Mark 5: 1-20
This month I’ve been preaching about different exercises designed by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at University of North Carolina, to help promote people’s capacity to form healthy social bonds. The exercises have been relatively simple. Make eye contact and smile. Lean in, nod, and use open hand gestures when we talk to someone. Celebrate others good fortune by praying for them and asking God to continue to bless them.
Today I want to talk about an experiment conducted by psychologists that inspired an exercise that is not as easy as the first three. Imagine researchers videotaping you while you are making a mistake, then you have to watch the videotape and rate yourself. Let’s say a rating of 1 is a horrible performance and 5 is a spectacular one. Then the researches have strangers watch the tape and rate you.
Some people gave themselves a rating that is lower than the rating the strangers gave them. For example they said their performance was a 2 and the strangers gave them a 3.5. Other people gave themselves a rating that was consistent with the strangers, they gave themselves a 3 and the strangers also gave them a rating of 3.
The researchers found that the difference between the people who were hard on themselves and the people whose self-perception matched the perception of others was self-compassion. The level of compassion the videotaped had for themselves was an indicator of how accurately their self-judgement reflected others’ judgement of them (Leary et al. 2007).
People with the ability to show themselves compassion have moderate reactions to distressing situations. In the face of failure, rejection or embarrassment their self-talk sounds more like “I am normal. This isn’t any worse than what lots of other people go through,” instead of thoughts such as “I am such a loser. In comparison to other people, my life is really screwed up.”
Having compassion for yourself is not a sugar-coating of positive thinking. It is not repression or denial. People with self-compassion can accept responsibility for their mistakes without dwelling on them. They can accept undesirable aspects of their personality without obsessing, becoming defensive or feeling negative.
Researchers have discovered that Americans find this kind of self-compassion difficult. We are harder on ourselves, we have less compassion for our failures than people in other countries (Love 2.0, 116). It’s as if in our society we have all of these negative voices in our heads putting out a constant stream of criticism.
Is that what it was like for the poor man in the Gospel lesson this morning? Nothing but harsh judgments running through his head continually? Only in his case he had to deal with more than negative self-talk he had a legion of demons cursing him.
Or consider the townspeople in the Gospel lesson asking Jesus to leave their community. Some people who struggle to direct compassion inward get defensive, they overreact when people try to help them, and they end up driving people away. The townspeople don’t trust Jesus, don’t believe that his power will benefit them not harm them.
The demons recognized the divine nature of Jesus’ power and begged him to leave them alone. Do we recognize Jesus’ power over our negativity and defensiveness? Would we rather that Jesus leave us alone?
I find it easier to show myself compassion after making a mistake when I remind myself that I am just like everyone else. I am a sinner saved by grace. God’s compassion is directed towards me and every member of the human race. We are forgiven. The cross stands as a testament to this truth.
The empty tomb of Easter bears witness to the truth that there is hope for us. I find it easier to show myself compassion when faced with a moral shortcoming if I confess the failing and ask Christ to transform me, to help me become a better person, the person who I want to be, someone who loves God and neighbor.
The demon-possessed man in the Gospel lived among the tombs cut off from human society. When Jesus set him free he wanted to join the disciples, but Jesus told him to stay and tell the people of his country what had happened to him, the story of how he had been healed.
And he did, he traveled all around a ten-city region, talking up Jesus and everyone was amazed by what had happened. Once he was alone, living among tombs, tormented by the voices in his head. Then Jesus healed him, he rejoined human society, his social connection was restored, and he taught others about the one who had turned his life around and who could save them, too.
The townspeople marveled at the change in him. Jesus had scared them. They’d gotten defensive. But they felt safe with this man, they connected with him, and through him they could connect to the divine power that had saved him.
Here’s an exercise that’s designed to help you become more self-compassionate. The other exercises in this sermon series were about directing love out towards others, putting them at ease, making them feel safe and connected. This exercise requires us to direct love towards ourselves and to feel safe in our own skin and connected to our sense of self in a positive way.
Some who tried similar exercises fell asleep during the experiment. Some quit saying that they were incapable of doing it (Love 2.0, 116). Did I mention that Americans find self-compassion difficult? This exercise involves filling in the blanks on the bulletin cover with your name. May God Bless [your name here].
May you, [your name here], feel safe and protected.
May you, [your name here], feel happy and peaceful.
May you, [your name here], feel healthy and strong.
May you, [your name here], live with ease (Love 2.0, 121).
I know that many of you find it difficult to pray for yourself and ask God to bless you. But if you think of self-compassion as the foundation that love for others rests upon, would that help? If our love for ourselves is shaky, so will our love for others. If we have healthy self-love, our love for others will be healthy. That means that in a roundabout way praying for self-love is another way to pray for others.
If you remind yourself of the fact that God’s love is always directed toward you, would that help? You are not praying for any extra blessing. The prayer for self-love is just a way to remember that God’s grace is already reaching out to you.
If you pray the prayer on the bulletin cover every day and remind yourself that God is targeting you with love, I do believe that over time you will become less defensive and negative. Given how difficult it is for Americans to practice self-compassion, I think it will stand out to people if you suddenly start to go easier on yourself, and some of them might ask you about the change in your behavior.
That will be your opening to give Christ credit and explain to them how they can experience this grace, too.
I hope that people marvel at your compassionate self.