I was listening to a famous author on a podcast talk about some research a neuroscientist had shown him. He was told they've discovered in brain scans how certain thoughts attach themselves to our brains.
Interestingly, negative thoughts get into our brains and stay there like Velcro. They're easily attached, no laces needed. Negative, gossipy, sulky thoughts are sucked into our brain as if by a magnet and we can subconsciously mull over them far more easily than we'd like to admit.
A harsh word in a meeting gets the hairs on our neck to stand on end. Our knickers get in a twist over angry, violent and unjust things around us so readily and our brains soak it up.
You might get a week of emails, and one is negative, but it's that one you remember. It clings onto your brain like a koala bear up a gum tree. You wrestle with these thoughts all night; you toss and turn thinking about what you should have said.
Have you ever met a person who likes to worry, complain or gossip? The science says that these people are simply living out of what's attached itself to their brain the most. I put 'nasty' in the title to prove a point, our brains pick up negativity quicker and we're wired to respond.
Maybe this has become a coping mechanism to protect ourselves? It's fair to say we all want to combat negative experiences and we want to rightly protect ourselves. Safety is a core emotional need, and our brains hang on to things that are important to us. Our brains are hardwired to wall up and have a defence against our enemies.
But what if somewhere along the line our defences have become so rigid, that we forget how to think any other way?
I recently heard the following question asked on a conservative American Christian TV programme:
'I'm worried that my tax dollars are going to help drug addicts. I see drug addicts on the streets and I wonder how I can help when I know any money I give to them will just be spent on drugs. Am I right in thinking that?'
This is a universal question I'm sure we've all pondered while walking past people begging; will my small amount of money bring about any change?
The presenter answered assuredly. He said we should respond with tough love.
He said those drug addicts can't be helped by throwing money at them, they need to hit rock bottom and get out of their addiction, before our hard earned dollars should be used to help them.
It was a straight answer to a fairly broad question and I guess that's what gets ratings, but really, tough love? I know America can be quite divided with their black and white camps of pro this and anti that, but helping the down and out was something I thought would be a little more mainline and neutral for conservative Christians.
After lifting my jaw from the ground, I thought about the Good Samaritan story. Maybe the religious leaders in first century Jerusalem who walked past the beaten man on the road thought he needed some tough love too?
I couldn't help but think the lady asking the question would now feel justified when she walked past anyone asking for a handout: the homeless, a drug addict, a single mum struggling to feed her kids. Her money is now safe from those needy hands and her mind is free from guilt.
Our minds can build walls to keep us safe. Subtly disguised as self-righteousness our selfishness can justify our actions. If we don't transform and learn from our pain, we'll project it. Walls in our minds dictate who's in, and who's out, and I believe all this walling up is stopping people from doing the very thing Jesus asked us to do.
"Love your neighbour."
Those same neuroscientists say the opposite of Velcro is true when it comes to positive thoughts. We walk past an inspiring piece of art, we get a compliment, we view a sunset and the next day we can barely remember it. The scientists say that positive, life-affirming and beautiful things don't stick to our brains like Velcro, it's more like Teflon. Like on a soapy marble floor, positive thoughts slide in one ear and out the other.
Unless—and here's the tough part—we decide to actively meditate on those positive thoughts for longer than 15 seconds they'll be gone. When we reminisce, when we contemplate goodness and say thanks, when we remember the positive the good starts to embed in our brains.
When you see a child laugh and your heart warms, soak it in or it'll vanish, and those Velcro-like negative thoughts will take over. This isn't just my idea or self-help jargon, it's science.
I think real transformation in our lives, and the lives of people we meet, has little do with perfection or getting things right (see my previous article). It has little to do with piety, willpower, intelligence or whether people meet certain standards before we'll help them.
Transformation in our communities, in leadership, and in our minds has everything to do with vulnerability—a willingness to surrender, to look for the good, and to love mercy. Renewing our minds for the better will help us to love mercy and walk humbly.
I want to finish by quoting the most powerful Christian leader in the world. Someone who seems to understand what it means to reach out to the down and out, and funnily enough I can't imagine negative thoughts sticking to his brain for too long.
Pope Francis says,
'Considering our illness, our sins, to be incurable, things that cannot be healed or forgiven. We lack the actual concrete experience of mercy. The fragility of our era is this, too: we don't believe that there is a chance for redemption; for a hand to raise you up; for an embrace to save you, forgive you, pick you up, flood you with infinite, patient, indulgent love; to put you back on your feet. We need mercy.'
I believe we need to be pragmatic and not blindly give our time and money away, but it's so important to have open discussions about big issues like helping all those in need.
Rather than justifying closed thinking, I hope we can start with a positive posture of mercy as we tear away that Velcro.
Brad Mills enjoys the outdoors and almost any sport... For a day job he's a journalist who works at the Rhema Broadcasting Group in Auckland New Zealand.
Brad Mill's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/brad-mills.html