Living Human Documents

Some years ago I came across a book entitled, Everyone’s Life is Worth a Novel.  Knowing very little about the book and absolutely nothing about the author, I took a chance on it based solely on its intriguing title—one that resonated with a deep belief in me that all people are fascinating and interesting, if you dig deeply enough!

One of the pioneers of mental health chaplaincy, Anton Boisen, observed those under his care as “living, human documents.”  It is a metaphor that can be expanded in a hundred different ways, all pointing to the central truth that content cannot be measured by the cover, the thickness, or the cosmetics of a book, but only by the connection the story evokes in the reader.  When one adopts a posture that sees others as documents to be read before they are superficially interpreted, the chance for meaningful encounter increases proportionately.

 It is also a worthwhile image for self-reflection.  Observing the narratives of our lives rather than judging, resenting, or ignoring them is more likely to provide a meaningful context than just sitting in the drama.

 One of the central causes of conflict is the impatience that often prevents us from
investing due diligence in our relationships. In the interests of economy, the tendency is to project outwards from some place of comfort within ourselves and to include or exclude others based on a standard that exists within us–“do they think like me, look like me, share my interests or background?  Do they represent something familiar and comfortable, evoking the aromas of home and hearth, or do they stretch me beyond my preferred boundaries?”

 It was an illuminating moment when I realized how often my comfort zone has shifted.  Some of my early beliefs and the pursuits I followed seem ridiculous to me in the increased light of experience.  Just the same, they were beliefs and pursuits that seemed necessary at the time.  At one point I simply had to accept that I was where I was when I was there, because I could not authentically be anywhere else.  That understanding led to an awareness that if I needed to be where I was when I was there, then others need to be where they are when they are there as well, and the best one can do while “homesteading” in a place or perspective is honor the space for what it is.

A lot of petty conflict goes away when we realize that, for better or worse, people
need to be where they are when they are there.  It may not be where they will ultimately end up, or a healthy place in our view, but it is where they are; and whatever place that is, it is necessary.  In addition, some strong therapeutic ground can be gained by simply attending to the story in others’ lives and allowing the “living human documents” we care for to share their journeys, without needing to rush to judgment on the meaning of these living texts.  

Barack Obama described this suspension of judgment at a World Day of Prayer event as civility.[1]  We may not always agree, but we can be civil.  And giving people the space to be where they are in their own processes is a step toward civility, which is a
necessary step toward respect. 
Ultimately, a whole lot more can be gained by becoming curious rather than defensive.  Some of the greatest beauty in the world remains hidden from view until we consciously choose to risk our comfort and seek it out.  Unfamiliar beauty may not even appear beautiful until it has time to settle in, or be experienced over time—what we sometimes refer to as an acquired taste. 

Every life is worth a novel, and novels exist to attract readers.  Some of these novels grab us immediately, and others need to be nurtured along a little.  Others will clearly never be our taste.  Either way, the full story is not apparent unless you read to the end.

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Conduits of Creativity

I became enthralled with the idea of God at a very young age.  Almost before I was old enough to think, I was drawn to the colourful vestments, the oscillating vibrations of the pipe organ, the sickeningly sweet waft of incense, and the multi-sensory experience that constituted worship.  I reasoned that worship occurred in churches where rituals were followed according to prescribed patterns.  But long before buildings became the
repositories of sacred space, the impulse of the human heart has been drawn toward Transcendence.

            It is the idea of human spirituality being the domain of religion that makes the discussion of worship an important one.
Just as all of human existence seeks to abandon chaos for a sense of
order, the spiritual impulse seeks an organizing influence to bring structure and definition—religion if you will.  But what happens to the impulse to worship when it is not channelled along religious lines?

            Composers, artists and authors often refer to themselves as conduits of creativity.  It is as if something greater than their own
imaginations grips them and chooses them to deliver a gift to the world.    Plato observed this phenomenon of inspiration and reasoned that all creations exist first in a realm of forms and ideas, whether abstract, like a song, or literal, like a chair.  Karl Jung spoke of archetypes and the collective unconscious.  Rupert Sheldrake
described morphic fields.  Each of these writers is attempting to define the reality of inspiration or influence and the resulting creativity that seems to define humankind—the writers of music, the builders of buildings, or the growers of gardens, encouragers of others, makers of meals.

            Is it possible that the acceptance and active performance of these impressions is an expression of worship—that worship occurs in the channelling of the creative impulse? Sometimes this being gripped is described as “calling.”   Some parts of our lives simply feel as if they were meant to be.  If that is true, would it not be the highest form of honour that can be expressed to perform these functions with excellence?  And wouldn’t the active identification of these qualities in others, along with the encouragement to use them to their fullest, be one of the more profound roles of the spiritual care giver?

Whether or not a ritual is performed, human beings need to feel they matter and that they serve some useful purpose.  It is in the belief that we matter and make a difference in the world that humankind finds its sense of meaning.  And it is in the act of making
that difference, whether small or large, that ones truest form of worship is expressed.

The writer of Ecclesiastes made the observation, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.”  Worship occurs whenever our hands do well whatever our hands find to do.  And life is enriched when we believe in what
we are doing.

Love as a Clinical Variable

Every case of psychotherapy, to a greater or lesser extent, is a problem of the failure to love.  Sometimes the problem is in focus; sometimes
it is a covert contributor to other problems, but at core, it is always
.  Those who can plant and tend
love may have pain in life, but not the
kind of pain that draws a person towards psychotherapy…

Failure to love is always a religious problem.  It always has roots in the answer to
the question: What is the nature of the universe in which I dwell?

Paul R. Fleishman, The Spirit Within

            I like Paul Fleishman as a modern philosopher.  In fact, more of my fodder for writing has come from the above book than from any
other modern work.  The central idea in this quote, however, gave me pause.  Is it not bad enough that suffering people must seek the assistance of others to help them navigate the “white waters” of difficulty without the selfishness label being added to their struggles?  “Every case of psychotherapy is a consequence of failing to love?”  Perhaps it is often true, or much of the time, but in every

            It could just as erroneously be argued that every case of psychotherapy is, to a greater or lesser extent, a problem of the failure to be loved.  Some personality disorders can have their root in a perception of being unloved and failing to receive the kind of nurturing necessary to developing a healthy sense of self, but that is certainly not the only cause.

The subject of perception is important when it comes to looking at love and its many implications on mental health.  Perception is everything when it comes to feeling loved.  Parents can love their children more than life itself, but if the child does not believe it, the love of the parent has little psychological benefit to the child.

            In the regimented, clinical and (sometimes) sterile environment of a psychiatric hospital or mental health clinic, cultivating love sounds a tad sentimental.  The perception could exist that it’s not even on the radar.  We are accustomed to treating symptoms and managing behavior, and often clinicians find little time to do much else.  Fiscal pressures, patient resistance, and the sheer enormity of the problems we often encounter make it difficult to be as client-centered in our praxis as we desire to be in our ideals.  If an optimum methodology for interacting with patients exists, it probably lies somewhere between “Patch Adams” and “Dr. Gregory House.”  Yes, we are treating human beings, and yes, we are treating diseases and disorders.  And yes, it is probably necessary at times that treatment lean more heavily toward the disease than the person, as traditional allopathic methodology has suggested.  But should that be the ideal in a mental health setting?

            Clearly, both failure to sense love and failure to communicate love are clinical variables.  Human well-being could be conditional upon this quality above all others, as poets and philosophers have
long asserted.  A person’s capacity to receive and express love is likely the single best predictor of resiliency, and resiliency is likely the single greatest predictor of recovery.  How do we then, as health care professionals, make it an appropriate ingredient in client and patient assessment and care?

            It perhaps begins with taking sentimentality out of the equation. The early Greeks had a word for the kind of love that makes good process in a health care setting.  While Classical Greek had a
variety of words to describe the various aspects of love, it is the agape definition that could prove helpful for our work.  Agape has little
to do with affection or passion, or how we feel about another person.  It is more about volition.  Agape affirms the significance of the other and the value we place on others’ needs and desires.  As a counselor and therapist for over twenty years, I have learned that a sense of being valued is critical to the therapeutic process.  Unless
positive transference is developed, people do not develop the kind of trust essential to their recovery.  Inherent in positive transference are such qualities as respect, honesty, appropriate boundaries, and clear communication.  It is not about others getting that “warm, fuzzy” feeling; it is about their believing that we “get” them, and that they matter.

            When we care for others with agape, we listen with our eyes as well as our ears; we provide what is needed rather than what we believe is deserved; and we use power only as a last resort, when it the ethical and only therapeutic approach remaining.  In the process, our patients get the message that they are seen, and that the outcome of their treatment makes a difference to us.

There are no formulas available that make the application of agape an easy thing, but its outcome is dependent on taking our patients need to be valued seriously.  Some who receive this kind of care actually feel affection.  But whether or not they do, a good first step toward the kind of emotional health that leads to meaningful relationships is a belief we can be worth something to someone.  Our manner of relating either contributes or detracts from that belief.

Cultivating worth is a clinical matter and looks an awful lot like loving.  Kumbaya!

Confessions of a Relativist

Paul R. Fleischman describes calling as “a pinhole through which a person can glimpse the other religious dimensions of life.”[1]  Not a portal; not a bay window; a “pinhole to dampen the diffusion of light, so the whole heavens can be clearly seen.”

            The question of how deeply connected a chaplain must be to a specific faith community has been well discussed in recent times.  I must confess that I am among those whose spiritual direction has been more eclectic in the last decade.  Probably, truth be told, I would likely qualify as one of those quasi thinkers who can more adequately be described as spiritual than religious.  I have done the dogmatic route, from my early Roman Catholic upbringing to my conservative evangelical conversion, and now find myself in that uncomfortable predicament of being comfortably relativistic.  There, I have said it.  I am a relativist.  I have trouble with dogma.  I can accept narrow definitions of truth as being necessary for some (or even most), and as a way of ensuring the survival of specific religious groups, but not for me.

Somewhere along the line I simply gained an appreciation for the perspectives of others.  By some strange magic that I cannot fully explain, I can remain connected to my Christian beliefs while being warmly inspired by the Eight-fold Path of Buddhism, or the myths and stories of Aboriginal spirituality.  I am not bothered by the literal contradictions, or the fact that one cannot call Jesus the “Way, the Truth and the Life” and accept the existence of other ways and truths as equally valid.  I don’t care about the incongruity of my eclecticism. I am where I am.

Perhaps it is that expanding view of truth that makes Fleischman’s observation so meaningful for me.  Through the broad window of dogma, I was able to see clearly what my own religious influences had taught me to see.  As my confidence in my ability to see clearly diminished to the point where a “pinhole” offered the only available light, a universe opened up in panoramic possibility.

Admittedly, there is a fine line between relativism and agnosticism.  In my own thinking I can clearly see the elevation of doubt to the status of virtue.  Imbedded in my personal doubts are the seeds of humility that have filed off the edges of my former, almost arrogant, triumphalism.  In the process of deconstructing my certainties and replacing them with the awe of wonder, I have experienced the reawakening of curiosity that has made every story, every life I encounter in my ministry, interesting.

In all likelihood, I am no longer well suited to the role of Christian  pastor if that means pointing all people in one narrow direction.  I have probably seen the last of congregational ministry.  But in the world of institutional ministry where multifaith realities abound, and where I have been described by the floggers of religious certainty as a “pseudo social worker,” “pseudo psychologist,” and other less flattering descriptions. I believe I bring that critical element that is the bedrock of multifaith ministry: respect for the beliefs of others.

My mantra as a multifaith practitioner has been to, “meet people where they are and walk with them”—not to drag them to that better place I have imagined, or to those particular ideas that I find personally meaningful, but to that place in them where mystery meets faith and finds solid ground on which to stand; and most importantly, hope.  If that places me outside the scope of acceptability in the eyes of my Christian peers, then so be it.  In the crucible of actual ministry, I have seen the results in the lives of ones with whom I have walked, relativist that I am.  And I can live with it.

[1] Fleischman, Paul, The Healing Spirit, Chapter 4, Paragon House, New York, 1990, p. 76.

Lancet Fluke Religion

What we are today comes from our thoughts of
yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow:  Our life is the creation of our mind.

  The Dhammapada

It has been difficult for many westerners to understand the reaction of conservative Muslims to the Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad in unflattering ways.  No easier to understand is how some Christian pro-life proponents defend those who kill
abortionists, or who blow up abortion clinics.  One writer in a recent New York Times article suggested that some religious folk are like ants whose brains have been taken over by the lancet fluke–a parasite that infects ants’ brains and causes them to climb a blade of
grass over and over again until they can be eaten by grazing sheep or
cows.  Once thusly consumed, they can flourish in the stomachs and intestinal tracks of their hosts and reproduce.  (It is the mindless climbing behavior that is being flagged as similar to people that follow religious ideas, coupled with this overwhelming need to reproduce other mindless climbers.)

A rather dismal view of religious thought, wouldn’t you agree?  But when you consider the crazy things people have done in the name of religion, it does stand to reason that some opponents would think that many religious adherents have lost their executive functions to ideological parasites that cause them to do stupid things.  Let’s give Freud partial credit for being partly right.  Some religious thought qualifies as delusional and can reside in people who appear quite well organized otherwise.  How else would starry-eyed professionals in tennis shoes wind up dead on the floor in hopes of hopping the Hail Bob Comet to celestial glory?

I guess it all depends on which religious thoughts a person chooses to accent.  For instance, the prophet Muhammad said that believers should “wish for others what they wish for themselves,” a thought that has often been compared to Christ’s admonition to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  That’s a worthy religious concept for human beings to entertain and live.  I could
see both the Danish cartoonists and the Islamic reactionaries being indicted by that thought.  For the most part, that is what religions seek to promote: tolerance, respect, and mutual well-being.  Most Muslims do not condone the killing of insensitive cartoonists who believe freedom of speech to be a license to communicate stupidity.  Most Christians do not condone the killing of those who perform abortions.  Most good people of faith wonder where these other people come from!

Perhaps if there is a lesson in the existence of such extremists, it can be found in the quote above.  People are where they are today because of what they have thought yesterday; and what they are presently thinking will take them somewhere tomorrow.  That being
the case, doesn’t it make real sense to be careful what thoughts you
entertain?  At some point along the line, the accountants and teachers and normal folk who bought into the Hail Bob fiasco
saw the idea for the “three bars short of a concerto” sham that it was.  At some point, if they had just stopped to do a reality inventory, or checked with someone, anyone, who had not ingested a lancet fluke, they might just be alive today.

There is a difference between healthy faith, which is virtue based, life affirming, and mind expanding, and unhealthy faith, which is selfish, identity denying, and creativity suppressing.  Before you decide to hop on any guru’s blade of grass, examine the sacred cow that is waiting to eat you.  Lancet fluke religion always has a
shitty outcome.

Glenn A. Robitaille

The Zeno Effect

In 1977, two Quantum researchers named George Sudarshan and Baidyanaith Misra coined the term Quantum Zeno Effect to
describe the situation in which an unstable particle, if observed continuously, will never decay.  According to the Wikepedia entry on the quality, “…one can nearly ‘freeze’ the evolution of the system by measuring it frequently enough in its (known) initial state.”

            We are all familiar with concepts like, “A house, unless lived in, will fall apart.”  One can just as easily say that an unobserved house is a house in decline.  Drive a car and it will have its normal life; let it sit out in the rain “unobserved” and it will be reduced to a bucket of rust well before its time.

            What is it about observation that changes things?  Does the unstable particle know it is being observed?  Is the house aware of being neglected?  Does an automobile commit “autocide by degrees” as a passive aggressive statement regarding its relegation to the scrap heap?  Why does observation make a difference?

            Because it does.

            Extrapolation is the practice of drawing broad conclusion from limited data.  It would be unwise to go beyond the known to the unknown in using this principle as a way of assessing the power of observation as part of the way we do care as health professionals.  But it isn’t too far of a stretch to say at minimum that people under our care need to be observed closely enough to know that they are truly being seen.

            Years ago I saw a documentary on Romanian orphans left unobserved in their cribs for days on end who were later adopted to western families.  Among the panoply of difficulties experienced by these children were attachment issues ranging from resistance to bonding to autistic-like detachment.  The importance of eye contact and observation between adults and infants is so well established as to require little elaboration, but how about the mature or the maturing?  Does observation make a difference then?

            Apparently it does.  If an unstable particle changes its normal
cycle purely through observation, then observation itself has power.  It could be a transforming power.  It would suggest that parents who observe their children can alter the social entropy that often occurs under societal pressure and hold instilled values intact; it would suggest that lovers and spouses who observe each other can maintain the level of affection that drew them together in the first place and slow the osmosis into other spheres of attraction and influence; and, more to the point of our discussions, it could mean that how we observe those under our care is as important in their
treatment as any active approach that we use.

I like to use two principles in measuring the degree of connection in our observation:  eye contact and proximity.  The greater the distance between us and our subject, the less information is getting through.  Wandering eyes suggest disinterest or discomfort; speaking from across the room is dismissive.

            On the surface, the Quantum Zeno Effect has spiritual overtones.  Time and research could result in a more mechanistic explanation, but its present ambiguity calls for individuals to choose what they observe closely.  Because observation has power, and because what we observe is changed by the observation, caregivers have the power to change those under their care.  As such,
we are called to observe with purpose.  It is no guarantee of healing, but while we are working on that, perhaps Zeno will hold the fort. It may at least ensure that, while being observed, no one gets any worse!