Steve Mitchell, in his book with a new translation of Genesis , made what I found to be a simple, but extremely profound thought.
“Men not punished for their sins, but by their sins.
Sin is usually described in religious circles as an unacceptable act in ‘word or deed’; or as Jimmy Carter suggested one can sin in one’s thoughts as well as in one’s actions. Sin is behavior – either cognitive [covert] behavior: thought or physical [overt] behavior: action. If we forget for the moment our morality lessons and think more broadly than those labels of sin – sin is that which is unacceptable to others. From this social interaction point of view we can posit why, and how, we are punished by our sins. Since sin offends others two things are likely to happen to the person who sins: 1) s/he will feel uncomfortable [sad, bad, guilty, shamed] about the behavior, and/or 2) others will make him/her uncomfortable with their responses [shun, aggress, punish]. In either case, the ‘sin’ has brought its own response. Contrast this with thoughts or behavior of which others approve. Such behavior often brings about personal satisfaction [pride] from merely doing the ‘right thing’ as well as generally generating positive responses from others [praise or reward].
Of course, human behavior is never quite so simplistic; pride is, after all, one of the seven sins. However, in very simplistic terms, we have defined the road to a ‘good life’. Do the right things and get rewarded; do the wrong things and get punished [psychically or physically].
Human beings are endowed with two evolutionarily supported traits: 1) survival of self and 2) survival of the species. The first, survival of self has lead us, particularly in the United States to the concept of personal freedom. The right to be a unique individual and to do what you want impinged only by the responsibility to not injure others. Actually, this responsibility goes further than just ‘do no harm’; we have an evolutionary response that protects the survival of the species. What we call ‘altruism’ is one result of this drive. Such altruism is common in many sophisticated animals as demonstrated, for example, when the dik dik [an African antelope] bounces up and down to warn the herd of an approaching predator. Such bouncing draws attention to the dik dik, and puts the animal in jeopardy of becoming the victim; but it also provides an early protection to the herd and the species. Thus we have an innate propensity to ‘do good to others’, along with our drive to be different and ‘do our own thing’.
These two traits have often come into conflict. Individuals make decisions between these alternative strategies every day. They in fact provide the basic underpinnings for our political preferences and debate: with one group of people emphasizing the principles of individual freedom and another the principles of social good. Usually, defenders of either position change based on their emotional valuation of the issues at hand – or how they think about it. While emotion is a physical sensation which predisposes us to ‘do something’, it has for most civilized human beings come to be mediated by thought. There is little need for immediate response to intuitive fear or anger in a social world, so we can cue up long-term memory and consider the issues and make decisions about how we feel about much of what goes on around us. A down side of this is worry, but that is for another paper.
Complicating this debate about valuation is the fact that each individual has several orders of thinking about almost every issue. Creative thinking consultant, Edward de Bono, has identified six metaphorical hats to indicate six different modes of thinking:
1) objective, 2) subjective, 3) judgmental,
4) optimistic, 5) pessimistic, and 6) creative.
Based on this construct, each individual could have six opinions about a given issue and depending on their overall mental schema [personal cache of beliefs or theory of meaning], they may decide that the issue is good, bad or some point in between – to which they are generally disinterested.
Cognitive approaches to personal development are reliant on the concepts of Mitchell and de Bono. Instead of operating from a position that punishes people for their behavior; it instead relies on the behavior having appropriate responses. However, if an individual person is thinking only with one hat – for example the pessimistic or judgmental hat – the internal response may not be what we would expect. We know that depressed people tend to support their depressed thoughts by believing that ‘what can go wrong will go wrong’ and that subsequent failure is attributed to their own inadequacies. In a similar vein, antisocial people often justify their behavior by seeing themselves as victims and attributing hostile intent to the behavior of others, even when no such intent is seen by the objective observer. “S/he did it on purpose” is the judgement; and since I have been trespassed, I am justified in striking back.
Needless to say, people lacking flexibility in their thinking often have problems in living. They don’t get along. They don’t have mutually satisfying and gratifying relationships. They are anxious, fearful, sad, angry or paranoid. Relating to them is a burden and in one form or another [patronizing or punishing] we enable their behavior. Since our actions verify their thoughts and help to solidify a limited and often inappropriate way of thinking.
For various reasons, society has generated ‘experts’ to deal with people with severe problems in living. Often this has been to punish them for causing problems to others or to isolate them so that they will not continue to prey on others. On the other hand, many experts search for ways to help people with problems in living develop new behaviors so that they won’t continue to have and cause problems – but rather ‘fix them’.
‘Experts’ like all other people have at least six opinions about such issues. While they tend to couch everything as being ‘objective’, much of what they say is subjective and judgmental, and often pessimistic.
A brief review of ‘helping’ strategies would include:
• Biomedical: Many experts think that a flaw in the machine causes such behavior. If the actions are not ‘normal’ [meaning typical of other people they know], there must be something wrong with the electrochemical aspects of the machine and the ultimate goal is to find a way to ‘fix’ the machine or the pathology of the brain. Since all of our thoughts and behaviors are contingent upon the functioning of the machine, this is a hard position to challenge. One thought occurs, however, and that is ask whether the identified flaws are a cause of the problems in living or an effect. Does an increase in adrenaline cause fear, or does fear cause an increase in adrenaline?
• Psychodynamic: Other experts believe that it is not the machine, per se, but rather the ghost in the machine – the mind, which holds the defect. They dissect the mind like a surgeon finding a conscious and unconscious mind; an awake and a sleeping/dreaming mind; all in three parts – id [the reptilian brain which causes all of our evil]; the ego [the willful aspect which takes little responsibility for its behavior – “the devil (id) made me do it!”]; and the superego or conscience which like a tiny angel sits on the shoulder and chastises the ego every time it listens to the devil. Like the biomedical expert, psychodynamic experts seek a way to fix or cure the mind. The analogy to illness has become a metaphor. A person demonstrating severe problems in living is not longer acting like they are ill [have a germ, chemical, or genetic defect]; they are mentally ill. They have a pathology of the mind.
• Behavioral: Many experts recognize that people with problems in living are demonstrating learned behaviors. They see a cycle of behavior and response that is interactive. They believe that by changing the response, they can change the behavior and in fact, have demonstrated that this is so. The problem is that such environmental manipulation works best with animals with little cognitive skills such as pigeons or rats and least well with people who think. Once in a seminar in behavior modification, a participant developed a behavioral response to change the misbehavior of his son. It worked; the son was behaving better. But the son said to his parents with serious anger – “I hate you for what you are doing to me.” While the parents were not “doing anything to the boy” [he was in fact choosing to accept the response and change his behavior], his ‘feelings’ [emotional valuation] about the process were substantial, and potentially dangerous. And his ‘feelings’ were based on what he thought about the process.
• Cognitive: Some experts are coming to realize that the cycle is not an interactive action/response, but is a circular thought, behavior, response. Such thoughts need not be split into parts such as in the psychodynamic arena, but are separable by short term and long-term memory. Short-term memory might find someone in a state of sadness or anger. But this is much less important to overall quality of life than a long-term memory trait of anger or sadness. The long-term memories [mental schema] or beliefs about self, others and future prospects have a significant impact not only on how we behave, but on how we interpret responses to our behavior. If our mental schema about ourselves is objective and optimistic, we are likely to have some personal control over our anger and sadness. However, if our long-term memory [belief] about ourselves is pessimistic, we are likely to have the trait of sadness; e.g., operate in a state of depression all the time.
While biomedical experts seek some medical cure and psychodynamic experts seek catharsis and the reliving of significant events in the past; cognitive scientists operate in the here and now seeking to help people with problems in living learn how to think more effectively. Thinking more effectively is the goal of cognitive management – finding ways to think about yourself, others and the future which effectively support behaviors which lead to a quality of life.
Cognitive clinicians recognize the importance of the response since it has an impact upon the long-term memory. In fact, cognitive experts are even more sensitive to response than behaviorists in that they start with examining their own belief system thoroughly and identify clearly what messages they are sending through word and deed. However, it would be unwise to believe that cognitive scientists are simply behaviorists. A major part of the difference is a change in the locus of power. All of the preceding experts [biomedical, psychodynamic and behavioral] have seen the decisive impetus for change as coming from their own expertise. Cognitive experts seen the futility of sending such a message to a person with a belief system which will use such input to support their already strong beliefs that they are a) no good, b) other people are out to get them, c) the world would be better off without them, etc., etc. Cognitive experts empower a person to think critically and creatively, using all orders of thought, about themselves, others and future prospects; analyze the information and make their own decisions. Some of the people with problems in living may decide not to change. This personal mental cache of beliefs is, after all, the essence of what I am. However, they will make their decisions and suffer the consequences; they will be punished or rewarded by their behaviors.
Most people, recognizing this fact – make the utile decision – they seek more pleasure than pain. This leads to one more aspect of cognitive change and that is competence. A person, who has recently learned a different way of thinking about themselves and others, often has not learned the skills required to behave to expectations. In fact, the ability to perform competently adds its own dimension to ‘how I feel about myself’ and ‘how other will respond’. Feelings add value: if I feel good about the way I performed, my value goes up. The more sure I am of my skills, the more apt I am able to demonstrate them effectively; the more I demonstrate them effectively the more positive feedback I get which makes me even more confident of my skills and enhanced in my self appraisal; which of course has an impact upon my mental schema.
In this construct we see that there are two distinct, although easily combined approaches to cognitive change. First, is to directly teach thinking skills [attendance, analysis, alternatives, effectiveness, etc.] and the second is to teach interpersonal and pragmatic skills. The first increases flexibility in the personality and the second enhances personal value. Both are supported by behavioral response, but such responses need much less manipulation than previously supposed. If people are punished by their sins, they are rewarded by good thoughts and deeds. They are rewarded both externally from the response of others and internally by feelings of pride and confidence. In fact, the fully actualized [enlightened] person is able to make decisions regarding themselves, others and the future with little regard to the response of others, since they are serene in their own cognizance
Such serenity however is not necessarily a permanent thing. Each of us is subject to trauma or erosion of faith through changes in personal social status [such as through aging]. Personal serenity is something that must be worked on throughout our lives. Fortunately, a cognitive approach not only feeds the person with problems in living; it metaphorically teaches him/her how to fish. Learning how to think effectively about self, others and future prospects provides an inoculation of sorts against the day that severe emotional stress threatens. It additionally has a positive by-product in that it has a tendency to increase the personal support network [e.g., the number of people who value you sufficiently to act on your behalf when things go wrong]. Since the personal support network has been correlated positively to recovery from psychological disorder, this is an important side effect.
In summary, the cognitive approach essentially changes the perspective about who is responsible for growth and development and places it directly in the hands of the person with problems in living. This is an empowering potential, but empowerment requires both the authority to act and the resources to act. In terms of supplying resources, cognitive clinicians have three strategies:
• teach the person how to think effectively about self, others and prospects.
• teach the person social and interpersonal skills which are effective.
• provide effective reinforcement.
The last strategy may require intervention with other people in the intimate environment [home/school] who enable inappropriate behaviors because of their own mental schema. It also addresses the role of ritual. People are creatures of habit. Ritual [such as religious ritual] is a process of forming good habits. Automatic thoughts are habits of the mental schema and changing those habits will often require developing a new automatic thought. Significant others are often drawn into an ‘intimate dance’ or a habitual ritual which always leads to a negative outcome. The person with problems in living acts out their child [I want what I want when I want it] and draws the enabler into acting out the parent [You’ll do it because I told you to do it]. Social rituals which interfere with such ‘intimate dances’ such as ‘stop & think – good choice/bad choice’ or Life Space Crisis Intervention, restore the adult by providing both the person with problems in living and the person for whom they are causing a problem to focus on who is responsible and what is required instead of going down the primrose path.
If there is to be a will struggle, it should not be about ‘who is in charge’, but rather about taking responsibility for one’s own decision making. Thus our final step is to reverse the flow of the response by designing rituals that impact the behavior. In the final analysis, enlightenment as well as psychological fitness is the responsibility of each individual. Both processes, however, benefit from a mentor and ritual.
There are many people who sin, because they think that it is the only option open to them to reach their goals. These are not the people we should be most concerned about. Those who undergo a cognitive restructuring process or who intuitively understand how they think and how it affects their acts, who demonstrate that they know how to perform appropriate behaviors and achieve a level of social success, but choose to continue to sin; these are the truly evil people.
The Kingdom of God, Yeshua [Jesus] taught, is here. It is within each person to choose. You may have to leave your family [cultural baggage] behind in order to enter the gates. But as a sparrow in the field, you will flourish if only you will choose. Ye have ears, but you do not hear!