I recently read an account of a clinical professor of psychiatry trying to settle an argument between his teenage son and nine-year old daughter. Daniel Siegel, in his book Mindsight, gave the chapter the excellent title, Crepes of Wrath, since his children happened to be fighting over a crepe.
By the end of the account, Siegal lost his mind in his attempt to be patient and reasonable. His hands were shaking, and he felt clueless. Even a medical degree from Harvard is no match for teenage sophistry. If you have children, you’ll be interested in how Siegel responded.
He went for a walk.
The change gave him space to drift in his mind back through the events of the morning. As only a clinical psychiatrist could, he described the ignition of his limbic system and his inescapable urge to yell… For Siegel, re-watching his behavior began to activate the cooler regions of his mind.
His daughter was with him, so he asked her about the fight that morning. As nine-year-old’s unfortunately do at times, she told him the truth. Noting his temptation to defend himself, Siegel forced himself to deliberately listen.
Siegel’s account reminded me of meditation and prayer, though in a secular form. He was taking the time to examine his thinking and behavior. He even began a kind of conversation with himself.
We could all benefit from calming down and observing our own behavior. I know I have. However, I’ve tried to ask how we can push this further. Siegel’s reflections were assisted by the perspective of his daughter. In the same way, what if we brought our reflections before a personal God?
The Psalms are replete with examples of introspection: Why are you cast down, O my soul? (Psalm 42:5). These same Psalms bring these reflections before a God who hears and answers prayer. Even the bleakest of the Psalms are voiced to God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
A new way
In prayer, we see our souls in relationship to God. “In your light do we see light.” (Psalm 36:9b) Calvin wrote that our knowledge of ourselves cannot truly begin without a proper understanding of God. In prayer, we reason within ourselves, perhaps even to justify our actions. Because we are praying to God, we’re involved in understanding our thoughts and actions in light of His character and purpose. The contrast between God and ourselves sheds new light on our thinking and we begin confession, we ask God for new strength, we praise His mercy.
In our distracted age, the practice of prayer will give our minds depth and perspective as we handle conflict and deal with guilt. Writers like Siegel can help our secular society re-cultivate habits of introspection. The practice of prayer invites us to continue our inward contemplation, but to do so with an added outside perspective.