Short essays written for the La Jolla Veteran's Hospital newsletter in La Jolla, California
Cognitive psychologists call it mental filter or selective focusing. (Beck, 1995). Basically, this thinking distortion and, most importantly, spiritual error is that one pays attention to one detail in a situation (usually an inauspicious factor) and fails to focus on all the details, especially factors that may be favorable. One contemporary elder of the Eastern Church, Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain, (Angeloglou, 1998) describes it this way. People can be divided into two categories. "The first resembles the fly. . . it is attracted by dirt." He goes on to whimsically note that if the fly that was in a garden could talk it might say: "I don't even know what a rose looks like." People who resemble the fly "always look for the bad things in life, ignoring and refusing the presence of the good." Other people are like the bee that can be found in a garden "always looking for something sweet and nice to sit on."
A brief psychological self-test may help us to see what kind of outlook we take. In uncertain times, do I expect the worst or the best? Will something go wrong for me if it could go wrong? Do I see the future as bleak or bright? Do I think that good things happening to me are rare or common?
We can look no further than Judeo-Christian Sacred Scripture for examples of righteous figures who, despite obstacles, focused on the good and emerged victorious. Joseph, (Gn 38) thrown into pit by his brothers, went on to be a ruler among the Egyptian people. We learn that the "Lord was with him, and made all that he did to prosper in his hand." (Gn 39:3). The prophet Job, despite unrelenting suffering, remained focused on God and finally prospered due to His faithfulness. In the New Testament Scripture we read about the Apostles Peter (Acts 12) and Paul (Acts 16) who, despite arrest and imprisonment, persisted in focusing on their devotion to Christ and not on the horrors of prison and were delivered from their calamity and eventually attained sainthood.
We should note that optimistic thinking crosses religious lines. Hindu teacher, Mahatma Gandhi, notes: "Keep your thoughts positive, because your thoughts become your words. Keep your words positive, because your words become your behavior." (Gold, 2002). Gandhi goes on to point out that such a focus on that which is favorable will go on to shape our habits, values and destiny.
The lesson for us is to maintain our psychological and spiritual health by working to consistently extend our focus to include gratitude for the care and providence that God has for us, being persistent and seeking needed professional help well. As St. Isaac of Syria tells us: "There is a provident God who steers the affairs of the world, and with each one of us there is a Guardian who does not miss anything, and whose watchfulness never relaxes or grows weak." (Brock, 1997)
Ageloglou, Priestmonk Christodoulos. (1998). Elder Paisios of The Holy Mountain. Mt. Athos, Greece: Holy Mountain.
Beck, J.S. (1995). Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond. The Guilford Press: New York.
Brock, S. (1997). The Wisdom of St. Isaac the Syrian. Fairacres Oxford, England: SLG Press.
Gold, T. (2002), Open Your Mind, Open Your Life: A Book of Eastern Wisdom. Kansas City, MO: Andrew McMeel Publishing.