Category Archives: Social Issues

Today: The Day to Do Something

My friend, Dr. Robert Fisch, often reflects on his life by remembering an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Dr. Fisch’s “curse” included living amid the “interesting times” of the Holocaust, Soviet oppression, and the clinical challenges of working as a pediatrician with children presenting with the devastating disease of phenylketonuria (PKU). However, part of Dr. Fisch’s story includes rising to these challenges of his time. He resisted the Holocaust and Soviet oppression, and he found a way to help treat PKU. In these ways, Dr. Fisch ultimately contributed to a more humane and just world.

Dr. Fisch with my family, December, 2011

The past two years have clearly been “interesting” and maybe feel “cursed” as well. COVID impacted every facet of our lives from early 2020 to Spring of 2021. Racial tensions became more evident with the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning that followed. Political polarization drove people apart and contributed to an insurrection on our democracy on January 6, 2021. And, now, within a matter of days, we’re learning we face a “different virus,” to quote Dr. Anthony Fauci, that has the potential to upend life again. Finally, we’ve faced a heat, drought, and regular bout of air quality alerts that awakens us, if we haven’t been awakened before, to the reality of climate change in my state of Minnesota.  

These are historic challenges. I can imagine a day when my children or grandchildren may look back at these times we’re living in at this time as if they presented a set of forks in the road. “We the people” and we individuals each have choices to make about what futures we will create, the sides of history on which we will stand. As Dr. Fisch has said:

“Yesterday is past. Tomorrow is a wish. Today is the only time in which to do something.”

When We Can’t Agree on Scientific Facts

The challenges of this time humble me as a science writer and educator. As I participate in discussions about many of the most serious and pressing problems now facing our country and world – problems ranging from vaccine hesitancy to racism, from race relations to climate change – one overarching meta-problem frequently recurs. Coming from different universes of information and social comparison, we don’t agree on the relevant facts.

Mika Baumeister | Unsplash

Theodore Parker once stated that facts are “true, independent of all human opinion.” That is, although we may have wishes for what’s true, previous beliefs about what’s true, and groups telling us what’s true, none of this compares with what’s actually true. Reality has a life of its own.

In the past, we could at least sometimes come together as a people, even if we disagreed on initial solutions to problems, because we agreed on relevant facts. This has largely changed. As a result, we are increasingly polarized and fractured, often incapable of consensus, compromise, civil discourse, and creative problem-solving.

One of the purposes of education is to prepare us to be able to separate fact from fiction. Since many of the problems noted above concern questions about how the world works, science education, in particular, seems at least partly to blame.

What do we need to be able to do to think critically, especially in the scientific realm, as we wrestle with the problems of this time? Below are six essential skills we need as citizens, at least as a start.

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Awe as a Resource for Coping with Stress

What do you do when you face a stressful life event? Strategies obviously vary, ranging from getting drunk to binging on Netflix to talking with a friend. Individuals differ in their habitual responses to stress, and these differences significantly impact well-being. 

I’ve realized as of late how I often deal with stress by seeking a source of awe, something vast that stretches the sense of what’s possible in the moment. The experience of awe seems so distinct from the experience of stress, but reflecting on the intersection between my life experience and some new research just published by the American Psychological Association, I’m realizing how this response contributes to the ability to successfully cope with difficult times.

For instance, a few weeks ago, while a loved one underwent a long and intense surgery at one of the Mayo Clinic hospitals in Rochester, Minnesota, my wife and I decided to go for a walk. Whereas our feeling inside the hospital involved fear, agony, and dread, the simple act of getting into the sunlight and seeing the nearby trees brought us some calm. We eventually came across signs pointing us to the Plummer House – former home of Mayo partner and founder Dr. Henry Stanley Plummer – so we walked in that direction, ultimately finding the breathtaking English Tudor mansion. We explored the grounds but came to a stop, transfixed, at one of the most unusual buildings we’d ever seen – actually the old water tower for the mansion – but which my wife and I referred to as “Rapunzel’s Tower.” The architecture of the tower truly “blew our minds” for what was possible with a building, and we were lifted out of our troubles for just a moment. When our attention came back to ourselves and the situation at hand, we returned with greater clarity, strength, and connection to face the difficulties to come. 

Watertower at Plummer House, Rochester, Minnesota

In a recent article, six studies demonstrated how awe experiences diminish feelings of stress. For instance, in one study, participants were brought to the top of a 200-foot clock tower on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. Half were randomly assigned to the awe condition, which involved gazing out the tower upon the Bay, San Francisco, and the Golden Gate Bridge; the other half were randomly assigned to a control condition, which involved gazing upon the inside of the tower. Although both groups experienced less stress associated with the hassles they reported having than before being brought to the tower (consistent with research showing the stress benefits of taking a walk outside), individuals in the awe condition, in particular, experienced greater reductions in stress, compared with individuals in the control condition. In part because of this, participants in the awe condition also reported higher satisfaction with their lives.

Why does awe decrease stress? Based on their results, the researchers suggested that:

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Awe Decreases Political Polarization

As my wife and I walked from the front doors to the worship center of the exponentially growing church we used to attend in the mid-1990s, we often remarked how much relational tension filled the hallways. Young couples frequently walked together in silence, their faces sometimes providing brief glimpses of the irritation they felt toward each other. Moms and dads regularly yelled at kids to get them to Sunday school. Friends and acquaintances mostly kept to themselves.    

People had good reason for waking up early on a Sunday morning to pack the auditorium. The young preacher challenged us with mind-stretching insights that directly applied to our lives. The band led us into worship experiences that connected us with God in ways that melted our selves into something larger.

During these times of shared praise, in particular, emotion poured out of many. I often cried during songs, for example, tears pouring down my face. Sometimes, I’d be unable to continue singing, in fact, feeling so “choked up.” There were even a few times when I felt so overwhelmed I had to physically brace myself with the chair in front of me because I was literally “weak in the knees.”

When we left the worship space, my wife and I frequently commented how those around us seemed palpably different than when they arrived. Not everything was perfect, of course, but tension had lifted. Young couples looked more in love, holding hands on their way out the door. Families played. Others welcomed conversation over coffee and donuts.

If this had been a one-time occurrence, I may not have thought much of it. But, it was so predictable, it was almost comical. Pretty much every week, the same basic story unfolded: people were being transformed.

Maybe the most notable observation we made, though, at least in retrospect, occurred when we left the church building and walked back to our car. The parking lot typically was much fuller than when we arrived, and we often were struck by the range of political bumper stickers. Frequently, we’d see people part ways in the parking lot with a handshake or hug, only to enter cars with stickers suggesting different political affiliations.

As a young Ph.D. student studying Psychology at the University of Minnesota at the time, I wondered: what might help account for the powerful positive effects we were observing? Nothing in psychological science seemed capable of providing a good explanation.

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Settling Into Winter

Sometimes, after dinner, the dishes washed and the kitchen reasonably cleaned, a window of time opens. My family disperses into their various corners of our home, allowing me to settle into the living room. I switch into comfortable clothing and I wrap myself in the soft, oversized blanket my wife gave me for Christmas.

Tonight, I look outside, into the darkness, where the only light comes from the faint glow off the newly fallen snow. I listen to the breeze shaking the trees, rattling the house, causing the chimney to whistle. 

Unsplash | Takemaru Hirai

During an awful pandemic that mostly restricts, in the midst of a Minnesota January, freedom can sometimes be found. There are options for what to do I don’t remember always having.

There are times when I light a fire in the fireplace and drink some herbal tea before settling into some pleasure reading, writing, or Netflix. Occasionally, a family member joins me for a game of Yahtzee or Quirkle. Some nights I go upstairs and settle into my tub, surrounded by candles, smells of lavender, and classical music played by Alexa.

In the past, I probably would have interpreted these unstructured, unplanned, unexciting nights as “boring.” However, I’m now finding power in reframing them as opportunities to “settle.”  

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Learning from 2020

One of the fresh perspectives I’ve appreciated this year is that of Sikh activist, best-selling author, and popular TED talk speaker, Valarie Kaur. A few months ago, on Twitter, Kaur asked:

“Over the course of [this year], what have you discovered is most essential to YOU?”

I posed this question (virtually) last week to a group of students I help lead through a Christian student club on my campus, and their responses were thoughtful. “Time outside in nature,” one said. “Being able to easily and physically spend time with family and friends,” said another. “Or just brief interactions with strangers at the store,” I added. “Hugs,” someone said, before following up by saying “and things to do outside the house.” “Moving my body,” added someone else. “Knowing that I am not in control and that I need a source I can ultimately trust,” reflected another.

Sometimes, what is most essential is what we have long taken for granted.

Unsplash | Ben White

As Frederick Buechner once said:

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

The year 2020 was not a wasted year. It was a year ripe for listening to our life experience. May we learn from our life and intentionally create something new and better – for ourselves and our communities – in 2021.

Happy New Year.

The 5 Top Posts for 2020

It’s been quite a year. With all the losses of 2020, one plus has been more time for me to write. Many new people started reading and following the blog this year, and for the first time, I’ve published several excellent guest blogger’s posts. Along with everyone else, the COVID pandemic was top of mind for me, and that was reflected in the themes of my writing.

As a way to review this year, below are the top posts of 2020 on this blog. If you haven’t had a chance to read these articles yet, this might be an interesting time to do so.

5. The Need for Sacred Moments

Based on new research published this year, this post explores the human need for connection.

4. Lessons from the Monks for the COVID-19 Pandemic

In light of the pandemic, this post unearths insights from one of my favorite books: The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris.

3. “Done” with Religion

This is a personal confession with some of my struggles with church and religion, in light of new research published this year on people who are “done.”

2. Suffering in a Pandemic Age as a Christian

Featuring insights from my friend, Deanna Thompson, this post explores Biblical spaces for coping with tragedy.

1. Psychological Factors in School Success

This was, by far, the most popular post on the blog this year. It revisits themes of posts I wrote years ago, but seemed to find new popularity – particularly in South Africa – in light of students made to learn at home.

***

Unsplash | Immo Wegmann

Reviewing this year in writing like this makes me wonder about what themes and developments will arise in 2021. Hopefully one of hope!

Three Tips for Being Hospitable to Young Adults this Holiday Season

I’ve been collaboring with Springtide Research Institute for some time, in various capacities, and I’ve been so impressed with their surveys and analyses about themes of loneliness, religion, and the importance of mentoring in young people. The following guest post is from Springtide’s media relations’ specialist, and is very timely. Hope you enjoy!

~Andy

***

It’s an experience so common it might be considered a holiday cliché if it weren’t true: that inevitable, excruciating barrage of questions, often directed at young people about their accomplishments, goals, or plans.

I’ve experienced it firsthand, when I announced to my now-wife’s family we were getting engaged and was immediately grilled by an uncle about my employment status and earning potential. But others have it worse. I cringe recalling a family member’s boyfriend being interrogated, then advised, then compared to others about his life choices, prospects, and setbacks. He’d had a particularly difficult year, and the onslaught of questions from an intoxicated aunt bordered on cruel. He did his best to remain calm and composed, but he had arrived ready to relax, eat, and chat light-heartedly.

In fact, that’s what most young people are hoping for – and this holiday season, when many have undergone incredible stresses, it’s more important than ever to be sensitive about heavy or hard conversations.

Well over half of young people – about six in ten – do not want to talk about difficult things during the 2020 holidays because they want it to be a time of joy and lightheartedness. Who can blame them? Studies have found that Gen Zers have been the biggest losers during the pandemic in terms of the job marketthe economymental stress, and depression. Even more, as reported in Springtide Research Institute’s November, 2020, survey of 2,000 young people aged 13-25, 44% wouldn’t feel safe, welcome, or encouraged to have vulnerable conversations about difficult topics over the holidays this year.

Unlike older adults, young people – and particularly those under the age of 18 – do not always have the freedom to opt out of in-person holiday gatherings. I still remember the subtle threats my father used to ensure I was present at family holiday parties, despite my complaints from time to time. Now that 2 in 5 Americans have confirmed they will attend holiday gatherings this year with 10 people or more, it appears there will be plenty of opportunities for older adults to do right by young people, who would rather avoid trying to debrief or grieve the difficult year they’ve had.

With that in mind, here are a few tips for adults hoping to be hospitable to young people at holiday gatherings this year.

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Advent, 2020

In the Christian calander, Advent refers to the four Sundays and weeks leading up to the celebration of Christmas. In Latin, Advent means “coming,” and this season provides a window in time for Christians to intentionally dwell in a spirit of longing, hope, and patient waiting and anticipation. In a year of public health crisis, financial and work uncertainty, racial unrest, and political strife, this emphasis strikes a new resonance in our life experience and has the potential to impact us more powerfully than in the past.

As I seek to understand and live out my faith, I find I become consumed, from time to time, with different perspectives and voices. As I look on my bookshelves, for example, I am fondly reminded of times where I have been enamored by the insights of Frederick Buechner, Shane Claiborne, Kathleen Norris, Parker Palmer, Barbara Brown Taylor, and, of course, C. S. Lewis, among others. Recently, I have acquired a new hero: Kate Bowler.

Kate Bowler

Kate has put out a free Advent devotional, and I find I am profoundly drawn in by her thoughts, as she so beautifully and compellingly connects traditional Christian faith with the suffering of this year and this moment. Part of this ability surely stems from her own experience and struggle with as someone who suffers as a stage IV cancer patient, (which she discusses in her amazing TED talk). For example, in the “liturgy” she shared today, Kate invites us to pray:

“blessed are we with eyes open to see
the suffering from pandemic danger, sickness and loneliness,
the injustice of racial oppression,
the unimpeded greed and misuse of power, violence, intimidation,
and use of dominance for its own sake,
the mockery of truth, and disdain for weakness or vulnerability,
and worse,
the seeming powerlessness of anyone trying to stop it.

blessed are we who despair for our democracy,
and ask: what can we do to protect it?

blessed are we who ask: where are you God?
and where are Your people
the smart, sane, and sensible ones who fight for good?”

***

As I meditate on these words, I am stunned by the realization of how much pain this year I have consciously or unconsciously tried to suppress. I feel my perspective broadened and made more whole by inviting and welcoming “eyes to see” those who are sick, lonely, and oppressed. I recognize, afresh, the extent to which truth, weakness, and vulnerability are being mocked, and how that makes all the problems we’re facing worse. I appreciate the despairing concern for our democracy and world. And, I agonize over why “God’s people” so often are part of these problems, and why they are not more often involved in the fight for good.

This prayer validates my experience and urges me to have more empathy for those who are struggling right now and do what I can to help. As Kate concludes her “liturgy,” it builds a conviction to “take hold of hope, as protest.”

As we look toward Christmas this year, we do so with a realization that God doesn’t shy away from awfulness (like I tend to do). In fact, God enters in vulnerably – rejected, in the midst of a genocide, and in the humble form of a baby. Emmanuel remains with us, in suffering, and God calls us to be present, in suffering, as well.

Do Young Adults Need Their Godparents?

As more and more people read this blog, I get increasingly asked by others if they can write a guest post. I have almost always declined, but this post below by Magdalyn Fiore really caught my eye, maybe because I’m a godparent to three wonderful boys but also because I’ve never seen anyone write anything about this topic before. Hope you enjoy!

~Andy

***

It’s Sunday morning and you’re standing at the front of the church beside the baptismal font. The air is cool and the entire building is lit by sunlight shining through stained-glass windows. Everyone in the pews is silent, smiling, and the only sounds you hear are the words coming from the Pastor and the cries of the baby in their careful arms.

“Are you ready to help the parents of this child in their duty as Christian parents?” the Pastor asks.

“We are,” you proclaim.

Congratulations! You have just become a godparent. But what does it mean to be a godparent? What role do godparents play throughout the child’s life, particularly as they grow into young adulthood, when godparents may be needed most?

***

The tradition of godparents, or sponsors, originated in Judaism through the ancient custom of brit milah, a circumcision ceremony after the birth of a baby boy, during which a sandek, or “companion” in Hebrew, would hold the baby. The ceremony of baptism incorporated a similar tradition through godparenting after Christianity emerged. A godparent pledges to act as a life-long support for the baptized infant (or adult) to help them live a Christian life and fulfill religious obligations, such as attending church services and receiving other sacraments. Across different Christian religions, godparents commit to helping raise a child in a religious context, particularly if the child’s parents neglect the responsibility. They vow to be a source of information and guidance throughout their godchild’s entire faith journey, including as the child grows into emerging adulthood.

Emerging adulthood is a period of development roughly between the ages of 18 to 25 years, during which time individuals tend to self-explore and self-reflect about many topics, including religion and spirituality. It’s a ripe time to ask questions about the faith tradition they grew up in and its relevance as they transition into adulthood. But as emerging adults begin to question and explore religion, their relationships with their godparents often don’t live up to their original promise, with godparents frequently abandoning the opportunity and responsibility to spiritually mentor their older godchild. 

According to developmental scientist, Caitlin Faas, many emerging adults don’t even know who their godparents are, and the relationship is often overshadowed by other roles the godparent plays in the person’s life, such as aunt or uncle. At best, the young person might receive an extra present from a godparent at Christmas or on a birthday, but something deeper and more meaningful rarely emerges.

“Emerging adults are questioning their own religiosity more,” Faas says. In fact, according to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, 40% of young adults experience either a definitive or temporary decline in religiosity between adolescence through young adulthood, while just 10% report an increase in their religiosity. “So as that’s happening,” Faas continues, “do they feel like it’s a safe space to talk to their godparent about that?” She adds that as godchildren grow older, godparents—and older adults in general—don’t have clear societal roles laid out for how to connect with that age group, and that we tend to think 20-year-olds don’t want to talk to their godparents. “They probably do,” she assures. “But are you going out of your way to reach out to them?”

Unsplash | Ben White

In many cases, this hesitation to reach out to godchildren as they age may reflect something about the godparents’ own religiousness and spirituality, Faas says. “Are godparents able to have those difficult conversations about spirituality with their godchildren who are 20? Will they take the time to figure out what their own spirituality means? Most adults haven’t even figured it out – if you really want to get deep into, ‘Well, why do you go to church?’ Can most adults answer that question?” To truly be prepared for deep spiritual discussions, Faas urges, godparents must be open to hard questions and dig deeper into their own religious and spiritual convictions and behaviors.

Emerging adults don’t always know where to turn for answers to their complex questions, especially when their godparents are not practicing the faith or are not involved in their life. According to a national study conducted by Springtide Research Institute (The State of Religion & Young People 2020), more than 1 in 4 individuals aged 13 to 25 know only one or fewer adults they can go to when they need to talk. Looking even closer, only 50% of those who don’t have any adult mentors say their life is meaningful and has purpose; however, when young people have just one mentor, 70% say their life has meaning and purpose. This percentage continues to increase overwhelmingly the more mentors a young person has, which reflects the importance of trusted adults in their lives, especially as they seek belonging and navigate questions regarding meaning and identity.

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Becoming an Instrument of Peace

Last week, I stumbled upon an opportunity to join a Zoom book club in South Africa in which famed Yale theologian, Miroslav Volf, agreed to participate. I’ve admired Volf for years, beginning with this interview in which he expounds upon some of his ideas about religion, genocide, and violence. I ultimately featured many of his insights in this piece I wrote about Christianity and the Holocaust.

To my surprise and delight, there were only a handful of people in the zoom call, which gave me stunning access to Volf. My daughter joined me over lunch, and we ended up discussing themes raised related to Christianity, genocide, racism, and social justice.

Miroslav Volf

What most struck me during this discussion was a comment Volf made, in passing, which I paraphrase to the best of my memory here: “Every time I post to social media, I pray: ‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.‘” The thought was that, if the message to be sent didn’t line up with this prayer, Volf would change it, but if it did line up, the prayer was for the message to have this intended effect.

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The Religious Language of Republicans and Democrats

Note: It’s my honor and joy that my former student, Whitney Harper, guest authored the post below. Whitney was a student of mine when I taught in Scotland in 2009, and we have remained close ever since. She now is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium.

***

In the United States we like to claim separation of church and state, but the reality is much more complicated. Although our minds may automatically be drawn to the Religious Right as the main violator of this separation, research has shown Democratic candidates have taken note, and are also making use of religious language to frame their stances.

In contrast to Republican candidates’ overt use of religious language to frame debates surrounding abortion, Christianity’s role in the public sphere, and “family values,” Democratic candidates tend to take a more subtle approach, being careful not to alienate non-Christian voters, but also making sure to use phrases that will perk up the ears of Christians. They tend to use religious language to frame care for the poor, healthcare reform, and concern for racism, sexism, and the environment; often centering their religious rhetoric on Jesus’ petition to care for “the least of these.” Although these references aren’t as explicit as Republicans,’ they have started to persuade more Christian voters to the Democratic Party, building up the more recently established “Religious Left.”

How has religious language been so successful not only in the Republican Party, but also in a party that has largely taken a more “secular” stance? Recent research can be especially helpful in answering this question.

A body of psychological research consistently shows that voters make their decisions primarily based on a “gut” feeling, and that religious language is especially helpful for speaking to this intuitive sense. For example, in his book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt examines moral intuitions in relation to religion and politics in the United States. He argues that, when it comes to religion and politics – and really any of our decision-making – “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second” (italics in the original). By this, Haidt means that as much as people want to believe they make decisions rationally and consciously, the reality is that almost all of our reasoning is unconscious and driven by instinct and emotion. He elaborates:

“The central metaphor . . . is that the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning – the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes – the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior” (italics in the original).

In other words, most of the choices we make – including how religious we are, who we vote for, and how we make moral decisions – are driven by emotion. We then create reasons and justifications after the fact. We feel to our very core our beliefs are the correct ones – to the point that words can’t fully explain why, as much as we may try – and this strong urge makes it easier to dismiss other views. This is what psychologists call the confirmation bias: the act of ignoring information that contradicts what we already think and seeking out information that reaffirms what we already believe.

This strong emotional gut-level reaction is what makes the coupling of religious and political language so powerful in a voter’s decision making. For example, for several decades the pro-life stance has been drilled into the majority of conservative Christians’ minds as the stance for Christians to look for when voting. Over time, this has strengthened Christian voters’ instinctive responses to “pro-life” language. Haidt continues:

Unsplash | Brad Dodson
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The Emotional Benefits of Sacred Moments

“The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

***

The year 2020 will go down in history as a year of public health, economic, and societal crisis. Much less acknowledged, however, is the profound emotional and spiritual malaise* many people feel. In fact, in the United States, emotional distress is three times higher than previous years and happiness is at a near 50-year low.

For many of us, something seems “off.” Perhaps this feels like a sense that something is vaguely “missing,” or maybe we “long” for something more or different. Probably many of us have grown “numb” to these feelings over the past several months – without fully realizing it. We may not understand why we’re feeling the way we do or appreciate how much our inner lives really have changed.

***

It’s with all this in mind that I’ve been reflecting on some new research published this week in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

In this study, 2,889 participants were asked about the frequency with which they generally experience “sacred moments” in their everyday lives. Specifically, individuals were instructed to rate, on a scale of 1 (never / not at all) to 5 (very often), how often they experience:

  • “a moment that felt set apart from everyday life,”
  • “a moment… that was really real,”
  • “a moment in which all distractions seemed to melt away,”
  • “a deep sense of connection with someone or something,”
  • “a sense of uplift,” and
  • “a sacred moment.”

Results from this research show that individuals’ experiences of sacred moments predicted “higher levels of positive emotions and greater presence of meaning, as well as lower levels of perceived stress, depressed distress, and anxious distress.”  

***

What is it about “sacred moments,” as defined and measured in the above study, that might be most essential, that might be most involved in predicting higher well-being? When I consider the scale items mentioned above, the one that stands out most focuses on moments of deep “connection with someone or something.” I imagine that deep experiences of connection drive the sense that moments feel “set apart from everyday life” and “really real,” for instance.

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“Done” with Religion?

My core identity remains deeply Christian. However, after 48 years of attending church at least once per week (almost without exception, even during college), I am – at least temporarily – “done” with the local church.

Part of this stems from the era of COVID-19. At the same time my family and I try to do what we feel is responsible in preventing further spread of the virus, others in our area see no problem with in-person worship, contributing to a new sense of disconnection.  

Even if COVID-19 never happened, though, I still might be “done.” For years, although I earnestly joined with others in my local church community to recite the same creed and prayers of the Christian faith and to pour my heart into collective worship and service, I often – ironically enough – had the sense we didn’t share the same worldview or many of the same values. I never felt comfortable attending the men’s Bible study because I believed my questions or divergent thoughts would not be welcome. Maybe this is an aside – or maybe not – but my kids never significantly connected with anyone in the church’s youth program either. As time passed, I realized we didn’t really have a place at that table.

I’m not happy about being “done.” I feel failure… isolation… and profound loss. I’ve described this split as being like “divorce.” And, yet, in my brokenness, I also feel some degree of new freedom.

***   

The first time I heard of a religious “done” was when I was in a meeting with my colleague, Josh Packard, Sociologist at the University of Northern Colorado, Executive Director of Springtide Research Institute, and author of “Church refugees: Sociologists reveal with people are DONE with church but not their faith.” The term “done” is a play on words, referencing the more common term religious “nones,” the broader, growing group of individuals in the developed world who express no religious affiliation.

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COVID-19 is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

A self-fulfilling prophecy is a process by which expectations elicit behaviors that ultimately confirm those expectations. For instance, many psychologists discuss how stock market trading can be influenced by a self-fulfilling prophecy. When individuals believe the stock market is going to rise, they buy, and the stock market does rise; when people believe the market is going to fall, they sell, and the market does fall.

The COVID-19 pandemic may demonstrate many more examples of the self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, many individuals believe there’s nothing that can be done to prevent the spread of the virus and that everyone’s going to become infected at some point no matter what. Such people may argue that lockdowns, social distancing, and masks don’t make any significant difference, and this may lead them to argue for re-opening, go to bars, and not wear masks. And, when enough individuals demonstrate this pattern, the virus does spread, as it has in many regions of the United States.

How will similar self-fulfilling prophecies impact what happens this academic year as elementary, secondary, and post-secondary students return to school? Some say that elementary school children can’t possibly wear masks during an entire school day. Many argue that middle-school and high-school kids can’t possibly control their bodies and remain physically distant from their peers. Others are convinced that college and university students will, of course, go to bars and party. Across these levels of school, many believe that the quality of education will definitely be lacking. We may be in for a very difficult fall and winter if these are the assumptions that guide us.

There actually is a great deal of controversy and debate among researchers who study the self-fulfilling prophecy: maybe self-fulfilling prophecies elicit certain outcomes because people’s expectations are accurate in the first place. For instance, it’s true that students experience certain struggles conforming to public health guidelines because of developmental needs and that following these guidelines is particularly difficult for some due to various underlying conditions. There definitely are unique obstacles for education during a pandemic.

This raises a key question about people’s mindsets, with potentially critical consequences for this pandemic: do we emphasize limitations and obstacles in our thinking and assume that behavior cannot change, or do we emphasize possibilities and assume that behavior can change through effort, persistence, and accurate information? In some ways, the answer surely depends on the individual and situation. We need to be real. At the same time, what if we lean optimistic this academic year and assume that young people are capable of social responsibility and that schools can be a spark for transformation?

Pexels | Gustavo Fring

Pexels | Gustavo Fring

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On Living in the Age of COVID-19

For anyone who regularly reads this blog, you might remember me writing a post in March of this year about C. S. Lewis’s essay “On Living in an Atomic Age,” from his book “Present Concerns.” As it’s become clearer to me that COVID-19 – particularly in the United States – is likely to continue to be a source of concern well into next year, and as my family increasingly exposes itself to the risk of contracting the virus (especially as school opens), I’ve continued to reflect on this essay as a way to come to terms with my feelings of anxiety.

Although I recognize the atomic bomb has substantially greater risk to humanity than COVID-19, I’m going to take the liberty to replace Lewis’s references to the atomic bomb with references to the COVID-19 pandemic to make the connections as clear as possible:

“In one way we think a great deal too much about COVID-19. ‘How are we to live in an age of pandemic?’ I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night… 

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before COVID: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways… It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are going to catch COVID, let the virus when it finds us doing sensible and human things… Disease may break our bodies, but it need not dominate our minds…

What the wars and the weather… and COVID have really done is remind us forcibly of the sort of world we are living in and which… we were beginning to forget. And this reminder is, so far as it goes, a good thing. We have been waked from a pretty dream, and now we can begin to talk about realities.”

There are three main insights I gain from this.

First is one of radical acceptance. In addition to the painful consequences of racism and job / financial insecurity that this year has brought to the forefront of our minds, COVID-19 teaches us how this world is broken.

This leads to a second realization, that I am in a state of mourning. And, I’m not the only one. In fact, Michelle Obama recently labelled her experience “low-grade depression.” I personally wouldn’t go that far, but there is a sense of loss I feel this year with my realization of the true state of the world. The more people I talk to about the state of the world, the more common I believe many people are grieving.

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Three Updates to Psychology Courses for Fall, 2020

According to the most recent data available, approximately 30% of American high school students take a course in Psychology. In addition, approximately 1.2-1.6 million American students take an Introductory Psychology course in college every year.

To the extent we have control over our curriculum, we who teach Psychology courses have a unique opportunity and responsibility during the fall of 2020: we can help educate a significant slice of American youth about some of the behavioral and psychological aspects of the great challenges defining this time. We can encourage greater insight and inspire prosocial change.

Below are three topics we can integrate into our fall courses that are particularly timely and important, with some suggestions for how to do so.

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1. The psychology of group behavior.

COVID-19 spreads through droplets, yes, but those droplets spread from person to person through specific behaviors. Racial inequality is systemic, yes, but systems stem from, and are maintained, by specific behaviors. Climate change is a widely considered a “threat multiplier,” a meta-problem that increases the likelihood of pandemics and many other social problems; it also is caused by specific behaviors.

We teachers of Psychology can focus on individual differences in behavior and why individuals do what they do, and each of the above problems can be fruitfully explored from this level of analysis. However, if there ever was a time to explore the psychology of group behavior, this is it, as each of the above current problems also demonstrates how behavior is powerfully determined by the norms of individuals’ groups.

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The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Race

Like so many, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about race relations, particularly in my community. The death of George Floyd shocked so many of us, myself obviously included. It’s been difficult to know how to respond.

One response we as a family felt strongly about was to visit the site of the killing as well as the site of the major rioting, so that we could discuss race intentionally for at least a morning. This isn’t sufficient, of course, but it is a continuation and recommitment for us. Visiting places I’ve hung out at my whole life – but seeing it transformed in the aftermath of a now global event – was surreal. It was eerily quiet. Sacred.

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More recently, my friend and former student, Whitney Harper, approached me with the idea for a blog entry for Psychology Today. We published it today, and you can find it below. There’s so much more to say, but here are some of our thoughts.

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“You might think that the world is made of atoms, but the world and, in particular, human history and the moment we’re living right now, is made out of stories.”

-John Powell, Director of the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC-Berkeley, as quoted in a recent episode of the Science of Happiness podcast

An increasing body of research shows how central narratives are to human experience. We all create stories to make sense of experience, and these stories go on to determine how we frame our lives, our contexts, and our decisions about the future. When we encounter a person or situation, we intuitively interpret and narrate as we place this person or situation in the context of past experiences, making connections and judgments automatically. For example, when I interact with a man in his 20’s who is wearing boat shoes and pastel clothing, I have a certain narrative framework that gets triggered about what his background might be, what he does with his free time, and how he feels about certain political issues – stories and stereotypes that have been (rightly or wrongly) constructed and associated with these fashion choices.

Narrative theory goes beyond analyzing automatic associations, though, and also helps us make sense of larger, complex stories of past, present, and future. For example, when I (Whitney) am in a fight with my sister, I understand our current conflict within a wider narrative. I know from the past that we need to take space and cool off because we both got this wonderful trait from our dad that makes it so we have to have the last word; I know from the present what is going on in each of our lives and what else is weighing on us and on our relationship; and I know that no matter what, I do not want to lose our future relationship (regardless of how wrong I think she is).

Narrative theory also looks at interactions between people as inherently situated within the larger structures of society. For instance, my relationship with my sister is also informed by the narratives of what being “sisters” and “family” mean – narratives that can change and take on different meanings across cultures, and that have been built up across history. Of course, in the middle of fighting, I may not think about the layers of narratives that play into it (I often am much more focused on my next response and how I can shut my sister down) – but the point is that this complex history of being sisters deeply impacts my current interactions.

Similarly, narrative theory can help us make some sense of the multi-layered, complex narratives surrounding race relations in the United States today. When we address racial inequality in the United States, we often frame these discussions in terms of “racist” vs. “not racist” or “color-blind,” but research points to how reality is much more complicated than these labels allow for, and shows that the racialized frameworks developed throughout our history continue to frame our interactions today even in situations where we have little to no awareness of their impact. When we become more aware, changing these narratives becomes more possible.

As Chimamanda Adichie explains in her TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” it matters greatly where we begin our stories. If we begin to tell the story of race with the Black man we see on the news who was brought into custody because of armed robbery, we arrive at one perspective. If our story of race begins with the recent police violence and the arrest of George Floyd, we arrive at another perspective. But, imagine if we recognize the history of race in America, and begin the story with colonialism, slavery, or hundreds of years of frustration among people of color in the United States. We gain a completely different and potentially more grounded and contextualized perspective, one that helps us make better sense of why a white police officer, with knowledge that he is being filmed, kills a Black man in broad daylight with seemingly little to no fear of repercussions.

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What If We’re Not Waging “War” Against COVID-19?

As the number of cases of COVID-19 continues to increase in our region, I continue to think of this excellent article from Christian Century. It challenges the presumption that the most productive metaphor for what we’re doing as a society is “waging war against the virus,” and instead raises some very thought-provoking questions:

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Christopher Sardegna | Unsplash

“What will it mean for our country and world to live well with this pandemic?”

“Will we be patient and kind?”

Will we be able to truthfully accept and faithfully bear this tragedy, even as we try to conquer it?”

“How will we care for those who cannot be cured – a question made painfully difficult by the six or more feet of space that separates the dying from their families?”

“How well will we grieve – privately in our own homes, locally in shifts of ten, and collectively as a human race?”