Sunday, February 17, 2008

Shifts of Consciousness

Breakthrough #1

I have had kind of a spiritual breakthrough. With the help of counseling, I have come to realize that my primary psychological orientation to the world is in fact spiritually flawed. Psychologically, I have adopted a primary stance of "being nice." Implicitly, I was acting as if niceness is the most important virtue. There is too much pain and unkindness out there -- we need to be nice to each other, because life is hard enough as it is!

But the spiritual problem with this orientation is that it is as if I am saying that God created the world all wrong. God created a world with too much suffering, and it is up to me to try to get rid of as much of that suffering as I can. My technique for doing so was to take it on myself, as much as I could. In this, I was implicitly thinking too highly of myself ("I am better than most at handling suffering well") and not being respectful, in a certain way, towards others (by assuming that most people cannot handle their suffering very well themselves).

Furthermore, psychologically (as well as spiritually) persisting in this orientation was not very good for me. First of all, it meant I was almost constantly suffering. Secondly, people who saw that I was good at taking on the suffering of others had a tendency to try to get me more and more to take on their suffering. Thirdly, I realized that my motivations for doing this were not as noble as I would have liked to think. While it is true that I don't like to see others suffer, it is also true that early childhood experiences built this tendency into my psyche in large part as a self-protective measure.

It protected me in two ways. If people perceived me as sensitive and nice, they were less likely to intentionally try to hurt me. And also, by developing the capacity to help others with their suffering, I learned how to endure my own suffering too. But the profound psychological flaw in this strategy is the way it actually compounds my own suffering. While it is true that people seldom want to hurt me intentionally and may even want to protect me, if what they value about me is the way I help them with their suffering, and if they protect me so that I can keep taking on their own suffering, the net effect on me is that I end up taking on a lot more suffering than is really mine to take on. Just because I learn to deal with suffering and handle it pretty well does not mean that it isn't causing me unnecessary damage. Just because it has become familiar, and therefore in an odd way comfortable, doesn't mean it is good for me--or anyone else.

This brings me to the fourth fatal flaw of this psychological orientation: my taking on others' pain (as much as a person really can, which turns out not to be as much as I had originally thought) is actually not good for them. It encourages them to shirk their own moral responsibility, and it encourages them in behaviors that could eventually turn somewhat abusive.

Coming to these realizations was initially hard, because I sensed that my concept of "compassion" was being threatened, and I did not want to let go of holding it a primary virtue! And it turns out that I was right -- I needed to let go of the concept of compassion I had. But I don't have to let go of compassion itself. I just needed to redefine it.

What new notion of compassion replaces my previous one of "eliminating suffering as much as possible"?

The new notion is something like this: "help empower people to deal with their own suffering well (if in fact they need my help, which maybe they don't)."

Breakthrough #2

I've had another breakthrough, this one in my work life. I have been somewhat successful in spending more time on a regular basis on my research and writing. And over the past week I've suddenly realized, to my surprise, that my research and writing is actually front and center in my life. There's a way that I'm thinking about it all the time -- through my teaching, and any time I have mental space to think. My attitude towards my administrative work is that I fit it in when I must.

It is only in noticing this as a shift that I realize that my previous state of consciousness was very different. It was administrative work that was front and center in my consciousness for a while. Maybe this was to be expected for a time. For me, the leadership roles I suddenly found myself in were new. I think I needed to focus a lot of attention on all of that in order to learn it. It also dominated a lot of my work time. So, I was giving that dimension of my work priority, and it was taking a lot of time -- it is no wonder that I felt that research had to be fit in around the edges. Research and writing did not seem to have quite the same immediacy and urgency that administrative tasks with their firm deadlines do.

But now this has reversed. The administrative deadlines are still immediate and urgent, but the experience I have accumulated means I can deal with these much more efficiently than I once could. So I can let research and writing push all of this to the edges, and it will still get done. Also, since I have let the research and writing gain momentum, and since this dimension of my work life is most expressive of who I see myself to be, it has acquired its own sense of importance and even urgency in my consciousness. I have invited it convincingly into the center of my soul, and after initial wary hesitation, it finally has moved (back) in and taken up residence. And I keep feeding it, and it is growing strong again, and I am letting it run the household of my soul now, so to speak. (I don't mean to suggest, by these metaphors, that this has displaced God from the center of my attention in life. How and why I engage in the research that I do is all grounded in constant discernment of spiritual call.)

So my academic trajectory has been: (1) teaching being front and center (because it was new and very challenging!) until I became chair, then (2) administration/leadership being front and center (because now this was new and very challenging), and now (3) research and writing moving to front and center at last!*

I am very happy to be here! It's not a brand new state of being. I was in this mode when I was writing my dissertation. And I was one of very few graduate students who loved working on my dissertation! So I feel like I am at last coming back to what is a very happy state of being, for me.

*This is not the usual academic path. Most academics focus on research and teaching for a number of years before assuming administrative positions. My situation was unusual in my having to become department chair so early in my career (prior to tenure). Avid readers of this blog already knew this, of course.


  1. I do think you have achieved a breakthrough. The fact that there is pain and suffering in the world (and lots of it as a matter of fact) is of course the old problem of evil. It looks like a problem if we assume that God, first and foremost, ought to prevent suffering because suffering is bad. Bad it certainly is but the key to understanding this metaphysical conundrum (in my not particularly humble opinion) lies in seeing that pleasure is only one good among many and pain only one evil among many and that the other goods are connected with pain and suffering. There is no real courage without real danger; no real compassion without real suffering, no real success without difficulties to overcome. We are not God's pets, to be kept in comfortable cages. We are God's children who must be allowed to make their choices and take their chances in a risky, painful world. If we are to grow we must face pain square in the face.

    I think you are seeing that by being "nice" you are treating people a bit like pets and not enough like people fully responsible for their own lives and their own decisions. People who are here on this earth, as you yourself are, to face up to their own challenges. By all means provide help and encouragement to those around you. But not so much that you try to keep them in perfect safety. That's not your job and it isn't really good for them.

    I think that in the past when people would tell you things like "you should be more selfish" they were trying to make this point but weren't finding the right words to express it. Since I know you are fond of Kant just think of it in terms of respecting the essential autonomy of everyone you meet. To do that you have to grant them the freedom to make mistakes and suffer the consequences. I think every parent has to learn this lesson when it comes to their own children entering the teen years, but it applies to the adults we deal with as well.

    Oh, and good luck on the research. It sounds like you are getting some momentum going on that front as well.

  2. Richard,

    Very helpful -- thank you so much!

    Yes, we are not God's pets! And I also appreciate your pointing out that "pleasure is only one good among many and pain only one evil among many and that the other goods are connected with pain and suffering. There is no real courage without real danger; no real compassion without real suffering, no real success without difficulties to overcome."

    Interesting that I have been able to apply this to my own life and yet have implicitly wanted to shield others from this.

    I had begun to apply this in my teaching, admitting that students need sometimes to encounter disappointment and frustration as part of the process of learning. Hardest of all has been applying this to those closest to me. But that is what I am finally learning to do.

    Thanks again.