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Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Visit us online at faith.yale.edu. This episode was made possible in part by the generous support of Blueprint 1543. For more information, visit Blueprint1543.org.
Pam King: So usually people think of a telos as an endpoint, but what if we think of telos as a dynamic process that sustains a thriving trajectory for the individual and the world around them? The Imago dei, which is deeply and inherently relational and social, we image God by being our unique selves in unity.
So there is the particularity of personhood and the relatedness with other persons, God, and all of creation. And so that was what the reciprocating self was, is how do I grow as a fully differentiated person in relationship, in increasing intimacy, increasing contribution with the world around me. To thrive, then, is to pursue that fullness of self in the context of intimacy and accountability and relationships, not just with those closest to me, that's essential, but also in contribution to the world beyond the self. How does our faith, how does our devotion fuel us to want to continue to reciprocate when life is hard, when there's a pandemic? We need something beyond ourselves, a power beyond ourselves, and orientation beyond ourselves to fuel that interrelatedness between our particularity and the greater good.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity. I'm Evan Rosa with the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. At the bedrock of our being as persons is relationality: our ability to be known, to be loved, and to know in love and return, but whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a minute, what kind of claim is that? Is that theology or psychology? See, we're used to hearing that from the likes of the Jewish existential philosopher and theologian, Martin Buber. He's well known for his suggestion that an intimate "I vow" relationship is what makes for our conscious personhood.
He says, it'd be impossible to become an "I", a "self" without coming into direct contact with a "you" and seeing that "you" as a "you." That's the dialogical relationship of encounter.
But how interesting that research studies in developmental psychology find just the same thing. You can, for instance, turn to John Bowlby in the beginnings of attachment theory to find that this theological claim holds up once you start testing it with the tools of psychology, but more than holds up the claim that relationality is fundamental to personhood starts to expand and develop nuance by examining the most universal by application in unique, particular circumstances.
For instance, there's a famous psychological Still Face experiment that shows how central the reciprocal response of our earliest attachment figure, our mother or our father, how central that is for our mental health, even as babies, but throughout our entire lives. You can check the show notes for an excruciating video example of the Still Face experiment.
But this is just one way that developmental psychology might offer some interesting tools for the purposes of theological reflection. And today we're continuing a new series of episodes on For the Life of the World, all about bringing psychology to theology. We're exploring the tools of psychological sciences that might contribute to a deeper, greater, more nuanced theological understanding of the world.
Last week, we introduced the series with a conversation between Miroslav Volf and experimental psychologist Justin Barrett. Justin evokes the image of erecting a giant cathedral of theology and how the task must be done with a variety of tools and subcontracted skills. Well, whether theology is the grand architect of a cathedral of human knowledge or the benevolent and humble queen of the sciences, either way, we hope this series highlights the prospects of a science engaged theology and how it might contribute to the most pressing matters for how to live lives worthy of our humanity.
And my guest in this episode is Pamela Epstein King. She's the Peter L. Benson professor of Applied Developmental Science at Fuller School of Psychology, and is executive director of the Thrive Center for Human Development. An ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA, her research is focused on the intersections of developmental and positive psychology, human thriving, and spirituality.
In this episode, we discuss developmental psych as the observational study of human change and plasticity in the midst of a whole complex life. Talk about relational attachment for the sake of intimacy and exploration, and ultimate purpose or meaning, the proper place of self-love, God's enabling and loving presence as the ultimate secure attachment figure, the importance of learning, gaining skills in the pursuit of expertise, the prospects of regaining emotional regulation through healthy relationships. And we talk about the game changing impact of deliberate psychological and spiritual practices to move us well beyond surviving to a life of thriving.
Thanks for listening today,
And it is such a delight to have you on the show to talk about psychology and theological contexts.
Pam King: Thank you, Evan. I'm thrilled to be here.
Evan Rosa: I wonder if we could get started by having you describe a little about your particular approach to psychology and theology, but on the psychological side, to explain what developmental psych is, how it has played an important role in your career and your outlook on thriving.
Pam King: Awesome. I got into psychology in a more serious way when I was studying theology, when I was doing my Master's of Divinity as preparation for ordination in the Presbyterian Church USA, and I found that my theology classes could not answer a lot of the questions that I had about God's purposes for humans, how people could grow more aligned with what God created them for.
I have over time become most affiliated with developmental psychologists, so that's my particular slant on psychology. And by developmental psychology, what we mean is that we are looking at what changes occur and how changes occur within a person over time. And obviously what happens within a person involves people around them. So a couple Hallmark notes of developmental psychologists is that we are long on plasticity and how malleable the human species is from our cells, to our brains, to our psychological capacities to relate, to acquire expertise, et cetera.
So developmental psychologists, in my view, tend to be the more optimistic tribe of the psychologists. So we're always looking at how to optimize for change and subsequently another really important aspect of developmental psychology is understanding how an organism, often we're looking at persons, changes in the context of the environments they're in.
So contemporary developmental scientists have a strong emphasis on systems and environment. So we're really interested in role of the family, role of the school, community, macrosystemic beliefs, the economics, political climate, and this can even extend, which I leverage in my work, to people's perception of the transcendent.
So we can actually acknowledge that an individual might have perceptions of interacting with a transcendent entity, God, the Holy Spirit, et cetera. So developmental psych has been a great academic playground, in a sense, for me to explore and adventure how people perceive their experience relating to God and what the full enterprise of spirituality is.
Evan Rosa: I wonder if you give us a few more examples about the applications of developmental psychology. Where do we see it most prominent in its cultural impact? I wonder if you can give us a few examples.
Pam King: Sure. Well, so developmental psychology is a very broad field because it covers the lifespan. So we're looking from womb to the tomb in terms of explaining people's both gains and losses over time from a psychological perspective.
One of the newer iterations of developmental psychology is what we called applied developmental psychology. And because we're so interested in the systems and context people live, the emphasis of developmental psychology research has become more over time studying people in the complexities of their real life. So experimental psychology and RTCs all pull, look for more eliminating factors and complexities, bringing people into a lab, priming them or doing something, some kind of intervention, and then testing them pre and post. Where developmental psychology really aims to observe people in the midst of their complexities throughout their life.
So one area of research that makes it into the broader public sphere is things like attachment theory and so that's looking originally more at infants, like how do infants grow in secure attachment? How do they develop trust, security in the world, so that they can have intimacy and eventually explore. The whole realm of interpersonal neurobiology is another great example of how do human relationships or practices of mindfulness or various spiritual practices impact our brain and how can we actually rewire our brain over time because of different practices or different types of relationships?
Evan Rosa: Do you have a few either representative, famous, or favorite studies that you think really express developmental psych? And I'll start because this one shocked me when I first saw it, but the Still Face experiment. I remember seeing this and it bringing me to tears to see the different impact of just a responsive face or the lack of a responsive face to a young child and the chaos that can ensue from no response, no reciprocity.
Pam King: No, isn't that incredible? It really is incredible.
Evan Rosa: It blew my mind
Pam King: Totally. Well since you asked that, I'll look at the older end of the lifespan because we often forget that developmental psychology includes adult development as well.
And actually of late, there's been a bit of a regeneration of trying to understand nuances in adult development because so much of developmental psych looks at infancy, childhood, adolescence. Research that came out of the other end of the lifespan of more elder, mature years was done by Paul Baltes at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, Germany. And through his work identified what he calls the Selection, Optimization and Compensation theory. And what he found is that successful adults who exhibit wisdom, report more joy, higher levels of wellbeing, have actually leveraged their goals by being more selective about specific goals that they pick, optimizing to pursue them, and then compensating when they can't quite do it.
So an example he gave of a concert pianist was professional pianist who performed all over the world realized that as he was senescing, as he was aging, that he could not play as fast and as hard as he originally did. And that was something that he was known for, the vigor in which he played his pieces. And he also couldn't maintain as many pieces in his expertise, his repertoire. So he became more selective of which pieces he would optimize and really know well and perform. So he narrowed the amount of pieces that he would perform with and then he had to practice extra harder. He had to optimize those pieces.
And the way he used the compensation was that he learned to be recognized for having the variation of speed and all in depth of his playing. He would actually play the beginning part slower than he had previously, so that when he increased his speed, which wasn't quite the zero to 60 that he used to do, but he went like negative 10 to 50. So it still came off as having the same experience of increase in drama. So I think for all of us, that is a wonderful, wonderful guidance of how to live a meaningful life as we age or as our capacities are narrowed, that may not just be our age, but when there's other limitations we can optimize and compensate.
Evan Rosa: That's amazing. Now we're gonna get to thriving and purpose in a moment, but I did want to define a few terms that I think operate out of this developmental psych perspective that you've got. And so I wonder if we could briefly just identify, you talk about the importance, for instance, of systems and environments. And I know from reading Thriving with Stone Age Minds, which you significantly contributed to as a co-author, this differentiation between nature and niche. And when you were talking about systems and environment, it really reminded me of your understanding of niche. And so I feel like this is a particularly important distinction because of the gap that you identify in that book between nature and niche.
Could you introduce that as to a neophyte? How should we understand nature, niche, and the gap between them?
Pam King: Absolutely. So as humans, we have this propensity to grow and develop. We also have observed over time that we also have a tendency to want to organize our minds and organize our lives around those.
We also are born with a genetic inheritance, which is often what is referred to as our "nature" in psychological or scientific circles. Something that we have discovered more recently is that although we might be born with a set of genetics, that actually our environments influence how those genetics are expressed.
So we might come with a genetic propensity towards certain diseases, certain qualities that will lend us towards certain dispositions, but whether it is the climate of the womb that we are in, in the presence of toxins or hormones or other chemicals might influence how these genes are expressed, and I don't mean just my voice, but they actually do influence how they're expressed, right?
So we can't even think of genetic nature as being fixed or static or predetermined. There is lots up for grabs when we come out of the womb as babies. So we come with a nature that is to be shaped over time through our interactions with the world around us, those intimate and near, like our caregivers, or those less proximal and more distal, like values in our system.
So the human tendency is to want to improve things and consequently, we live in what you might say from an evolutionary psychological perspective is a niche, which is the context, the little world, the environment that you grow up in. Now, our niches got really small during Covid when we were isolated at home and then and all of a sudden our niches got huge because we discovered Zoom and suddenly we were in touch with people around the world. So our niches took on many dimensions, but humans who have this propensity to grow and develop, often fiddle with their niches, they change their niches, they try to optimize them.
So a very easy example is we invented cars because that made getting places easier. Now I live in Los Angeles and in the seventies and the eighties, a horrible problem that resulted because humans were trying to bridge a gap in their niche of developing cars. We had pollution. So often what happens...
Evan Rosa: And then not to mention the crazy climatological crisis that ends up following
Pam King: Spoiler alert. Hopefully not the ultimate spoiler alert, but exactly.
Evan Rosa: Hopefully not. While there's still time.
Pam King: Right. And so we try...
Evan Rosa: But it's interesting how... I mean you say that we are niche constructors.
Pam King: Yes.
Evan Rosa: Right? That we exhibit a kind of creativity over our niches. And yet you can see how that interaction can yield unintended consequences. And then we have to then respond again and we have to be in a kind of reciprocity with the niche. Right?
Pam King: Exactly. Exactly. And that reciprocity is one of the fundamentals of developmental psychology, that we interact with our systems, we have agency, we influence our systems, and the systems influence us. So as we try to make our niches better, improve our niches, there are always inadvertent negative consequences as well as the hoped for positive consequences.
Evan Rosa: So when you think about the problem of thriving today, you really beautifully, and I think tragically, depict what you might call a modern predicament, but perhaps it's just a broadly human predicament rather than annexing it to a particular age. But this problem of thriving, that exists as a gap between our nature and our niche. I wonder if you can help us understand that problem by rephrasing a little bit. Now that we understand nature and niche, why is it a problem that there's a gap between them?
Pam King: There's either a problem or there's an opportunity. And I often like to think of as an opportunity, but we do have this perpetual predicament that we attempt to optimize and in doing so, we elaborate our system and often create complications. If we took it purely from an evolutionary psychological perspective, thriving is minding the gap, using our minds to bridge the difference that we make.
So now we are dealing with climate change. We are using our best minds, the best intellects around the world to come together to figure out how to address this issue that we have created ultimately in our attempts to solve other problems.
So thriving, this challenge of thriving, becomes perpetual. And what I think the opportunity becomes is it invites us to consider in what direction we want to push this gap or in what direction we want to mind the gap because if we just are randomly optimizing and making life better and there's no ethical consideration or no consideration of that law of reciprocity, then we will selfishly optimize without considering the broader good and taking that into consideration.
So the opportunity of thriving is how do we optimize in a way that considers the broader good and not just ourselves?
Evan Rosa: That's so insightful and I think is depictive of what I think is one of the best versions of psychology and theology merging, which is paying close attention and thinking scientifically about our nature, about our niche, which is to say, understanding who we are and where we come from or where we exist or something like that, how we exist and, with a good operational understanding of those things, move forward. You take that opportunity to address this predicament but as you rightly, and so helpfully, point out, we have to bring in some theological givens about especially what our nature is, but not just nature and niche as well. Right? To understand ourselves as made in the image of God and to understand the niche that we occupy as part of creation. I wonder if you could, with that in hand, I mean you define thriving. I think this is your definition: human thriving is becoming what God has created us to become, to live into our purposes.
And the word that really sticks out to me is "becoming." It really speaks to the directionality of things.
Pam King: Absolutely.
Evan Rosa: And I know that that concept is just so central to you. Why that particular definition and why directionality? Why "becoming"?
Pam King: So I love the verb "becoming" because it signals a few important things, as a psychologist. It does infer going somewhere, some directionality, some growth, but it also infers that there is something there that is in the process of unfolding or growing more into fullness.
Evan Rosa: That's beautiful.
Pam King: And as people of... we are very interested in the fullness of life we have in Christ. So that's one note we hit well as Christians. One note that not all of us here, those perhaps connected to the Yale Center for Faith and Culture are, is the fullness of creation. And so for me, in my work, something that I have really drawn heavily on, as I mentioned I started as a theology student, and I actually gathered a pretty clear conviction and understanding of where the human project was headed in terms of consummation, the fullness of creation, redemption, and becoming unified in Christ. And this vision of not just individual redemption, but the fulfillment of the goodness of all creation and the role of humankind being united in Christ, and the spirit's work in that.
And so theology served a very helpful lens for the ends of human life. But then psychology is what I turn to, to understand how to think about, how do humans develop in a way towards God's purposes? Both individual human telos, how do I become who God created me to be to most fully participate in God's ongoing work or activities in this world? So the "becoming" triggers the idea of selfhood and a bit to nature of who has God made Evan to be? Who has made Pam to be? And how can I become my fullest self for God's ends and glory, not so I can become full of myself, but develop into the fullness of myself, my strengths, my gifts for God's purposes?
Evan Rosa: I love the developmental base of this, though. It's directed. It has a trajectory. It has a movement through one's life. And describing thriving, not as a state, but a process. It just hit me in a moment, and I've thought about this for plenty of time over my life, but the way you described it, suddenly I saw how lifespan really does contribute and the developmental trajectory that each of us are on.
Pam King: Absolutely. And it's interesting because I think as faith often gets worked out, I'll say Christian faith, we often downplay the role of self. We are to sacrifice ourself. I remember being told at Urbana, the missions conference in the late eighties, the cross is the sign of Christianity, not an "I". And people should see Jesus, not you. And amen to that. But I've come to realize over time people will see Jesus more fully if I can be me fully. So the end is to point to Christ, but there is a process of becoming and embracing who God has made us, the fearfully and wonderfully made creation that we all are, but for a greater ends and purpose.
Evan Rosa: Yeah. One of my friends that studies humility, I recently quizzed him on something to this effect that it seems as though a love of self and seeking the good for oneself is baked in, for instance, to the love commands. Loving one's neighbor as oneself and he replied with "in order to give away oneself, you have to have a self to give."
And And the more of oneself that one healthfully cultivates and properly loves and properly regards, the more effectively one can love, can give, can sacrifice in the best of ways.
Pam King: Absolutely. When I think of Romans 12: 1 and 2, the call to offer our lives as living sacrifices holy and pleasing to God; we have to have a life to offer.
Evan Rosa: Yeah. Living. We have to keep living.
Pam King: Exactly. Absolutely. And that is where psychology is again so helpful. That we know from a psychological perspective, we need to love and accept ourselves in order to more fully love others. And again, there's reciprocity because from day one or pre-day one, before you're born, being loved and cared for by caregivers, by the womb, by their mother, enables you, provides capacity for you to eventually love others.
And again, plasticity of developmental scientists. If your mother's depressed or injured or not able to love as fully—and we're all broken, so we don't—there's opportunities to gain that love throughout one's life. But I think ultimately the call of thriving, and perhaps the call of the Christian life, is to lean into love, God's love, others' love, in order to thrive and in order to live out love as oneself. So we are really called to be God's loving presence in this world as ourselves. And when you consider your vocation, your parenting, your friending, your leading in whatever ways, you're serving, as being God's loving presence, that not only sanctifies all those nooks and crannies of your life, but it also really sanctifies who you are in the fullness or who you're becoming in the fullness of yourself in order to do that work.
Evan Rosa: I think we're in a good position to move into a little bit more about what the self is or those unique aspects of the human self, an understanding of which might and most likely will deeply help us in the process of seeking flourishing and seeking, and in your words, thriving, in the words of this podcast, a life that is worthy of our humanity.
And you use these three simple and yet profound, especially when taken together, words to describe some of these core faculties or core characteristics or attributes of the human self. You say that we relate, we learn, we regulate. But there's some bigger words behind that too. So for the sake of the listener here, that refers to sociality—that's what it means to relate—there's expertise acquisition—that's to learn—and then there's self-control—that's the regulate component. I know these words matter so deeply to you in your work. Help us understand where they fit into this conversation.
Pam King: That's a very helpful setup. So when we think about "thriving," and I'll just distinguish. So I use thriving when I'm talking about the psychological process of becoming that full best self with and for others and for a higher purpose or God's purposes. And then I tend to think of "flourishing" as a word used more in the domain of like theology or philosophy and really has a social commentary or a broader ecological commentary.
Evan Rosa: That's really helpful. I have never heard someone try to really pin those down. I really like that.
Pam King: And perhaps it's helpful for listeners that within the field of psychology, the word "flourishing" is also used. It has tended to be used in personality psychology and positive psychology, and has really referenced adult studies and adult populations. But the way flourishing is construed is it's really around self-fulfillment. There's eudaimonic tendencies, it's not just hedonistic, about a meaningful life but it's really meaningful on your own terms. And so thriving has a developmental flare of the process and the changes over time. And also part of the thriving process, or a thriving outcome or indicator of thriving is contributing beyond the self. So it's that reciprocity. So flourishing does not require or emphasize the reciprocity. It really emphasizes more self-fulfillment, life satisfaction, where thriving has more of that give and take with the common good or the greater good. Just as clarification.
Evan Rosa: That's a really helpful distinction. That really is. And you brought up reciprocating, right? So I think it would be good to... I mean, that's right here, right? It's in all of it because it's relating. That's inherently reciprocal. Learning is inherently reciprocal and regulation is usually self-control and as a response to some stimulus.
Pam King: Absolutely. To more fully answer that question, it would be helpful for me, I was gonna say to back up, but actually back up to the future because I'd love to talk about telos for a second.
Evan Rosa: I see where you're going.
Pam King: So, so much about thriving is about where we're going and direction. So understanding our telos or our goal or our purpose is so important. And as a developmental psychologist, when I was teaching early just out of grad school and I was tasked with teaching human development, I was like, okay, there's zillions of series. How do I select which to cover in 10 weeks? And I'm thinking now what is aligned with my theology? Like if I were to understand what is God's goal or purpose for humans, what should I teach? How does psychology help me understand to get to my best understanding of the purposes for which God created us? So as I shared, I have this vision of consummation, of the fullness of all of creation. And so how do individuals participate in that?
So in that time of my life, I was deeply engrossed in doctrines of the Imago Dei, which Miroslav was exploding in terms of social interpretations of the Imago, and that's really where I cut my teeth and came of age theologically. And so I grafted that into my psychological work and proposed this idea that there should be a telos of a reciprocating self. That we are not on this planet to become best individuals. And most psychological theory is about how do I become the best optimal self or the most pleasured self, or even like Bowlby's Attachment Theory. Interdependence is a mean towards independence. So autonomy is his telos and interdependence is the way that you get there.
So I started reading psychology from the teleological lens, like, okay, what's the explicit telos or the implicit telos here? And in a little lesson on psychology, psychology of modernity was very heavily laid in with stage theories. We move through stages of identity development, moral development, followers' faith development. And so there's a clear telos of what's that final stage and what are we progressing towards. But there was a whole systems revolution that really took over the dominance of linear theory to say no, life is a series of cycles and it's all about adapting and regulating in these systems.
So the notion of telos actually got really thrown out of psychology for a long, long time. And so I argued that no, actually we can have a telos that is not static. So usually people think of a telos as an end point. But what if we think of telos as a dynamic process that sustains a thriving trajectory for the individual and the world around them?
Evan Rosa: Yeah. That's beautiful. That's good. That's really good.
Pam King: I think it might be one of my singular most important contributions in psychology.
Evan Rosa: Well done, well done.
Pam King: But, but that, that was driven by this idea of the Imago Dei which is deeply and inherently relational and social, that we image God by being our unique selves in unity.
Right? So there is the particularity of personhood and the relatedness with other persons, God, and all of creation. And so that was what the reference to the reciprocating self was, is how do I grow as a fully differentiated person in relationship and increasing intimacy, increasing contribution with the world around me.
And so to thrive then is to pursue that fullness of self in the context of intimacy and accountability and relationships, not just with my people, those closest to me, that's essential, but also in contribution to the world beyond the self. And then lastly, what are the ethics and the spirituality and faith that we need to both guide that relationship of what is working and what is not. But the spirituality of fueling it, of how does our spiritual commitments, how does our faith, how does our devotion fuel us to want to continue to reciprocate when life is hard, when there's a pandemic?
We need something beyond ourselves, a power beyond ourselves, an orientation beyond ourselves to fuel that interrelatedness between our particularity and the greater good. And so as Christians, we think about the image of God. It's very easy to land in Colossians, that Jesus Christ is the perfect image of God, or the perfect image of God is in Christ.
So like we're all like, yeah, I'm on the team. I wanna become more like Jesus. Like we're all wanting to become more like Jesus. We got the bracelets, we're reading scripture, we want to have character, these days we're really into virtue. We want to have the virtues of Christ, we want to heal like Jesus, we sometimes want to turn over temple tables like Jesus. We want to be like Jesus. But the thriving call, the particularity of the Trinity, the unique roles of each person of the Trinity, we are called to become like Jesus as ourselves. So although we talk about conformity to the image of God in Christ, that's not the same thing as uniformity.
So going back to what I was saying earlier, you are called to become an image Christ-like Evan, and I am called to do that as Pam. And as a parent of three, I'll tell you it was quickly apparent that those three are really different persons and my job as parent to help them thrive is to become their unique selves.
Evan Rosa: We've been talking a lot about telos, so it would be good to just make a connection here to purpose, right? That's another way of thinking about telos, but I'll just point out that when it comes to the individual, you say you're more drawn to the becoming than the doing. And perhaps that's one really helpful corrective for a culture that is still seems to be caught up in the behavioral element. Not to say that it doesn't matter, but that it should be nested in priority. And that when it comes to identifying what's worth wanting, when it comes to identify the mechanisms by which we truly do grow and thrive and flourish, it would serve us to focus a little less on the doing and which pulls us into lots of debates about morality and politics and what to do but may steer us wrong because we're just not focused on becoming.
I wonder if you could help us connect telos to purpose in the broad spectrum. What I'm thinking of is you go from species to family to community to individual.
Pam King: Yeah. So the question of telos in purpose, what's the difference? What's the same, how are they used? One of the translations for telos is purpose, and purpose is a very robust and growing literature within psychology that I am enamored with and highly commend. There's so much to be learned from it.
If we understand telos as becoming our most full self in relationship as we become like Christ or growing in that ethical, spiritual dimension. So there's those three: self, relational, and I call it aspirational. I would say that our purpose is located in the intersection of those three. So I find my purpose based on my greatest strengths, my best passions, where I'm meeting the world's greatest needs, as I'm relating as a intimate family member, spouse, friend, and as I'm growing aspirationally in my faith, my ideals, my values. Those all guide purpose.
One of the things from the purpose literature that I really appreciate is Bill Damon at Stanford really has pioneered the most recent iteration of purpose literature in the last two decades. And he identifies purpose as an enduring goal. So it may not be the one goal, but it's an enduring, actionable goal. It's actually something you can do something about that is meaningful to the self, so it's not what your parents told you to do, it's not what your spouse or your church wants you to do, and that contributes beyond the self. That is how he operationalizes purpose. So then our job as humans is to discern and understand in a sense, how do we live that purpose out in different seasons?
So many of us went into March 2020 thinking, oh this is my job, or my vocation, or my call, or my purpose and then all of a sudden we couldn't pursue it like we had. But I watched those who had a relatively clear sense of purpose were much more suited to adapt and figure out new ways to realize that or pursue that. And that adapting is absolutely crucial to thriving.
So we're adapting towards our purpose, and then the essential ways to know how to adapt, whether we're minding the gap in that language or we're pursuing purpose, is to draw on those features of the human species: expertise, acquisition, or learning, of being social or relating, or of our using intentionally our regulatory capacities. So those three things really enable us. We can be purposeful about pursuing purpose by learning and pursuing expertise that enables us to pursue that greater purpose.
So whether it's learning how to be a podcaster, learning to write, learning how to fix a car, learning thermodynamics, we can gain skills and that's a very important part of being human, is gaining skills.
Evan Rosa: You know, when I hear you talk about that adaptivity, that ability to respond to one's environment in the face of challenges and struggles, it sounds a lot like those are people for whom their connection to their purpose and their connection to their inherent capacities and their connection to who they are, it really helps them find or make meaning.
Pam King: Absolutely.
Evan Rosa: And staying close to that meaning, right? That's where there's another distinction to be made, that purpose is different than meaning in the sense that at least in this possible sense, perhaps in others, that sometimes our purpose can be hidden from us and we need to work our way back to it.
But for those individuals who are deeply connected to their purpose, meaning, which can be fleeting, which can seem to up and evaporate like a mist in the air, vanity and chasing after the wind, if they're still tied back into their purpose then they're gonna be more... this is what I'm hearing you say, that they're more adaptive to living a life where they're regularly connected to meaning.
Pam King: I think that's really well said. I appreciated what you said about how meaning can evaporate and change. And meaning, like in the psychological literature, means so many different things. So it gets really complicated. But I really hold onto purpose being this actionable, enduring goal that's meaningful to the self and meaningful to the world. And then I begin to think about meaning as an ongoing project. So meaning-making is dynamic. It kind of never ends. I somewhat tether my meaning-making project to the telos. So I'm tethered to the future. So I'm always wanting to hold accountable my vision of what's meaningful, what orients my life today in the present to an outcome that is headed towards that fulfillment of all of creation.
So it's important to consider like, if my thriving puts other parts of creation, other persons at risk for thriving, we need to reconsider that. What's meaningful to us in the moment is putting others at risk. That is something that we need to reconsider. So the meaning-making project is wonderful and a little complex, and it's also adaptive.
And one of the ways that I think we can make meaning is by pursuing these three features, that continual process of learning. Learning about what matters to me, what brings me joy, what am I good at, and learning about what the world needs. What does my community need? What does my family need? What is my workplace need? It's not just about me. Thriving is a "we" thing. So the learning is both internal to the self and external to the self.
Evan Rosa: And as you said earlier in the conversation, it's probably the most evocative of change. Maybe you have a different perspective on this. I would love to know, but with respect to changing and improvement and that becoming, it really does, it evokes in me this just learning.
And whether that's construed as expertise acquisition learning or just encountering more of the world kind of learning.
Pam King: So I think like learning, or at least expertise acquisition when it's framed in that way, has the most interface with context. So it's most susceptible to historical changes, shifts in the environment, opportunities, challenges, et cetera.
Evan Rosa: Yeah. Even science and scientific theory.
Pam King: Absolutely. Another important part of learning that particularly contributes to meaning-making, which is more durable, is learning about our narrative and understanding our narrative. So constructing our personal narrative identity, Aledemic Adams, if that's meaningful, is an ongoing process. So we understand our narrative identity as this evolving story we tell about ourselves.
So how does my family, I'm a descendant of the Epsteins and the Gataliases. How does that inform who I understand myself? I'm from the Midwest. I now live in Southern California. I'm a person of the pandemic that will be part of my narrative. I am married to Brad King. There are different elements that we always need to learn about, and I think one of the most remarkable and challenging things of this age is our narratives are being challenged regarding our people, our white supremacy, the injustices that have been going on, we're learning about a lot. Many of us thought we maybe knew and we're learning new perspectives, and so this learning is just an ongoing journey, but how that impacts not just our expertise and our competencies and what we can be paid for, but how it informs who we are and how we see ourselves in the world is really important.
Evan Rosa: Yeah. I read it now that you say that as a kind agency acquisition as well. That the process of undergoing an experience of observing and then learning. Taking on a skill, taking on some form of knowledge that is really this beautiful expression of our agency.
Pam King: Absolutely. And we get dopamine hits out of it. Yeah. And then that fuels us. So you master something, and it's like, woo, that was great. I checked something off my sticky note for the day and dopamine hits. Like, it fuels you to keep going. So learning, novelty, new mastery is all good for your brain and motivates us, but it means nothing if it's not done in the context of relationships.
So that sociality, that relational piece is so inherent to who we are as humans. Sometimes when I talk about that telos as the individual, relational, and aspirational, I will talk about our goals, which has to do with the self and a lot of that expertise acquisition, our roles, who we are related to and our contribution, our intimacy and accountability in those, and then our soul, whether you believe in the essence of a soul or not, that's a different discussion, but I just mean what is most meaningful and those aspirations and ideals that we hold deeply. So relationships are absolutely important and it is really amazing to see that more and more science is revealing how generosity, how intimacy, how compassion are, are really important for our species. Survival of the fittest is not really just tending to oneself.
Evan Rosa: And I think to just prop up again the importance of reciprocity through the lifespan and relationality through the lifespan, the sociality element here, to me it's most expressive of that word reciprocal. And I just keep coming back to how important this reciprocity is, that it speaks to that deep relational core that all of the cosmos rests in, in that elemental center of the divine perichoresis.
Pam King: Absolutely.
Evan Rosa: Divine dance. Right? And that reciprocity, the science. I mean, it's really instructive to me that you have early attachment theory, but still is aiming at individuality or independence. That somehow that maturity, that the mature, healthy human being is one who is autonomous and independent. And I think that scares the bleep out of me. And what's most important to me as I get older is continuing to get back in touch with reciprocity as I raise my own children, as I think about the way I was raised. And the importance of relating. I mean, it really is just encountering God in the other. It has become a really orienting center for me in terms of what that purpose is.
Pam King: Yeah, I think I can get really down on autonomy. I think if we hold onto agency as an important element of autonomy, I like that. But I really hope one of the silver linings of the last two years is almost the fundamental rejection of individuality. It feels like a worldview of wholism and interconnectedness, we just have to see and understand, live and breathe, that we are interconnected.
Climate change—we cannot ignore creation. Resources are not unlimited. Everyone on the planet went through the pandemic. We are all human that way. And I hope it was a slap in the face or an invitation to realize our common humanity and to live in a way that finds joy in elevating all of humanity, not just my own dome.
And this is where get really excited about meaning-making in that some of the most exciting brain research that I see coming out, especially in neuropsychology or neuroscience, is demonstrating how malleable our brains are and how much they can change through intentional practices. So the work of Mary Helen Immordino-Yang at USC is really showing how much making meaning can change our brains. But she has researched showing that when adolescents are in the process of making meaning, which has to do with abstract thinking, simultaneous to transcendent or moral emotions, these beliefs tend to become internalized as salient and part of one's narrative identity. It actually motivate, inform my values, my goals, my purposes, my actions.
But when that is done, that repurposes our default mode network, which was so responsible for our fight and flight instincts. And so I really think we're entering an era when if humans can become more intentional and habitual about meaning and mattering and habitizing that, we are going to control our amygdalas more and be less motivated by fear and motivated towards meaning, purpose, and telos. And so for me, a really important distinction between a survival mindset, which is based on, motivated by fear and a thriving mindset is not motivated by fear, but is motivated towards purpose or telos.
Evan Rosa: I think that regulation bit, it connects with me personally, the ability to regulate our response to the stimuli that we encounter, whether they are challenging or true or beautiful opportunities or struggles or whatever.
That becomes one of those core ways that we enable ourselves to live in deeper reciprocity. It's one of those ways that we enable ourselves to grow and learn. And I think the way you are articulating that helps me to see the interplay between especially these three. And of course there are these other important factors of these big three, the way they dance together, the way they work in the becoming process.
And it seems to go both ways that even the very ability to regulate is in part dependent on the sociality and the reciprocal nature of how we attach in the first place.
Pam King: If I am born in a drug addicted womb to a parent who can't, you know, gives me that still face, cannot attune to me, cannot be connected, I am not growing up with regulating capacities in a very easy way. I'm going to have to work really hard at some point with someone. Regulation, we gain capacities and regulations through relationships. That's like my one gripe with the mindfulness movement. It's often cast as though it's just up to you to do these practices, which is great. You can do that on your end, but ultimately there needs to be relational regulation as well.
So we learn to regulate through relationships and as we reciprocate and deepen our relationships through regulation, it's so important. And I kind of wonder if increasing divides between haves and havenots are going to be people who have more deliberate mental practices.
So whether they're spiritual practices, reading sacred text, prayers, mindfulness, more meditation, attention expanding, but the more capacities one has to regulate, to either be patient and not pursue the goal or to have grit and pursue the goal or engage with people or not, regulation plays out in so many ways.
The more intentional we can be about that, the more opportunities we will have to thrive in the ways that I'm talking about. So I think psychological practices, spiritual practices, increasing our capacity to regulate, whether it's our attention, our emotions, or our goals is really important. And I know as a parent, that's one thing that... a soft skill, so to speak, in that language that I really try to nurture and encourage to varying degrees of success in my own kids.
Evan Rosa: I wonder how you would speak to encountering the skeptic, encountering the person who is still on the fence about whether psychology really can help in one's spiritual life. I wonder if you'd speak to some of your experience in thinking and writing and living through all of this stuff. What would your encouragement be to someone who is really on the fence about the value of psychology to theology?
Pam King: Two thoughts that come to mind: my experience, I will say this humbly, is often humility. My experience is that sometimes persons of faith, especially if there are professionals in that realm, whether clergy or theologians, et cetera, often feel like theology is like the highest discipline or philosophy. So social sciences are lesser than. And social sciences aren't designed to address like ultimate ends and things that some of the other ontologically, differently oriented disciplines are, but...
Evan Rosa: it holds a different place?
Pam King: I would say that I would say God gave us science. God gave us psychology as a tool that can enable us to thrive and become the best person that we can be to further God's work. And why not use that tool? That there's much that we can learn, we can augment even our Christian practices in slight ways that enable us to thrive more effectively. That remind us the importance, not just of our goals in serving God like so many Christians do, but our roles and that part of our call by God is to be known, to be loved, to love others, but we often forget that.
And I think it's important to address in the conversation around thriving the role of suffering and loss. That that is part of the thriving process. It is a journey through the ups and downs of life. And so I often find people can be jaded by anything around flourishing and thriving because it sounds Pollyanna and not in touch with real life, but the thriving that I'm talking about involves all that vulnerability that Brene Brown will talk about. It involves being real to loss. It involves being real to complex and hard relationships, and it involves seeing the face of God, as you were saying, in people that you can't stand or that drive you crazy. I really think there's a notion of like, dare to thrive, be real, and continue to become who God's creating you to be.
When I speak with Christians who, you know... anything that smells of self-help or self-orientation, people can look pretty hostilely at within the church or theological circles. And so one thing that... way I have attempted to communicate is I feel like the gospel narrative, God's call on our life is one giant invitation to thrive, that we acknowledge the goodness of creation. Our theologies are expanding to realize that we pursue God, we become who God wants us to be in the everydayness of creation. We are fallen, we are broken. God has redeemed us and offered us new life.
Grace in our recollection, our remembering the grace that we have is one big giant hug. It is like an experience of love that we can unfold into. I mean, God is the ultimate secure base, in terms of an attachment perspective, that we can be and become and explore and try and fail and come back and grow again. But the gospel is not just creation, fall, redemption, resurrection, and new life and hope and power and all that. But it is also consummation.
And as Christians, especially in my neck of the woods, we often... I mean like Presbyterians, we hardly get to Pentecost, but we end the narrative at resurrection. But consummation is a call. And I think God's desire is to be with us and for us to thrive so that we can be about his ongoing work and participate with God's spirit in the world.
Evan Rosa: And thank you so much for your time, for the work that you've been doing over a career, and I just look forward to more on reciprocity and becoming the people that God made us to be.
Pam King: Thanks, Evan. What a joy and delight to share with you, and thanks for your great questions
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is the production of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured developmental psychologist Pamela Epstein King, production assistance by Kaylen Yun and Macie Bridge. I'm Evan Rosa and I edit and produce the show. Special thanks to Pam King, Jill Westbrook and Lauren Kim at the Thrive Center for Human Development, as well as Justin Barrett and our friends at Blueprint 1543.
For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu where you can find past episodes, articles, books, and other educational resources that help people envision and pursue lives worthy of our humanity.
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