Why both pain and gratitude drive us to pray

A few days back the Rev Giles Fraser had a very good column in the Guardian about praying after tragedies like the terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge. In the light of a radio presenter tweeting:

Fraser explains why he opened up his church – only a short distance from the scene of the attack – and invited strangers into pray:

Prayer is not a way of telling God the things he already knows. Nor is it some act of collective lobbying, whereby the almighty is encouraged to see the world from your perspective if you screw up your face really hard and wish it so. Forget Christopher Robin at the end of the bed. Prayer is mostly about emptying your head waiting for stuff to become clear. There is no secret formula. And holding people in your prayers is not wishful thinking. It’s a sort of compassionate concentration, where someone is deliberately thought about in the presence of the widest imaginable perspective – like giving them a mental cradling.

But above all, prayer is often just a jolly good excuse to shut up for a while and think. The adrenaline that comes from shock does not make for clear thinking or considered judgment. Those who rush to outrage say the stupidest things.

Naturally, I agree entirely. The only thing I would add is that because Fraser is writing in the context of a dark incident, he doesn’t touch on a key aspect of praying: being thankful.

Being grateful is really good for you. The Harvard Mental Health Newsletter has reported that:

Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much of the research on gratitude. In one study, they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics.

One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.

Another leading researcher in this field, Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, tested the impact of various positive psychology interventions on 411 people, each compared with a control assignment of writing about early memories. When their week’s assignment was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness, participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.

The article goes on to suggest ways of making oneself more grateful: writing thank you notes, keeping a gratitude journal, and, yes, praying. When pastors and youth workers teach children to pray, they often use the mnemonic: teaspoon. It helps you remember to say thank you, sorry and please. You see, the Christian tradition demands not only an active prayer life but also one that includes a great focus on being thankful.

There’s been a great deal of research on the objective, scientifically demonstrable benefits of mediatation. That’s led to its repackaging and propogation as mindfullness, a technique that’s now used both as a form of medicine and as an aid to personal development. I wonder if we might see a similar body of research emerge around prayer.

He understood the darkness: on Leonard Cohen and depression


Author: Rama. Distributed under Creative Commons. Please follow hyperlink for more details

Depression is a very common illness yet very few people can convey what it is like. We just lost one of them.

Going to bed no longer frightens me. These days, I basically take that for granted. But when it first came about – after two years of not being true – it was the sweetest relief. The issue was not that I was afraid of the dark, nor was it that I was in physical pain. My tormentors were my own thoughts. During my waking hours they could sometimes be chased away with distractions. But when it came time to rest, I could no longer dodge their attacks. I just had to lie there and endure a beating from my own brain.

The thing about having depression is that it’s really hard to convey to anyone who’s not experienced the condition what it’s like. The underlying mechanics of the condition are poorly understood and the chains of causality that connects them to its symptoms are remote. Hence science does little to help. And relating depression to the things we all go through tends just to add to confusion. Not because it’s different but because it’s so similar. We all get sad and tired, so it seems almost silly to suggest that being sad and tired can destroy your life.

When my attempts to explain my illness would fall flat, I’d often wish I could just get out my phone, open up Spotify and play them some Leonard Cohen. If you’ve heard any of his songs, that won’t necessarily come as surprise. He could dramatise misery like a master, hence his songs are exactly the kind of thing that in ordinary language we call ‘depressing’. But it’s more than that. He wasn’t just writing sad songs. He was writing about a specific kind of sadness I recognised.

In a very deep interview with David Remnick, published in last month’s New Yorker, Cohen explains that:

I’ve dealt with depression ever since my adolescence…Moving into some periods, which were debilitating, when I found it hard to get off the couch, to periods when I was fully operative but the background noise of anguish still prevailed.

This comes through in his work. Sometimes his sadness is anchored to specific cause like a breakup or bereavement but more often it is free-floating and amorphous. And it blends, amplifies and is amplified by other emotions like desolation, jealousy and regret.

And it wasn’t just a general sense. While Cohen’s lyrics are notoriously cryptic, they contain very specific images that communicate the reality of depression with staggering clarity. An early song begins with the line:

Well I stepped into an avalanche,
it covered up my soul;

It is common for people with depression to talk about feeling like they are being ‘buried’. It captures a sense of being trapped and suffocated. But it could be mistaken for a calming process. The ground is quiet. It is where we lay bodies to rest. The image of an avalanche adds a sense of violence. You are simultaneously being interred and tossed about with such force that your lungs may explode.

[Note: Yes, avalanches causing lungs to explode is a(n alarmingly) real thing.]

However, the song that I really identified with was the Darkness from his 2012 album Old Ideas. That date is significant for my personal story because it meant its release coincided with my own period of depression.

In the first stanza we get a look at what Cohen had been dealing with during the composition of the album:

I caught the darkness
It was drinking from your cup
I caught the darkness
Drinking from your cup
I said is this contagious?
You said just drink it up

I take this to be addressed to his former manager, Kelley Lynch, who stole millions of dollars from Cohen embroiling him in a long and ultimately unsuccessful legal battle to recover it. She would eventually go to jail for harassing Cohen and his family.

Thereafter things move from being autobiographical to universal.

I got no future
I know my days are few
The present’s not that pleasant
Just a lot of things to do
I thought the past would last me
But the darkness got that too

What I recognised in this is a sense of how remorselessly corrosive depression can be. Like the xenomorph from Alien’s acidic blood it wrecks everything it touches – memories, loves, achievements – and when it’s gone through one it hits the next one and starts doing it all over again. Thus it can rapidly hollow out you and your life.

I used to love the rainbow
And I used to love the view
Another early morning, I’d pretend that it was you
But I caught the darkness baby
And I got it worse than you

The darkness alienates you from your work, your passions and the people around you. That in turn pulls you further into the darkness and allows it to do further damage. Things that once brought you joy – like ‘rainbows’ and ‘views’ – come to seem like they don’t matter. You would previously have turned to them to restore your happiness but they no longer have that effect. Hence you wind up,  stuck there, in the darkness.

Lest this all seems a bit, well, depressing, let me add a coda. In his profile of Cohen, Remnick concludes that he did eventually escape his depression. The mammoth tour he was forced to embark on in order to rebuild his finances after Lynch’s theft seems to have become a moment of valediction. And while mortality seems to have been the theme of both Cohen’s interview with Remnick and his most recent album both point to an admirable acceptance:

For some odd reason,” he went on, “I have all my marbles, so far. I have many resources, some cultivated on a personal level, but circumstantial, too: my daughter and her children live downstairs, and my son lives two blocks down the street. So I am extremely blessed. I have an assistant who is devoted and skillful. I have a friend like Bob and another friend or two who make my life very rich. So in a certain sense I’ve never had it better. . . . At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.

And he leaves behind an incredible body of work. If you have not heard his songs before, I cannot recommend them highly enough. I am aware that I may have made them sound foreboding, and yes they are phenomenally dark and weird and unsettling, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but they are also staggeringly beautiful and sprinkled with mischievous humour. Above all they are unique and powerful. Cohen has influenced myriad songwriters yet there was still only cryptic prophet quite like Leonard Cohen. Rest in Peace.


You might also be interested in

A few weeks ago, I made a case for Cohen winning the Nobel Prize instead of Dylan.

I’ve previously grappled with the difficulty of expressing what it is like to have depression in a post on comics that try to do just that.

The creator of the lobotomy was awarded a Nobel prize

The lobotomisation of Howard Dully by Dr Walter Freeman. The fact that Dully was only 12 at the time and the lack of any medical need has made this perhaps the most notorious example of the procedure.

Warning: this post contains potentially disturbing material.

In 1949, the Nobel Prize for medicine to two neurologists: Walter Rudolf Hess and Antonio Caetano de Abreu Freire Egas Moniz. Hess had discovered that different parts of the brain controlled different functions. Moniz was to find a deeply unfortunate application for this discovery. The official presentation speech included the following:

It occurred to Moniz that psychic morbid states accompanied by affective tension might be relieved by destroying the frontal lobes or their connections to other parts of the brain. On the basis of this idea Moniz gradually worked out an operative method whose purpose was to interrupt the lines of communication of the frontal lobes to the rest of the brain. Since these lines of communication run through the white matter, this operation was called frontal or prefrontal leucotomy. It was soon found that morbid conditions in which emotional tension was a dominating part of the pathological picture reacted very favorably to such operations. To this group of diseases belong, primarily, states of depression accompanied by fear and anxiety, obsessive neuroses, certain forms of persecution mania, and a considerable part of the most important and common of all mental diseases, schizophrenia: those cases, namely, in which the schizophrenic pattern of behaviour and the emotional condition is affectively charged to a high degree, as for instance in states of anguish or anxiety, refusal to take food, aggressiveness, and the like. Great subjective suffering and invalidism are characteristic of this group of diseases. Many of the diseased, especially within the schizophrenic group, are very difficult patients and are often dangerous to the people around them. When it is remembered that other methods of treatment have failed or have been followed by recurrence of the disease, it is easy to understand the immense importance of Moniz’ discovery for the problems of psychiatric treatment. As was expected, the results are best for the non-schizophrenic groups, that is to say, among those suffering from depression, obsessive neurosis, and the like, where the great majority of patients operated upon have recovered and become capable of working. Within the schizophrenic group, where the disintegration of the personality has often advanced very far, the prospects are less favourable, but even in this group quite a few cases can be released from the mental hospitals, some of them after having fully regained the capacity for work. In other less favourable cases, the nursing problem will be much simplified by the fact that the patient, after operation, can be kept in a «quiet» ward.

The results would be horrifying. The procedure was essentially jamming an ice pick through someone’s eye socket and into their brain. Unsurprisingly that produced disturbing results:

The lobotomy in many cases either turned them into a vegetable or simply made them more docile, passive, and easy to control—often much less intelligent as well. Many of the doctors took this as being “good progress” because they didn’t know how else to treat severely mentally ill patients. During the days of the lobotomy, unless it killed someone they considered all of the permanent brain damage be a negative side effect of the treatment. Many of the people who have asked for the Nobel Prize awarded to Moniz to be rescinded have complained that they or their family members not only weren’t cured but suffered permanent damage that changed who they were and, in some cases, made it impossible for the individual to live a normal life. In one case, a pregnant woman was given the procedure simply for headaches, and afterward she was never the same again. It was more than just being like a child; she could not feed or take care of herself at all—it took her years just to relearn basic tasks. In another case, a boy named Howard Dully was lobotomized by a stepmother who didn’t like him, simply for being a difficult child. Freeman seriously recommended it as a way to change the child’s personality, and Dully spent most of his life feeling like a part of himself was missing.

There’s a whole article on Dully’s case from the Guardian. The extra details are as horrifying as you would expect. Worst of all is the scale of all this. Tens of thousands of these procedures were performed. On one occasion Freeman performed 25 lobotomies in a single day. This becomes all the more disturbing when you realise that 14% of those he lobotomised died as a direct result of the operation.

That along with his reckless evangelism must make Freeman the principal villain of this story. Nonetheless, Moniz is not necessarily innocent here. He has been criticised for not properly following up the patients he operated on. There’ve also been calls for his Nobel prize to be rescinded.

Hat tip:

Care for yourself as you care for your neighbour

Earlier this week, I blogged about the damaging and potentially deadly effects of perfectionism.  That explored it as a psychological phenomenon but for some people it can have a theological dimension too.

Christianity is apparently pretty clear on human beings being imperfect. In Romans 3, the Apostle Paul writes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and the notion that all humans are impregnated with original sin is widespread. And it’s moral standards are exceedingly enacting: it’s not enough to do the right thing, you also have to do it for the right reason.

Perhaps surprisingly there is a tradition – particularly associated with John Wesley – that teaches otherwise. Wesley believed that Christians could with God’s help perfect themselves and that would mean:

…his one desire is the one design of his life, namely, “to do not his own will, but the will of Him that sent him.” His one intention at all times and in all places is, not to please Himself, but Him whom his soul loveth. He hath a single eye; and because his “eye is single, his whole body is full of light.” The whole is light, as when “the bright shining of a candle doth enlighten the house.” God reigns alone: all that is in the soul is holiness to the Lord. There is not a motion in his heart but is according to His will. Every thought that arises points to Him, and is in obedience to the law of Christ.

And the tree is known by its fruits. For as he loves God, “so he keeps His commandments”: not only some, or most of them, but ALL, from the least to the greatest. He is not content to “keep the whole law, and offend in one point,” but has, in all points, “a conscience void of offence, towards God, and towards man.” Whatever God has forbidden, he avoids; whatever God has enjoined, he does. “He runs the way of God’s commandments”: now He hath set his heart at liberty. It is his glory and joy so to do: it is his daily crown of rejoicing, to do the will of God on earth as it is done in heaven.

It is worth clarifying at this point that Wesley did not think that this was necessary for someone to be saved: God’s love was all that was necessary for that. However, that does not mean one can relax about not being ‘perfect.’ If you can be perfect then don’t you owe it the God who saved you to be perfect?

And that’s an idea that can eat away at people. There is a brand of Christian I’ve come across often working for the church or in the caring professions and generally with mental health problems. They are compulsively trying to do the right thing and mortified by falling short in any way. In short, they exhibit precisely the kind of problems that one associates with perfectionism.

My friend Ed Watson recently blogged about a similar issue drawing on his own experience of living in a residential faith community in which he observes thatthe people who most want to do good in the world are among the very worst at taking care of themselves.”

He goes onto unpick the theology underlying this mindset:

“Let’s look first at what it means to say that we stand in need of redemption. This is not, in my mind, the clarion call to self-flagellating guilt so typically thought of as part of the doctrine of Original Sin. It is rather the observation that we are finite and fallible creatures, capable of mistakes, easily worn out, and above all incapable of absolute self-sufficiency. This is not, of course, to say that this finitude is what we need to be redeemed from (after all, it is as finite and fallible creatures that we were created and loved): it is to say that we will always need external things to sustain us, whether it be food, the company of others, or the redemptive love of God. This is no cause for shame: it merely implies that when we get home on a Friday night, utterly exhausted, it is a part of our nature to require something beyond our own sense of duty or resilience to help us carry our work on joyfully into the next week.

Insofar as this is the case, the recognition that from time to time we need to take the time for proper self-care is not a denial of the command to put the needs of others before our own: it is rather the recognition of our own finitude. Here we find another meaning in the ‘as thyself’ in the command to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ (one which I’ve lifted from Karl Barth). We cannot love our neighbour as God loves them, for we are not God: we can only love them as we are capable of loving them, as ourselves. Thus to love others as God commands, we must be honest with ourselves about the limits of our own capacities.

There are times, then, when if we are to carry any cross at all, we have to stumble, rest, and allow others to help us along our way. We have to recognise our own limits and so learn to say no to jobs which take us over those limits. We have to learn to accept the loving gifts of others, whatever they may be.”

Now to be clear the kind of people whose problem is giving up too much for others are a definite rarity even among the kind of people I described at the outset: Christians working for the church or in caring roles. However, they do exist. And for their sake the notion of perfectibility must be handled carefully.  If it even possible – which I doubt – then it is incredibly difficult. It is a notion roughly equivalent to enlightenment in Eastern traditions but they also embrace the notion of reincarnation which gives one many lifetimes to achieve it. If you only have one, you are very unlikely to manage it. And as even Wesley acknowledged doing so would not free someone from ordinary human ‘infirmities’ like imperfect knowledge and judgement. To which we might add the need for mental and physical recuperation.

We probably will be imperfect but God still loves us. So hating oneself is an unnecessary tragedy.

Mental illnesses are also physical

We make a distinction between physical and mental illnesses, and too often that means making a distinction between illnesses that are ‘real’ and those that ‘are all ‘in someone’s head.’

Obviously this way of looking at the distinction doesn’t make sense but does the distinction itself? I’d argue that in a very meaningful sense mental illnesses are physical conditions.

In fact, distinguishing the mental and the physical in any context is dubious. What we call thoughts represent physical changes in the brain and humans only experience the physical world through our thought processes.

Even if we get past this philosophical problem there are still problems applying the divide to mental illnesses. Let’s take depression as an example. As the video below makes clear, while there is little consensus about what causes it, there does seem to be a physical component, be it a chemical imbalance in the brain or changes to its structure.

What is more it actually has physical symptoms. NHS choices lists the following examples:

  • moving or speaking more slowly than usual
  • change in appetite or weight (usually decreased, but sometimes increased)
  • constipation
  • unexplained aches and pains
  • lack of energy or lack of interest in sex (loss of libido)
  • changes to your menstrual cycle
  • disturbed sleep (for example, finding it hard to fall asleep at night or waking up very early in the morning)

As a final kicker there are physical conditions that have the same symptoms – both mental and physical – as depression. For example, it is quite normal for Doctors to administer a blood test to someone they suspect might have depression in order to rule out the possibility that they have anemia.

Which all begs the question, why there is an additional stigma around mental illnesses when they are ultimately not that different from other conditions.

Are night owls particuarly prone to depression?

PsyBlog reports a new study suggests it might:

In the new research on 59 participants, those who were confirmed night owls (preferring late to bed and late to rise) had lower integrity of the white matter in various areas of the brain (Rosenberg et al., 2014).

Lower integrity in these areas has been linked to depression and cognitive instability.

This research doesn’t tell us what the relationship is, but the authors guess that it may be related to ‘social jet-lag’.

Social jet-lag comes about because night owls are forced to live–as most of us are–like early risers. Work, school and other institutions mostly require early rising, which, for night owls, causes problems.

As night owls find it difficult to get to sleep early, they tend to carry large amounts of sleep debt. In other words, they’re exhausted all the time.

Ruby Wax: ‘your pets are happier than you’

A few years back at a talk for new students at Kellogg College, I turned round and looked at the students sitting behind me. And the thought that struck me? “Wow, that women looks remarkably like Ruby Wax.” It turns out it was. She was studying a Masters in mindfulness based cognitive therapy.

She gave a TED talk recently about mental illness. She’s a brilliant guide to the subject. She combines her skills as a comedian with the knowledge gained both from her studies and being a bipolar sufferer to produce a funny, enlightening and profound talk.

The story of my favourite blog post

depression xalt

My favourite blog post ever is Hyperbole and a half’s wonderful explanation of what it’s like to have depression. Salon carries an interview with its author Allie Brosh.

Having known several people who suffer from depression, I know it’s a hard thing to talk about — let alone share with the world. Why did you write about depression?

I thought a lot about this, and I think that putting it out there was sort of my way of owning it. You know, taking this scary thing, the worst thing that has ever happened to me, and just looking at it, and examining how absurd it is, was really liberating.

I’ve been working on [the post] for a very long time. Probably over a year. Once the depression got bad – my way of sorting through things and finding out how to progress during a difficult time in my life is really to think about it. I’m sort of a self-fixer — where if something’s wrong I just go into my head and just think about it and think about it until I find some way to either fix it or deal with it mentally, and in the process of that, I do a lot of writing, just to sort things out. So I’d written part one, and I thought it was over after I’d written that, like, “Oh yeah, that was my experience with depression and it’s done now!” That was not the case. Very much not the case.

What kind of feedback did you get?

I got a lot of feedback – depression is such an isolating experience, and because of that it’s sort of surprising to see how many people sort of feel the same way or identify with this totally isolating experience I went through. And yeah, I like seeing how helpful it was to people; there were some people who didn’t even realize they were depressed, and they got help because of it. People who wouldn’t have felt comfortable talking about it, were coming up and talking to me about it. So it was helpful, it was helpful to me to see – as it would be helpful for a reader to see this and think, I’m not alone, it was helpful for me to get that feedback from people.

Does stress get a bad press?

In the past few days I’ve twice come across presenting a novel argument about stress: it might not be as bad as you think. Instead they suggest that what matters is the way people respond to it.

First there was a BBC news article reporting that:

The findings of a ground-breaking study, published in the journal PLOS ONE today, suggest that brooding too much on negative events is the biggest predictor of depression and anxiety and determines the level of stress people experience. The research even suggests a person’s psychological response is a more important factor than what has actually happened to them.

A total of 32,827 people from 172 countries took part in the online stress test devised by the BBC’s Lab UK and psychologists at the University of Liverpool, making it the biggest study of its kind ever undertaken in the UK.

“We found that people who didn’t ruminate or blame themselves for their difficulties had much lower levels of depression and anxiety, even if they’d experienced many negative events in their lives,” says Peter Kinderman, who led the study and is a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Liverpool.

Then there was this TED talk by Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal with much the same argument:

I’m not qualified to comment on the quality of the research but I might ignorantly speculate that this is perhaps a case of correlation not equaling causation: the kind of person who responds to potentially stressful events by ruminating or worrying might be more prone to depression anyway.

Posts I wish I had written – the Sun gets burned by Buzzfeed

With the Daily Mail hogging the nation’s ire by slandering a dead WWII veteran, the Sun needed to do something pretty vile to get back onto the media naughty step. Well it managed it with its lurid front page claim that 1,200 people had been killed by ‘mental patients’ in the past decade.

This is a claim that has been pretty thoroughly smashed by a number of sources. However, for my money the clearest exposition of what is wrong with the Sun’s claim came from Buzzfeed:

In other words, almost half of those who committed the homicides that made up The Sun’s 1,200 figure were not “mental patients”, their illness cannot be shown to have caused the homicide, and for most of that group, the mental health system could have done nothing to prevent the death.

And even those that were classed as “patients” were not necessarily “high-risk” patients, as The Sun claimed – just anybody who had contact with the mental health system in the previous year. According to Paul Farmer, the Chief Executive of the mental health charity Mind, that’s a figure of around 1.2million people.

This post is impressively concise, written in language wholly devoid of pomposity and leaning more on images than text. In short, its strength is that it is written in much the same way that Buzzfeed would write about cats or Miley Cyrus.

Buzzfeed’s surprising political role has not gone without notice. In the run up to the last presidential election, New Republic wrote an article about “How Buzzfeed is remaking campaign coverage.” This was not a trend it wholly welcomed:

The site has also had some difficulty distinguishing between real stories and manufactured ones. In June, BuzzFeed reported that Romney failed to find the word for “doughnut” while pointing at “chocolate goodies,” and the post was all that political junkies on Twitter could talk about for hours (even if it was absurd: Romney clearly knows what a doughnut is). New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, hardly a Romney apologist, argued persuasively that the item was a perfect example of what’s wrong with a certain kind of political coverage. He suggested that BuzzFeed’s reporters weren’t thinking like journalists, who try to create stories and build context, but like opposition researchers, who are hungry to paint an unflattering picture of the opposing candidate. (Obama’s team could hardly do it better: Romney doesn’t know what doughnuts are because he’s an out-of-touch plutocrat.)

This is broadly speaking correct – as is most of what Chait says. However, it seems beside the point. Clearly it would be best if all news sources had the journalistic standards of the New Yorker. But given that there will always be a demand for populist news, I’d rather it came from Buzzfeed than from papers that have the gutter ethics and reactionary politics of the Sun.