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The Dangers of Being a Literalist with our Thoughts

June 21, 2013

In this past Sunday’s post on ACT, I made a list of six fundamental choices we have regarding thoughts.  In this post I would like to say a few words about the second of those choices, “We can choose to fuse with the thought and make it into the Truth about us or we can defuse from the thought realizing that a thought is an idea, a word, and a sound among other ideas, words, and sounds.” Now, there are times when this is a good thing to do such as when a car is coming and we are about to cross the road. The thought, “Watch Out,” had best be heeded, taken literally, and followed rigidly. But what happens when our thoughts don’t match our situation? We follow them and respond in all the wrong ways to ourselves, to others, and to God. That is why it is good to distance ourselves a bit from our thoughts and look at them less literally, especially when all the important relationships (i.e., the three big ones mentioned previously) in our life are consistently going awry.

In chapter eight of Ancient Christian Wisdom, I touch on this choice of fusing with or distancing from the thought in the context of cognitive therapy, “When the patient learns the technique of paying attention to his automatic thoughts and viewing them as hypotheses that may or may not be correct, he often spontaneously re-evaluates them.  Sometimes, however, he requires additional help in shifting focus and distancing himself from a thought so that he can weight it on its own terms.  To this end the patient must ‘challenge the basic beliefs that he is the focal point of all events’ and try to look at the thought from the perspective of an impartial third party.”

In other words, a thought has no truth-value unless we choose to assign that value to it. This is a choice we have or at least a choice we can recover.  It’s ironic in order to be master in the domain of our thoughts, we have to have some humility about them and some way of sifting them, so we can make a choice that is pleasing to God and healthy for ourselves. The first step, though, is learning not to react to every thought, not to take every thought at face value, not to be literalists, but to realize that our thoughts may well be metaphors for other deeper problems that call for God’s help.

This is especially significant in dealing with any type of addictive behavior where thoughts lead to destructive and addictive acts.  In spite of our thoughts we don’t need that extra drink, that drug, or that illicit sexual stimulation.  Our thoughts may persuade us that fulfilling our craving is a necessity, but that is only because we believe the thoughts and accept them literally as the truth about our reality.

Another example may help illustrate how such a defusion technique might prove effective in dealing with fear and anxiety.  Consider the case of having a fear of public speaking and being in a job that requires that you give a presentation to the company board of directors.  When you are approached with this task, an automatic thought of fear enters your mind: “I’m going to really mess this up.”  Rather than confronting that thought and trying to convince yourself “I can do this”, a defusion technique can allow you to see that messing up in your thoughts and messing up in real life are neither the same thing, nor literally linked.  Humbly realizing that you are not really a prophet and that the unhelpful thought is just one thought among many can then help you concentrate on the task at hand-preparing a presentation.  In this way the anxiety-provoking thought of messing up doesn’t consume you, because you have chosen not to unite yourself with it.  Rather, your thoughts and mental focus are transferred to the task to which you’ve been assigned.

The fathers of the Church knew very well when it was wise to be literal and when it was wise to be metaphorical. With respect to certain doctrines of the faith concerning the person of Christ, there is no room for metaphor, for in that case we are in the presence of more than reality itself that our metaphors feebly try to grasp. The Lord’s words—“heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away”—were always ringing in the fathers’ ears and guiding them with respect to their own thoughts. Those words of Christ about humility, about forgiveness, and about love are the Truth about our reality. Other words in our minds stemming from our own hurts and desires are on another shadowy level as ephemeral as the situations that give them birth. They are often metaphors for the fall, rather than the truth about the life Christ desires us to have.

To disperse those shadowy the thoughts, the ancient fathers employed similar techniques to ward off destructive thought patterns.  However, for the fathers, serenity in thought is not the ultimate goal.  A deep and abiding relationship with God through vigilance, prayer and theoria offer a rich, life-creating existence based on faith and trust in God.  For the Fathers, distancing oneself from the thoughts must always include constant remembrance of God.  At the end of chapter eight in Ancient Christian Wisdom, I offer the examples of Noah and Moses who were given daunting tasks by God.  As human beings, they may initially have had such destructive thoughts about possible failure and the disdain of others, but they overcame such thoughts by distancing themselves from the worldly thoughts and keeping their Creator firmly in mind, thus coming through a destructive flood and leaving the slavery of Egypt, all through making the wise choice about which thoughts are literal and which thoughts are metaphors, in order to follow the God of their salvation. May we learn to do the same.

  1. Thank you, Father Alexis! This post and the last post spoke very directly to me as I was able to remember and apply some of the points in the ACT method today at work.

    Perhaps one of these days I will commit to buying your book.

  2. You are quite welcome, TJ! I am glad you were able to put these principles into practice. That is no small achievement. We can read many things, but to actually change in some way how we react in thought and deed and change for the better, that is a victory.

    The blog can be seen as an ongoing commentary on my book or further thoughts that take the book as springboard for going in other directions. If you are familiar with Blaise Paschal’s writings, it is sort of like his Pensées. What the book does is put so many of these ideas in a sequence or framework as well as ties down ideas to specific ancient writers and fathers.

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