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Positive Data Logs in the Service of Acquiring a Christian Mindset

November 14, 2012

One of the standard techniques that cognitive therapists employ when working with those suffering from depression is a positive data log. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I note “a therapist may suggest to a depressed patient with the belief, “I don’t accomplish anything,” that he keep a notebook divided into sections for work experiences, social interactions, parenting, and being alone. Under each heading, the patient is instructed to list anything that he did or tried to do, for which he deserves some credit, and to review this log daily. Protestant therapists sometimes try to increase the impact of such logs by having the patient imagine how Christ would react to even the smallest of his accomplishments.” This technique might help the sufferer to realize that the belief about accomplishing nothing is inaccurate and to become more aware of some positive moments during the day. If the sufferer becomes more active, if his scores on the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) go down, if he is able to get back to work, then one could say mission accomplished. Healing has taken place. Bringing Christ imaginarily into the room makes the enterprise feel more Christian, but is it really?

I think that for therapy to be truly Christian, it’s not enough to use biblical imagery for achieving the clinical goal of symptom reduction. The aims must be higher. It’s not enough to get lower BDI scores or even to be able to function better in society. The aim has to be to become Christ-like, which among other things means not being depressed, but it also entails so much more. It means being alive to God and enlivened by God. Rather than a positive data log, I think it might be useful as a daily exercise to list 30 or 40 aspects of life for which you can be genuinely grateful to God, for which you can say, “Glory to Thee, O God, glory to Thee!” with all your soul and all your might. This can help us to be more aware of God’s mercy and love surrounding us in the invigorating air we breathe, in the soft sunlight that kisses our face, in the glorious sunrise that illumines our days, and in the gentle moon that fills even our nights with the silver light of God’s tender care. The list is as unending as the stars in the firmament, but recounting God’s gifts, changes our attitude towards life itself. It is also good for this list to be personal, including those things that are dearest to your heart, loved ones, beautiful music, the sound of laughter, the innocence of children, a smile with genuine warmth…. Of course, even this list can end up being somewhat egocentric, all about me and my likes and my happiness, so it is good as well to include items of gratitude for God’s goodness to others, eventually letting those items becomes the major elements of one’s daily list. In this way, a cognitive technique can become a genuinely Christian tool for reorienting the soul towards life, towards, God, and towards one’s neighbor in accord with the Gospel of Christ.

But what do the god-bearing fathers say? Saint John Chrysostom taught that the best way to preserve a benefit is to remember the benefit through continuous thanksgiving. He further remarks that the Eucharist is called a sacrifice of thanksgiving, because we summarize all of God’s care for us, His birth of a Virgin, His crucifixion, His feeding the faithful with Himself. If this thanksgiving precedes our words and our works, our words and works will be transfigured by His graciousness. In particular, Saint John writes “Let us be thankful not only for our own blessings, but also for those of others; for in this way we shall be able to uproot our envy and to make our love steadfast and genuine, for it is not even possible for you to keep on envying those for whom you give thanks to the Lord.” (Homily on Matthew, 25, PG 57.331)  For the Church Fathers, thanksgiving lifts us up from earth to heaven and makes frail humans into radiant angels of God’s love.

Lists of gratitude and thanksgiving to God can truly transform one’s mindset and bring the joy of the Christian life within our grasp and into our hearts. In listing the many things for which we are grateful, we answer Saint John Chrysostom’s call, “Let us therefore continually give thanks, for our own blessings, and for those of others, for things that are small and for things that are great, for even if the gift is small, it is made great by being given by God Himself.”

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