Toxic 2

I was thinking of toxic thoughts – the ones that harm you think … when you venture into the mental rat poison that prevents action, that corrodes everything, that enslaves, that renders us docile and powerless.

There are a lot of these, but a few stand out. Earlier I talked about images that provoke a visceral revulsion. Equally, some images summon a visceral attraction. In either case, the response is automatic and unreasoned. Sometimes this works out. Most of the time it doesn’t – and we’re not really able to honestly evaluate which is which.

This is a response to a stimulus. It is the way we usually react politically, socially, and economically. But there are also habits of thought that are self-defeating. They wear grooves in our minds – trails; every time they are repeated, they are reinforced. We are responsible for them – not because we chose them, but because we have to live with the consequences of them.

I want to make perfectly clear: I’m not talking about avoiding negativity. What most people seem to mean when they say that is self-deception. The act of pretending things are other than they are; the act of calling bad good; the act of going to sleep. That is, in itself, a toxic thought habit.

No, what I mean here are the things we think that are not justified; not helpful; not productive. What I mean here are the habits of thought that keep us from succeeding, or from being happy, or from being noble, or from being kind. What i mean here, to borrow a phrase from Lincoln, is that kind of thought that inoculates us against being “touched… by the better angels of our nature”.

In thinking about this, three such habits stand out to me today. We are trained in them from our earliest days on the planet. And our instincts tend toward them. But they thwart us and cause us only frustration and pain. We are afraid. We are ashamed. We are aggrieved. These three are certainly not the only negative mental habits we have, but they are near universal, and they keep us from attaining any good thing.

Fear is with us our whole lives; and it seems to be getting worse. We make decisions out of fear. We avoid doing things we love out of fear. We pass our fears onto others. There is something always wrong – some eventuality we are schooled to avoid – that keeps us comfortably in our place. Now, fear is, in itself neutral. Sometimes it is a survival skill. If we have no fear, we do stupid things without regard to their effects. But when we live in perpetual fear, we condemn ourselves to being smaller, pettier, weaker, and more passive-aggressive than we could be or ought to be.

Like fear, shame and its related phenomenon guilt, have their place. In some cases, we make better choices because of them. In some cases, guilt is a rational response. There are, in fact, things about which we ought to feel guilt. Nonetheless, we mostly feel guilt for things that aren’t wrong. We deceive ourselves. Shame is worse. People make us ashamed. People make us feel bad about ourselves – and this, like perpetual fear, makes us shrink – we become smaller, less likely to draw negative attention, less kind to others (who might drag us down with them), more resentful at those we so desperately try to appease – to be thought well of.

And then there is aggrievement. We have been wronged. We have been slighted. We have been denied justice. We have been treated badly. We got a raw deal. All of this may be factually true. Every aggrieved party knows well: objectively speaking, someone else had it worse … basically that would be true of all but one person on earth. But that doesn’t matter. As long as I am looking at it through the lens of what bad or unfair things have happened to me, what wrong things have been done to me … as long as I maintain my King Lear stance: “I am a man more sinned against than sinning”, I am hobbled. The consequence for us of aggrieved thinking is that the injustice – whatever it may have been – continues to defeat us. We continue to live it, we become resentful, we become envious of others, we become rigid and uncreative, we become sterile.

These three habits are harmful to us. If we can escape them, we can thrive. Yet, it occurs to me to wonder what would happen to our whole economic system – our whole society – if people just said no to them. If we did not act out of our fears (or remain inactive), if we did not purchase things because we felt bad about ourselves, if we did not act from of resentment … what might happen? Whole segments of our economy would collapse overnight.



It is a source of recurrent annoyance to me that I seldom accomplish.

Not that I don’t do anything; not even that I don’t do the things I actually manage to do fairly well. There is just a great gulf fixed between (my perception of) my capabilities, and what actually bears fruit.

As a general rule, I seldom pass judgment on people. (I didn’t say never … just seldom.) I do judge actions: some actions are good, beautiful, praiseworthy; other actions are bad, ugly, blameworthy. But I see in myself the potential for both things; I see this potential in others. I do judge ideas: some are true; others are not. Some are beneficial; some are harmful. Some are good; some less so. I’ve become aware that to evaluate ideas in this way does garner negative responses. People take it personally when thoughts they’ve found meaningful are not warmly received. I do the same – so it all works out.

But it is very rare that I attach value to a person as a person based on his actions or ideas. What makes people valuable is not those things. It is even rare that I can’t empathize with sometimes alien ideas and acts. Much of the time – not always – I can get where people are coming from.

But I have also seen and honored potentials. It takes no imagination to see what is as it is now and make little of it. It is a much better view to see what may be. I have been puzzled, frankly, by why people can’t or choose not to do this. That is not optimism – it is simply recognition.

Now, potentials do not give worth either. But I do admire the grand endeavor – the thing attempted because the attempt itself would be worthwhile. It can be anything for which we have a passion. In many ways, the things we love enough to dare define us. Often the attempting matters as much as the result.

Nonetheless, I am annoyed at my lack of accomplishment.

Toxic 1

Some thoughts are toxic.  They harm the thinker; they interfere knowledge of the self, of others, of the world; they pollute relationships and endeavors; they keep us in our place, keep our governments and ‘social institutions’ corrupt and unresponsive, prevent accomplishment.

Night before last, when I was unable to sleep, I made the mistake of watching television.  I’m not going to pretend that I don’t ever watch TV, or even that it’s rare.  I might wish this were a less frequent activity; I might begrudge the waste of time when I’m in one of my more curmudgeonly moods.  Usually, however, I am at least discriminating in my choices.  The middle of the night doesn’t present a lot of options.

Long story short, I watched an episode of American Horror Story – and I have regretted it ever since.   Everyone has their own tastes; I’m not really interested in criticizing this program as if it were unique in this regard.  But you can’t unsee some things.  They remain in your mind – no matter how unexpected, how unwelcome, how repulsive you believe them to be.  This one visual involved Doogie Howser sawing a woman in half.  The graphic was (appropriately) repulsive.

Other people may be inured to that sort of thing.  That’s their business.  For me, it was sickmaking.  Hours later, I found myself probing the image sideways, gingerly with my mind – like you might probe an abscessed tooth with your tongue … yep, still there … still gets the same response.

I use this as an example of an image that is toxic.  At least to me.

I found myself looking for comparisons – what is this reaction?  Why do I have it to specific things and not to others?  The most similar experience I have had was the time I accidentally happened across an Islamist beheading video.  There was something at once so evil and revolting about the image itself.  Obviously, the chief difference is that was real.  The fact that that was a human being who felt, hoped, hurt, loved – who was the same as I am – who was one moment alive, the next murdered – added to the horror.  But the internal reaction was substantively the same.

It raises an interesting question:  how are you affected differently by what you see that you know is real than you are affected by what you know to be unreal?  The evidence so far is mixed.  In some ways, the brain and body respond to all visual stimuli as if it were real.  In others, we see marked differences.  (Usually these seem to have to do with the type of information.  In these cases it is limited to essentially visual and auditory stimuli – no smell, no spatial sense, etc.  In that case, the two things I mentioned would be identical.  So does the understanding that something is real make any difference in how you experience seeing it?)

It raises a second, more troubling thought.  How much of our lives is governed by imagery?  How much is visceral reaction versus rational thought?  Obviously, people have complained of this tendency for millennia:  the tendency for people to act and react irrationally.  The irrational is still predictable – it grows out of the ways in which our minds process things.  All manner of prejudices and rules of thumb fall into this category; and the hard part – in many cases they work.  They’re just not rational; and they’re just not fair.

How much of our perceived reality is constructed based on the ways our brains work versus how much corresponds to actual events?  How much of what we do day to day is governed by processes and images over which we have little cognizance and little control?

If you know the reaction, you can play into it to a degree.  This is the basis of marketing, of politics, of social engineering, of much of education.  It was even the basis for the torture employed by various regimes (including the US) and contractors.  If you examine the rationales – it was not about extracting usable information during torture – but about the predictable psychological and brain reactions the victims would have.




Do you remember the musical, Fiddler on the Roof? This is one of the very few musicals I actually like. And what I like most about it is that it is so quotable. Tevye, the main character informs us, “As the Good Book says, ‘When a poor man eats a chicken, one of them is sick.” “Where does the Book say that?” “Well, it doesn’t say that exactly, but somewhere there is something about a chicken. Good Sabbath!” When his future son-in-law calls money the world’s curse, Tevye responds: “May the Lord smite me with it … and may I never recover.”

When asked if there were a proper blessing for the Tsar, the Rabbi in the Russian village of Anatevka responded: “A blessing for the Tsar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Tsar… far away from us!” Later he tells us, “There is a blessing for everything.”

I like the idea. It may or may not be true, but I like the idea.

But this morning, I would like to suggest to you that there is a wisdom for everything.

In the first chapter of the book of James, we read, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

James seems awfully confident of this. But he adds a qualifier: “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.

It seems to me that this wisdom is precisely what we need at this time. Read the rest of this entry »


I wish I had the skill and the words to say the things that matter most to me – the beautiful things, the sinister things, happy and sad, that reach my walled heart.

I might talk of love.  Real love – not the stuff in books and movies, not the roles we play like actors, pressing each other into tired templates, unreal.  Two selves naked together unashamed; seeing, seen; hearing, heard; the same and different; two for a while one.

If I had the skill and the words, I might talk of God.  The real One.  Not the one we imagine; not the one we try to tame with words and rituals; not the one Nietzsche claimed we killed.  The One who is, whether we take note of Him or not.  The One in whom we live and move and have our being.

If I had the skill and the words, and if they were mine to tell, I would tell stories of kindness; of the small, quotidian, magnificent acts we are capable of.  The ones we seldom choose; the ones that go unmarked.


We he no sense of the magnificent – of the grand, of the things that though difficult are worth the effort and the risk of failing, of the things that should be.  This lacking makes our lives boring, makes us (as a species) boring.

The magnificent does not have to be large. It need only be extraordinary; it need only be significant; it need only call to our spirits. It is too easy to get caught up in the scope of an endeavor and fail to notice the grandeur in small things, in unshowy, transforming things.

These are the things I would tell if I could.



 7d. The Bereans were willing to work

 The Bereans were willing to put in the work. They searched the Scripture daily. This was not a haphazard whim. They were not letting the Bible fall open, covering their eyes, and pointing to a text … giving God every opportunity to guide their divination. No. They searched. The examined meticulously, carefully, completely. They did this every day. In one sense this was only logical – Paul was making claims based on the Hebrew Bible; he was making assertions about it. Did the Scripture really indicate that the Messiah must suffer and would rise from the dead? But it was a practice that would apply to any truth claim. It is impossible to measure a claim against Scripture without knowing Scripture.

 If we seek to know what the Bible says about any topic, if we seek to know whether a claim is biblical or not, if we seek to know what Christianity teaches, we cannot do this without knowing the Bible. Don’t mistake me – it is self-evidently possible for those who cannot read to be Christians. It is also quite possible for those who don’t have access to the Bible. Even for those who lack the time for detailed study of the Bible. But if we want to know what the Bible says, if we wish to use this tool we are given for discernment – we must put in the time and work to study the Bible. I’m not speaking here of theory or of interpretations or of inspirational reading or even devotional reading. Those all have their uses, but the greatest need in terms of discernment is going text by text to become familiar with the actual contents of Scripture across the board.


I believe the Bereans were noble because of their posture: they were open to a word from God, they were waiting for the appearance of the Christ, they took the Scriptures to be true, they were willing to measure teachings against Scripture, and they were willing to do the work required. Equally, I believe that is a posture we ought to adopt when we are required to make decisions about the ideas, truth claims, values, doctrines, philosophies, courses of action we encounter every day. In short, I am proposing this Berean model as a viable alternative for Christians making decisions today.

 7c. the Bereans accepted biblical authority

 The Bereans believed the Scriptures were true. We know this because they searched the Scriptures to see if what Paul was saying was true. If they did not start with the belief that Scripture was true, this would have been a very foolish exercise. They trusted the testimony of the Bible. They eagerly listened to Paul, but they checked what he said to see if it matched what the Bible taught. They were not testing Paul’s message against traditions. They were not evaluating his teachings according to philosophies. We must ask ourselves: what would have happened had the Bereans found Paul’s claims in conflict with Scripture? I think the answer is self-evident: Paul would have been rejected.

Are we willing to trust Scripture to the same degree? Are we willing to say that, no matter how persuasive the presentation, no matter how much we want to believe or don’t want to believe an idea, we will be willing to be guided by Scripture? We must be honest on this point. Some things taught in the Bible we want to believe. They appeal to us. Other things in the Bible don’t appeal to us. We would just as soon not believe them if we could have our preference. Some things fit in with our agendas, with our goals, with our priorities. Are we willing to subject every idea, every agenda, every priority to the Scripture as a measure of its truth? Or do we want to use our feelings? Our suspicions? Our desires? What happens if the message is one we don’t like? What happens if the speaker is one we don’t like? The Bereans were clearly willing to let the matter be judged by Scripture.


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