Friday, October 28, 2011

Personality and Perspective: Counseling, Theology

How can people be helped? What do they need in order to start making better decisions, to change directions? Here are three kinds of answers:
  1. There are deep longings, which they are pursuing with wrong strategies, and we help them by exploring the deep longings, exploring the wrong strategies. They change by recognizing those longings and changing those strategies.
  2. The problem is simply the will; their first need is for exhortation, and the second need is for accountability.
  3. People are insecure; they don't know deep in their souls that God loves them unconditionally. Once that fact is a constant part of their awareness, they'll be freed up to choose wisely; we help them by providing community (this is the chief way that God loves us -- through others).
No doubt there are other "mental models" of problems and counseling, but the thing I wanted to say was that the model, the sort of theory in our minds is influenced largely by our personality.

So if you're an angry kind of person and like to tell people what to do, you'll tend to think #2 above is the way people change. If you're into group hugs and you think of "warm and fuzzy" as an honorific, you'll probably like #3. If you like figuring things out and analyzing things--if you like crossword puzzles or computer programming, your mental model is likely to be #1.

This just about follows from the adage, "If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Of course these things tend to be self-reinforcing; if you yell at people and things happen, you'll tend to believe it more. As you believe it more strongly, you'll tend to yell more often and so on. So there's a sort of chicken-and-egg question, but I tend to think it starts with personality—because it seems so insightful and because Larry Crabb said it.

Theology and risk-taking

How about the propensity to take risks, to live on the edge? Tell me the verses you like and I'll guess whether you naturally are a risk-taker or a careful planner. Do you like Proverbs 6:6-8 (Go to the ant... it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest)? Or "The prudent see trouble coming and take cover; the simple keep going and suffer for it" (22:3)? I'll bet you're risk-averse. I don't mean you don't trust God; you believe that part of how God provides for our future is by giving us enough today to give, to spend, and to save for future reserves.

But if you prefer verses like "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy..." (Matthew 6:19) or "Whosoever he be of you, if he forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:33) or "Do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ ..." then I'll guess that you believe we shouldn't have much—that God provides for today's needs today and tomorrow's needs tomorrow.

Something that's important here is (sorry for sounding PC) that we embrace diversity! See, if you're a Proverbs 6:6-8 kind of guy, the temptation is to think of the Matthew 6:19 crowd as being imprudent. You might read this story and think the person profligate or wacky. And if you're a Matthew 6:19 kind of guy, there's a temptation to think of the Proverbs 22:3 crowd as being stodgy if not downright deficient in faith.

But the Apostle Paul tells us, "Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind" and ""with humility of mind let each of you consider others as more important..."  Right? How about Romans 15:7?

Let's think a little more about the visionary without food in the refrigerator. If we all lived like that, who would God move to write the big check? And if nobody dared anything like that, a lot of good things wouldn't happen. Really, it's not for the eye to say to the foot, "Because you're not an eye, you're not part of the body." If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? (1 Cor. 12:17)

Because, like it or not, our views on how Jesus treated people, what he expects from them, and even how people change—our views are influenced more by our personality than by the Scriptures, so we must hold them with humility.

So here's a bit of my view on counseling. (Prayer and the Holy Spirit play important roles in our spiritual and psychological health, but I mean what we do to help people.) I believe that people get into trouble because they use wrong strategies to try to fulfill their deep longings, and that a big part of helping people is to explore those deep longings and wrong strategies. But some are more in need of confrontation and accountability than any exploration. Some need more reassurance, more warm&fuzzies, before they can do anything else. And some may need lithium before anything else.

And risk? I believe that ants (Proverbs 6:6-8) are wise and prudent, not faithless (though I did think for a time that savings accounts were sin!)—but I also thank God for visionaries like the 72 who went into the villages without "a purse or bag or sandals" (Luke 10:4) and people like Hudson Taylor and the founder of Jeremiah's Promise (referred to above).

I hope that what I now think I understand about these things is closer to what God wants me to think, but no way can this be the ultimate truth.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"All the days ordained for me..."

In Psalm 139, David says, "O Lord you have searched me and known me; you know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You know my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord" (Ps 139:1-4).

Which brings up a question: If God knows what I"m going to say before I say it—if, as Jesus said, he knows what I need before I ask—then what's the point of saying my prayers to him?

Well, the psalm also says "All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be". If all our days are known beforehand, why bother to live any of them?

Right? OK, the point of living life isn't just for God to see what we do, as though he needed new information; it's for us to live it. And the point of prayer isn't just for God to hear what we say, as though he needed new information; it's for us to pray it.

In other words, praying is for my benefit, not his. Sometimes when I pray, and tell God what I'm hoping for, I realize that that's not what I really want, or that I really want a lot more, or something else. And whenever I pray, it reminds me that I need God, that nothing that really matters in life is under my control. It's really important for me to remember that.

But what does it mean, "All the days ordained for me..."? It seems to me that there are two possibilities:

  • If this refers to a prescribed set of days written in God's book (as the translation "ordained" suggests), then one has to wonder, can I get away from it or not? Again, two possibilities.
    • If I can deviate from the plan, then once I've gone off it like in 1961, then my life has been off it since then, and it's not much of a book -- it's more like a fantasy.
    • If I can’t deviate from the plan, that means David couldn't either, and his misdeeds (adultery and murder, to name two) were prescribed by God. As someone once said, "I don't think so."
  • So this must be a descriptive set of days written in God's book. (Not all translations have the sense of God ordaining the psalmist's days; some have more the sense of knowing in advance.) If we can deviate from this description, it's not a very good one. So if we slip up, even if we do terrible things as David did, God knows we were going to do it.
And as with any Bible passage, the next question is, "So what?" Here's what I take from it: that God is not surprised by anything. He knows what's coming; he knows what I'm going to bump into. He knows when I'll overcome, and when I'll goof up. And in spite of the ways I slip up, or willingly deviate from the path, I can say with David: "How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand." (Ps 139:17-18)

I love this psalm; it's so realistic. David seems happy that God is so near in verses 1-6, but then in 7-12 he wants to run away—yet knows he can't; he can neither run nor hide. And David is so honest about his thoughts in verses 19-22, asking God to slay the wicked and confessing his hatred toward them.

I want to finish here quoting David's words -- he began with "O Lord, you have searched me and known me" (Ps 139:1); he ends with "Search me O God and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts... lead me in the way everlasting" (from Ps 139:23-24).

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Words to a young teen

A friend asked me to "take a few minutes and jot a note of wisdom and encouragement" to his son, who is about to enter the teenage years. Wisely, he asked a lot of us for this (more to the point, he asked a lot of people besides me) but anyway here's mine:
You're entering a time of great opportunity and growth, though it may feel more like a maelstrom of confusion and insecurity. When I was your age, I looked at the grown men around me and thought they had it all together: Would I have my life together when I got to be their age? As it turns out, they didn't have their lives as much together as I thought they did, and I spent too much time thinking about what things would be like way out there; I sometimes wish I had taken more time to enjoy the present, back when I had so much more time.

I used to think the most important thing was to avoid making mistakes. I thought if I could just stay out of trouble, things would be okay. The problem with this perspective is that I avoided all kinds of adventures because I thought I might goof up.

So my wish for you is that you take enough time to enjoy what's right in front of you. It's prudent to prepare for the future, to seek guidance and blessing from the Lord and so on, but don't forget that today is part of your life too. And I hope that you don't waste as much effort as I did trying to avoid mistakes -- focus rather on seeking the excitement and adventure and blessing that God wants you to enjoy.

As I look at those words, it occurs to me that I haven't outgrown that advice myself.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Collin reads "chick lit"

So we were on vacation in an exotic foreign city and stumbled upon a trade paperback copy of The Pretend Wife, by Bridget Asher (author of My Husband’s Sweethearts). OK, let's at least try to be open-minded, shall we?

The plot has an unsatisfying deus ex machina ending, as some reviews suggest, but the question that interested me from the book is this: What is the appropriate level of, ah, intensity in a marriage?

Gwen, Asher's first-person narrator, had been involved in an intense, overwhelming relationship in college, then broke up with the guy and married "Peter," who

didn't shove love at me. He didn't lavish it on. He wasn't brimming with love. He doled it out in portions. Love wasn't an ocean—it came in packets....

It was perfect for me when we met. In fact it was all I could have handled.

And, later, as I was learning that it was insufficient, I knew that I was asking too much of him.... And, the truth was, we'd have passed any marital test—from a psychologist to a Cosmo quiz. We made each other laugh. We had enough good sex and regularly so. ... We didn't squabble in public, and we barely ever squabbled at all. ... We were, by all accounts, lovely to be with, a sweet couple that looked nice together walking into a room.

I knew that there were many women out there who would have said: It's enough already. Be happy with what you have. They were right—and wrong.   (70-71)

So Gwen's looking for something more: she wants love like an ocean, peace like a river, joy like a fountain? Something like that maybe.

This put me in mind of Lori Gottlieb's article in the May 2008 Atlantic, featuring the graphic at right. Ms. Gottlieb takes what one might call an opposing point of view, as shown in this paragraph:

My advice is this: Settle! That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling ‘Bravo!’ in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go. Based on my observations, in fact, settling will probably make you happier in the long run, since many of those who marry with great expectations become more disillusioned with each passing year. (It’s hard to maintain that level of zing when the conversation morphs into discussions about who’s changing the diapers or balancing the checkbook.)
Now to the "fish without a bicycle" crowd, Gottlieb's article probably sounds like “Please tar and feather me.”

I have to confess that Asher's book made me a little uneasy. I think that many males have secret or not-so-secret anxieties about whether they're really enough. Am I enough of a husband to the lovely Carol? Am I enough of a... a... whatever-Gwen-wanted?

Reading Asher I feel insecure; I get a sense of relief from Gottlieb. Gottlieb is single and Asher's fictional Gwen is married; this, plus the grass-is-greener syndrome, undoubtedly affect their views of What To Expect From Marriage.

The Pretend Wife reminds me of a fairy tale: it ends with a hint of "and they lived happily ever after" but we actually have no idea whether Gwen will be dissatisfied about something else after a few years with the other guy.

That's life, isn't it? As Lewis's Aslan says, "No one is ever told what would have happened"; neither do we know what will happen to us. Gottlieb doesn't know how she'd feel today if she had in fact "settled" for one of the men she rejected a few years earlier.

Still, there's a part of me that wants the lovely Carol to think I'm enough of a husband—enough of a man perhaps?—for her. Sure, part of that is my own insecurity, my own ego; another part, I think, is that I want her to be happy. As much as I lack as a husband—I actually know I'm not an ideal one—my best self really wants the best for her.

I'll end with a line from Randy Stonehill, completely out of context: "So if You'll trust me I'll do my best and I'll be trusting You for the rest"

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Does every natural number divide some Fibonacci number?

This puzzle came from a recent CACM. The answer, given in the subsequent issue, was "yes", but I had to think about the explanation before I got it. I'll leave a little whitespace here so you can avoid reading the explanation if you want to think about it some first.

Consider the ordered pairs (fn,fn+1) modulo N, where N is the natural number under consideration. There can only be a finite number of unique such pairs—certainly no more than N2 of them. Hence they must cycle at some point. If we set f0=0 and f1=1, that says there must eventually be some M>0 such that fM=0 (mod N) and fM+1=1 (mod N); this condition is sufficient but not necessary for N | fM to be true. Why must we eventually have this condition? Because given fn and fn+1, we can calculate fn-1 -- that is, the process can be run backward and cannot branch. The CACM answer said that the process can run backward ("Yeah, so what?" I thought) but because I'm slow, it didn't occur to me that since it can run backward, and produce a single result, we could not have the case where f0=0,f1=1 and then at some later point have fX,fX+1 (both nonzero), and at some even later point come back to fX,fX+1 and cycle that way without ever hitting (0,1) again.

Right. Next question: Given a number N, how far must you go to find a Fibonacci number that's a multiple of N? I didn't answer that one; instead I took a very short whack at calculating n>0 such that fn≡0 (mod N) and fn+1≡1 (mod N). Of course a computer program was involved (I think this is what happens to lazy math majors; they become programmers). I wrote the following code before I understood the part about "process can run backward", so...

def doit(the_base):
    apair = 0, 1
    b2i = dict()
    for iter in range(99999):             # arbitrary
        if not SILENT:
            print apair,
        if apair in b2i:
            if SILENT:
                return iter, b2i[apair]
            print '\nDone at %d: %s seen at %d' % (
                            iter, `apair`, b2i[apair])
        b2i[apair] = iter
        apair = (apair[1], (apair[0] + apair[1]) % the_base)
        print "You can't get here --- at least I hope not; base =", the_base
I ran this for several values of the_base and found what look like some interesting patterns. Now let φ(N) be the smallest n>0 such that fn≡0(mod N), fn+1≡1(mod N). It seems that if N=p1p2, p1≠p2, then φ(N)=LCM(φ(p1),φ(p2)): for example φ(2)=3, φ(3)=8, φ(6)=24. and φ(5)=20, φ(11)=10, φ(55)=20

What about powers of primes? It appears that φ(pn)=pn-1φ(p) for n>1. Since φ(2)=3, this predicts φ(4)=6, φ(8)=12, φ(16)=24, φ(32)=48, φ(64)=96. And so it is.

But there are some surprises. Often φ(N)>N; but φ(19)=18, φ(21)=16 (LCM(φ(3)φ(7))), and so on.

After writing the above, I searched on "factors of fibonacci numbers" (no quotes) which led me to; this has a lot more interesting stuff about Fibonacci numbers.