Pentecost 36

Pentecost 36
My Psalm 36

July 13, 2014

O.C.F. – Obsessive, Compulsive Faith

You see the indication on the application display that you have been invited to yet another game of “Words With Friends”. You enjoy playing but this particular friend has resoundly beaten you for the past five games. Asking yourself why anyone would ever play such a game with an English teacher who vocabulary is an expansive as the Sahara Desert, you reluctantly agree. You are three moves away from the end and are ahead by three hundred points when you suddenly get a message from your opponent: “Why are people of faith so mean to each other?” Sadly, you know exactly what is being asked. IT is a fact. People of faith, sincere and great faith, are mean to each other.

The body is a wonderful machine and no matter how you think it has evolved or even came into existence, you would be remiss if you did not respect its actions and that includes its protective actions. One such mechanism of survival is the body’s response to perceived stress commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. This automatic response enables humans and other animals to focus energy quickly as a means of coping to perceived threats to survival. The autonomic nervous system notifies the body and the adrenal cortex releases the stress hormones. This causes a rapid heartbeat and increased breathing. The thyroid gland stimulates the body’s metabolism and more oxygenated blood is sent to the larger muscles. Whether fleeing the threat or preparing to fight, the body is now ready to wage an attack. It can also maintain a frozen stance, much like animals do in the wild to avoid detection by predators.

It is a marvelous system for protection with just one problem. It is an automatic response based upon perceived threats and most of the time, the threat is just that – perceived…not real. So our three-fold response to perceived threats – fight, flight, and fright or freeze – are often ineffective because there is no outlet for the tension which has built up due to the automatic response. Muscles knot up, the sudden release of stress hormones can cause queasy stomachs, and the rush of blood to the larger muscles can result in headaches. Understanding such physiological mechanisms can help one to adapt and manipulate these responses to stress in a healthy way.

While stress does not cause obsessive compulsive disorder, it can trigger symptoms. According to the World Health Organization, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, is one of the 10 leading causes of disability in the developed world. “OCD is characterized by recurrent disturbing, distressing or intrusive thoughts called obsessions, or ritualized behaviors or mental acts, called compulsions,” a July 2013 New York Daily News article quoted Dr Dorothy Grice, a professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai, as saying. “Individuals with OCD usually try to actively dismiss or neutralize an obsession by performing a compulsion or avoiding situations that trigger these thoughts, but the compulsion is a short-term fix that ends up feeding the OCD cycle.”

As the name suggests, OCD has two defining sets of symptoms: obsessions and compulsions. “Common obsessions usually concern fears — of contamination, of losing control, of harming someone else, of losing important items or personal possessions,” said Grice. “Other obsessions have to do with harm and responsibility; the fear of harming someone else because of not being careful.” Some patients experience religious obsessions or unwanted or disturbing sexual thoughts.

People develop compulsions as a means of coping with their obsessive thoughts. “Typical compulsions include excessive washing, bathing or hygiene routines, cleaning household items excessively — to ward off fears of illness, contamination or germs — or ‘checking compulsions,’ to “ensure that you or your loved ones are safe and well, that your work has been completed, or that your home is secure,” continued Grice. “Many patients have compulsions related to perfectionism: lining things up precisely, having to read or write over and over, reorganizing personal possessions, doing tasks in multiples or by counting certain patterns.”

So …back to the original question: Why are people of faith mean to each other? I propose that they are reacting to a perceived threat regarding their faith. Their “meanness” is a type of fight or flight response with theirs being a fright response. They live out the adage that the best defense is a good offense. Instead of living their faith, their attempt to frighten others to it and when that doesn’t work, then they fight about it. And they do these things proudly…and loudly.

So if frightening people to God is not the answer and if fighting with people, usually verbally but sometimes to the point of persecution, is contradictory to the faith doctrine (and it is!), then are we to simply run away? Just as we should learn how to handle our body’s response to perceived threats and stress, we need to respond with actions that are congruent with the doctrine of our faith instead of those contradictory to it. Spirituality and religion should not become forms of torture but ways to improve and live better, individually and within our world community.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the best-known treatment for OCD and related disorders. Just as people suffering from OCD experience severe anxiety that inhibits their social activities and personal values, people with an obsessive faith who are dictatorial, autocratic and…well, mean. CBT is a type of therapy in which one thinks. Just as our parents taught us as children, we need to think before we speak and/or act. Engage our brain before our mouth or fists.

What type of cognitive behavioral therapy could one use when referring to faith? I cannot speak for all belief systems but in the Abrahamic faiths, the answer is in the holy writings – the Koran, the Torah, and the Bible. “Love thy neighbor” is the best CBT one can practice. With our cognitive behaviors based upon our faith and not by a threat or stress reaction, they will know we are people of faith, pilgrims on life’s journey together, by our love.

My Psalm 36
The transgression of fight;
The fear in flight;
Words designed to fright;
A faith forthright.
The God of Light;
His love will ignite;
His strength will evil smite.
O God of Might!


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