Eat and be satisfied

Eat and be satisfied

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Olaf and the Negative Mood Cycle

Olaf, the gregarious but clueless snowman, does not wrestle with depression in the movie Frozen. However the actor who plays him, Josh Gad, does play an addict in the 2013 comedy Thanks for Sharing.

Thanks for Sharing has an ambitious premise. It attempts to portray the journey of three sex addicts (Gad, Mark Ruffalo, and Tim Robbins) in a humorous way. It does a decent job but the last 30 minutes are Hollywood-predictable. 

There's one main reason I would recommend watching it - Josh Gad's writing scene. Gad has the rare ability to convey insight with humor. And in about three minutes, he's able to express nonverbally exactly what it feels like to be caught in an addictive pattern. And it's hilarious too.

For the past couple weeks, I've taught about the negative mood cycle, a term coined by my seminary professor, David Eckman. The negative mood cycle describes the addictive pattern. It starts with some kind of negative emotion - boredom, depression, fatigue, or anxiety. Out of that state, a person craves some type of fulfillment to either medicate the pain of the mood or a chemical boost to push through it. The lust is either escapist or stimulating or both. The sin is the execution of the desire. To put it in spiritual terms, sin is the attempt to occupy the vacuum in our hearts that only God can fill. We may not be sex addicts but we are all sin addicts.

Gad's character, Neil, is a member of a sex recovery group but lies to them about his days of sobriety (no uncommitted sex, masturbation, or porn). His sponsor asks him to write about his addiction. In his apartment, Gad stares at the workbook and his anxiety is palpable. A few minutes later, he's masturbating to a porn scene. Then he's back staring at the blank workbook, reminded again of his inadequacy and failure. He is craving some kind of satisfaction, a chemical boost. He eats compulsively. From there, the cycle accelerates in ways that will resonate with anyone who has wrestled with sin patterns. The scene ends on a comically shocking note.

The scene works best seen in the context of the movie so you can get a sense of Gad's character. You'll also see how the addictive cycle drives one to rationalize his behavior. The addictive pattern is catalyzed and sustained by deception. The other person worth watching in the movie is Pink. She is so good. It's as if she's playing her artistic self - angsty, loud, passionate, and raw.

Critics have attacked the movie because sex addiction seems so banal compared to substance abuse. Sex is a primal urge so how can it be an addiction? But that's exactly the point of what the Bible teaches about sin and the negative mood cycle. Sin is the corruption of a good, natural desire. It is not the sin behavior itself that God abhors, it is the appetite that drives the actions. 

So whether your particular fancy is sex, porn, video games, food, shopping, paranoia, perfectionism, Korean soap operas, travel, isolation, social media whoring, work, or religious activity is not the most relevant detail. Those are windows into the addictive pattern. It's the fact of the addictive pattern that matters. We have a tendency to look to certain activities to save us from our negative moods. That is idolatry and what Jesus meant when he said the truth would set us free. He sets us free from the addictive pattern and its lies.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

7 Questions Jeremy should NOT ask Kobe

1) Can I crash on your couch tonight?

2) You know Taiwan and China are different countries right? 

I'm Taiwanese American AND Chinese American. My parents are from Taiwan but originally from mainland China. It's actually two different countries. Taiwan is recognized by the United Nations as a nation but the People's Republic of China, that is, mainland China, sees Taiwan as a renegade province. Thus, Taiwan has a big chip on its shoulder when it comes to sovereignty and foreign affairs. The two countries have this strained relationship. But it's been better recently. It's all kinda complicated. 

Kobe, why are you walking away?

3) When do you think Yellow Mamba will catch on?

4) So I read you make 900 jumpers a day. Do you ever, like, you know, do the same thing with passing?

5) Like I was wondering could we maybe work something out like for every 10th pass I give you, maybe you could send one back my way? 

I could make like one of those frequent buyer cards, I give you 10 passes, you give me one back. What? 10s not enough? OK, how about 20? 50? 100? 

6) How about we do a pre-game handshake together? 

Except instead of putting on glasses and pocket protectors, we can both pretend to sign a piece of paper and then tear it up. You know like how Vanessa did after she filed . . . . OK, you come up with something.

7) You remember that Colorado rape thing that you've put behind you? 

I can totally relate. 

OK, not the adultery thing cuz I'm not married. And not the one-night stand part because I don't do that. And no, not the sexual assault charges part either.

But see you met this girl who was crazy about you. She wants you and makes it known. I mean, she pretty much throws herself all over you. And you have this encounter, which you thought was mutually beneficial but later on, she completely turns on you. She goes insane and acts like you're her worst enemy. It's wild when someone is so high on you then later goes completely cold and stabs you in the back.

Yup, that was Houston for me.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

When Depression is Sin

Depression is not sin. That's what my wife told me in response to a statement I made during my sermon this past Sunday. I should not have categorized depression as a sin behavior. 

My wife was right. Depression is not sin. But it is often accompanied by sin. Just as it's difficult to masturbate without lustful thoughts, it's difficult to be depressed without self-hatred, mistrust, or fear.

I had been giving a talk about the negative mood cycle. For example, if confronted with a difficult writing assignment, every fiber of our being resists putting words on the page. In order to address our negative mood, we lust after some kind of solace, some chemical boost that will give us the energy we need to start working or avoid thinking about it altogether. From there, we pursue self-medicating behaviors - eating, social media, TV, pornography, video games, substance abuse, etc. Some of those behaviors are overtly sinful (porn, substance abuse) and some are only sinful when consumed as as a means of salvation. 

Depression can be, paradoxically, a type of salvation. The feeling of being depressed can act as a form of avoidance or self-medication. It is often a by-product of a certain pattern of thinking. I understand depression can have a biological/chemical foundation (ex. post-partum depression) but what we do with  our thoughts is our responsibility. We own our thoughts in the same way we own our actions.

Dan Allender, in his book The Wounded Heart, addresses adult victims of sexual abuse: 
Abuse provides the raw data that seems to prove that God is not good [emphasis his]. . . The abuse victim's fundamental enemy then, is sin: the fearful refusal is to trust a God about whom she is deceived. The Spirit of God is hard at work in her to reveal God's true nature and confront her fear and mistrust, but His work is a battle that requires her cooperation. 
Depression, like abuse, is not the fault of the victim. My aim is not to make people feel guilty or ashamed about depression. But in a similar way to abuse, depression provides the raw data that seems to prove that God is not good. That raw data can arise biologically or as a by-product of our mistrust of God. Either way, the negative emotion tempts us to turn away from God. 

I'm convinced that most types of depression are sustained by a pattern of thinking that does not acknowledge who God is and who we are in Him - new, righteous, and beloved children. 

We battle against depression, like all sin, by opening our eyes to the reality of God's nature and what Christ has accomplished on our behalf. The broken crust of wilderness is not of our choosing but where we place our trust is.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Emotional Bandwidth

Having the emotional capacity to focus on something besides one's own needs. In a social interaction, emotional bandwidth is the ability to divert attention away from how one is being perceived (and one's interests) towards attending to the other person. It means feeling secure enough with who you are that you can focus on another person's verbal and non-verbal language. In a conversation, it's crucial to have enough emotional bandwidth to observe the other person objectively. 

An example: Although Victor is a perceptive person, he doesn't have the emotional bandwidth to notice whether people are interested in what he's talking about. If he felt more secure as a person, he would be freed up to listen empathetically to others.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Time Management = Emotional Management

Time management help: For as long as I can remember, I've struggled with procrastination, lack of focus, and the inability to complete tasks. As the latch-key kid of Chinese immigrant parents, I knew the drill - come home from school, have a snack, and then do homework and practice violin until dinner. 

Yeah right.

Instead I would lounge around, snacking and imitating the moves I saw on MTV (my generation learned dance from music videos not Youtube). I would try to start an assignment only to be distracted by something going on outside. My friends would come over. If we had social media, it would have been game over.

I always believed my problem was time management. If I could only organize my time more efficiently, I would be far more productive. If I could only set up a plan where I  allocated a specified number of minutes to important tasks, I would be able to get things done. 

It never worked. 

No matter how well I planned, the boost in productivity might last a day or two (or an hour or two) and then I would lapse back into frittering away my time.

It's easy to observe that I lacked discipline, perseverance, and self-control. These qualities compose the foundation of effective time management. It takes discipline to hold to a schedule.  Perseverance helps one stay focused on tedious assignments. And self-control gives one power to refuse the temptation of distractions and impulses.

Amy Chua and impulse control: Amy Chua understands this. In her book Triple Package, impulse control is one side of the cultural success triangle. She writes:
But study after study— and there’s been a prodigious amount of research— confirms that overall, Chinese immigrants parent far more strictly than non-Asian Americans, making discipline, high expectations, perseverance, and self-control part of their children’s daily lives.
And Chinese parents enforce these values with their kids in several tangible ways: 
Chinese American preschoolers and kindergartners engage in a “focused activity” at home about an hour a day, compared to less than six minutes per day for white American children the same age. Chinese American children watch about one-third less television than white Americans.
And look down on American parents who don't: 
In a nationwide Pew survey, over 62 percent of Asian Americans agreed that “most American parents do not put enough pressure on their children to do well in school.” In fact, Chinese (and other Asian) immigrant parents sometimes perceive American parents as lacking in the very work-ethic and diligence they are trying to instill in their children.
This is not news to anyone who grew up with Chinese immigrant parents. Chua devotes an entire chapter to the psychological problems that impulse control can wreak on a person's self-esteem. She cites dress designer Vera Wang's sentiment that growing up in a Chinese family felt like a prison - where you never meet your parents' approval.

After all, Chinese culture basically negates the role of a person's emotional life. Emotions, especially negative ones, are distractions from the ultimate goal of hard work and success. They should be suppressed as much as possible for the sake of group harmony and focus. I've worked with so many Chinese American youth who, as they mature into adulthood, feel emotionally stunted by their upbringing. They are extremely competent in almost all areas of life but lack vulnerability and emotional vibrancy and expressiveness.

Time management is emotional control: The better you can manage your emotions, the easier it will be to exercise discipline, perseverance, and self-control. Perhaps it's even more accurate to describe self-control as equal to emotional control. Basically, you work hard and focus when you feel good. For example, while doing a tedious homework assignment, you can medicate boredom one of two ways - 1) give in and find something more interesting to do (Facebook, video games) or 2) suppress the pain of boredom, buckle down, and get through it. The first approach does not foster discipline, perseverance or self-control. But the second approach is soul-numbing and can threaten autonomy, self-reflection, and creativity. 

This is pretty much the East-West cultural divide. Eastern culture places high value on impulse control by suppressing emotional life. Postmodern western culture minimizes impulse control by elevating the emotional life over everything else. Chinese culture says it doesn't matter what you feel. Western culture says what you feel is the only thing that matters. 

Christianity has a third way - your emotional life is vital but it does not control you. Christ set us free from the tyranny of the negative mood cycle. . We are no longer prisoners to depression, guilt, shame, insecurity, and worthlessness. Boredom is painful but it does not have the power to dissuade from what is most important. Emotions are a window to the soul and negative emotions indicate areas where we need to experience Christ's victory over sin and death.

What does this mean practically?

1) Receive God's abundance of grace in regards to emotional management: Your worth is far more than how we use our time and our emotional highs and lows. Find people who would give you encouragement in how express your emotional life - people who will listen to you and empathize with how you feel.

I have to continually remind myself when I feel like I completely wasted my day surfing on-line, that my worth is not in what I do. It is in these moments where the high expectations of Chinese culture are not my friend. But high expectations are not the enemy - it's the shame, guilt, and insecurity that results when we fall short. 

2) Respect how God uniquely constructed your emotional temperament: Cultivate awareness concerning your impulses and evaluate them. God gives us impulses for a reason. As an extrovert, I have an almost constant impulse to be around other people. I need to respect that by putting appointments in my everyday schedule. I like variety and I need to change up my routine and/or reward myself when I complete a task.

If I could do it over again and advise my parents on how to raise me, I would have told them to customize tasks according to my emotional temperament.  I would have them build time into each day to do something different, spontaneous, and unexpected. I would affirm the value of those moments of "distraction". I would give a child like me space to indulge my curiosity without feeling guilty or ashamed about wasting time. I would offer encouragement that although not all my impulses were good, the power of my impulses were a blessing. God made me a passionate and curious person and these qualities have both fleshly and spiritual aspects. At the same time, I would put boundaries in place to help me develop self-control, discipline, and perseverance. I would give myself encouragement and tactics to help me stay focused and work through obstacles.

This has great importance when I consider two of my sons, with whom I share a similar emotional temperament. I want them to know that their emotional life is a tremendous gift from God, that they have freedom in the Spirit to express their emotions, and that there is abundant grace and forgiveness when they do not. And I begin by receiving grace for myself first.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Did Jesus show favoritism by choosing twelve disciples?

I spoke about favoritism at UC Davis' Asian American Christian Fellowship a couple weeks ago. Campus Christian organizations tend to be quite insular and Asian groups are no exception as our need for belonging is great. Nevertheless, everyone wants to be around people of a similar life stage, background, ethnicity, educational level, etc.

I spoke from James 2. The author exhorts believers not to show favoritism, particularly with regard to the rich. I encouraged students to take advantage of the summer and get to know people who are different from themselves.

We all know favoritism is unhealthy. And my talk probably made a number of students feel guilty about the preferential treatment they exhibit in their relationships.

I asked (but didn't answer) an important question that evening: If favoritism is wrong, didn't Jesus show favoritism when choosing his twelve disciples?

1) Favoritism is preferential treatment based on worldly values
James 2:3-4  If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here's a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
In this situation, believers decide to give preferential treatment to a man based on the quality of a person's external appearance. He looks rich and a worthy target to curry favor from. This is discrimination based on a worldly value system. The nicely dressed person is treated as more valuable than someone who has little. We pay special attention to those whom we have much in common with or whom we stand to benefit the most from. It is so tempting to view others from a self-centered perspective.

This happens all the time in the church. It is rarely a secret which church members are the largest givers and this group is often given additional deference. There are other more subtle variations of favoritism. Insecure people in search for approval will demonstrate favoritism towards those who flatter them and express the greatest need. It's the classic "squeaky wheel gets the grease" mentality. Often the people who need the most help won't ask for it. And yet we tend to show to show favoritism to those who are most vocal, visible, and able to get our attention.

2) Favoritism <> preferential treatment

Preferential treatment is not the same as favoritism. After all, we could not develop nor sustain friendships without some kind of preferential treatment. We choose to invest in certain people over others. We choose which friendships we want to nurture, who we want to keep in touch with, and who we want to avoid. Some of it is based on simple things - being neighbors, sharing the same workplace, attending the same church, etc. Showing preferential treatment is not, in itself, wrong. The values that inform our preferences is what matters.

3) Discipleship is preferential treatment based on kingdom values
James 2:5  Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?
Jesus gave preference to twelve disciples. He spent almost all his public ministry with these men. And even within the twelve, there were three - Peter, James, and John - whom he gave even closer attention. What was his selection criteria?

The twelve disciples were largely poor, uneducated men of low social status. There was nothing outwardly attractive about them. And yet Jesus saw in them tremendous potential as church leaders.

Where others saw poverty, Jesus saw riches. Where others saw outcasts, Jesus saw insiders. James hates favoritism because it values the superficial and outward. Jesus chose the twelve based on invisible, internal qualities. That is what James is exhorting believers to do. Don't value people the way the rest of society does. Rather, look for the opposite and look deeper.

This has important implications for Asian American Christians. We have ethnic-specific churches because we feel disenfranchised from mainstream Western society. These ministries are important because we are exiles in search of home. And yet it is a deep strain of hypocrisy if we, the disenfranchised, exclude others based on outward qualities.

Lastly, we shouldn't be afraid to show preferential treatment towards people who have kingdom value and potential. That's not easy to assess but it is our calling and the Spirit of God equips us.  If someone is particularly teachable or uniquely overlooked, that's where our attention must go. That's the kind of preferential treatment Jesus had with his disciples. It is not favoritism at all.