Episode 123 – Dr. Curt Thompson, Being Known and Loved – Pt. 3

This week, we conclude 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 this series, 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.


Jess: 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.

Okay, one of the emotions that I am finding to be an antidote to cynicism and emotional exhaustion is wonder, and what inspires wonder? For me, beauty inspires wonder. So, I have been regularly on the hunt for beauty these days, becoming more intentional about noticing my environment, whether it’s a changing tree in my neighborhood, or we went a little all-out this year decorating our front yard for Christmas because I just wanted to notice beauty more – it connects me to my truest self.

Now, this is the last series in our three-series episodes with Dr. Curt Thompson, psychiatrist, author, and real-life friend of mine. Last week, we talked about anxiety, and in the first week, we really talked about doubt in the context of COVID-19. Well, we are wrapping it up today where Curt ask us: How often are we placing ourselves in the path of oncoming beauty?


Dr. Curt Thompson: Being Known and Loved
Part 3

Jess: I went on a walk with a friend the other day – she’s a therapist so it was easy to do this – but I was sharing something with her, and I realized as we continued to walk and she started sharing, that I was still kind of stuck and I was like thinking about her interpretation of the story that I had just shared. And she also had offered a couple of solutions and anyway, I just said, "Hey, the story I’m telling myself right now about what I just told you is this and it’s creating a distraction for me right now." And she was able to say, "Well, you know, that thought crossed my mind but then, I was able to just let it go and I just want you to know, I love you and I’m with you. That’s 100% all I want you to know." And it it’s just so good to be able to because… But, I mean, Curt, we’re talking about things that just don’t come naturally for people. I mean, you’re a professional, you’re a master. I mean, you truly, you are a master craftsman when it comes to this work of creating spaces for people to feel known and loved and to usher in the presence of God. I mean, if only we could put you in a pill. But, you know, you’re better than Xanax. You’re better than Xanax.

Curt: That’s really nice.

Jess: Curt Thompson, better than Xanax. Let’s put that on your website. But man, I mean…

Curt: I think I will.

Jess: Yeah, do it. You know, this is like, whew, stuff, you know, that even someone, I mean, I say that I’m relatively practiced, I’ve been practicing relationships for, you know, intimate, vulnerable relationships for, I mean, actually, maybe just more of the last like 5 to 10 years, but I guess what I’m saying is I’m offering some practical advice that if you… I mean, you can join a formal group which AA. I mean, there’s so many different groups out there which is a great place to start, but if you’re also in friendships but you’re feeling like, “I always feel like I’m this problem to be solved when I share this with this friend,” you know, I think that there’s a lot of beauty, I mean, to your point earlier that relationships are an act of creation. I love that. And conversations are what ultimately can create a new future for us. If we’re not having those conversations, we aren’t going to be able to create this new future. So if you can even say that to a friend like, "Hey, I wanna experience the feeling of known and loved and could I share this story with you and could you just sit with me in it." Because it’s uncomfortable. I mean, as a listener, especially for me, I’m such a problem solver, an entrepreneur, I’m a creative. Ultimately, that’s… yeah, ultimately, creativity is about sort of solving a problem in the world, right? And so, learning…

Curt: No, wait, wait, wait.

Jess: What, what, what?

Curt: I’m gonna press back against that.

Jess: Press against it. You don’t have any problems doing that.

Curt: So in the book that is gonna be coming out, in the next book that I’ve… hopefully, it’s gonna be coming out in the summer next year, one of the very things that I invite the readers to reframe and reconsider is that the primary narrative of Genesis, when it comes to creativity, when the husband and the wife, naked and unashamed, differentiated and vulnerable and in the absence of shame, are standing on the precipice of great creativity, they were not standing on the precipice of a problem to be solved. One of the things that our brokenness does is that it has us comprehending and understanding the world mostly through a lens of pathology. In medical school, we have one course, well, at least when I was in medical school, one course that lasts for two years, and that’s pathology, because we largely see the world as a problem to be solved, as a diagnosis to be made so that we can treat the illness. I wanna be clear and suggest that those are important ways for us to understand the world. In fact, many businesses start with this question: What’s the problem that we’re trying to fix here? And again, I wanna be very clear, like that is not unimportant in our world but I want to suggest that creative… But that comes largely, that is dominantly moving out of a left hemispheric mode of engaging the world that the world is out there. It’s there. It’s something that I’m analyzing. It is a thing that I see. I’m objectively assessing it. I’m naming, decide, I see where the problems are in order for me to fix those problems. It’s the thing that is over there that is apart from me. But Genesis II invites us into a different mode of operating. To ask the question, “What is the problem to be solved?” is very different than to ask the question, “What is the next new thing you want to create?” Those are different questions that actually evoke different responses in the brain. The question, ”What is that artifact of beauty and goodness that I want to create?” is a question that draws me more into a posture of being with the other rather than seeing the other as the thing over there that I’m analyzing that I need to fix, repair, diagnose, or treat.

“To ask the question, ‘What is the problem to be solved?’ is very different than to ask the question, ‘What is the next new thing you want to create?’” Dr. Curt Thompson

Again, I wanna make sure that our listeners are hearing, we’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We’re not saying that pathology is unimportant, that naming problems and solving problems is unimportant, absolutely not. It’s necessary, but it is a subset of our primary creative mission. When we read in the Genesis I text, “Therefore be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it,” He’s not implying the earth is a problem to be solved. The textual words suggest the earth is an unmined gem to be discovered and formed.

Relationships are unmined gems to be formed. You know, one of the things that is often the case when we do our group work, we talk about how in our groups and how many relationships, right, it’s this notion that groups happen in three phases. The first phase is people come to the groups and they come because they think they’re gonna come to the group and get information or experience in the group like they’re going to the library. They’re gonna get information that’s going to go help them solve their problem in their life, their problem with their marriage, their problem with their depression, their anxiety with their children, with their parents, with their boss, with their this or that. I’ve got these problems out surrounding but I’m gonna go to go to the group and I’m gonna get information there. At some point, they enter into a second phase in which they discover that being part of this community means that their stories are often like the stories of others, not in the details perhaps but in their felt sense of connection. Gosh, we have different stories but we both know what it means to be ashamed or joyful or afraid or grieving or longing. So now, I feel like, "Oh, I am connected to people in the group." This is phase two, "I’m connected to people in the group, I feel a common bond with them but still, in order for me to go out and solve my problem that exists outside my group." The real life is happening outside the group. The group itself is kind of artificial. It’s not really real life. This is this thing that I’m doing in Thompson’s practice, it’s not real life. But eventually, Jess, people get to the third phase in which they discover that the work of life is actually what’s happening in the group itself, that that is the act of creativity in which when they then go and are in the other parts of their lives, their other parts of their lives are being transformed because of the primary life work they are doing in the group.

And so when we are talking with you and when your listeners are talking, when we think about like I don’t want to just have the conversations with my friends in order to be known so that I can then go and apply that to my real life. We want to say that those conversations, the very act of the conversation is the essence of real life, it is the work. It is the work that enables me to live effectively in other domains of life. When UCLA and their men’s basketball team was so dominant between the mid to late 1960s and the mid 1970s when John Wooden was the coach, players would often remark about how the practices that Wooden ran – now, Wooden was actually a person of faith himself who was kind and generous and never raised his voice but he was extraordinarily disciplined. And his practices were well known to be these lengthy, rehearsed ways of running plays over and over and over and over again until his players could do these things in their sleep. And the players would later comment about how games would come around and games were not nearly as easy as their practices… I mean, were not nearly as hard as their practices were.

Their practices, they were so rigorous in their practices that when they went to game day, it was just kind of an easy extension. Even though the games are the things that people would pay attention to and keep the records about, real life on the court was taking place in their practices. And so we would say that in the very telling of our stories, I’m not just telling my story to someone so that I can solve my problem or solve their problem that they can then go apply to the rest of their real life. We’re saying that the very act of revealing my story to my friend, my two or three friends, that we’re gonna do in these coming months, the very act, like that in and of itself is a creative act. That in and of itself creates the possibility for transformation in my own heart, mind, and body so that we are not separating the hard work that we’re doing about being known from being creative at the same moment.


Capturing Childlike Wonder

Jess: I wanted to ask for you to share this story. You shared it with me the other day. I was in a bit of emotional distress and I remember thinking, "This is a really good story. I’m not gonna be able to remember the story. Oh, good, I can have it recorded." But you were talking about the power of creation and of art and specifically about… you were talking about how it looks like a three-year-old could make, you know. Does this ring…? Yeah, would you share that? Because I wanna have that on recording for me to re-listen to, And I do just think in this time, and I know I have found that the act of creation is saving me. I mean, the act of even when anxiety and shame want to shut me down, still, I mean, I obviously have a creative job. But I mean, we all have our areas where we get to create and bring beauty into the world, whether it’s through building relationships or making an amazing dinner or, I mean, I think that’s why everyone was off like figuring out the perfect sourdough recipe for a while. And it is a rebellion, right, in a way, this act of creating. So, share with me a little bit of that story.

Curt: So, some of your listeners may be familiar with the work of Mako Fujimura. And he’s a Japanese-American artist known for his work in abstract, the abstract form of Nihonga, N-I-H-O-N-G-A. It’s a Japanese artwork that uses crushed pulverized minerals, gold, silver, platinum, among other things, and creates these, I mean, they’re just breathtaking canvases. And I’ve had the opportunity in the last few years to become friends with Mako. And in spending some time with him one time, we were having a conversation about abstract work. And if you look at some of the folks who’ve done abstract work with color and with imagery in recent years, we were talking and Mako said, you know, some people, you often hear if you look at an abstract piece of work, you know, some people might say, "Well, gosh, like my three-year-old kid could do that."

And I remember him saying, "And that’s the point." And I’m like, "What’s the point?" And he went on to say that it’s true that children – and we know this to be true in terms of educational settings, right? When children go off to preschool and they go off to first kindergarten, first grade, they are often so eager to be in these environments of learning. They’re soaking things up, they’re doing all kinds of things. And then children get to be around third grade, maybe a little younger in some places, and one of the things that begins to change is that we begin to test children, we assess children to see how well they are aware of their material, are they mastering the material? And at some point, for many kids, what we begin to do is to attach their learning and their creativity to anxiety. We need them to do well on tests. Now there are elements of this that are not bad, right? Because we want people to be able to be… we want them to master things. Like we need engineers to master what it means to build an airplane because we need to know that the airplane is gonna fly and not kill people. So, it’s not to suggest that testing people and that they might be a little anxious about that is a problem all by itself in and of itself.

But for many, this movement toward testing in that way moves us out of our right hemisphere just wanting to create and learn apart from being worried that we’re not doing well enough into this space where we are largely worrying that we’re not doing well enough and so we begin to practice being perfect. So how many children when they’re three years old, they just bring you something, right? They’re creative. They color something, they make something with mud, pies, whatever, they bring it to you, and they think they have Van Gogh. That’s what they think they have. And they’re joyful and they want you to be joyful about it, they want you to think that it’s beautiful because they think that it is, and all of this is taking place in the mind and body of a three-year-old. But as we age, we become much more concerned about doing things perfectly and right and well. So, by the time I’m an adult, even though someone might say to Mako, "You know, it looks like a three-year-old did that." And Mako would say, "Well, then you do it."

And you know what? Adults have a really hard time actually behaving like a three-year-old when it comes to painting a picture. Because I’ve already been so programmed, I wanna do this right, I wanna do this the right way. So, I’ve gotta be able to paint humans who look like real humans and I get anxious because I can’t do it because I haven’t practiced. The whole notion that I just pick up a brush and freely start to do something on a canvas without worrying about whether or not it’s gonna be enough is virtually impossible for me to do. And Mako’s point was even though we as adults might say, "Oh, my three-year-old could do it," I can’t do it as an adult because I’ve got so many layers of anxiety and shame and worry that are wrapped around my psyche. Such that when we hear Jesus’ words, “Unless you become like little children, you can’t enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Those words have so many different realms of application and one of them is in this realm, this realm that we have often become… as we become adults, we are so worried about our performance, so worried about perfectionism, so worried about being enough that we can’t imagine simply doing on a canvas what our three-year-old would do if you just handed him a brush and say, "Hey, go paint something." And so, for painters like Mako and for others, for Mark Roscoe, they’re just painting color. You’re like, "What is that? Like it’s three bands of color. I don’t get it. Like what’s the big deal about that? Like my three-year-old could do it." Except I couldn’t do it as an adult because I’m working so hard to be the right person that I’ve long ago forgotten what it means for me to create as a child would create, directing that energy toward beauty and joy and the construction of relationships. That’s why three-year-olds make things. They make things because they are joyfully ready to play, and they make stuff as they play. They make these things joyfully because they see them as great beauty and they long for them to be seen as great beauty. Like this is why we have children’s stuff all over refrigerators. But their brains also know that when they bring something to us, this thing now becomes a mediator for building relationship. I bring this to my mom or to my dad and they celebrate this thing and it constructs this bond between the two of us and it makes me wanna go make the next thing. We’ll do it again and again and again.

This, in any respects, is what lay before the first couple at the end of Genesis chapter II, because a child comes innocently, a child comes nakedly, a child comes to someone else because they don’t just make something and leave it there, they wanna show somebody. They need the Other to validate this, to be curious about this, to look at this with wonder. And then what happens if that person – like my daughter, our daughter Rachel who’s now a pastor, she’s 30 years old and married, but when she was little, she would write plays. She would write these little scripts, these screenplays, and of course, like we had to be in them. And my goodness, like she expected us to like act, and you’re being directed by a six-year-old. And of course, like the adults in the room are kind of all standing around but like the thing is for her, this was an act of great creativity and joy and relationship building. And so, everything that you’re doing a new day, for instance, Jess, everything you’re doing at new day, multiple things are happening simultaneously. It’s not this or that. It’s not a problem that you’re solving or a thing that you’re creating. You are acting out of great creativity in that the people with whom you work, especially the women with whom you work to do all the designing and all of the beautiful craftsmanship, they’re creating beauty and simultaneously bringing it to others and those artifacts of beauty themselves are going to be mediators of relationships. And here’s the thing. We were not just made to make beauty. We long to make beauty on the way to ourselves becoming the very beauty that we’re creating. We are becoming the beauty that we are creating. And how many of us really believe that if we were to walk into the room, everyone there would just stop and say, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute." Can we just stop and say, "The beauty in this room has just been raised several notches because Jess walked in, because Joe walked in, because Phyllis or Curt walked in, because Amelie walked in." Like, the beauty in the room has become even brighter because that’s who we are. And you see, this is how our God sees us. You know, the Hebrew, this is so interesting, the Hebrew word for beauty is easily interchangeable with the Hebrew word for good.

“We were not just made to make beauty. We long to make beauty on the way to ourselves becoming the very beauty that we’re creating.” Dr. Curt Thompson

And so when we read in Genesis I, "And God saw that it was good," no matter what it is that we’re talking about that He’s made, we can easily be saying that He saw that it was beautiful. And when we read in the New Testament, when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” it’s interchangeable with, “I am the beautiful shepherd.” We aren’t just made in order for us to do good things. We are made to create beauty on the way to becoming beauty ourselves. And this is the God who has made us, a God who sees us as beauty in the making while we’re creating the very same beauty along the way,


Appreciating Beauty that Surrounds Us

Jess: This is so profound. I’m so glad we recorded this because to imagine, I mean, I’ve always understood that we create these artifacts or that our artisans create these beautiful artifacts and that we get to wear those and they’re very connecting and soulful and we connect to the stories of the people that make them.

Curt: Well, I think it’s important, just to reiterate, that like the craftsman with whom you work, you know, the… I’m sorry, I’m blanking on… your ambassadors who are able to spread this beauty around through sales and that process. It’s as much about reminding ourselves and being reminded that as we make beauty, that we are becoming that, that the craftsmen are becoming deeper more profound expressions of beauty as they make the things that they make. And that as they make them and people buy them, the relationships themselves that are created as a function of that purchase, those relationships themselves become artifacts of beauty and the question is, “Am I willing to pause and see it?” One of the exercises that we give to patients, one of the questions that we’re beginning to ask patients in our practice and have now for the last couple of years is “In what way are you on a regular basis placing yourself in the path of oncoming beauty? In what ways are you practicing on a daily or a weekly basis, exposing yourself to beauty?”

One of the essays about COVID that I wrote addresses this question. And recognizing that if we are willing to be present in the presence of beauty, whether that’s great artwork, whether that’s great music, whatever that happens to be, that we are priming our attention to look for beauty when before, it’s just easy for us to go right by it and not see it. But moreover, it primes us to begin the practice of looking for beauty in really unexpected places and those places are often in the places of greatest suffering. This is why we would say as Christians, Good Friday, crucifixion is generally considered by most historians to be probably… I mean, there would be no more heinous thing that we could do to a human being than to crucify them. There are other forms of torturous, you know, murder and execution that we can come up with, but the Romans themselves – I just got done reading Tom Holland’s book, "Dominion Again," which is a fabulous read – the Romans themselves who perfected the practice of crucifixion, interestingly enough, though they needed it because they needed to keep the slaves under rule, they, in proper company, would never talk about it because it was way too embarrassing even for them. It was too humiliating.

“If we are willing to be present in the presence of beauty, it primes us to begin the practice of looking for beauty in really unexpected places, and those places are often in the places of greatest suffering.” Dr. Curt Thompson

They wouldn’t even want people to know that it was part of their culture despite the fact that they needed to have it in order to keep things under control. It was this awful. And so how is it possible? Holland poses this really profound question, “How is it possible that something that was so awful that the Romans themselves who perfected the practice wouldn’t even talk about it, that one crucifixion in particular has kept to our attention?” One crucifixion in particular has led, imperfectly, but has led to so much of the good and the beauty that we see in our world. And we would say that, like the Romans, we wouldn’t even want to think about, let alone pay attention to with intention to the notion of crucifixion. But here we are actually as Christians saying, "No, in fact, our whole lives depend upon Good Friday."

And looking back through the lens of Easter, through the lens of resurrection, it is fair for us to say that there is nothing more beautiful than a crucified Lord. There is nothing more beautiful than a God who is coming to find us and he’s coming to find us in the places where we are most horribly trapped, most horribly imprisoned in our own isolation, in our own shame, in our own histories of abuse, in our own histories of brokenness, in our own painful broken marriages, our own painful histories of our own families of origin, our own dull, boring work, our own year of COVID, it’s that God who’s coming to find us and He then asks us to go and do this. And who are the people that are coming to find us and who are the people that we’re coming to find? As we do so, it’s important to know that we’re not just doing it to make people feel better. We’re doing so for the purpose of creating beauty in and in the very presence of the places where we are least likely to find it.

Jess: Well, this wraps up our last episode of the year 2020! Oh my gosh, at least we’re wrapping something up in 2020. For the love– Oh guys, it has been a little crazy around here, but thank you so much for journeying with me. To remind you, we started this year off with a series on Finishing Well, we learned from experts on how to not just be starters but actual finishers; and then we moved into our series on Resilience, which arrived just in time for COVID-19, and honestly those are some of my most treasured conversations; and then we moved into the art of Difficult Dialogue series, and what I learned about listening and dialogue during that series has truly changed the way I have conversations; finally, we wrap it up with a three-part series so I hope that you’ll go back, if you are just listening to this one, go back to the other two with Curt Thompson, a psychiatrist. That’s really the only appropriate way to clear it out 2020.

Getting to do this podcast is a true…  I can’t believe I get to do this activity in my life. I get to keep doing it because I have you. I have listeners like you. I have listeners that recommend the podcast, that tell their friends to listen to it, that you post on Instagram or any of your socials and say, “Go listen to this podcast.” I just want to say thank you, because getting to have these conversations is truly life-giving for me, and I want you to be able to listen in to them as well. Now, as we close out the year, go ahead and subscribe to the podcast so you’ll be the first in line to listen to our 2021 kick-off series which is called Going Against the Grain.

And finally, it’s not too late to go fill your cart with some Noonday Collection. Noonday Collection is the social impact fashion brand that I founded, and we have you covered this season. We’ve got a men’s collection, DIY kits for kids, candles and trinket trays, and obviously, the usual beautiful accessories that tell a greater story. We got you covered. So, I want to know are you giving Noonday this year? Are you getting Noonday this year? Come let me know! Follow me on Instagram @JessicaHonegger, that’s two G’s one N. And thanks so much for sticking with us during this crazy, crazy year! I hope you have a restful and celebratory holiday.

Our wonderful music for today’s show is by Ellie Holcomb. Going Scared is produced by Eddie Kaufholz. And I’m Jessica Honegger. And until 2021, let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.