Mary Oliver, Poem #3

This part of a Mary Oliver poem deeply resonates, at least with me.

“Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.”

Mary Oliver, Poem #2

This Mary Oliver poem reminds me how such a complex universe requires multiple ways of knowing, and how our preconceptions sometimes influence what is possible in our perceptions.

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The World I Live In

“I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs.
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway,
what’s wrong with Maybe?

You wouldn’t believe what once or
twice I have seen. I’ll just
tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
ever, possibly, see one.”

Mary Oliver, Poem #1

The older I get, the more I am (to my surprise) drawn to poetry. When I read the Bible, I spend more and more time in the Psalms. A few years ago, I shared my favorite poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. Recently, I finished Mary Oliver’s book on “Devotions.”

Biography-Mary-OliverMary Oliver is best known for her nature poetry, and has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. For those who don’t know anything about her, here is a rare interview on my favorite radio program / podcast, On Being.

I’m tempted to comment, but over the next week or so, I plan to just share some of my favorites of Mary Oliver’s poems. They speak for themselves.

Here’s the first, called “Swan.”

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Quaker Quotes

Several years ago, a student of mine shared with me an online survey to determine my religion: the “belief-o-matic.” According to my results, I apparently am “Orthodox Quaker.” This piqued my interest, especially since I knew nothing about Quakers and had never attended a Quaker meeting!

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Recently, I started doing some reading about Quakerism. One element of this tradition that I love is the emphasis on quotations. There are some really lovely quotes I’ve found in Quaker tradition, but – following the Quaker testimony of simplicity – I’ll only share a few here. From this tradition, quotes are not merely nice little axioms; rather, they are intended to be prompts for contemplation. Most of these I found through two books, both by Catherine Whitmire.

“So here is my little nugget of gospel truth for you to take home.
The truth is not that it is going to be alright.
the truth is, it already is.” (Fredric Evans)

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Psalm 1: The Psychology of Meditation

“Blessed are those…
who delight in the law of the Lord
and meditate on his law day and night.
They are like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither –
whatever they do prospers.”
~Psalm 1: 1-3~

Meditation occupies an important place in contemporary society. What most people associate with the term “meditation” today is mindfulness-based meditation. This form of meditation originates in Buddhism and generally encourages individuals to empty themselves of difficult sensations, thoughts, and emotions by mindfully focusing attention, for example, on their breathing. Psychologists now widely accept mindfulness-based meditation and incorporate it into psychotherapy. Unfortunately, as recently argued in a major research review released by the Association for Psychological Science, much of the practice and hype for mindfulness meditation seems a bit premature given the lack of rigorous scientific study on the topic.

I personally use mindfulness meditation as a way to manage stress, anxiety, and pain. For instance, if I’m feeling anxious, I often will take some time to focus on what I’m feeling and where in my body I’m feeling it. Sometimes, I will mindfully observe my thinking and intentionally label my thoughts as “anxious.” Usually, when I connect with how I’m experiencing anxiety, I also recognize that the sensations really aren’t that bad, that I’m not in any real danger, and that my feelings usually have an understandable cause. This helps me to let my anxiety go and direct my attention toward something more productive.

ben-white-Unsplash

Source: Ben White | Unsplash

Although potentially very useful, this isn’t the kind of meditation the psalmist had in mind.

Whereas Eastern meditation seeks to empty, traditional Judeo-Christian forms of meditation attempt to fill. As discussed by Richard Foster in one of my favorite books, “The Celebration of Discipline,” Christian meditation comes in four major varieties.

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Six Forms of Resolution

As we begin a new year, many of us find ourselves in a bit more contemplative mood than usual. What were our highs and lows in 2017? What do we want for 2018? We all could use some clarity to live our best lives.

Sometimes, we’re waiting for clarity to strike us from the outside, maybe in the form of a sign or revelation. But more often than not, the clarity we seek is already within us, waiting to be discovered.

When I was a Sophomore in high school, I started to connect with my own unclarity. What was I going to do with my “one wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver put it? A friend gave me a copy of Anthony Robbins’ “Awaken the Giant Within,” a book I generally now regard with great skepticism, but nonetheless that helped change my life.

Eventually, I found my way to a chapter on goal setting. Like most everyone, I had been taught I should set goals for my life. But just like how I had also been taught I should dust my room and floss my teeth, I wasn’t particularly motivated to do so. Goal setting just seemed painful, with no clear benefit. So, when I started reading the chapter, I was surprised to find a quote from Carl Sandburg: “Nothing happens unless first a dream.” I had never thought that goal setting may be more akin to dream identifying. I continued to read:

“Are you ready to have some fun? Are you willing to be like a kid again and let your imagination run wild?”

The tone caught me off guard. Maybe goal setting wasn’t like dusting my room or flossing my teeth.

I then was led on a series of tasks in which I dreamed what I wanted to create in my life. I brainstormed for 5 minutes about four areas each: personal development, career / economics, adventures, and contributions. Ultimately, I identified the most important one-year goal in each area.

The effects of this exercise on me can’t be overstated. It brought me clarity for the first time in my life. I had been a mediocre student, for instance, often struggling in difficult subjects, sometimes getting into trouble with my dad because of earning a “D.” But, during my goal setting session, I decided I wanted to be an “A” student. From that point forward, that’s exactly what I made happen. I earned straight “A”s through the rest of high school. This allowed me to enroll at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where I continued being an “A” student. This, in part, allowed me to get into a top-rated Counseling Psychology program at the University of Minnesota. My future opened before me. And it all started with a goal.

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Christian Wiman’s Thoughts on Faith

In his op-ed, “The Subtle Sensations of Faith,” David Brooks calls “My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer,” “the best modern book on belief.” The author, Christian Wiman, has struggled – for many years – with a rare form of cancer, and he lays bare many of his rawest thoughts in this book about many aspects of meaningful living, particularly in relation to faith. I think the best way to give a quick glimpse is to share a few select passages.

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“No one ever believed in God without perceiving God.”

“To say that one must live in uncertainty doesn’t begin to get at the tenuous, precarious nature of faith. The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, but strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs flexibility.”

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The Psychology of Religion

One of my first memories happened at church. We always seemed to arrive early enough to say the rosery, but this one particular Sunday morning, my mom, brother, and I were late. We double-timed it up the concrete stairs to heave open the austere metal doors of the traditional red brick Catholic church only to find the sanctuary doors to be closed. It seemed we were not allowed entry because of our tardiness, so we were confined to a small, cold foyer filled with nothing to look at but posted advertisements for local businesses and two holy water stations. Being only 4 at the time, I quickly became bored. A hymn had started, and I snuck a peak through the closed passageway. The congregation was being led in song: “Here I am, Lord! Is it I, Lord? I have heard You calling in the night! I will go, Lord, if You lead me!…” Powerful words, I thought, and yet I observed no sign of emotion among anyone in the church. Much of the congregation didn’t even sing along.

The fact that I so clearly remember this incident reveals something about my strong religious and spiritual inclination. But the incident also raised a question for me that has become the focal point for much of my professional life: What explains why some people are more religious than others?

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Op-Ed on Faculty Hopes

I’m currently on teaching sabbatical, which gives me more time to pursue other interests and writings. I’ll be posting more writing here soon. Today, though, I wanted to share an op-ed I wrote for MinnPost about a series of interviews I’ve done this semester with faculty about teaching in higher education. It addresses the hesitancy of some people to accept the values of colleges and universities, and maybe offers a bit of hope.

Op-Ed on Faculty Hopes: What Do Our Higher-Ed Teachers Want for Their Students?

Protesting God

This article was inspired by conversation with Deanna Thompson.

Marian Fontana was living a good life. She had been happily married to her husband, Dave, for 17 years, with whom she had a young son. Marian had frequent “conversations with God,” as she put it. As a normal part of her daily life, she would thank God for all that was going well and ask God to bless others in need.

Then came September 11th, 2001.

When Marian saw the World Trade Center crumble on television, she knew her life was crumbling as well. Dave was a New York firefighter who was called to the scene. After sensing his death, her initial response was to wander into every church in her neighborhood to pray and pray and pray for Dave’s life. But, this prayer was to go unanswered.

After several months of total grief, Marian started to see beauty again. However, her spiritual life was different. As she stated in the PBS documentary, “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero:”

“I couldn’t believe that this God that I’d talked to in my own way for 35 years could… turn this loving man into bones. And I guess that’s when I felt that my faith was so weakened… My conversations with God that I used to have, I don’t have anymore… Now I can’t bring myself to speak to Him… because I feel so abandoned…”

Years later, Marian is doing better. She has written a memoir about her experience (“A Widow’s Walk”), and she reports being less angry. Yet, as she said in a live chat organized by PBS 10 years after Dave’s death, “[I] still don’t have conversations with God the way I used to.”

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Longing for More

What do you really want in life?

It’s a difficult question, but it may be the essential question.

Maybe you would answer with a concrete response, such as “I want sleep,” “I want a new phone,” or “I want to play more golf.”

Or maybe you would reflect more broadly. Some people even go beyond everyday desires to imagine deep yearnings for something more.

Source Sehnsucht (c. 1900). Heinrich Vogeler Wikimedia Commons

Source: Sehnsucht (c. 1900). Heinrich Vogeler / Wikimedia Commons

“Sehnsucht” is a popular German word with no simple English translation (click here for pronunciation). C. S. Lewis often relied on this concept in his writings, defining it as “inconsolable longing” for “we know not what.” Instead of “wishful thinking,” Lewis suggested how Sehnsucht involves “thoughtful wishing.” In my words, Sehnsucht has to do with an intense desire for something beyond our human capacity to fulfill. It is a sense that something is missing – something that, if fulfilled, would make everything complete.

To better understand, let’s consider some of the ways Lewis reflected on the concept.

In his “Chronicles of Narnia” series, Lewis states:

“Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning… a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and always are wishing you could get into that dream again.”

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What is “Awe?”

The emotion of awe fascinates as much as it confounds. Scientific and popular attention in awe is surging, yet awe remains one of the most commonly misunderstood psychological concepts in our culture. What exactly is “awe?”

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Promoting Peace through a Human Library

Many of the greatest problems facing our world today are caused or exacerbated by stereotypes and prejudices individuals harbor across group lines. It can be easy to believe that the problem is “out there,” perhaps on a different continent where conflict is more obvious. However, the election of President Trump has revealed – to the surprise of many – just how divided Americans are across political, geographical, class, racial, and religious lines. Individuals increasingly seem to be asking “what can we do?” to encourage effective relations across groups typically segregated in our midst.

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The New Ambivalence for Warm Weather

16997511_1428387143916581_19124497_nWe may be bearing witness to the dawning of a new human experience: “warm weather ambivalence.” This experience may take somewhat different forms in different locations, but in places where there are four seasons, above average temperatures in Fall, Winter, and Spring may yield mixed feelings for some people. The recent unseasonably warm weather across much of the United States is illustrative. On one hand, we are delighted by the warmth as we feel the energy of the sun on our skin and we feel freed from some of the constraints of Winter. On the other hand, some of us sense that something has changed – and is changing – for the worse.

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The Quest for Meaning in Life

Part of me has always wanted to “make my mark on the world.” When I was in high school, I wanted to be a nationally ranked tennis player. When I was in college and graduate school, I wanted to publish the most cutting edge ideas and research in the most reputable scholarly journals. After finishing school, I have wanted to be recognized as a teacher that is a positive force for good with students.

As I have aged, however, I have sometimes observed that others appear to be making more of a “mark” than I am. It is particularly frustrating when others with more power appear to be using their influence to make the world a worse place. As clinical psychologist Meg Jay notes in her provocative and challenging TED talk, most of life’s defining decisions occur before the age of 35, and these early decisions both enable and constrain possibilities for the rest of life.

I don’t suspect I am alone in these feelings. As famed psychiatrist Victor Frankl observed, humans often long for meaning, and yet sometimes find this urge can be difficult to satisfy. It is easy to be discouraged when comparing ourselves with others who appear to be accomplishing more, whether they are doing so in reality or through a skewed portrait via social media.

My friend from graduate school, Mike Steger, is one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of living meaningfully. Dr. Steger notes that individuals vary in the amount they seek meaning, with some individuals (like me and, if you’ve made it this far in this article, maybe also you) caring more about finding meaning than others. He also finds in his research that one of the keys to meaningful living is in finding opportunities for significance in daily life.

What I am learning by listening to my life and reflecting on this research is that it is difficult – if not impossible – to feel fully satisfied in the extent to which I am making my “mark” on the world, particularly when I compare my “mark” with others.’ It is unhelpful to spend much time regretting past decisions or comparing myself unfavorably to others. Still, there are many opportunities for living meaningfully today.
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Confessions of Trump Skeptic

I confess: I have been overly obsessed with American politics for the past 6 months.

This started innocently enough when, last fall, I tried to more deeply engage my Psychology of Personality in social and political issues by having them do case analyses of the two presidential candidates. Although I tried to balance the focus, most media and student attention was focused on Donald Trump, including this outstanding psychological profile of Mr. Trump by my favorite contemporary personality psychologist, Dan McAdams. Through lively discussions with my unusually informed students, I was sucked in.

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Remembering the Holocaust – as a Christian

Seventy-two years ago, on January 27th, 1945, the largest of the Nazi death camps (Auschwitz-Birkenau) was liberated. In honor of the approximately 6,000,000 Jews and 5,000,000 others murdered during the Holocaust, the United Nations General Assembly resolved in 2005 that henceforth this be an International Day of Holocaust Remembrance.

For Christians such as myself, Holocaust remembrance poses unique challenges. As religious studies Professor and Presbyterian minister Stephen Haynes puts it, “although Christian anti-Judaism did not by itself make the Holocaust possible… [it] could not have occurred without Christianity.”

The seeds for the Holocaust lay in the history of anti-Semitism, a strand of which has long been perpetuated in the Christian Church. For instance, in his book, On the Jews and Their Lies, Martin Luther encourages Christians to set the Jews’ synagogues and schools on fire, raise and destroy their houses, and take their prayer books and Talmudic writings. Such sentiments often were quoted and circulated in Nazi Germany as rationale for the Holocaust.

Indeed, the Holocaust sprang from a predominantly Christian part of the world. Many who declared Jesus as “Lord and Savior” were personally involved in the atrocities.

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Auschwitz I, 2012

In reflecting on this painful history, it has been important for me to acknowledge that many of the same forces that allowed the Holocaust continue to exert themselves today – including in the Christian Church and in myself. For example, the indifference to diverse others’ suffering often showed by Christians during the Holocaust remains evident.

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Improving the Experience of Online Education

Despite their surge in popularity, many harbor deep reservations about the quality of online courses. There are several possible reasons for this, but perhaps most fundamentally are serious concerns about the experience of online students. In particular, many ask: can online courses provide the kind of experience crucial for students to develop critical thinking, curiosity, and creativity, consistent with the highest ideals of liberal arts education?

I have taught online for several years, and I have struggled with this question as well. However, new thinking and research convinces me that all courses – including those online – have the potential to elicit powerful emotions that can inspire long-term knowledge creation.

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Parenting “Big Picture” Kids

In his classic, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey encouraged individuals to “begin with the end in mind.” As a parent, I find this advice invaluable, as there are so many “ends” and methods of parenting available. Of course, there are many aspects of my kids’ development and behavior beyond my control. Still, to the extent I have any influence, it would seem best to channel it toward my deepest dreams for them.

So, what do I really want for my kids?

Many things, actually. But, what if I were to narrow down my dreams for my kids to a few? What is most important?

In this post, I want to reflect on the insights of a particularly intriguing parenting book called “Never Say No: Raising Big-Picture Kids,” by Mark and Jan Foreman (parents of Jon and Tim Foreman of the popular band “Switchfoot”).

According to the Foremans, the goal of parenting is not to keep a child safe (a goal that often seems most evident in my sometimes anxious parenting behavior). Rather, the goal of parenting, as stated by the Foremans, is to nurture “a big-picture child who loves well.” In other words, parenting ultimately prepares kids to contribute their gifts to a world in need. This positive frame of reference resonates with me as I think through what I’m trying to do as a parent.

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7 Reasons for a More Awesome Life

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious… He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.” — Albert Einstein

Einstein suggests that awe, or wonder, may provide one of the richest experiences available to human beings. It is so elusive and complex that only in the past decade or so have psychological scientists started to study it seriously. Within the past few years, however, the research has made significant progress.

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Kate Romero | Pexels

Part of the difficulty with awe is defining it. The clearest description that I have seen is from leading positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson in her book “Positivity:”

“[A]we happens when you come across goodness on a grand scale. You literally feel overwhelmed by greatness. By comparison, you feel small and humble. Awe makes you stop in your tracks. You are momentarily transfixed. Boundaries melt away and you feel part of something larger than yourself. Mentally, you’re challenged to absorb and accommodate the sheer scale of what you’ve encountered… Although a form of positivity, awe at times sits so close to the edge of safety that we get a whiff of negativity as well. Awe mixes with fear… Awe, like gratitude and inspiration, is a self-transcendent emotion.”

Following are 7 recent studies that indicate something important about the experience of awe and its effects. I tend to favor experimental studies because they show a clearer cause and effect relationship.

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