Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The psychology of "the evil within us all"

One of the things I love about yoga is, well, everything. But also, Namaste: the light within me recognizes the light within you. After a lifetime of focusing on the brokenness, the sin, and the ugliness in me (and everyone) I loved a tradition that focused on, sought, and recognized the beauty within each of us.

I guess that is why I cringed a little when I first saw Rachel Held Evan's latest CNN post 'Breaking Bad' and the evil within us all. {Check it out, especially if you're a Breaking Bad fan, or like me, a RHE's fan} It was sort of a hopeful cringe, like maybe Rachel found a way to repackage this Christian sin obsession that I've grown to hate? Maybe she found a way to present it better than my childhood church camps? And she did. 

I like that she approached sin from a place that values justice: 
Racism, greed, misogyny, hatred, violence, inequity, selfishness, and pride all take shape within the human heart, so if we’re going to tackle injustice in the world, we have to start with ourselves. 
And I like that it doesn't fall into the very-Christian (in my experience) tendency of "othering":  
In Christianity, evil isn't something that simply exists “out there” among thieves and murderers and meth makers. No, Christianity teaches the hard truth that the evil we observe in the world is also present within ourselves.
But I was sort of disappointed with her portrayal of acceptance:
...Jesse gets frustrated with those in the group urging him to accept himself without judgment. In a fit of frustration, Jesse cries, “So I should stop judging and accept? So no matter what I do, hurray for me, because I’m a great guy? It’s all good? What a load of crap …You know why I’m here in the first place? To sell you meth. You’re nothing to me but customers …You OK with that? You accept that?”
Something I've always gotten frustrated with is the misconception that acceptance means letting ourselves "off the hook." (Kristin Neff: Does Self-Compassion Mean Letting Yourself Off the Hook?) Research actually indicates that acceptance and self-compassion lead to taking more, not less, responsibility for our actions. Acceptance enables us to better address our shortcomings because we are far less likely to construct excuses or exaggerate "wrongness," which tend to keep us stuck in blaming/avoidance patterns.

To me, the difference between the compassionate acceptance route and the confession/repentance route that churches often take is the former says: I did x and it was a hurtful thing to do; the latter says: I did x because I am not okay and there is evil within me. The former inspires guilt, the latter often inspires shame. Shame, unfortunately, is “highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying. Researchers don't find shame correlates with positive outcomes at all—there are no data to support that shame is a helpful compass for good behavior  In fact, shame is much more likely to be the cause of destructiveness and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution." (BrenĂ© Brown, Daring Greatly). Shame could actually be the cause of, not the solution to, some of Jesse's problems.

Not to mention, this Christian obsession with sin reminds me of "negative resolutions." Where people vow to stop doing something: to eat less, to quit smoking, to stop watching TV, to quit cursing, (stop sinning) and so on. Like a skier focusing on the trees instead of the path between the trees, or the brand-new driver staring at the on-coming traffic instead of the road in front of them, people who set negative resolutions (like people who are focused on sin) are actually on a dangerous course. (maybe Jesus was making a psychology-based joke when he said go and sin no more?). The problem with these goals is that you are obsessed with the bad thing you want to stop/avoid instead of the positive/replacement plan.
You cannot replace something with nothing. The habit system will still have connections between the environment and your behavior, and so it will continue to suggest the behavior you are trying to stop. As a result, you will have to continue thinking about stopping the behavior. 
So, rather than making negative resolutions, make positive ones. Do not resolve to stop smoking, resolve to start exercising. If you really start an exercise program, your smoking will get in the way, and you will have a reason to stop. Do not resolve to eat less, resolve to eat differently. Cut red meat out of your diet, and start eating other foods. With the number of really good meat substitutes on the market now, it is easy to replace high-fat foods with low-fat foods without sacrificing taste.
I like yoga not just because it is warm and fuzzy and feel good. It challenges me (with positive goals and, sometimes literal, steps). And I'm okay with Christianity challenging me too. I just, I guess I'm not comfortable with the approach here. So maybe if Christians, rather than focusing on sin, focused on doing good? on helping others? {I'm not saying Christianity doesn't do that. I know for sure some forms of Christianity really do emphasize helping others. But honestly, I'm not really an expert on what Christianity does/doesn't do these days. I'm admittedly out of practice. I just know what my conservative/fundamentalist church was obsessed with: hell, sin, especially sexual sin, and the rapture} I would have found it to be a much, much more compelling case for Christianity/church if RHE had said, I'm a Christian because we are striving for justice, for peace, and for joy. And here is how we are doing it. So maybe in another in her series? :)



  1. There is a super-thin line between 1) recognizing (and accepting) that human behavior can occasionally be less than stellar and 2) beating yourself stupid at every turn because you are a "fallen creature" and "filthy rags" (thanks for nothing, Paul!) in the eyes of God no matter what we do (or don't), not worthy of even a side glance from the Divine but we're saved anyway through grace because of His mercy.

    I *hate* this idea of God's nature. I choose to believe that we are his beloved creatures because we ARE worthy of his love, in spite of what we do, and NOT because he simply tolerates us with an eyeroll and a dash of grace, saying "you're dirty and broken and worthless but I'll save you anyway because I'm awesome."

    We are in a world that is God's complete creation from start to finish, we don't ask to be born and we don't ask to emerge into the circumstances that we are handed in life, so in my opinion - better to just not exist rather than be simply and barely tolerated by a Divine being who is ultimately responsible for our existence and the cards we are dealt to begin with.

    Does this make sense......?

    1. Yeah, totally. This: being barely tolerated by a Divine being who is ultimately responsible for our existence

      It is like my toddler's art work blaming itself for having giant fingers and no torso or legs. That doesn't even make any sense. (FWIW, I think that art work is beautiful.)

    2. Toddler art - word. ;-)

      And don't even get me started on the whole "sin-temptation-human nature" bullcrap....having to completely deny one's true nature as human being (especially sexually) because it offends God is the equivalent of willingly giving candy to a (toddler!) and then telling her that you are going to condemn her if she eats it.

      Makes my blood boil.