By Bill Harkins, Senior Lecturer of Pastoral Theology and Care.
May 15, 2015—In my first post, I talked about the growing cohort of class alumni out in the world has been remarkably faithful in staying in touch with me and some of our outdoor adventures.
In the midst of all this, we are reminded that relationships, often the psychological equivalent of our external adventures, also have the power to participate in our well-being and healing. While this is a narrative for another day, it bears naming that trips such as these not only provide us with a chance to connect with nature, but also with each other. The Harvard Grant Study, for example, provides an unrivaled glimpse into a subset of humanity, following 268 male Harvard undergraduates from the classes of 1938-1940 (now well into their 90s) for 75 years, collecting data on various aspects of their lives at regular intervals. And the conclusions are universal. George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who directed the study from 1972 to 2004 and wrote a book about it, suggests that as life goes on, connections become even more important. The Grant Study provides strong support for the growing body of research that has linked social ties with longevity, lower stress levels, and improved overall well-being.
We are profoundly influenced by who, and what we love. Indeed, recent discoveries in neuroscience now give us the ability to “see” through technology what we have known instinctively for centuries—that what we practice, and with whom, changes us. And this in turn informs our resilience in profound ways. In their lively text A General Theory of Love, the authors write: “The specific people to whom we are attached provoke a portion of our everyday neural activity. In the vistas of imagination, the self is a proud ship of state—subject to the winds and tides of circumstance, certainly, but bristling with masts and spars and beams, fairly bursting with solidity. We would scarcely imagine that identity could be as fluid as the seas that supposed self rides upon.”
And, the authors suggest, “the reach of these limbic attractors”—those practices and relationships which form the daily warp and woof of our lives—“stretch beyond the moment. The sine qua non of a neural network is it penchant for strengthening neuronal patterns in direct proportion to their use.” Moreover, the more often one thinks or does or imagines a thing, “the more probable it is your mind will revisit it prior neuronal stopping point.”
This has profound implications for such practices as centering prayer, mindfulness meditation, exercise and outdoor adventures, and especially, worship of all kinds. It also suggests that who, and what we love, and how we “practice” these faithful contextual immersions, can add to or detract from our capacity for resilience. Our liturgies, our patterns of exercise and prayer, even those with whom we choose to spend our time—the contexts and the relationships they contain—contribute to that person we are always becoming, and to our ability to change, adapt, flourish—in short, to our capacity for resilience.
“In a relationship one mind revises another; one heart changes its partner. The astounding legacy of our combined status as mammals and neural beings is limbic revision: the power to remodel the emotional parts of people we love, as our Attractors activate certain limbic pathways, and the brain’s inexorable memory mechanism reinforces them. Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.” ¹
As I write, I am reminded of this poem called “Wild Geese,” by Wendell Berry. Berry suggests that we can learn so much by being present to the moment at hand and that, perhaps paradoxically this connects to all that has been, and will be:
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.
That evening by the fire, in Colorado, surrounded by dear friends, I was filled with gratitude for those harrowing journeys and adventures that are often occasions for transcendence, timeless memories, and yes, new perspectives. For adventures, that is, which nurture, heal, sustain, challenge, and provide moments of freedom, perspective, resilience, and grace.
It also revealed things about myself which are challenging—“harrowing” even—in both senses of the term. Rohr says…
“Your shadow is what you refuse to see about yourself, and what you do not want others to see. The more you have cultivated and protected a chosen persona, the more shadow work you will need to do…Be especially careful therefore of any idealized role or self-image, like that of minister, mother, doctor, nice person, professor, moral believer, or president of this or that. These are huge personas to live up to, and they trap many people in life-long delusions…Invariably when something upsets you, and you have a strong emotional reaction out of proportion to the moment, your shadow self has just been exposed…the cock of St. Peter has just crowed.”
We become whole, in other words, by deepening our awareness of these aspects of who we are. This happens so often in our Men in Ministry class, and in the men’s groups and Bible study group to which it has given birth out in the world. I am so very glad for this.
Now back home, in my study, I have a sense of the wholeness—the “integritas”—of the experiences of these classes, and of co-creating sacred space, each year, with my dear friends. In my heart there is quiet, and in my mind’s eye, the memories and the learnings are clear. What I need is here.
Bill Harkins lives in Atlanta, where he teaches pastoral theology at Columbia Theological Seminary, and maintains a private practice in pastoral counseling and marriage and family therapy at the Brookwood Center for Psychotherapy. Bill also serves as psychological health faculty for CREDO, an Episcopal wellness program for clergy. He is a graduate of Rhodes College, where he majored in neuroscience, and Vanderbilt University (MDiv, PhD). He is a priest associate at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip. Bill is married to Vicky, a hospital administrator, and they have two sons, with whom he delights in getting outdoors in creation. Justin is an environmental attorney in Montana, and Andrew is a first-year student at Emory Medical School. Bill is a veteran of 39 consecutive Peachtree Road Races and completed the Asheville Marathon, his tenth, in March of 2015.
Columbia Theological Seminary is committed to “educating imaginative, resilient leaders for God’s changing world.” As an educational institution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Columbia is a community of theological inquiry and formation for ministry in the service of the Church of Jesus Christ. Columbia offers seven graduate degree programs and dozens of courses and events as a resource for church professionals and lay people through the Center for Lifelong Learning. For more information, please visit www.ctsnet.edu.
¹ Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, Richard Lannon: A General Theory of Love, (New York: Vintage, 2001), pp 143-144