The Leaning Soul of … Us!

Let’s revisit perhaps the most famous bell tower in the world, the “Leaning Tower of Pisa”:

Leaning_tower_of_pisa

In one of my earlier entries I posted a picture of this tower, and mentioned that it is actually a freestanding (freeleaning?) bell tower, or ‘campanile’, adjacent to the Cathedral, or Duomo, of Pisa.  It was built primarily in the 12th and 13th centuries, but further adornments and other work was added over the following two centuries as well.  The tower actually began leaning shortly after the work began, in 1173 A.D., as the weight of the marble and stone structure was much too heavy for the sandy ground on which the tower was built.  Fortunately, the work was interrupted soon thereafter, as the Republic of Pisa became frequently engaged in war with surrounding city-states in the late 12th and most of the 13th centuries.  Thus, no work was done on the unfinished tower for nearly 100 years, which allowed the soil undergirding the tower to fully settle and firm.  Once wars ended and the ground seemed more stable, the builders decided to carry on to completion, relying on God to keep the tower from toppling.  So far, stand it has!

Actually, two past efforts to stabilize the tower have been successful.  The last effort, made by digging down under the lower edge of the tower and pouring concrete down underneath to stabilize, and then using expansive lifts to straighten the tower, decreased the tilt from 5.5 degrees to 3.99 degrees.  In fact, the engineers believe they could have fully straightened the tower to 0.0 degrees tilt, but it was felt that this would severely cripple tourism, which would greatly impact the economy of Pisa and the Tuscany region of Italy.  I would agree.  Unless you’re like me and have an unnatural love of bell towers, would you go out of your way to visit the Non-Leaning Tower of Pisa?

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Please consider a few quotes regarding the soul …

“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.”  Aristotle

“The reason it hurts so much to separate is because our souls are connected.”  Nicholas Sparks

“What Is Love? I have met in the streets a very poor young man who was in love. His hat was old, his coat worn, the water passed through his shoes, and the stars through his soul.”   Victor Hugo

“Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul. I know, because I turned down the first offer often enough and held out for the fifty cents.”  Marilyn Monroe

“Whatever you are physically – male or female, strong or weak, ill or healthy – all those things matter less than what your heart contains. If you have the soul of a warrior, you are a warrior. All those other things, they are the glass that contains the lamp, but you are the light inside.”  Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Angel

“Whatever satisfies the soul is truth.”  Walt Whitman

“Inside us there is something that has no name; that something is what we are.”  Jose Saramago, Blindness

“Prayer is not asking.  It is a longing of the soul.  It is daily admission of one’s weakness.  It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”  Mahatma Gandhi

“What is soul?  It’s like electricity – we don’t really know what it is, but it’s a force that can light a room.”  Ray Charles

“I simply believe that some part of the human Self or Soul is not subject to the laws of space and time.”  Carl Jung

“Why do you hasten to remove anything which hurts your eye, while if something affects your soul you postpone the cure until next year?”  Horace

“Be careless in your dress if you must, but keep a tidy soul.”  Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar, 1897

“You are a beautiful soul hidden by the trench coat of the ego.”  Mike Dolan

“You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”  St. Augustine

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We (I?) concluded during our last rendezvous that a belfry, while being primarily distinguished from other similar architectural structures by the necessary inclusion of a bell, really cannot be reduced to the bell(s) alone.

belfry in kenai peninsula

The essence of a bell tower consists of the entire structure, including the bell.

oslob_belfry05

Thus, the walls, the floor, the roof, the windows, the rafters, the bell, the ropes and pulleys attached to the bell, and some crazy bats are all necessary parts of a belfry.

Bats roaring out of the belfry!

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Is a human being similar, or different?

By way of reminder, in my last entry I spoke of a quote by C.S. Lewis:  “You don’t have a soul.  You are a soul.  You have a body.”

Lewis’ assertion is that a human is actually, in essence, a soul.  That “soul” is then intrinsically linked to and possesses the body that we associate with that particular human being.  By extension, then, anything else that makes up that human being would therefore also be a possession of that same, central soul.  This would include the brain, which allows us to “sense” or perceive the world around us, to think, to remember things, and to feel emotions.

Now, what do you think about this line of thinking?  Is this so?  Ought we to think of ourselves as primarily a “soul”, whatever that is, walking around “clothed” in a fleshly body, and possessing a brain capable of consciousness, rational thought, and emotions?  And if so, and if we think in this way, would this change the way we live?

My answer to these questions is … “Probably”.

Taking things further, though, can any of us define the “soul” in words?  Ray Charles admitted in one of the quotes above that, like electricity, he couldn’t really tell you what a soul is, but he knows it sure can light up a room!  Jose Saramago says it’s the part of us that has no name, but it is who we are.  Carl Jung stated that he believes it’s that invisible part of us that “is not subject to the laws of space and time.”

I think most of us would allow that, if soul exists, then it is something that:  is not physically visible or “touchable”; is not infinite (that is, that I have a soul “assigned” to “me” and to me alone.  In other words, we don’t all share the same infinite, spiritual soul); and is something that lies underneath all the physical and mental “stuff” in our own consciousness which we are most aware of most of the time.  It has to be something that is at our “core”.

So, a soul would thus be an invisible, intangible, spirit-world entity.  It would travel around “inside” one’s body, but would not be something you could find in a surgery or autopsy inside that body.  But, there must be more to it than this, I would submit.

Let’s consider something:  I have long had the belief, since my days of consulting in nursing homes, that persons who are born with profound intellectual disabilities, who have extremely limited or even non-existent ability to communicate with other humans, still have a soul.  If this is true, what can or what does that soul do within those persons?  Well, in my way of looking at it, their soul is the spiritual part of them that:

–  is aware of God and other human souls;

–  can connect with others, beginning with their Creator, at a level deeper than conscious awareness or language.

The soul connects (or not, if it so chooses) in ways other than words or language of any sort, in ways other than physical touching, or even than “emotional” touching.  I don’t believe that, even though your brain may be highly limited in intellectual capacity, or in its ability to speak or to understand speech, your soul must also therefore be “limited”.  In fact, I believe, if souls do in fact exist, and I believe they do, that THEY are the things in humans that are “created equal”, NOT our bodies or brains.  Does that make sense?

Do souls “think”?  I don’t know, but I don’t think so.  I also don’t believe the soul “feels”, either.  I believe they simply “know”.  They are “aware of” things, and others.  Mostly others.  (Because, in the end, even though we are meant to be good stewards of the natural world we live in, including plants and animals, life is mostly about God and Us.)  I believe souls operate within one primary sphere, along one primary axis:  to yearn for, and lean toward, stronger and deeper connection with God and/or other souls, or to lean or push away from those connections and thus to pursue isolation and “self-satisfaction” alone.

To me, this is the “root” of the soul – connecting with other soul beings, or avoiding that connection.  The connection doesn’t have to be verbalized, such as getting to know someone better by conversing over a cup of coffee; nor does it have to be physical in any way.   But, as Nicholas Sparks noted in his quote above, our souls nevertheless can and do connect with one another.  And when they do, and it’s a good connection, it can be very strong, and have a great effect on the quality of our lives.  Because the soul is not infinite, though, being physically apart, or being unable to communicate with someone with whom we share a connection, can hurt.

The soul, then, is the very deep part of us that, moment by moment, decides either to lean toward a humble yielding to our Creator, toward joyful connection with that One, or lean away from that kind of connection, and thus rely on itself as it goes through life.

The soul therefore “leans”, much like certain bell towers!

Hearkening back to the biblical account of “The Fall”, in the Garden of Eden:  The soul was the part of Adam and of Eve which chose, at the time of the Serpent’s deceitful sales pitch, to pursue its own goals on its own terms, to “be God” within those two lives at the moment of choosing to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  It’s my view that the information coming into Eve’s brain/mind from the serpent, that she would NOT die if she ate the fruit, but would rather become like God, wise and knowing many things, and then from her eyes, seeing how tasty and beautiful the fruit looked, all filtered its way into her soul, which then decided to “lean away” from God and the boundaries God set up to provide peace and joy for her.  This “leaning away” was a decision thus made by the deepest part of her in that moment.  This decision, now working its way back, led to her mind rationalizing how good this choice to eat the fruit would be, her emotions already starting to feel a “high” at the delicious thought of biting into it and then being flooded with new wisdom and insights.  From there, her “will” – the executive part of her mind and brain – directed her body to carry out the act of eating the fruit.  Thus, information came in, was believed, and filtered down into her soul.  The soul leaned in a new, different direction, which then percolated back up through her mind, emotions, and will, working out in her physical life the inner leaning of her soul.

A little while later, Adam went through essentially the same process, the only differences being the serpent’s words came to him through Eve’s mouth, and the fact she had not died once she ate the forbidden fruit was, I’m sure, a boost to his confidence!  Otherwise, it was exactly the same, with his soul’s change in leaning again being the critical driving force.

I chose the story of the Garden of Eden and the fateful fruit choice because to me it illustrates and symbolizes perfectly the constant dilemma and choice that our souls face in life:  whether to lean toward, and ultimately to “lean on”, our loving Creator, or to lean away from the Creator and toward our own self-directed motives, and thus choose to lean only on ourselves as we journey along through life.

And so, if the views I’m presenting here are true, how does one get his or her soul to change the way it leans?  I can tell you what I believe, though I freely and humbly admit that I am not as effective or as diligent with this as I wish to be.

I believe the soul is most closely connected to the “heart”, which in my view is partly based in the body and partly based in the soul (so, part flesh and part spirit).  The heart represents and contains the deepest yearnings we have.  It is the part of us that contains our inner motives, as pertain to ourselves and others around us.  It is the part of a person that, as Jesus taught, serves as the “root” of the tree that is our life, and will thus lead to our lives producing either good fruit or bad fruit.  It is through the heart, I believe, that the soul can then be influenced to change its leaning.  The heart can be “opened up”, or made willing, to receive influence from new, truthful information, in many cases coming from other persons whose own hearts and souls have opened and are now leaning toward healthy connections.  By opening up, the yearnings of my heart can then change, from selfish motives to more selfless ones, as I seek after and discover these “truly true” insights in life.  This then finally can lead to a directional change in my soul’s leaning, allowing me to connect with God and others in that deeper, beyond the physical, way that we discussed earlier.  From here life can become more giving, less contentious, more joyful and contented.

Unfortunately, this can also go in the reverse direction.  When we begin to receive and then to believe and accept information that is false, but we (want to) think it is really true (i.e., delusion), this filters down into our hearts and then we tend to “close off” the heart to all other information which might contain real truth.  This false information then reinforces more self-centered and selfish motives and intentions, and tends to then pull the soul away from life-giving sources and connections, and toward isolation.  This eventually leads to a more insecure, more frustrated, more taking, less satisfying life.

I certainly hope that with all the material above I have not been too confusing.  I doubt I could explain my thinking any more clearly at this point in time, but I am still pondering these things and am sure this may evolve over time.

Again though, for me, the things I want now, compared to before I came across the quote from C.S. Lewis about truly being a soul, are:

–         to be more aware that I AM a soul;

–         that my soul, in harmony with an “opened-up” heart, and from there working out through my mind (seeking to discern truth from falsehood), my emotions (enjoying the people and things in life, but not “running the show”), my brain, and my body, can thus “lean” my life in better directions;

–         that the first direction I want to lean in is toward my Creator God, and from there toward others, seeking to connect with them and to give to them.

These paths are the ones I hope to follow, the ones I hope we all can more diligently follow.  Leaning, therefore, might not be a good thing for a bell tower, but is a very good thing for your soul, so long as your soul is leaning in the right direction!  Peace to you.

Craig Meek, M.D.

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What is a belfry, anyway?

It’s been a long time since I last posted an entry here.  A number of things have been percolating inside my head during that time, but the brewing process keeps getting interrupted … Not really “writer’s block”, as I don’t consider myself a ‘writer’, and I haven’t really been ‘blocked’.  In any case, here are some current thoughts …

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Let’s consider a question:  What is a belfry?

By this I mean, what is the ‘essential nature’ of a bell tower?  What is its essence?  What is it that makes a belfry a belfry, and how is a belfry different from other tall or rooftop structures such as towers, domes, parapets, cupolas, etc.?

The true nature of bell towers is, undoubtedly, a subject upon which many people spend hours and hours meditating, so this is likely not a novel question for you all.  Of course, the obvious characteristic that sets belfries apart from other similar structures is the presence of a bell, as none of those other listed architectural features typically have bells hanging within.  But is there more to the answer than simply the bell?

Bell_Diagram

As a shrink who likes to, from time to time, think of myself as dwelling within a belfry, how would I describe the nature of a belfry?  First, I think of the walls of the belfry.  A belfry cannot exist without walls … else there would be nothing to support the roof and rafters, from which to hang the bell!  And all belfries’ walls must have openings, in the form of windows or louvered shutters, through which emanates the sound of the bells when they are being rung.  Wouldn’t be worth much as a bell tower if you couldn’t hear the bells!

2011-08-03_11_09_55

The walls are placed atop either a tower or the roof of a building, usually a church, sometimes a municipal building or courthouse.  A belfry therefore sits in an elevated position.  Then, obviously, I think of the roof of the bell tower, including its rafters, from which hangs the bell, or bells.  Most belfries would also have some kind of a floor, a set of stairs by which to access the tower, a rope with which to pull the bell(s) back and forth, and probably some bats hanging from the ceiling!

Bell_Ringers02

All of the features highlighted above are characteristic of bell towers.  They all, together, are belfries.  But, once again as we come full circle, the one thing that differentiates a belfry from every other tower around is the presence of the bell itself.  Without the bell, you cannot call it a belfry.  I think we can all agree on this point.  Again, though, back to the original questions, can we say that the bell IS the essential nature of a belfry?  Or, is the essence of a belfry better defined by both the bell AND the rest of the total structure?  If you leave out, or take away, any single part, would it still be a “belfry”?  To me, this is interesting to ponder …

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About three months ago I came across a quote by famous British author C.S. Lewis (of The Chronicles of Narnia fame) which has triggered a lot of reflection for me.  The quote reads:

“You don’t have a soul.  You are a soul.  You have a body.”

Lewis’ premise is that we as human beings are first and foremost spiritual beings.  That our true, original, core essence is “soul”, a spiritual entity, and that our bodies, along with our brains and our minds, are layers of “housing” that clothe our soul, and allow it to interact with the physical, visible world and the people and things in it.  At first glance, I can’t say that I disagree with Lewis, but I can say that I don’t fully understand this idea, or know how to think about it in clear terms, let alone discuss it using our limited language.

Of course, his thesis, and this entire discussion I’m about to enter into, are based entirely on a view of “truth” that is rooted in a belief, or faith, that there does exist a spiritual world which underlies our entire human experience.  I am not intelligent enough to formulate a testable, scientific hypothesis regarding the existence of a spiritual realm.  And if someone were to lay out such a(n) hypothesis, how could an experiment be designed to test it out?

Lewis himself, in his book Mere Christianity, bypassed scientific experimentation, and instead appealed to logical and philosophical arguments for the existence of God and soul.  He pointed out in significant detail how the basic moral value that all known races, tribes, and cultures seem to have in common – the seemingly innate belief that we must treat fellow humans and the world around us with care, respect, compassion, and fairness – proves that a single, common Mind must have designed and created it all; that such consistency running through all of human history, with all of the widespread migrations people have made, into every corner of the planet, through hundreds of generations, over thousands upon thousands of years, “proves” that all of us come from and possess the same “moral genetics”, rooted in and descended from that common Designer/Creator Mind.  And since we have yet to locate that Creator anywhere in the physical universe, it must be of a “spiritual” domain that remains invisible and intangible to our biological senses.

In contrast to that line of thought, there is a view of life based on the notion that all there is, both within ourselves and “out there”, is the physical, tangible, measureable world.  Other than conceptual notions such as emotions or dreams or values or thoughts, nothing exists unless it can be touched, seen, weighed, or measured.  All that is came into being in unknown ways, through random events over billions of uncountable years, for no real purpose, and will continue evolving, or devolving, as we all hurtle through space until some unforeseen and “random” event leads to the destruction of our sun or our planet … who knows?  The only important value in this view of life then becomes the need to ensure our species’, or our nation’s, or our race’s, or our family’s, or our own individual, survival.  Everything else becomes subservient to that value.

However, this belief system (and yes, it is as much a matter of belief, or faith, as the view espoused by Lewis) cannot explain the remarkable consistency of moral values across almost all known cultures down through human history.  Even within violent and warlike tribes and cultural groups, the rule of being good to one another is central and maintained, and acts of unfairness frowned upon or sanctioned.

When those, often referred to as “humanists”, who hold this view try to explain the central moral value noted above – the rule of fairness and kindness (or, “justice and mercy”, as the book of Micah calls it), they do so in some variation of the following:  humans adopted this value because they learned that looking after one another and treating each other well helped to keep families, nomadic groups, or villages bonded together, and thus this value was maintained solely as a means of protecting the species.  That sounds well and good on the surface, but this kind of world/life-view also possesses a central contradiction:  that is, when it becomes necessary to aggress against other humans in order for me or my group to survive, then it’s ok to set aside this basic value.   Huh?!!?  That doesn’t sound either moral or consistent to me.

To illustrate, if we consider the extreme atheistic beliefs undergirding the Marxist views of Stalin, Pol Pot, or Mao, among other genocidal autocrats, we see that such a reductionist view of life cannot help but to violate that consistent moral value of thousands of years of human life to which Lewis refers.  Such a view sees the killing of millions of humans as not only acceptable to them, but as necessary to help humans “move forward”.  It makes some humans more necessary than many, many others, and those less necessary as thus expendable.  This is terrible, ridiculous, and universally seen as evil (that is, in “violent violation” of all commonly held rules of decency) by anyone and everyone else, whether ‘theistic’, ‘atheistic’, or ‘agnostic’, even by those within those tyrants’ own cultural groups, even their own families.

Not only this, but as Lewis points out, those who study child development often comment on the fact that infants and toddlers, long before they could have “absorbed” the concept of fairness from their parents, seem to innately practice it, as well as expect it in return.  Little children are often noted to protest unfairness in interactions with peers before they can even speak.  How did we learn this notion at such a very young age, unless it were “wired-in” from conception?

Once again, therefore, the two ways to explain this consistency and primacy of central moral rule are either:  1)  A Creator Being brought all of our universe and our species into existence, and implanted within all of us a central moral genetic code which, when we are in selfish and self-centered mode we can choose to violate, but it still calls out to us (our “conscience”) from within;  or, 2)  Humans adopted this moral value as a means of survival, but will always set it aside when the TRUE central value – assuring my own survival and that of the few others I may care about – becomes threatened!  Which of course, renders it as not a moral value at all!  Merely window-dressing.  I believe it’s clear which view best accounts for the sociological and anthropological facts as we know them:  View #1.

I’m certain that I have not done justice to Lewis’ arguments, but they are compelling nonetheless.  I commend them to you, if you can locate the book referenced.

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Now, with all of that said, if you are willing to describe yourself as standing in the circle of folk who believe that there is a spiritual Creator Being who planned all that exists beforehand, and brought it all, directly and indirectly, into existence, then I invite you to look with me more deeply at the Lewis quote.

If we then accept that we are, in fact, as human beings at least partly spiritual beings, what if the real and true core of us IS that spiritual part?  What if Lewis is correct that we are really “SOUL”, and all the rest is or might be only temporary “machinery” for that soul to use?  Would this change your thinking about yourself, if you accepted this idea?  I think it is changing mine, though I’m still in the infancy stages, as I said above, of understanding it, or knowing what it means.

Next time, we’ll talk more about what this thing called a soul might be, and how it might, or even should, change how we view our lives.

Like a Rock! Well, maybe …

“If you hear that someone is speaking ill of you, instead of trying to defend yourself you should say: ‘He obviously does not know me very well, since there are so many other faults he could have mentioned.’”

Epictetus, ancient Greek “Stoic” philosopher

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“Against criticism a man can neither protest nor defend himself; he must act in spite of it, and then it will gradually yield to him.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German poet, playwright, novelist.

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“Merely through the constant need to ward off, one can become weak enough to be unable to defend oneself any longer.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, German philosopher

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“‘No’ is a complete sentence.”

Anne Lamott

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“Lord, defend me from my friends; I can account for my enemies”

Charles D’Hericault, author

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Once again, we see here an improbable belfry.  And yes, this IS a belfry (the tower to the far left of the photo).  This bell tower stands at one corner of a large castle in Salzburg, Austria.  The castle is known as the “Hohensalzburg Fortress“, and was built originally in the 11th century A.D., completed in the year 1077.  Later it was enlarged 3 times, in the 12th, 15th, and 17th centuries.  Its base stands nearly 400 feet above the town of Salzburg below.  Here is another picture of it:

As you can see here, the castle and its belfry stand WAY the heck on up there!  This is clearly a fortress meant for defensive purposes, and for that purpose it was apparently very well designed.  NO army that ever came against this castle defeated it, and there were quite a few who tried.

I would guess that, of all the things one could say or write about any castle, the fact that it was undefeated in its entire history would be one of the greatest.  Any belfry, as well as the bats and/or the shrink who inhabited it, would be very proud to be a part of that!  Well, maybe …

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Almost everyone knows what it’s like to have other people criticize them, mistreat them, accuse them of things they have not done, attack them in any number of ways.  And almost everyone also knows what it’s like, upon learning of such attacks, to instantly want to jump to defend themselves, and sometimes to attack back.  The sad thing is that after having suffered harm after harm, attack after attack, criticism after criticism, we all learn not to trust others; not our families, not our coworkers, not our friends,in some cases not even our very best friends.

And what is the eventual byproduct of not trusting almost anyone?  We end up living continually in a defensive posture.  The question is, though, is living in a defensive mode consistent with good mental health?

Recall our discussion about mental health from a few weeks ago?  My stance was that the Serenity Prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr serves as one of the best models of good mental health we have.  Here it is again:

“God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
courage to change the things which should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace;
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that You will make all things right, if I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Amen.”

The picture painted by this prayer depicts one who is NOT constantly on the defensive.  The person who lives out the prayer is one who has an open heart and open hands as she or he approaches each new day, each encounter within that day.  This person accepts that the world IS and will be sinful, and yet still “enjoys” each moment, one at a time.  This person expects hardship, perhaps even expecting that part of that hardship will be the onslaught of others who hate or dislike, who desire to prop themselves up by taking this person down a notch or two.  This person trusts in God to make all things right, not necessarily instantly, but in God’s own timing, and only provided that this person is surrendered to God’s will.

In contrast, a person playing life defensively will be always on guard, always watchful for the next attempt by someone evil to break through his or her outer walls, so that he or she can counterattack and repel this coldhearted dog!  There is seldom room for enjoyment of life, except for those rare and fleeting moments when you can celebrate having successfully defended yourself, your reputation, your turf, etc., against yet another attack.  There is never an allowance that life is somehow meant to be difficult, never an allowance that people WILL be unloving no matter how well defended we are, never an acknowledgement that in spite of the hatred and unhealthy competition out there in the world that we are still called to be loving.

Did you happen to read the quote from Nietzsche above?  Although I part company with Nietzsche on his views on faith in God, his insight here, if accepted, will set another bat free from our belfries:  When someone lives constantly on the defensive, fending off attack after attack after attack, it eventually wears this person down.  It weakens us, and robs us of time in our lives we cannot get back.

So am I advocating allowing others to constantly run over us, to abuse us, mistreat us, never to fight back?  Well, someone infinitely wiser than I once did advocate just such a thing:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.  If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;  and if someone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well … I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

Matthew 6: 38-40, 44-45

However, I also believe that Jesus was in favor of being careful, of having healthy boundaries, of being smart about things, of not doing anything that would open ourselves up to justified prosecution, and to avoid needless harm:

“I am sending you out as sheep into the midst of wolves.  So be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.”

Matthew 10:16

This can be a very difficult balancing beam to walk, indeed.  Difficult, though nowhere near impossible.

First of all, the attitude we take into each day again becomes key.  We will have good, healthy boundaries, knowing and expecting that others will do things, either deliberately or incidentally, that will make life more difficult for us.  As Anne Lamott pointed out above, we can say “No” for ourselves, and not have to explain further.  We can, as a couple of the other quotes above instruct, go about our business as the serenity prayer calls us to, regardless of whether others try to criticize or do us harm.  But, we are careful not to do anything to directly bring criticism on our heads, or harm to those whom we care for and are responsible to defend.

In terms of dealing with unfair things that come our way, I am reminded of the TV show, Kung Fu, from my adolescence.  I always loved the character Caine, portrayed by David Carradine, as he traveled the old west in search of his long-lost half-brother.  However, he repeatedly, because of his spiritual training in a Shaolin monastery in his boyhood homeland of China, finds himself stepping in to defend various people being unfairly treated, oppressed, or harmed, when the odds were long against them.  The thing is, though, that Caine never took the offensive, and really was not defending himself, either, when “fighting”.  Rather, his opponents always were the ones on the offensive, and Caine would merely use their anger and unrighteous energy to their demise.  Every time they would come at him, he would merely feign and dodge, calmly tossing them on by as they lunged at him again and again.  Very little energy was used up; always he maintained his own boundaries, and never harmed anyone beyond what it took for the other to simply stop trying to fight.  It serves as a wonderful picture of the balancing act we’re calling ourselves to here.  The reed that bends with the wind (the ‘wind’ being those who would strike us on one cheek, or sue to take our coat), allowing the wind to flow on by, but does not break.  The reed maintains its foothold, its drive to love others and to stand for good and compassion always.

I am not inhuman.  I know what it is to want to fight back.  There have been a few instances just in the last few weeks in my place of work in which certain persons have mistreated others unjustly, and it makes my blood boil thinking about those things.  If and when there is an appropriate way, I will gladly stand in the breech and call for justice.  But, until then it would not be healthy, and I’m afraid my true motivation would simply be to see the “oppressor” suffer, rather than to see a wrong righted.  Until then I want to be the one we talked about last week, the one encouraging those who are hurting.  I want to be the one who encourages them and myself to “live well”, and to leave all else to God’s good and faithful hands.

Craig Meek, M.D.

OK, let’s have some fun!

Now this is a glorious picture!  Just look at these bats madly rushing out of this church’s belfry!  What a fantastic shrink must have just moved into the belfry to do some bat-ousting!!!  Got ’em all out of there immediately!  I’ll bet all of that leftover guano smells PRETTY bad, though …

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A linguistics professor was lecturing his class one day.

“In English”, he said, “A double negative forms a positive.  In some languages, though, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative.  However, there is no language wherein a double positive can form a negative.”

A loud voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right!”

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Now these young ladies are doing the world a HUGE favor by holding up the leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy!  Just like the young boy who still, to the best of my knowledge, has one of his fingers plugging that little hole in the dike, holding back the sea from drowning Holland, these two heroines will be sacrificing their lives for a while, at least until some others volunteer to take their places.  Let’s all give it up for servants of the world like these young people!

By the way, did you know that the leaning Tower of Pisa is actually a free-standing bell tower?  That’s right!  It serves as the bell tower for the Cathedral of Pisa, pictured above to the left of the tower.  So this tower is actually a leaning belfry!!!  And I thought bats were a problem!

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Newlyweds …

Husband:  Sweetheart, am I the only man you’ve ever loved?

Wife:  Of course you are, dear.  But why do all of you men keep asking me the same silly question?!?

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For all of us Doomsday Count-downers:


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And now for some more belfry humor:

After Quasimodo‘s death, Bishop Thomas of the cathedral of Notre Dame sent word through the streets of Paris that a new bell ringer was needed. The bishop decided that he would conduct the interviews personally and went up into the belfry to begin the screening process.

After observing while several applicants demonstrated their skills, he decided to call it a day.

Just then a lone, armless man approached him and announced that he was there to apply for the bell ringer’s job.

Bishop Thomas was incredulous. “You have no arms!”

”No matter,” said the man, “observe!” He then began striking the bells with his face, producing a beautiful melody on the carillon. The bishop listened in astonishment, convinced that he had finally found a suitable replacement for Quasimodo. Suddenly, while rushing forward to strike a bell, the armless man tripped and plunged headlong out of the belfry window to his death in the street below.

The stunned bishop immediately rushed down the stairways. When he reached the street, a crowd had gathered around the fallen figure, drawn by the beautiful music they had heard only moments before. As they silently parted to let the bishop through, one of them asked, “Bishop, who was this man?”

“I don’t know his name,” the bishop sadly replied, “but his face rings a bell.”

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Have a great day, and an even better week!  And please, try to do something good this week that you’ve been meaning to do for a while.  It will help your self-esteem, and that alone will make the world a better place!

Craig Meek, M.D.

On Self-Esteem …

Believe it or not, this is actually a belfry.  It’s a, uhhh … “belfry on the side”, so to speak.   This church is known as “The Church of San Martin Caballero”, and is located in a little village along the old Camino Real road in the coffee-growing region of Veracruz, Mexico.    Not exactly sure what happened here, but I would imagine that this little bell “tower” was added on sometime after the church had been built.

We’re left to use our imagination, as this church was built in 1776 (for some reason, that year rings a bell for me …), and there are no records, oral or written, that exist that might explain this odd, sideways belfry!   However, several clues really lead me to believe the belfry was added after the church was originally finished.

First, the stone used to support the tower is different from the stone used in the original wall of the church.  Second, if you look at the front facade of the church

 you see a completely different look than what is seen from the little belfry.  Even the roof tiles don’t really match those of the rest of the building.

Why is any of this important?  Well, probably none of it is important, but I think there may be a lesson for us about self-esteem.  Thus, we’ll just think about it for a while and as the days and weeks go by maybe we’ll come up with an answer.

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So, what exactly is “self-esteem”?

When I look up the definition for “esteem”, I see “regard” and “value”, both noun and verb.  When you tag on the “self” prefix, I would thus conclude this is the quality or amount (positive or negative) of value we attribute to ourselves, or if a verb, the positive or negative value we assign to ourselves as we think about ourselves and our place or importance in the world.

We hear so often that our culture has a self-esteem crisis.  I believe it.   If you’ll harken back to our discussion about depression, perhaps the greatest contributor to depression (recall that depression is the 4th leading cause of disability in the WORLD!) from our own internal stuff (non-biological) is poor self-esteem.  If I believe I am not worth very much, am not very competent, am ugly, am dumb, am hated by God, or perhaps already condemned, my attitude and my choices will reflect that view.  I will tend to hold a very pessimistic view of life and my chances for having a good one.  I will not hold much hope for things turning around.  And, if by some chance things begin to go right for me, I’ll be momentarily glad … until I remember that I’m certain to “blow it” sooner or later.   It makes for a very grim, cloudy, grey world.

How does a poor self-esteem happen?  In my view, the kinds of unhealthy competition that our society so readily fosters, with adults being so caught up in their own emotional struggles that they can’t figure out that it’s long overdue to change the messages we give little children, is the primary cause.  All of us remember the subtle but powerful beliefs we absorbed as kids.  Some were very young when they came.  Most of us were relatively healthy until we got to early adolescence (Middle School!!!).  A few lucky ones were in high school or college before they had it beaten into them that they were really not very competent, attractive, popular, or smart all along.  Regardless, our “chew ’em up and spit ’em out!” culture got to almost all of us.  From cutest baby contests to gold stars at day care to Christmas plays to spelling bees to who got picked first (or last!) for kickball to who sat alone at lunch every day to who had their lunch money stolen time and again to who always had their name misspelled, mispronounced, or worse, mocked in caricatures.   All of these and a thousand other little competitions all combined to tell us exactly who we were, who we are, and how high or low a value we hold in society, in life.  Even worse, some of us had our “value” beaten into or out of us by angry parents, stepparents, or other adults.  If we happened to be one of the very large portion of kids who also inherited a physiology that made us very anxious and nervous in many social situations (read, “school”), well, life was and has been a very difficult river to navigate.  No wonder, when all is said and done, that so many, many of us choose to numb that life with alcohol and drugs, and that we’ve had so many Judy Garlands, Norma Jean Mortensons (aka Marilyn Monroe), Janis Joplins, Jimi Hendrixes, Kurt Cobains, Michael Jacksons, Amy Winehouses, Heath Ledgers, Whitney Houstons.  So incredibly sad.

Is there any hope?  I believe there is … but as usual, it is an individual thing to improve it.  So how do you do that?

Improving self-esteem has been the subject of many, many books, magazine and journal articles, radio shows, documentaries, etc.  Many!  I really think many of us have at least one bat that is fluttering around in our belfry screeching all the wrong things about improving our own self-esteem!  Almost all of the stuff I’ve seen about building a healthy self-esteem is just so much crap!  Sorry, but to affirm every little thing that little Susie or little Johnny does will NOT have a positive impact on their self-esteem later on in life.  In fact, I’m not sure we as parents or adults can “hug”, “applaud”, or “affirm” our kids’ self-esteem enough to make a real difference.  We certainly can hurt their self-esteem if we don’t do those things!  But, ultimately the main jobs of parents, teachers, coaches, and adult role models of all flavors is to make sure kids are safe, that they know right from wrong, that they know where boundaries are and that there ARE consequences for crossing them.  Then, as they enter adolescence and gain the capability to understand why things are right and wrong, safe and unsafe, that we’re there to explain things, including the shades of gray, and that we’re there to listen to their thoughts and ideas, their struggles and breakthroughs.

Given good boundaries, safety, and enough of food and shelter, in a world that can be trusted, all of us were able to, and still are able to, give ourselves good, healthy, positive self-esteem.  How?  Well, it won’t come through others patting us on the back 5,000 times and telling us how great and how valued we are.  That’s all well and good, but ultimately where truth veers away from all the pop psychology out there is in the following, and this is very important, so listen up:  

I AM THE ONLY PERSON ON THE EARTH WHO CAN IMPROVE MY SELF-ESTEEM!!!

Did you get that?  Hope so.  Life, through the cooperation of many other people, has given us all the message that we just aren’t worth very much.  The reverse message must come from ourselves.  Reading or reciting written affirmations might help a little, but it won’t get us over the hump.  Real change in our self-esteem follows the “Missouri Rule”.  Our self-esteem says to us, “Show me.”  Plain and simple.  Prove to me that you are competent; that you can truly accomplish something.  And then it simply stands and waits.  It doesn’t give up, it doesn’t get impatient, but it doesn’t give us any “gimme’s”, either.  There is no other way around it … we must step up and do something good, something positive, to get the needle on our self-esteem meter to budge.

And what kinds of things are we talking about?  Really, doing just about anything can move that needle, so long as whatever we’re doing is healthy, important, makes a difference in the world, or makes a positive difference in us.  The way I put it to my patients is this:  making any real progress toward any kind of goal that is truly yours!  This is what makes for a better self-esteem!  So, anything from brushing our teeth more consistently, to eating  a little less, to walking a few times a week, to calling a relative we’ve been meaning to, to going to bed earlier, to studying a bit instead of playing an extra 15 minutes on a video game, to washing the dishes instead of leaving them “for tomorrow” for the 8th day in a row.  Anything can work, so long as afterward we know we’ve done something that is toward the good side of the ledger.  Doing things for ourselves can also help, if we typically do only for others.  Recharging our own batteries could be something we have long neglected because we told ourselves all along we weren’t worth it.

You know, this leads me to another truth:  We humans don’t make good hypocrites.  Oh, now don’t misunderstand me here!   We all can be hypocritical at times!  But one part or the other of us will be lying.  We either won’t really believe in the value we say we believe in, or our actions won’t truly reflect what we believe.  But we can’t say one thing and do another and believe them both!!!  Never happened.  Now what I mean here is, I try to get myself and many folks with whom I work to give themselves a voice.  To speak up for themselves.  Why?  Because if they do often enough, the value in which they hold themselves will HAVE to increase.  If you speak up for yourself, even though you don’t think you’re worth it, or you think you’ll offend someone, or put someone out and they’ll dislike you more, and you keep on doing so, sooner or later you’ll either begin to feel that you ARE worth speaking up for, or you’ll quit speaking up.  The two cannot co-exist.  And my belief and hope is that we all, whenever we are legitimately being unfairly treated, or are right about our views or our needs but they aren’t being attended to, will keep on speaking up for ourselves and not give up, EVEN if we have great doubts about ourselves or our voice.  If we do, I’m confident the amount and the way we esteem ourselves will inevitably grow!  It must.  And it will!

I urge you to try it out.  Treat yourself as important (not any more important than anyone else, but no less so), and your beliefs about yourself will have no choice but to improve.   And even if you have no belfry, and everyone else around you does, you won’t feel the need to build one, especially if all you can do is build a cheap one on the side!

Until next time!

Craig Meek, M.D.

 

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb … ” Isaiah 11:6

 This belfry is located on the beautiful campus of Radford University.  It sits atop a small, older building at this 100 year old school in the New River Valley of western Virginia.  It’s a bit of an odd bird on the campus, as nearly all other buildings are of brick and stone, much larger, more impressive, and more imposing.  Just going by appearances, this clapboard-sided building and its aging belfry stand out like a sore thumb, in my opinion.

I took this picture while my family and I were touring the campus following our daughter’s dance audition.  My cell phone camera did not do this belfry any favors, as you can see, and I’m obviously no photographer.  But, in my mind this illustrates something interesting:  this building, surrounded as it is by much larger buildings that are considerably more appealing and more impressive to the eye, still stands.  It offers little to the overall ‘feel’ of the campus, yet it stands.  It could have slunk away long ago in shame over its diminutive size and odd look, but it stands.  It is not defeated, and you get the sense that it will never let itself feel in any way inferior.  It is “who” and what it is, and is perfectly okay with that.  It is NOT in competition with any of the other gorgeous buildings nearby.  It knows its role, and plays it well.  It knows that what is on its inside is a heckuva lot more important than what it looks like on the outer surface, and it agrees with me that any building with a belfry is in the cool club anyway!

So let’s return to where we left off when last we met.  Competition.  Today I want to talk about how I would distinguish between healthy, or “positive”, competition, and the destructive, “negative” types of competition.

First off, the title of this post comes from a passage from the Old Testament of the Bible that is very often misquoted.  Most times you will see or hear it as, “And the lion shall lie down with the lamb.”  Isaiah 11:6 actually reads:  “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.”  This is a picture of how things shall be in the new Kingdom that God will establish in the next age on the earth.  Do you deduce anything from this verse?  Do wolves and lambs, or leopards and goats, or calves and lions, or little children and wolves, leopards, or lions, cohabit in our world peacefully?

This is obviously a world in which competition, as well as the food chain, have been rendered obsolete.  This is “The Ideal”.  Utopia.  Heaven.  God’s Magnum Opus.  No more tears.  No more war.  No more pain.  No more sickness.  No more competition.  No more, “Thrill of Victory, and the Agony of Defeat.”  God’s peaceable kingdom.

In that day, all will know that they are perfectly ‘OK’.  All will know that they are perfectly loved as they are, and there will be no more perceived need to puff myself up, or put others down.  No longer will anyone need to be in control, to demand respect, to cast aspersion through gossip or social scheming, or to keep up with the Joneses.

Can we get there now?  Well, given that we are all indelibly flawed and fallible human beings, and given that we are all on a long journey through life hoping to better and better learn to depend on one another, to love one another, to help one another, to not fear or worry but to trust in God and safe people around us, but also knowing that we will likely never completely get there this side of the grave, it’s doubtful.  But, that is not to say that we can’t achieve progress.

Real progress, however, can only happen beginning with me and with you.  I know … sounds corny, but it’s truth.  Each of us can, a little at a time, grow closer and closer to the knowledge that we are OK.  Completely, just as we are, with all of our mistakes, all of the things we do selfishly or with hurtful attitudes.  We are still OK.  We are loved by our Creator.  No matter what.  Believe that … I mean really KNOW that truth … and then there will be nothing anyone can say to you, think about you, or do to you that can take your peace away.   Believe that, and there will be much less need for worry or fretfulness.  And once we know we are OK, then we can live the serenity prayer we looked at a couple of weeks ago.  Loving ourselves, our Creator, and one another will be easy.

And what does all of that have to do with the idea of competition?  It has everything to do with it.  Starting with a solid foundation of “OK-ness”, no longer must any form of day-to-day human competition cause us fear.  Now, I’m not speaking of military warfare or dealing with burglars or muggers.  Perfectly normal to feel fear in those situations.  But in any other typical form of ‘competition’ – academics, business, clothing, social, sports-related, etc., etc. – fear of “losing” does not any longer have to be a part of one’s normal experience.

Healthy vs. unhealthy thus becomes, not the actual competition itself, but all about my own attitude.   Healthy competition is anything that causes me to strive to be my very best, to give my best effort, to play fairly, to examine my strengths and weaknesses, and to build on those.  It leads me toward greater and greater teamwork, to become more interdependent with others, to not fear sharing things I’ve learned with others in order to help them.  Healthy competition can result in some “pain” if I “lose”, but not the kind of pain that leads me to want to get back at the winner, or to beat myself up, or to be ashamed of myself.  Rather, this is the kind of pain that can still enjoy the experience, love and have fun with the “winners”, but then look at ways I can, with God’s help and assuming that we believe it’s our Creator’s will that we even be involved in this particular competition, improve myself and further improve my mental health and attitude.

Unhealthy competition is, likewise, mostly about my own mindset and approach.  If I believe that winning the pretty girl’s approval, or getting her to go out on a date with me, or catching the eye and attention of that very cute and popular guy, is all-important for me if I am to be “worthy” or valuable, then this is not healthy.  If “winning” makes me feel better about myself, but losing makes me feel there is something terribly wrong with me, that’s not healthy.  If winning makes me laugh at my opponent, or losing makes me hate or resent the winner, that isn’t healthy.

Two different women who worked at two different women’s domestic violence shelters here in central Kentucky have each told me that when the Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball team loses a game, they have notably higher rates of women being admitted into the shelters within hours afterward.  Something is horribly wrong and unhealthy when competition, not even involving me personally, becomes so important that I get angry enough to lose all control when I lose.  We’ve all seen reports of fatal fights and brawls following NFL and college football games, and during and after soccer games in Europe and elsewhere.  We’ve all seen MANY cases of violence and murder involving “competition” between men and women, when one someone leaves another someone, and finds a new mate elsewhere.  The jealousy and anger we can feel about competition is boundless … IF, again, we base our worth and self-esteem on coming out ahead vs. losing.

So, in conclusion, we again see the truth that being healthy people, especially in any situation in which we are vying with others, involves first and foremost our own attitude.  Knowledge that we are not more or less valuable or worthy, no more or less loved, no more or less OK, whether we win or we lose, must be the foundation.  Then, taking the attitude that I am only ever going to measure myself against myself, against my own self’s very best, in preparation, practice, effort, and resilience.  I can look to others for inspiration, for tips and wisdom as to how to do things better, but never to let myself fall into the trap that when, not if, someone out there does things “better” than I that therefore I simply don’t measure up; that I am a loser.  Hogwash.  Please, let us all move from that kind of mindset, day by day, toward the truth that, just as in Special Olympics, we can and should all strive to win, but also to be brave, to give our best, and to celebrate all participants when the results are announced!

Thoughts?

Craig Meek, M.D.

For openers, how about this?

“… and the truth will set you free.”   (John 8:32)

My father-in-law, a lifelong scientist and cancer researcher (as well as a pretty darn good jazz pianist!), is fond of telling anyone willing to listen that science ONLY advances by disproving things. When one sits back and reflects on this idea, it can be a mind-expanding experience.  When we understand that as one forms a hypothesis, and then sets up an experiment to test it, the goal is not really to prove that our hypothesis is true, but rather, that it is NOT true … i.e., to disprove it.  Otherwise, what do you really know?  We learn and move forward by finding out what does NOT work.

Recently I’ve been wondering whether our personal mental health improves only by disproving things, too. In this case, ‘things’ would refer to false beliefs, false self-talk, falsehoods in general.

I am a psychiatrist; AKA, a ‘shrink’! I am also human. While your experience may tell you that the two are mutually exclusive, especially if you’ve ever had to deal with a psychiatrist (we ARE a nutty bunch!), I can assure you that there are a few of us who are both! I’ve been working in the field of mental health care for nearly 20 years, including the time I spent in residency training, but only recently has it begun to dawn on me that discerning truth from falsehood, if one can succeed in doing so, would do far more good for us in our personal journeys than any amount of medicine, psychotherapy, community habilitation, support groups, and various other interventions and treatments.

Learning and applying truth in our lives could and likely would, in a very real sense, set us free.

I have a fairly small mind. I have a fairly small voice. I have a few decent ideas. I can type. With those building blocks as my starting point, I’m hoping to now finally put into writing some things that I’ve longed to say for a long time. I’m also hoping to learn about new and old truths myself as we go along, and perhaps you will share some truths you have learned with me and the rest of us. My hope and prayer is that it will help someone. I believe it will help me. If by disproving a few ideas and thus illuminating what is true about us and about our mental health I also happen to help you or someone else, then so much the better. It will just be a small bit of paying forward what has been so graciously given to me.

The “Shrink in the Belfry” theme was chosen because I think it befits what I hope to do. Obviously, the idea springs from the old phrase, he/she has “bats in the belfry”, referring to someone mentally unstable, or “crazy” (a term I dislike, by the way). A belfry, of course, is a large room atop a church or old building in which are hung bells. It’s a nice metaphor in the sense that our “belfry” would be our head, in which is hung our brain! My thought is that, if we can dispel some notions that tend to keep us stuck in our unhealthy ways and unhealthy states of mind, we’ll be literally releasing bats from our belfries, allowing our bells to ring much more clearly and beautifully.

I think it could be a fascinating adventure.  If you’re interested, come along!

Craig Meek, M.D.