Podcast

Episode 121 – Dr. Curt Thompson, Being Known and Loved – Pt. 1

This week, we enter into a very special three-part series with Dr. Curt Thompson. Curt is a board-certified psychiatrist and the founder of the Center for Being Known, a nonprofit organization that develops resources to educate and train leaders on the intersection between interpersonal neurobiology and Christian spiritual formation. For the next three weeks, Curt and Jessica take us into their journey of understanding doubt, the reality of living in a pandemic, anxiety, fear, being known, understanding love, and seeing beauty in the world.

TRANSCRIPT

Jessica: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to the Going Scared podcast. This is your host Jessica Honegger, founder of the social impact fashion brand Noonday Collection. Join me here every week for conversations on living lives of purpose by leaving comfort and going scared.

Alright guys, I finally broke. Yep, it took a few months for COVID-19 to break this Enneagram 7, problem-solving entrepreneur, but between online school at all new school for my kids, a little cancer scare, some friends going through a ton, switching two kids halfway to an entirely new school mid-semester, and some other personal hardship of my own, I suddenly had anxiety and fear knocking on my door.

Now, a good majority of podcasters have done incredible episodes on mental health during COVID-19, and I thought, “It’s been done.” But guys, it is time for me to jump on the mental health bandwagon. So, when I knew I wanted this series to be on mental health, especially during the holidays, there was really only one person that came to mind: Dr. Curt Thompson. And thankfully, he said yes.

Dr. Curt Thompson is a psychiatrist, speaker, and author who connects our intrinsic desire to be known with the need to tell truer stories about ourselves, showing us how to form deep relationships, discover meaning, and live integrated creative lives. He’s also a personal mentor of mine. He first joined us on the Going Scared podcast back in August of 2019 on an episode called “Create Compassionate Spaces,” and we talked a lot about what it really means to know someone and then allow yourself to be known. So, definitely go check that episode out. Now, I want to point out that this series is a bit atypical from other Going Scared episodes.

First of all, it’s a three-part series with the same person, and as you’re going to hear, you’re going to be counting down the days until next week and your next episode. It’s also the first series where faith plays a critical and central role. Curt is a Christian, and he approaches his psychiatric work from a Biblical perspective. So, I just wanted to let you guys know because I know that this is a very faith-inclusive podcast, but that is the context of these three episodes.

And lastly, it’s the first time I’m actually wondering if we need to change the podcast name, because after two hours of talking with Curt, now more than ever I want to turn away from fear towards pursuing a life of being known and loved, which is a great antidote to a life of fear and anxiety. I don’t know, what do you think? Going Known? Going Loved? Going Together? We’ll brainstorm that one.

So, this week we kick it off with Curt sharing a bit more about his story and the role doubt has played in his life, and we then set the framework for our current COVID-19 context. Next week, we’ll do a deep dive into anxiety and fear, and then we’ll wrap it all up with how noticing beauty can actually change the world.

So, speaking of beauty, I truly hope you consider shopping Noonday Collection for all of your loved ones this holiday season, because that is right, we have all of your family members covered. We have our first ever men’s collection, we have DIY kits for kids, we have home items like candles and little trinket trays, and of course along with our special gold jewelry that tells a greater story, so we’ve got you covered. So, it means so much to me to know that my Going Scared listeners will be gifting and getting some Noonday under the tree this year. So, make sure you visit NoondayCollection.com. Alright, sit back, here we go, Dr. Curt Thompson.

 

Dr. Curt Thompson: Being Known and Loved
Part 1

Jessica: So, this is such a treat, you guys. There is no one else in the world like this man, Dr. Curt Thompson. And for the first time we’re doing a three-part series, so just, we’re gonna settle in, which is good, because Curt is an incredible storyteller and is a very captivating person to listen to. So, it’s gonna to be a really great series. But I wanted to tell the listeners first just how we met, Curt. Well, we really met at a small, like there were eight of us in this enneagram class with Ian Cron.

Dr. Thompson: Yeah, there were very few of us, yeah, yeah.

Jessica: Very few of us. That was my first sort of learning about the enneagram. And there I am, soon to find out I was sitting across from Dr. Curt Thompson, one of the speakers at the retreat. And we got to know each other after that leadership retreat, and I even had you down to my family ranch in Texas for another leadership retreat. And that maybe was your first time to eat barbecue with, you know, no silverware? Is that…?

Dr. Thompson: Yeah, I think it was. I mean, the trip to the ranch and the stop to eat the barbecue was… like I still vividly see it in my mind and the table and the paper towels and just… And it was just  a luscious experience. It was awesome.

Jessica: Kreuz’s in Lockhart, guys. You’ve got to come to Texas and go to Kreuz’s. So, this is the first time we’re doing this three-part series. So, I thought we would just start off, and I’m a little embarrassed to say because, Curt, you are all about knowing people and being known. And as I was preparing for our time together, I realized I don’t know if I’ve heard your story on how you discovered your unique purpose, which in my limited perspective, is to help others fully experience their deepest longing, which is to be known. And of course, we teach what we need to learn. And I just, I wanted to hear a little bit more of your story before we kick it all off.

Dr. Thompson: Well, first of all, that’s just very kind to ask. And I kind of say it is such a delight and an honor to be doing this with you, I mean for your listeners who don’t already know this to be the case, is that you’re the real deal. You’re not talking about stuff that you’re not willing to work on yourself. And in the time that we’ve come to know each other, I know you to be somebody who’s not messing around, like you’re getting after it. The things that you talk about are the things that you’re working out in your own life. And any time I’m in the presence of someone who is willing to live in the real world, it enables me to live in the real world that much more effectively, and durably. And so, I’m grateful to God for you and that he’s brought you into my life, and that we’ve got this opportunity to, even right up to this very moment, have this conversation with your listeners.

Jessica: Thank you.

Dr. Thompson: So, thank you. Yeah, you bet. I would, one thing I tell people, I think my experience in life is that it feels like Jesus has been coming to find me over the course of my life in many, many different ways and over different timetables. And I believe I was found when I landed in the family that I landed in: a God-fearing family, imperfect, albeit, you know they were imperfect. And there are plenty of ways in which those imperfections have played themselves out in my life growing up, and even to this day. I’m 58 and I’m even now discovering things about my life with my parents that I’m having to work out, some of those things I’m not very happy about and only now, I’m finally, getting to a point where I can confront certain things. And so, I think God found me in my family. I think God found me at a church camp when I was 13. I think God found me in the school that I went to for university. And I think God was finding me even in the middle of about a 20-year what I call like an existential crisis, this kind of chronic doubt that plagued me off and on and off and on from the time I was about 13 or 14 to the time I was in my early to mid-30s. The whole time longing to be a God follower, but always having parts of my own story that were running interference with that, as it were. And I went off to med school, I tell people I probably went to med school against my better judgement at the time. I kind of been kind of primed for that and went to school, but not really sure what I wanted to do. And it’s in medical school that I really believe that psychiatry found me, or as I like to say that I think God found me in the realm of psychiatry, and brought me into a place where the things that I’m most passionate about and the things that I had some ability in kind of converged.

“It feels like Jesus has been coming to find me over the course of my life in many, many different ways and over different timetables.” Dr. Curt Thompson

And then about 16, or 17 years ago, after I’d been in practice for about… I’d been in practice for about 15 years, and I encountered this world, the newly emerging world of what we call interpersonal neurobiology. It’s kind of a fancy, schmancy term for this combination of how the brain and relationships interact with each other, to shape one another, and how paying attention to that brain science, that neuroscience and that science about relationships also is a reflection, a powerful reflection of the gospel. And that really transformed the way I began to practice psychiatry, everything from the medical end of things, the psychopharmacology, you know, medication that we use for the treatment of depression and anxiety and bipolar disorder and a whole range of other experiences that people have, right down to the way that we talk about what it means to be human and how we do psychotherapy, and then the way that it has shaped our practice, and the way that we emphasize now the use of community and groups as a way to really help people do their best living. And along the way, I’ve had the privilege of writing a couple of books, and I just completed a third that I’m waiting for edits on it to come out in this next summer. And I’m, I would say in the middle of all this, you said earlier, Jess, that, you know, you name things or you discover things, then you have to work them out. And I feel like in both instances, both of these books that I’ve written, I’ve written some things, and then I have to work out the stuff that I’ve written. And this most recent book on shame, I write the book and spent the next five years working stuff out in my own life that had everything to do with shame, unfinished shame business in my own life in a number of different ways. And so, along the way, I would say, God has found me with people.

He didn’t just find me in this abstract thing called psychiatry. I believe God, you know, Jesus came to find me with you. Jesus came to find me in my marriage to my wife, Phyllis, with our kids who are now adults. Jesus has come to find me with significant relationships, with about a dozen men that I can name that if they’re not in my life, I’m a dead man. And a number of relationships with other good friends of mine, whom I think of the retreat that we had at your ranch, and I think of how I’ve had the privilege of being in relationship with the people who were there, the women who were there that weekend, and thinking like, "My goodness. I don’t deserve my life." And with each passing turn of the earth, there is this sense in which God is trying to convince me that He really does love me as much as the scriptures claim that He does, despite my resistance to it.

“With each passing turn of the earth, there is this sense in which God is trying to convince me that He really does love me as much as the scriptures claim that He does, despite my resistance to it.” Dr. Curt Thompson

Jessica: So, I am curious about this doubting, I didn’t know that piece of your story. And curiously enough, my daughter and I, one night this week laid in bed and listened to our mutual friend, Jennie Allen’s Podcast, where she shares about doubt, and she wrote a book, "Get Out of Your Head." That was a lot of her story about doubt. And my daughter is a very scientific, logical, analytical person who also throws no shade. I mean, girlfriend is honest, and she’s not going to fake her way through faith or anything else in life. And we just began to talk about doubt and how faith and doubt can coexist. At the same time we want to feed our faith, because you can feed faith, you can feed doubt. And you know, one thing she said is that she’s even had some shame sharing about this in faith circles. So, I’d love to hear a little bit more about your story around doubt and how you learned to live with that tension.

 

A Journey of Understanding Doubt

Dr. Thompson: Well, you know, it’s really interesting, I’ve even come to learn I would say in the last, within the last 10 years, things about doubt that I certainly didn’t know when I was in the middle of it. And the first thing I would say is this, is that when we commonly talk about doubt as opposed to faith — we commonly do that, we pit them, we think that there’s doubt and there’s faith. And what’s really interesting, there was a well-known, he’s no longer living, a well-known philosopher of science by the name of Michael Polanyi. He’s a brilliant guy, but who was able to write and communicate in ways that were very straightforward and clear and helpful. You know, one of the things that he points out is that if you’re gonna be in science, if you’re gonna be in science, you have to be open to doubt. So, this is a scientist, he was a physical chemist, which is about as smart as you get. And he’s saying, if I believe one thing, so if I’m a scientist and I’m testing the limits of our scientific knowledge about a certain thing, a chemical interaction, or physics or biology or whatever it is, in order for me… if I start to doubt something, right, so Copernicus and Galileo doubted the common scientific understanding of the world at the time. For them to doubt one thing means that they are actually having faith in something else. So, in some respects, doubt is a misnomer. It turns out that doubt first of all is not just doubt. It is the moment that I doubt one thing, I’m trusting in a different authority. That’s exactly what I’m doing. In fact, we often say that doubt helps us with faith. It’s important to know, we are only ever people of faith. The question is, what at this moment am I putting my faith in? What am I putting my faith in? I hope that makes some kind of sense.

Jessica: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Thompson: But for me, so here’s the other thing. And this is what’s crucial about the world that we live in now, when we talk about… You know, when I was going through my existential crisis, a lot of it had to do with this, it began when I was about 13, or 14, as I said, and it was all in the playground of faith and religious experience, over and against and versus science. And that’s a whole other conversation that we can have, because one of the things that we recognize, again as Polanyi wisely said once, "There’s no such thing as science, there are only scientists." I mean, science, what is that? Well, it’s a discipline, it’s a collection of things that, you know, there’s data out there about the way the world works. But the only way we know about it is because people tell us. The data does not speak for itself; people have to tell us what the data is, and people give meaning to that data every time that they tell us. And so, the question then becomes one of trust. Who are the people in whom I’m going to have faith? And if I’m doubting people who talk to me about Jesus, it’s because I’m trusting somebody else who’s telling me a different story. It’s not about discovering facts that are provable versus other facts that are not provable. It’s about who am I trusting? And for me, it’s interesting that you mentioned your daughter talks about the shame that she experiences in mentioning her doubt in faith circles. What I tell people is that typically, when doubt becomes painful, it is because it is wrapped around with shame. It’s not about the doubt, it’s about the shame.

“Typically, when doubt becomes painful, it is because it is wrapped around with shame. It’s not about the doubt, it’s about the shame.” Dr. Curt Thompson

And, you know, one of the things that I did that was so painful for me, that I didn’t discover until after I started to see a spiritual director, when I was in my 30s, was that my doubt was really about not just, am I doubting a certain thing? Kind of like, you know, we can doubt lots of things. If I plan to go for a hike tomorrow, but I doubt that it’s gonna be sunny, the weather looks like… I doubt the weather is going to be good enough for me to go on a hike, I change my plan. I don’t get wrapped around the axle about it. I might be disappointed, but I don’t have some personal existential crisis about my doubt in the weather, because shame isn’t involved. But my doubt around faith, as it turned out, was not just I doubt whether or not the Bible is true, it takes it further than that. For me, in my young 13, 14-year-old mind, what I wasn’t aware of that was taking place, and it was taking place for the next 20 years, was that, to doubt that the gospel is true means that I’m wrong. And for me to be wrong is to be humiliated. Because for me in my growing up years, and again, this was not something that my parents actively did, but the story that I took in, the story that I ingested and digested, and metabolized was that at some level when it comes to ultimate things, Curt, if you’re wrong, there’s going to be some community out there that’s gonna humiliate you because of it. At the end of the day, they’re gonna look at you and say, "How stupid could you have been?" And so, you see, doubt in and of itself is not just a function of whether or not I think something happens to be true, whether or not I think it’s gonna be true, that it’s gonna rain tomorrow or not. Doubt is often coupled relationally with the question of, who will be with me if I’m wrong? If I’m wrong, will you still want to stay in the room with me?

If there’s something wrong about me, if I’m imperfect, if I am mistaken, if I’m too much, if I’m not enough, if I’m too broken, will you stay in the room? Will you come to find me? If I’m wrong about Jesus, will you still love me? If I’m wrong about who I am and what I think? And as it turns out, Jess, that’s not a question at all, about whether or not the gospel is true. That’s an interpersonal question about whether or not I believe I’m loved. And as I came to discover, my doubts, that got packaged and wrapped in the form of faith and science for such a long time, really it wasn’t about either one of those. It was much more personal that it was much more deeply connected to the story that had kind of taken up residence in my life, and again, this has to do with attachment and why when we talk about attachment processes, those things are so important, that I grew up with the sense that I’m alone in the world, ultimately, at the end of the day. As I said, I had two parents who were both deeply committed to God, and people of integrity, people of great generosity, and warmth and care. And my dad was a guy who you know, the common phrase, and as I tell people, I don’t know if this is just an Ohio thing where I grew up, like, you know parents were sent home with like one disciplined instruction, and that is to say, "You stop your crying or I’m gonna give you something to cry about." This is my dad’s phrase. And which is, I think besides the fact that it’s internally illogical, you know, it was kind of like the one tool that he had in his box. And he was a man of great integrity, a man who believed in doing the right thing, and he’s also a man who didn’t want to be crossed. He didn’t want you disagreeing with him, he wanted you to do what he wanted you to do immediately with no argument.

And, you know, as I look back on it, I discovered, well, he’s a guy who actually didn’t tolerate very easily other people being upset with him, as it turns out. So, his children were never really… you know, I’m the youngest of four sons, and, and none of us were really given the opportunity or the permission to be angry at the house. And by that, I don’t mean throwing chairs around, I mean, we couldn’t raise our voice, we couldn’t disagree in that sense. And so, I learned to be afraid of anger. I didn’t know that that’s what I was doing, but I learned to be afraid of anger. And my dad was also someone who, God bless him, himself did not have an opportunity to have conversations. I mean, he was a guy who loved me passionately, with great affection, I have no question or doubt about that. And he was a guy who had not a single, meaningful interpersonal conversation with me about my life in the entire time that he was alive. He did not ask me questions about girls or dating or women or sex or career, or things that were hard, let alone my internal life. Those were never areas that we ever explored. And of course, I didn’t… as a kid growing up, it’s not like I knew that. There was a classic moment when I was about 15 years of age when my mother came to me once and said, "Your father asked me why it is that you will talk to me about certain things and you won’t talk to him." And I remember, I can still see where we were standing, and I looked at her and I said, "Do you hear what you’re asking me? Like my dad’s asking why I don’t talk to him, but he’s asking you this question? He’s not asking me this question?" And she looked at me and said, "I know." And of course, nothing was ever mentioned after that.

Jessica: Yeah, right.

Dr. Thompson: So this is my relationship with my dad, which is, in the language of attachment, we would say is a bit of a like… so I had a bit of a connection that was probably somewhat avoidant, it’s a particular technical term like, so there’s certain emotional states and certain parts of my story that like were just off limits for us to talk about. So, I learned to either ignore those or to be afraid of them. And then on the other side of the ledger, my mom, again, a deeply, deeply committed follower of Jesus, but who herself was functionally orphaned, growing up as a kid, survived the suicide of an older brother, survived the suicide of that older brother’s son,  mother died when she was three. She was just kind of sent from home to home to home throughout her growing up years. And as it turned out, you know, she’s pretty anxious. And it meant that even though she was my spiritual mentor, I mean, it was, she was the one with whom we talked about faith in Jesus, and she was the one who would give me books to read and C.S. Lewis, and the Living Bible and all of these things, and at the same time, if I were to express doubt, it would really upset her. And so the very things that were internally the most important stuff to me that were either parts of my deepest longings or parts of my deepest worries, were either things that because of my dad like I couldn’t talk about at all, or because of my mum I was too afraid to talk about. And so, mine was a life in which as it turned out, I process a lot of stuff on my own. And, you know, that’s not a good place to be, because like it’s not good for man to be alone. But I didn’t know that. And then it wasn’t probably then until, as I said, until I’d been married for a number of years, and I started to see a spiritual director in my early 30s, and it was then, and this gentleman is now in his, he’s now 80, and he’s still my director. I meet him once a month.

Jessica: Wow.

Dr. Thompson: Yeah, yeah. It was then, and like as I’m talking to him, I’m discovering like, "Oh my gosh," like, you know, he became for me what my father wasn’t able to be. He became for me what my mother wasn’t able to be. And I began to discover that my doubt was a lot more not so much about faith, or about science, but it was about relationships. And in the way shame ultimately can carve out its own niche within one’s own story, and kind of take up residence and begin to shape lots of different things, which it had continued to right up until the last few years of my life that I’m still having to work through.

 

Coming Together Despite the Distance

Jessica: Thank you for sharing. This makes me want to go in a different direction than I thought we would go at this moment. I’m thinking about attachment and COVID-19. And you have said in blog posts, which, by the way guys, Curt’s website is so amazing. I love your new website, and it’s so full of so many resources, at curtthompson.com, right?

Dr. Thompson: Yeah, curtthompsonmd.com.

Jessica: MD. You see, you had to have MD in there Curt. Touché, touché. Okay. So, you… And I mean, so many people, my therapist friends are like, their business is booming right now, it’s booming. And you say now, that the COVID-19 has just revealed what is already there in all of us, however we’re dealing with the uncertainty, with the seclusion and isolation, with the fear of getting sick, with even grief and death itself it’s simply revealing what’s already there. And so, I’m curious how attachments play into this reveal and how we’re experiencing what we’re experiencing right now whether it’s in a healthy way, or whether it’s in anxiety, fear and depression sort of way?

Dr. Thompson: Yeah. Well, to be sure, I also, just to be clear, I do believe that COVID is causal. I do believe it is causing its own set of problems that in some respects are unique to our time. And by unique, I mean just in terms of the mechanics of it, in terms of the isolation, the form or the ways in which we’re isolating and so forth. So, it’s not that I think that it’s only revealing, but I do think there is a great deal that it is causing, and it is also revealing things that have been true about us for a long, long time. I think that just to take a quick example, I wanna be very, you know, from the outset I’m not a Luddite. I’m someone who believes that technology can be really helpful and enable our lives to be more convenient, more healthy, more durable, more available to each other. And there are a lot of ways in which social media has provided a lot of good things for people. But I wanna also emphasize that social media has provided good things for people, but it has not made us good people. It has certainly not made us better people. And as we like to say about all technologies, every single technology does at least two things. One is that it can make life more convenient and accessible to us, can make life more convenient, because now it only takes two minutes to throw a potato into a microwave and cook it rather than cook it for an hour. But the other thing that technology always does, beginning with the wheel, at the same time that it makes life more convenient it also has the potential, not that it always does, but it has the potential for creating greater distance between human beings.

The wheel can help me plough my field and it can also help me move my family off as far away from you as I can, because I don’t like you. Facebook can provide all the things that it provides, and it easily enables me to be in an echo chamber in which I only am listening to people of like mindedness and doing so in a disembodied way. And doing so on a platform. And this is what’s really important, doing so on a platform that is dependent upon my becoming increasingly distractible.

Jessica: Because our attraction is the commodity that they’re after. Or not our attraction, our attention.

Dr. Thompson: Right, exactly, exactly. That’s exactly right. My attention is, if I’m actually someone who’s really good at paying attention to one thing, one thing only for a long period of time, I’m gonna be a problem for Facebook. Because first of all, I’m not gonna want to be on a medium, I’m not gonna want to be involved with a medium that is changing things. Like if I wanna read "War and Peace," if I wanna sit for two hours with you Jess, with you and Joe, and have a long, lingering meal, I don’t wanna be distracted by advertising, I don’t wanna be distracted by somebody else’s newsfeed, I don’t want the ticker run that’s going… like I just want to be with you. And that’s not gonna be good for Facebook, because they need me to be distracted by multiple different things, because that’s where advertising can make their money. And again, this is not to say that all these things are bad. But it is to say it’s important for us to recognize that this particular practice that has been going on now for the last, you know, 6 to 12 years, in increasingly dense ways has formed us in such a way that we are increasingly unable to tolerate being in the presence of people where in which there’s also distress. Because my attentional mechanism, first of all, can’t tolerate just being in one place at one time for an extended period of time. And emotionally, I am less and less durable. Because we grow, we strengthen by stressing our system. The long bone in the leg, the femur in the leg is strong because it weight bears, because it pounds the surface of the earth every day. When you go to the weight room, you strengthen musculature by stressing it, by actually causing little microfiber tears on the way to bench pressing 130 to 150 to 220.

If we’re going to be more resilient, we actually have to be in situations that enable us to be stressed, but not overwhelmed, and stressful situations that we can actually engage in. I can get on the Internet and look at Facebook and be stressed. But I’m being stressed internally without having access to a real human being with whom I could sit down and have a conversation with them about our differences. Instead, I’m just in an echo chamber. And so all that this does, is that it reinforces, it reinforces the notion A, that I am alone, and B, that I don’t have anybody who’s coming to help me navigate this, especially someone who is different than me. And that’s crucially important in terms of how any and all of this is taking place.

“If we’re going to be more resilient, we actually have to be in situations that enable us to be stressed, but not overwhelmed, and stressful situations that we can actually engage in.” Dr. Curt Thompson

Jessica: So, obviously I’m raising, you know, I’ve got these preteens, teenagers, and I hear you, and we watched “The Social Dilemma” a couple weeks ago, and my daughter has an iPhone. I thought my boys were "safe" because they don’t have iPhones, but then online learning happened, and we’ve been 100% virtual learning now. The summer was awesome, we went on trips, we left all tech at home, we went… I mean, my kids were without any technology for about six weeks. And it was a beautiful, epic, amazing time. And I mean, my… Joe’s parents are pretty much Mennonites. And so, it’s really fun to go and visit them because it does feel like just, yeah, everyone’s really present. Actually, no one on that family is highly addicted to tech. And, I mean, they all are on it, but it’s not a thing. So now, just yesterday, actually, I noticed on Amelie’s screen time this new this thing, I didn’t know what it was. And I was like, "What is this?" And so, I told her last night, "Hey, I don’t know what this is." And she’s like, "Oh, you just talked to people about that game. You know, that game I love playing. I’m in a chat room mom. Don’t worry. It’s really safe. It’s not bad." And we just talked about this game. And I said, "Well, I’m a little concerned, because I don’t know who these people are, and they’re just strangers, you know, out there in the world. And it’s all online." She goes, "Mom, the whole world is online right now, that’s all we have." And Curt, I didn’t really know what to say to that. I mean, other than the fact that we are in the process of switching two of my kids to a school that’s not online, you know, I mean, so help me, help me, because I… where does creativity and solution orient, you know, how can we be solution-oriented in this conversation?

 

Being Connected, Being Known, and Being Immersed

Dr. Thompson: So, this is where I would say, this really is one of those elements in which COVID is actually doing something. It’s not just revealing things, it is also doing something, it’s putting us in a position in which we are actively facing things that are stressful coming to us from the outside. As I wrote in one of the initial essays in response to COVID, I think this continues to be the case, that the story of Jeremiah and the exile of the Jews to Babylon in and around the mid-580s BC is germane to our conversation and to our moment in that you had a people who were living really effectively as far as they were concerned. And the Babylonian horde became their version of COVID. And it categorically disrupted their lives with about 80% to 90% of the population being carted off to exile, having to walk or travel by donkey, or by cart over about a 900-mile piece of territory through the desert. So, who knows how many even survived to get to this space? And, of course, there were prophets in Jeremiah’s day, who, when all this was happening, were saying everything from, oh, you know, first of all, they would say, well, the Babylonians they’re not really gonna come. And then they said, oh, they’re gonna come, but they’re not going to attack us. You know, they’re not going to destroy us, or they’re not going to take us into exile. And even if they do it, you know, Nebuchadnezzar is going to find out that six weeks into this he’s going to get tired of it, and he’s gonna let us return home very quickly. And Jeremiah, at a return would say, "Folks, here’s the news: This is really hard, and it’s gonna be hard for a while, it’s gonna be hard for at least two generations. And so, you need to dig in. When you get to Babylon, build your houses, marry, have families, raise them, plant your gardens. When you raise your families, have them marry and pray for the peace and the health of the city."

And in this, I think that we have, I think that we have a model and I think that we have some instruction that are relevant to our time. God was very clear to the prophet Jeremiah, that the people were gonna have to do hard work for a long period of time. They’re going to have to do hard work for a long period of time. Now, it’s fair to say that we could have a long conversation about the role of technology and how it is that the virus has done what it’s done in the first place. But we’ve become, you know, if we didn’t have technology, and we couldn’t go to school, we would be like sending stuff home for parents, like we do in person. Like everybody would be homeschooled, and everybody’s jobs would be turned upside down. And there’d be a whole range of different things that would be taking place. But the point is, that everybody would be far more in person than they are. We would be embodied in person. This is what the Jews, like the Jews were not gonna just go and then just disperse throughout the Babylonian Empire, no. They were going to go, and they were still to be their own enclave. They were still to be the people of God. Interestingly enough, it was at and during this time, and there shortly thereafter that so many of the Old Testament texts were collected by the rabbis. In this time of trauma was when so much of what we now have as the holy Old Testament Scriptures were collected, collated, put together, put together in a common tannin. Think of that, things being that hard and that’s where all that goodness and beauty emerged. And so, for us, it’s going to be tantamount to a call for greater familial intimacy. So, what are our families doing on a regular basis to be together? And you know, our kids, because they’ve so acculturated to being online, my recommendation is going to be, then we’re going to have to counterman that, and we’re going to have to do so by spending as much time being creative in person as we can.

“Our kids, because they’ve so acculturated to being online, we’re going to have to counterman that, and we’re going to have to do so by spending as much time being creative in person as we can.” Dr. Curt Thompson

So that means if, and I want to acknowledge, here’s the thing I want to acknowledge, Jess it really is hard for parents whose kids are having to be online schooled all day long. This is hard. And parents who like, is it gonna be, I’m going to be a parent to my child, or I’m gonna actually have a job? Which am I going to… Like people who are in the middle of have to make these hard, hard choices and it’s in this space, where I see that the place of the church is called to be. Our church in Washington, DC has decided, and we’re, at this point we’re not a really large congregation, we have about 100 folks in our congregation. And we’ve decided that we want to provide a space in the afternoon for students to come and study, where parents can bring their kids and drop them off, so that parents can do what they need to do but so those children will be in person with other kids, socially distance and so forth, with tutors. Because we want to give parents some relief, because otherwise, these kids would just be at home online. And we want these kids to have the experience that even if their school, and maybe these kids are in DC public schools, and they’re not going to be, you know, they’re all online, we want these kids to have in-person experiences. And so, it’s gonna be crucially important, you know, when Emily says, "No, mom, you don’t have to worry about it. Everybody’s online." I would say, "Well, tell me about the game. Let’s talk about the game. What is the game like? Tell me what you like about it. Tell me what’s hard about it." So that the things that they’re doing, you’re giving them opportunity to have conversations with this, and to continue to talk about how challenging it is, for us to be in this moment, over and over and over again.

I think, we, in one of the essays I write about grief. And I write about the fact that you know, we have this idea that if I’m grieving something, and I’m, if I have a loss, and I tell you Jess about the loss, I kind of like live with the notion that, well, once I’ve told you about the loss, then I’ve told you. Now, the grief for me continues, but I would feel bad about coming back and telling you about the grief again and again and again and again, because at some point you’re gonna get tired of listening to me. But that is exactly what I need to be doing. I need to know that just like my God, you’re not gonna get tired of me. You’re not going to be ashamed of my ongoing grief, just because I haven’t yet worked it all out. And that’ll be important for all of us to be doing with their kids and with each other in the coming months, because I think this is gonna be with us for a while. So, you know, I think at one level, we Americans, we think like it’s somewhere, at some point there is gonna be you know some solution, there’s going to be something that we can do that will relieve us of our affliction. So, tell us what do we do so that we will be okay and not be in this affliction? And I want to say, I don’t know, just like the Jews like, no, you’re not gonna be coming back to Jerusalem for at least 70 years. There isn’t a quick solution for this, the work is going to be about being connected to each other on a regular basis, being known to each other in deep and meaningful ways, being immersed in good storytelling. So, in the first essay I write, there’s about a dozen recommendations that I have for things that people can do concretely. Those, now that we’ve been at this for nine months, they still hold, they still hold, it’s still true. And I would say never, more than ever, what’s really important is that we practice engaging in stories that are rich and meaningful, emotionally provocative, that really kind of invite us to be curious about our own mental lives in order for us to practice perseverance.

“There isn’t a quick solution for this, the work is going to be about being connected to each other on a regular basis, being known to each other in deep and meaningful ways, being immersed in good storytelling.” Dr. Curt Thompson

We are about practicing perseverance in this particular time in our lives. You know, I mentioned that, and I think there’s one I read on time, and it’s this notion that the brain is pretty good at doing a lot of things if it knows what its time limit is. So, if you have a have an injury, and I say, "Jess, this injury is going to take you six weeks to completely heal from." Now, six weeks might feel like a long time, but you have a timeframe, and you can lock in on that and you’re gonna be able to tolerate that pretty well. If you were to have an injury, and I would say to you, "Jess, the news is hard and that is that this injury that has happened to your knee or to whatever, you’re gonna have a problem with this for the rest of your life." Now, you’re not gonna like that, but your brain still has a time dimension that it can measure against. I know, like so this is with me for the rest of my life, and so I’m gonna have to find ways to do something with that. What the brain does not tolerate very well at all, is if I say to you, "Jess, this injury, it’s important, it’s significant, and I don’t know how long it’s gonna be a problem for you. I can’t tell you." Those are things that we don’t know. And when we don’t know those things, our pain, our pain becomes suffering. Suffering not just because I’m in pain, but because my brain does not have a timeframe within which to measure it. And COVID is kind of like that. You know, we don’t have a timeframe. We don’t know when this is gonna be over. And so it all the more calls for us to be in the present, like practicing being in the present moment, because I’m forever wanting to race out over the edge of the horizon to the future, hoping, "Oh, well at least in two… Oh no, not in two months, because I don’t know how long this is gonna last," and so I get more anxious.

And so practicing being in the present moment, practicing intentionally having conversations, even if those are conversations about people’s experiences that they’ve been having on the Internet all day, reading to each other, being immersed in good literature, being immersed in the Scriptures, being immersed in physical activity together, whether that’s building things, making things, being immersed together in acts of creativity, all those are gonna be important things for us in the coming months.

Jessica: Being in the present moment, having intentional conversations which means our iPhones are nowhere near us, reading to one another, reading good books, doing physical activity together – it reminds me a lot of what my COVID-19 spring looked like when we thought this was going to be short, and so we did a lot of that as a family. But then somewhere along the way, we all got so fried and exhausted that it’s just, it feels a lot more like we’re swimming upstream.

So, this episode was a good reminder to me that the practices that worked in the spring are going to work right now, even as our travel plans fall apart for the holidays, even as our holidays are gonna look so much different than we thought they were back in the spring, we can still go back to those things and to those practices.

If you want to read more about Curt’s writings and his practices he’s addressed during COVID-19, go check out his website: curtthompsonmd.com. There is just a wealth of goodness there.

Our wonderful music for today’s show is by Ellie Holcomb. Going Scared is produced by Eddie Kaufholz. And I’m Jessica Honegger. Until next time, let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.