Saturday, March 14, 2015

I'm a Dreamer, I'm a Leaner, I'm a Flying Lemur... Steve Miller I Am Not

Those of you, dear readers, who know me in person (and maybe some of you who I have only connected with online have inferred this; I shouldn't presume so much) will know that I have a tendency to live in my head. I think about things. A lot. A large reason why my wife and I got hitched was because we help to keep each other grounded, and I think she may keep me more grounded than I do her.

But nevertheless, the point of this is that I'm in my head a lot. I have a goal in mind for just about everything I do, and in the rare occasions when I don't have a goal, I'm very much on edge. If you're into Myers Briggs personality types, you may understand this more clearly when I say that I am an INTJ. That means that I go into everything with a strategy, an end goal, and I expect things to come out a certain way (I'll throw in this anecdote to emphasize the point: my mother has often told me that when I was younger, the only way to get me out of the house was to tell me the plan for the day. But if the plan changed while we were out, she would need to tell me multiple times and explain why we were changing the plan so that I would not flip out. It's a true story).

You know I had to throw a church meme in here somewhere...

So, speaking of which, where am I going with this post? Well, I've been having trouble with my formation coursework. Those of you who come visit my blog regularly will not be too surprised to read that, since I have a noticeable gap in posts through most of last October and November. The biggest reason why I got back on my blog writing was because my grandmother passed away and I needed some way to articulate all the stuff that was bouncing around in my head (yet another symptom to show that I can get pretty far into my own head at times).

What I'm trying to say is that I found some insight to the pathways of my own brain recently when I listened to an episode of The One You Feed, which is a podcast I listen to fairly regularly. The specific  interview was with Gabriele Oettingen, who is a Professor of Psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg. Her work has actually been regarding the perils of positive thinking, which is where I got hooked and decided to listen to the interview. She shared some of her findings and many of them rung true for me in the face of the challenges that I've been facing. I would like to share some of those reflections with you.

After the usual preliminaries of the podcast (they start every interview talking about the same parable of two wolves, which I actually think is really cool), Dr. Oettingen began describing, very briefly, what she's found to be dangerous in terms of positive thinking.

The way Dr. Oettingen starts her narrative is to say that she wanted to research hope. And not hope in a ho-hum sort of way (my words, not hers), but hope in terms positive fantasizing and daydreaming. The thought was that this positive daydreaming should help a person, right? That thinking positively about goals and dreams would be able to help a person be more successful; there would be more motivation and a person would not feel like working towards their goals was a chore.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. Dr. Oettingen found, in her first test case with women who were trying to lose weight, that the more positively some of these women dreamed about their weight loss goals, the fewer pounds they actually lost. She found that the positive thinking lead to low effort and low success. This was not what she had predicted so, being a good scientist, Dr. Oettingen tested her hypothesis again with other groups of subjects who had different types of goals. Some were university graduates who were seeking after their first job, some were current students whose goal it was to begin a romantic relationship. But no matter which test group it was, Dr. Oettingen continued to find that the participants who did more positive dreaming would actually be less likely to achieve their goal.

The only conclusion that she was able to make, in that case, was that positive dreaming might be good in the short term (Dr. Oettingen pointed out that this process could lower blood pressure and give the dreamer a more pleasurable experience), it seemed that this kind of positive thinking hurt the individual's long term goals. She explained the cause and effect from the dreamer's point of view like this: she said that the constructive use for positive fantasies was to mentally explore all aspect of a potential goal (e.g. do I choose to be a medical doctor as my profession?), when the dreamer is in a position to act, the positive fantasizing hurts them because they have, in a way, already achieved the goal in their mind. The dreamer has already done all the work to get there, and now to do that work again would be redundant. Of course, stepping back and observing this from the outside, you realize that the dreamer hasn't done any real work at all; while the dreamer may feel they have already accomplished something, there is no real, tangible proof of that.

So now some of you, dear readers, may be already connecting this podcast to what I'm about to tell you: I think I have unwittingly become that wanton dreamer. I think that perhaps, through the process of discernment, I have already become a deacon in my mind and the formation itself is an interruption of my positive fantasy. To my credit, last fall I made an estimate of how much work would be involved with the School for Formation and, when I began the coursework itself, I discovered that I had made a huge underestimate. That meant that, in order to be successful, I had to carve out far more time in my life for formation coursework than I had the ability to make.

This has left me in a very strange predicament. I think I am able to see the problem, but I do not know how to solve it. I mean, I've never been in a formal formation program before... not like this, at least. I've done confirmation classes and I've done undergraduate studies, but this is something different.

If you've ever read the book Blue Like Jazz, you will know that the author, Donald Miller, describes Christian faith and spirituality as akin to jazz music: it is a form unto itself and it does not usually resolve the way that you expect it to. This post and the situation I find myself in is, I think, very much like that. I've not made it to the resolution yet and there are even components of this that are still up in the air. They're so up in the air that I don't think I can appropriately or justifiably articulate them here on my blog yet.

So I guess that just is what it is. Welcome to the bandwagon of my own uncertainty.