An Opportunity for Intimacy
Learning to Love
by Mary Carol Lewis
Reflection revealed deep enclaves of prejudice. There were still groups of people and certain individuals who were cordoned off in my mind, but the deepest prejudice I discovered was that against my own self.
The story I tell you today is the way I learned to love myself, accept myself with all my frailties and move forward with my passion unafraid:
I pictured myself as an attractive, capable, innocent young child and determined to learn to love that precious person.
One difficulty we have in loving ourselves is a long history of disappointment in our decisions and behavior.
I divided my complaints against myself into categories and dealt with each appropriately:
1) unfounded accusations by others or myself,
2) inability to perform adequately due to human limitations,
3) mistakes due to human frailties,
4) determined choices which risked and hurt myself and others.
I examined and dismissed the first group as a misreading by others of who I am and what I am about. I discovered that I had absorbed as true some of these misconceptions, so I had to examine each of them in the light of truth.
(For example, I have been told that I am selfish, so I must examine my habits over the past 20 years and ask my friends for their analysis.)
I decided to stop making these false accusations against myself and avoid those who continued to make them.
I accepted that as a human I cannot do everything -- even things people need very much -- because I am a human, not supernatural.
I learned to accept the fact that I will make mistakes just because every active person does. I determined to learn from my past mistakes and be proud of the times I had done my very best -- even if I wasn't completely successful.
These are the tough ones -- especially when my choices really hurt someone -- but I learned to forgive myself even for these (if God has chosen to forgive me and designed a miraculous plan to cleanse my life from guilt and shame, who am I not to forgive myself as well?).
And I ask forgiveness of those hurt by my actions.
A precious memory — which has kept me afloat through many emotional storms — is a vision of myself as a child in conversation with my loving father.
The father with whom I lived as a child was not especially interested in my or my welfare, so this is a vision I created a few years ago to try to understand my own value and begin to cherish myself and use wisdom in planning for my own well-being.
In this experience I am standing beside my big, strong father in his darkened library. He has put aside his books to listen to me, and his hand is resting gently on my shoulder as I am telling him my worries. He listens with concern in this warm, quiet, sacred room.
When I have revealed my chief concerns (his hand never flinching or moving from its gentle rest), he responds to my questions in his gentle, quiet way.
We will not be disturbed in this sanctuary, so we may talk at length. He asks me gentle, probing questions to help me understand the reality of the situation I present and to see it from a perspective beyond my immediate concerns.
He asks how I will feel about my choices when I am looking back on them five years from now. He asks me how I would have advised a beloved friend if she had been in this situation. He asks how I would explain my choices to those who love me (both those I will see today and those I will never see again).
He encourages me to examine my situation from their perspective (away from my pressing needs, in a cooler, more distant attitude).
Then he takes me in his loving arms and reminds me that I am precious — unique in all of creation.
He reminds me that even if no one notices me or appreciates who I am or what I am doing, I am a beautiful princess, a treasure in the annals of time, and beloved of my father.
I do not need to try to attract anyone. I do not need to find ways to please anyone or use energy to work for them.
My duty is to come to know myself and explore my own needs, learn what pleases me and how to develop and encourage the gifts that are lying within me.
Others, with whom I will spend many happy hours, will come into my world when I have fully developed myself. They will want to share in my joy!
He advises me that my time alone, and the vision within my soul when I am driven by outside projects -- is a time for growth.
This time is an opportunity for learning, growing, wisdom, experiencing the benefits of wise decisions and patience, and reaping the wonder and joy of self-knowledge. This is a time for me to discover my needs, identify my pleasures and rejoice in my discoveries.
So I tell my favorite friends to forget their assets: rugged good looks, wealth, bright eyes, IQ points, etc. And look instead at their loveable qualities, and begin to see themselves as a loving father might.
Hint: This list of loveable qualities includes the things we all have (but sometimes suppress) and those things which are unique to each of us (and for which our friends cherish us).
Mary Carol Lewis is pen name of a free lance writer in northern Virginia. Her articles have appeared often innewsletters for Single adults. Her most recent book is Season of Lovers which is available on this web site a at Amazon.com.
What Makes Love Last?
by Alan AtKisson
Inside the laboratories of the Family Formation Project at the University of Washington in Seattle--affectionately dubbed the Love Lab—research psychologists are putting our most cherished relationship theories under the scientific microscope. What they’re discovering is that much of what we regard as conventional wisdom is simply wrong.
"Almost none of our theory and practice [in marriage counseling] is founded on empirical scientific research," contends the Love Lab’s head, John Gottman, an award-winning research psychologist trained both as a therapist and a mathematician. Indeed, it is this lack of solid research, Gottman believes, that contributes to a discouraging statistic: for 50 percent of married couples who enter therapy, divorce is still the end result.
Long-lasting marriages are becoming increasingly rare. Not only do more than 50 percent of all first marriages in the United States end in divorce (make that 60 percent for repeat attempts), but fewer people are even bothering to tie the slippery knot in the first place. One fourth of Americans 18 or older—about 41 million people—have never married. In 1970, that figure was only one sixth.
But even while millions of couples march down the aisle only to pass through the therapist’s office and into divorce court, a quiet revolution is taking place when it comes to understanding how long-term love really works.
Gottman believes that, although relationship counseling has helped many people, much of it just doesn’t work. Not satisfied with warm and fuzzy ideas about how to "get the love you want," Gottman is scouting for numbers, data, proof—and he’s finding it.
For the past twenty years, in a laboratory equipped with video cameras, EKGs, and an array of custom-designed instruments, Gottman and his colleagues have been intensely observing what happens when couples interact. He watches them talk. He watches them fight. He watches them hash out problems and reaffirm their love. He records facial expressions and self-reported emotions, heart rhythms and blood chemistry. He tests urine, memories and couples’ ability to interpret each other’s emotional cues. Then he pours his data, like so many puzzle pieces, into a computer. The resulting picture, he says, is so clear and detailed its like "a CAT scan of a living relationship." [See "Putting Love to the Test" elsewhere in this issue.]
What Gottman and his colleagues have discovered—and summarized for popular audiences in a book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail (Simon & Schuster)—is mind-boggling in its very simplicity. His conclusion: Couples who stay together are…well…nice to each other more often than not. "[S]atisfied couples," claims Gottman, "maintained a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative moments" in their relationship. Couples heading for divorce, on the other hand, allow that ratio to slip below one-to-one.
If it ended there, Gottman’s research might remain just an interesting footnote. But for him and his colleagues, this discovery is just the beginning. In fact, Gottman’s novel and methodical approach to marriage research is threatening to turn much of current relationship therapy on its head.
He contends that many aspects of a relationship often considered critical to long-term success—how intensely people fight; whether they face conflict or avoid it; how well they solve problems; how compatible they are socially, financially, even sexually—are less important than people (including therapists) tend to think. In fact, Gottman believes, none of these things matter to a loving relationship’s longevity as much as maintaining that crucial ratio of five to one.
If it’s hard to believe that the longevity of your relationship depends primarily on your being five times as nice as you are nasty to each other, some of Gottman’s other conclusions may be even more surprising. For example:
The Three Varieties of Marriage
In person, Gottman is a fast-talking, restless intellect, clearly in love with his work. Now in his late forties and seven years into a second marriage (to psychologist Julie Schwartz), he seems very satisfied. Yet, in his book, he sheds the mantle of guru in the first sentence: "My personal life has not been a trail of great wisdom in understanding relationships," he says. "My expertise is in the scientific observation of couples."
Gottman began developing this expertise some twenty years ago, when a troubled couple who came to him for help didn’t respond well to conventional therapy. In frustration, Gottman suggested that they try videotaping the sessions. "Both the couple and I were astonished by the vividness and clarity on the tape of the pattern of criticism, contempt, and defensiveness they repeatedly fell into," he recalls. "It shocked them into working harder…[and] it gave me my life’s work."
Struck by the power of impartial observation, Gottman became fascinated with research. His goal: to systematically describe the differences between happy and unhappy couples, and from those observations develop a scientific theory capable of predicting marital success. This seemed a daunting task, both because "marriage is so subjective" and because "personality theory, in psychology, has been a failure at predicting anything."
The result of Gottman’s passion is a veritable mountain of data: tens of thousands of observations involving thousands of couples, gathered by the Love Lab’s researchers and stored in its computer data-bases. The geography of that mountain reveals a surprising pattern: Successful marriages come in not one but three different varieties, largely determined by how a couple handles their inevitable disagreements. Gottman calls these three types of stable marriages validating, volatile and conflict-avoiding.
Validating couples are what most people (including most therapists) have in mind when they think of a "good marriage." Even when these couples don’t agree, they "still let their partner know that they consider his or her opinions and emotions valid." They "compromise often and calmly work out their problems to mutual satisfaction as they arise." And when they fight, they know how to listen, acknowledge their differences, and negotiate agreement without screaming at each other. "These couples," Gottman notes, "Look and sound a lot like two psychotherapists engaging in a dialogue."
But where modern therapy often goes wrong, says Gottman, is in assuming that this is the only way a healthy relationship can work—and trying to force all couples into the validating mold. While "viewing this style of marriage as the ideal has simplified the careers of marital therapists," it hasn’t necessarily helped their clients, he says, who may fall into the other two types of stable pattern.
Volatile couples, in contrast to validating ones, thrive on unfiltered emotional intensity. Their relationships are full of angry growls and passionate sighs, sudden ruptures and romantic reconciliations. They may fight bitterly (and even unfairly), and they may seem destined for divorce to anyone watching them squabble. But Gottman’s data indicate that this pessimism is often misplaced: These couples will stay together if "for every nasty swipe, there are five caresses." In fact, "the passion and relish with which they fight seems to fuel their positive interactions even more." Such couples are more romantic and affectionate than most—but they are also more vulnerable to a decay in that all-important five-to-one ratio (and at their worst, to violence). Trying to change the style of their relationship not only isn’t necessary, Gottman says, it probably won’t work.
Nor will conflict-avoiding couples, the third type of stable marriage, necessarily benefit from an increase in their emotional expression, he says. Gottman likens such unions to "the placid waters of a summer lake," where neither partner wants to make waves. They keep the peace and minimize argument by constantly agreeing to disagree. "In these relationships, solving a problem usually means ignoring the difference, one partner agreeing to act more like the other… or most often just letting time take its course." The universal five-to-one ratio must still be present for the couple to stay together, but it gets translated into a much smaller number of swipes and caresses (which are also less intensely expressed). This restrained style may seem stifling to some, but the couple themselves can experience it as a peaceful contentment.
Things get more complicated when the marriage is "mixed"—when, say, a volatile person marries someone who prefers to minimize conflict. But Gottman suggests that, even in these cases, "it may be possible to borrow from each marital style and create a viable mixed style." The most difficult hurdle faced by couples with incompatible fighting styles lies in confronting that core difference and negotiating which style (or combination of styles) they will use. If they can’t resolve that primary conflict, it may be impossible to tip the overall balance of their relational life in the direction of five-to-one.
The important thing here is to find a compatible fighting style—not to stop fighting altogether. Gottman is convinced that the "one" in that ratio is just as important as the "five": "What may lead to temporary misery in a marriage—disagreement and anger—may be healthy for it in the long run." Negativity acts as the predator in the ecosystem of a relationship, says Gottman. It’s the lion that feeds on the weakest antelopes and makes the herd stronger. Couples who never disagree at all may start out happier than others, but without some conflict to resolve their differences, their marriages may soon veer toward divorce because their "ecosystem" is out of balance.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Even the most stable relationship of any style can fall apart, and Gottman and company have observed an all-too-predictable pattern in their decline and fall. He likens the process to a cascade—a tumble down the rapids—that starts with the arrival of a dangerous quartet of behaviors. So destructive is their effect on happiness in a relationship, in fact, that he calls these behaviors "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."
The first horseman is criticism: attacking someone’s personality or character rather than making some specific complaint about his or her behavior. The difference between saying, "I wish you had taken care of that bill" (a healthy and specific complaint) and "You never get the bills paid on time!" (a generalizing and blaming attack) is very significant to the listener. Criticism often engenders criticism in return and sets the stage for the second horseman: contempt.
"What separates contempt from criticism," explains Gottman, "is the intention to insult and psychologically abuse your partner." Negative thoughts about the other come out in subtle put-downs, hostile jokes, mocking facial expressions, and name-calling ("You are such an idiot around money"). By now the positive qualities that attracted you to this person seem long ago and far away, and instead of trying to build intimacy, you’re ushering in the third horseman.
Defensiveness comes on the heels of contempt as a seemingly reasonable response to attack—but it only makes things worse. By denying responsibility, making excuses, whining, tossing back counter-attacks, and other strategies ("How come I’m the one who always pays the bill?!"), you just accelerate your speed down river. Gottman also warns that it’s possible to skip straight to the third horseman by being oversensitive about legitimate complaints.
Once stonewalling (the fourth horseman) shows up, things are looking bleak. Stonewallers simply stop communicating, refusing to respond even in self-defense. Of course, all these "horsemen" drop in on couples once in a while. But when a partner habitually shuts down and withdraws, the final rapids of negativity can quickly propel the marriage through whirlpools of hopelessness, isolation and loneliness over the waterfall of divorce. Gottman calls this fall the "Distance and Isolation Cascade." With the arrival of the fourth horseman, one or both partners is thinking negative thoughts about his or her counterpart most of the time, and the couple’s minds—as well as their bodies—are in a perpetual state of defensive red alert.
The stress of conflict eventually sends blood pressure, heart rate, and adrenaline into the red zone—a phenomenon Gottman calls flooding. "The body of someone who feels flooded," he writes, "is a confused jumble of signals. It may be hard to breathe…Muscles tense up and stay tensed. The heart beats fast, and it may seem to beat harder." Emotionally, the flooded person may feel a range of emotions, from fear to anger to confusion.
The bottom line is that flooding is physically uncomfortable, and stonewalling becomes an attempt to escape that discomfort. When flooding becomes chronic, stonewalling can become chronic, too. Eighty-five percent of the time the stonewaller (among heterosexual couples) is the man. The reason for this gender discrepancy is one of many physiological phenomena that Gottman sees as critical to understanding why relationships go sour, and what people can do to fix them.
Though flooding happens to both men and women, it affects men more quickly, more intensely, and for a longer period of time. "Men tend to have shorter fuses and longer-lasting explosions than women," says Gottman. Numerous observations in the laboratory have shown that it often takes mere criticism to set men off, whereas women require something at least on the level of contempt. The reasons for this are left to speculation. "Probably this difference in wiring has evolutionary survival benefits," Gottman conjectures. An added sensitivity to threats may have kept males alert and ready to repel attacks on their families, he suggests, while women calmed down more quickly so they could soothe the children.
Whatever its origin, this ancient biological difference creates havoc in contemporary male-female relationships, because men are also "more tuned in to the internal physiological environment than women," Gottman reports. (For example, men are better at tapping along with their heartbeat.) Men’s bodily sensitivity translates into greater physical discomfort during conflict. In short, arguing hurts. The result: "Men are more likely to withdraw emotionally when their bodies are telling them they’re upset." Meanwhile, "when men withdraw, women get upset, and they pursue [the issue]"—which gets men more upset.
Here is where physiology meets sociology. Men, says Gottman, need to rely on physiological cues to know how they’re feeling. Women, in contrast, rely on social cues, such as what’s happening in the conversation.
In addition, men are trained since early childhood not to build intimacy with others, while women "are given intense schooling on the subject" from an equally early age. Socially, the genders are almost totally segregated (in terms of their own choices of friendships and playmates) from age seven until early adulthood. Indeed, it would seem that cross-gender relationships are set up to fail. "In fact," Gottman writes, "our upbringing couldn’t be a worse training ground for a successful marriage."
Yet the challenge is far from insurmountable, as millions of marriages prove. In fact, Gottman’s research reveals that "by and large, in happy marriages there are no gender differences in emotional expression!" In these marriages, men are just as likely to share intimate emotions as their partners (indeed they may be more likely to reveal personal information about themselves). However, in unhappy marriages, "all the gender differences we’ve been talking about emerge"—feeding a vicious cycle that, once established, is hard to break.
Couples who routinely let the Four Horsemen ransack their relationships face enormous physical and psychological consequences. Gottman’s studies show that chronic flooding and negativity not only make such couples more likely to get sick, they also make it very difficult for couples to change how they relate. When your heart is beating rapidly and your veins are constricting in your arms and legs (another revolutionary stress response), it’s hard to think fresh, clear thoughts about how you’re communicating. Nor can the brain process new information very well. Instead, the flooded person relies on "over-learned responses"—old relationship habits that probably just fan the flames.
"We have evidence that husbands in unhappy marriages are terrible at reading their wives’ nonverbal behavior. But they’re great at reading other people’s nonverbal behavior. In other words, they have the social skills, but they aren’t using them." The problem isn’t a lack of skill; it’s the overwhelming feelings experienced in the cycle of negativity. Chronic flooding short-circuits a couple’s basic listening and empathy skills, and it undermines the one thing that can turn back the Four Horsemen: the repair attempt.
Heading Off Disaster
Repair attempts are a kind of "meta-communication"—a way of talking about how you’re communicating with each other. "Can we please stay on the subject?" "That was a rude thing to say." "We’re not talking about your father!" "I don’t think you’re listening to me." Such statements, even when delivered in a grouchy or complaining tone, are efforts to interrupt the cycle of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling and to bring the conversation back on track.
"In stable relationships," explains Gottman, "the other person will respond favorably: ‘All right, all right. Finish.’ The agreement isn’t made very nicely. But it does stop the person. They listen, they accept the repair attempt, and they actually change" the way they’re relating.
Repair attempts are "really critical," says Gottman, because "everybody screws up. Everybody gets irritated, defensive, contemptuous. People insult one another," especially their spouses. Repair attempts are a way of saying "we’ve got to fix this before it slides any deeper into the morass." Even people in bad marriages make repair attempts; the problem is, they get ignored.
Training people to receive repair attempts favorably—even in the middle of a heated argument—is one of the new frontiers in relationship therapy. According to Gottman, "Even when things are going badly, you’ve got to focus not on the negativity but on the repair attempt. That’s what couples do in happy marriages."
He’s convinced that such skills can be taught: One colleague has even devised a set of flash cards with a variety of repair attempts on them, ranging from "I know I’ve been a terrible jerk, but can we take this from the top?" to "I’m really too upset to listen right now." Even in mid-tempest, couples can use them to practice giving and receiving messages about how they’re communicating.
Breaking the four Horsemen cycle is critical, says Gottman, because "the more time [couples] spend in that negative perceptual state, the more likely they are to start making long-lasting attributions about this partnership as being negative." Such couples begin rewriting the story of how they met, fell in love, made commitments. Warm memories about how "we were so crazy about each other" get replaced with "I was crazy to marry him/her." And once the story of the marriage has been infected with negativity, the motivation to work on its repair declines. Divorce becomes more likely (and predictable—consider that 94 percent accuracy rate in the oral history study).
Of course, not all relationships can, or should be saved. Some couples are trapped in violent relationships, which "are in a class by themselves." Others may suffer a fundamental difference in their preferred style—validating, volatile or conflict-avoidant—that leaves them stuck in chronic flooding. With hard work, some of these marriages can be saved; trying to save others, however, may do more harm than good.
In the end, the hope for repairing even a broken relationship is to be found, as usual, in the courage and effort people are willing to invest in their own growth and change. "The hardest thing to do," says Gottman, "is to get back to the fundamentals that really make you happy." The Four Horsemen will carry them far from the fundamentals of affection, humor, appreciation, and respect. Couples who succeed cultivate these qualities like gardeners. They also cultivate an affirming story of their lives together, understanding that that is the soil from which everything else grows.
The work may be a continuous challenge, but the harvest is an enormous blessing: the joy in being truly known and loved, and in knowing how to love.ª
Articles reprinted by permission from author. Alan AtKisson is a consultant, singer/songwriter, and the author of Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist’s World,published by www.Chelseagreen.com in 1999. Order from www.Amazon.com. This book takes you on a guided tour from the prophets of civilizational collapse to the process of global transformation.
Putting Love to the Test
by Alan AtKisson
The Studio apartment is tiny, but it affords a great view of Seattle’s Portage Bay. The ambiance is that of a dorm room tastefully furnished in late `80s Sears, Roebuck. A cute kitchen table invites you to the window. A Monet print graces one wall. Oh, and three video cameras—suspended from the ceiling like single-eyed bats—follow your every move.
Welcome to the "Love Lab," wherein Professor John Gottman and a revolving crew of students and researchers monitor the emotions, behaviors, and hormones of married couples. Today, lab coordinator Jim Coan—a calm, clear-eyed, pony-tailed young man in Birkenstocks who started out as a student volunteer three years ago—is giving me the tour.
The Love Lab is actually two labs. I have entered through the "Apartment Lab," whose weekly routine Coan describes: A volunteer couple arrives on a Sunday morning, prepared to spend the day being intensely observed (for which they are modestly compensated). Special microphones record every sound they make; videotape captures every subtle gesture. The only true privacy is found in the bathroom, but even there science has a presence: A cooler by the toilet has two little urine collection bottles, today marked "Bill" and "Jeannie."
At the end of a relaxed day doing whatever they like (and being watched doing it), the couple welcomes a house guest—a psychologist who listens to the story of how they met, fell in love, and began building a life together. This "oral history," which most people greatly enjoy telling, will later be closely scrutinized: Gottman and company have learned that how fondly a couple remembers this story can predict whether they will stay together or divorce.
Then, after a sleep-over on the Lab’s hide-a-bed (cameras and microphones off) and a blood sample, a technician takes the pair out for breakfast, gives them their check, and sends them on their way. The videotapes will later by analyzed in voluminous detail. Every affectionate gesture, sarcastic jab, or angry dispute will be recorded and categorized using Gottman’s "specific affect" emotional coding system (the lab folks call it SPAFF for short). At the same time, the couple’s blood and urine will be sent to another lab and tested for stress hormone levels. Finally, in four years or so (depending on the study), the lab will follow up with the couple to see if they’re still together—and take another look at the data they gathered to see if a predictable pattern can be discerned.
Other couples who visit the Family Formation Project, as the "Love Lab" is more formally known, merely pass the pleasant apartment on their way to a less cozy destination: the "Fixed Lab." Here they are seated ("fixed") in plain wooden chairs and hooked up with a dizzying array of instruments—EKG electrodes, finger-pulse detectors, and skin galvanometers ("a fancy word for sweat detectors," says Coan). A thick black spring stretched across their chests registers breathing. Their chair itself is a "jiggleometer," recording every fidget and tremor.
A "facilitator" first interviews the pair about what issues cause conflict in their marriage, then gets them talking about the most contentious ones. Video cameras focus on the couple’s faces and chests. Computers track the complex streams of data coming in through the sensors and displays them on a color monitor in a rainbow of blips and graphs.
After fifteen minutes of surprisingly "normal" and often emotional conversation, the couple is stopped by the facilitator, who plays back the videotape for them. While watching, each partner rates his or her own emotional state at every moment during the conversation, using a big black dial with a scale running from "extremely negative" through "neutral" to "extremely positive." Then the pair watch the tape again, this time in an attempt to similarly judge their partner’s emotional state (with widely varying levels of success).
Later, students trained by Coan will review the tape using a specially designed dial and the SPAFF coding system, to chart the feelings being displayed. It’s eerie to see the range of human emotional expression represented on a high-tech instrument panel: disgust, contempt, belligerence, domination, criticism, anger, tension, tense humor ("very popular, that one," Coan tells me), defensiveness, whining, sadness, stonewalling, interest, validation, affection, humor, joy and positive or negative surprise (students made Gottman aware of the two different kinds). In the middle is a neutral setting for when couples are merely exchanging information without noticeable emotion.
Back in the apartment lab, Coan shows me videos of those who have agreed to be involved with the media. Two young parents from Houston discuss the stress involved in caring for their new baby, and Coan gives me the play-by-play: "He’s being very defensive here" or "See that deep sigh? She’s feeling sad now" or "Now that was a nice validation."
Coan says that most people seem to enjoy the lab experience—and even get some benefit from it (though it’s not meant to be therapeutic). Amazingly, even with sensors attached to their ears and fingers and chests, the couples seem to forget that they’re being watched. They giggle and cry and manage to create a genuine closeness while fixed under a physiological microscope.
"It’s a real privilege to work here," Coan says thoughtfully. Even in a short visit, I feel it too. The observation of intimacy, both its joy and its pain, is more than just scientific video voyeurism. It’s as though the love these couples are trying so devotedly to share with each other seeps out of the box, a gift to the watchers.¤
The Physics of God
The Correlation of Ideas Between New Physics and the Existence of God
by Larry Johnson
History has witnessed a very uneasy relationship between science and the Christian religion. The trial of Galileo is a ready example of this tension at one of its very worst moments. Perhaps one important reason that science and organized Christianity have always had such a tenuous relationship is the fact that both camps are in the business of explaining why things are the way they are. Ultimately, when this concept filters down to ordinary people, there is an implied sense of control that goes with "authoring" the prevailing explanation.
This "gulf" between the two views can really be reduced to one’s interpretation of the role of God in relation to physical laws. It has traditionally been the Church’s view that God directly intervenes with, and supercedes, natural law. The Church would typically say that God does most of his important work through "miracles" in which natural physical laws are suspended. The physicist would argue that there is no observable evidence that God works this way; in fact, there is no observable evidence (in the experimental sense) of God period. While this is a gross simplification of a very complex subject, it does begin to give some context to the relative positions that each camp has historically taken.
The "new" physics of the 20th century has dramatically convoluted the debate between religion and science because it challenges the most basic assumptions that each side has used to create their particular cases. Several new physics paradigms developed in this century are forcing both scientist and theologians alike "back to the drawing board," literally, to make some sense out of more traditional views. These paradigms include the concept of relativity championed by Albert Einstein, and quantum mechanics forwarded by Neils Boer, David Boem and others.
Another area that has more recently begun to have an impact on the debate is chaos theory. These "discoveries" so radically challenged the very constructs we use to define everyday reality that they threaten to unraveled the very fabric of how we see the world. Quantum mechanics in particular, is so "weird" and counter-intuitive in relationship to the process of how our senses give us meaning that most non-scientists (that is, ordinary folks like us) find the concepts very uncomfortable and simply leave them alone. This is too bad, because these new discoveries definitely enliven the debate between religion and science and force all of us to re-think our individual concepts of God and God-image.
For instance, Mark 11:23 finds Jesus telling his disciples that that if they have enough faith, they can move a mountain. In the traditional church/science debate, this statement would specifically require that God directly intervene and suspend some very real and well-defined physical laws. Modern Chaos theory teaches that an event as tiny as a butterfly moving from one leaf to another can cause the Earth’s orbit to change millions of miles if given the vast amount of time that this impact would require. Now we have a new, very interesting interpretation. Both camps "assumed" that the movement of the mountain had to be instant, or at least in a human time frame. When a new paradigm is used and "instantaneous" is removed as a requirement, Jesus’ statement fits neatly within the context of modern physics! Many of the Biblical events that we traditionally thought required interference with physical laws, can be explained using the new understanding of physics.
Rediscovered Attributes of God
Quantum mechanics offers even more of these "interesting interpretations" for explaining attributes of God. First of all, quantum mechanics is a well proven field of physics that can no longer be considered theoretical. It has provided such practical discoveries as the transistor, LASERS, radar and the electron microscope. But even though it is a mainstream discipline, some of the constructs it supports seem like they are better suited for science fiction.
The uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics tells us that behavior of sub-atomic particles does not follow any of the "common-sense" laws that we use to construct our perceived reality. In the "real world" anything that moves has a starting point, a path it follows and an ending point where it comes to rest. Quantum sub-atomic objects do not subscribe to these laws. When measured, they appear to leap here and there, in a seemingly random fashion, without any measurable path. They are described as just "popping-up" out of nowhere. They also seem to go from one place to another instantly, without bothering to move through the space between the two places.
Perhaps the most interesting attribute of sub-atomic particles that has been discovered to date, is that any event that affects one quantum object affects them all. In a classic experiment, two photons were fired out of an instrument simultaneously, 180 degrees apart. Now because photons travel at the speed of light, and nothing can go faster than the speed of light, there was no way for one photon to signal the other. Yet, the polarization of one directly effected the other. The key question was: how can one photon seem to instantaneously "know" this information about the other one?
Wholeness in the Universe
Physicists have concluded that there is a very real force of "wholeness" in the universe that pervades all things. This concept has been given the name "non-locality" to imply that one cannot derive physical laws from the part without looking at the whole. Some of the more interesting conclusions about quantum mechanics that scientists have extrapolated from this non-locality principle include:
1. Each sub-atomic particle in the entire universe affects and is affected by all other sub-atomic particles,
2. Future behavior of sub-atomic particles affects the past.
3. Each sub-atomic particle is a hologram of the entire universe and contains a replica of all probabilities.
4. There is a force of unity in the universe that is a real physical phenomenon.
When we start talking about universal unity, wholeness, omniscience, omnipotence, and words like these, we are getting very close to attributes we traditionally assign to God. Obviously, this kind of thinking radically blurs the distinctions between religion and science. Just as quantum mechanics have forced many scientists to change their concepts about the nature of scientific inquiry, so it has forced many Christians to examine their God image. A lot of Christians who have taken the trouble to understand the new physics have found that they needed to expand their notions of "what God is" to include this much richer, broader view.
Research on the Power of Prayer
The power and impact of prayer is another area that has recently received some enlightening research. The Spindrift Foundation was interested in two simple questions; does prayer really work, and if so, how? The foundation knew that good tight experimental control was an absolute necessity if any of the findings were to have any validity in the scientific community. To completely eliminate human bias, they used the germination rates of grass seeds as the target of the prayers. Because they could have seed trays side by side with the exact same physical conditions, they were able to introduce very stringent statistical controls. The people asked to pray for the seeds had absolutely no physical contract with them. The Spindrift Foundation found that prayer did indeed work, and there was a statistically significantly higher rate of germination for the seeds that had been prayed for.
The foundation also found that prayer was much more effective on seeds that had been stressed with salt water, than on seeds that had only clear water.
While geographic distance did not have any statistical impact as a variable, more interestingly, the type of prayer offered did. It was found that the more general the prayer, the more impact it has on the seeds. In other words, a prayer such as "thy will be done" had more impact than one that pleaded that the seed be germinated. This is fascinating research. It is very comforting to know that not only are scientists proving that there really is power in prayer, but they are also proving that it works best when you need it most.
Another area of the new physics that is having a major impact on the debate between science and Christianity centers around a concept called the Antropic Principle. This term was coined by a British physicist name Paul Dirac, and it simply means that the conditions necessary to support human life in the universe are so improbable that the only rational answer is divine intervention that "planned" our existence. One of the more interesting aspects of the antropic principle is that it forces the traditional creationist/evolution debate to do a complete 180-degree turnaround. Now it is Christians that are using the prevailing "big bang" cosmology to prove the existence of God. The idea behind the antropic principal is that there are a large number of conditions that have to be absolutely right to support human beings. These include things such as the age of the universe (stars have to be the right age before life can be sustained), the velocity of light, the relative strength of gravity, the nuclear energy levels of atoms such as oxygen and carbon, and so on. Some conditions are extremely sensitive in that just a tiny change in their value would absolutely shut down any chance of human life. For instance, if the expansion rate of the universe were changed by only one part in ten to the fifty fifth power (that’s multiplying ten times ten times ten, fifty five times), there absolutely could not be human life as we know it. When all the probabilities are totaled up, there is only one chance in one to the ten billionth power that human life can exist. For Christians and physicists that subscribe to the Antropic Principle, that’s simply too low a probability for life to have evolved without the support of a divine creator.
The Existence of Someone Special
My own investigation into the new physics has forced me to radically address my personal Christian beliefs in some very challenging ways. I feel that my very limited excursions into the esoteric world of quantum mechanics have left me with the conclusion that I had created a God image that was too small and too much like me. Rather than embracing a force of wholeness that pervades all reality as quantum mechanics suggests, I was content with a fuzzy image of some kind of benevolent old man that directly intervened with nature like cosmic puppeteer. Being a product of a culture that emphasizes having everything instantly and completely under control, I envisioned God that was more associated with "doing" than "being."
I see now that the "everyday senses" that I use to take in information about the world are no more qualified to lead me to extrapolations about the nature of God than they are able to teach me about the nature of sub-atomic physics. Maybe, the entire argument between science and religion will become irrelevant at a certain point. If we move out far enough into either side, we are finally and ultimately pervaded with mystery.
For me, the greatest mystery of all is why am I here? If God intervened against probabilities too great to imagine in order to create a universe that purposely evolved to support people, He must have envisioned me at least fifteen billion years ago when the universe was created. Why would God go to all that trouble just for my fragile humanity? That kind of love totally overloads my ability to find meaning and forces me once again into the realm of mystery. Why would God take that kind of chance on me? This line of questioning leads me to a final, inescapable conclusion. God must see potential in me that I can’t see in myself. The same God that created a sub-atomic reality based upon the probabilities of chance, created human freedom that also is based upon chance, chance that we will discover what we were really created to be. Just as Noah had his rainbow as a sign that there would be no more catastrophic floods, I have my own sign from God that his love is older and greater than the universe itself.
When I’m in the country, I look up at a clear night sky, and am greeted by a billion stars. This immediately engulfs me in the grand mystery of it all. I realize in some deep, unfathomable way, that I am truly loved.
This article first appeared in the October 1997 edition of the Singles Network Newsletter.
Living with Loss
by Ginger Sullivan Schneider
Loss. Many of us prefer not to think about it, hoping it will go away with time. To think about our losses would mean that we risk an encounter with empty pain.
So instead, we vigorously – even obsessively – pursue joy, happiness, liberty, pleasure or some other desired outcome. We set our sights on alternative goals and fashion new courses to get there. And, even if we aren’t the goal-oriented type and prefer living moment-to-moment, we will often be surprised to find, working beneath our daily quests, a fervent wish to avoid the sting of our losses, the pain of our missing pieces.
Loss visited me suddenly and at an early age. I had just ventured down the halls of graduate school cresting over the horizon of adolescence when I received a life-changing phone call – my father, whom I loved dearly, had been killed in a hunting accident. I recall it as if it happened yesterday. After putting down the receiver, I remember standing in my apartment alone, numb, thinking, "What do I do now?"
Now, after many years of struggle and reflection, I still ask myself that same question – often. I have learned to live without my father, yet a missing piece leaves a hole that always will remain.
Loss can be a powerful teacher. I share with you some of its lessons:
Life is change; change brings loss, and loss brings pain. Loss is everywhere. It is the one inevitable principle that cuts through all class, race, age, and gender.
We cannot be alive and not lose. In fact, surviving and thriving in life demands that we bond or form alliances; however, these alliances are never permanent.
We lose things to which we have been connected; we lose when we are threatened with the loss of something we love; and, we lose when we realize that that which we have always wanted, we will never have.
Grief is the emotional response to loss …it is all the accompanying feelings that come when our heart is being ripped wide open: feelings such as anger, sadness, hurt, disappointment, abandonment, rejection and despair. To enter life and not experience change and the resulting loss is impossible.
Time does not heal. You may have been told, "just give it time." But, time does not take grief away; rather, it enables us to defend against venting our grief feelings. As an emotion, grief is an active energy in our body that needs to be expressed or moved out. Grief that is swallowed or denied stays in the body and accumulates. Time does allow one to develop sophisticated means of denying the loss and its pain, but it does not take the pain away.
There is no time in the heart. When our grief accumulates, it is as if we are carrying a weight around wherever we go. Our bodies and hearts remember emotional pain our mind has forgotten. In other words, unresolved grief from losses of years past are active inside of us, waiting to be felt again at any given moment…as if we were five again or fifteen or twenty-five. Furthermore, each new loss taps the unresolved pain of old losses, often causing us to feel overwhelmed and confused.
What we don’t work out, we will act out. Unresolved loss that is stored inside will often dictate how we currently behave. For instance, anxiety and compulsivity, powerlessness, hyper-independence, abusiveness to self or others, addictions, fear of intimacy, anger, excessive fears and poor concentration are just a few of the symptoms. Too often we fail to connect such symptoms to their true source – an unresolved loss, causing us to stay stuck emotionally, relationally and developmentally – repeating the same patterns in our life choices and relationships.
Learning to grieve is essential to living effectively and losing freely. A wise friend once told me that we can only love as deeply as we can grieve. Grief is the healing feeling. When we are willing to engage our inner world and feel our losses, we begin our journey toward healing and recovery.
And, unfortunately, the only way out is through. We can’t skip the pain, go around it, move away from it or marry again to avoid it. We must be willing to face it and feel it. That is how we become healed. That is how we become free to love again.
In choosing to grieve, we open ourselves to an opportunity for growth. Although I never would have asked for it, loss is a brutal gift. It places us smack in a decisive moment: we can either close up further and say, "no thanks, I choose to never love again because I cannot risk feeling this pain" or we can allow loss to show us how to grow emotionally from the inside. In choosing to grieve, we have the opportunity to expand our souls, to feel and connect with the human experience, to re-evaluate our priorities and to say "yes" to life despite its inevitable losses and disappointments. The hope of loss reminds me of the words of that old horse to the Velveteen Rabbit, "Once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always."
As you reflect on these principles and your own life journey, I recommend compassion and gentleness with yourself. It takes courage to grieve, which always takes us into the dark places of the unknown in a desperate search for a glimmer of light. And it is best not to travel there alone – grief always heals better in community. Find a safe place to be yourself – wherever, whoever that may be. And remember that grieving is always worth it… for it gives us freedom, the freedom to not only give and receive love, but to do so at a deeper level and with a greater capacity.ª
Ginger Sullivan Schneider, MA, CGP, is in private practice in Washington, DC where she counsels adults in individual, couple and group psychotherapy. In addition, Ginger combines her experience, creativity and energy to speak on loss – life’s inevitable companion at workshops and seminars throughout the area. Her tapes on grief are available. To contact her email VMSMail at aol.com Her offices are located at 3000 Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite 210, Washington, DC 20008.
Network 4 Pilgrims/Christ Covenant Int'l Ministries