tale told about Jesus that the disciples were out fishing all night and couldn’t catch a thing. They see Jesus in the morning at dawn and he tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat and suddenly their nets are full of fish. We’re casting our nets on the other side of the boat with Jesus. We are casting our nets on the side of emotional resonance. Spiritually, we are actually hoping that our nets will become seemingly miraculously full.

My brothers and sisters, in a moment, I’m going to invite you to the table of grace, where the blessing of God is made available to you and you can watch it miraculously multiply in our lives together. Before that I want you take a minute, I’m going to ask Mark to play something for us and reflect for a moment. What is it that you are grateful for? How is it that you have been blessed recently? What is it that keeps you going, even when you are surrounded by a lot of negativity?

Take a moment and give thanks….




[i] Paul Tough, “The Character Test” NYT, September 18, 2011, p. 36 ff. or www.nytimes.com/2011/09/18/magazine/what-if-the-secret-to-success-is-failure?

[ii] This list is not exhaustive. It comes from Barbara Fredrickson’s work at Chapel Hill and is detailed in her book Positivity (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009). I wouldn’t get too tangled up on the lists as different researchers vary in the way they organize the list. We are early enough in our research that we won’t have consensus values and traits for a while.

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