Online Conversation | The Soul of Desire with Curt Thompson
We all long to be fully known. Yet so often this desire for true connection and community is impaired by trauma, shame, and suffering. On Friday, October 29th, we hosted psychiatrist Curt Thompson to discuss his book, The Soul of Desire: Discovering the Neuroscience of Longing, Beauty, and Community. In his book, Curt Thompson weaves together neurobiological insight and spiritual formation to open up new ways of understanding our longing for connection with God and each other. Curt explored the ways cultivating presence with ourselves, others, and God can move us from brokenness to beauty.
The song is “Bring in the Light” by Abby Gundersen.
Special thanks to this event’s partners:
Transcript of The Soul of Desire with Curt Thompson
Cherie Harder: Good afternoon to all of you, and welcome to today’s Online Conversation with Curt Thompson on “The Soul of Desire.” This conversation is one of a series that’s made possible by our friends at the Fetzer Institute, and we want to convey our hearty thanks to them for this series on creativity and flourishing, as well as to the sponsors of today’s Online Conversation, Susan Larson and Doug Wilson. We so appreciate your support.
So if this is your first time joining us or you are new to the Trinity Forum, we work to cultivate, curate, and promote the best of Christian thought leadership and provide a place where leaders can wrestle with the big questions of life and come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope that today’s conversation will provide a small taste of that for you today.
The big questions of the humanities almost all relate to the purpose and the content of the “good life,” what it is and how it’s realized. But for all of us, there is an inevitable and perhaps very great distance, even disconnect, between what we hope our lives will be and what they actually are, all of which lead us to profound and very personal, as well as practical, questions around personal transformation. So over the next hour, we’ll dive into some of those questions with a guest who has spent his vocation seeking to help others yearning for transformation. He’s argued that, at our core, we are created beings longing to be deeply known, a desire that can propel great works of creativity and deep connection, but is often distorted by trauma, sin, and shame. And he illuminates the ways in which a confessional community can reshape our imaginations and reveal new possibilities for better knowing and loving God, ourselves, and others. It’s a redemptive, hopeful, even beautiful vision, and there are few that can present it and wrestle with it with the expertise, empathy, wisdom, or wry humor as our guest today, Curt Thompson.
Curt is a practicing psychiatrist and neuroscientist, as well as the founder of Being Known, LLC, which helps people explore the connection between interpersonal neurobiology and Christian spirituality. He is, I am quite proud to say, a senior fellow of the Trinity Forum, as well as a sought-after speaker and consultant, the creator of the Being Known podcast and the author of the excellent books Anatomy of the Soul, The Soul of Shame, and, of course, his most recent, just-published work The Soul of Desire: Discovering the Neuroscience of Longing, Beauty, and Community, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss. Curt, welcome.
Curt Thompson: Cherie, always a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to for many weeks now to have the chance to have this conversation.
Cherie Harder: Well, absolutely. We’ve been looking forward to it as well. So I have to ask, this is a rather unusual approach, at the beginning of your book, you tell the story of seeing a patient who came to you for anxiety and depression. And after listening to him, you offered him a fairly surprising prescription. Instead of handing out Xanax, Zoloft, whatever, you told him to go look at Rembrandt’s “The Prodigal Son.” I’d like to ask you why. What can beauty or art do that Prozac can’t?
Curt Thompson: Well, I mean, first of all, he wasn’t doing anything else I was asking him to do. So, I mean, in many respects, like when all else fails, I think one of the things that we do is we—as we will talk about—that we are quick to, whenever we run into distress, we are quick not so much to imagine or be curious about this with a posture of curiosity and observation, but we’re really much more interested in assessing whatever’s happening is a problem that we need to solve and to solve it as quickly as possible. And this was his experience. He had this set of symptoms that were— of course, for him, he thought that the problem had to do with the symptoms that he was bearing at the time, that the problem is my depression and my anxiety as opposed to what’s underneath that. One of the first things I tell patients is that, under most circumstances, when they’re in my office, no matter what their symptoms are and with them not thinking that their brain is working at all, I say, “No, actually, your brain is a very trustworthy organ, and it’s telling you exactly what you need to hear, albeit not in a way that you’re finding to be palatable at the moment.”
And so when some of the more straightforward offerings that I invited him to consider from a psychotherapy standpoint and even from a pharmacology standpoint were not something that he was comfortable with doing—it was too distressing for him to enter into some of those ways of encountering the healing process—I invited him to consider, you know, being with this painting, a Rembrandt painting. And of course, this, of course, felt very confusing to him. You know, “Why am I paying you to tell me to go look at a piece of art? What on earth could, how could this be helpful?” What was so interesting is that one of the things that we know, and that I talk about in the book, is this notion of how being present with beauty, first of all, it slows us down long enough, right? I don’t mean just like look at it on the internet for five minutes. I mean, I want you to be present with this, and I want you to be curious about this. And the whole notion of slowing oneself down and then being open to seeing things, being curious about things, that you heretofore haven’t been because I’ve been too busy trying to cope with my anxiety in the ways that I’ve unsuccessfully been trying to cope. And as we all know, when we don’t do things well to solve our problems, our next gear that we try to find is just to double down on the way that we’re doing them. It has been so ineffective.
And so I think for this patient, it began, of course, it felt confusing, odd. There was no framework within which to put this. “I’m going to see a psychiatrist. How do I end up going to be invited to see a piece of artwork?” This notion almost reminds me of the prophet Elisha and Naiman, the general from the Assyrian army, that comes with his leprosy and the prophet says, “Go wash in the Jordan.” There’s this sense of “go and have an experience” with something that— You’re going to have an encounter with something that is not a quick, easily-straightforward, linear solution to your problem. And this patient’s encounter with beauty began to open him to things that otherwise his logical, linear-tracking brain would have been working overtime to try to divert him from. And so, in many respects, the painting and his encounter with it kind of circumvented the defenses that his left brain was putting out, and that was actually a source of his depression and anxiety, and opened him to being aware of other things that he was feeling. Other things that he was longing for.
And this is one of the primary things that we’re saying, that beauty really does lead to healing. We do believe that beauty can save the world, will save the world, because it is coming to us and inviting us to encounter ourselves, each other, and the world, in the order in which the brain was actually intended to operate. And that experience for him became transformational, primarily because it surprised him, how it was that, as he began to do this, despite his initial unwillingness, it began to evoke within him an awareness of things that he felt, parts of his own story, as he started to view this painting of a father who’s holding and welcoming his heretofore errant son. What is that? All those kinds of things about his own story began to be evoked in ways that just a cognitive-behavioral-therapeutic intervention was not getting to. And that’s a bit of a long-winded answer to the question, but it’s a way that beauty really kind of encounters us in ways that we otherwise would be surprised that it could and to bring healing and, you know, recommissioning of our stories.
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating. One of the things I wanted to ask you about is, in addition to just the power of beauty, one of the things that you mentioned really right at the outset of your book is your assertion that we are, at essence, people of desire, you know, that essentially it’s our longings and our loves that reflect more deeply who we are than even what we think or what we we say that we believe and the like. But I wanted to ask how—and you sort of touch on this—how we know what we most long for or want, in that, you know, almost every human heart has some kind of internal conflict. And so, I mean, does it take art? Or what is it that helps us know what we most love when we’re pulled in so many different directions?
Curt Thompson: Right. I think, you know, this is where— I’ve said to folks in the last six months, a week does not go by in which I don’t feel like I’m discovering yet one more way that Jesus’ words offer application. His words in which he said, “Unless you change and become like little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” And he’s not saying, “I won’t let you into the kingdom of heaven.” He’s saying, “No, this is the way the kingdom of heaven actually operates. And if you’re not going to pay attention to the way the children actually operate in the world and live in that way, it will be like, you’re not going to like heaven. It’s going to be unpleasant for you.” Much like, you know, in The Great Divorce, Lewis’s characters, some of his characters, were finding the presence of heaven to be too much, too uncomfortable.
And when we look at children, one of the first things that we see, they come into the world these little living, breathing, nuclear-energy plants of desire, right? They have these appetites. They long, they want stuff. We are a wanting people. And it first starts with these physical appetites, this sense of needing to be nurtured and fed and so forth and so on. And then they discover objects, right? It’s the rattle in my crib. It’s this over there. It’s this over there. But as their brain develops, as our brains develop, we discover that relationally what I’m mostly longing for is it turns out—we go into more detail in the book in this—is that ultimately we are really longing for these four things that are represented by these four words that each began with the letter S. We want to be seen. We want to be soothed. We want to be safe, and we want to be secure.
We notice this from attachment research. And these four words were coined by my friend Dan Siegel and his colleague Tina Payne Bryson in one of their works. Dan and I talk about the last word, “secure,” differently, but the first three are the same, this sense that we come into the world like we walk into the room. We have a chat room here. We have a chat room even on a Zoom call. We’re chatting because we want somebody to see us. I want to be seen. But the next thing I know a newborn comes into the world; she needs to be taken care of. He needs to be clothed, fed, warm, all those things. I need to be soothed. And the next thing you know, I don’t just need to be soothed in terms of my appetites or my coldness or my hunger, I need to be soothed in the boardroom. I need to be soothed in my marriage. I need to be soothed when I’m in school. There’s no place in which at some point we’re not going to run into some kind of painful experience with which the response I really need is to be soothed. The first thought I need to be seen, you know, to be soothed.
And if I’m in any system, whether it’s the family or the business or the school or the church, whatever, or the academy, whatever it happens to be, that system, once I am soothed and seen, I develop the sense of safety. Now that’s a word that we could talk many, many hours about in the way it’s used or maybe not used well enough or used inappropriately, even in our Western culture. But there are two words that I use to describe when we have the sense of safety; it means my sense that I have comfort and confidence in this space. That’s important to know. That comfort and confidence does not mean that there are no nicks and bruises. I could be completely comfortable in my house and get my finger pinched in the door. I’m three years old running around the kitchen, slip, fall, cut my eye. It doesn’t mean that I’m not safe, but it does mean that I will still end up being comfortable and confident in that space. But my safety, it’s important to know that I’m growing up in a system in which my safety is not just me being protected from things on the outside of me that might hurt. Safety also means that parents engender in children, and we as leaders engender in the people that we are leading, a sense of safety and protection from things within myself. I’m the two-year-old. If you just let me have whatever it is that I want, I have all these appetites. Unless at some point you say “no” to me, my own internal appetites will begin to devour me. And so I also have to create safety from my own impulses to do things that in the long run will hurt me. So I’m not just being protected from things outside my skin. I have to be protected from me. And I have to learn what those things are.
But once we have those three things—to be seen, soothed, and safe—and we see this with children—and that grow up then into all the things that we do, we then develop a sense of being secure. And what I mean by the word “secure” is this: We are in a system in which we are seen, soothed, and safe, whether that’s my home, my neighborhood, my school, my political system. This is what we long for. We then long to move out from that space and begin to make new things because, as we see, this whole notion of what it means for us to be human is not just for me to be loved, for me to be known. I long to be known, and then in that space, I want to make stuff. This is what our three-year-olds do. They run into the kitchen. They hold up your piece of paper, they put it on the refrigerator, and charge money to your neighbors to come in and see it. That’s what they want. Because they really do believe it’s Van Gogh, and it actually looks a little like it for all we know, right? And so this is what, they’re going to make things.But when we make things, the very act of creativity is an act of vulnerability. Somebody might not like what I have to offer, I might make mistakes with what I offer. I’m going to go out and venture and take risks, create new businesses. I’m going to create new offerings of all kinds of things. I might get my nose bloodied or my knees skinned. And when that happens, there will be ruptures in the notion of launching into a place of security. I’m secure from this space of being seen, soothed, and safe, in order to take the risks of what’s the next act of creativity that I’m being called to create. But when that happens that I do get my nose bloodied, when the ruptures do come, I need to know that there is always a place to which I can return, which I can be seen, soothed, and safe, to do the work of repairing in order to return to the secure space of taking the risks again.
This is the natural flow of secure attachment, and this is what all children, and as it turns out, it never stops, what we all long to be doing, these four things. It never stops. It doesn’t stop until we’re dead. And of course, evil knows this. And it will want to take advantage of our desire. We like to say, right, evil doesn’t exist really kind of on its own. It parasitically latches on to that which is beautiful and good in the world with this intention to ruin and devour it. But if we are aware of what our longings are really first about, that gives us an inside track onto what does it then mean for us to be agents of healing and hope and new creation, new generation, the creation of beauty and goodness in the world?
Cherie Harder: I wanted to ask you about that. I mean, you were talking a bit about how being known is sort of the precursor to being conduits to creativity. But you’ve also said that it’s only when we’re known that we’re positioned to become conduits of love. And you know, ultimately, of course, it’s love that transforms. And so I’d love to hear you talk a little bit more about how being known enables us to be conduits of love.
Curt Thompson: Well, I think the first thing it would be, I mean, for me, I mean, I know that words are important. They’re not everything, but they’re important. And so even when we talk about a thing like love, not to, you know—I’ll leave that to Jamie Smith to talk about this, right? I’m not a philosopher here. But this notion that we can talk about love, but in some respects, we need to be able to talk about it as an abstraction, right? Like this idea of love? But in many respects, as far as our brain is concerned, my brain doesn’t really engage with this abstract thing called love. My brain engages with loving acts, loving behavior. And so love is for me to be seen, soothed, safe, and secure that I feel it literally in my chest, in my face, and I am turned loose then to create material things, whether it’s the next new Yeti mug or it’s the next new algorithm of math that is so elegant that I can’t even come up with it, right? All of these things of beauty.
But this notion that to be loved, for me, it comes back to these verses in 1 Corinthians 8, where we read that “those who think they know do not know as they ought, but the person who loves God is known by God.” This notion that I know love, I know when I feel it in my chest, not just because someone with their sight line and their tone of voice and their body language make me feel good about myself, but I also know it when there is a part of me that is on display that I’m not very proud of and you stay in the room. When you’re mad at me and you say that you’re mad at me, but you do so in a way that doesn’t shame me or show contempt for me. When you are honest with me about your disappointment or your sadness with me, but do so in a way that the very act of putting something on the table that is unpleasant or painful, the very act in the way that you do it, is your attempt to even move closer to me, even as we talk about hard things. That is a viscerally felt bottom to top, right to left brain activity in which we are wired to know that that’s what it means to be loved. For me to love God is for me to respond to a God by whom I’ve had that felt sense of being seen, not just with his compassion, but with his compassion in the face of the parts of me that I don’t want him to see.
And the reason that this is important is because our trauma and our shame, all that stuff, if I don’t take care of that, I’m necessarily literally going to have to be burning neurobiological energy to contain it. And that is energy that I then will not have available to create those artifacts of beauty and goodness in the world that God has prepared for me and you together, along with the presence of the Holy Spirit, from before the foundation of the world to create. But I can’t do that if the energy is not available because I’m burning it, trying to contain all the parts of me that I don’t want you to see. As we talk about confessional communities, this becomes the space in which I am loved. And as I am loved in this way because I’m known deeply—I’m seen, soothed, safe, secure—and that includes the moments when you and I are going to fight, you and I are going to have our own ruptures, and we’re going to repair those, wherein which our relationship becomes even more resiliently and deeply connected, comfortable, and confident with each other, even in the face of hard moments. I am that much more emboldened to take the next risk of doing the next hard thing in our current political climate, in our current climate climate, in our current pandemic climate, in our current isolation climate, in all the places where the world feels like it’s tottering most on its edge, those become the places that feel the most frightening, the most painful, the most shame- and trauma-ridden. It is in those places where we are saying that’s where God is looking for beauty to emerge in the very places that we would least expect it.
Cherie Harder: I want to get to confessional communities in a moment, but you mention the pandemic climate, and you’ve also talked about shame as being viral in nature, which seems both apt and a bit of a double meaning there, in that it spreads quickly. It seems to be our cultural go-to weapon, and we have cancel culture, call-out culture, Twitter mobs, and the like. Right now, we’re dealing with our current pandemic with a vaccine and masks. Given how quickly shame seems to spread—you know, it is both potent and contagious and wildly transmissible—is there something that can be done to, whether it’s increase our protection or build our antibodies or our immunity against this on a societal level, or does this necessarily have to be individually accretive, just one person by one person?
Curt Thompson: Well, I don’t know that it’s an either/or. I don’t know that it’s, we’re going to do this from a top-down perspective or from a bottom-up perspective. I don’t know that it’s an either/or phenomenon. I think quantum mechanics would tell us that we don’t live in a binary world. We live in a world in which lots of things are happening at one time. I would say this. I would say that much like gravity, there are very few things that we’re going to do in the physical universe, very few things, that don’t necessarily have to take gravity into consideration. You want to build an airplane. You want to build a house. You want to go for a walk. You want to put your coffee mug on a table that’s not quite level. Like, there’s really nothing we do with our bodies that don’t have to take gravity into consideration, whether we’re consciously thinking about it or not. But we live as if it is a real thing, and we’re going to live by its rules or die by its rules. Shame is in that same category. It’s in the category of gravity, in the sense that this is how relationships operate. It’s also true—I mean, I would say that we could kind of clinically and at a distance talk about and identify shame as a thing that’s happening—but I would also suggest that, we who follow Jesus would suggest, we don’t believe we live in a neutral universe. We believe that we live in a universe in which there is a thing called evil, whatever the right way is to package and wrap that, that does have an intention to devour us. And it will weaponize and utilize shame to its advantage because it knows that the moment that we catch wind of this shame thing and start to do what the biblical narrative invites us to do, evil’s days are going to be numbered.
And so I would say that the gravitational kind of like laws that are in play are that we most powerfully undo shame and dismantle it, yes, embodied relationships one at a time. We furthermore dismantle it by doing everything we can to do the very things that the first couple were on the threshold of doing. They were differentiated. There’s me and another person, myself, who wears the mask, and the other who doesn’t or vice versa. We’re different. We are in different places. The next step is they were naked. I’m going to have to be willing to be vulnerable and to be vulnerable isn’t just to say, for example, not to be just like, “I think you’re wrong for wearing the mask or not wearing the mask.” To be vulnerable would be to say, “I really want to be more connected to you. And I’m afraid that our difference is going to make it such that we won’t be. And that really breaks my heart because I really longed to be connected to you.” It’s a very different thing than me leading with, “What’s wrong with you that you’re wearing a mask?” “I think that you’re wrong for not wearing the mask.” We lead with, “you’re the problem that I need to solve,” as opposed to leading with naming what it is that I want. And by this, I don’t mean “I want you to not wear the mask like I don’t” or “wear the mask that I do.” That’s not my deepest longing. My deepest longing is about being seen, soothed, safe, and secure. My deepest longing is to be connected to you.
We don’t have a lot of practice naming what we want. We have very little practice naming this because we, not just as individuals but as culture—again, that whole notion that shame becomes viral, right? It’s a geometric rise, and it’s not just a linear rise in it; the whole becomes much larger than the sum of its parts. And so my trauma I’m going to visit upon you, which then we can visit upon four others and then eight others and then sixteen others and so forth and so on. And so we do have to take seriously when Paul writes in Romans 12 and 13 and 14, this notion about like, “let love be the thing you’re going to be about.” And what does that mean? I’m going to pursue people. I want to let them know that I want to be connected to them. I want to let them know that, like, I want to hear more about “tell me more about your story such that wearing the mask or not wearing the mask is where you are. I want to hear more about this because I want to know your story in order to better comprehend and be emotionally connected to what is it about wearing the mask or not wearing the mask that evokes vulnerability for you, that evokes your fear and your longing?” That is a way in which I’m going to be connected, in which even if we get to the end of our conversation and we still are in places of difference, the fact that we will have had this conversation will connect us in ways that 30 minutes ago, we weren’t connected.
That’s just one example of small ways in which we do have to be committed to recognizing that if it is true that God’s mission in the world of new creation is to, with every new day, with all the new mercies that are available, he longs for us to create beauty with every step of the way that we’re taking this day. And so when we come across someone who we perceive to be in a different place, it’s very easy for my brain to immediately go into defense mode. It takes work, intentional work, for me to practice being curious about how can I create beauty with this person, with whom I perceive there to be great difference?
How can I do this? I mean, this is what God does with us, right? He’s creating beauty with us with whom he has great difference. And this is what we are being called to do. But as we like to say in our business, like, I cannot live into a world that I have not yet first imagined. I must first imagine, even if that imagination is only one step ahead of me; I cannot live into something new that I have not yet imagined. And the other thing is that I can’t give anybody something that I don’t have. And if I want new creation to be something that takes place between me and someone else, especially someone else with whom I might have difference, I can’t do that with them, for them, if I am also not having someone else pour into me the opportunity for me to be seen, soothed, safe, secure—even with somebody else who might themselves know that we have great difference. And again, where these confessional communities begin to take shape and become helpful with this is this notion that if I’m in a community with people who are committed to that kind of work, it really enables me to recognize that my mission isn’t just about, you know, figuring out, “Well, what should we do? Is it masks on or masks off?”
Now, this doesn’t mean at some point that we won’t all make some decisions and some people will be so unable to be present with us that there will be some kind of permanent separation. That sometimes happens. This happened with Jesus and the rich young ruler. Jesus said, “There’s only one thing that you lack. Here’s some things for you to do.” He couldn’t pull that off. But even in that space, when the disciples came back to Jesus later and said, “Gosh, like, if this dude can’t get in, we’re all screwed. Like, how are we going to do this?” Jesus does not say to them, “You’re right, but that guy is such an idiot.” He doesn’t categorize him as the enemy. He reminds them that this whole notion of working hard to earn God’s delight, making sure that I’m being perfect in order for you to love me, that’s not the law of gravity in God’s economy. And so this practice of our being willing to look for opportunities, to make connection, not to identify these experiences first as a source of disconnection, requires practiced imaginative expansion that we’re only going to get if we have other people in our lives who are also seeing parts of us that would be easy for me to imagine, like, “Are you really going to want to be in the room with me if you know this part about my life?” But when they do and we live into that, we can then begin to practice living into this with other people with whom we also find great difference.
Cherie Harder: We’re going to turn to questions from our viewers in just a second, but before we do, as you’ve talked, I think probably a lot of people are seeing the beauty of the kind of confessional community that you’ve described. But there’s also, there’s different tensions. I think all of us long to be in that kind of community. There’s also a lot of people who have been hurt, traumatized, and not everyone is safe necessarily to be in that kind of close relationship with, right? So in your work of deliberately cultivating those kind of communities, what does the community look like and what would you say to people who yearn for that kind of connection, but also feel the need to, as you have mentioned earlier, stay safe and secure and in boundaries?
Curt Thompson: Right. So we’re kind of asking, how can we get to heaven as soon as we can? That’s kind of what really what we’re asking.
Cherie Harder: You know, I’d be most interested.
Curt Thompson: Well, if I knew, like, I’d be making a lot more money off of it than I’m making right now. I mean, I can tell you that. So I think we have a model of this when we read the Gospels. You know, we see, first of all, that Jesus was unapologetic about the fact that the kingdom of heaven is not easy, right? He said the gate is narrow that we enter into. Like, this is hard work. He offers a parable to hundreds of people. But there’s only a handful of people who are really, really serious enough to come after him to say, “What does this really mean?” I think one of the first things for us to recognize is that we live in a culture in which we long for these four S’s; we long to be in a world of beauty and goodness. But I think we’re really quite naive to the cost that is required for us to actually live in that world.
It’s also equally true that, again, like gravity, people have had lots of experiences with gravity in which they’ve gotten their knee skinned and their noses bloodied, right, and then things have broken. Things have fallen off their table and they’ve broken. And it’s taken place in a context where people have said, “No, no, no, I’ll take care of your very, very precious mug.” And they don’t, and it falls off the table, and it breaks because gravity is in play. And the hard thing is, Cherie, is that we could decide, “Well, then I’m just not going to, like, give anybody my mug anymore.” You could do that, but it doesn’t mean that the law of gravity doesn’t apply still. If we want joy, if we want delight, if we want beauty and goodness, then also, like in Lewis’s work, The Silver Chair, when Jill Pole wants to have her thirst satiated, she’s going to have to get past a lion, and she’s like, “Well, I’m just going to go find another stream to do this,” and he says, “There is no other stream.” There is no other way for us to do this, to which we would say this is what— Jesus comes and in his crucifixion, God is saying to us, “I get it. I get it. And I’m going to take responsibility for all that has happened. I get it, you can’t do this. I’m going to take responsibility for what I created. And now I’m going to ask you to follow me into that.”
And so Jesus knows exactly what it’s like to trust people who throw you under the bus. Jesus knows what it’s like to be in your own family who believe that you’ve lost your mind. Jesus knows what it’s like for you to offer words of beauty and goodness and to have people spit on you because of it. But he does not say, “I think we’re just going to do a different way.” And so we would say to those who have been traumatized in the context of intimate relationships, we would say, we really get it. And that those intimate relationships, they’re not just in marriage or sex or just in the family, they’re in the church, they’re in our political spectrum, they’re in all kinds of places in which we thought we were entering into some vocational calling. We were going to be a teacher. We were going to be a lawyer. We were going to be an engineer. We were going to be all kinds of things. We’re going to be a farmer. And the world has thrown me under the bus. I’ve offered you my precious mug and gravity has tilted and it shattered and, like, I’m not giving anybody my cup any more. And the hard part is gravity doesn’t change. It still places the demand that if we are going to flourish in the world, those four S’s must be satisfied.
And so consequently, God being unapologetic for the way he’s created the world, gives us Jesus, who lives with us in the world that we have to live in. And says, “OK, we’re going to do it like this.” And “like this” means that, first of all, we acknowledge that life is difficult; confessional community is hard to do. In this world, you will have tribulation. It is also something that we don’t necessarily find it. People often ask, “Where can I find one of these groups?” You can imagine Jesus asking God the Father, “So when I get there and I’m, you know, old enough to do this, where will I find the group that you’ve gotten ready for me?” And you see, the answer is, “Like, dude, you’re going to have to go make it. You’re going to have to go find the people and ask them to join you.” And that’s a hard task. We know that Jesus asked lots of people who said no. We know that— Perhaps God asked lots of people before he finally got Abraham to say yes. And who knows how long he was talking to Abraham before Abraham finally left the land of the Chaldeans and came all the way to Cana like he— Like, that’s a slow moving train.
And I can appreciate that because I’m a slow moving train. And the reason I want to find the group is because I don’t want to have to do the work of making the group. I want everybody to welcome me in with all my stuff and, like, there’s not going be any work to do. And Jesus says, “No, this is really hard.” And those who are going to look for—as we read about also in The Great Divorce— At the end of the day, we all find what we’re looking for. We find what we’re really, really seeking. And if we’re seeking this kind of life, this kind of flourishing, this way of living into new creation where our imaginations are expanded, even in the face of trauma, especially in the face of trauma and shame, then the suggestion that I’m giving to people now who don’t have the opportunity, for instance, to be in a constructed community that we make in our practice, we say, like, “Look, I want you to find one or two people that you trust. One or two people.” And you know, we talk about a certain pattern and a way of doing this in the last part of the book. “I want you to find one or two people that you trust, and I want you to talk with them about telling them your story. You’re going to do it vice versa, and you’re going to follow through with these recommendations. You’re going to look at these questions that we’re offering to you in the book or other places, and you need to know that this is going to take time because as we like to say, those things that are most beautiful and most durable in the world take a very, very long time to create.” But I’m convinced that if we are willing to do this work, recognizing that the work is slow, but that it is faithful, as is God, that beauty and goodness begin to emerge in the way that beauty emerges in a redwood forest. And that so much of the beauty that we’re creating even now is not just going to be beauty for us, it’s going to be beauty for the generation after us and the generation after that. That can’t happen if we’re not willing to do the hard work right here and now. But I want to say that at a time when our world feels so fractured, that there is no better time, there is no greater opportunity, for us to take the risk of imagining how confessional communities can create outposts of beauty and goodness in the world.
Cherie Harder: Thanks, Curt. We have so many different questions lined up from our viewers. An interesting question from Stephanie Hewitt, who says, “The invitation to encounter beauty is one thing, but how do you allow for or do the work of assimilating it? It seems it must be metabolized for deep impact.”
Curt Thompson: So I appreciate this. You know, in the book, I write about my encounter with the work from Mark Rothko. And for those of our listeners who know about Rothko’s work, he’s well known in the American art scene as this person who kind of introduced this notion of color as a medium in and of itself. And I’d kind of heard of him but didn’t really know about his work: “Yeah, these things got three bands of color on them. That’s what they are.” Like, “I don’t get it. Why would I go to the museum? I can look at color on my wall in my kitchen. Like, I don’t need to go to the museum to see this.” But I didn’t go by myself. I went because of the suggestion of a friend of mine who is an artist that does abstract work, and she said, “I really want you to go.” And she told me, “I want you to sit for at least 30 minutes. And I want you not to worry about the fact that you don’t know what’s going on at first.” And so here again, we have an example of how my imagination is going to have a hard time expanding if I don’t have help from the outside. But I had help from the outside, and at my friend’s suggestion, her husband and I went, and we spent 30 minutes in the Rothko Room at the National Gallery. And for the first time, I had an encounter with a piece of work that was not more plainly artistic, like Rembrandt’s work, for instance, more realistic.
And we discovered that beauty emerging— we can be captivated by a blazing sunset. We can be captivated by an old-growth forest. You can be captivated by a piece of architecture. You can be captivated by a range of things that immediately jump off the page at us. But increasingly, because of our easy distractibility, because we are being wired to be increasingly distractible, it requires more and more pizzazz for beauty to capture our attention. And so I might catch it when it catches my attention. But there’s a lot of beauty that is just going right by me because I am not looking for it.
And so the first step that I ask people to do is, every day, I want you to find five to ten minutes in which you are going to practice putting yourself in the path of oncoming beauty. That could mean something as simple as walking outside your house, and I want you to walk down the street and find a single tree. And of course, this might look weird if it’s in your neighbor’s backyard, so you might not want to go there, but if you’re on the street, I want you to walk up to the tree and I want you to put your hand on it. I want you to let yourself notice that you’re feeling the tree. I want you to look at the tree, I want you to notice things about the tree, and of course, this feels weird. But it is only weird because our body wants to keep moving out of our anxiety. We don’t know how to do this. Children would have no problem doing this. Children have no problem, like, they don’t have meetings to get to. They don’t have to, like— they’re willing to sit with something if something has captivated them. And so we practice looking for beauty. We look for it in ways that we heretofore haven’t. That requires time, that requires a slowing of our pace. It requires a putting away of my devices more often. It requires my becoming increasingly acquainted with my own body. I’m going to sense, image, feel, think—I’m going to notice what am I experiencing as I’m having contact with this artifact of beauty. And if it’s not a tree in your front yard, even if you go online and you’re going to encounter a piece of artwork or you’re going to listen to a piece of music for five or ten minutes. It’s not just the Rolling Stones. If you’re going to listen—but the Rolling Stones, they’ve got some nice stuff—I mean, like, one piece of music that you have to stay with for 10 minutes. You are going to be increasingly priming yourself for attuning to beauty.
So we go from beauty is pizzazz to beauty as something I’m looking for that is there. And then we get to the next step, which is, much like the cellist of Sarajevo, we begin to look for beauty in the places that we would absolutely least expect it to be, that we couldn’t imagine it to be. This notion, as Vedran Smailović showed us, that when you put your cello in the middle of a bomb crater, it might not stop the shelling, but it stops everybody from doing everything else that they were doing. And we pay attention to this. He didn’t come with a new NATO policy for peacemaking, he came with beauty. And when we stopped to notice it in the rubble of our lives because we believe that this is the God of the universe, part of that gravitational law is that God isn’t just looking for beauty and pleased with it where it naturally shows up, he’s looking for it, he’s looking for it to emerge especially in the places of our lives that have been most deeply traumatized.
Cherie Harder: I’m going to combine a question, one from Penny Forbes and another from Mark Pearson, on related topics. Penny asks, “What thoughts and directives do you have for those who teach, preach, and disciple others with regards to educating on shame and the path to healing and transforming?” And similarly, Marc Pearson asks, “Any advice to church pastors about how we can grow this kind of culture in our congregations over time?”
Curt Thompson: Well, yes, I mean, I often tell people that, in these confessional communities that we conduct in our practice, it’s not an uncommon thing for one of our folks to say, “Gosh, I wish that this is what we did in church. I wish this is what church was about.” And I’ve often commented and said, “You know, if we started each of our 90-minute sessions with a couple of worship songs and in the middle paused and had a five- to 10-minute homily with a reading of text and then wrapped up our 90 minutes with the Eucharist, church is exactly what we would have.” And everything else in between is formational. Everything else in between is our telling our story more truly in the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. Everything else in between, even when we are talking, as we say—and I talk about this in the book—we are assuming the presence of God. And that all of our words are acts of prayer. You know how we all, you know, we gather around at a Bible study and we all talk about our lives and we pray and so forth and so on, as if God isn’t in the room, like he’s been outside the room and then we invite him to come in. And now we’re going to, like, pray about it as if God hasn’t actually been there listening to all this. We assume that our language, that our tears, are acts of prayer. But that in and of itself requires people’s imaginations to stretch to imagine a God that is active and present in the room.
And so we do see, when we talk about these confessional communities, we see them as missions of spiritual formation. This is not just like, “Oh, this is group therapy, and now we now go apply that to spiritual formation.” This is formational. A couple of the stories that we talk about, we feel like they’re also recommissional in the sense that when people have these experiences—and I would say, you know, to answer these questions about what we do with shame in this space—we identify and address shame directly. We don’t wait for it to show up. We go hunting for it. Just like Jesus was doing with Peter on the beach in John 21. We’re shame hunters. And of course, at first glance, like, we don’t like this. I don’t want people coming to, like, poke and prod and find out where the abscesses are in my body, like, “Oh, look at that.” No, I’m not happy about this until I have practice under my belt to see like, no, now the work that I’m doing here— like, this is the work that enables me to be a different person in my marriage, enables me to be a different person in my parenting, in my work. It enables me to change the job that I’m in because I no longer want to be in that place where I’m being abused or taken advantage of. I’m going to change churches because I’m in a space where people really aren’t able to do this kind of work.
And so when we talk to pastors, we would say, first of all, we would say that this kind of formational work, in many respects— you know, there are lots of different mechanical things that we employ really to bring people into this kind of a space. And I’m not saying that this is the best or the only or the most important way for people to be spiritually formed. I’m not making that claim at all. I believe that we have found a way that is effective and helpful. It’s a way. I also know that we give these patients, we give our folks, assignments of putting themselves in the path of oncoming beauty on a regular basis. We give them the active assignment, when they have an experience in this group, for instance, in which they’ve been seen, soothed, safe, secure, it’s not just for that moment. We say, like, “We’re going to take three minutes right here and now, and we’re going to replay this in our minds, and for the next seven days, before you come back again next week, I want you to take five to ten minutes every day and I want you to replay this. I want you to journal this. I want you to—” As we like to say in the business—we ingest, we digest and we metabolize. You ingest something in a few seconds. You digest something in minutes to hours. You metabolize things for the rest of your life.
And we must be in that kind of work from a spiritual formational perspective in order for us then to go into our worlds of politics, of literature, of philosophy, of [inaudible], of parenting, of teaching, of farming, of all the things that we’re doing to become these kinds of agents where we would say, “Evil doesn’t want you to know this. Evil doesn’t want you to know that this kind of work changes the way you farm. That this kind of work changes the way you pastor. Evil doesn’t want you to know that if you were going to be committed in your church to say, like, ‘We’re going to, like the next quarter, we’re going to preach a sermon series on beauty, and every single day we’re going to have a different icon that before the church service starts, we’re going invite people to come 15 minutes early and we want you to sit with this painting. We want you to sit with this piece of music that is going to just kind of loop for a little while. We want you to prepare. We want you to look, listen, sense, image, feel for the image and wake and movement of God to show up.'”
I tell people, “If we were to ask you—unless you actually own a yellow car—how many yellow cars have you seen in the last week?” Most people would think that’s a strange question. “I have no idea.” But if I were to say to you, “I want you to keep track of how many yellow cars you see in the next week,” two things will happen. Number one, you will know exactly how many yellow cars you’ve seen, and you can report that to me. You’ll get a gold star. More importantly, you will be tracking how many yellow cars you see for the next month. And you will track them, not because your assignment has finished after one week, you will track them because you are practicing priming yourself to look for it. And this is what we begin to do with beauty; this is what we begin to do when we look for beauty in other people with whom we have great difference, who we would call our enemies.
When Jesus talks about praying for your enemy, it’s not just like, “Well, I’m going to pray for those Republicans.” “I’m going to pray for those Democrats because like, they’re stupid.” No. We are really longing to be seen, soothed, safe, secure by all these. I want to connect with them. To pray for them is to pray for me because we’re all longing for the same thing. The same thing applies in our churches because it’s not just the Democrats and the Republicans, right? It’s the person who sits in the pew across from me that I’m having trouble with. It might be the person that I’m married to and having sex with. I mean, all these things. I’m just now kind of rambling. I’ll stop.
Cherie Harder: We’re rapidly running out of time, but there are so many questions. I want to combine two that are kind of on a similar theme of some of the tensions inherent in what you’ve been talking about. Cindy White says that she works in higher education. She actually teaches your books and mentors students and leaders, providing safe spaces for people to be vulnerable. However, she says with so many Title IX issues, she’s obligated to report even circumstances that happened in childhood. How does she navigate the tension when she wants to encourage vulnerability? And somewhat relatedly, Rebecca Good asked, “How do you hold in tandem the desire to connect with the inherent relational disruption and desire to pull away in the face of sin? What are the tips for leaning in when you desire to draw a boundary and particularly in a teaching role like parenting?”
Curt Thompson: Well, fortunately, you know, both these questions are really quite straightforward and can be answered in about seven seconds apiece. I’m just so glad to be able to like, get these things, these boxes checked off.
So there are a couple of things that I would say, in both of these cases, that are true, and that is that evil would love for us to think that we can take care of our shame by the fiat of legal proclamation. We’re going to change the laws, and shame will respond. And evil knows that’s not part of the law, that’s not part of the gravitational law of relationships. Shame is only going to be healed and reconstructed and recommissioned through person to person interaction. You can’t legally make my shame go away any more than you can legally make me not want to shame somebody else. This does not mean that laws are not important. Laws draw our attention to things. Laws are necessary in this sense; they’re necessary, they are not sufficient. And so when it comes then to the Title IX question, we’ve rightly created laws that are drawing our attention to important things that we heretofore for many years never drew our attention to. But this is what, as we said, like evil does its best work in the middle of good work being done, and so we construct laws that we hope will lead people to greater places of beauty and goodness, greater places of justice and mercy and kindness, and all those things that the fruit of the spirit really are, and then I would like to believe then that once I’ve constructed the law, then like, then my work is done. That the law somehow, this abstract thing that I call the law, is going to do something that is not going to ask me personally to do anything about it. And so consequently, we get to places where we expect those kinds of things to like fix problems like in mass.
When we recognize that those things where Cindy’s trying to work things out, really are most powerfully and effectively worked out in relationship that are proximal, me talking with three or four or six or eight other people. Those six or eight people doing the kind of work that they need to do to be seen, soothed, safe, secure in their context, and in so doing, recognizing that any time a law is applied, there will be the possibility for shame to enter right back into the conversation. Any time I feel something akin to like, “Well, the law is not being followed,” I wonder, like, what is that doing within me? It’ll be easy for me to say, “Well, you know, you’re not following the law,” as opposed to doing the harder work of naming what it is about me that I’m experiencing right now that I’m afraid is going to happen if we continue down this path that we’re in the middle of, right where I am in my context. This is difficult when we have large systems that are fairly unwieldy, that are not necessarily that flexibly able to respond to smaller contexts in which small groups of people really want to do something that the larger legal landscape has made it more difficult for them to do. So [inaudible] like, “This is really hard, and this is what we need to do to continue to say, ‘this is what I want.’ This is what I want to create with you. This is what I’m afraid of, and I’m not leaving the room. I’m not going to go call my trial lawyer.” That’s really hard to do.
And then to Rebecca’s question, this notion that when, you know— We are going to have experiences, just like Jesus did with the rich young ruler, we’re going to have experiences in which some folks are not going to be able to do this work. Some folks are not going to be able to be present long enough. They’re not going to be able to withstand their own discomfort in being vulnerable with you or with me. It’s really difficult for us to do that. Shame will want to look for a way back into the room with every opportunity that it is given. And so our needing to be constantly vigilant, as Peter writes about in 1 Peter Chapter 5, this notion of “be on the lookout,” right, that your adversary, the devil, is constantly prowling around looking for somebody to devour. Be alert. Noticing that that sense of shame will want to show up, and when it does, we name it. When it does, I’m going to say, “This is what I want, and my shame is telling me that I’m going to say something here that is going to have you not wanting to be in the room with me anymore.” To which that person has the opportunity to respond, is that what they want or is that not what they want? I don’t know if I’m fully answering Rebecca’s question or not, because I think I forgot it from the time that I started to answer Cindy’s and now I’m—
Cherie Harder: [laughs] She asks for tips for leaning in when you desire to draw a boundary, especially in a teaching role like parenting.
Curt Thompson: Right. So I do think— And one of the things that we talk about with parents is that, you know, one of the most powerful gifts that you can give to your children is the gift of revealing to them your story, your own story of vulnerability at developmentally appropriate times. So there are things that I will talk about with my 16-year-old that I won’t talk about with my six-year-old and with my twenty six-year-old that I won’t talk about with my 16-year-old. But there will be things that I will never talk about with any of my children that I will only talk about with my wife. And so there are always moments in which we’re going to lean in as parents to be vulnerable with our kids while we recognize, as we like to say, there’s no system in the world—whether it’s the church, the academy, business, schools, it doesn’t really matter what it is—there’s no system that does not operate based off the system of the family. Leaders at the top, parents. And then you’ve got children, older, younger, descending age, and there’s no system that doesn’t operate like this in some way, shape, or form. And there will be always ways in which I, as the parent, want to be vulnerable with my children. And there will also be moments in which I will want to kill them. And anybody who won’t admit that, they probably need to come see me because there’s something that they’re harboring. I don’t know what that is, but— But what this means is that even we as parents need to have other parents with whom we can be ultimately, like, completely vulnerable with about our children in order for us to come back to our children and invite them to be vulnerable, and we model this for them, while at the same time—
Remember part of our task as parents is that we want them to be seen, soothed, safe. But part of that safety includes protecting them from themselves. And if my child wants to do whatever my child wants to do, I may set a limit and say, “This is really hard, but no, we’re not going to do that. I know this is really hard.” I want them to be seen. I want them to be soothed from the sense that I’m going to connect with them. They might not be soothed by virtue of the limit that I’m setting, but their little brain, even if it’s 16, they’re going to know that even as I’m saying “no” to you, I’m not saying “no” to you. I’m saying “yes” to you in our relationship, and then I’m not leaving the room while we say “no” to this particular choice. And even as I do, I might say to them, “This is, just so you know, you didn’t come with a manual for your 17th year of life. I’ve been looking for it; it somehow must have got lost in the last move three years ago. And this is hard for me. This is hard for me. I don’t feel like I’m the best, you know; I may not do the best thing.” And in that sense, we are also letting them know that you’re staying in the room, even while what you’re doing is not easy to do. And it lets them know I can become an adult eventually in which we can do hard things and still flourish.
Cherie Harder: And with that, Curt, I want to turn this back over to you for the last word.
Curt Thompson: You know, Cherie, as I think about our viewers, listeners, who are part of this. I would want every single person as we wrap up our time to imagine this notion that the beauty that God longs to create with us is also the beauty that God is longing for us to become. Most of us don’t wake up in the morning and imagine or wonder, “Gosh, I wonder how much more beautiful I’ll be by the end of the day.” And I want to invite us to consider that that is exactly what the Holy Trinity is wondering. But the Holy Trinity is imagining us into the next ten minutes, imagining us into the next six hours, imagining us becoming even more illuminating than we are. It is our shame and our trauma that prevents us from imagining this. And my hope is that our listeners would find some version of a community that is enabled to see their beauty as it is emerging and not least in those places about ourselves where our trauma and our shame has truncated our creativity, has buried it, and has us convinced that we aren’t really artists, we’re just trying to get through our freakin’ day. But as Jesus said, you’re the light of the world. You are utterly illuminating. And my hope is that even in the midst of our trauma, not just individually, but that we’re experiencing in our world, that we would envision our lives as being those that are on the move to create outposts of beauty and goodness in the world, even as we are becoming the same.
Cherie Harder: Curt, thanks so much. Always a joy to get to talk with you.
Curt Thompson: Indeed, thank you so much for having me.
Cherie Harder: Thank you for joining us. Have a great weekend.