Spirituality Undercover

It happened again.

It was a typical afternoon in my life as a pediatric psychologist.  I was working with a boy who I have seen for a number of years.  His life has been marred by divorce, violence, and instability, but his mother nobly persists in helping her son improve his emotional regulation and impulse control among other skills.

I was using a chapter from the book by Dawn Huebner entitled, “What to Do When Your Temper Flares” to illustrate the role of thoughts in our feelings and responses.  He was reading aloud the following passage:  “But there is a secret about anger, something that will save you from exploding when something goes wrong… (By the way, lots of adults don’t know this secret either, which is why they get so mad so often, too.)  The only thing that makes you angry is you.”

Suddenly, as seems to happen often these days, I was flooded by the thought, “You are engaged in a spiritual endeavor.”

As I reflected on that voice, I realized that what I was doing was to help this boy recognize that he had the free will to be less wrathful if he acknowledged his prideful responding and took a more charitable attitude towards the whole matter.  Now, on the surface, I was utilizing cognitive-behavioral techniques to teach him the skills of thought challenging and reframing, for which I am trained to do.  But once again, the voice cautioned me against this false dichotomy.  As St. Therese of Lisieux and other holy people remind us, everything we do should be an act of faith and charity.

But in taking my specific analogy further, I can’t help but recognize that so often, I rely first on the Catholic doctrine of free will in my professional life.  As the Catechism states, “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.”

In cognitive behavioral therapy, we teach kids and adults alike that events happen every day that we may or may not be able to control.  However, our attitudes and thoughts towards these events directly affect our emotions, behavioral reactions, and internal states (e.g., headache, stomachache).  So, in order to improve how we feel, we must first return to the thoughts, which seem automatic at times, and challenge those that are both unrealistic and/or harmful.  Then, we must work to reframe them in a more realistic, positive way.  In essence, we are harnessing free will, inducing greater reason, and increasing the conscientiousness of how we think and act.  Otherwise, we may find ourselves experiencing significant behavioral and emotional problems, including unnecessary fear and anxiety—which happens to be the number one thing God warns us against in the bible (Be not afraid).

While direct prayer pleading for a reduction of negative emotions can be one mode of action, consider that God has also gifted us with the ability to “reframe.”  While I may work with an adolescent to help him or her recognize how envious or prideful thoughts are causing anxiety and negative mood, most of us find ourselves needing to reframe negative cognitions on a daily basis.  We may not regard this as a spiritual endeavor.  But if unity with God starts with free will, and vices prevent us from seeking His perfection, then any exercise that we undertake to unite our will (or another’s will) with the virtues that He is, seems to  have entered a divine domain.

Sitting there that day with this little boy, it was clear.  I am not responsible for his salvation.  I am not responsible for his life.  But I am responsible for giving of myself in a way that helps him transcend his challenges.  Call it therapy.  Call it psychological guidance.  Call it what you want.  But in the end, my hope was that his free will looks a little more like Thy will—being done.

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