A Co-Dependent Worldview

There are many misconceptions about co-dependents and co-dependent behavior. Many people still consider co-dependents to be merely “enablers” or people in relationships with addicts. But if we define a co-dependent person in such a way as to require that they be in a relationship with an addict (or with anyone) in order to qualify as “co-dependent,” that would be like defining an alcoholic as someone who is actively drinking—so that when the alcoholic is sleeping, we might rightly say he’s not an alcoholic. A co-dependent, like an addict, is identified by his mental perceptions—how he envisions his interactions, not who or what he’s interacting with in the moment.

This is not to say that if someone offers a definition of a co-dependent using a relationship model that there is no place for that. Certainly, if I were a family counselor, I would likely lean very hard toward a working definition that addressed my model of therapy in a way that would help my patients understand their roles in the situation. That’s fine. But I’m not defining “co-dependent” here in order to target a working treatment model. I’m seeking to understand a mental mindset that results in the dysfunctional relationships co-dependents gravitate toward due to a developmental disorder.

“Co-dependency is defined as a psychological disorder caused by a failure to complete one of the most important developmental tasks of early childhood, that of establishing psychological autonomy. Psychological autonomy is necessary for the development of the self, separate from parents.”
—Barry K. Weinhold, PhD, and Janae B Weinhold, PhD, co-authors, “Breaking Free of the Co-Dependency Trap.”

It is then, literally, to be blunt, a childish worldview that was never outgrown. This deals with boundaries, especially psychological boundaries, that the co-dependent has either weakened or lost. Just as a child who stubs his toe on a piece of furniture might become angry and hit (blame) the chair, so does the adult co-dependent not see the clear divide between himself and other people and things outside himself. And he sees his emotions as being at least partly dictated by people and things outside himself. He believes others have the ability to affect his emotional state, without his consent, to some degree. And to the level he accepts this, that is the level to which he is engaged in co-dependent thinking.

In order to address this problem, the following was suggested: “…to treat and heal the suffering and dysfunction of co-dependence, we first realize that we are powerless over others. We are powerless over their beliefs, thoughts, feelings, decisions and choices, and their behavior. But we discover that we are powerful over ourselves, our own beliefs, thoughts, feelings, decisions, choices, and behaviors.”

And in order to offer a useful, broad definition (not narrowed for specific treatment programs), “…we can define [co-dependence] briefly as any suffering or dysfunction that is associated with or results from focusing on the needs and behaviors of others…it may be mild to severe.”
—Charles L. Whitfield, MD, (both quotes above) from his book “Co-Dependence, Healing the Human Condition. Whitfield is certified by the American Society of Addiction Medicine and a former instructor at Rutgers Univeristy.

In other words, if I experience unpleasant or unwanted responses (“any suffering”) based on my observations of the actions of another (“associated with the behaviors of others”), that is a co-dependent perspective. And that last bit is important. This is not an “all” or “nothing” measurement. The level to which you relate to this worldview dictates the level to which you are co-dependent—mild or severe.

In the section of their book entitled “Healthy Ways to Handle Feelings,” Drs. Weinhold write, “own your feelings and take responsibility for being the source of your feelings.”

My posts are long enough, but that bears repeating: “take responsibility for being the source of your feelings.” As long as I continue to hold to a model that there are sources, other than me, for my emotional responses, I’m feeding into a mindset born of a developmental dysfunction.

“CBT treatments have received empirical support for efficient treatment of a variety of clinical and non-clinical problems, including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse disorders, and psychotic disorders. It is often brief and time-limited. It is used in individual therapy as well as group settings, and the techniques are also commonly adapted for self-help applications…In cognitive oriented therapies, the objective is typically to identify and monitor thoughts, assumptions, beliefs and behaviors that are related and accompanied to debilitating negative emotions and to identify those which are dysfunctional, inaccurate, or simply unhelpful. This is done in an effort to replace or transcend them with more realistic and useful ones.”
—Wikipedia entry on “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)”

In other words, the goal is not to avoid situations where unwanted emotions arise and it is not to learn to live with these emotions and contain or suppress them. The goal is to teach people how to choose more appropriate, beneficial emotions over ones that are causing problems for them in their lives—because we can, and do, choose our emotional responses. A person suffering from anxiety disorder can actually learn to stop feeling anxious. This is achieved by heightening the person’s awareness via teaching him to monitor what is happening in his own mind, and make better choices in his reactions—including emotional reactions. We can choose appropriate or inappropriate emotional responses. However, most of us don’t really consider our mental reactions and responses. We take them for granted and let them move along without much interference unless and until something really bothers us enough to the point we need to learn how to take a more active role in controlling our mental, intrapersonal dialogues.

A quick word about avoidance: If you go to the local book store and pick up a copy of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, you will find that in treating emotional disorders, such as anxiety, avoidance is a behavior the therapist must try to interrupt. It is not uncommon for people to suffer from anxiety in particular environmental situations. In order to avoid the anxiety, the patient avoids the situation (for example, driving a car). The problem here is many-fold. The patient is heading for phobia and soon will be not just someone with anxiety disorder, but someone with anxiety disorder and a phobia of driving.

The patient is misattributing the environmental stimulus as being the catalyst for the anxiety he feels. In reality the catalyst is his misinterpretation of the environmental stimulus: He sees driving—a mundane activity—as irrationally threatening and fearsome. What he doesn’t understand is that his anxiety and fear are not brought on by driving, but are rather brought on by his mentally defective interpretation of driving. The event occurs and is nonthreatening. But the patient’s mind interprets it as a threat, and he then responds with fear, panic, and anxiety to his imagined and unjustified mental model of what is happening. So, his emotional reaction is not in response to anything outside his head. It’s a response to a distortion within his head. If the distortion can be addressed, so that he regains a more realistic perspective of driving, then he will find he can choose an emotion other than “anxious” when he drives. But he first has to be able to make a rational evaluation of the event (while he’s in the event). He has the capacity to do this, as do we all, but he does not know how to do that at the time he enters therapy.

In communication psychology and intrapersonal communication, there are two thing
s I learned that have served me extremely well in life:

1. Nobody and nothing can make me mad.
2. Emotions tell us nothing about the world outside our own minds.

This is not to say I never get angry. The key word is “make.” When I become angry, I know I must accept responsibility for the anger I emote. Choosing anger as an appropriate emotional response is not the same as being forced to be angry. Likewise, choosing anger when it is an inappropriate response is not the same as being “made” angry. As an honest person I must admit I became angry—of my own free will. I was not force or made to be angry—no matter how tempting it might be to blame others for my own lack of judgment or unwillingness to exercise self-control.

And that is very difficult for some people to grasp, because not everything in reality is intuitive. Some things are actually counterintuitive the more deeply we study them. And it is often to our detriment that our emotional reactions are not intuitively understood for a great many people.

Something good happens—someone gives me a birthday present—and I feel good. Something sad happens—my dog dies—and I feel sad. Something scary happens—I step on a snake—and I’m scared. What could be more simple? A child can make this connection, right? Well, right, a child could make this connection, but the child would be wrong to say the events were the catalyst to his emotional reaction. It is not these events that evoke these emotions. It is our mental models and interpretations that evoke these emotions. How can I know this? Because, fortunately, we sometimes have cases we can examine where our mental models don’t correspond with environmental realities. And when that happens, which one of those things (our environment or our noncorresponding interpretation) do you imagine our emotions align with?

Well, when we consider it that way, it becomes intuitive again, doesn’t it? Would anyone fail to rightly guess that our emotional reaction will align with our interpretation of the environment—and not the environment? If there is nothing to fear in my environment, but I believe there is something to fear, I will feel corresponding fear. But corresponding to what? To reality or to my interpretation?

This becomes relevant in religion when people use emotional response as an affirmation of their belief that god is interacting with them in their lives. They “feel” god—and for many people that reinforces that there really is a god “out there” beyond their minds, creating these emotional impulses. But their model is flawed and actually a prime example co-dependent thinking and misattribution.

In other words, if I hear a strange noise in my house—and I believe someone is trying to break in—I will react emotionally as if an intruder is trying to enter my home (even if it’s just a branch scraping my window). My cognitive self confronts existent reality, interprets that reality, and then relays that interpretation, which is fed into another part of the brain that kicks out an impulse—emotional or otherwise. That response then goes to my cognitive self and I must decide whether or not the response is appropriate. If I deem it appropriate, I will unleash it. If I deem it inappropriate, I will send a new message back to my brain letting it know that isn’t an acceptable response, and I will choose another. And all this can happen instantaneously. In fact, this internal dialogue is happening in each of us, nonstop, all the time—whether we pay attention to it and acknowledge it, or not. We actually can tune into it—we just generally don’t bother.

This process can take milliseconds or years to produce a change in emotional response. And in very few cases, we may not have time to cognitively assess our response at all. Something might not frighten us slowly—but, instead, very quickly. This would be an emotional “spike,” and the immediacy of it would make it difficult or impossible to process and restrain in the moment. But we are, most of us, rarely confronted in daily life with such immediate and extreme levels of emotional impulse. You might think of it as walking along normally and stumbling over a tree root. Ninety-nine percent of the time you are in immediate control of your walking. That doesn’t mean you spend your energy focusing on it and monitoring each move—but you still understand you are the one controlling your movements as you walk. You don’t have to concentrate and think about it, because you’ve done it for so long that it’s nearly automatic. But hit that tree root and you look like you have lost any and all control over your legs and body. It’s a glitch for sure, but the exception and not the rule.

We take our emotional responses and psychological control for granted. And how many times do we hear people claim outright that we can’t control how we feel, who we love, what we like, what we hate, sometimes even what we do? These are excuses to unburden ourselves of our responsibility for our own reactions—literally to not take responsibility for our very selves.

Many, many things can show us that we have the capacity to adjust our emotional responses toward things—to change how we feel about them. If we are reasonable, someone might present a good argument or evidence that contradicts something we thought we understood previously, but now realize we did not. And we decide that maybe our attitude about a particular situation is perhaps not appropriate. So, we adjust it. Who hasn’t had that experience? Just as well, we might have a sudden and impactive emotional experience or trauma that changes our view. Maybe we nearly die, and it makes us realize that we should take more joy in our lives while we’re here. And we really do enjoy life more after that. Or maybe there is no trigger. Maybe I go to a party that I felt obligated to attend. I’m committed to be there for five hours and it’s pure tedium. I’ve served two hours of my hell-party sentence sitting in a chair by myself, when I simply consider that maybe if I tried to go and meet a few people it might not be so horrible. I go out and mingle, and whether I find any interesting people or not, I find the night is at least somewhat improved over brooding in a corner for three more hours.

In all of these cases, there are common denominators. One is that I agreed to consider another view—and ultimately to adopt another view of my situation. The person who gains new information can’t say that anything outside his own mind changed. The situation is the same. The information he gained wasn’t “not there” before. He simply was unaware of it. But reality didn’t change, only his view of it broadened. He now can consider “more” of it and has a different feeling about what he’s looking at. The man who nearly died did not come back to a new wife, a new son, a new job. He simply gained a new view of it all. And the guy at the party didn’t find a way to change the party. He just changed his view of it—all on his own. He recognized that he had zero control over the party, over the people, over the refreshments, over time, but he discovered, as Whitfield pointed out, that he was powerful over himself, his own beliefs, thoughts, feelings, decisions, choices, and behaviors. Over himself, his actions, his attitude, he had total control. And by exercising it, he went from frustrated, angry and bored, to at least somewhat interested. He went from a co-dependent view of himself as a victim, obligated to a hateful five-hour torture session, to someone in control who was willing to take responsibility for his evening and whether or not he enjoyed it on any level.

Another common denominator in these three cases is that any of these men could have refused to agree to adopt a new attitude. I could get new and contradictory data and still hold tenaciously to my perspectives. I could nearly die, and come back and be the same complacent, joyless ass I was before. I could go to the party, wall
ow in my piss-poor mood all night, and go home thinking about how I’ll never get that evening back. It’s completely up to me. I am the only one who can control my attitude—and I can change it to a polar opposite view if I deem doing so is justified.

But whatever I do, as the Drs. Weinhold note, I must own my feelings and take responsibility for being the source of my feelings. I can’t be held accountable for everything that happens to me in life. But I can very well be held to account for every reaction express—so long as I’m enjoying a normal level of mental health.

Co-dependent attitudes are so prevalent, mainly, I would wager, due to some of the issues noted above—being so used to having near-automatic, appropriate emotional responses that we hardly notice them or feel a need to exercise restraint or control over them, and also, understandably, misattributing our emotions to things outside of our own minds, because so often, for the most part, our mental models are close enough to the Real McCoy that we don’t stop to examine whether our emotional reactions are toward the models or the reality being modeled.

According to Whitfield, “Co-dependence is the most common of all addictions: the addiction to looking elsewhere.” Whitfield acknowledges we “live in a world where nearly everyone is acting co-dependently most of the time.” In other words, this thinking, based on a developmental flaw, is extremely pervasive and common. It is so common in fact, that some co-dependence evaluation questionnaires have people answer with a scale like this one, (Almost Always = 4, Frequently = 3, Occasionally = 2, Never = 1), where the low score would be the least co-dependent attitude. Note there is no setting for “0.” In other words, nobody gets out of that test with zero level of co-dependence.

It may sound unfair, but it’s true. Examples of these evaluations appear in Weinholds’ and Whitfield’s books, and in many other places. I guess the message is that it’s simply too much to hope that a person could actually take full responsibility for himself. While I’d love to recoil, I can’t say that I don’t see a lot of this attitude in people. And I can’t say that I don’t have to police it in my own head. Road-rage anyone? But when I recognize it, I can say I don’t defend it as being beyond my control. Not controlling myself, certainly, is not the same as not being able to control myself—and not the same as not being responsible for controlling myself. I do what I do, because it’s what I chose to do—whether in the moment or after careful consideration is irrelevant. It is my reaction, and I must own it—since nobody else can. My mental and physical reactions are mine and come out of my human experience and worldview. If I can’t defend them, then I should reconsider them—in the moment or after careful consideration.

All this said, I admit fully that without religion, there would still be co-dependent people. And, actually, at least one religion, Buddhism, appears to give people props for exercising mental control and taking as much responsibility as possible for their own mental reactions. So, that said, not all religions feed into the “co-dependence trap” (as the Weinholds’ labeled it). Even Hinduism, with its self-defeating caste system and karma, contains an example in the Bhagavad-Gita of the self exercising control of emotional impulses. The process is compared to a charioteer driving a team of horses, and the analogy is meant to illustrate the value of exercising measured self-control over the mind’s impulses.

And isn’t this supposed to, somewhere, touch on religion a bit more?

With that, let’s have a word about compartmentalization. Consider Whitfield’s earlier statement, “we are powerful over ourselves, our own beliefs, thoughts, feelings, decisions, choices, and behaviors.” His point in a nutshell is to take responsibility for you reactions, and stop blaming others for things that should be your responsibility as part of your life. Be the captain of your own destiny! And the Weinholds’ appear to agree. Intrapersonal communication models, based on research in communication psychology, also concur, and CBT demonstrates it as a working, demonstrable model as well. So, how does one explain statements like the following from Co-dependents Anonymous’ 12 Steps? Is this funny or sad?

Step 2: “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Step 3: “Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood God.”

Step 6: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”

Step 7: “Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.”

Step 11: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.”

I refuse to elaborate on the discrepancy here, because to do so would be an insult to the intelligence of every reader. If you can’t see the glaring hypocrisy of these steps in a program to help people who are having trouble taking responsibility for themselves and their own lives and personal reactions—as Foxworthy might say, “You just might be” a co-dependent.

Here’s what’s even spookier. Dr. Whitfield promotes and advocates this 12-step program in his aforementioned book. The same man who says my problem is that I am not acknowledging I am the source of power over my own life, advocates letting go and letting god, by throwing me into a program where I am immediately told I must accept I am powerless—beyond whatever power god, in his mercy, is willing to grant me.

How is that any better than being powerless over myself except for whatever power someone else or my environment grants me? In any of those scenarios, I still haven’t taken responsibility, I’ve merely shifted the responsibility for my life from one source that is not me to another source that (I believe) is not me. Where exactly did I gain any power from this shift?

But as if this weren’t disturbing enough, isn’t this pretty well Western religion in a nutshell? Conservative fundamentalists preach “responsibility,” then co-dependently slough off responsibility for everything in their lives to a mental model that does not represent themselves. Again—oh, the irony. They absolutely rail against people who they perceive to not be taking responsibility for themselves, and they preach out of that same mouth, the doctrine of fully crippling, co-dependent salvation (because I just can’t rely on myself to run my own life).

But let me add one last thing. Let’s end on an atheist note. We get many letters. And for every letter we get saying X, I can promise you we get just as many saying –X. One topic particularly that I find funny is “Matt’s attitude toward callers.” Matt could get 10 e-mails a day on this subject, and I promise you that five would scold him for being too mean and nasty, and the other five would praise him for his patience and kindness toward callers (some even scold him for being too kind). Some go on to say Matt, and the rest of the hosts/cohosts are no better than fundamentalist Christians in how we pig-headedly shove our opinions down the throats of others.

How do we stack up with this question from the “Patterns and Characteristics of Codependence”?

“I attempt to convince others of what they ‘should’ think and how they ‘truly’ feel.”

Let it be known that for myself, I understand that I have no control over what someone else thinks and feels. Without their consent to dialogue, consider, and ultimately change their mind, I can do nothing to impact them or their views. The power is fully, 100%, with them. They own that realm utterly.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t invite them to dialogue, consider or change their views. Whether t
hey think they should or can or will—is not within my power. I don’t lose sleep over it. An invitation is not an attempt at coercion. Anyone can refuse—no threats or fear of reprisals. Anyone can turn the channel, not call, or not e-mail us. Anyone who interacts with us has, of their own free will, and under their own power and cognition, chosen to engage with us for whatever reason of their own. And whatever they get out of it, they own it. Whatever they feel about it, they own that as well. If someone is offended, it’s not because of something I’ve said, it’s because they maintain such fragile ego models that even words manage to make them feel threatened. Whatever, they express or send to us—they own it. None of that belongs to anyone at AE. It’s completely the sender’s.

Own yourself. Empower yourself. Live your life and don’t lose out by thinking you have anything less than total control of what you put into it—mentally and physically. Whatever you have, you can give—100%—if you choose. Or you can be a walking, talking reaction—wandering through your life feeling powerless and victimized, waiting for your sign from your partner, environment or god model, before you’ll dare to make your next move. But I’m not telling you what you “should” do. I’m just inviting you to expand your perspective to consider what you “could” do. The power is only ever yours, whether you use it or convince yourself you can give it away.

How to Stack a Deck

Last night I watched three episodes of a program called “Paranormal State.” It is billed as “true stories of a team of paranormal researches from the Pennsylvania State University Paranormal Research Society.”

One episode was of the variety I find most disturbing. It involved a young autistic boy. I won’t examine that particular episode, but I’d like to offer the following:

Note to wack-a-loons: If you live your life in a state of paranoid freakout because you believe paranormal entities are trying to “get” you, don’t infect your kids with that fear. It’s not just a disservice, it’s mentally abusive to turn them into frightened little people who jump at shadows and every creak of an old home. If you’re truly that far out of touch with reality, do yourself a favor and buy new, because every pre-owned home or commercial building is going to come with some creaks and groans. A talk with a structural engineer, instead of a psychic, might do more good for you that you can imagine (even with your extreme level of fertile imagination). Freak yourself out till the ghosts come home, but don’t burden your kids with your personal, dysfunctional, mental baggage. I get that you “believe” it; that doesn’t make it sane.

In one of the episodes, I recall a woman was sleeping at her sister’s “haunted” house. She was in the haunted bedroom and felt a “presence” come out of the closet, approach the bed, and put pressure on her chest. She also heard toys moving in the closet.

Two words: Sleep Paralysis. It’s a condition, caused by a known malfunction of chemicals in the brain that are normally used to help regulate sleep and waking. It can cause, not surprisingly, feelings of a person/people in the room, auditory and visual hallucinations, and feelings of pressure on the chest, along with fear. It’s a common event, but it is not unheard of for an individual to have episodes only rarely. I have had episodes. And before I learned what it was I just called it that “thing where you can’t wake up.” The majority of the people I’ve mentioned it to respond with “Oh yeah, I think I’ve had that.” I’m guessing that this particular woman probably had her first episode (or first memorable episode) in this house, and due to the stories she’d heard, misattributed the incident to ghosts.

It was the final program, though, that really left me slack-jawed.

It was a historic Gettysburg home in a state of disrepair when it was purchased by a couple who intended to use it as a bed and breakfast. They put a lot of money into renovations, but didn’t really provide a detailed run down of what work had been done—what had been replaced, updated or renovated, and what parts of the home were still original. This information, I thought, should be significant if I’m investigating possible causes of unexplained noises in a home. Gettysburg, in case anyone isn’t familiar, was the scene of a lot of historic bloody battles and death. So, no surprise there are local tales of hauntings. And no surprise that the “psychic” who was brought in felt pain in his gut, saw blood and death, and believed someone there might have suffered a gunshot wound. Impressed?

Other than the minor creaks and cricks that any older home would produce, there were two really great clues that went negligently uninvestigated, which might have resulted in some solid answers and helped these homeowners out significantly. (Or, if they were investigated, the show failed to demonstrate it or mention it.)

First of all, this house presented the paranormal team with a tremendous opportunity to figure out what was happening—whether ghost or not. That opportunity was blown, blown, and blown again. But here’s what happened: Every morning at 3:02 a.m., on the money, the entire house “shudders.” This was caught on both video and audio. The concierge was the one who pinpointed the consistency of the event, and sure enough, 3:02 a.m.: brrruuumpty-bumpity-brump went rolling through the rooms.

Let’s be real here for a moment: It takes a bit of force to shake a house. If the supernatural manifested consistently (every night at 3:02 a.m.) with enough force to shake a house, it wouldn’t be so commonly considered as being in the realm of mental instability. That house shook in reality, not in somebody’s mind. But the type of force that shakes a house should be identifiable and measurable and, with an opportunity to observe it with nightly regularity, shouldn’t be any mystery. If your house shakes at the same time every night, that’s not a job for an exorcist, it’s a job for a structural engineer—the kind that inspects homes and can work with the city to figure out what’s happening with your house and your area that could cause such an event.

My first recollection was of being in a house when an aircraft flew overhead and created a sonic boom. It was extremely similar. Someone else I mentioned it to asked me if there were any trains that ran nearby? I have no idea, because that wasn’t investigated (or, again, if it was, it wasn’t presented).

Is there a train track nearby? An Airforce base? Any city pipes or lines under the street? Do the neighbors feel this tremor as well? Did anyone think to ask them? If they do, we know we’re not looking for a house ghost but something area wide that is impacting the neighborhood at large. If not, do they have the same sort of historic foundations and structural issues a restored historic building would have, or are they rebuilt as entirely new?

This house is a “historic” home—which means that there are restrictions on the types of upgrades and renovations the owners can apply to the home, unlike other structures in the neighborhood that may not be labeled “historic.” This house shudder is a consistent event that lends itself perfectly to easy and accurate identification. But if this team called the city or checked area municipal facilities, talked to a single neighbor or called an engineer to do an evaluation (which isn’t very expensive), they never showed it. And so it’s fair to say that it appears they’re completely negligent when it comes to investigating the most simple and obvious sources of things that can, and do, impact houses in the way these owners described.

If a ghost is the cause of this house shaking, and it shakes every night at 3:02 a.m. on the dot, that would be the single most credible and easy-to-confirm ghost event ever identified. It’s open to investigation by anyone, because it’s an undeniable, predictable, measurable manifestation. The first step, though, would be to actually do the leg work and hire the necessary credentialed professionals, outside the psychic community, to demonstrate the event defies natural explanation. I can’t express enough how disappointing it was that they bailed on even trying to find a mundane cause of this event before calling in the paranormal “experts.”

But the next event was just as much of a blown opportunity. The house “moans.” I’m not talking about a moan that can only be heard by audio taping in an empty room and then torturing the feedback on some machine that does nothing but distort the results until you get something akin to a moan. I find it interesting that in these voice recordings made in shows like this, the moment the “researchers” find any sound whatsoever, they go immediately to work on manipulating the ever-loving-heck out of the indiscernible noise until they get the result they want. Then they stop distorting the sound. It would appear that the sound they actually recorded isn’t what it was supposed to be. And all the variants that weren’t something that sounded like a voice saying whatever they wanted to hear, aren’t “right” either. The only “right” result, it seems, is when they get it mastered exactly to a point where, if the listener turns their head to just the right angle and strains sufficiently, it says
“get out” or “I am here” or some other such ghost movie dialogue. That’s how such sounds are “meant” to be perceived, and paranormal researchers know this because that’s precisely the sort of result they’re seeking.

So, they actually get three pretty solid “moans” on their audio/video tape. Impressive. Not just impressive, though, also somehow familiar. Familiar, as in I’ve-hear-this-sound-before familiar. My house makes this same sound. It happens whenever I forget to shut off the outside water, and then use water in the master bathroom. It’s a “sign” alright. It’s a sign I need to go back outside and shut off the outside water valve. What’s even funnier is that my house isn’t the only structure that makes this noise. At work, our office building makes the exact same “moan” on the sixth floor when the outside irrigation is running. Again, no exorcist required, just a certified plumber. Old pipes + restrictions on updates = a moaning house.

What else can I say? The other “evidence” is pretty obviously garbage:

“I feel a presence.”
“I saw a shadow.”
“I felt the room get cold.”
“I smelled perfume.”
“I heard a voice.”

I rely on my perceptions as much as the next person. But I would be the first one to admit that I’ve seen and heard things before that simply weren’t there. Ever seen a mirage on a hot road? Human perception is pretty good, but definitely imperfect. And the perceptions of a very frightened person are arguable even less reliable than those of a person that is not in a state of “you’re-in-grave-danger” brain chemical overload. Magicians and illusionists thrive on the fact that our brains can be easily misdirected. They do it on purpose for entertainment, but it can also happen quite naturally in mundane situations where nobody is actively trying to fool us.

Additionally, we don’t always understand what sorts of things might be in our environment that we’re completely unaware of. For example, electromagnetic energy can be found sometimes at high levels in homes with faulty or substandard electrical wiring—the sort of wiring you might find in an older home, especially one that has existed long enough to have a “history.” This energy has been demonstrated in controlled circumstances to cause anxiety and hallucinations—even (the perception of) OBEs. It affects your brain and your perception.

In my own home, after we’d moved in and lived there a few months, I decided to adjust the air vents in the ceiling to alter airflow in the house. When I got up close to the vent in our living room, I saw “something” blocking the vent. My husband removed the vent, and removed a bag. It was filled with potpourri. It turned out there was one of these bags of potpourri in every vent in our house. We had no idea.

We also have wild birds that crack bird seed on our roof, one especially likes to do this on our outside chimney. In the house, it sounds like something knocking/banging in our fireplace.

I have decorative “light catchers” in the trees in my backyard. They reflect lights and shimmers not just around the yard, but also in the house at different times of day. I put them in the yard, but my point is that reflections can create odd light and shadow, from across a street or from a neighbor’s yard.

There are no end to unusual things that can make smells, sights, sounds, and even feelings that we can’t immediately explain. But assuming a cause and then “investigating” only in ways that are most likely to give us the answers we prefer, rather than explain what is really happening, is something we have to work hard to avoid if we value a handle on reality over subjective prejudice.

If I want to know why my house shakes, and I call paranormal investigators, psychics and ghost energy specialists—and I don’t bother to call a structural engineer to come out and do an evaluation, no one should be surprised if I find out that ghosts are the cause of the events. I did everything in my power to ensure the results correlated to my desired outcome. I used only those tools prescribed to find a “ghost” and did not use any of the tools that might have found a more mundane (and reasonable) explanation—which might have proven to also be the accurate explanation.

While ghosts are like souls and souls relate to religion and god in the great majority of cases, and while credulity is something we examine at this blog, that’s not why I’m sharing this. I’m sharing this because a 14-year-old girl contacted the TV list recently to say that she wasn’t sure if there was a god or not. In order to find out, she read her Bible and prayed really hard. In the Bible she found a verse that said that whatever she prayed for, she’d get. So, she prayed for a “sign” from god—nothing spectacular, just something meaningful to her personally. She read and read and prayed and prayed and never got her sign. So now she thinks there is no god.

Then, just a few nights later, at the AE after-show dinner, I met someone who told me that when he was in elementary school, he can remember lying in bed, praying and crying, trying hard to believe because he was afraid that if he didn’t he’d burn in hell forever. He never got his sign, either. And eventually he told me, as he got older, the fear faded away.

I, personally, recall being about 15 when I prayed and prayed and read my Bible and begged in earnest for some “sign” to confirm god wanted me to believe and that he was there and willing to meet me halfway and help me, since I wanted so much to believe.

Unfortunately, for me, I got my sign. I won’t bore anyone with details (they’re at the ACA site in the Testimonials section if anyone cares), but I spent the next several years as a fundamentalist Christian, devoting my life in service to “Jesus.” Eventually I finally began to research the claims I’d accepted (most specifically from Josh McDowell) without examination, and I found I believed a load of indefensible false assertions. I went on as a theist, although not a Christian, for many more years, until I ultimately came to understand what I meant by “god” was just a metaphor. But for my years as a Christian, I can honestly say my life was not my own (as any good servant of the Lord will tell you—“not my will, but Thine…”) as I fervently devoted myself wholly to a fantasy. Years down the drain that I will never see again. Next time a theist tells you that if they’re wrong they lose nothing—feel free to tell them they’re wrong. If they’re devoted to their beliefs in the way the Bible demands for salvation, they’ve lost their very lives.

Meanwhile, the common thread in these tales is that we three (me, the girl, and the man at dinner) all used the methods prescribed by the church to figure out if what they were telling us to accept as true was valid. We let them stack the deck just as surely as the men and women on Paranormal State stacked the deck by not calling an engineer, but a psychic. We prayed and read the Bible and begged the very god we were supposed to be verifying. We used only those methods that would most likely yield the desired result of belief; and, in my case, I was willing to subjectively interpret just about anything as the “sign” I was seeking. Just like the homeowners on Paranormal State, we were motivated by fear. Unbelievers don’t pray and plead to the air and devote themselves to Bible study, to find answers upon which, in their minds, nothing rides. But stressed and terrified children do.

Children are convinced they’ll suffer horribly and eternally if they choose disbelief rather than belief. Then they’re told that the only way to know if it’s true is to read the Bible and pray and trust and dispel doubts. That is why, funny as many adult theists might seem, a part of my heart will always be reserved for compassion toward them because I u
nderstand firsthand the force it takes to brainwash a child and keep them that way long into adulthood. It’s quite a trick. You actually beat the child up so badly mentally that even when you’re not around, they keep beating themselves up for you.

I know that for every wingnut fundamentalist, someone’s life has been hijacked. Having lived it myself, I can’t help but feel a desire to see these people happy and well again. I want to give them back that understanding that every child deserves—that they are worthwhile and valuable as human beings—completely as they are, “imperfections” and all, without some supernatural fantasy to provide them with the sort of validation their parents and community should have provided them, but didn’t, because they participated in a religion that dehumanizes us and degrades us and teaches us to feel guilt and guile toward our very nature—with which there is nothing demonstrably wrong. Some of life is wonderful. Some of life is horrible. It’s a lot of different things rolled up into an existence that is part circumstance and part what we make it. To every child who has been or is being told that they need forgiveness for being human, that telling a lie or doubting justifies their condemnation and eternal torture, or that their will doesn’t matter, I say, “You are fine, just as you are; and if others can’t see that, it’s not your problem or your fault. The people trying to make you believe you’re nothing may have their hearts in the right place, but their heads are on completely backwards. Don’t let them tear you down and doubt yourself until you’ll trust anything except your own ability to make a judgment for yourself.”

I wrote back to the 14-year-old. I told her to consider something beyond the fact that she got no sign. I told her to ask herself what she would do if she wanted to learn about black holes. Would she sit in her room and think very hard about black holes and ask black holes to reveal themselves to her so she could know all about them? Or would she read about the data collected on black holes and the research and findings and evidence for them? What is the best way to find out if any Claim X is true? Certainly it’s not to immerse yourself only in the writings of those making the claim you’re trying to evaluate, and then repeatedly take part in a mental ritual where you pretend you believe the claim and keep beating yourself up for not believing it while you beg, tearfully, for any reason to accept it as true.

Surely anyone can see the problem with praying to the god whose existence I’m attempting to evaluate? Such a maneuver requires a presupposition that the god is actually there to begin with. That’s stacking the deck. That’s manipulating the sound byte results until I hear “get out,” or only having a psychic, not a plumber, assess the “moaning” in my house. It’s not a way to guarantee I’ll find what I’m looking for; but it’s a incredibly good way to strongly and favorably influence the possibility of a positive outcome in finding that a god exists. When I “find god” under such circumstances, it should be no more of a surprise than the psychic finding that a spirit, and not a stressed water pipe, is causing the moan.

Jesus tie-dyed for our sins…

Microbiologychick sent me a link to an article written by a student at ETSU. I submitted the following response, but I have no idea if or when it’ll be published – so my friend suggested I post this here. Run over and read the article…my response will wait.

I would definitely agree that there’s a similarity between a tie-dyed T-shirt and some of the common conceptions of gods. The human mind is a pattern-seeking machine that attempts to identify, catalog and gain an understanding of the world around us. This is a critical skill, to be sure, but we’re also prone to imbuing patterns with meaning when there’s no good reason to do so. Our penchant for seeing face-like images in patterns (pareidolia) is a prime example and, in a slightly more metaphoric sense, so is your tie-dye analogy.

You began by pointing out that, in your eyes, a tie-dye shirt is more than just a pattern and a shirt. That’s a fair (and telling) observation. You’re actively looking for something more and if you can manage to create a connection, no matter how tenuous, that’s satisfying.

In reality, the pattern of a tie-dye shirt is entirely the result of the purely natural process that led to it’s existence. There was, most likely, no grand design that led to the resulting pattern. (NOTE: I’m referring to the standard method in relation to the resulting pattern…there are methods for making specific patterns.) The method was very likely the result of experimentation which weeded out the methods that didn’t produce such interesting and aesthetically pleasing results. It’s still a beautiful and interesting pattern, but there is no need to “open your heart” to see it for more than it is.

What’s wrong with just enjoying the beautiful pattern, taking pleasure in the creativity of the method and appreciating the natural laws that dictate the final pattern while allowing for great diversity?

A flower is a beautiful and glorious part of nature that can be celebrated and appreciated for exactly what it is – the result of a lengthy process of change filtered by natural selection that results in the current, beautiful blending of form and function. Why diminish that appreciation by claiming that the flower is the special creation of some supreme being? If there was some supreme being, couldn’t he have created something more glorious than we could comprehend? Wouldn’t a flower be a trivial bit of work?

Some might ask, “What’s the harm in seeing meaning that may not exist?” – and that’s a great question.

I’m a fan of art, poetry and beauty. I’m a fan of trying to understand the world as clearly as possible. I’m a fan of scratching below the surface…but I’m also a fan of reality. I actually care whether or not my beliefs are true – and not just whether or not they feel good. I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible and I’m baffled as to why everyone else doesn’t.

So, where’s the harm in Whitney’s particular style of pattern seeking? She seems happy, she has a positive outlook, she clearly enjoys expressing her views in the hope of helping others…what’s wrong with that?

There may not be anything significantly wrong with it. However, when I read her article I was able to appreciate the beauty of a human mind for exactly what it is. I’m able to appreciate the strengths, weaknesses, emotion, curiosity and wonder – and I’m able to attribute both praise and criticism directly to that individual without diverting any of that credit to a deity.

Whitney, though, feels that she couldn’t be anything without her god…and this means that she can neither take credit for her accomplishments nor own up to her failings. It’s a stagnating position that, in extreme cases, causes people to abandon their humanity.

Most people manage to enjoy mentally healthy, happy, reasonably well-adjusted lives, regardless of their religious/supernatural/superstitious views. I’d never argue that these views are, in all cases, to all people, poisonous views that cripple an individual. I do, though, think they very often can be and that in nearly every case they negatively and unnecessarily limit the mind to some degree. How could they not?

See the world for what it is, there’s enough beauty, passion, joy, intrigue, mystery and wonder without tilting at windmills.

Two sleazy rackets that go extra-sleazy together!

From CNN comes this fascinating article informing us that some Christian churches have started incorporating, of all things, Scientology literature into their ministries. One of these churches is right down the road in Houston, where Rev. James McLaughlin of the Wayman Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church (that’s already a head-swirling doctrinal combination as it is) has begun teaching from late sci-fi hack L. Ron Hubbard’s The Way to Happiness.

“I’m looking for solutions, and the people that I help, they don’t ask me who L. Ron Hubbard is,” said McLaughlin, who works with addicts. “You know what they say? ‘Thank God.’”

Well, sure they do, because religion basically appeals to emotionally weak and vulnerable people who aren’t big into rationalism and critical thinking in the first place. All you have to do is sell them warm, fuzzy hope in an easy-to-absorb, Sesame Street-level lesson plan, and they’re hooked. They don’t notice the discrepancies between Scientology’s and Christianity’s disparate teachings, because they’re not the kinds of people who think about their beliefs. They just believe their beliefs.

Still, these ministers ought to know better. It’s bad enough they’re pushing Christianity’s repugnant dogmas in the first place. To be patently indifferent to Scientology’s repellent history of cult indoctrination, harassment, intimidation, and outright murder as long as they get some kind of vapid “feel-good” message across shows their moral bankruptcy in all its dark splendor.

Religion is the answer (they’re selling)

Did you ever notice that whatever the problem, religion is plugged as the answer? Case in point: last week’s Virginia Tech shootings. A student goes haywire and kills a bunch of people–not good. Religious leaders then get asked by the faithful, “Where was God during all of this?” It seems like a reasonable question to ask of someone who believes in an omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent god.

Atheists would answer it simply that God is a figment of people’s imagination. Such things more often cause killings than prevent them. For example, 9/11, Andrea Yates, stem cell research bans, Branch Davidians, Jim Jones, Inquisition, Gott Mit Uns, Heaven’s Gate, etc., etc., etc. In this particular case, figments of your imagination are irrelevant to the reality of the shooter, so it’s obvious that your God can’t intervene. Next question?

Religious leaders know that if you’re asking such questions, you’re thinking. And if you’re thinking, you’re not blindly believing, which is bad for their business. So religious leaders shut down the line of questioning and instead promote their magic cure-all elixir: religion.

For James Kennedy, the answer to “where was God?”, is “He was hanging on the cross. (Just passing time flapping away, apparently.) “The cross is God’s ultimate solution to sorrow and suffering.” Pay attention grieving Virginia Tech students: you are vile wretches that deserve to be tortured for all eternity for your lack of faith. Kennedy will gladly sell you the cure, though, the smilin’ bleedin’ Jesus for the bargain price of a tithe. Ah, that Christian love is in the springtime air.

Ken Ham, the Answers in Genesis creationist used-religion salesman, used the tragedy to point out that if you think the answer to the tragedy has anything to do with sin, you damn well better believe in that 6-day creation he’s been flogging. The Bible is literally true, don’t you know. To translate his point, if you don’t believe in that 6-day creation crap, why should you believe anything about the concept of sin. Atheists would certainly agree with this line of reasoning. Perhaps this is why his posting was removed from the AiG web site. (Oh, and by the way, he says, isn’t it great that creationism was launched at Virginia Tech by a civil engineering instructor? Let’s pour a little embarrassment into the wound.)

For gall, Franklin Graham is hard to beat. Out of the goodness of his heart, he’s ready to send hundreds of “grief counselors” trained to convert to Christianity those who are emotionally vulnerable, “as we have done in many situations since 9/11 in New York City.” He’s even got some VT students on his web site helping to promote his extreme generosity with strings attached. I wonder if those “grief counselors” think that converting people to Christianity helps their chances of going to heaven. Franklin Graham also runs one of the groups distributing federal faith-based AIDS relief in Africa where they can get their “good news” across because their victims know that they need the provided medicine to live. Charity, indeed.

Does religion have anything to offer in the VT shooting? No. Does religion have anything to offer in any situation? No. These people are plugging religion because they make money from it. It’s all just self-serving promotion at the expense of others, just as Martin predicted last week.

The “Thou Shalt Not Judge” Mind Game

Often, the hidden messages of a phrase carry more weight than its literal interpretation. The phrase “Thou shalt not judge,” is a fine example. It’s an adaptation from a quote attributed to Jesus, “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged” (Matthew 7:1 and Luke 6:37). Although the Bible has other passages encouraging judging, the phrase in question has far more currency today, especially among liberal Christians. I believe its lasting popularity is due to a rather dark mind game that it carries with it. The mind game has several components.

First, the phrase is most often used in a context where some obvious wrong has been committed, but is being excused by the speaker. It’s one thing to acknowledge a mistake, learn from it, and make amends. It’s another thing entirely to sweep it under the rug. The hidden message is that you, too, have skeletons in your closet, so don’t draw attention to this one. Such a message is simply an abdication of responsibility.

The phrase is also often used between believers as a kind of collusion between thugs in the name of the thug boss, God. To use it is to say, “Keep your nose out of my business with the mafia boss, and I’ll stay out of your business. Otherwise, the boss will rub you out.” It is a kind of promise that if you excuse the speaker’s act of thuggery he’ll look the other way when you later commit yours. Occasionally, it’s used as a kind of religious tolerance mechanism to deal with the fact that there are thousands of sects of Christianity, each with their own unique and contradictory interpretation of the Bible. As long as the harm in question is directed against non-Christians, it should be excused in the name of ecumenicism.

At another level, using the phrase is admission that there is no solid morality on which to decide moral issues. With a lack of any sort of absolute morality from God, the speaker is left to create a smoke screen that distracts from this uncomfortable fact. The notion of an absolute morality from God is perhaps one of the most pernicious myths of the western religions.

Biblical passage is really a prohibition against being a hypocrite. That contextualized meaning has long since vanished, apparently. The hidden messages of the shorter phrase have far more utility. In the future, listen closely in the situations when “thou shalt not judge” is used. See if you can find someone avoiding responsibility for their actions or beliefs; looking to make a shady deal to downplay an act of thuggery; or hiding the fact that they don’t have a sound basis to tell right from wrong. When you catch someone using the phrase in this manner, call them on the carpet. Judge.