Finding Meaning and Purpose In Life

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In the last BLOG, I indicated that the key to maintaining good habits has to do with connecting those habits and goals to your meaning and purpose in life. While that’s a great way to stay focused and committed to things that are difficult, a number of my readers and workshop attendees often say, “How do I know what my purpose in life is?” Let’s explore that a little and see if I can give you some insight into how to discover what that might be. Please be patient with yourself as you go through this process, it can take time and requires some real reflection on your part. However, If you take the time to understand what this is, you’ll be greatly rewarded!

One of the first things to consider when trying to discover your life’s meaning and purpose is to think about the things and activities you’re passionate about. A good place to start is often with your hobbies. Too often we think of our hobbies as simple diversions that allow us to escape from the world. More often than not, your hobby is a reflection of your deepest passion. For example, you may really enjoy spending time buying old furniture and using it to create a modified version of its original look. An old mirror might be transformed into a more modern and exotic piece of furniture that captures everyone’s attention. You like being creative and taking something that someone gave away and turn it into something new, inspirational, and valuable. While you may not make this type of work your job, there is something about it that touches the very center of who you are. What you need to do is spend time thinking about what exactly it is that draws you in and motivates you to spend time refabricating old furniture and turning it into a valuable product. It may not be what you’re “actually” doing, it may be the process or some aspect and characteristic of the work that draws you in totally unrelated to the actual furniture.

I grew up performing magic shows and I became quite a proficient ventriloquist. I would put on shows in my garage, invite the whole neighborhood, and was a frequent guest at numerous birthday parties. I went from performing magic tricks to playing the guitar and learning every Beatles’ song I could get my hands on. I found I loved being in front of people and performing even though I was a very shy kid. From magic to music I later found myself employed as an IT consultant, then a therapist, minister, and now a college professor. How are any of these things related to one another? It took me a long time to see the thread that tied them together, but I believe it is something obvious once you think about it. First, I like the mystery involved in knowing something that others are straining to understand. The magic tricks and ventriloquism were a mystery to my friends and family and when I could make that mystery interesting to them I loved it. Also, all these activities involve engaging people and helping them find something more from life. Sure, ventriloquism isn’t some profound art that assists people to find greater meaning and purpose but it did give them some joy and entertainment so their life was a little better. Being an IT consultant allowed me to take something that was mysterious to many business owners and show them how it could empower them to be more profitable and help their customers. Being a therapist allowed me to help people with the mysteries of everyday life through the power of psychology and being a minister allowed me to walk with people in the ultimate mystery of life found in the divine experience. Lastly, as a college professor, I help young people engage in the mysteries of their educational pursuits so they are empowered to do great things in the world after they leave our university. My hobbies and interest led me to see a common meaning and purpose in my life (By the way, I still love magic but my wife won’t let me pick up the ventriloquist dummy again).

Let’s get back to the individual who loves working with old furniture. It may not be that their meaning and purpose in life is to create new and interesting pieces of furniture (Of course it may be that, but it doesn’t have to be). They may be the type of person who finds meaning and purpose by taking what many people believe to be a “throwaway” item, experience, idea, or God forbid, person and work with them to be something interesting, better, and polished. Maybe this person can find meaning and purpose working with school kids that no one else wants to work with. They can take these souls the school system has thrown away and turned them into empowered, accomplished, educated people. It doesn’t matter what you do, what matters is why you do it. That why is the most powerful motivating force in your life.

Let me close this post with this final homework assignment that I want you to work on. Look at the things you’re passionate about and ask yourself what the root of that activity or idea is that motivates you? What is the unconscious experience in your hobby that speaks to the meaning and purpose in your life? If you can do that, in the next post I will show you how to discern that passion in a holistic healthy way.

Why You Can’t Maintain Good Habits!

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In the last post, I indicated that we really need to take a hard look at ourselves in a holistic way and start setting goals that make us healthier. I proposed we set goals that help us take better care of our bodies, our minds, emotions, relationships, and spiritual lives. This is the best approach to healthy living because each of these five spheres of human life encompasses much of who we are and are completely integrated with each other. If you take care of your mind, your body becomes more healthy and if you take care of your emotions you can think more clearly, etc., you get the idea. That means you should set at least five goals, or at least be mindful of five important practices related to your physical health, your emotional life, your mental life, your relationships, and your spiritual life. That might mean you set the proverbial weight loss goal but you should also attempt to spend quality time with each of your family members throughout the week. Perhaps you can enjoy dinner out with your spouse, playing cards with your children, or taking time to call a friend you haven’t talked with for some time. When you focus on all five of these areas you’re looking at your life holistically and each goal and habit you start for each area will help you in the others.

One of the toughest things about setting goals and developing habits is we seldom follow through with them. We feel inspired to lose that 10 pounds but after about five days we start ignoring the diet, the exercise, and the new gym equipment we got for Christmas. Other goals and habits are just as easily ignored. I know a number of my friends who got tablets for Christmas because they were going to start reading more ebooks this year… Mostly they are binging Netflix shows on them and haven’t even purchased their first ebook. Why is it so hard to get started on building new healthy habits? Being healthy is important to me so why can’t I do it!

The main reason you can’t maintain (or start) good habits and complete your goals is that they have no connection to what you believe your meaning and purpose in life is. Even worse, you may not know what your purpose in life might be! You may be one of those kind souls drifting from one thing to another, functioning well enough, enjoying parts of your life, but not living life with purpose. When you either have no purpose or can’t connect your goals and habits to that purpose, you fail. What we do has to matter and I mean “really” matter. If it doesn’t connect to what you believe is your purpose, it just won’t matter. In fact, you may simply be adopting a goal or habit because it just seems like something people ought to do. Remember, something you ought to do is not something you will pursue with any real energy and is almost as bad as something you should do or need to do from a motivational perspective. You want your habits and goals to be something you do because it allows you to fulfill your life’s purpose. For example, I hate to eat right and I hate to exercise. I would love it if I could maintain a decent looking midsection while eating cake and reading my favorite book. Sugar and reading are two of my greatest addictions! The problem is when I do that I look fat and can’t keep up with my family who likes to travel, hike, and do so many physically exerting activities. Yet, even though I hate these things, I eat fairly well, limiting my sugar and I exercise at least three to five times a week. How is it I can consistently participate in something I hate? First, it’s important to me to be a father who can participate in all my family’s activities. I want to make memories with my family and to do that I have to be able to travel with them and participate in all the activities they enjoy. Secondly, I’m a college professor and speaker. I’m frequently in front of groups of people which means my physical appearance is part of my message. Nothing will distract more from my teaching than a physical appearance that doesn’t reflect healthy living and temperance that I speak about as an essential part of living well. I can’t let my addiction to sugar and sedentary activity keep me from fulfilling my purpose which is to help empower people to be the best they can be. Because of that, I exercise and watch my food intake so that I can fulfill my life purpose.

What I want all of you to do as you start thinking about your next set of goals and habits is to ask yourself, “Does this really help me accomplish my life mission? Will this help me fulfill my purpose?” If it doesn’t, don’t pretend you’re going to continue pursuing that activity, it will fall short. If you really think it’s important, you need to connect it to that life mission if it’s going to be something you do consistently. If you don’t know what your life mission or purpose is, stay tuned, next week we will look at how to develop that. See you then!

Starting A New Healthy Life – A Holistic Approach

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We walk around life in a haze. We have ignored what matters most in life in order to walk around in our own world of illusions. We like to think we’re okay, but we’re not. We think we’re in good physical shape but most of us are overweight, taking more medication than we should, and eat like teenagers at a county fair. Our bodies are screaming for us to stop abusing them, but we just keep hurting ourselves and mask that abuse with medications, treatments, and a multitude of other distractions. Most of us are embracing death more than life by killing ourselves slowly through food and immobility. Sigmund Freud believed human beings have a “thanatos drive” which in layman’s terms is a type of death wish. There are many times I think he was on to something. It’s not just our bodies we’re killing, most of us have become lazy thinkers as well. We tell ourselves that we’re thoughtful and deep thinkers, but we can barely spend more than three minutes looking at a social media post. We like to think we spend time learning new and important things and we’re staying informed but most of our time is consumed with irrelevant junk food for the mind. If we’re honest with ourselves we might actually find we’re more likely succumbing to the psychological traps of group think, confirmation bias, and feeding our minds with news stories that support what we already believe. We’re comfortable with what we know and we seldom challenge our beliefs in order to grow.


So, we continue to fool ourselves by believing we’re physically okay and that we’re much more thoughtful than we really are. We’re lazy thinkers and afraid to challenge our opinions and knowledge by engaging different opinions and new ideas. It doesn’t stop there, however, because we’re also emotionally lazy. We choose to be emotionally numb instead of engage our emotions and the emotional lives of others. We’re afraid to let others see us cry, be saddened by the tragedies we see on television, and we keep ourselves from becoming angry at the daily injustice we see people experience. We aren’t comfortable feeling our emotions and we’re unable to talk about them with even the closest people in our lives. We ignore the emotions of other people we meet every day and avoid celebrating with them or being a comforting voice they need while they suffer. We have indeed become emotionally lazy and numb.


When we don’t take care of our emotional lives and ignore our physical well-being, we also negatively impact our relationships with other people. Too often we take our relationships for granted or only see them in utilitarian ways. We ask what the relationship does for us instead of how we can help and be of service to the people in our lives. We need to ask ourselves, “How can I love this person in the way they need me to love them instead of the way I want to love them?” We’re lazy with our relationships and when that happens, we isolate ourselves which isn’t good for our mental or physical well-being.


A final part of our lives we’ve grown lazy in is our spiritual life. We’re so caught up in the material aspects of life that we forget we’re a transcendent creature who is not merely a body or merely a spirit in a body, but a human being with a body and spirit meant to live within the physical world with a transcendent sense of reality. For most of us spirituality is that convenient experience we have when we want to pray to get something from the divine or to ease our anxiety about death, tragedy, and daily inconveniences. Your spiritual life must be bigger than that. It has to embrace a larger meaning and purpose that guides your everyday life.


If you have a better understanding of who you are, you can begin to see the many places where you’re functioning in a way that keeps you from living a fully human life. People ignore the different dimensions of human life, overemphasize some, or have a completely skewed understanding of how they interact with one another. They might be really into physical fitness but then find themselves completely ignoring their spiritual life. They may be hyper-spiritual people but end up ignoring their physical well-being. They may think that the things they believe have little to no impact on how they develop relationships with other people. I have encountered some people who see relationships in purely utilitarian terms and so they live for what others can do for them. The opposite is true as well, some people have no boundaries and expend themselves in service to others to the point of exhaustion. We must understand, to be truly healthy and live well is to live well holistically. We need to live with bodies in the best physical condition our situation allows, minds as sharp as we can make them, a level of emotional intelligence that allows us to know how we and others feel, in balanced relationships that have healthy boundaries, and with a spiritual sense that allows us to infuse life with meaning and purpose. It’s my hope I can help you achieve these results so please, check back with us and let me know your thoughts and how I can serve you.

Building Communities of Forgiveness

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It was a warm June night and like most Wednesday nights at numerous churches across the country people were gathering for prayer and bible study. For years, this gathering was uneventful but, on this night, a white man named Dylann Roof entered the church and sat quietly pondering his next move. He was welcomed by those in attendance and even claimed because of their kindness he was reconsidering his violent intentions. Unfortunately, the evening didn’t end in peace, Dylann pulled out his gun and killed nine people including the pastor Clementa Pinckney. Dylann killed without discrimination in regard to gender or age, he was only interested in killing people because they were black. His disdain for African Americans and feelings of hatred motivated him to pull the trigger on his weapon again and again. Among the dead were Sharonda Coleman-Singleton a 45-year-old mother of three and a high school track coach. Cynthia Hurd age 54, a librarian at the public library for 31 years. Tywanza Sanders, a young 26-year-old graduate of Allen University in Columbia. Tywanza died trying to save his 87-year-old aunt Susie Jackson who was also killed that evening. He told Dylann to shoot him and leave his aunt alone but reports say Dylann said it didn’t matter he was going to kill everyone anyway. After he killed Tywanza he eventually shot Susie Jackson. Tywanza was the youngest victim to die that night and his aunt the oldest. This story is beyond tragic and unfortunately not the only of its kind.

The question is if any of these events happened to you or someone you love could you forgive the perpetrator? The answer has to be yes. Why does it have to be yes? Because if it’s no, then we’re trapped in a cycle of hatred and self-defeat giving the demons in hell something to celebrate. They rejoice with every act of vengeance and self-loathing that terror and violence inflict on the survivors of trauma. If we can’t forgive people, we’re forever held captive by the traumatic experiences they’ve inflicted upon us.

The most moving words of forgiveness I’ve ever read came from the families of the victims killed that night at Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Washington Post published an article on June 19th by Elahe Izadi called “The Powerful Words of Forgiveness Delivered to Dylann Roof by Victims’ Relatives” which captured the exemplary Christian spirit of forgiveness this community incarnationally represented to Charleston and the world. Here are some of the things these hurting wounded people had to say to the man who killed those they loved simply because of the color of their skin:

“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with welcome arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts and I’ll, I’ll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders was my son. But Tywanza Sanders was my hero. Tywanza was my hero. … May God have mercy on you.” – Felicia Sanders, mother of Tywanza Sanders.

“I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you”. – Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance.

If you’re like me you hear these words and say to yourself, “I’m not sure I could be that forgiving.” I understand. Forgiving someone appears to be a monumental task when someone killed a person you love through a senseless act of violence. But believe me, you can forgive people who do these terrible things. The surviving relatives of these victims aren’t superhuman, they’re superheroes of forgiveness. These are men and women just like you and me. That’s comforting and scary at the same time. It’s comforting because it means you and I can choose to be forgiving people. It’s scary because it means just like these ordinary people we might find ourselves needing to forgive someone who acted in the same way as Dylann Roof. The important lesson to learn from these brave families is we can be forgiving because forgiveness is a choice. Like love, forgiveness is more about choices than feelings. When we choose to forgive someone, we must learn to behave and think in a particular way that impacts how we feel about the situation. Thinking, feeling, and behaving are intimately connected. I know many of you reading this are saying, “Just choosing to forgive someone doesn’t make me feel like I forgave them. Because I don’t feel like I’ve forgiven them I must not be a forgiving person.” Yet, this first choice to forgive is indeed an important step in the process. The choice to forgive and then acting in a forgiving way leads to feelings that come with being a forgiving person.

If we are to develop communities of peace, we must first discover how to be communities of forgiveness. Leaders of communities set that tone and example. My challenge to you as a community leader is to do that very thing. Lead your community into the experience of forgiveness and watch it grow and flourish.

(The above is taken from Dr. Hankle’s book “The Christian Vocation of Forgiveness” that can be purchased here.)

What kind of community leader are you? – part 4, by Dr. Dominick Hankle

A top reason people cannot come together and find middle ground is the fact doing so means both groups have to compromise. Each group in the community has to say, “Okay, we’re willing to give up on trying to get everything we want in order to get something that benefits all of us.” Compromise is a trade-off in which no one gets everything they want however everyone gets something that works.

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Compromise is the very thing our nation was founded on. Thirteen individual colonies came together and through compromise, they formed themselves into a nation. They become thirteen states united in their existence. Compromise is in the American DNA and it is actually one of the great strengths of our nation. Without compromise, we fail. This has happened to us numerous times in our nation’s history. When we can no longer compromise, no one wins. Everyone loses and the nation struggles and limps along until a compromise can be reached.

Are there times when a group should refuse to make compromises? Yes, there certainly are times when compromise is unacceptable. When we’re asked to do something that is morally wrong we shouldn’t compromise. When we’re asked to stray from our values and guiding principles, we shouldn’t compromise. The problem is if you ask most people in your community or organization what their guiding principles are, they have no idea. If the people in your community or organization have no idea what their guiding principles are, then you have no leadership. One of the most important functions of leadership is to advocate on behalf of a uniting vision. The uniting vision is the rallying point from which everything the group does flows. Once there is a common uniting vision, the groundwork for compromise is made possible because what is essential to the organization’s existence is clearly outlined, and second-level priorities can be negotiated.

I’ve spent many years as a marriage therapist. In order to get a couple to understand the importance of marriage, I usually provide them with a concrete example, otherwise, their current pain and negative attitude toward one another inhibits them from seeing how their behaviors are killing their relationship. To get their attention I tell them they’re both gardeners in a garden. I remind them they’re responsible for a garden, and in particular, a special tree in the corner of that garden. One of them has the soil and fertilizer to bring to the tree and the other has the water and tools to till the soil appropriately. Each has to give up some portion of what they have in order for the tree to thrive. The tree requires them to find ways to compromise in order for it to begin to sprout leaves and eventually give them tasty wonderful fruit. Marriage works in the same way. Each partner brings with them important characteristics, dispositions, and talents that make the relationship thrive. You can’t just do what you want with your own assets, you need to share them so that the marriage, something bigger than yourself, can thrive. That’s how a marriage works. That’s also how the community works.

Each subgroup in a community has talents, gifts, ideas, concerns, assets, and a multitude of positive experiences that make them who they are and allow them to do what they do in a way that’s uniquely their own. These talents, gifts, ideas, etc can be considered their strengths and can be very useful to the larger community if shared appropriately. However, they can’t simply bring these into the community and exercise every aspect of what they like to do just because it’s something they like, are good at, or makes them feel special and unique. The husband in a marriage who has a new shovel can’t just go digging in the garden and ignore what needs to be done to the tree. He needs to use that shovel to help with the common task and quit being selfish. If two groups within a community simply try and exercise their gifts in ways they want without regard to the other group, the two never merge and become one community. Each group has to find ways to compromise if they are going to be united in something bigger than themselves. They can’t ask each other to compromise on those things that are a core aspect of who they are or something that’s morally important, but they can ask one another to compromise on secondary things.

Here is the key point to consider. If two groups within the community know what unites them and are able to exercise their individuality while preserving community unity, they will compromise in order to serve and protect the common good. People are always stronger together than apart and most groups within a community know that. However, if leadership is more focused on division rather than communicating a unifying message, no one will share their tools to make the garden beautiful. The garden will become a mess of weeds and overgrown plants. If no one in leadership steps in to advocate for a unifying message the people in the community will not work together to make something beautiful. Instead, they will use their tools to beat the crap out of one another. So ask yourself this if you are in the position of a community leader; do you want people to use their gifts and talents as tools to build something beautiful or do you want them to beat one another over the head with their shovels. What kind of community leader do you want to be?

If you like this post and want to be a part of an organization that works to heal communities check out my friends at A Race To Healing.

Antidote to Division- Building Communities

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In the last post, I discussed how giving other people psychological space and having gratitude for the diversity they bring to the community is a powerful step toward forming healthy organizations and neighborhoods. Making psychological space and appreciating diversity is the first step in forming relationships between diverse groups. If we create a common psychological space where Native Americans, Caucasians, and African Americans can understand one another we have a common psychological place where relationships can develop. However, while this diversity is a strength any community should embrace, it’s going to be difficult to develop relationships with one another if we’re not intentional about doing so regardless of how diverse we are. We don’t naturally draw together with people we perceive as different from ourselves even if we’re more than willing to be friendly towards them. Simply stated, a friendly exchange isn’t enough if we’re truly developing a vibrant interconnected community. A real community finds ways to develop intimate relationships between its members.

This ability to connect with others on an intimate level is exceptionally important for people. One of its key benefits is that it helps us develop a sense of identity. In fact, some psychological research indicates our sense of self is intimately tied to our group memberships. Along with developing an identity is the desire to affirm respect for who we are through seeking respect for the groups in which we belong. We are validated because the groups in which we are members are valued by our community. Because of this dynamic, you can see the subgroups of our community are strong and intimately tied to our very sense of identity. In short, our group memberships define us.

The process of grouping is the result of a number of psychological factors. It allows one to conserve mental energy and infer characteristics of the “things” grouped together. When one applies this benefit to categorizing people, it becomes more complex and becomes more of a liability than an asset. For example, the act of categorizing individuals into social groups often is all one needs to produce intergroup prejudice and discrimination. Human beings are not objects. When people categorize them as such, they infer characteristics that easily lead to discriminatory and prejudicial behaviors. These behaviors are more commonly known as stereotypes; cognitive shortcuts allowing individuals to justify behavior and simplify the world. The problem is that stereotypes are over generalized inferences, inaccurate, and difficult to change because they cause the one who creates them to be resistant to new information countering the stereotypical beliefs. Prejudice is an attitude that becomes difficult to contend with because it includes beliefs, emotions, and inclinations to action; core aspects of human behavior

While it sounds very cliche, the way we build intimate communities is we come to love those who are a part of the community. We find a way to love them so that they become a part of who we are. The “You and I” become the “we.” This is a unique experience of love that comes from an intentional type of interaction with one another. Mortimer Adler, a well-known philosopher writes of this love as a benevolent impulse that causes us to give to the other without concern for a fair exchange. We give without counting the cost. Love is for the benefit of the other and is expressed in goodwill. Yet for Adler, this is only the beginning of the exchange. He indicates this type of love exists for the benefit of the other and fosters a desire for the lover to also be loved. The desire to be loved then leads to the ultimate wish of love which is the “closest union” with the one who is called beloved.

There are profound ramifications this kind of love has on the effects of division and prejudice. If two groups are no longer self-interested and reach beyond themselves to embrace the other as they want to be embraced, the union that intimate communities thrive on can become a reality.

Psychological studies of prejudice and division prove we have a natural tendency to pull away from one another as an attempt to understand our universe and develop an identity. Yet this isn’t what we have to do just because we unconsciously do it.

To overcome this problem psychology provides a few answers. One of the most effective answers is to have diverse groups work toward a common goal. It has been found that prejudiced behaviors toward different groups are reduced when two diverse groups work to achieve a common goal (Watch the movie “Remember the Titans). Personalizing the “other” by having different groups interact more frequently is also helpful. This has been demonstrated in the desegregation of schools and public institutions.

While these are indeed very good approaches to developing intimate relationships within a community, the most effective, however, is to do these with a spirit of love. In a document named “Caritas in Veritate” by Pope Benedict the XVI we read the following: “Love is “divine” because it comes from God and unites us to God. Through this unifying process, it makes us a “We” which transcends our divisions and makes us one until, in the end, God is “All in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).”

Do you want to maximize the relationships in your community? Learn to love one another and work together for a common good. You may be surprised at how quickly your community transforms itself.

This post was originally published on “A Race To Healing.” If you like this material and are interested in building better communities feel free to check them out.

Shared Psychological Space and Gratitude – Building Blocks of Community

Communities are groups of people connected in some way. The connection could be as simple as living within the same geographic region or as complex as having a shared vision and mission that draws everyone together. Regardless of why people are part of a community, being so means finding a way to appreciate and make space for other people. While there are many ways to do that, I want to focus on two primary practices for developing the glue that makes communities work. The first of these is creating psychological space for the “other.”

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When we speak about the “other,” it often seems like we’ve relegated people in the community to be something less than human. That’s certainly not what I’m implying in this post. However, we often like to say that someone with a different cultural background, race, or ethnicity is “just like us.” Honestly, that’s not healthy either because it ignores crucial distinctions. Diversity is an essential strength within a community, so to overemphasize “sameness” ignores one of a community’s strengths. However, if we focus too much on individual differences, we not only profoundly divide the community into subgroups, this extreme individualism impacts the cohesiveness of the larger group. Communities need to find a balance between group cohesiveness and diversity. Extremes are never good. So by speaking of the “other,” I’m doing so from a position of respect and regard for those differences.

When we speak about creating psychological space for the “other,” we mean that we allow for that individual’s presence and their difference to reside in our minds in a positive connected way. The other is not unconnected to us but instead connected as an extension of who we are. They’re not the enemy or an appendage to our community; they’re someone we consider a part of our life. You will find this on a microcosmic scale in successful marriages and as an essential part of developing a connected community. John Gottman, a famous marriage and family researcher, tells couples they need to create psychological space for one another to thrive as a couple (which is, in a sense, a small community). Giving someone psychological space means providing them a place in your mind; your internal self. When they aren’t immediately with you, you think of them, appreciate them, are mindful of the place they have in your life, and maintain an emotional connection to them. It also means that you’re aware of what the other individual needs from you and consider them in your decisions whether they are immediately present with you or not. Psychological space is an essential aspect of a good marriage but it’s also vital for communities to develop. When you’re mindful of other people in the community and what they need from the community you’re making psychological space for them. When you care about how they contribute to the community and how the community can embrace them, you’re creating a type of collective psychological space the whole community shares. If we can’t do that for one another, we can’t gel as a community. Think of how often city planners develop a strategy and forget that their plans infringe on a particular group. New highways may go through traditionally black communities without any representation from that community. Then, when this group asks for a place at the table, they’re viewed as getting in the way of progress. If we had a shared psychological space for one another, the group would have been represented from the start.

To develop this shared psychological community space, it’s essential to have and express gratitude for one another. Are we grateful to have Native American communities as part of our broader community? Are we appreciative of the unique gifts and talents this group of people contributes to our community? This sense of gratitude is the gateway for creating a psychological space that allows the larger community to adhere together. The two or three groups of “others” find a way to become an “us” that is inclusive and grateful for its diversity. Community leaders can start creating this communal psychological space by encouraging ways for each set of community sub-groups to appreciate the diversity each group brings to the more substantial communal experience. This appreciation must include ALL groups, not a select few. We often believe by merely appreciating the least represented, we’re doing what is best, but encouraging appreciation for all groups is essential and avoids resentment that emerges from ignoring one group over another. How one shows appreciation for the different groups should be left to the communities involved. Still, I encourage those in leadership to develop this appreciation and gratitude to make the appropriate psychological space for everyone who is a part of their larger community.

In closing, let me say this: We like to force inclusion and diversity on our communities, and in doing so, we make the individual groups resentful of one another. If we encourage gratitude for the gifts each of us brings to the table, we will find that the path to including one another in our minds and hearts is much easier to travel and will undoubtedly help us make the world a better place.

Building Healthy Communities

Sometimes, when the world looks like it’s falling apart, our first impulse is to pull away from it. We feel as if we’re exiles in a world filled with people from another planet. We see people rioting, ignoring basic common sense and forgetting how to interact with one another at a most basic courteous human level. We need to appeal to the “Better angels of our human nature” as Abraham Lincoln once stated when trying to find a way for a war-torn nation to reunite.

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Our experience of exile is not unique; it can also be found in the Jewish Babylonian exile experience in the Judeo-christian bible. God asked the Jews to respond in a particular way to their exile and it’s in this Jewish response we can learn how to respond to our own contemporary situation. Remember the Jews experienced a tremendous loss of everything after their defeat by the Babylonians. Their kingdom was destroyed, and they were carted off to live in a foreign land. I bet their first impulse was not very different from our own. They most likely just wanted to pull back, become disengaged, and protect themselves. God, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, gives them a different mandate (Jeremiah 29:4-7):

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have set you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

This is a powerful lesson to consider when reflecting on how to build healthy communities regarless if you’re religious or not. The Jewish people saw themseves as living icons of the divine presence in a fallen world. God gave them a law they believed made them a holy people set apart for God’s purposes allowing him to dwell among them in a transformative way. Through the prophet Jeremiah God tells the exiles he wants them to be set apart but exist within a foreign city as leaven and light making it a better place for everyone. God tells them, “I want you to live there, flourish there, and prosper but not simply for your own benefit, for the benefit of the city as well. By being active agents of prosperity and goodness, you too will flourish.” Basically, God is saying by being the presence of the living God these exiles will cause this foreign city to be a special place. When the city flourishes, they will be blessed, and everyone will know the God of the Jews is a powerful God. This self understanding of the ancient Jews drove them to be something transformative in the communities they ocupied. It’s this vision of being a positive force in your community that I want you to think about.

Over the next few posts I want to help you develop into a powerful icon of what is good and beneficial for your community. There is an interesting paradox surrounding the focus on service to others and volunteering in a community setting. The more we focus on service to others the less we focus on our own fears and problems. We find meaning and purpose in our service to others and this meaning and purpose gives us a huge psychological boost. Serving our community is the best thing we can do for ourselves.

So how can we become an icon of what is good and beneficial for our community? In this series of articles, I will explore the following topics: 1) Becoming other focused through gratitude 2) Maximizing relationships in your community 3) Why compromise isn’t a bad word, and 4) How we forgive one another and restore our relationships.

I look forward to engaging you in this journey. Remember, if the communities we live in don’t flourish, we can’t either. However, to fix what’s wrong in our communities really starts with one or two people willingly engaging one another and envisioning a better future. Let me help equip you to do that very thing.

(This series was originally posted on the website A Race to Healing)

Why People Ignore the Facts – How Your Mind Works

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Why is it so easy for people to ignore science?  We have a pandemic tearing its way through the world and a number of national leaders from a vast array of countries are saying things like, “There is no need to wear masks”, or “This isn’t as bad as the media is making it sound.”  Cries of fake news, lying statistics, and corrupt political parties (Of course it’s the “other” party who is corrupt) are all blamed for the current situation.  It isn’t just in the political domain that these cries of fabrication come from.  Religious individuals and faith institutions also believe they cannot gather at full capacity and sing their favorite hymns (without masks of course) because they’re being targeted by the liberal factions of society trying to keep “Jesus” out of the public sector.  Some would argue that people today have lost their minds, but I will argue quite the opposite in this post.  People haven’t lost their minds, they simply are ignoring how their minds work and succumbing to all the traps that a lack of critical thinking exhibits in these passionate and hyper-emotional times.  We don’t ignore the facts as much as use them to create a narrative we like that supports our unconscious biases.  

People have an innate need to make sense of the world.  They have to have an answer to the question “Why” and when they can’t get one they find themselves in a psychologically uncomfortable state.  When we’re confronted with unconnected and diverse facts concerning a particular situation we make sense of these facts by creating a narrative based on our innate biases and tendencies.  These biases and tendencies combined with confusing or contradictory pieces of information force us to make sense of the world based on our “gut” feelings.  However, those gut feelings can often distort the hard facts, lead us to make poor decisions, and cause us to say some pretty misguided things. By simply wording something in two different ways you can force someone to rely on their gut feeling and passionately defend a position they think very different from another only to find if they look closely, both options say the same thing.  They get so caught up in the peripheral information they ignore the facts.  We rarely use logic and critical thinking to make our decisions in these cases, we simply go with “how we feel.”  Let me give you an example.  Read the following scenarios and tell me which one you would select if you had to undergo medical treatment:

Imagine you are a patient with lung cancer.  Which of the following two options would you prefer?

  1. Surgery – Of 100 people undergoing surgery, 90 live through the post-operative period, 68 are alive at the end of the first year, and 34 are alive at the end of five years.
  2. Radiation Therapy – Of 100 people undergoing radiation therapy, all live through the treatment, 77 are alive at the end of one year, and 22 are alive at the end of five years.

When given these two options 44% of the people in a study said they would most certainly select radiation over surgery.  Yet, watch what happens when we just change the wording a little:

  1. Surgery – Of 100 people undergoing surgery, 10 die during surgery or the post-operative period, 32 die by the end of the first year, and 66 die by the end of five years.
  2. Radiation Therapy – Of 100 people undergoing radiation therapy, none die during treatment, 23 die by the end of one year, and 78 die by the end of five years.

When I change the wording in the scenarios, if you’re like most people, you will actually prefer surgery over radiation therapy because the numbers start to scare you.  In fact, after making the above changes only 18% choose radiation therapy over surgery simply because of how the option is verbally presented.  If you look closely there is no difference in the numbers.  The statistics stay the same.  The facts are the same and objectively you get the same results.  Most people see that first set of numbers (How many people live or die) and make a gut decision.  When we’re dealing with survival, we become biased and let our gut make the decision instead of using the mental resources that would allow us to focus on the facts.

It’s a simple error in thinking that causes us to say and do things that are just wrong.  I could go over a myriad of other processes our mind uses to bypass critical thinking and quickly make decisions but I don’t have the space to do so.  In psychology, we call these processes heuristics.  They help us think quickly, and for the most part, can be helpful, but can also cause us to make errors.  These factors along with the fact psychological studies demonstrate we have a “self-serving bias” where we actively seek information that already supports our opinion and ignore that which contradicts it makes for a perfect storm.  However, you can correct this if you are brave enough to do so.  Daniel Kahneman writes in his book “Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow” a simple remedy to help us think more critically:

“The way to block errors that originate in System 1 (our intuitive mind) is simple in principle: recognize the signs that you are in a cognitive minefield, slow down, and ask for reinforcement from System 2 (your rational conscious critical thinking mind).”

If you find yourself making a decision or judgment hastily, are hyper-emotional about the situation, or being a lazy thinker, stop.  Create “cognitive space” so you can think through what you need to consider.  In a world where statements can be broadcast across the globe from a keyboard in a matter of minutes, the more often we slow down and think about something before talking about it is essential.  It’s the best way to truly appreciate the facts and get past your desire to justify how you feel.  If we still care about the truth, we need to train our minds to search for it in the best way possible.

When Beliefs Become Unempowering

Most people don’t realize they have a constricted sense of their abilities simply because of the beliefs they carry around in their heads.  Beliefs are good, particularly when they accurately reflect reality, but they can work against you when they don’t.  It was once believed physiologically impossible for human beings to run a mile in four minutes.  In 1952, Roger Bannister, a British middle-distance runner and neurologist broke that limitation during the Olympics.  After that, numerous people began to break the four-minute mile that was “believed” impossible for the human body to accomplish.  Beliefs are powerful things.

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Once we believe something, even just a little bit, it becomes harder and harder to change that belief.  We frequently engage in something psychologists call “belief perseverance.”  We use belief perseverance to maintain personal congruity.  Personal congruity is simply the idea that when we say we believe something and act on those beliefs we will continue behaving and believing in such a way that our beliefs and behaviors remain consistent.  If they become inconsistent, we find ways to keep them consistent.  For example, if we believe something, we often unconsciously search for evidence supporting that belief and ignore evidence contradicting it in order to maintain consistency.  The more invested we are in a belief the less likely we are to change it.  This experience of staying with something because we’ve invested ourselves into it is referred to as the “sunk-cost theory” in psychology.  We’re less likely to move away from a belief, activity, or behavior we’ve invested in even at the cost of losing everything.  We become overinvested and delude ourselves into thinking if we just stick with it things will turn around.

Because we have this experience with beliefs its important to frequently review what we believe about ourselves, the world that surrounds us, and how the future will unfold.  Who are you, really?  Do you think you’re simply the person stuck in that job because you spent the last fifteen years doing what you do in order to scratch out a living?  Can you be something more than you believe yourself to be?  What have you made a core part of your identity?  When you make certain beliefs a core part of your identity, you immediately make them a powerful enabling force in your life or a limiting factor that keeps you from becoming the person you want to be.  When I work with clients and hear the words, “That’s just not who I am” or “I’m the kind of person who…” I pay a great deal of attention to what follows.  These comments are probably some of the most important things they will share in regard to what they believe about themselves.  Let me give you an example to help clarify my point.

I had a client that wanted to quit smoking.  It was bad for her health, caused her social grief, and kept her from feeling free as more and more smoking limitations became a part of everyday living in the United States.  When she came to see me, she described herself in the following way: “I love smoking, I have been doing it since I was thirteen.  It’s been my best friend when things are rough, and I smoke to calm my nerves when I get stressed.  Sometimes, I like a cigarette after I enjoy something like eating a good meal or after making love.  Smoking is my enjoyable vice along with a good strong cup of coffee.  I guess the best way to describe myself is that I am a smoker and that’s just how I like to live.”

That “I am” statement says it all.  How do you help someone who smokes when they identify it as who they are?  Some people break the habit more easily because they see it for what it is; an addictive behavior that through some discipline and basic behavioral psychology can be broken and overcome.  However, when someone tells you it’s what they are, they’re basically saying they believe smoking is a significant part of their identity.  A number of artists, musicians, actors, and other artistically inclined people frequently identify smoking as part of their identity.  The “tough guy” types also see smoking as part of their identity.  For both these groups smoking isn’t something they do its part of who they are.  Significant motivation is required to get people who think this way to quit smoking because in their mind you aren’t asking them to change what they do but rather who they are.  Beliefs related to identity are hard to change.

I want to share with you a way to explore your beliefs and investigate the level of limitations they’re placing on your life.  Once you have identified these beliefs you can begin to explore how to change them.  First, list several words that describe who you are and what you do.  List words like “smart”, “attractive”, “Hard working”, etc.  Then, ask yourself, “Are these words describing who I am or activities I perform?  Categorize them into groups.  Label the first group “What I can and can’t do” and the second one “Who I am.”  Then explore each of these and see how they either limit or empower something about yourself.  Many of them will do both.  When we say we’re “Hard working” we know that means we’re able to stick with something and hammer away at it until we get what we want from it.  That’s a great character trait when you need to learn a new skill but how might that trait impact your personal life?  Do you “hammer away” at people until they give you what you want?  Look at how the belief about being “intelligent” might play out in your life.  A belief like that might seem like something positive.  Yet for many people, identifying intelligence as a part of their identity means when they can’t show other people how intelligent they are, they experience a personal crisis.  When someone feels their belief about intelligence is under attack, they get anxious and fearful about making mistakes and only engage in experiences where they can demonstrate their intelligence.  More importantly, they avoid challenging and new experiences that can help them learn something new and become a better person (See Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets)!

So, if you want to start looking at changing your life, start with your beliefs.  Begin exploring what they do for you and how they impact your personal growth.  Discover what needs changed and have the courage to challenge those limiting beliefs.  Sit with a trusted friend and have them speak honestly into this self-discovery process.  An outside perspective rather than just evaluating them yourself from the inside out can be very enlightening when done with love and your best interests in mind.  We will explore some of this later, but for now, take the time to complete this “belief inventory” and see what your beliefs are doing to you.  Remember, beliefs can either be empowering or limiting, knowing the difference is a great place to start for building the life you want to create.