Thursday, August 25, 2011

Christianity, Self-Compassion, and Wemmicks

In a recent post, I mentioned my knee-jerk urge to write a systematic rebuttal to a blog post by Sarah Hippolitus arguing that Christianity is damaging to psychological health.

Now I don't mean to go back on my decision not to offer such a rebuttal. But the other day I stumbled across the research of a UT Austin professor, Kristin Neff, on the psychological benefits of self-compassion--and thinking about her research immediately set me on a trajectory of reflection that brought me back to Hippolitus's claim that Christian teachings are damaging to psychological health--especially her claim that the doctrine of original sin is psychologically demoralizing insofar as it undermines healthy self-esteem.

Let me explain. Neff's research into self-compassion was motivated by her own religious practice as a Buddhist. Self-compassion is an important concept in Buddhism, and she became interested in studying the empirical effects of such compassion. Some of her central conclusions are neatly summarized in the following abstract for one of her professional articles:

This article focuses on the construct of self-compassion and how it differs from self-esteem. First, it discusses the fact that while self-esteem is related to psychological well-being, the pursuit of high self-esteem can be problematic. Next it presents another way to feel good about oneself: self-compassion. Self-compassion entails treating oneself with kindness, recognizing one’s shared humanity, and being mindful when considering negative aspects of oneself. Finally, this article suggests that self-compassion may offer similar mental health benefits as self-esteem, but with fewer downsides. Research is presented which shows that self-compassion provides greater emotional resilience and stability than self-esteem, but involves less self-evaluation, ego-defensiveness,and self-enhancement than self-esteem. Whereas self-esteem entails evaluating oneself positively and often involves the need to be special and above average, self-compassion does not entail self-evaluation or comparisons with others. Rather, it is a kind, connected, and clear-sighted way of relating to ourselves even in instances of failure, perceived inadequacy, and imperfection.

Neff defines compassion in terms of three elements: first, you notice or attend to a person's suffering; second, you feel FOR the suffering person in a manner characterized by "warmth, caring, and the desire to help"; and third, "when you feel compassion for another (rather than mere pity), it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. 'There but for fortune go I.'"

Now as I reflected on this account, what immediately came to mind for me was a book I sometimes read to my children: "You Are Special," by Max Lucado. For those unfamiliar with it, here's the summary of the story that I offered in a post from a couple of years back:
Punchinello, a wooden man, lives in a village of wooden people. These wooden people are called Wemmicks, and all of them were carved by the same craftsman, a man named Eli who lives in his workshop on a hill looking down on the village. The Wemmicks are all in the habit of putting stickers on each other: gold stars on those who impress them with their good looks or talents, dots on those who fall short, who are scratched or clumsy or awkward. Punchinello is one of the latter. He’ s covered in dots.

But one day he meets a Wemmick who has neither stars nor dots on her; and when he asks her why, she smiles and tell him that the stickers don’t stick on her because she visits Eli every day. And so Punchinello goes to see his maker. Eli is delighted by Punchinello’s visit, and offers him a warm welcome, as well as words of wisdom: What the other Wemmicks think of Punchinello doesn’t matter. What matters is that Eli loves Punchinello just the way he is, without conditions or qualifications. The stickers, Eli says, only stick if they matter to you. And once Punchinello is secure in Eli’s love, they won’t matter at all. Punchinello hears, and believes. And a dot falls to the ground.
The last time I talked about this story, it was to share the profound disconnect between the metaphorical way that Lucado shares the Christian gospel narrative in a children's book, and the way that too many Christians, too often, turn evangelism into an ugly bit of "come to Jesus or roast in hell" coercion. But what I want to stress now is that the elements of sin and grace that play such a central role in Christian theology can be pieced together in both of these ways--Lucado's way, and the ugly way that lends itself to the "come to Jesus or roast in hell" message.

It is, of course, the latter that Hippolitus picks up on. She takes the doctrine of original sin to be about "believing you are irredeemably defective without someone else," and she notes that this way of thinking has a crushing effect on self-esteem. She likens the Christian's relationship to God to the destructive dynamic that can arise in a relationship when one mate feels wholly inferior to the other and latches onto the merits of the other for the sake of being "saved" or rescued.

This is, clearly, one way of seeing the Christian doctrine of human sin and divine grace. And if you see the doctrine in this way, then the key message becomes this: Unless you get yourself rescued--that is, let God rescue you--you're doomed.

But what Lucado does in his story is offer us a different way of seeing this same doctrine. In the Wemmick's story, the key point is that all the Wemmicks share a common condition: All are flawed, all make mistakes, and what talents and strengths they have are largely out of their hands. Seeking approval through achievement, judging others for their successes and failures--these are tendencies that divide us and make us lose sight of our shared condition. Such comparative judgments need to give way to a higher perspective.

Years ago I remember reading a painstakingly stitched verse on a wall-hanging in the home of an elderly Christian woman I was visiting. It said this: "There is so much good in the worst of us/ And so much bad in the best of us/ That it doesn't do for any of us/ To talk about the rest of us." Perhaps it's cheesy, but I remember that it struck me at the time, and I shared it with my grandparents (my grandfather was a Baptist preacher). They nodded sagely. This, they said, was what Christianity taught in the doctrine of original sin.

But the doctrine is only a piece of a larger fabric. The higher perspective from which our shared finitude and imperfection are laid bare is also, at the same time, a perspective from which that finitude and imperfection cease to define us. We are not fundamentally defined by our finitude, but by the gaze of love--a love that knows no conditions, that does not wait on worth. And, like Punchinello, we are invited to see ourselves from this perspective--to see ourselves as God sees us, that is, as gracious love sees us. In other words, we are invited to look at our failings and finitude with the eyes of compassion. Looking at ourselves with those eyes, we can be honest about our failings rather than trying to hide them or rationalize them in the way we feel compelled to do when our worth hinges upon our achievements.

And hence, paradoxically, we are freed to achieve more. We want to help ourselves because we love ourselves--not because we aren't worthy of love until we're perfect. And because we can be honest with ourselves, our projects of self-improvement and growth are guided by a kind of clarity that just isn't possible when we define our worth by how many gold stars are stuck to us.

When I facilitated nonviolence workshops in prisons, I encountered many inmates who had undergone a transformation in self-perception of precisely this sort. The source of that transformation? Prison ministries, Christian ones that taught the doctrine of sin and grace. They came out of their encounter with that doctrine not with their self-esteem in the gutter, but with greater self-compassion.

It didn't always happen. But I think there is something about the character of those who choose to take the Christian message into prison, and something about the way they tell the Christian story, that conveys an understanding of it fundamentally similar to what emerges in Max Lucado's parable of the Wemmicks.

What we have here is one very traditional way of seeing and experiencing the Christian doctrine of sin and grace--a way of seeing and experiencing this doctrine that differs from Buddhist notions of self-compassion in its trappings, but a way of seeing that nevertheless fits the mold that Kristin Neff is studying. And yes, it is every bit as traditional as that other, uglier understanding. Both have been around a long time.

And I think that if we want to promote greater self-compassion in the world, we are better served by nurturing the former than by identifying Christianity with the latter and pretending that the former does not exist.


  1. Interesting stuff.

    The idea of "near enemies" in Buddhism has been extremely meaningful to me. Pity is the near enemy of compassion. It's almost there, but still creates a separation rather than an identification which is central to compassion.

    Now I just need to practice a lot more!

  2. Steven,

    I like that--"near enemies." The difference between pity and compassion seems small, a nuance, at first glance--but it turns out that the difference makes all the difference in the world. Without the sense of solidarity with the suffering person, of seeing their suffering as just part of the human condition that we are all subject to, the feelings for the one who suffers (or who falls prey to temptations or is tripped up by flaws) becomes a kind of reaching DOWN rather than a reaching OUT. Walls are built instead bridges. Hierarchies are established instead of community.

    I think this same idea neatly captures what I'm trying to say about Christian doctrine: There are these closely-attuned variants that differ in seemingly small but ultimately crucial ways. Which variant you adopt can mean the difference between a life of self-loathing and fear or a life attuned to a spirit that nurtures emotional health balance.

    There is as SENSE in which every Christian must agree that without God one is lost. After all, Christianity takes God to be the ground of being, the creator and sustainer of the reality of every other thing. But naturalists also agree that there is a ground to our being, something upon which our existence as conscious beings depends utterly. They just construe that ground differently: our conscious life is an emergent property, say, of inanimate matter operating in accord with certain kinds of law-like regularities.

    Given that Christians view the ground of their being as personal--that is, given that they see that out of which all things arise as conscious and purposive--it becomes possible to conceive of the relationship to that on which our being depends as admitting of *mutuality* in a way that the naturist's relationship to the ground of their being cannot be conceived.

    But once this idea of a mutual relationship between persons takes hold of our consciousness, the metaphor of relationships to other human beings can readily take hold. And suddenly we begin to think of our relationship to God as a relationship with another being among beings, but we simply attribute to this other being properties of greatness that make us paltry worms by comparison. God is so much more loving than we are. We're scum. We'd better submit to God's discipline. If we don't, he'll have no mercy. He has a right to judge and punish us because he's so much better than we are.

    Pretty soon, you have Hippolitus's worry that this is just like the dysfunctional marriage where at best the wife looks to her husband to rescue her and at worst she thinks she deserves the abuse he heaps on her.

    But this destructive understanding of "dependence on God" arises when we START by conceiving of our relationship with God as a relationship between ourselves and another-being-among-beings, and then ADD the idea that God is a much better being than us and that we can't do anything for ourselves. We've lost touch with the crucial idea of Christian ontology, namely that God names that in which we have our being--in other words, that belief in God is a belief about what it means for something to exist. This may seem like a trivial difference at first, but I think it makes all the difference in the world. If this is our starting point, and we then add to this the idea that this ground of our being is defined by compassionate love, we end up with a worldview that inspires us to experience compassion at our very roots (as opposed to inspiring us to look for pity from some superior creature in the universe).

    Put in Christian language, the ugly interpretation of "we depend utterly on God and are nothing without God" arises when this doctrine is divorced from the idea that we are beloved children of God who are what we are because we bear the divine image.

  3. Bravo! Now if Eli actually existed, you might have a philosophically defensible position. As it is, you have a version of shamanism.

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  5. Eric

    Thanks for this. Self compassion is a lovely term, and one I'd not come across before. Working with teens, it's sometimes apparent that the self esteem metaphor is deficient. Young people are acutely aware of their failings, and instinctively measure themselves against one another. The self esteem model, which in some guises appears to tell them that their shortcomings do not exist, only serves to heighten their sense of failing to meet the ideal. Self compassion, as you outline it, seems to be a most helpful way forward.

    As to whether or not particular meta-narratives are better at developing this, I'm unsure. Certainly the narrative that our teens are most often exposed to now, that of perfection through wise consumer choices, the capitalist paradigm, is shallow and destructive. Any world view that provides a platform from which this can be challenged should, I think, be given serious consideration; and although they're not mine, I would concede that the best Christian narratives do appear to do exactly this. All power to you.


  6. I think that one should hold the same dispositional attitudes towards others and towards oneself. One should be as loving/caring/forgiving towards others as towards oneself, and vice-versa. I think one of the greatest teachings of religion is the fundamental unity of all humankind (indeed of all consciousness), and it seems to me that much error and misery comes from ignoring this fact. Thus to be to oneself as one is to others corresponds to the nature of things and is therefore spiritually healthy.

    One might think that to be forgiving to oneself leads to moral weakness. But to be good is not about fighting and winning against sin, but about following in life a self-transforming way in which one becomes such as to not desire sin. As long as one has to fight against sinning, one is not good (for, trivially enough, if one were good one would not desire to sin). Thus the fight is not against sin but against one’s own limitations, against one’s limited faith. Sin is simply a part of this good world which gives us the opportunity to self-transcend.

  7. Eric,

    I like your thoughts a lot on this. I am partial to a panentheistic view of the universe - we exist within God, we are actually part of God. I don't think it is really coherent to think of God's creation as ultimately separate from Him. We must be His own re-imagining of Himself, or else there is a duality (creator and created) that still seems to beg for a deeper level of commonality and explanation. This seems to speak to your point about God being the very ground of being, not a separate being among beings.

    And when give up the idea of the separateness of God, the otherness, then this view of God can be interpreted in a very naturalistic way. Our consciousness is the universe experiencing itself - even as an emergent phenomena, it's still a part of the natural order, which tells us something about the natural order. As Alan Watts says, "we are what the whole show is growing." (paraphrase)

    In short, if our consciousness is created by "inanimate matter operating in accordance with certain law-like regularities", then to me it tells us just as much about the latter as the former. We are a part of what the universe is choosing to be. Using the word "choose" becomes appropriate, because our choices are part of the same causal chain.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your thoughts here - the separateness, the otherness, I daresay the "holiness" of God, when divorced from compassion and what we actually mean by goodness, is the problem with much conservative Christianity.