Online Conversation | Hope and Healing in Hard Times
with Curt Thompson
On Friday, November 13th 2020 we were honored to welcome back psychiatrist, author, and Trinity Forum Senior Fellow Dr. Curt Thompson.
In this difficult and uncertain year, marked by anger, fear, and division, we thought it would be important to have a conversation about healing, grace, and reintegration — both for our individual and spiritual lives, and our shared life together. We want to consider how being known and believing what is true about our stories can transform our perspective and bring hope and healing.
This painting is ‘A Coming Storm’ by Sanford Gifford, 1863
The song is “The Swan” from Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns performed by The Kanneh-Masons
Online Conversation| Curt Thompson | November 13, 2020
Cherie Harder: Welcome to all of you joining us today for this Online Conversation with Curt Thompson on hope and healing in hard times. It has been quite a week. The election, its lead up and its aftermath, has both exposed and deepened disturbing civic and political divides. COVID infections have increasingly spiked just over the last couple of weeks and are poised to only get worse in the weeks ahead, sending more and more people into hospitals, quarantines, and isolation. And so our conversation today tries to burrow into one of the big questions of life that we all face, but perhaps with particular acuity right at this time, which is how do we seek healing and wholeness amidst relational fracture and alienation in the midst of division and confusion? What does it mean to be known and loved? Or, in short, how do we seek, find, and share hope and healing in hard times?
These are obviously big and deep questions, and there are no easy answers, but it’s hard to imagine someone who has grappled with those questions with more expertise, empathy, wisdom, or wry humor than our guest today, Curt Thompson. Curt is a practicing psychiatrist as well as the founder of Being Known LLC, which helps people explore the connection between interpersonal neurobiology and Christian spirituality. A sought-after speaker and consultant, he is also the author of the excellent books Anatomy of the Soul and The Soul of Shame, as well, I am very proud to add, a senior fellow of the Trinity Forum.
Curt, welcome. It’s great to have you here.
Curt Thompson: Cherie, always a pleasure. Thanks so much for inviting me to be part of this wonderful gathering.
Cherie Harder: Absolutely. Well, we have only 75 minutes together, so we’re just going to dive right in. We have been living through times of fairly extraordinary fear, division, anger, shame, and you’ve written a lot about these emotions, particularly fear, and you’ve written an entire book about shame. How do fear and shame affect us? What do they do to our brain and what do they do to our relationships?
Curt Thompson: Well, I think that most of our listeners probably don’t need me to answer that question. They could probably answer that for us. In some respects, we would see that these things when we experience them probably most prominently do a couple of things. One is, when I am experiencing fear or especially shame internally, when I’m experiencing it, the first thing that it does is it does tend to keep different functions of my mind—I’m a person who senses, images, feels, thinks, behaves; [these are] the five things that the brain does. Those things don’t work very well together, number one. And so it separates those functioning elements from one another while at the same time separating me from you. And if it’s true, which I believe it is, that it’s not good for man to be alone, we see that shame becomes this force that separates and puts not just parts of me in isolation from them, but then isolates me from you, and of course, this practice of shame—I practice this because shame begins for us as humans as early as 15 to 18 months of age—I’ve had a lot of practice getting really good at being ashamed. People have called me the master of shame, I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but—. And so we’re so good at it.
And the other thing about shame that is really significant is that when I’m in the middle of it, unlike some things, I’m not very able to pause, be aware that, “Oh, this is my problem, and here are the things that I’m going to do to reconcile and resolve this.” In fact, when it becomes too intense, what we really need is for someone else to come and find us because I’m not going to be very good at finding myself, finding the parts of me that I’m ashamed of, that I want to get rid of, or going to find someone else that I’m ashamed of being in their presence of because I’m too worried about what’s going to happen. This is just average everyday life. When we put that in a context of how we become afraid that I’m going to be ashamed—and of course, so much of our context right now, whether it’s politics or COVID or racial breakdown or whatever these things are, a large part of what our brain is basically doing in all these different domains of interaction is that we are afraid that we are going to be put to shame.
One of the primary themes of the Bible, this notion that the psalmist repeatedly asks that they not be put to shame, lauds that God is someone who does not put us to shame—what we read about in Romans 5, this notion that suffering leads to perseverance leads to character leads to hope, and hope does not put us to shame. Because shame is the antithesis and is that force that evil wants to use to undermine not only our ability to be known by one another deeply—which we were made for, we were made to be known—but we were also made to be known on the way to creating artifacts of beauty, whether those artifacts are relationships, whether they’re new pieces of music, art, businesses, so forth and so on. And so we find that with COVID, we have been kind of physically placed in situations in which the relational and emotional elements of shame are kind of like given a free pass to do what it wants to do in much more dramatic ways, because we don’t have access to a lot of the coping strategies that we’ve used to pretend that our lives are actually OK when really underneath, they’re not.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s fascinating. You know, at one point in your book The Soul of Shame, you referred to shame as viral in nature, which I’d love for you to kind of pull out. It almost seems like it’s a possible double meaning there because certainly one of the ways that shame seems to spread so quickly, so deeply, so widely is electronically, in that we have become, you know— If shame is a weapon, it’s become our cultural go-to weapon, whether it’s cancel culture, call out culture, Twitter mobs, and the like. And you know, there have even been studies showing that suicide rates are spiking among teenagers, with social media bullying being one of the factors. So I guess, first, why are we doing this to ourselves? Given how disintegrating it is, why has this become our goto weapon? And are there forms of either protection or immunity? We’ll get to healing in a second.
Curt Thompson: Well, I think that if we start with the basic fundamental Christian anthropological notion that it’s not good for us to be alone, which we’ve already referred to—we kind of pay lip service to that. We say, “Yeah, yeah, that’s a fine idea.” But we don’t recognize that in order for us to develop normally—the human brain when it comes out of the uterus, the human brain has about 20 to 30 percent of its neurons doing what they’re supposed to do. The other 70 to 80 percent depend upon connection with other human beings in order for them to come together and talk to each other and to fire in the way that they’re supposed to fire. So I need you, I need interaction with you, in order for me to have interaction with me, within my own neural network structure. And one of the things that the technologies that we currently have, and social media being one of those, can do—it doesn’t always do this, but has a tendency to do—is that it tends to extend the distance that I actually have. And we like to say shame becomes more powerful the further away from us in our minds that it’s operating. But what do I mean by that? I mean that if I were ashamed of something and you were to come into the room and look me in the eye and say, “Curt, look at me. I’m not going to shame you. I want you to tell me what happened.” It would be very difficult for me—if I were willing, if I were a willing partner with you, I was a willing friend—it’d be really hard for shame to stick around. Now, it would be hard for a short period of time. But after you and I have a conversation, shame is given no room to breathe in that space because we in our embodied practice—eyesight to eyesight, body language, tone of voice, all those things that embodied interaction bring to us—makes it very difficult for shame to operate. When we are going to go and find someone else in real, embodied ways.
The problem is the farther away I get from people—and this is what social media does; that’s not its intention, but it is what it can do—it becomes harder for people to come to find me in an embodied way because, of course, they’re coming to me through Facebook. But it also becomes easier for me and easier for others to shame others in our commentary because we say things on Facebook that we would be very, very hard pressed to say to someone to their face. And as such, we add to the distance, right? There are things that are out there in the virtual ether that leave me alone in my head. Everything from FOMO, right?—I’m missing out on everybody else’s perfect lives—everything from that to the commentary that I hear that people write about, people who think like I think and there’s all the accusation and so forth and so on, but I don’t have a person, a conversation partner, with whom I can have a conversation with and whom I can say, “Can you tell me what it’s like to be you? Can you tell me what it’s like for you to be in the room with me?” I don’t have those conversations. And so social media can inadvertently create literally internal neural contexts for us wherein which teenagers in particular become increasingly isolated, increasingly locked away in their own minds. And this is what Evil’s intention is. It is to get us alone in a room and beat the living daylights out of us. And here’s the thing. It just needs our cooperation because at the end of the day, suicide rates increase because we in the privacy of our own minds are only left with the great feeling and the cognition of “There’s something wrong with me. I’m not enough. I will never be enough, and this won’t ever stop.”
And so movement— One of the first things that we say in the Hippocratic Oath in medicine is we say, “First, do no harm.” And so in those ways in which social media is actually doing harm, I would say, well, one of the ways that you can begin to move in a direction of healing and a direction of wholeness and a direction of regeneration is to stop your social media participation. Now, of course, this would be like for some, “Could you please just stop breathing for the next 10 years?” Not as easy to do, but I want to say that, you know, if we were to consider one thing, I would say, consider taking—I know, the blasphemy—consider taking a six-week holiday from social media and see what happens to the rate of shame and fear that you experience, and I would predict that it’s one of the first major steps that we could move toward to reduce that.
And I’m not suggesting that the answer to all the world’s ills is for us to get rid of social media. I’m not suggesting that. What I’m suggesting is that social media and our practice and immersion in it represents our penchant as human beings to spend a lot of time in our mind out there, thinking about other people, thinking about other things, and allowing how and what we think to be wrapped around the emotional core of shame and of fear without having the real embodied interaction with people with whom we can ask questions about these very things that are banging around in our head. And most importantly, we’re not in a position in which we can be in a room with people who are unlike us, people who might not just not think exactly like I do, but who might think really differently than how I think, and thereby give me the opportunity to ask them, “Gosh, what is it like for you to have to live with me?” And then engage in that kind of a question, and hopefully if they’re able to actually be true and kind at the same time, we can actually have different kinds of conversations. I can actually tell you what I’m afraid of. I can tell you what I’m ashamed of. I can tell you that what I really want, even if you’re my enemy, is that I don’t want to be your enemy. I don’t want you to be my enemy. I want us to create something beautiful together, even if we don’t have the same way of thinking about the world. But we are so caught in our shame whirlpool that we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to even consider the question, “Oh my goodness, what would I do if I had the opportunity to create beauty with my enemy?” We don’t even imagine that because of how the neurobiological and interpersonal notions of shame keep tightening their grip, the more distanced we are from one another and the more we continue to practice that behavior.
Cherie Harder: So in contrast to the disassociation and the isolation that you describe, you wrote this, you said, “It’s only when we are known that we are positioned to become conduits of love, and it’s love that transforms our minds, makes forgiveness possible, and weaves a community of disparate people into a tapestry of God’s family.” So what does it mean to be known and how does being known position us to be conduits of love?
Curt Thompson: One of the things, Cherie, I’ve been telling people lately is that I think the hardest thing for us as human beings to do, the thing that we have the least practice, the thing that we’re not really particularly good at, is not just loving our neighbor, let alone loving our enemies. It’s not that I’m not good at that. And by the way, I’m not very good at that. But even more difficult for me and even less well practiced is my capacity to receive being loved. I think it’s fair to say that the evidence of our inability to love others is a reflection of the notion that we can’t give what we don’t have. To the degree that I’m not loving others is a function of my walking around with the deep conviction that I myself do not believe I’m loved.
Now by this, I don’t mean that I don’t ascent to a theological notion that God loves me. I can believe all that. I can quote the Apostles’ Creed. But I tell people, you know, it’s one thing to know as a fact that Columbus is the capital of my home state of Ohio. Thanks be to God for the Ohio State Buckeyes. It’s one thing to say that. It’s another thing to know what it’s like to live in Columbus. To be at those wonderful football games in years gone by. It’s one thing to talk about facts of our lives. It’s another thing to embody them viscerally. It’s one thing for me to say, “I know God loves me. Heck, I even know that my good friends love me.” It’s another thing for me to wake up in the morning with the felt visceral sense of the Holy Trinity being in my bedroom. That when I walk off my porch steps, I’m going with my awareness that my close friends and my colleagues at my office are waiting for me to join them, this felt sense that when Jesus says, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” that that’s not just an abstraction, that this is a felt sense. In the same way that my shirt is on me—I feel my shirt—I sense Jesus’s presence.
We’ve lived for the last several generations inculcating our faith into our minds and hearts fairly densely through the left hemisphere as a cognitive fact. That’s a very different experience than to have it being embodied for us. So for me to be known is not just for me to know that somebody loves me. It is for me to see that you do love me in your eyes, hear it in your voice, in your body language. When St. Paul says, “For the one who loves God is known by God,” he’s getting at the idea that when I’m known by God—the God of Good Friday and Easter and Ascension, the God whose gaze looks upon me looking upon him and all I see is mercy, which of course, is confounding—when that’s what I’m sensing, well, of course I would love him. I don’t know what that’s like commonly, and I certainly don’t know what it’s like when I think about how I treat myself. I’m not looking at myself with the gaze of kindness that Jesus looks upon us with. I’m always looking with the different kind of gaze when I’m looking at myself in the mirror. Which is why I try not to do that very often. And so when Jesus is looking upon us in this way, I want to take that with me.
But that’s the kind of thing that happens with newborns, right? They have to take the gaze of their mother and their father, and their mother and father practice looking them over and over and over and over again so I can recognize my parents’ voices and face because I have felt it. And so to be known in that way evokes in me this sense of being able to love one another. Imagine this. I tell people, look, if you were to practice what really happens with the presence of the Holy Spirit, that would mean that you would practice imagining that when you leave your house, you leave with Jesus saying to you, “You know, Cherie, I cannot wait for the people that you’re going to meet today because they are going to be amazed with what we are going to do together.” And then you get to where you get to work, and suddenly Jesus is just introducing people to you left and right and saying, “Well, have you met my friend Cherie? She is amazing.” And of course, this goes on and on, and at first it feels a little weird, right? Because Jesus is just telling people how much he loves you and how much he thinks that you’re wonderful, and this is strange because it’s too uncomfortable to be known this penetratingly by our God. But after a while, you’re like, “I kind of like this.”
And not only do I kind of like this, after a while, I become so aware that this is true, that it changes my perception of everything else that I’m sensing in the world. And so I can begin to love those because I’m experiencing it moment to moment. It’s not just a thing that I experienced for 10 minutes a few times a week when I read my Bible. It is a thing in which I am deeply immersed but also immersed, not just in my personal private worship life, but immersed in the work that I do in interpersonal relationships within which I am seen by those who see me deeply. They are seen by me, and together, when I then go into my life, I’m taking my community with me because if I don’t, I’m a dead man. And it is in this time in particular that it’s difficult for us because we felt so much fracture in community, and you layer upon that a pandemic that physically makes it more difficult for us to connect.
And so in many respects, I liken this to the exile—we maybe have talked about this before—that the Jews experienced at the hand of the Babylonians, and our whole life is being turned upside down. And yet at the same time, we hear Jeremiah’s voice saying to the people, “No, I want you to dig in. Be present. Love the world that you find yourselves in right here and now, because I want you to be a blessing for the city in which you’re going to dwell because I’m using this not just for your own good, but I’m using this to prepare the way for someone who’s coming.” And that, I think, is what we have an opportunity to do here as believers. We see this landscape as being barren. We see this landscape as being fractured. And I want to invite us to consider that is exactly what Evil wants us to do, to only see in our landscape barrenness and fracture. And if we were the disciples on Good Friday, that’s all we would see. But God is asking we who follow Jesus to look at the world not through the lens only of Good Friday, but to look at the world through the lens of Easter as it is looking back at Good Friday. To see that where there is suffering, where there is barrenness, it is the very place where Jesus is coming and wants to take you to be part of it, in order to create outposts of beauty and goodness in the world that we can hardly imagine seeing beauty anywhere.
Cherie Harder: Curt, that’s fascinating, and one of the questions, of course, it sort of evokes is how one learns to truly see. You describe the story, I think, in the very introduction of Anatomy of the Soul, which I just thought was fascinating. You were talking about essentially being with your mother as she lay dying and hearing her talk about her life. And it was stories that you had all heard before. She’d said them before; you’d heard them before. You’d said similar things in response. But you experienced it differently. And you wrote this: “The details were familiar, but what was new was my willingness to allow her story to move me. As I listened to my dying mother and felt compassion for her welling within me, my self-understanding was also changing. I could physically feel a change. As I began to understand my mother’s story differently, I began the process of forgiving both her and myself.” Just using this one example as a microcosm, what was it that enabled you to hear your mother differently or enabled the disciples to see differently? And how does that change in perspective change oneself?
Curt Thompson: Well, as I write about in the book, Cherie, I had just returned from the conference where I first met Dan Siegel. This is now about 17 years ago. And I was introduced to this notion that my story is only able to be understood when I am understood by someone else. I only ever, up to that moment, had understood my— Whenever I would hear my mother talk about certain things, it just made me anxious because I felt bad, but I didn’t know what to do with my bad feelings, and that says some things about the house in which I grew up in which I probably ended up being a bit of an emotional support for her in ways that a son isn’t intended to be an emotional support for one of his parents. And historically, I had only ever heard these stories and felt anxious and a little responsible, like I’m supposed to do something to make her feel better if she’s telling this sad story about her being an orphan. But I recognized in that moment after having been at this conference that it wasn’t just me responding to her story. It was me responding to the parts of me that I didn’t like that made it difficult for me to hear her story in the way that she was really telling it. And in that moment, I was recognizing that my difficulty with her stories had a lot more to do with my difficulty with my own than it had to do with my difficulty with her. And so compassion came because I had had some experience in the meantime—between the meeting with Dan and this time with my mom—I had had some experience with others meeting me in my story in ways that they just hadn’t been before.
And this is why we talk so much about how healing—when we talk about healing a nation, when we talk about healing these relationships, whether it’s with our parents— And I should say this too, you know, in full disclosure, I’m now the last remaining member in my family of origin. And when my oldest brother died a few years ago and the last of my brothers were gone, I found myself accessing feelings not just about my parents, but about my brothers, about others. I found myself feeling things that I hadn’t been able to feel before because we know that—it’s just true—that there are certain conversations that you can’t have until certain people are dead. And our listeners that are out there, I’m sure that they will know what I’m talking about. And in this way of having conversations, it’s not about those particular people, but we have this difficulty in accessing things that are true about our own lives, things about me that I feel bad about and that I’m angry about and so forth. But instead of actually addressing those things internally, for us, those things turn around and they become the sources of energy for me to find problems with other people.
And so my anger with my spouse, my anger with, you know, if I’m a Democrat, it’s the anger with the Republicans, and if I’m a Republican, it’s the anger with the Democrats. It’s the anger with anything that’s outside of me. We can say, if I’m having real trouble with other people, the first question that we have to be asking, the first movement toward healing, is, “What happened to me?” What is the part of my story that is not yet known? What is my sadness? What is my grief? What is my longing? Where is my own shame? Where is my own fear taking up residence in me in a way that I’m not naming? And I have not yet had another human to ask me those very questions that had been asked of me that allowed me then to be in my mother’s presence and hear her story for the first time differently, because also, first, my own story was being heard differently by myself. But that’s something, Cherie, that we don’t do by ourselves. As I said earlier, I don’t really ever come to know God or know myself apart from being known by others until I see myself in your eyes and hear myself in your voice.
Cherie Harder: You know, some of what you just said almost seems to speak a little bit to the healing or redemption of memory. And it’s interesting, repeatedly in the Bible it’s “remember this,” “remember that,” “write it on your heart,” “write it on a tablet.” You know, “do not forget.” And you said this: “What we remember profoundly affects our relationships with everything around us, not only with living creatures, but with a physical universe as well. The life each of us lives is, in fact, the one remembered.” So are there practical steps or is it more of a spiritual posture? How does one change the experience of what one has remembered to make healing possible?
Curt Thompson: Well, I think, you know, we like to say that what we pay attention to we remember, and what we remember becomes our anticipated future, that everything that we do in the world in fact in some ways is a function of memory. And so we also say that my story that I believe is true about myself is a story that I remember. It’s not just a story that is factually true. I’m making it true because I’m paying attention to it over and over and over again. So this is why the fish that was eight inches long becomes 18 inches long by the time I’m done telling the story. If I tell the story enough, frequently… Yeah. OK, you get the point. This is why I don’t go fishing because I can’t tell the stories well enough. But this is important in terms, for instance, when we live in families or we live in situations in which we imagine things, we tell ourselves things that we don’t even realize that we are telling ourselves.
So I’ll give you an example. We developed in our practice what we call “Confessional Communities,” these group processes that go on for extended periods of time. And one example would be if someone in the group is telling their story to seven or eight other people in the group, and that group then responds with empathy for the first time. They might be telling a story, for instance, of something that they believe that they did really, really badly in their relationship with their parents, for instance. And as they’re telling the story, the group responds by being really empathic, but also perhaps even protective or angry on their behalf. And they’re, like, puzzled because why would I need to be angry? And they said, “Well, when your father or your mother did this or did that, I’m angry on your behalf.” But if I was the person, if I was that group member, and I grew up in a house where anger was dangerous—like, my parents could be angry, but I wasn’t allowed to be angry—I learn, I remember, if you will, that anger is threatening and that I am not allowed to speak it, let alone feel it. Which means my brain is going to burn a lot of energy.
I mean, this is actually true for me, right? I grew up in a house where you could be angry at things outside your house, but you weren’t really given much freedom to be angry at anybody in your house. And so you learn that anger is dangerous. And so you work really, really, really hard to contain it, to cordon it off, and so I end up burning a lot of energy doing that. And then what that means is that I remember this so that when I get angry at my wife or get angry at my child, I’m going to do one of two things: I might even explode if my brain has just lost the capacity to contain it again, or I’m going to just work that much harder to contain it.
So practically speaking, what does it mean for us to do memory differently? If I’m in this community—and I don’t have to be in one of our psychotherapy groups to do this—if I have someone who can hear my story and respond differently than I have, if someone’s like, “Curt, gosh, if I were you, I think I’d be really angry about that.” And I’m like, “I don’t really know what you’re talking about.” And I’m like, “Really. I don’t know because I’m not allowed to be.” I have worked really hard not to allow myself to remember anger, but once someone names this, someone else names this, it turns out, oh gosh, I have loads of anger. I carry a huge payload of anger around. And I now have to do something to cope with, not just the anger that I felt yesterday at lunch, but the anger I’ve been feeling since I was 10. Which is actually true for me.
And so being in these communities, this one person can hear the other members of this group tell their story differently and introduce them to a feeling of anger or a feeling of empathy, and they have this moment where they brought shame into the room, for instance, and they name that and they feel better. But, you know, they’re going to come back the next week, and they’re going to talk about how they felt really great last Tuesday, but how by Wednesday morning they were feeling like they were in the gutter all over again. And why they have to come back this Tuesday and the following and the following and the following in order for their shame to be healed over time. And this is about neuroplasticity; this is about practicing forming new neural networks. I don’t just meet Jesus and then all is well and good. No, it’s like I tell people: “Look, Jesus has found my automobile, which is in really bad shape. It’s in really bad shape, and he brings it into his garage where he’s going to work on it until all the car-working stuff is done at the New Heaven and New Earth emergence, in which all the cars are going to come out of the garage.”
Now I’ve got to tell you, my car continues to need lots and lots and lots of work, but at least I’m paying attention to it. I’m in his garage. I’m in this space where we are going to practice—literally—to “remember” is to re-member. I am re-membered; I am putting back together a different story. I am putting back together a different physically felt set of sensations, images, and feelings. And I have to practice this in a context of relationship with other people over and over and over and over again, a practice that we call sanctification in the church. This way of re-membering, of creating different experiences that I then encode in memory that become a new anticipated future, this kind of practice— Or should I say, that we have not been very good at it is only one thing that COVID has exposed. It’s not just that COVID has caused things. I think when we spoke back on Good Friday, we also mentioned that COVID has revealed things. And we now find ourselves at a time and space when we’re given the opportunity—much like the Hebrews were given the opportunity in Babylon to begin to do the work that they were called to do but weren’t doing while they were in Jerusalem, do the work that they were called to do to continue to prepare their community for who was going to be arriving in Jesus.
Cherie Harder: We’re going to turn to audience questions in just a second, but before we do, I can’t turn it over before asking you about beauty. Because, of course, the Bible not only tells us to remember constantly, it also tells us to “consider the lilies,” to immerse ourselves in, reflect on, consider, and remember what’s beautiful. So what role, if any, does beauty have in healing our minds?
Curt Thompson: I had the privilege of being in a webinar last night with Mako Fujimura—[as] a participant—one in which he was speaking. And he and I have become friends in the last several years, and that work has been heavily influential in the work that we’re now doing in our practice. One of the things that we’re really good at in Western culture—and it serves a necessary purpose—and that is that we’re really good at identifying problems. We’re good at discerning where is the problem and how does it need to be fixed? “Oh, the tire is flat. I need to fix that.” And it’s a good skill set to have. Changing the oil, whatever it is that we need to be able to do, those things are all really important. The problem with that is that that is how we dominantly see all of life. We do not dominantly ask the question, “What is the new beautiful thing that I’m being called to create with God?” And I want to suggest to our listeners that when the first couple were standing on the precipice of first creation at the end of Genesis Chapter 2, where the male and female—this differentiated human organism, this differentiated couple that were naked; they were vulnerable and shame was not part of the driving force—standing on the precipice of creation, they were not wondering to themselves, “This is great. I wonder what the problems are that are out there that we’re going to get to solve?” Their commission was not to go into all the earth and solve problems. Their commission was to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth, steward the earth, create beauty and goodness wherever you go. And in God’s social economy, this would be “do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God” in all that we do.
Shame and fear, when they get to be too dominant, will have me paying attention to my world mostly through the lens of “What is the problem here that needs to be fixed? What is the pathology that needs to be diagnosed and treated?” as opposed to “What is the new thing I’m called to create?” That leads me to my right hemisphere of activity. It literally—for me to be curious about what I’m going to make, even in hard places, especially in hard places, to create beauty in the middle of hard places—takes me into a position neurobiologically and interpersonally that makes shame very, very difficult to operate.
So when Jesus identifies the lilies, he’s talking about lilies in a land that is typically otherwise completely barren. What in the world do you have lilies doing in a place that is this barren? And he’s saying— And it’s not just barren geologically or meteorologically; it’s barren in a lot of ways. The Romans are here. We have to eat bread hand to [mouth]. This is really difficult. And in that very difficult moment, instead of Jesus saying, “Hey, you all got to get your stuff together because you got to work hard, because if you don’t, then you’re not going to be OK.” He’s saying, “In this space of barrenness, in this place, I want you to consider beauty.” We consider beauty to be a luxury. And I want to suggest to us that not only is it not a luxury, it is a neurobiological and relational necessity. And it is in creating beauty that I am necessarily going to say that I’m going to trust God to be present and active in this moment instead of me spending time worrying about things. Instead of being anxious about tomorrow and the day after and the day after, Jesus is saying, “Create where you happen to be.” “But, Jesus, if I’m going to create, that means I’m not going to be able to figure out what we’re going to do with all the bad guys in the world.” To which he is saying, “Yeah, I know. And you spend way too much time doing that anyway, which is why you can’t pay much attention to me and haven’t been, which is why you haven’t been able to receive being loved by me, which is why you can’t pay attention and create beauty, let alone love your neighbor, let alone love your enemy, let alone then live into what I’ve asked you to do from the beginning.” As we heard last night in the webinar, considering the lilies was not a suggestion from Jesus, it was a command. Pay attention to the lilies, see how their life is being lived in the middle of this barrenness. And do likewise.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So we’re going to turn to questions from our viewers, and if you are relatively new to this program, you can not only ask a question in the Q&A section, but as Alyssa mentioned, you can also “like” a question which helps give us an idea of what some of the most popular questions are. Our first question comes from Hannah Broadway. And Hannah asks, “You mentioned how embodied interaction makes it difficult for shame to operate. Any thoughtful ideas if this new form of digital interaction, including counseling now via Zoom, is limiting the growth that embodied interaction provides so well?”
Curt Thompson: So, Hannah, thanks for your question. My sense is that any opportunity we have to be in real spaces with real people and not digitally, it’s good for us to take advantage of that. I also want to again highlight that it’s really important that we heed the recommendations of what our scientific experts are describing for us about the risks of this particular pandemic. And I know that different people have different inclinations about what they’re willing to do and not willing to do. But I think that it’s really important that we pay attention to two things. One is that digital interaction in and of itself is not a bad thing. It does mean, though, that because I’m not going to have real human contact in the way that I would if we were in the room together, it’s going to be really important for me to say to you out loud, “I know that we’re not in the same room, but I’m really glad to see you. I really wish that we could be in the same room.” And not really [think about] who’s responsible for keeping us far away from each other and how can we now shame them in our own minds or our conversations. No. But I want to say to you that even if I see you digitally and that’s the best that I can do now, I really want you to hear from me how beautiful it is for me to be with you.
There are many things that our bodies—if we were in the same room together—there are many things that our bodies say to other bodies. When we go to someplace, someone’s house for dinner, without our saying it, our bodies are saying, “I’m really glad to be here” because, well, there you are. I don’t have to say it because I’m in the room. Now, I might say it later. “I was really glad to be here. Thank you for your meal,” and so forth. But my body says things that I typically don’t necessarily have to say with words. But now it’s even that much more important to say with words what our bodies are not able to say. And that’s one of the most important kind of concrete things that we can do to let people know that we are seeing them and they’re being seen by us, that we can then receive that as well, so that even when we’re on video, that when someone says, “Curt, it’s really great to see you,” I’m going to say, “You know, I just want to wait for like 10 seconds because I want to take that in.” Now, this, of course, is where it is going to feel weird when we first start to do this, because they’re like, “Take what in? I just said it’s good to see you.” But no, I know it’s so automatic for us to say, “Thank you. It’s good to see you,” and so forth that we don’t recognize how powerful those words are until someone says, “Can I just wait? I just want to take that in.” You’re looking around and they’re taking it in, but, you know, if we practice this, we discover that it’s a real gift for us to hear that someone values our words; someone values our presence.
And so I would say, are we going to get everything that we want out of life if we’re not embodied, especially in psychotherapy? No. But I’d like to live forever, and I know that I’m not going to get that either. And so what I mean to say is that life is about a lot of things that I’m not going to get. And in that space, I’m being called to be immersed in the scriptures, immersed in the stories of the Gospels and the stories of the Old Testament that entirely prophetically point us to Jesus, and then be curious with others, even over video, about how can we receive from others? How can I allow myself to be receptive to love, in order for me then to give love, even in psychotherapy, even in friendship, even if we’re not in person?
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So our next question comes from Sarah George, and Sarah asks, “In Augustine’s Confessions, he reflects on a time in his life when he was ‘ashamed not to be shameless.’ Today, as much as shame can be a weapon against others, it seems that many want to be shameless in their own lives. Do you think seeking to be shameless is a wholly good thing, and does it truly lead to flourishing?”
Curt Thompson: One of the questions that I often get, that I think is some version of this, is “Is shame only ever a bad thing? Is there any way, any time in which shame is a good thing?” And I think of and point people to Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 7:10, where he writes, “There is a godly grief that leads to repentance and there is an ungodly grief that leads to death.” And I would suggest that that word “grief” that Paul’s using, that’s the English translation of this, but what Paul’s getting at is this notion of heart-sickness, this notion that I have the felt sense that something’s wrong internally. And we would say that if you look at the third chapter of Genesis, if you look at what happens in that story, that shame, as it emerges, clearly was something that was built into the creation as a possibility. The question is not ultimately then, do we feel shame? Is shame good? Is shame bad? The question is what do I do in response to when I experience it? That’s always the question.
For most of human history and human activity, we mostly in micro moments or in large moments respond to shame in the second way that St. Paul is referring to. Frankly, there are things that human beings do for which shame is the proper response, and the next proper response to that is “I’ve really screwed this up. I’ve made a huge mistake here, and this is my responsibility, and I’m going to make it right.” That’s what repentance looks like. Somehow, I feel ashamed, and I’m going to come to terms with this and turn around and move in the direction that shame is trying to signal me toward. Shame is a signal telling us there’s big trouble in the land. The question is, how am I responding to it? Most of us, and most of what my book on shame really is referring to is how most of us respond to it, which is that no, there is an ungodly grief. I feel shame and I turn away from it. I turn away from me. I turn away from you. I turn away from the parts of me that are feeling it. And part of this is because of how it begins so early in our lives, so that by the time I’m an early adult, I’ve already practiced responding to shame in such a way that any time I sense it, I don’t go to someone and say, “Hey, I’m feeling really bad right now, and I’m wondering if you could just help me figure that out because I think looking at you would make me feel worse, at least for a little while, and then we can work on this.” Like, I don’t do that. Which is why when shame is so frequently talked about and contextualized and linked to sin in the biblical narrative, the Bible then goes on to talk about how God is the one who has to come and redeem this. Neurobiologically, when I see shame, sense shame, I am typically not one who is going to turn toward you and say, “This is what I feel.” I need you to come find me. This is what God does with us. And in so doing, with enough practice of my regenerating and re-membering how I respond to shame, I begin to respond to it differently and therefore can go find others who are living in their own.
Cherie Harder: Hmm. So our next question comes from Fritz Heinzen. And Fritz asks, “Dr. Thompson, how will the psychiatric community deal with the very significant increase of mental health disorders due to COVID 19? Eighteen percent of those afflicted by the virus are developing problems within 14 to 90 days. Won’t the resources available to deal with it be overrun?”
Curt Thompson: Ok. Fritz, I’m so tempted to just like, well, we’re just going to do a little therapy here, even while we’re talking. This sense of like, well, and if it is, what will happen, right? We sense the fear even in our questions. And I want to say, yeah, I get it. I really get that. To which I would also say this, that when Fritz asked that question, it really reveals the part of us that the ease with which we can see this tidal wave coming. And it’s not a fake tidal wave. It’s not pretend. It’s real. And so the question that we then want to ask is, “What am I now going to do today?” The psychiatric community itself will do what it can do today. Each of us as individuals— I was in a conference last weekend for an Anglican diocese in which there was a beautiful moment where someone said, “You know, there are two days that the Bible pays a lot of attention to: today and the last day. Inviting the last day to inform us in terms of what we will do today. And that question of “will the psychiatric community—are we running out of resources?” is a question that reveals that I’m afraid that we live in a world of scarcity. Scarcity, not just about psychiatric resources, scarcity that I’m going to be left alone, scarcity about a lot of things that are far more primal, as it turns out, even than the scarcity of psychiatric resources.
And so it invites us to be curious, again, not just about what will happen to the world, what will happen to my friends in the future, but it also pulls the curtain back on the question, “What is it that I believe is true about me right now?” I tell people, “Look, we aren’t ever afraid of things in the future that we don’t already believe to be true right now.” This is how the brain works. We only anticipate a future that we are already remembering and we only remember from our past experience. And so if I anticipate a world of scarcity in the future in some way, shape, or form, and my response to it is one of fear or worry or concern, what that tells me is that there is a part of me right now that believes that I’m already living in a world of scarcity and I’m doing lots of things to kind of cope with that to protect myself from having to address the part of me that believes it’s living in a scarcity-filled world. That kind of doesn’t work right, but you know what I mean? And this sense that if we are pursuing others and we are asking others to pursue us, we find that the future scarcity that we worry about actually becomes something that I can address right here and now. When Jesus says, “Don’t worry about tomorrow, today has enough worries of its own,” it gives us the opportunity to remember that the only time that I have is now, and this is the day in which I can act. And the more I act in the present moment, I eliminate the possibility of anxiety, laying down neural tracks of memory, of having agency to do what I need to do, such that when the day comes, when those mental health opportunities are not as available, that I will have by then developed a muscle of trust that will invite me to then consider what can I do for those who are struggling with this very thing.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Paul Harris, who has his eye on today, and he asked, “Can you comment on our current divisive political climate and specifically cancel culture? How might we address this?”
Curt Thompson: You know, again, our capacity for and propensity to talk about large subjects is important, and we need to talk about things like racism, cancel culture, economic disparities, political fractures, those kinds of things. We can talk about those as abstract ideas. There are many people who are far smarter than me that you would want to ask those questions of. What I’m mostly curious about that I think will answer this, I would say, well, I would want to know how can we—any one of us as individuals at any given moment—do what is necessary to create beauty and goodness in whatever moment that comes up? So when we say, well, what do we do specifically about cancel culture? I would be asking questions like, “Gosh, what do we mean by that? And how do you imagine that taking place in real life?” And if you say, “Well, I read this on Facebook,” I would say, “Well, then turn your Facebook off.” And you think, “Well, but these things might be happening out there,” and I would say, what I want us to be able to do is to practice being in the real world that we occupy, not the worlds that we don’t occupy, that are off somewhere in some future that we worry about or in some world in the past that we regret or are too nostalgic about and live in the world that we actually occupy with God.
And in so doing, I would say it’s going to be important for us to live truly in terms of who we are as people of faith and recognize that, yes, there may come a time when living truly and faithfully to the gospel may mean that we’re going to suffer. It may mean that people are going to mistreat us. I mean, but you get mistreated all [the time]. If you grow up in my family, you get mistreated. So it’s not like it’s new. Humans are good at mistreating people. But when we are practicing becoming people of the fruit of the spirit, we discover that two things are going to happen. I tell people, look, at the end of the day, the question that I know that I’m having to confront in my own life is, at the end of today, has Curt been a person of greater love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control? That’s the question that I have to ask. Have I been attuned to the work of the Father in order for me to become a living, breathing, pulsating fruit of the spirit in any moment? Wherein which I can speak truly to questions that are answered for me, but I can also, you know, when someone wants to mistreat me, I can also be curious with them about them. And again, my capacity to, as Paul writes in Romans 5, suffer in order to persevere in order to build character, in order for character to create solid hope within me, wherein which shame has no place to dwell. And if I’m not worried about shame, I stop worrying about cancel culture or any of these other things that we worry about and instead take actions moment by moment by moment, every day with the people with whom we interact, in which we are curious about them, asking them helpful questions and telling them also about the things that we long for, the things that we’re afraid of and the process that we’re living in, in the context of a community that is enabling us to be living breathing outposts of goodness and beauty, even in the middle of things that are really hard.
Cherie Harder: That’s beautiful. This next question is really a follow-up to the previous one in some ways, or at least a follow-up to your answer. Jessica Scherrers asks, “How can we give others the gift of being known and how can we better embody a sense of wholeness?”
Curt Thompson: It’s a great question. I think that there are— You know, one of the most powerful ways for us to invite people into the practice of being known is to allow ourselves to practice being known. It is the intentionality of when someone says, “How are you doing?”, you might be able to say, “Well, there are parts of me that are actually OK. I’ve got food on my table. And there are parts of me that are really in a hard place.” We just spent five weeks in California helping with a family mental health crisis. And that was not an easy thing. And it’s taxing and it’s hard. And I’ve never before felt the support of the prayers of my friends like I have in the last six weeks, never before in my life. And, you know, when people say, “Hey, how are you doing?” and you just tell them the truth, it can be jarring for people. But once they kind of pick themselves up off the ground and come back to consciousness, they discover that, my goodness, the air feels fresher that we’re breathing because you told me the truth about who you are and where you are. Now, we’re not talking about casting our pearls before swine. We’re not talking about revealing just anything that we want to reveal to whoever we want to reveal it to, whoever it might be. But we really are saying that in the course of average conversation, day-to-day conversation, we can actually be more transparent and more true to what’s really true about our lives than we often are. And even in these small ways of average, everyday interaction, that can be a way for us to give people the opportunity to be known because we are actually putting it on display first.
Another more direct and intentional way to do this is we often give people the assignment to find two other people. When I’m seeing a patient in therapy, one of the things that I invite them to consider doing is choosing two other people that they know that they could trust. And I’m saying, “I really want you to find a way to begin to talk with them about what your experience is in here. What’s it like for you to talk about your story? What are the things that you’re discovering? What are the things that you’re learning? And invite them to start to tell you their story as well.” In these confessional community groups that we run, we say that the work that we’re doing here is we are enabling people to tell their stories more truly. That’s what we do. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. And we like to mimic that. We like to believe that what we’re doing in these confessional communities, that we are being the way. How we do this, doing it truly, and then in the middle of this, life emerges because of the work of the Holy Spirit in that space where people are being known.
And by this, there are some simple questions that we can ask, for instance, “Could you tell me one thing that brought you joy today?” “And could you tell me one thing that really frightened you today?” “Could you tell me one thing that you did that you were afraid to do, but you did it anyway?” “Tell me one thing that you’re really proud of that happened to you today.” You know, these are things that, like, nobody asks me these questions, right? You know, “How many times today were you angry?” You’re like, who asks these kinds of questions in polite company? But these are the kinds of questions that if we were to say, “How are you doing, Curt?” “You know, I’m doing pretty well, but this morning at 10 o’clock, I was really pissed.” Really, like, could we go on to something else? But the point is that we are so unwilling to name the truth about who we are that not only do we then walk around pretending to have relationships that we don’t really have, but we also end up pretending to have a relationship with God that we don’t have. It was someone no less than John Calvin who said, “If we do not know ourselves, we cannot know God.” Now, you wouldn’t think that cat would be saying these kinds of things, but he’s— Now, unless David Benner is incorrect, but he quoted him. So we can blame David Benner for this, but you know, this is what Calvin wrote! And so this notion of being known by others enables the brain—especially being known by others with whom we have great difference, with whom we perceive to be our enemies—in those ways, my mind is made more integrated. I am made more whole because it’s true.
When Jesus came, look, all the gods— At the time of Jesus, all the gods were angry at everybody. The whole notion of having peace with God was a really big deal because everybody knew that you never got peace with the gods. So when Paul writes, “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” it’s a big freakin’ deal. We don’t even listen to that, but walk around as if it’s still true that we don’t have peace with God. But God sends Jesus not just to give us peace with him, but peace with each other. And the way that we practice this is to find the people with whom we think we have the most difference and say, “I’d like to have a socially distanced cup of coffee with you. And I want to ask you about your story, and I want to tell you mine,” instead of having inane, unhelpful conversations in social media. Boy, am I going to get in trouble for this? Maybe I am, I don’t know. And only strengthening the capacity of Evil to use shame to shape our imaginations, to tell us that we’re living in a culture that is continuing to fracture when perhaps if I’m just spending more time working to make sure that that’s not happening, I don’t have time to think about that’s the culture that we’re living in.
Cherie Harder: We will need to wrap up soon. There have been so many excellent questions we haven’t gotten to. I will ask one more. And Nicole Peep, I am abridging your question here somewhat, but I think it’s an excellent one. She asks, “What does it look like for us to collectively seek and appreciate beauty together? How do we define beauty as a community?”
Curt Thompson: I’m just so grateful for the question. I think that I’ve been so profoundly helped by the work of Hans von Balthasar and his way of inviting the church to consider that when we talk about what the philosophers would talk about, the transcendentals, truth and goodness and beauty, that we often in the Western tradition talk about them kind of in that order. And part of how it is that we talk about them in that order is because we are thinking people. And we think first, or at least, we think we think first, and then we discover what’s true and then what is good because of what’s true and then, of course, then we can decide what beauty really is. And von Balthasar kind of turns all that on its head and, consistent with the way the brain actually works, bottom to top and right to left, in which we’d like to say first, we sense the world. From the time we’re born, first we sense and then we make sense of what we sense. And von Balthasar would say, beauty is the first thing that we encounter. And our encounter with beauty tells us that it is good, and that’s what tells us what is true. It begins with this sense of beauty. It doesn’t mean that everything in the world is an example of beauty, but beauty is where our bodies first encounter anything about God, anything about our parents. Anything about relationships are first encountered in our physicality.
Why do I say all that? To say that we often don’t pay attention to that and dismiss the actions of our bodies in the world. And so how do we encounter beauty? How do we consider making it a possible thing for us as a community to create and to curate? Well, it begins with us, with intention, planning every day to spend time with it. So, for instance, my friend Andy Crouch likes to say that before he picks up any device, whenever he’s able, he likes to go outside and have some encounter with nature, whether it’s a tree or a walk to, you know, to grass, whatever it is, that reminds him that he is in a world that he did not make and that he is at the mercy of God. And so, you know, here’s an example: I would say every day, if you want to, walk out of your house, out of your space, and find something natural that’s living, and I want you to go spend, you know, two or three minutes with it. Now, again, I’ve said a number of things here today that might sound a little weird, because if you’re in your neighbor’s yard looking at their tree, they’re going to call the police and that wouldn’t be good for anybody. But you know what I mean? Like, it’s spending time encountering something with the purpose of allowing beauty to speak to us. So before we create it with community, we actually have to practice becoming open to it.
One of the questions that we want patients to consider is, “In what way today are you going to allow yourself to put yourself in the path of oncoming beauty?” It is a practice that we need to get used to: putting ourselves in the path of oncoming beauty. And then, especially in COVID, one of the primary ways that people can actually respond to it is with acts of creativity, and these acts of creativity can be things as little as doodling on a piece of paper. These things— But it can be like taking online art classes. It can be any number of different things. Sitting down at a piano, doing anything that is creative. You might think, “Well, no, I don’t like— I’m not that person.” Yes, you are. Whenever we’re in conversation with people who say “creatives” and talk about people who are “creatives”—like, so you’re talking about 8.2 billion people? Because we all are. Some have particular giftings in that domain, but we are all called to be known in order to make stuff of great beauty in the world.
And then we say to others, what would you imagine making together? Now, for those of you who are together in a home, you might say we’re going to make bread together. We’re going to make music. We’re going to sing together. We’re going to paint together. And you think all these things just seem so strange; they seem strange because we are so unpracticed at them. So the very first act is what am I going to do to put myself in the path of oncoming beauty in very concrete ways every single day? Small ways, for five minutes. Next, allow yourself to spend some time viewing beauty that’s more particular artwork, even if it’s online. It may not be in a museum, but if it’s online, spend your time doing that. Some of you may be in places where there are museums that have outdoor access. Find yourself in that space. Being in nature, listening to music, viewing artwork. And then together, I would say, allow yourselves to take the risk and disallow shame from being part of the conversation. To say, “I want us both to take 15 minutes”—set a clock—”and I want us to list the number of different things that each of us would like to make, and we’re going to make a list of them. And when the clock is done, we’re going to share them with each other and then we’re going to number them and prioritize them. What are the things that we’re going to do together?” Now, to remind you: This is not all about artwork. This could be, “Do I want to create the next new business I need to create?” “Do I need to create the next new relationship I want to create?” Or “Do I need to create the next new repair with my child?” All of these things [are] considered to be those good works of beauty that God has prepared for us from before the foundation of the world that we now need in this time of fracture more than we need anything else. So that we will see, as Dostoevsky’s character in The Idiot said once, “Indeed, beauty will save the world.”
Well, Cherie, I want to say, first of all, again, I’m really grateful. I know that, as Scott Peck said, once life is difficult. And it’s just true. And I want to—I think it was Fritz who asked the question about this concern about this growing sense of fragility as far as our mental health is concerned—and I would want to say to him and to everyone else that we are afraid is not because we’re weak or because we’re pansies or because we haven’t worked hard enough or because we don’t have our crap together. That we are afraid is because we’re humans. And it’s into that space where we are afraid that we read over and over and over again in the Scriptures, “Don’t be afraid.” And I further want to say to us, don’t be afraid to be afraid. Because I believe that it’s in that space where we can acknowledge our fear, and especially if we acknowledge it to someone else, who in being known by them can then also ask us the question, What do we want? What do we want to become? What do we want to make? And where do we want to become outposts of beauty and goodness in the world? And let’s go do that together.
Cherie Harder: Curt, thank you, it’s been a delight, as well as a very hopeful conversation.
Curt Thompson: Thanks, Cherie. Great to be with you.
Cherie Harder: And thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.