Richard and I (C.R.) had a recent conversation about God, religion, bigotry, slavery, compassion overload, and reader comments (and in case this isn’t enough, some other pretty big topics). Here’s the gist of it:

There seems to be a surge in discussion about morality, ethics, religion and God throughout the media recently (perhaps it’s the upcoming presidential election). Here at PsychCentral, Dr. Greg Popchak’s new Faith On The Couch blog, written from a Catholic perspective, is a welcome addition to this discussion.

His recent post, Losing My Religion-Should Anyone Care? The Social And Psychological Benefits Of Religion Faith got plenty of heated responses (which we enjoyed following).

We have to ask: Why is it okay to express real intolerance for religious beliefs, especially the belief in God, when it wouldn’t be okay in most circles to use the same kinds of attacks on any other set of sincere beliefs?

At Therapy Soup there have been a couple of topics that inspired (or provoked) readers to post passionate comments as well as send us some pretty intense emails. Our God in Therapy posts (written from a Jewish perspective) are definitely on the top five list of hot responses. The emails we’ve received have run the gamut from extremely positive (and wonderful) to abusively negative, with all shades of the rainbow in between.

Why?

Mind, Body, and Soul

Certainly the issue of God is personal for each of us and therefore this topic might provoke more passion than most. We’d guess that most of us have asked, at some point: Do we have a soul? Or are we just brains and bodies? What is our mind? Were we created for a definite mission or are we accidents of evolution? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? Does God care about me? Does God exist?

To us, these issues are intertwined with one’s mental health and well-being because we believe each human being is a spiritual being, so there is a rich, hidden dimension to each of us.

Jerky-Knees

Probably most therapists would say (including me, Richard), that if something provokes a really strong reaction from someone, you’re pushing their buttons because it’s an unresolved issue. Is that usually the case? Perhaps.

Think back to the last time something really ticked you off or inspired a negative passionate response in you.

Was your response intense, but knee-jerk? That is, did you flare up because you’re narrow-minded and/or avoid self-examination or haven’t really listened and heard the other side? Is this is an unresolved issue for you? Or, was your response intense, even flared-up, because you have examined your beliefs, explored the topic from a variety of viewpoints, and have reached a solid conclusion after much thought? In other words, are you responding so strongly because you are closed-minded or because you are open-minded, but have a strong belief?

We had a discussion about this topic and decided one important identifying quality between different types of responses (there are more than the two, mentioned above, we just wanted to keep this simple) is: Anger.

Another is the way in which you respond. Do you respond with reasoned arguments or ad hominum attacks? For example, when we began writing our God in Therapy posts, a reader called us “ignorant” and “brainwashed.” Way to shut down intelligent debate!

It’s Personal (or Poisonal)

Another factor that helps shape responses to powerful issues is how personally we take the subject matter. There’s no shortage of real suffering in the world. In several countries on the African continent, for example, slavery, kidnapping, starvation, extreme child abuse (including rape) rages on. We’ve blogged about these topics on occasion because it is simply astonishing and painful to think that slavery hasn’t been eradicated in the 21st Century. But in all honesty, we get very little response.

That’s not because anyone’s morally deficient or think that it’s okay that refugees fleeing Sudan are having their escape routes cut off by bomb attacks. It’s simply because most people don’t take this personally. Or, they haven’t been “taught” to take this personally. Or frankly, they’re overloaded and simply don’t have psychic space in which to expend their energy.

So why do we respond more emotionally to other topics that also don’t affect us personally? In large part it’s because journalists (and bloggers) find certain topics compelling and therefore focus on them, bringing them to our attention and telling us (albeit usually covertly) how a “good” person should feel about this particular bit of news. They make it personal for us, even to the extent of indoctrination. You can go through any newspaper or news show and find one topic gets a lot of play over and over again but equally important topics don’t.

Which is why some people get heated up about starving people in Far-away Land, but they don’t feel so concerned about those nearest and supposedly dearest. Which is why we worry about some types of prejudice but not others.

So what to do if you have compassion overload?

Take a break from the news, even a news fast for awhile.

Set strict boundaries for your compassionate energies. If you’ve been too global, pull back and focus on your next door neighbor, your child, your brother, your aunt, your husband. Make someone close to you your compassion project.

If you’ve been bleeding compassion to those close to you, expand your reach. Go do some volunteer work in the neighborhood, or your town, city, or state.

Photo of BuckyBalls, Artist’s Rendering:┬áNASA/JPL-Caltech