6 - Loosen Your Grip
6 - Loosen Your Grip
On today's show, we talk about a force that has the potential to make an impact on the depression and anxiety of millions of people. What is that force, and how can it help you and your family. So, what’s up with David? One thing I haven’t told you about him yet, is that David is Catholic. And every Wednesday night, he goes to confirmation class. His teacher is nice, and tries really hard to get this group of teenagers to care about the class, but the fact is that most of them don’t want to be there. David spends the time daydreaming, and he mostly thinks about homework and friends, the usual teenage stuff, but on one particular Wednesday night, he’s not in a great mood, and he starts thinking about how much this feels like a waste of time. And a resentment starts to build. It starts as a resenting this class, but quickly builds to resenting his teacher, his priest, his church, and then pretty soon, he’s feeling a pretty intense anger toward the Catholic church as a whole. For his whole life, David’s gone through the motions, first confession, first communion, and now confirmation, and he never really questioned anything until this confirmation class. One way the class has influenced him is that it has forced him to think: Do I believe this stuff? Do I really belong here? And so on this Wednesday night, his resentment gets him thinking a lot more about these hard questions, “Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about if God is real or not? They talk about God like it’s a given that we just believe in him, but what if I’m not sure. It’s like everyone is just going through the motions, just coming to this stupid class because our parents make us, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. I can’t believe I’m sitting here, pretending like I’m 100% on board, filling out this worksheet like a good little Catholic boy.” He wants to stand up and just say this to the entire room, to just unleash the doubt and profanity that’s swirling around in his head. But, his anxiety part is not going to let that happen, so instead, he opens up to a blank page in his notebook, and goes to town. He writes this angry rant with so much passion, that he tears the page with his pen. Every third word is an F bomb, and as he goes, he feels the pressure that’s been building in his head start to release. He’s still writing as the teacher dismisses class, and he takes some deep breaths, and goes home. Hi I’m Corey Busch, and you’re listening to The Teen Mind. Today, as you guessed, we’re talking about faith…I know, didn’t see that one coming. We normally think about religion and God in this box over here, and then mental health in this other box over there. But really, they are very closely related. Religion can have a negative impact on mental health, and it can have a positive impact. Today, we’re going to talk about how faith in a higher power can be a huge benefit to a person’s mental health, and why the teenage years are so important in the formation of faith. But first, back to David. That night, he can’t stop thinking about it. He wants to drop out of confirmation, he wants to write an angry letter to the priest or the bishop or the pope or all of them. But most of all, he just wants to talk to someone, he still feels like he needs to get this off his chest, to know that he’s not the only person that thinks these things. So, he works up the guts to say something to his mom. His anxiety is worked up, but it’s not completely taking over. So he goes to his mom and says, “Mom, what’s the point of going to confirmation class? It’s super boring and I just really don’t want to do it.” Sheila closes her book. She just sits there for a few seconds, thinking of what to say. She starts with what she thinks she’s supposed to say: “Well, umm…y’know ummm, I didn’t love my confirmation class, but I’m really glad I went because, yknow, it…it umm…was kind of a necessary thing to getting to where I am now with my faith.” She sees him look down and nod, like, “I thought that’s what you’d say.” But She can’t let this rare chance to have a real conversation with her teenage boy slip through her fingers, so she changes her approach: (big breath) “Yknow, David, I kindof just said that because I didn’t know what else to say. What’s on your mind…what are you thinking about?” “I just don’t see the point in any of this…confirmation, going to church, saying the “Our Father” and the “Hail Mary.” Like the only reason I do all that is because it’s what I’m supposed to be doing, and it doesn’t even mean anything to me, and it’s making me really angry, I guess. Y’know everyone talks about God like, ‘of course he exists’, and I don’t know…I don’t know if I believe in God…What if God doesn’t exist, like I feel like I can’t even say that.” He expects his mom to be shocked or angry or upset, but she isn’t. She is surprisingly calm. She just smiles at him. “Y’know I thought these same things when I was your age. I never had the guts to say them out loud. I’m glad you did.” He let out a long, slow breath. “Can I tell you a story?” She asks. “Okay.” “For a long time, I didn’t know if I believed in God. As I got older, especially when you were born, I knew that I really wanted to believe, but I still wasn’t sure. I didn’t even know exactly what it meant to believe in God. And then, we got a new priest, Father Julian was his name, and he was really smart, like just a very intelligent guy. And he talked about Jesus and God with such a passion, that it helped me to get over these thoughts that said, “I’m too smart to believe in God,” because if this, very smart man believes, then heck, I can believe too. “But the big thing was your dad’s depression. There was a time there when his depression made me really angry and depressed, and I was so angry at him and feeling sorry for myself. And it was right during the worst of it, that Father Julian started talking, it seemed like every week, about how no matter how much pain you’re going through, no matter how alone you feel, that the most powerful being in the universe is on your side, not in an abstract way, but in a personal, very real way. He’s giving you a hug and telling you that he loves you no matter how messed up you are. And even now, there is a part of me that doesn’t know for sure if God is real, but there’s a much bigger part that knows believing in him is really good for me. “I don’t know…does that help?” “Yeah, it does. So, wait…you don’t know if you believe in God?” So, I’m going to talk for myself, as Corey, and not as one of these characters, and I’m just going to put my cards on the table right now. I am a Christian, and a big reason I’m doing this episode is because my faith in God has helped tremendously with my anxiety, and I think that there is a very important place for spirituality when talking about mental health. So, one thing I am not trying to do is convince anyone that you should believe in God. I don’t think I’m capable of doing that, and it’s just not my goal. Another thing I’m not trying to do is convince anyone that Christianity is better than other religions. Again, even if I wanted to do this, I wouldn’t be able to. But I do want to say that faith in a higher power, who I’ll call God, has the potential to help a lot with anxiety, depression, and a whole bunch of other mental health problems. And if you believe in God, or think you might want to believe in God, or are curious about the mental health benefits of believing in God, then stay with me. I first want to quickly acknowledge though some of the big negative impacts that religion can have on mental health. One of the biggest ones, I think, is when religion makes people think they have to follow certain rules, or have a certain sexual or gender identity, or even that they have to “be a good person” in order to belong, and be loved by God, and go to heaven. This kind of religion I think can be very harmful to people’s mental health. So I just want to be upfront about that. Religion is not some perfect thing that’s always going to be helpful. So I want us to think about David, and his anxiety, and think back to a few episodes ago, when we talked about how David’s anxiety was born. It was born to protect him from rejection, especially rejection from his parents. And for most of us with anxiety or depression, this same fear plays a big part for us too. We are afraid of being rejected, because, as far our brains are concerned, rejection leads to death. And so, as parents, one lesson we can learn from this is that it’s important to show our kids unconditional love and acceptance. But, we are human, we mess up, we get mad, we do things, no matter how great of parents we are, that send a message of rejection to our kids’ brains. There are no parents who give their kids perfect, unconditional love. But there is one being who does: God. And even if you don’t believe that God exists, you still can acknowledge that the belief in a perfect being who loves you perfectly, no matter how much you screw up, no matter if everyone else thinks you’re a complete failure, that belief has the power to calm your panicking amygdala. Because no matter what happens, you can never be rejected by God. And I think it’s important here to say that this is probably a very different understanding of God and Christianity than some of you are familiar with, especially if you hear people talking about how if you do this or don’t do that, then you’re going to hell and God hates you. Well, there’s a whole bunch of really intelligent Christians, I’ll mention their podcasts at the end of the show, who don’t believe that. Listen to them, and you’ll hear that God is a perfect parent, that he loves you no matter what you do, and that he will never be disappointed in you or yell at you. He will just say, “yeah, you made a mistake, but I still love you just as much as I did before.” And, I’m just going to say it again, because I think it’s a really big deal: When you’re having anxiety or depression, you can tell your amygdala, “I understand you’re afraid of being rejected, but I can never be rejected by God.” And if you really believe this, then it will help your amygdala calm down, and your anxiety or depression will calm down with it. And so what does this have to do with David? Well, David is in one of the most important stages of his life for faith development. The teenage years are when a lot of people really make their decision about God. Think about it, until adolescence, your brain is just not equipped to really decide whether or not you believe in God. And so when David is 16, and is forced, really in his confirmation class, to think about God, it’s the first time in his life he’s really ever asked himself that question: Do I believe? And as adults in our kids’ lives, no matter what belief system you have, it is extremely important to ask our kids questions faith, and then to just listen. In these conversations, the less we adults talk, the better. Because another thing that’s happening for teenagers, is that they’re trying to figure out their identity. And if you try to tell a teenager what his identity is, he’s probably just going to reject that for no other reason than that you’re trying to force it on him. And it turns out that identity is really important, not just in terms of which religious group do you belong to or not belong to, but it’s crucially important in the deepest meaning of faith, no matter what the religion. I was listening to a guy talk about God and faith, and he said, when you think about the question, “who am I?” what comes up first for you? Is it, “I am a parent or I’m a friend, maybe it’s I’m an engineer, or a teacher, or maybe it’s I’m black or I’m gay, or I’m Chinese, or maybe it’s I’m kind or athletic or hard-working. Or is your answer, your first answer: “I am a child of God.” What he was really asking was, what’s most important in your life, what is your primary identity? Your family, your career, your race, nationality or is it God? Because if you believe in God, but he’s not the most important thing, even more important than your family, your friends, your career, what he was saying is that you’re not doing it right. And for me, and I think for most of us, my initial reaction was, wait a second here. I believe in God, I go to church, I pray sometimes, and now you’re asking me to make God more important than anything else in my life? More important than my family? I don’t know about that man. That sounds extreme. And I’ll tell you, I’m still wrestling with this now, but I can tell you that I think I get it. Because if the most important thing in my life is my family, then when things aren’t going great with my family, that’s going to really bring me down. But if God is the most important, then, when family life gets tough, it doesn’t hit me as hard, and I’ll be able to be more mentally healthy with my family, and more supportive to them when they need me. So, essentially, what this argument is saying is that faith has the power to bring about a deep sense of security and calm, even through really tough times. But most of the benefits don’t come if our primary identity is in something other than God. Let me give you an example: For many of the parents I work with, their primary identity is as parents. This means that when things aren’t going well for their kid, deep down, they are afraid their kid will end up a failure, which then means they’re a failure as a parent. And if their primary identity is their parenthood, then failure as a parent is very scary for their amygdala. So they get very anxious or angry, and try harder to control their kid, to stop them from messing up. And the harder they fight for control, the more they push their kid away, and the worse things get. And so it sounds like I’m making an argument for an all-or-nothing mindset about faith. If you’re going to believe in God, then you have to be all-in. Well, yes and no. But what I’m really saying is that all-in is the goal, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to always be there. Most of the time, I’m aiming to make God a bigger part of my life, but there’s also a part of me that crops up sometimes that thinks he probably doesn’t even exist. So, what I’m really trying to say is that if you want faith to have a bigger impact on your mental health, then you need to decide what’s the goal? Is it to make God the most important thing in your life? Or is something else? And if you choose to make God your primary identity, then you can just talk with him. And it might sound something like a conversation Sheila had with God during Tom’s depression. She said, God, I don’t know what to do. I feel so angry and miserable so much of the time. I’m so worried that Tom’s depression is going to be horrible for David. I want to quit work to be home with him, but we need to pay the bills. I want to make Tom go away until he gets over this, but I can’t do that either. Tell me what to do, please. And using her mind’s voice, God said to her, “Give David to me, and I will protect him.” And she imagined letting David go from her tightly wrapped arms and releasing him to God. And her anger and worry didn’t go away, but a calm security entered her body that gave her a small sense of peace. And without that, she may have had a breakdown herself, which would have made things even worse for David. And so the most important thing you can do as a parent, or as a human being, to care for those around you, is to loosen you grip on them. And the only way to do this, is to tighten your grip on God. We humans need something to hold tightly. And for most Americans, we choose our families, our friends, or our jobs. And the thing about choosing to make God the most important part of your life is that it does not diminish your relationship with your family, friends or career, but it enhances it. Because when you don’t worry as much about making people mad at you, or about screwing up a big project, you’re more free to be yourself, and just a happier, more productive person. And so at the dining room table, on that Wednesday night, David unleashes his angry rant against the Catholic Church. And where most parents would try to steer their child in a more rational or mature direction, Sheila just hears God say, once again, “give David to me.” And she remembers, she can’t control him, she can’t make him believe in God or be a Catholic. And so she loosens her grip, and she does not argue with him or point out why he’s wrong. She just listens, stays curious about his story, and when he’s done, she says, two of the most important words a parent can say to their child: “I understand.” If you want to hear more people talk about God in a way that will help you or your teen’s mental health, listen to the podcasts put out by Mercy Vineyard Church in Minneapolis, and by Tim Keller, who’s at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.