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Where Thoughts Lead Us

June 18, 2012

I’ll begin this blog post with a story related to me by an acquaintance.  It involves a work situation and how one’s thoughts can lead to destructive and bad behavior.  It’s a story about a successful female executive who is a junior partner in a firm.  While she has attained success, status in the firm, and is widely regarded as a bright, articulate lawyer, she harbors deep-seated resentment for what she perceives as “slights” from her male partners.  As she continued to harbor these feelings, nurturing them in her imagination, she was unable to interact with her partners without seeking out evidence justifying her thoughts.  She would assign negative meaning to comments, work assignments, seating arrangements at meetings until finally one incident sent her catapulting over the emotional edge.  When these thoughts bubbled to the surface in action, the result was ugly.  Very soon after her explosive reaction, she was filled with remorse and self-pity, recognizing in part, the error of her ways.  However, she never dealt with the root cause of the problem-her thoughts and the meaning she assigned them.  This may or may not lead to career consequences.  However, it has caused much pain, turmoil, and avoidable suffering and it all started with her thoughts. . .

Any thorough analysis of human emotions, behavior, and psychological and spiritual health necessarily must take into account the nature and origin of human thoughts.  A well-ordered, healthy person goes further and strives to obtain mastery over the influence of such thoughts.  Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 3:  A Patristic Voyage:

“In an insightful paragraph akin to certain passages in Beck’s Prisoners of Hate, the Christian version of the Encheiridion reads:  ‘Remember that it is not the person who insults you, speaks badly of you, or hits you, but it is your idea that he supposedly curses you.  When someone makes you angry, know that your own idea made you angry.  For this reason, try not to be dominated by the imagination, because if gain a little time and delay, you will keep yourself in check.’  This passage contains several instructive observations about cognitive processes.  First, anger is provoked by our interpretation of someone else’s behavior as unpleasant rather than by the behavior in itself.  Second, the seemingly combative person and our mental image of that person are not the same.  Third, when our imagination embellishes our interpretation, the offense seems far worse than it in fact is and this exaggerated interpretation incites us to react.  Fourth, if we fight against the tendency to elaborate on the initial image and refrain from reacting to it, we can reacquire our self-composure.

In addition to the case of hostility, the fathers were well aware that meaning assignment directly influences mood.  St. John Chrysostom observes that irrational fears can spring from incorrect meaning assignment.  For example, someone in the dark night might be afraid of a dangling rope if he mistakes it for a live serpent.  Saint Theodore the Studite characteristically notes, ‘We feel radiant when we think about something good, and then we become dark and gloomy when we entertain somber thoughts. . .The change is volitional and within our own power.’

In summary, the fathers were quite mindful of the overall importance and etiological significance of meaning assignment for successful human functioning and the virtuous life.  They recognized that our perceptions are channeled through our interpretations of our situation, interpretations that are often influenced more by imagination than by objectively measurable external reality.  Interpretations in the form of thoughts and images shape our views of others and ourselves.  Good thoughts bring us joy, increased insight, and wisdom, whereas bad thoughts can throw us into a state of melancholy, confusion, or even folly.  According to the fathers, thoughts not only give rise to emotional reactions, but also coalesce over time into character traits.”

As is often the case, a good diagnosis is the beginning of good treatment. Becoming aware of one’s idiosyncratic meaning assignment and that it may not really coincide with reality is the first step. Exploring and weighing other possible interpretations is the second step. Choosing the interpretation that leads to adaptive functioning is the final step. At each of these points, deep Christian teachings on humility, love, and forgiveness can bolster these steps and take a person to another level, in which every interaction, regardless of whether it is initially interpreted as good or bad, is a blessing from a loving God through which we can grow into children who clearly reflect the goodness of His image and likeness.

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