My journey has wound from social work to seminary; from traditional churches with buildings to a tent-making pastorate that doesn’t even own a tent. Professionally, I’m a therapist and, at times, a chaplain. But one constant on my journey has been photography. And not surprisingly—since God owns all Truth—I’ve noticed an intersection at which theology, therapy and photography meet.
Photography, like most things, has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. Digital cameras have replaced film, and dark rooms have yielded to color printers, but the art of photo composition has remained much the same. Life, too, has changed dramatically over the past 50 years, yet the art of composing a life remains subject to some timeless principles. The intersection of the two can be seen in the application of the rules of photo composition to the compositon of a life.
Focus cf. Field Of View:
Every photograph has a focus. Even if many things are present in the picture, something is the subject; the object of focus (even if out of focus). It is “the point” of the picture. Other things are in the field of view or confines of the frame, as well. But some of those things, whether “zoomed” out at the time of the shot or cropped out later in editing, are eliminated from the field of view. Not that they’re unworthy of being photographed; they’re just not the photographer’s focus. Having too many subjects in a field of view does not enhance a photograph, but clutters it. Rather than a piece of richly focused art, a picture with too many subjects is like a snapshot from a moving car.
Life is like that. No one can do everything. The confines of a twenty-four hour day and of a limited lifespan force us to eliminate some things from our “fields of view” – whether by accident or by choice (focus). In the realm of therapy, the niche of career counseling is devoted to helping people find their “sweet spot” – that area of career focus that will mostly likely give them personal satisfaction and “success” (however measured). Spiritually speaking, scripture tells us to focus on one master to the exclusion of others: “Choose you this day whom you will serve…” (Joshua 24:15). Jesus said (shamelessly paraphrased), “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all other things will come into proper focus.” Likewise, Paul commends Christians to humbly take up their gifting in the Body of Christ and not try to serve with gifts that are not theirs (1 Corinthians 12).
The movie, City Slickers had it right when hardened cowboy “Curly” looked at Billy Crystal and said that the secret to life is “one thing.” Billy Crystal asked, “What’s the one thing?” Curly responded “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.” Smart cowboy. Focus. Decide what is the focus—whether of a life or of a photograph—then decide what to reduce or eliminate. Decide what enriches, and what merely clutters.
If there is one focus to life that is found in both theology and therapy, it is relationships… relationship with God and relationships with people. No matter what else is might be our focus, relationships are everyone’s essence of life. Life began in relationship with God, continues utterly dependent upon a parent or caregiver, is influenced and enriched along the way by those who shape us (and we them), and will likely end dependent again upon someone’s care. Relationships… by design they are the ultimate focus of life. Whatever else is in our field of view, those things must not be allowed to eliminate relationships. If they do, then we wind up trading the essence of life for something less; possibly even only clutter.
The open space in a photograph corresponds to where the action is headed. Given the direction the subject is “facing” or moving toward, the well-composed photograph leaves open space in that direction. So it is with life. Space is having margin that allows us to move in the direction of our focus. An enjoyable life has space to grow in the ways that interest us; space in the direction of our “calling.”
Sometimes, photographs include “lines” that lead the eye, much like architects and landscape artists place elements in their design to draw the eye to some areas and away from others. In life, the trick is to realize that there are lines. We are always being drawn to some areas of focus and away from others; the question is whether we want to be drawn in the direction the lines are leading us. Who placed the lines there? Why? Can they be trusted? Did they have an ulterior motive in creating those lines and drawing our attention? What is at the end result of the lines suggested, versus other lines we could follow? Are there other lines to consider, that are more trustworthy? Which lines go in the direction that our face is set (our focus)?
Lighting can make the difference between a piece of art photography and a throwaway snapshot. Professional photographers will wait for hours for just the right lighting, often choosing sunrise or sunset to capture the dramatic shadows naturally illuminating subjects that would otherwise appear dull. The light cast on a subject changes the subject’s appearance. And the difference between artificial light and natural light creates two totally different pictures of the same subject, even if taken seconds apart. A good photographer recognizes the importance of light to his or her subject and is intentional about its illumination.
In the same way, life is illuminated. Similar to noticing the lines in photo composition, it is wise to notice the “light” in which a subject is cast. Is it “true light” or “artificial light?” Has an artificial light made something more attractive than it really is? Or less attractive? Has natural light brought out beauty that was hidden before, or hidden flaws in the shadows—perhaps where they should be? Jesus said, “I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12) and Paul said that Satan “…masquerades as an angel of light.” (2 Corinthians 11:14) Scripture, itself, can be illuminated by different kinds of light – historical light, linguistic, spiritual, critical, prayerful, volitional. The kind of light we shine on the Bible influences what we see. When reading scripture—or about scripture—pay attention to the light being applied. In counseling, likewise, therapists shine light on clients’ areas of concern, but they don’t necessarily use the same light. There are many theoretical schools from which counselors practice; the “light” they use to illuminate problems and solutions will vary, depending on the light that is applied. What is “seen” will determine treatment.
A “striking” picture is likely one that features contrasts. Hard/Soft. Dark/Light. Young/Old. Strong/Weak. Formal/Casual. Clean/Dirty. Serious/Playful.
Sometimes in life, we know best what something is, in contrast to what it is not. The value of life itself is most apparent in the face of death; we most appreciate warmth when we come in from the bitter cold; health is taken for granted until we experience illness or disability; and peace is sweetest on the day that war ends. The scriptures often describe what “is” by contrast to what is not. Jesus said that he came “not to judge the world, but to save it,” (John 3) and the Bible contrasts the light of Christ with the darkness of the world; the way of the Spirit to the nature of the flesh. Ironically, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), which guides the world of mental health, contains numerous mental disorders, yet offers no definition of mental health. This lack of contrast leaves practitioners guessing—or making up—what is “normal.” Thus, to have Christ as an example of what God intended for human life is a great gift to mental health.
When someone just loves a picture or other work of art, it is because the image has evoked an emotion. Art carries with it a feeling. Art that connects with us affects our mood. It may bring us peace or sorrow, joy or anger, a sense of danger, or a respect for freedom. Whatever it is, we are drawn to the emotion evoked by the work. Likewise in life, even the most stoic person is motivated by emotion.
On the first day of class in my Masters in Counseling program, the professor asked, “What is more important… thoughts or feelings?” I was stumped. I wanted to say, “Both.” The answer, from a counseling perspective, is feelings. Why? Because they happen first in the brain. Emotions lead. They point. They point to important needs within us. Often, those needs are relational, such as acceptance, nurture, love, respect, safety, security, and belonging. When those attachment needs are met, we have a sense of peace, joy, and well-being. When those needs are not met—or are threatened—we experience fear, sadness, shame, or hurt… the negative primary emotions. These latter emotions are clues to what is amiss in our relationships. Ultimately, all of our attachment needs are met in relationship with God through Jesus Christ. As it turns out, he is the ultimate Attachment Figure.
Another reason emotions are more important than thoughts is that we have all known “what we should do” and not done it. Why? Because we didn’t “feel” like it. We did (or didn’t do) as we did because “we felt like it.” This is especially true when we’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (HALT). Yes, we’re intelligent, but emotions lead, and sometimes we just let them lead, despite knowing better. Even so great a Christian leader as the Apostle Paul knew this dilemma. In writing about the power of our corrupted human nature (the “flesh”), he said, “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:18,19). Even Paul at times found himself led by the flesh instead of by the Spirit; he did what he felt like doing, rather than what he knew he should do and even wanted to do. Emotions “lead” not only in the brain, but sometimes in life. The key is to recognize our feelings, whence they come, their power, and where they will lead us, if we let them.
So, photography has changed; and life has changed. But, the composition of a photograph—and of a life—have not changed. They are both still subject to the timeless principles of:
- FOCUS – deciding what is important
- FIELD OF VIEW – eliminating clutter
- SPACE – leaving room in the direction we’re going
- LEADING LINES – recognizing where we’re being drawn
- ILLUMINATION – being intentional about the light we use
- CONTRAST – clarifying by way of the opposite
- EMOTION – noticing a human need
Phenethylamine (fiːnaɪlˌɛθɪlˌəˈmiːn). You may not have heard of it, but you’ve drunk it. At least, your brain has. It goes by the nickname,“the infatuation drug.” It was secreted into your brain in Middle School when that one girl or guy walked into class, took a seat two rows down and to your left, and you didn’t hear another word the teacher said. You were in love. This person was perfect. Life with this person by your side would be the definition of bliss every day; that was clear. The only thing unclear was how to get from “two rows down and to the left” to “down the aisle and into your cool loft apartment with your two perfect kids.” Remember her or him? You may not remember their name, but now you know their nickname: “Phenethylamine.” Or more accurately—their real name.
Phenethylamine is an hallucinogen. And a nomadic one (not romantic… nomadic). It distorts reality, such that what you see is not real. Don’t get me wrong; that person in seventh grade was cute; real cute! But you’re now old enough to know they also had flaws. (Every person has flaws because our strengths are our weaknesses; a person with no weaknesses is a person with no strengths.) But you didn’t see those flaws; there wasn’t a weakness within fifty rows of that seventh grade chair. That is, until Phenethylamine moved on; and it always does. It has a shelf-life of a few weeks to a maximum of two years. If your dream-date’s facade is terribly misleading, your Phenethylamine “high” might last only as long as your first conversation.
But there’s good news. In fact, much better news. The promiscuity of Phenethylamine is trumped by the faithful permanence of the bond of Oxytocin. If Phenethylamine is the chemical reaction behind “puppy Love,” Oxytocin is the chemical reaction behind real love. It’s the feel-good chemical that washes over the brain when we connect with another human being in a way that feels secure, safe, comforting, loving, nurturing, and accepting. It says, “I want to be with this person” not because one has fallen in love with a hallucination, but because one has experienced authentic, safe, caring human connection. In that sense, it is a much more reliable guide to a good mate. After all, how we make one another feel will go a lot further in a relationship than pretty eyes and skin-tight jeans. Oxytocin also trumps—in the area of worthy criteria on which to build a relationship—another brain chemical that can lead us into trouble: Dopamine. Dopamine is released when we get what we want. It is a motivator. It is an adrenaline junkie that loves pursuit; it’s a fan of the hunt—whether the reward of the hunt is “to get the girl” (or guy), or win the tournament, or seal the business deal, or even find the next high (all addictions are ultimately Dopamine addictions; the pleasureful reward of getting what one craves rides in on a wave of Dopamine). But there could be volumes written on the woes of following Dopamine into a relationship. That’s why sex is a terrible way to start a relationship. A relationship motivated by and rewarded by a cerebral Dopamine bath is a shallow and uncertain relationship. In fact, speaking of books on Dopamine disasters, there is a chapter of that “book” as old as the Bible. This relational-Dopamine-letdown is behind the tragic story in chapter thirteen of 2nd Samuel, of the rape of Tamar by her half-brother, Amnon. He had long nurtured an obsession with “having her.” Once he “had her” (by force), “he despised her.” His Dopamine satisfied, he was not interested in a loving relationship; he was off to the next conquest. And for Tamar? What chemical washed over her brain? Certainly not Oxytocin; not even Dopamine—but Cortisol—released by the hypothalamus in response to threat, fear, and danger. Thus, the Dopamine-fueled dream of the sexual conquerer was the Cortisol-fueled living nightmare of the conquered.
But I said there was good news, didn’t I? Back to Oxytocin. Oxytocin is relationship superglue. It is the brain’s bonding chemical. It is that which creates bonding between mother and newborn, as the infant is placed on the mother’s bare belly and suckles for the first time. This becomes the child’s first experience outside the womb of caring, comfort, safety, acceptance, belonging and love… the first building block of a chemically-reinforced association of relationships with safe reliability. The more positive, pure, safe connections a person has throughout life—especially in early life—the more capacity one will have for secure attachments, or safe, trusting relationships. Oxytocin is released in moments ranging from plutonic to romantic. It shows up when we’ve been “tended or befriended.” It is secreted when a human interaction has felt good—safe, accepting, nurturing, and comforting. It’s in the cradled lullaby; the nonsexual touch of a friend; a good massage; a hug when we’re sobbing; holding someone’s hand when afraid; snuggling with a parent or spouse; the empathy we see in the tear-rimmed eyes of someone who has listened—really listened—to our story; it’s as public and low-level as holding candles in a Christmas Eve service, and as private and intense as front-to-front sexual orgasm in a relationship of committed love. And that committed love is, again, the difference between the secretion of shallow and short-lived Dopamine, or a Phenethylamine hallucination.
So, the heart bone is indeed connected to the brain bone, in both adaptive and maladaptive ways; ways that help, heal and protect us, and ways that hinder, wound, and damage us. And that’s the gift—and curse—of relationships. Our hearts are vulnerable; our brains are vulnerable; relationships are vulnerable. Love, trust, and commitment are vulnerable. But where would we be without that relational vulnerability? Alone. We’d be alone. And that is the most wounding existence of all. The alternative is to be for others a safe, accepting, respectful, comforting, loving, protective presence and—if we choose wisely—experiencing the same from someone else.
I have people-centric jobs, yet fight to spend time with people. I am a counselor, pastor, chaplain, and teacher chained to a computer much of the day. And it’s not optional. There are daily, weekly and monthly reports to be filed, emails to be read and sent, social media to update, websites to maintain, documents to produce, mandated electronic records to keep, resources to create, and even blogs—of all things—to write! There would be bulletins to produce and monthly newsletters, as well, but our church does not use them; I refuse to spend time on them, given their poor return on investment.
The investment that does pays off—in strengthened lives, empowered people, healed wounds, and functional families—is in real relationships with people. Yet, with many households being characterized by two working spouses, sports commitments nearly every night and weekend, smart phones that allow us to work all the time, and nearly everything requiring us to go online, except for gassing up the car… who can be away from a little screen long enough to talk with a flesh-and-blood person? Even people who go to coffee shops “to be around people” sit staring into little screens instead of engaging with the people around them. I even see kids at bus stops staring off into space with earbuds in their ears, intentionally walled off from each other by personal playlists. It’s like a disturbing sci-fi movie.
Jesus’ last prayer on earth surprised me. In John 17, he prayed for his disciples and all those who would follow them in faith. Given the myriad things Jesus could have prayed, what did he pray? He prayed, “…that they be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (v.21) He prayed that people be united; that they be one as he and the father are one. In other words, he prayed for bonded human relationships. If that’s the case, then what are going to be top priorities of the liar/enemy/deceiver/destroyer? Isolate and divide. And hasn’t he done a marvelous job of it!?! Not only has he walled us off from one another as in the above examples and many more, our enemy has taken even the most intimate, connectional experience imaginable—that physical intimacy capable of producing a human life—and turned that into a disconnected “hookup,” or worse by way of even less connected online counterfeit experiences.
Brain scans have shown us a great deal, including the neurological and chemical responses that are created in response to varying human interactions, such as looking into the eyes of another human being, having a conversation, working as a team, receiving a smile, experiencing nonsexual touch, or engaging in caring sexuality. Brain scans reveal that God made us with a need for human relationships, and that these cannot be fulfilled by cyber connections. Thus, our adversary—in the name of convenience and productivity (measured in time, currency, inanimate objects, and other factors unrelated to human well-being)—has isolated us into boxes. We live in insulated boxes; drive in mobile boxes; sit in work cubicles, and constantly hold hands with an omnipresent mobile box. Exit human relationships; enter isolation, loneliness, and neurological lack of familiarity with attachment and real intimacy.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. We were made for relationships… real human relationships. It was what Jesus prayed for when he prayed his last prayer on earth.
Your spouse is not your enemy. And your spouse is not your god.
Those are two extremes couples often take toward each other. The first—regarding our spouse as our enemy—makes marriage a contest. One or both spouses feels that they have to defeat their spouse in order to get their way. Rather than a cooperative team, husband and wife have become opposing teams. Marriage is a sparring contest; words are offensive weapons spoken in harsh, sarcastic, unkind, or even threatening tones. Kindness is reserved for others.
The opposite extreme is couples who marry as if another person will bring meaning and fulfillment and purpose to their lives, overcoming their deficits; eliminating loneliness and sadness forever. That is to regard one’s spouse as one’s god. Of course, we know that our spouse is not actual deity. But, the expectations are beyond mortal fulfillment. A human can’t make us whole, give life purpose, or be our constant companion. These are the things of God! Anyone who expects a person—even a spouse—to fulfill them is riding a wave of idealistic distortion that will eventually crash.
Our spouse is not our enemy, and our spouse is not our god. Our spouse is an imperfect companion through life. Marriage is the commitment of two imperfect people to unconditionally love each other despite it all, till death do them part. We are friends; best friends who have good time and bad, and find our way back to good after things have gone bad. We come together and spend years trying to understand each other, so that we can support one another and take care of each other, whether rich or poor, sick or healthy, as long as we both shall live. Marriage isn’t about getting our way (singular); it’s about forming our way (plural); it’s about forming a “we” out of two “me’s.”
Marriage is not a contest. And marriage is not salvation through a mortal being. Marriage is a team of two on a journey toward unconditional love for each other, empowered by the unconditional love of God.
There are people you count as friends. There are people whom you most decidedly do not count as friends. What’s the difference? Around your friends you feel good; accepted; nurtured, protected, maybe even loved. You trust your friends; you presume they’re there for you, as you’re there for them; that they’ve “got your back,” as you have theirs. “Enemies” by definition are not for you, but against you. They don’t have your back, they’re stabbing you in the back. And for those of us not in third grade, anymore, we probably don’t count anyone as an enemy, but there are people we don’t number as “friends,” either. We just don’t feel special around them; there’s not a connection or bond we’re going to seek out when we need nurture. There are others—friends—that we trust to meet those needs, or at least to wallow with us in our neediness.
That’s it. A friend doesn’t even have to be successful at meeting our needs; they just have to really, really want to, and feel really badly when they’re not able to. That feels great! We feel cared for; connected; nurtured; not alone. There are people in our corner. Friends.
Marriage is more about friendship than about romance. In essence, we get married because we feel good around this person. They make us feel better than does anyone on the planet. In fact, they make us feel so good that we want to make that feeling permanent. Sure, there’s romance, but romance without friendship is just sensual. It’s emotional and maybe physical, but as enjoyable as those are, they won’t sustain a marriage. Marriage is sustained at the level of attachment needs. And attachment needs have more in common with friendship than with passion.
What are attachment needs? They are identified in Attachment Theory as “the bottom line” of human relationships; even of human formation. Ideally, our attachment needs are met by our parents or primary caregivers. They include acceptance, safety, belonging, nurture, comfort, love, and respect. That is, we don’t have to “be more like our brother” in order to be loved by mom; we are accepted for who we are and who we aren’t. We have a secure sense of belonging the family; we’re not threatened with abandonment, or cut lose to fend for ourselves. Our primary protectors actually keep us safe; they don’t endanger us. We find nurture and encouragement to become who we’re wired to be. When we’re hurt, or sad we find comfort in these human relationships. It is in such emotionally and physically safe relationships that we discover love and respect as a human being. From this base of human attachment, we have a place from which to launch and replicate other healthy relationships.
That’s where relationships live. All relationships—parents and children, spouses, friendships, neighbors, co-workers. All relationships come down to this… feeling good. Do we make them feel good? Do they make us feel good? “Feeling good” comes down to feeling attached to someone who is safe to be attached to; someone who is there for us, not against us; someone who accepts us, nurtures us, comforts us, loves us; someone who will be there in our time of need. A friend.
Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington has observed couples in relationship for forty years and concluded that if there is one thing that holds together a marriage more than anything else, it’s friendship. That’s not very sexy; it’s not filled with “romantical” images. But a lover who isn’t a friend is a dangerous playmate. If we’re going to superglue ourselves to someone for life, better that someone be friendly than merely sexy. Attachment will soon become more important than attraction. In fact, attraction will grow stronger with attachment, as what could be more attractive than someone who is safe, nurturing, accepting, and comforting? Relationships come down to that.