The Search for the Good Person

I’ve been blessed to teach a class at Regent University in the Honors College called, “The Good Person.” I’ve enjoyed the experience very much and look forward to teaching it again this fall. It’s a wonderful topic to explore and particularly because we do so from a multitude of academic disciplines. We look at the good person philosophically, from a literary perspective, and of course from the perspective of Christian theology. My primary discipline is psychology so we explore what it means to be a good person from that perspective as well. Interesting things emerge when discussing the good person from these many disciplines, particularly since we read material from Aristotle, Dante, Augustine, Socrates, and Albert Camus. It’s a diverse group of authors!

By reading Aristotle we come to understand a good person is someone who fosters virtue through practice, discipline, and habit. The main question we are left with after reading Aristotle is, how can we know what the virtues are that a good person practices? Aristotle’s answer is to find the mean behavior or practice that lies between two extremes. For example, courage is the mean virtue between rashness and cowardice. A courageous person is one who acts prudently when faced with danger but does not shy away from it. Through the exercise of reason, Aristotle teaches us we can know what the good is and once know, we will be compelled to practice that virtue. I find Aristotle’s argument wonderfully articulate however I disagree that knowing the good is enough to compel a person to practice what’s good. People don’t do what’s good because it’s rational to do so, at least not very often.

If psychology has taught me anything it’s that people are more often motivated by intuition and emotion than reason. A very well-known social psychologist Johnathan Haidt demonstrated this while developing his moral foundations theory. His work demonstrated we often make decisions, particularly decisions about what is good and moral based on foundational instincts rather than rational discourse (He calls it the tail wagging the dog). We are more motivated to indicate whether something is moral or good by whether or not something is “fair”, “sacred”, “or harmful”, and even elicit our disgust response. Because of his work and other experimental psychologists like him I would say reason is not the primary tool we use to decide what is good or moral, other processes tend to take precedence over it.

Albert Camus’ work “The Stranger” is an interesting read in class because of its presentation of his absurdist philosophy. Camus tells the story of a person who appears completely detached and uninterested in life as it is lived as well as the people around him. His main character maintains a distance from the world around him as if he is a mere observer of life as it unfolds. This disposition makes this character appear very cold and unaffected by life. This becomes such a defining element of his disposition that after killing a man on the beach and is put on trial, the key evidence used against him to show how guilty he must be is his temperament and apparent disregard for the whole situation. Camus is known for his absurdist philosophy and uses stories to demonstrate it in the lives of his characters. In many ways “The Stranger” teaches us that a good person is someone connected to the “other.” He or she is a person who transcends himself or herself and connects to other people. Can we say this is what defines a good person? Is merely engaging in life actively and participating in it consciously what makes a person good? I can’t say that it completely defines what makes a person “good” but it may be an important element. Yet there must be more to help us identify what is good.

The other readings create excellent discussions in class as well. Dante’s “Divine Comedy” helps us reflect on evil and good as understood by the medieval world, and the Trial of Socrates reminds us that often the good person must suffer for the good. But my favorite reading in the class is “The Confessions” by Augustine of Hippo. I enjoy it for so many reasons. Yes, I prescribe to the same religious faith as Augustine, but more so, Augustine reminds us of the need to not just discover the universal good but to surrender to it.

First, Augustine reminds us that the good exists primarily in the transcendent. He and I would refer to this transcendent good as God and when we read Augustine we are reminded we do not achieve an understanding of the good through logical and rational reflection on its own. Augustine did that well and it got him as far as neo-platonism, but he still believed he fell short of knowing the good. Yes, reason is helpful, but ultimately we know what is good, true, and beautiful because it is revealed to us as something completely outside of ourselves. As a Christian, I believe that revelation is most profoundly found in the person of Jesus Christ. To know him is to truly know the good. Reason can give us a shadow of the experience of the good but only in the person of Christ, God incarnate, is the good fully revealed. Secondly, Augustine reminds us of the intimate closeness evil has in relation to the good. In fact, he tells us there is no such thing as evil because evil is only the absence of what is good. Evil has no existence of its own. From Augustine, we learn that a good person is one who seeks the transcendent and is affected by it. Yes, Augustine is a Christian and believes it is only by entering into a relationship with Christ that one can truly know and act as a good person. However, he does challenge all of us in a way that perhaps the other authors do not. He challenges us to be fully human which in itself is good and only when we choose to be something other than human does a person appear evil (knowing that evil is the absence of what is good).

If you follow Aristotle’s approach you find yourself depending on your own ability to use reason and identify what is truly good. He rightly points to an external objective good that reason can grasp but his use of reason alone can be tricky given what we know from the science of psychology. Camus leads us to believe that trying to know what is good is absurd and perhaps it is best to just live in that absurdity and not judge good or evil at all. I think this is a dangerous perspective and quite honestly, no one can really live that way consistently. It is Augustine that makes the search for what is good personally engaging and objectively existent.

You may disagree with the conclusions these authors make about the good and what it means to be a good person. Many of my students do and that’s perfectly fine. What I love about the class is it challenges us to seek the good and then to try and live life as a good person. It’s the search and struggle to know what is good and make it a part of your life that matters more than who you agree with in regard to the search. I fear we’ve lost that pursuit of perfection and goodness. Whether it’s through religion or philosophy, people no longer think the search for the good and the desire to be a good person is a worthy pursuit. We tell ourselves, “I don’t hurt anyone” and that seems to make the masses feel good about themselves. We may not be as bad as Camus’ character in The Stranger who is indifferent to what is good in life, but we certainly are not spending time to discover what is good and how we should live as good human beings. We’re indifferent, but in a way that leads us to believe that not hurting people is the pinnacle of what it means to be a good person. In a world where religious leaders have failed us, where people no longer read the Holy Scriptures of their particular religion, and the hyper escalation of “How I feel is what is real” the search for what it means to be a good person is lost. That’s a sad state of affairs for our culture. I don’t know about you, but I will not give up on the quest for the good and I’m grateful so many of my students in Regent’s Honors program haven’t either. We need good people to build good families that will build good societies so that we can have a good world.


You Can Have Your Own Opinion… Really It’s Okay.

Whether you know it or not, you can have your own thoughts and opinions. You’re permitted to have wrong thoughts, ideas, and opinions and you’re entitled to have correct ones. You can also disagree with other people and think their ideas, thoughts, and yes, behaviors are wrong and immoral. This is the beautiful thing about the mind; it’s yours and you’re responsible for what you put into it, how you process those inputs, and how it directs your behaviors. Now, the caveat about having your own thoughts is that when they’re translated into audible statements and visible behaviors they do so in a world of other minds, bodies, emotions, and social situations. Therefore, so that we may all live with some level of civility society also has the right to temper what you say and do for the common good. Through rational discourse, some of our rights to things like free speech and personal liberties must be tempered so we can all function in a diverse culture but never at the expense of total tyranny in regard to how one thinks, feels, and expresses oneself.

You always have the right to think and develop your mind in a way that is totally your own. You have the right to be virtuous in thought, immoral in thought, biased in thought, and even hateful in thought… it just can’t be expressed in a way that steps on another person’s rights and liberties. I can have a strong dislike for Christians and even feel anger toward them, but I cannot discriminate against them as an employer, be abusive toward them, or say excessively hateful things about them to stir up crowds to act out dangerously toward them. Yet, you can hate Christians and think awful things about them… it is your right to do so… it’s your mind and no one else’s (Just so everyone is aware, I am a Christian, so this is not intended to imply any thoughts I harbor toward Christians).

While I know this sounds radical it really isn’t. It only sounds radical because today, we fear ideas, we’re overly concerned about one another’s emotional and mental safety, and we have lost the ability to debate and dialogue in a way that actually could cause us to change our deeply held feelings, beliefs, and ideas. If I were to argue for or against any current cultural taboo (i.e., abortion, gender identity, marriage, animal rights, etc.) someone would scream that I’m speaking in a way that is harmful or makes them feel unsafe. Certainly, there are ways that might become true (i.e. see the above comments about the common good), but this fear has negated our ability to have our own ideas expressed even in the most rational way. This idea that you have a right to your own ideas, beliefs, feelings, and thoughts is well expressed in things like Thomas Jefferson’s writing on religious freedom, but other Enlightenment thinkers expressed this as well. Thomas Paine, an 18th-century political activist who had a strong influence on America’s founding ideas makes it quite clear that we can and must have a right to our own opinions and to do otherwise leads us to a very bad place:

“I have always strenuously supported the right of every man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.”

What is most important about the above quote is not just that it expresses how important it is for us to have our own opinions but that by allowing others to have opinions also allows us to have the right to change ours. We can, and should, always be ready to modify our opinions in the light of better arguments, more facts, and to use a research term, improved data. However, we can’t do that if we believe everyone should think the same way about things (while we may all have any thoughts and opinions we like, I do believe there is an objective reality that we need to embrace or there are negative consequences that occur from ignoring that reality).

The intent of this post is to drive home the point that we cannot allow any faction of society to tell us, “You can’t think that way.” When we allow that to become a cultural mantra, particularly in the name of “making people feel safe” we go down the dangerous path of mental stagnation. We all have the right to think any way we like. It’s an essential part of being human. In fact, in some instances, it is the last line of defense in maintaining our humanity. Victor Frankl wrote a book called, “Man’s Search for Meaning” that outlines his life in Nazi concentration camps as a Jew. He describes how people survived this experience from a psychological perspective. In doing so he reminds us how important it is that we maintain the ability to think of things and hold our own opinions, thoughts, and attitudes about our world regardless of what we are being told. He states:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

That my friends, is a truth we cannot surrender. In the next post, I will demonstrate some of the best ways to change your opinion so that the mind you create reflects what is most true, beautiful, and good. After all, if you want to live well, the more your mind reflects objective truths the better you can make your way through the world.

Something Old and Something New

When we celebrate something new we can never forget it’s birthed from what’s in the past. We are creatures of continuity. It’s important to welcome what’s new but only by standing on the shoulders of what’s been in the past. Our past attempts, our failures, and our mistakes have given birth to our future hopes, desires, and aspirations. If we forget where we’ve come from we will never know where we’re going. If we cannot remember the signs of where we’ve been we may find ourselves walking the same trail over and over again. Jesus Christ did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, the spiritual tradition he inherited, he fulfilled it. We are not meant to abolish where we have come from but rather to transform it into a future filled with hope, love, beauty, and inspiration. We’re never trapped by our past but we should be informed by it so we can be transformed by grace.

I’ve worked with people throughout my career as a therapist, pastor, and professor who cling to their past in one of two ways. They either hold on to the past and allow it to shape everything they do or they’re so put off by it that any reference to what happened before is never permitted. This means the past either locks you into the only reference you have for living in the present or it’s a lost resource for understanding how to change and be a better person. Neither of these is helpful. If you’ve been hurt by the past transform it into a powerful engine for positive change. If the past was something you treasure, use it as a foundation to build something even better. The key is what we are now and what we will become in the future is always tied to our past. The power of the past is its ability to become a tool that allows you to transform what was into what can be. That’s what it means to be wise. A wise person is neither trapped by the past nor loses the lessons it has taught. A wise person uses the past to become a better human being. It’s a powerful force in your life, it’s just a matter of how you use it.

What Can We Trust Today?

Trust is a fascinating thing and the fabric of every element of social living.  Without it, things quickly fall apart.  You can see this by starting with the relationship you have with yourself. For example, what happens to someone when they can no longer trust their senses?  There are people who struggle with hallucinations because of mental health issues.  They hear things that are not physically present, see things that are not there, and sometimes feel sensations in their body that aren’t real.  For these people, the world is exceptionally unpredictable, and they cannot believe the messages their neurological system is sending them.  Therefore, their world falls apart and what is real becomes an impossibility and something they believe they cannot know.  Trust in what we sense is an important element for being able to engage the world surrounding us.

Trust between husband and wife is an essential element of a good marriage.  Without it, they will continually be suspicious of one another and incapable of functioning as a unit.  They cannot share the resources necessary for building a life together.  A shared life is one in which two people give of themselves for something bigger than who they are individually.  To do that, however, requires one partner to trust that the other will share themselves and not just take from the relationship selfishly.  Parenting requires children to trust their parents.  If a parent tells a child that what they’re doing, saying, or feeling is dangerous, unhealthy, or inappropriate the child must trust this to be true.  Otherwise, any requirements a parent asks of a child would be seen through the lens of suspicion and therefore something that has little effect in their lives.  Parents must build trust in their relationships with their children to at least dampen down the already persistent element of human nature which is to “Do whatever I want.”

At this point, you can see where I’m headed in this post.  Trust is essential otherwise our world falls apart.  My fear is that we currently live in a world where trust is broken maybe even absent.  You have been convinced that scientific research cannot be trusted, older people in your life are not wise and therefore should not be trusted, that the physical reality about who you are is unessential, that governments are false, and that there is a deep state making things happen, that you can believe what you want and feel, and it will be so, etc.  The damage this has created is beginning to creep into the lives of almost every human being on the planet.  Being able to think critically is important and I am not suggesting we just act like sheep and follow the narrative that someone spins on television or through the wonderfully accurate reports on social media (Sarcasm implied here).  However, I am concerned so many of us are untrusting of the basic elements of reality.  I believe it’s causing irreparable damage to our ability to function as a larger society.  There are realities in life that must be acknowledged, and we must find a way to trust the authoritative sources that present that reality.  Our senses are one of those sources, honest friendships, historical facts, biological realities, and basic human needs are others that need serious consideration.  For example, a human being must find shelter against the elements, feed oneself, clothe oneself, maintain a sense of safety, etc.  Today, that’s generally done by finding work that can meet the economic needs of your real state of life.  You may want to be a social influencer and be okay living in your parent’s basement, but the reality is someday, if that doesn’t work, you need to pay for a basement of your own.  Trust the fact reality is going to smack you right in the homeless face.

Trust is essential.  Trusting your experience, trusting those in authority, and trusting how the world works from the most basic survival requirements to the most complex social situations is really important.  Much of that trust is broken because of corruption and lies.  The question I have is how we can develop a real sense of trust to counter our escape from what is real?  Perhaps we can talk about that in the next post.

Chase Meaning Not Happiness or Success

What is the most important thing to pursue?  Is it happiness?  Is it success?  The great philosopher Aristotle said happiness is the thing people most want.  We don’t seem to chase happiness for some secondary purpose.   Everything we pursue and every goal we have we hope will make us happy.  His argument is solid and if you’ve ever read his work Nicomachean Ethics, then you know he makes a great argument for the idea that all human beings seek happiness as the ultimate good.  The problem is happiness has a much broader meaning for Aristotle than it does for us.  The Greek word he uses is difficult to translate into English.  The word he uses is eudaimonia which means “To flourish” more than to experience the emotional state of happiness.  If we’re flourishing happiness will be an effect of that experience, but it’s not the objective of what human beings desire.  We desire to flourish, not just experience a mood labeled as happiness.

If we want to flourish, we need to have meaning and purpose in our lives.  Meaning and purpose pulls us toward a sense of flourishing.  If I find meaning and purpose in my life and direct my actions, goals, and efforts toward fulfilling that meaning and purpose, then I flourish.  I experience happiness at times but also in the struggles and difficulties of life, I overcome and grow.  To suffer for something bigger than yourself stimulates a deeper and more fulfilling life.  To accomplish goals directed toward something more than myself is to feel that I am moving toward something profound and transcendent.  This is what it means to flourish in the broader sense that Aristotle describes in his philosophical work.

Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist captured by the Nazis during WWII, put in some of the darkest and worst conditions a person could ever endure, and who lost his whole family in the death camps believed one must make meaning of life to survive it.  A person will survive almost anything if he or she can maintain a sense of purpose and meaning.  He saw that prisoners who no longer could find purpose succumbed to their conditions in the concentration camps and died.  In his famous book “Man’s Search for Meaning” he writes:

“Don’t aim at success — the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.“

So, my friends, if you want to flourish, be happy, and endure difficult situations when the arise, be sure your life is guided toward something bigger than yourself.  More and more it seems we’re simply floundering in a life numbed by entertainment from glowing screens on our walls, desks, and in our hands.  Ask yourself what the greater and more profound mission is for your life and pursue it with all you have.  It will be the best thing you can do for yourself and those in your life.

The Complexity of Human Nature – A Lesson We All Need

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian novelist. His life story is as interesting as the novels he writes. He was raised Russian orthodox, became an atheist and supporter of the communist movement, and then later, he became one of the government’s greatest critics. Because of this he was put in a gulag to perform forced labor. After his release from the gulag, he once again embraced his childhood religion. As a very devout and philosophically astute believer, he wrote many novels that reflected his beliefs and worldview. I love these lines he wrote in “The Gulag Archipelago “:

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an unuprooted small corner of evil.

“Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.”

I sometimes wonder if we’ve forgotten this very point. Are we so arrogant that we believe we have everything right and the “other”, whether that be another political party, race, ethnicity, country, etc. has nothing good to offer our collective situation? Likewise, we have to ask ourselves are we so arrogant to believe that we have nothing evil within us that needs uprooted? I hear so many people today call one another numerous awful things and I want to say to them, “Are we sure that very thing you’re calling that person isn’t also a part of you?”

I’m a psychologist and if there is one thing I’ve learned it’s that people are complex. Most of our problems are the result of the fact we forget about our own and other’s complexity. They oversimplify people and call them good, or evil based on how much these other people agree with their own opinions and beliefs. Likewise, they simplify themselves by investing their whole identity into a political party, sexual preference, race, gender, or any other category they choose to describe their whole existence. We’re way too complex to root our whole identity into one basic category. In fact, that’s a very unhealthy attitude and can lead to some unhealthy ways of understanding ourselves and interacting with others.

Let’s just look at my life for a moment. I‘m from a working-class family in Pittsburgh Pa. I’m also an academic and enjoy that life and the type of work it entails (Which is often strange to my hard-working blue-collar family). I’m a Christian and enjoy my faith and the community that’s part of the faith. Yet, I am a musician and spend a lot of time at open mic nights in bars with people who are very much not Christians. I’m so many things but mostly, all these things converge to become Dominick. Dominick enjoys being all these things and not totally any one of these things. I’m a husband, a father, a brother, a grandson, an uncle, a cousin, a nephew, etc. Above all, I am complex. I pray on Sunday with the saints and can be quite the spiritual person. I drink bourbon and sing the blues on Mondays with the rougher fringe of humanity and enjoy my time with these wonderfully quirky people. All of this makes me who I am. I am capable of being quite the servant and person of Christian virtue, but also one of the greatest sinners the earth has produced. The point is, I am complex and knowing this keeps me from being too judgmental about others.

In the end, there are very few people I see as completely evil or completely saintly. Certainly, no politician or person in power has ever been one of these things completely (although some have come close). My point is this. I hope all of us consider the wisdom of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and remember, this line that separates evil from good is much more a line inside the human heart than between human beings. Let me close with this observation. I just finished watching the HBO series “A Band of Brothers” that follows Easy company from the 101st Airborne as they move through Europe during WWII. In each episode they interview the men who were at the battles. One of these gentlemen said something that really captures this idea of where the line of evil and good lies. I am paraphrasing what he said, but it was generally this; “In any other circumstance I believe I could have been friends with some of the Germans I killed. Maybe we would go fishing together or hunting, but I had a job to do just like he did.”

That’s a powerful testimony that shows a real recognition of the complexity of our nature as human beings. He knows those men across the field of battle were simply men. Each could be good, and each could be bad, and some more than others. I wonder if we might start to see other people we encounter the same way. Maybe we should explore our own hearts and recognize we’re dealing with devils and angels like everyone else. Maybe we can use that insight to be a little more understanding of the people we know.

Drop the Bad Beliefs – You Don’t Have to Agree With Them Anymore

Does This Idea Work for My Life?

People walk around with a meaning-making system in their head and they’re seldom aware of how much it impacts everything about them.  Much of what I do in therapy is help people become aware of their meaning-making system and how it’s causing them pain.  A component of everyone’s meaning-making system is something philosophers call a worldview.  A worldview is a set of beliefs about things like:

  • What does it mean to be a human being?
  • What is the nature of the world?
  • What’s wrong with the world and why do things go wrong?
  • How can what’s wrong with the world be fixed?

The beliefs you build around these questions guide you and your interactions with the world (and people) in an almost invisible way.  You’re probably not even aware of how you feel about these things until your life gets turned upside down.  For example, You may think human beings are nothing more than evolved animals with complex ways of thinking and behaving that allows them to get what they want in a complex social world.  People can’t just take what they want (Although they would if they could) they need to develop the social skills to get what they want from people in a nuanced way.  At some point in life, you find you need help with something and someone comes along and does just that.  Unconsciously you believe this individual is helping you because they want something.  You engage the world around you with suspicion because you know how people are and you need to protect yourself from their inherently selfish drives.

This belief may allow you to function in the world, but it may also keep you from being happy and enjoying healthy fulfilling relationships.  The beliefs you have about the above subject areas will impact how you engage the world around you.  Because of that, I want to encourage you to spend a little time exploring your meaning-making machine that guides your interactions with the world.  What is a human being?  Are they merely physical creatures, do they have souls, can they be good creatures or are they only evil creatures cloaked in kindness to get what they want?  Is the world created with a design and purpose or is it a randomly evolved biosphere merely meant to nourish life?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  How can people live in the world in a way that limits the bad things that happen?  All of these are good questions to explore.

It is my hope that by spending some time digging into the meaning-making system you have in your head you can see where some of these beliefs have handicapped your ability to thrive, live a fulfilling life, and enjoy other people.  Much of what you carry around in your head are merely beliefs you’ve held on to in order to make sense of the world at a time when you were struggling.  They may not be necessary beliefs but merely constructed lies that helped you when you needed them.  Sometimes the world changes and therefore some of your fundamental belief propositions might need to change as well.  I am not a relativist; I believe there are fundamental truths that human beings need to embrace and in doing so they can thrive.  However, I do know people often carry around useless ideas they used to cope with in a bad situation from the past that no longer serves them well.  Let’s see if you can get rid of some of those.

The Things You Regret – The Inactive Form of Love

Photo by Liza Summer on

I teach a course in multicultural psychology. It’s one of my favorite courses to teach. I marvel at the diversity of the human person but also that within that diversity there’s so much we share in common. I know it’s an overused analogy, but what a beautiful bouquet of flowers the human race is. I can only imagine God created it that way so he may “Delight in us” as the scriptures say. In the midst of this diversity I’ve come to marvel at one way we’re all the same and that’s how we view regrets. Studies in multicultural psychology demonstrate regardless of culture people regret the things they’ve never done more than what they have done, even if what they’ve done resulted in mistakes.

In more specific terms, psychologists study something called “Counterfactual thinking.” Counterfactual thinking is a hypothetical belief about your past that could have occurred in order to avoid or change a negative outcome. Basically, you use counterfactual thinking when you look back in your life and say to yourself, “If I had only done (or not done) ______ I might be better off.” Maybe it was a decision to enter a particular vocation, leave a particular city, or something as simple as having bought a particular type of car. In the end, counterfactual thinking often leads to feelings of regret. There are two categories of counterfactual thinking. The first group consists of those associated with actions. So, you might say to yourself, “If I wouldn’t have eaten that last piece of cake I might not be so sick today”, or “If I wouldn’t have majored in psychology I might be more likely to get that job as a business consultant.” The regrets you have are over something you’ve done. The second category of counterfactual thinking has to do with inaction items, those things you wish you would have done. Examples of this category might include thoughts like, “If I would have studied harder at school I might have made something of myself,” or “If I had been a better husband my marriage may not have ended in divorce.” Both of these categories are the types of thoughts that lead us to have regrets and people all over the world have them.

In multicultural psychology we look at these types of thoughts and ask ourselves, “Which category of counterfactual thinking is most prevalent in different cultures and which category do each of these different cultures experience the most? What we’ve found is all people, regardless of culture regret the things they’ve not done more than what they have done. Additionally, in every culture people regret what they haven’t done to the same degree. That means everyone, regardless of where they live, regrets not doing something to the same degree all over the world. We’re most troubled by what we didn’t do. I have a theological speculation why that might be the case.

If you look at how God created the human person, we were created for action, and in particular two actions that strike at our core. We were created to love others and to be loved. Whenever we do not create or experience love we suffer. In fact, love is so important to the human condition those who don’t experience or share love suffer disease much more prominently, recover from illness more slowly, and relapse into disease more frequently. When we cannot do what we were created for we crumble. Like anything created for action, inaction becomes the source of our slow demise. God, who is constant action (Pouring himself out for creation and continually renewing all he created through love) created us to be icons of his active love. Everything the human person does is intended to be an extension of the love of God for the created order. Our jobs, our marriages, our relationships, our leisure, all we do is intended to somehow love God above all other things, one another as brothers and sisters of the same father, and care for the created order. We were created for action, not to be inactive bystanders who do nothing. Because of that, when fear paralyzes us from making ourselves vulnerable to give and receive love we have a strong sense of regret. Mistakes are not our enemy, they’re part of learning to love more perfectly. Inaction and fear are our enemy. We can’t be comfortable in our inactive state, we must be stretched to be a more active agent for the kingdom of God. Innately people are aware of this and that’s why we regret what we didn’t do more than what we have done.

In my role as a minister I’ve had the opportunity to sit with people as they prepared to die. While the evidence is anecdotal at best, in the context of my pastoral care for them the feelings they share with me generally fall under two categories. They want to know if they were loved, but even more concerning to them is whether or not they loved others enough. They regret the love they didn’t show more than their attempts to actualize love. I pray all of you ponder whether or not you’ve become too comfortable in your attempts to actualize love; keeping yourself from “acting” in a more loving way. Never tire from finding new ways to stretch yourself and become more vulnerable for love’s sake. If you do this, your regrets will be minimized. In the end, you will find when you lay your head on your pillow for the last time the comforting voice of God saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

If You Want a Better World, Learn to Love and Be Loved

Photo by Andres Ayrton on

More and more I am convinced the heart of all human misery is the result of a fracture in a very important psychological mechanism built into the human heart. We are intended to be creatures that love others and receive love. When we cannot love others in a healthy way or have not been loved in a healthy way we create a world that is fractured, broken, and hurtful. Psychologists have numerous theories that talk about the minutiae of how this mechanism works, but in the end, we struggle to love others and are negatively impacted by those that love us in a broken way. Here are just a few ways that happens.

A very early and significant way we are negatively (or positively) impacted by how we are loved is related to something known in psychology as attachment theory. The manner in which your primary care giver shows you love, meets your needs, provides a sense of safety for you, etc. can impact how you engage the world later in life. The theory was formulated by John Bowlby but explored extensively by Mary Ainsworth. Without going through all the details of the theory and the subsequent research it developed, attachment theory finds that those children who were provided with a caring, loving, responsive environment were more able to adjust to the world around them than those who were not. When this care and love is not provided properly, insecure and anxious attachments develop in people and they exhibit such behaviors and emotions as anxiety, the inability to regulate emotions, difficulty with developing relationships with peers, etc. Later research even demonstrates insecure attachments impact romantic relationships and marriage satisfaction. Taking all this into consideration you can see that when someone is not loved properly they struggle to give and receive love in a healthy way. Then, that gets propagated to others and the world continues to spiral into a broken dysfunctional pit that seems impossible to overcome. When we cannot love or are loved in an unhealthy way we in turn love others in ways that are broken. The cycle is difficult to break.

Taking things further, excessive abuse has been found to certainly have a negative impact on people raised in such a toxic environment. While certainly high levels of abuse create people who deal with physical injury and developmental issues, it also creates psychological damage. First, it can create an internal experience of self-hatred. Many people dealing with this self-hatred and abusive history consider suicide, become addicted to drugs, and deal with depression and anxiety. Post traumatic stress disorder and other trauma related mental health concerns are commonly found in children and later adults who experienced extreme abuse. However, even more disturbing, some research indicates excessive abuse of children during formative developmental ages causes the empathy pathways of the brain to be stunted and underdeveloped causing anti-social behaviors and at its worst, antisocial personality disorder. The most extreme lack or inability to love children being raised in our very homes creates people who’s neurological structures make it exceptionally difficult for them to empathize and love others.

Over the course of the next few posts I want to explore how we can change this trend and learn to love others and receive love in a healthy way. This innate characteristic of being human is essential for living life well and flourishing in the world. Imagine if we could transform the world to be a place where people can learn to love others and be loved in a healthy way. What might it be like if we could help people learn to mitigate against the broken and distorted love they received in order to break the cycle of distorted love? The world could at least be a little better because of the things I want to discuss. Augustine of Hippo, a Christian philosopher and minister in the 5th century often spoke of sin as nothing other than disordered love. Perhaps we need to reconsider that again in our day and age? How is our love disordered and how does it perpetuate a disordered world today? I look forward to sharing thoughts on this with you over the next few posts!

The Spiritual Nature of Sin – Signature Sins

Photo by Cytonn Photography on

As many of my readers know I’m a professor of psychology for Regent University as well as a priest in the Continuing Evangelical Episcopal Church. One of the courses I sometimes teach is Abnormal Psychology. Abnormal Psychology focuses on behaviors, cognitions, and emotions considered disordered. One area psychologists explore in regards to abnormal behavior is why particular abnormalities emerge in the first place. In other words, psychologists ask the question, “Why are some people clinically depressed, suffering from clinical anxiety, have schizophrenia, etc., while others seem to go through life without any problem?” A popular model used today to describe the source of abnormal behavior is called the “diathesis stress model.” While the name sounds very technical, it really isn’t that difficult to understand.

The diathesis stress model simply states everyone has within them the potential to experience a psychological disorder of some sort. We’re all vulnerable to particular disorders. We may not know what they are, but given our genetic make-up, life choices, and the circumstances in which we live any one of us could have a psychological disorder just waiting to emerge. This risk factor is called a “diathesis.” What causes the disorder to emerge is the fact environmental stressors impress themselves on the individual and trigger the start of the problem. This model is no different than how we explain certain physical disorders. We may have the genetic predisposition for diabetes, but because we exercise, eat right, and maintain a healthy lifestyle our body never experiences the stress of unhealthy living which causes diabetes to emerge. The key is to mitigate the disposition toward the disorder by keeping our environmental stressors low and practice healthy living. We may have a disposition for depression but if we make sure we have down time, coping mechanisms in place, and a support system available we may never experience depression at a clinical level. The key to maintaining physical as well as mental health is to be sure we understand our vulnerabilities and maintain a healthy set of coping mechanisms to keep us from experiencing problems at a high level

This model is very helpful for understanding how we develop physical ailments and psychological ailments. It also translates nicely for understanding our spiritual ailments. First, we must all recognize because we’re born into a fallen world we have a fallen nature. This fallen nature creates in us a proclivity toward sin. All of us have a sin nature, not a nature of virtue and holiness. While I recognize there are a number of theological positions regarding the state of the soul, I think most Christian can agree the natural state of the human spirit when born into this world is broken and fallen. Additionally, each of us carries within us a proclivity toward a certain sin, or pattern of sins, something called “Signature sins.” Michael Mangis wrote a book called, “Signature Sins, Taming Our Wayward Hearts” in which he explains what these particular proclivities toward abnormal spiritual behaviors are. He writes the following:

“My life, like my home, carries unique markers of my own experiences, relationships, likes, dislikes, gifts and vices. My life displays patterns, consistencies and habits. Even spontaneity occurs within boundaries. My sin is similarly patterned. I can predict my temptations by the choices that have enticed me before. Other temptations may afflict my neighbor but cause me no struggle at all. My patterns of sin are unique to me.”

Like having the risk factors that could lead to a psychological disorder, we all have risk factors that can lead us to display spiritual abnormalities. All it takes is the appropriate environmental stressor to have them kick in. A man may be susceptible to lust and all it takes is watching a sexually explicit movie and he finds himself lusting after women and thinking about them as if they are mere objects of his desire. Having a particular proclivity toward a configuration of sins and living in a world that provides a number of opportunities to experience those sins can lead us to be spiritually disordered. In the end, we’re people struggling with the potential breakdown of not just our bodies, minds, emotions, and relationships, but our spirits as well.

If we truly want to grow spiritually we need to make ourselves aware of our signature sins. These risk factors have the potential to lead us down a path of destruction. They need to be identified as well as the environmental factors causing us stress and in the end, activating our sin pattern. Working with a good spiritual director, practicing spiritual disciplines, and being connected to a great community support system is the first step for growing in the life of grace. In the end, our natural proclivity toward sin can only be transformed by the supernatural life of grace coming from a relationship with Christ. Begin your new life in him by finding ways to destroy the old life in you.