“Whatever things are true, whatever things have honor, whatever things are upright, whatever things are holy, whatever things are beautiful, whatever things are of value, if there is any virtue and if there is any praise, give thought to these things.”
Frederick Buechner said, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” Perhaps this is an appropriate note on which to begin 2021?
This is part three on sustaining health in Covidian Era. Again, I’m approaching health through the frame of Jesus’ great commandments to “love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:30-31). In each reflection I have focused on one dimension of our humanity: heart, soul, mind, strength (body), and neighbor, to move towards a place of total health.
In our forthcoming book Fresh Expressions in a Digital Age, Rosario Picardo and I examine both the positive and negative effects of technology. COVID-19 has thrust us fully into this digital ecosystem. We are experiencing the negative effects of this. Fake news, the monetization of attention, screen fatigue, and social media addiction are creating a generation prone to anxiety, low self-esteem, and suicide. Neuroscientists demonstrate that our digital habits are rewiring the chemical landscape of our brains, in ways just as damaging as drug addiction.
Perhaps we find ourselves in another “Great Depression.” Not just the loss of jobs, closure of businesses, and the worst economy since THE Great Depression, but alarming reports of Americans suffering with depression, loneliness, anxiety, and rising suicide rates. For adults and adolescents, a link exists between the usage or overconsumption of social media and the incidence of loneliness and depression. Quarantine, social distancing, and isolation have damaging effects.
Technologies can connect us and form community, but over stimulation, and “Zoom fatigue” are a real thing.
Mental health is essential in this challenging time and will affect every other dimension of our lives. Thus, I want to continue with a reflection on a healthy mind (Mark 12:30 διανοίας “dianoia,” specifically as a faculty of understanding, the seat of thinking and intellect).
1. Our physical health affects our mental health.
As I noted before, a healthy soul, heart, and body, absolutely affect our mental health. Getting enough sleep, eating healthy, following a spiritual path, and exercising regularly, have tremendous positive benefits on our mind. Daily exercise releases endorphins in the brain, which have a natural cleansing effect and elevate mood. After you fight through the first 30 days of establishing a new habit, exercise will start to feel good, and you will feel good doing it.
As a fearfully and wonderfully made, image-of-God bearing person, God put a lot into you, and broke the mold when he made you. There is a compelling Scriptural call to treat our bodies, a smaller single cell of the body of Christ, as a “Temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). Sweating and stinking every day, and eating healthy, have tremendous benefits for our mental life.
2. Feeding our minds the right nutrients: beauty, goodness, and truth.
Many missional innovators spend a lot of time on the edge with not-yet-Christians. We cannot be an instrument in the hand of Jesus to transfigure culture, if we are not embedded incarnationally within it. We must be semioticians of a sort, using our minds to pay attention, reading the signs/symbols, finding Gospel in the everyday ordinariness, connecting the dots, and using the culture as a vehicle to proclaim and embody God’s love. The danger here is the mental pollution we are consistently exposed to. To have a healthy mind, we must feed it the right nutrients! Like every other sphere of our humanity, input will affect our output.
In our culture, there are no shortage of images and material that are toxic to a healthy mind. Technology makes that toxicity hyper available. Engaging those stimuli have consequences for our mental health. The kind of movies we watch, the music we listen to, viewing explicit materials, all have long lasting negative effects on the mind. Paul encourages us to focus on things that are just, pure, beautiful, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy (Phil 4:8).
The universe is filled with beautiful, good, and true things to contemplate with our minds, in fact they are kinds of clues pointing to their Creator. It may be beneficial to look at all our daily activities through this lens.
In what ways am I cultivating practices in my life that are beautiful, good, and true? Seeing the beauty in a person. Spending time in nature. Star gazing. Reading poetry. Watching a musical. Are we actively seeking these things in the everyday moments of our lives? I believe being truly present to beauty, goodness, and truth when we encounter it, is one of the most healing and God-honoring practices we can do with our minds.
3. Transform your mind with the truth of Scripture.
This should almost go without saying, except that I know lots of busy pioneers! One healthy input that literally transforms the mind is the Bible. A healthy mind needs a healthy daily diet of Scripture. There are numerous scriptures that talk about the benefits of studying the Bible. Psalm 1 tells us that if we “meditate upon the word day and night, we will be like a tree planted by the rivers, that bears fruit in its season, and whose leaf never withers, in everything we do we will prosper.”
A healthy mind is like a tree planted by the rivers whose roots go deep down into the nutrients of the living water of God’s word. A mind rooted in this way will withstand the mental droughts of anxiety, fear, and stress that assail us. We need to engage Scripture not just to teach it to others, but to feed our own minds a steady diet of beauty, truth, and goodness. Start with a daily reading plan that is realistic for your schedule. You can join us in the Living Room Church as we read through the whole Bible in a year.
4. Proactively design your life to be as stress-free as possible.
Innovators can be sucked into an exhaustive cycle of stress. The very God-given impulse to start new things and tackle new challenges can also destroy us. Stress has incredible negative effects on the mind. The key is to proactively organize and follow a healthy productivity-rest pattern.
I have found the prayerful scheduling of my day to be extremely helpful. We cannot let work control our calendars. We must plan in space to rest, reflect, exercise, play, and work. A starting point could be to plan one hour of every day, to take up some new practice that feeds your mind. In a 24/7 “hamster wheel” world, we must get off the treadmill and take control of our time. Don’t let your work for God, destroy your walk with God. Work should not dictate our mental health. No shiny new thing is worth a mental breakdown and the subsequent aftermath.
For Christians, our vocation infuses our life with deeper meaning and purpose, and we often feel like we are having a positive impact on the world. If we are not careful about setting good boundaries, we can innovate ourselves right into burn out. Each day only has three blocks of four-hour work time the 8-12, 1-5, and 5-9 blocks. We should only work two of those per day. For instance, if I work the 8-12 and 5-9 block, I’m not going to work the afternoon 1-5 block, and so on. If you interested in a weekly planner I designed to help pioneers schedule their days to avoid mental exhaustion, sign up to follow the blog and I’ll email it to you!
5. Find your Hundred Acre Wood!
Our preaching team preached a sermon series based on the Disney film Christopher Robin. The film features an adult Christopher who is caught in a toxic cycle of workaholism and is largely ignoring his family. It’s not until Winnie the Pooh, his childhood best friend, comes after him and brings him back to the imaginarium of the Hundred Acre Wood that he rediscovers himself. We cannot overcome the Heffalumps and Woozles of the real world unless we spend some time playing with childlike wonder in the sandbox of our own imaginations.
Jesus told stories that harnessed the power of imagery and metaphor. His teaching style was not simply based in the sharing of data, but helping people enter a fresh imaginarium from which they could see the world through new eyes. In the Covidian Era we need healthy imaginations to break us free from the death spiral of the same old church questions and church answers. God imagined the universe before God spoke it into existence. We need imagination to carry us across the bridge into new vistas of possibility.
We have largely failed to embrace the possibilities of reset a global pandemic provides, because Christians have been experiencing a diminished capacity for imagination. This is truly sad, for as Francis A. Schaeffer once said, “The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.”
We have been using scholarly research, vision statements, consultants, and whiteboards for many decades in our attempts to engineer healthy systems. Let’s give imagination a shot. Creativity, imagination, and innovation are what has allowed human beings to lean into the future and remake the world. As reflections of the creator God, we create alternative realities, with our what-ifs, our dreams, and speaking them into existence. We all need to awaken our inner Christopher Robin, return “and become like children” so we may “enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt: 18:3). Let’s play together in the Hundred Acre Wood, ask “what-if,” and engage the Scriptures with a fresh imagination that will open us to new possible futures for local communities.
6. Don’t isolate!
Let’s face it, pandemic life makes it easier than ever to be “alone together.” An unfortunate reality of digital hyper connectivity is that it can make us more alone. While mature innovators learn to operate in teams, there are times when “the gift of not fitting in” makes us feel different, misunderstood, or crazy. Human beings are social animals, we need authentic relationship with others. Relationships can be life-giving and stimulate creativity. Of course, there are also toxic relationships that we need to avoid. But having a healthy social network of others is extremely important. God created us to interact and inspire each other. There is an “iron sharpening iron” kind of effect on our minds as we engage authentic relationship with others. Of course, a healthy spiritual community can fulfill this need.
Social distancing, or being separated physically, strains relationships. Protecting the connection (frequency of meeting with your team) is important. Find ways to get together often. If you are limited by restrictions for meeting in-person, meet frequently in a digital platform. Sustaining relationships is harder in this venue.
7. Never stop learning and conserve mental energy.
Like a muscle, the mind grows through continual exercise, stimulation, and learning. Innovators typically don’t have a problem in this department. The real danger is in becoming consultants, gurus, and know it all’s. Who are we learning from? Whose wisdom are we apprenticing ourselves under? Try to achieve the highest level of education that you possibly can. Learn how to learn, and then keeping doing it till you die. Even once we have completed graduate level studies, there are multiple continuing education experiences all around us all the time. Also, I try to always have at least one book, and usually several that I am reading.
Don’t waste unnecessary mental energy. The mind only has so much capacity in one day. Try to focus on things actually in your sphere of influence. We can only imagine and create at a certain level for so long. Then our work begins to diminish. When we are mentally exhausted, we become ineffective. Most people use up all their mental energy on useless endeavors each day. Fruitless activities in the shallows sap away our mental energies. Spending too much time on social media, watching TV, aimlessly searching the web, playing games, etc. We need to eliminate those activities as much as possible. For instance, I discovered that I saved several hours a day by stopping watching television. Reading books is a much more productive activity. Try to learn and memorize new blocks of information every week. I spend a good part of the week creating and memorizing sermons or concepts for books.
Whatever field you work in, there is usually new information to be assimilated and then shared. Memorization strengthens certain neuronal pathways in the brain, which provides excellent long-term benefits. Also, there are certain tasks that deplete our minds more than others. If you can create a team dynamic in your work, where each member of the team is operating in their gift set, it will be healthy for everyone involved. Furthermore, there are people who can suck our mental energy dry. We all know people that are exhausting to be around. I try to avoid extensive interaction with those folks, but when I do interact with them, I put a boundary on the duration and I try to balance that day with positive interactions.
8. Stay positive and engage in activities that stimulate creativity.
A positive mental attitude is actually a choice. Although it can be hard to shift to an optimistic mindset at first, we must carefully capture each thought. It starts with being conscious of our thought life and realizing when our thoughts are positive or negative. Prayer is an invaluable tool. People who have a positive thought life enjoy tremendous health benefits and live longer. They also get sick less and have healthier immune systems to fight off the virus.
I find inspiration to be an important part of a positive thought life. We can find inspiration in all kinds of places. Again, that might be watching beautiful, good, and true films, listening to great music, gazing at nature, exercising, but we must discover for ourselves what those things are and do them regularly. Contemplation, reflection, meditation, all maximize our mental energy and unleash the power of the mind.
9. Do Nothing—Rest your brain!
Winnie the Pooh has famously said, “Doing nothing often leads to the very best of something.” The hardest practice for many pioneers, “dreamers who do,” is to take breaks in our dreaming and doing. The Bible calls this… Sabbath. The brain can’t work overtime 24 hours a day, seven days per week. It needs to rest. Our mental batteries need to recharge. I have found the practice of taking one day a week to do nothing but hang with God, to be a most refreshing activity. It’s like a built-in mini-vacation every week, and this is the way God designed creation to be! Godself rested on the seventh day. Spending time not producing, enjoying your family, having fun, doing low level cognitive activities, are an important way to find balance in a typical week.
In the attention economy, we have become the primary target of the capitalist system. Our attention is monetized on digital platforms, so third-party companies can try to sell us their products. In a sense, we have become the products for big tech companies. We are the data that is being harvested, and data is the oil of the information age. We can resist this attention economy, but that is a topic for another reflection!
If you find this helpful in your journey towards health in 2021, please like and share it with others. Stay tuned for my next reflection on a healthy heart…