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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Sunday 30 December 2012

Harinder Takhar - In It To Win

             - Michael Bryant

Seven individuals are running to become the next Leader of the Ontario Liberal Party and Premier.
It's a fascinating race with a remarkable slate of candidates, each bringing with them tons of experience amassed inside and outside of government.  It also happens to a be remarkably diverse slate, as far as traditional politics goes; there are two women candidates, two openly-gay candidates, a candidate with a physical impairment (that makes zero difference in their ability to do the job they're running for) and of course, the first Sikh candidate of South Asian descent, Harinder Takhar.
From the get-go, there have been clear front-runners, some wild cards and one self-described "dark horse."  A couple of candidates that were not given much consideration at the outset have run campaigns that demand attention.  Nobody following the race questions any of the candidates' commitment to win - unless that candidate is Takhar.
Why is this?  Like all the other candidates, Takhar had to raise funds and collect names to earn a seat at the table.  He's also gone to the trouble of fleshing out policy ideas and is out there now, pressing the flesh, sharing his ideas and listening to those of others - just like all the other candidates.  That's a lot of effort if you're really just vying to be the next Minister of Finance. 
Having spent some time around politics and worked on a few campaigns over the years, I can't believe that anyone would do any of this unless they were seriously trying to win - especially if they've been through the process before.  Politics isn't an occupation, it's a lifestyle; you do it because you're driven to.
So - if Takhar truly is running to win, why are people doubting him?  Nobody has suggested that any of the other lesser-known candidates are just looking to play king/queen-maker.  The answer, I think, is as predictable as it is uncomfortable.  Just as most of us will automatically think "he" when someone is talking about a doctor or "she" if they're discussing a teacher, we all have something of a preconceived notion of what a leader should "look" like.  It's s bit like labeling a peach-coloured crayon "skin-tone"; we don't often stop to think outside our personal boxes until we are challenged to do so. 
Not that long ago, few of the candidates in the running would have been taken seriously by the majority of voters.  Times have changed and will continue to change, but it still takes trailblazers to increase our opportunities by demonstrating what is possible.
By seriously running a serious campaign, Takhar is just such a trailblazer.  However well he does in his bid to be leader, Takhar is opening the door for future generations of potential Premiers from across the ethno-cultural spectrum, helping them maximize their personal potential by expanding the opportunities available to them and providing a role model.  As our current Premier once said, it shouldn't matter "where you come from, but what you find along the way."
The more trailblazers like Takhar can broaden our perception of what a leader can look like, the closer we get to a point where we really aren't subconsciously judging candidates on the colour of their skin, their gender, religion or sexual preference, but by the content of their character, the power of their vision and their ability to inspire others to follow where they lead.
There are seven individuals running to become the next Leader of the Ontario Liberal Party and Premier. 
May the best person win. 

Some Mental Health Myths to Forget About in 2013 (Liza Finlay and Alyson Schafer)

Without a doubt the most astute piece I've read in a while.  Everyone can benefit from the points laid out below:

They're trite. They're tired. They're untrue. We may not even be aware of it, but most of us live by a set of aphorisms that are, quite frankly, made up. Fictions. Fallacies.
In our psychotherapy practice, we call these myth-conceptions pop-culture poppycock that stubbornly persists despite having no scientific basis or benefit. These bull-crap beliefs become entrenched at an early age and are handed down from generation to generation with the same alacrity of grandma's cookie recipe changing hands. We gobble them up, swallowing them whole and without question.
But we need to question. By challenging faulty beliefs we're free to set a new course, to create a mental map that is consciously chosen. Here are a few of the most pervasive myth-understandings to leave behind as you head into a new year. Leave these mental albatrosses buried in 2012 where they belong.
1. People don't change. Yes, they do. All the time. In fact, change isn't only possible, it's necessary. Darwin helped us figure that out over a century ago when he observed some species flourishing where others floundered. He called this finding "survival of the fittest" -- and by fittest he didn't mean strongest, he meant most adaptable. In our practice, we see magnificent examples of adaptation all the time. But you have to want it; it's not so much that people don't change, it's that they won't change.
2. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right. Wrong. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing poorly. Worthiness and mastery are not intertwined concepts. Indeed, if perfection was the only barometer of merit, most of us would never get out of the starting gate. Talk about performance anxiety! The bottom line is this: if we only dwell in those endeavours that come with a guarantee of success, we live a shallow life. For 2013, each of us needs to develop the courage to be imperfect. Good enough is good enough.
3. You don't make the same mistake twice. Sure you do. Mistake-making is murky, and muddy, and wonderfully nuanced. The journey to enlightenment is a journey of a thousand steps. Psychological theorist Alfred Adler called life "the great becoming" -- we are in a constant state of 'bettering'. And if we want to be a part of that beautiful bettering, we need to risk, to make mistakes. Life is long. Get dirty.
4. It isn't fair! Yikes. Stop moping! On the BS-scale, that one's right up there. It's a cop-out, a handy way of sidestepping personal responsibility when we feel unable to face the challenges of life. Listen, the dog actually does wag the tail. We are not simply victims of life's happenstances. In actuality, we not only create our own realities, but we have the opportunity to recreate them, too. If you feel that life isn't fair, instead of waiting for someone to hand you a Kleenex, why not ask the question "what am I willing to do about it?"
5. There are two sides to every story. While that's a great start, in fact there are many more than two sides to every story. This is an example of dichotomous, or black and white, thinking. Sorry, but life is lived in the grey areas. No two of us interpret events the same way, meaning that there are as many "sides" to a story as there are humans on the planet. The world would be a better place if we attempted to wrap our minds around all of them. It's messy, but it's just. So, instead of "I'm right, you're wrong," consider what another person must believe in order for them to perceive this as their "truth."
6. All you need is love -- la la la la la. We love The Beatles too, but it's time to put down the hookah pipe and think seriously about the love-is-all-there-is mantra. We don't actually love everybody -- and nor should we. (Let's face it, we may even find some a challenge to like.) The commandment to love thy neighbour is a metaphor. What we are really charged with is the task of respect. We follow a philosophical tenant that requires us to treat all fellow beings with equanimity -- including the cranky neighbour and the obnoxious in-law. So, yes, love is great, but we should all aspire to a far less lofty (and far more achievable) goal -- respect and its offspring, civility. "All you need is respect, la la la la la." (Not nearly as catchy is it? Well, guess that's why The Beatles are the songwriters and we're the therapists.)

Monday 17 December 2012

Not One Man of Steel, But a Society of Strength

On so many levels, this is brilliant, timely writing.
I don't think we would be ready for a Superman in our midst.  We're too fearful of feeling insignificant in the grand scheme of things. 
This isn't an issue, though; whether we're waiting for a saviour or not, nobody's going to come down from on high and raise us up. 
That's the big secret - we'll only get there on our own, together.
Which is why I have to disagree with the writing team on one point - the solution isn't to look at the world as an island.  It's to recognize we're not islands and start bridging the gap.

The 407, Charity and Don Drummond:

Lots of wealthy people would disagree with this, but I gotta say - I know a few pretty rich folk and they really aren't any happier than less-heeled people; they have more opportunity and more stuff, but it doesn't seem to feel the hole:
Then, I found this interesting - italics are mine:
Here's a guy that's found the secret; offer value, but don't just seek more stuff in return - gain in terms of self-satisfaction and personal brand by giving value back.
Don Drummond provides a great example of this kind of thinking, which I believe we'll be seeing more of.

Friday 14 December 2012

Democracy: If You Don't Use It, You Lose It


Canadians are very lucky – we have a democracy to neglect.  We don’t face threats on our boarders, as some nations do.  We don’t get killed by government authorities.  Most Canadians (but not all) have access to the basic necessities required for life.  Because we have it so good, it can be easy to take these hard-one privileges for granted, but they are not entitlements.

Our democracy isn’t under attack, but it is eroding – and it’s all of our fault.  We’ve stopped working together and holding ourselves accountable.  We’re buying into the spin, making do with the cake we’re given.

But no so these students.  They are setting an example of active engagement we should all pay attention to.
Sometimes it takes the children to lead, doesn’t it?

Thursday 13 December 2012

How To Save Your Business Money

- by keeping your most valuable tools - your employees - in good working order:

Time to take mental health to work 

Dr. Rosana Pellizzari
By Rosana Pellizzari, Peterborough City-County Health Unit
With the growing openness to talk about mental health and illness, it’s time to take mental health to work! With most adults spending 60% of their waking hours at work, the work environment becomes a key driver in people’s physical and mental health. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), one in five Canadians will experience mental illness in their lifetime and the other four will know someone – a friend, family member or co-worker – who has. It touches us all.
Some employees come to their workplace with a pre-existing mental illness. For others, their mental illness, usually depression and anxiety, is a result of their work environment. According to one study, almost three-quarters of all people with a mental illness are working.
The effect of mental illness is not just felt by the individual but by their co-workers and their workplace. CAMH reported that “mental health is the number one cause of workplace disability in Canada, accounting for nearly 30% of disability claims and 70% of the total disability costs.”
To raise the profile and provide support to workplaces, a new voluntary Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace standard has been created, to be launched in 2013. The standard outlines 13 psychosocial risk factors that can either improve or worsen a worker’s mental well-being: organizational culture, psychological and social support, clear leadership and expectations, civility and respect, psychological demands, growth and development, recognition and reward, involvement and influence, workload management, engagement, balance, psychological protection and protection of physical safety.
To properly support employees with mental health problems, we need to challenge our own assumptions and stereotypes. In addition, workplaces need to create an environment that makes it safe for employees to talk about aspects of their lives that are having an impact on their mental health. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), “employees who were diagnosed with depression and who took the appropriate medication saved their employer an average of 11 days a year in prevented absenteeism.”
What can we do if we believe a co-worker is struggling to cope with depression, anxiety or any other mental illness? Here are some tips.
1. Encourage the co-worker to enlist the support of someone they trust who can help to advocate on their behalf (e.g., union steward, a sympathetic work friend, family member, or friend).
2. Make the co-worker aware that there is a psychological health and safety standard as well as other resources that may help guide the support she or he can ask for in their workplace.
3. Suggest to the co-worker that they make use of other services/resources available in the community and through work (e.g. employee and family assistance programs or benefits).
If you or someone you know needs help, visit for a list of services in our community. Employers who want to ensure that your workplace is psychologically healthy and safe, visit for resources that can help you get started.
The World Health Organization predicts that depression will be the single biggest medical burden on health by 2020. A recent report by Pubic Health Ontario and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences, “Opening Eyes, Opening Minds” found that the burden of mental illness and addictions in Ontario is more than one and a half times that of all cancers, and more than seven times that of all infectious diseases. Early detection and timely treatment are critical. Whether at home, at work, or at play, let’s all take note and take care of one another.
Dr. Rosana Pellizzari is medical officer of health for Peterborough city and county.

Is Ontario In the Closet about Stigma?

It's a sad fact, but homophobia still plays a role in politics; so do racism and gender-bias, among other stigmas.  Sheila Copps was regularly dismissed in a way she never would have been if she were male.  There are still plenty of folk in the United States who simply refuse to accept the notion of a black president and try to confabulate reasons why  Obama can't be legit.  

At the same time, Sheila Copps was an elected politician; POTUS Obama was just elected for a second term.  There was a time when women weren't allowed to vote and black men were enslaved.  In the Ontario Liberal leadership race, there are candidates who are gay, who are women, who are visible minorities - there's even one with a physical disability.  These accomplishments are significant victories that have been hard-won and need to be vigorously maintained, but we're headed in the right direction. 

I have enormous respect for trailblazers who refuse to believe there are certain positions that are simply off-limits to some and choose not to accept that some blatantly stigmatic attitudes aren't worth challenging.  In changing society's perceptions, these outliers enrich us all by forcing us to think more broadly.  Some of them make excellent leaders, given the opportunity.

Discrimination is like wine (easy to consume but leaves a nasty hangover) but with time, in iterations, it's being watered down by experience and understanding.  Stigmas are the same as any phobia - they can be overcome, but only when confronted.  

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Check Your Ego at the Door: Tips for Creative Collaboration

Man, there's a lot of folk that need to read and absorb this:

Check Your Ego at the Door: Tips for Creative Collaboration

Everyone loves each other at the Oscars. You never really see cat fights on camera or behind-the-scenes feuds made public because that would spoil the fantasy. As anyone who has worked in a close creative partnership knows – it’s not always such a pretty picture.
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 18:  (L-R) Outstan...
Tina Fey, Martha Plimpton, Melissa McCarthy, Amy Poehler, Edie Falco, and Laura Linney (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
Creative collaboration, whether it’s in the arts or business, can beinspiring, fun, and invigorating, and it can push you to new and exciting places professionally and personally. It can also give you an ulcer, bring on insomnia, and lure you into occasional daydreams about tearing up your collaboration agreement or your LLC paperwork and throwing it in your partner’s face, and then storming out the door while the pieces of paper flutter into their lap and they realize the error of their ways. (They’re probably having the same daydreams about you, by the way). Because you signed paperwork before starting this beautiful creative endeavor right? Please say “yes.”

Every collaboration has creative aspects. If you’re teaming up to start a financial consulting business, there’s a certain level of creativity – logos, a company name, branding. I’ve collaborated in creative partnerships that involved making comic books, films, and writing, and the end goal is the same as any business: A product that can be bought, sold, processed or make you a ton of money. Or, a product that fulfills you creatively and looks great on your resume. Either scenario is a win. Here are some tips for navigating creative collaboration and avoiding an unwelcome, stress-induced ulcer:
1. Sign on the Dotted Line: For most collaborators, signing a contract right off the bat is a no-brainer. Not so much for “creative types.” We paint and sing and dance. What we do is ethereal so why do we need to taint it with confusing, mundane legalese? Because you’ll get screwed if you don’t that’s why. I’ve made this mistake. It’s hard talking about money and who gets what and who owns what. It’s uncomfortable. If you’re worried about offending your partner or sounding greedy or petty – stop worrying and get the uncomfortable stuff hammered out. Get it out of the way and then you can move forward in a productive, healthy way.
You can ask for a lawyer’s help, or if money is a factor you can ask around on tracking boards or groups you belong to. I’ve gotten free legal advice by sending a message to a tracking board for women in film. You probably have the resources at your disposal, so don’t be afraid to ask around before you throw a chunk of money away. Don’t be afraid to tackle the unpleasant things first – sign that paperwork. Six months down the road, you’ll sleep easier knowing it’s in place. Trust me.
2. Listen: Like any relationship, this is a must. It’s not always so easy, right? You get an idea in your head and you’re sure it’s The Way. One of the best things about collaboration is that you can make each other better. You raise each other’s game, if you’re not a stubborn egomaniac about everything. Even if you’re convinced your idea is IT, open your mind and listen to your partner’s idea. More often than not, they’re right, and your separate ideas together will be better than you imagined.
3. Accept Their Style: Opposites attract in love, and that’s true of creative collaborators too. I’m insanely impatient and like to DO, and some of the best partnerships I’ve had are with people who are infinitely patient and like to THINK. It’s not always easy to deal with a vastly different working style, but if you take deep breaths you might just learn something. I’ve learned that it’s OK and even wise not to jump head-first into things at times, and I’ve shown partners that over-thinking a decision can sometimes be detrimental. It’s not your way or the highway – you’re a team, right?
4. Know When to Walk Away: The beginning of a creative collaboration is always like the beginning of a relationship: You’re giddy, excited, the possibilities are infinite and the two of you will rule the world! Then you realize they like to start work at noon instead of ten and they leave dirty dishes in the sink. The honeymoon phase ends and you’re having those fantasies about ripping up your LLC paperwork. Sometimes, you just need to take a step back rather than make a sudden, dramatic decision like dissolve the partnership or strangle each other because your disagreement about your business card font has sent you into a tizzy. Depending on the nature of your business (if you have tight deadlines obviously you can’t just take off for a month) you might need to get some perspective. Step away for an hour, a week, a month, and see where you’re at. Then jump in again – with an open mind and your paperwork in place.
In the film world, intense creative collaboration usually involves a big group of people working and living together 24/7 for weeks or months on end. Fights break out, tears are shed, people exclaim, “I’m never speaking to her again!” in the makeup trailer. Then they see the final product, realize what they’ve accomplished, and everyone at the wrap party loves each other and can’t wait to do it all again. That’s creative collaboration at its best.
Follow on Twitter @TheElf26.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Stress Response and Emotional Inoculation

This is a tragic story about an unnecessary loss of life.  It's also a fascinating look at how people react.  The man who took this picture has responded to questions about why he took a picture by instead focusing on how upsetting he found the behaviour of people closer to Mr. Han than he was.  Why did he feel this necessary?  Probably because he's got some internal cognitive dissonance between what he knows would have been "moral" behaviour (help Han up) vs. what he actually did.
Hindsight is a funny thing; it forces us to offer logical rationalization for reactive behaviour that is more gut instinct than logical reasoning.  Reactive behaviour relies on pre-programming, which happens much more quickly than abstract thought.  It shouldn't really be a surprise that a photographer would respond to an uncomfortable situation by turning to comfortable, established behaviour - like taking pictures.
Police, soldiers, fire fighters, even CPR students all go through test-case scenarios that help build familiarity with the sorts of stressful scenarios they could encounter in their jobs; consider it a kind of emotional inoculation.  While some people are more naturally inclined to react well under pressure, everyone can learn to handle prescribed situations better.  This principle underlies everything from cognitive behaivoural therapy to improv class.
There will be a lot of focus on what didn't happen in this situation; it's an instinctual approach to take.  A more useful one, though, might be to think about what could be learned to prevent such tragedies in the future.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Politics, Reporting, Producing: The Details Matter

Which, of course, is why value-add is so important. 

Polling and journalism: the future is in the details

Published on Saturday December 01, 2012
Polling and journalism, particularly political journalism, have a lot in common.
Both enjoyed huge surges in prestige, as well as income, in the 1970s and 1980s, when the trades began to be viewed as professions.
And both, thanks largely to leaps in technology, have been facing many serious and similar challenges in recent years.
Just as the Internet has given us do-it-yourself journalism, for instance, it has also given us do-it-yourself polling.
Media outlets that used to pay thousands of dollars for comprehensive public-opinion polls can now throw up an online questionnaire and call it an instant survey of the political landscape.
Seasoned pollsters complain there’s no science or rigour to these methods — “that’s not a poll, it’s a suggestion box,” Darrel Bricker, chief executive officer of Ipsos, is fond of saying.
Reporters make similar laments when bloggers claim they are practicing journalism. In the age of I-made-it-myself columns or opinion surveys, success is measured more by the buzz created and less by the methods used.
Given the similar threats to their businesses, then, you’d expect pollsters and journalists to be hanging together.
But in Canada,the polling-journalism relationship has hit a bumpy patch, particularly in the form of way-off election predictions at the federal and provincial level.
What’s gone wrong? Here’s one explanation: we journalists have been paying attention to the wrong polls.
Surveys and data are just as important as they were in the heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, but it’s not the big horse-race numbers we should be watching — it’s the small micro-data now forming the backbone of winning campaign strategies.
Few people know this better than U.S. journalist Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab, a best-selling book on how American political campaigns are mining mountains of data to build support.
Issenberg, recently named by Politico as one of the top 10 journalists who broke away from the pack in the recent presidential campaign, was in Toronto this past week to share some of the things he has learned by keeping his eye on the micro-campaign.
The Samara organization, dedicated to improving public-policy debate in Canada, hosted two speaking events for Issenberg. Judging by the 400-plus crowd that filled the Isabel Bader Theatre on Tuesday night, many of them seasoned political pros, there’s clearly an appetite in this country to learn about this much-overlooked aspect of modern electioneering.
When I got my chance to ask a question on Tuesday (I was lucky enough to be drafted as moderator), I asked Issenberg about an important piece he wrote for the New York Times this fall.
Headlined: “Why Campaign Reporters are Behind the Curve,” Issenberg warned: “Over the last decade, almost entirely out of view, campaigns have modernized their techniques in such a way that nearly every member of the political press now lacks the specialized expertise to interpret what’s going on. … It’s as if restaurant critics remained oblivious to a generation’s worth of new chefs’ tools and techniques and persisted in describing every dish that came out of the kitchen as either ‘grilled’ or ‘broiled.’ ”
So, I wondered, if we are behind the curve in political reporting, how do we get out ahead of it? How do we tell our readers or our audiences about campaigns that are created out of thousands, even millions, of “data points” guiding the political professionals?
Issenberg replied that a little humility was in order. Political journalists don’t have to stop covering the horse-race numbers or the big opinion trends — they’re still important, he said. But they have to stop pretending that the big picture is the only picture, that the campaign is being decided on the basis of what people see on television or on the artificial stage sets crafted by the politicians.
“Fundamentally, good political coverage needs to acknowledge that we cannot write with (any) sort of confidence about the entirety of the enterprise,” he said. “We need to be respectful enough of our readers to acknowledge how much of this is out of our reach and find a new knowledge of campaigns to engage that doubt.”
So there’s the challenge. If we want to repair the rift between polling and journalism, first we have to tell our audiences what we don’t know — what those horse-race numbers aren’t telling us. A five-point rise or fall in the polls may be far less important, in other words, than the data informing us what is motivating (or turning off) voters at the individual level.
Next we should start trying to find a way to know and report more on this micro-data.
We have nearly three years to go before the next federal election in Canada. That’s enough time, you’d think, to put journalism back in touch with the polling numbers that really count.
Susan Delacourt is a member of the Star’s Ottawa bureau.

Wanderer Above the Sea and Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

Monday 3 December 2012

Changing the Incentives

"Unless we change the incentives, we're not going to move forward."


If I could summarize everything I have written about on my blog - about capitalism, integrity, motivation, faith, consciousness and collaboration - that pretty much sums it up.

Neuron God

By David Flood.  It's feel-good New-Agey religious stuff to open with, but quickly lays out the psychology of faith, pro-social behaviour, etc.  We're seeing these worlds collide increasingly, to good reason; they're one and the same.

Neuroscience and the Mind of Christ

Posted: 12/03/2012 8:50 am

I believe in radical grace. I believe in the power of forgiveness and enemy love. But not because I am a naturally peaceful person. I believe it because I have seen the power it has to heal broken lives-- including mine!
But peace and forgiveness are not my natural inclination. When I feel wronged it's like a dark cloud comes over me and all my compassion vanishes. In the middle of that, all I can see is my perspective, all I can think about is defending my rights.
The way of enemy love is not intuitive. The very idea of loving the person you would normally hate is an intentionally provocative idea. But I've seen the profound healing that can come from enemy love, and so I want to follow in that way. I want, as Gandhi said, to "experiment with truth" and put the way of Jesus into practice in my life.
So I start out with baby steps. Practicing forgiveness with little things -- a fight with my wife for example, where we've both, in our anger and frustration, said things that hurt the other. If we're supposed to love our enemies, if Jesus forgave his executioners, can't I at least get over some petty slight? After all, my wife is hardly my "enemy," she's my best friend! So what's going on? Why is it so hard to forgive?
The Apostle Paul speaks of that same struggle. He laments that although he knows the good he should do, he finds that he still does not do it,
"We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature ... For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me." (Romans 7:14-23)

The Greek word sarx which is translated above as "sinful nature" in the NIV is more literally rendered as "the flesh." Paul contrast the "flesh" or "carnal nature" (which is characterized by lust, anger, etc.) with "the way of the Spirit" which, in contrast, is characterized by love,
"So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other ... The acts of the flesh are obvious... But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." (Galatians 5:16-23)

So if I desire to walk by the Spirit, why is it that when I'm in the middle of conflict I so quickly revert to that self-focused carnal mind? Questions like these have lead many Christians into a pit of self-doubt and condemnation. What's going on?
I'd like to suggest that new research in neuroscience can give us some really important insights into these questions.
When we are triggered in an argument, feeling flooded and emotionally threatened, this activates the amygdala, which is the part of the brain involved in the processing of raw emotions such as anger and fear. The amygdala is essentially the brain's watchtower, and when it is fired up in alarm mode, it sends out neurochemicals which effectively shut down the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain associated with things like relational connection, empathy, impulse control, self-reflection, moral judgement and conscience -- in short, the part of your brain in charge of what we might call the social-self.
The brain's "shut-down" function has a practical survival function: It means that when we are in danger our brain kicks into alarm mode which can save our life. But it also means that when we get triggered in a argument with a loved one, the smart and compassionate part of our brain is temporarily turned off, which can make us do thoughtless and hurtful things.
So there's a very real reason neurologically that we become so self-focused in a fight. It's not a reflection of our character, so much as it is a kind of brain reflex based on a perceived threat. When we are unaware of this, we can get swept up in those feelings. But once we recognize what is happening, we can address what's going on in our bodies. This involves a two-step process:
The first step is to recognize what is going on in us. The part of our brain in charge of making good judgments has been temporarily shut down by our amygdala. So when Paul writes, "It is no longer I myself who do it" we can now answer: That's exactly right, it's your amygdala. Where we can perhaps nuance Paul's perspective a bit is recognizing that this is not something "evil," rather it's a protective reflex of the brain. This can be life-saving when we are in actual danger, but becomes dysfunctional when emotional reactivity makes us see an "enemy" in a loved one. It's a good thing that is out of balance.
This brings us to the second step: We need to have the maturity and humility to recognize that because we are emotionally triggered, we need time. We might compare this to having the maturity to recognize when you've had too much to drink, and handing over your keys. Similarly, when we're "under the influence" of the amygdala, we need to recognize that the smart and social part of our brain is impaired, and consequently have the maturity so let it wait, to cool down first. After all, as Paul says, forbearance and self-control are part of the fruits of the spirit too!
There's a temptation here to simplify the above equation, focusing on only one of the above two points: Some may want to stress the fact that the "flesh" of emotional reactivity is an involuntary bodily reaction which is not our conscious choice, and therefore argue that it is "not our fault." Others will stress the opposite point, arguing that we need to take charge of our ingrained behavioral patterns and feelings. The reality is that both are true at the same time. We therefore need to have a complex and integrated understanding of how these two seemingly opposed factors work in tandem.
On the one hand, understanding what is going on in our brains means we do not need to beat ourselves up about it. This is our body's unconscious involuntary reaction to feeling emotionally threatened, separated, insecure. Understanding what is going on in us can be comforting and normalizing. These are not bad choices we are making. In fact, they are not choices at all; they are involuntary reactions to a perceived threat. The thinking and social part of our brain has been shut down by our brain's panic center.
We can't help how we feel, but we can learn to mange what we do with those feelings, so we are not driven by emotional reactivity. Simply recognizing that our thinking and social-self is impaired is not enough however. Instead, we need to learn to recognize when we are flooded with reactive emotion, and exercise the maturity, humility and responsibility to wait until we can cool off and think socially again.
Paul tells us that as we walk in this way of the Spirit, that we will be "transformed by the renewing of our minds." Neuroscience confirms that again Paul was on to something big: It's a concept known as neuroplasticity, which refers the brain's ability to change itself based on our experiences. Amazingly, our brain actually structurally changes, based on the input it receives, creating new synaptic linkages and even growing new neurons. This means that, as we learn to engage our thinking and social prefrontal cortex in times of stress, our brain re-wires itself over time to be more naturally compassionate and social, and less driven by our "carnal" reactive emotions.
It's exciting to see new research on the brain verifying what the Apostle Paul saw so long ago. Of course It's never easy to change old patterns, and involves hard work. But hopefully, understanding how our minds work can help us get a little closer to having the "mind of Christ" as we learn to follow in that way.
Derek Flood is the author of Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice and the Cross. Follow Derek on Twitter @theRebelGod.