Neurotheology, Part 2: The Formation of Hope with Curt Thompson, MD

We’re back with Curt Thompson, MD, to talk about hope. Have you ever wondered how to summon hope when everything seems bleak? Is hope a fleeting notion or something we can truly cultivate?

Hope, like faith and love, is not just an abstraction, but a skill we can nurture. It’s a profound practice that finds its home in both our minds and bodies.

Curt shares: “The things that I pay attention to on purpose, I remember. And what I remember becomes my anticipated future. Hope is a function of the mind that addresses the future. And this is what I mean when I say hope is a thing that I form by paying attention to the glory that is offered to me in the middle of my pain, in the present moment. And it requires lots and lots of practice, but it then is not like, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll have hope. I hope I have hope.’ It’s a thing that I maybe I won’t like. And so… I’m going to have to practice.” 

We thrive on shared experiences of hope within a community. Even a brief 3-minute interaction can spark the daring prospect of relying on another person. Our communal practice etches hope into our brain’s pathways, grounding it in the way we engage with one another. Although personal introspection has its place, the true growth of hope blossoms within the context of human connection.

Tune in to this thought-provoking dialogue as we explore the intricacies of cultivating hope and the transformative power of embracing it together. As you listen, we’d be honored if you shared this episode with someone else, too!

About Our Guest:

Psychiatrist Curt Thompson, MD brings together a dialect of interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB) and a Christian anthropology to educate and encourage others as they seek to fulfill their intrinsic desire to feel known, valued and connected. Curt understands that deep, authentic relationships are essential to experiencing a healthier, more purposeful life — but the only way to realize this is to begin telling our stories more truly.

His unique insights about how the brain affects and processes relationships help people discover a fresh perspective and practical applications to foster healthy and vibrant lives, allowing them to get unstuck and move toward the next beautiful thing they’re being called to make.

Through his workshops, speaking engagements, books, organizational consulting, private clinical practice and other platforms, Thompson helps people process their longings, grief, identity, purpose, perspective of God and perspective of humanity, inviting them to engage more authentically with their own stories and their relationships. Only then can they can feel truly known and connected and live into the meaningful reality they desire to create.

Curt Thompson’s new book, The Deepest Place: Suffering and the Formation of Hopeis available on August 29, 2023, wherever books are sold.

To hear more from Curt, we highly recommend his podcast, Being Known. You can also follow along on social media @CurtThompsonMD on InstagramFacebook, and Twitter.

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Episode Transcript:

Dan: Well, the privilege of having Curt Thompson back with us. Curt, it’s great to have you with us, particularly given that we’re going to be talking about your new book, The Deepest Place: Suffering and the Formation of Hope. So again, if you don’t know Curt, let me just promise a quick survey of Amazon will take you to some amazing works. Really, we spent our last time looking at the Soul of Shame along a few other things, your own culinary activity. I hope your Irish meal was delightful. Again, my image of what Eden is, there are many meals I’ve had in Ethiopia. The experience of the kind of dining that I’d go, oh, that is a picture of what the kingdom of God will be, is, but also was, in the garden as well as some Irish meals that I wish had never ended. All that to say, we’re going to step into something of reflection on your new book and that gift to us of the deepest place suffering and the formation of hope is just one of those gifts of the kingdom to invite you to again, the glory of redemption, the heartache of the fall. And yet in that intersection we’re talking about hope. And I’ll just say at least from the beginning, I’m pretty good with hope for others. I just find hope with regard to myself, a realm of, if I can put it most politely, ambivalence, I suck at hope with regard. I’m just not fond of it because if I have a conviction is that hope truly entered will always set you up to be killed. And yet it’s also the framework for death and resurrection. But let’s start with this simple phrase from Romans chapter 5, “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings.” Like are you kidding, Paul? What is wrong with you? We glory in our sufferings, okay? Because we know that suffering produces perseverance. And perseverance, character. And character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. So there is something between suffering and being not shame-free, but somehow engaging in shame in a different way that allows us not only to hope, but to know something of the love of God. So I know this is just such a rude question, but talk.

Curt: So here’s something that I think that is, I’ll say, I just so resonate with the challenge of being hopeful ourselves. So when you say that you personally suck at hope, we can be hopeful for other people. So hopeful for you, but don’t talk to me about hope. I just want to say I just resonate with it. I resonate with it. But I’ll also say as we were hinting at, I dunno that we were explicit about this in our previous podcast, but we’re hinting at this notion that where we find ourselves culturally after 500 years of modernity and the enlightenment, one of the things that that process has done is that it has tended to have me separate the material world from my emotional life. So first of all, I don’t really think much about my body having much to do with my emotional life or my mental life. That’s the first thing. And then I don’t really think therefore that any of that spirituality and then we get into things like faith and hope and love, all these things that are in the realm of the mind or the abstract or the spirit or whatever. Well, whatever that is, it’s got nothing to do with quantum mechanics. I want to tell you, it has everything to do with physics. I’m going to start. And so the third verse of Romans five that you named is probably for many people who are just like, oh, what? Romans five. And then you quote that verse, oh yeah, I know that verse suffering produces perseverance and perseverance, character and character, hope. But what’s really important is that we read what precedes it. Because in the very first line Paul talks about therefore we’ve been justified by faith. And in the language of interpersonal neurobiology, we would say first and foremost, that’s all about attachment Does not begin with theology. Theology is what is explaining and describing our attachment to God. But we’re not just justified through faith that also brings peace with God. And this is where the work of internal family systems can be really, really helpful because I can name parts of me that do not believe I am at peace with God. There are parts of me like those. You would hear stories. I mean this may have happened in other wars, other conflicts as well, but I’m just really familiar with the stories of Japanese holdouts at the end of World War II discovered decades after the war was over and they weren’t going to put their arms down until the allies would find some former commanding Japanese officer to come and tell them to put their arms down because they believed they were still at war. I have parts of me that I’m in, like I have been welcomed into God’s family and there are parts of me that still think he’s going to throw me out. And Paul is saying, dude, y’all we’re at peace with God and this is really a big deal. But most of us in the modern world are like, oh, that’s fine. Beautiful language, but we don’t really have a context for that. If you’re in the first century, the gods were capriciously at war with everybody. It showed up when your crops didn’t work, it showed up when your wife didn’t have a kid. It showed up, it shows up. The whole notion of being at war with God was not a figment of some immaterial distant realm in my private mind. It was on public display everywhere. And when Paul writes this, this would be shocking for people to hear that because of the king, because of our king that they’d never met. We’re at peace. It’s a declaration and not Pax Romana. Not the peace that the phalanxes we’re going to bring. It’s a different kind of peace that comes because of a person who loves us. So through attachment, we’re bringing all of our parts into this room where we’re saying we’re signing a peace treaty. God’s not, God never was in Genesis three coming to kill them. He’s never been coming to kill you. He’s not coming to kill you. He’s coming to make peace. He just can’t get people to cooperate with him. So we’re getting this ready. So because through Jesus we have peace with God through Jesus Christ, by faith in whom this grace that we now stand, Paul could have used all kinds of words, but this is not grace that we have. It’s grace in which we stand, which implies immediately the physicality, the physicality of who we are. And that physicality is a direct function of the community that we occupy. What does this lead to? If this means that I’m going to continually bring my self into the room where my shame and my grief and my longings are named, I’m going to discover that people are going to continue. The body of Jesus are continually saying, we are so glad that you’re here. We’re so glad that you’re here. In his sermon, the weight of glory, C. S. Lewis talks about this one element of God’s glory that is highlighted. Now, he doesn’t reference this in his sermon, but it’s highlighted. Leslie Newgen talks about this in his commentary on the gospel of John, that the gospel of John’s take on God’s glory, that Jesus talks about is this love affair between son and Father. It’s this continual outpouring of delight. I can’t believe I get to be your father. This continual delight that this is what glory is. It means the parts of me that I hate the most. We bring them into the room and someone else in the room says, I can’t believe we get to be with these parts of you. And you’re like, what are you talking about?

Dan: What are you talking about?

Curt: But this is about the healing of attachment wounds. But this is the part of God’s glory that we are paying attention to that is forming us that I’m, and when that happens, everything I know about what suffering is changes because that is what I’m taking into the experiences that I have for suffering. We talked about suffering being a function of one of three things. Things that happen to us, things that we do to ourselves, which actually takes up the bulk of what our suffering experiences. And then there is a particular kind of suffering that takes place when we choose to follow the king. This whole notion of like it’s the suffering that takes place when we want to get healthy. It’s the suffering that takes place when I want to learn to no longer talk about my neighbor behind their back. It’s the suffering that takes place when I want to allow God to strip off the old me, the part of me that is envious, the part of me that is lustful, like all the things in order to pay increasing attention to glory.

Dan: Yes. Yes. Alright, so as you put words to that, Curt, the reality that comes is that we in some sense have pain receptors that actually are in some sense, not just revelation that there is something awry in our body but actually begin the process of moving us toward a kind of restorative process, a kind of redemptive process. Again, I’m putting it quite superficially, but is that part of the frame of what you’re putting words to?

Curt: Yeah, it is and I think there are two other features that I talk about in the book, and one is that we differentiate between what we call pain and what we call suffering. That pain is our capacity to perceive some kind of noxious stimulus, whether that’s emotional, physical, whatever. It’s, it’s an unpleasant stimulus of some kind. Suffering draws into the picture two particular not only to but to particular that I highlight in the book two particular what we call domains of integration of the mind. And the first domain has to do what we call the temporal domain of the mind that we as human beings are capable of perceiving the passage of time in ways that no other animal does as far as we know. I’m aware that of my past, I think about my past, I reflect or I ruminate on my past, and I also anticipate a future. I tell a future, I tell a story. And this temporal domain that enables me to perceive time in the way that I do can be hijacked in such a way that the pain that I experience, I begin to anticipate as being unending. And so in this sense that I have pain is one thing that I imagine, for instance, that I will never be able to get rid of the pain is something that we perceive that if a dog breaks its leg, a dog isn’t thinking about like, my gosh, what am I going to do next week? He’s not. But this, our capacity to tell time in the way that we do be perceived is part of the challenge. It adds to what we call suffering. And the other domain has to do with what we call the narrative domain. Having to do with that we tell stories in the way that we do, means that my perception of time is tangled up with the story that I then tell about my future as I experience this noxious stimulus. And what is significant about both of those is that they tend to collude in such a way that what ends up being most important is that my experience of time and of this pain in the future is one in which I do so by myself. I am alone with this distress. And as such, the essence of suffering has to do with my telling a story that I will live unendingly alone with this distress. Now, I don’t know that I’m doing that necessarily, but this is where I’m saying that the first two verses of the chapter are highlighting that attachment and peace and God’s delight that all not necessarily take place in an embodied context and this becomes the material manifestation of the presence of the Holy Spirit is giving these folks in Rome an experience of the king that is very different from the one that we have because our spirituality has been pushed to the sideline. It’s not part of the material world, it’s not an embodied feature. My phone keeps me more company than my God does.

Dan: Oh, painfully said. So the reality of suffering then, at least as I’ve heard you put it, is this intersection of incredible glory because we can hold in a way that other creatures do not, past/future, and in a formative sense of being able to see in the moment reflections of the past, anticipations of the future. Yet the reality is that because of our own fallen, broken shame-bound structures, we are divided. And so in that division, there is a sense of which you come to be more of who you’re in the midst of suffering. There’s a certain revelation of both our glory and brokenness. Is that a fair way of putting it, that suffering actually brings you to be more aware of who you are.

Curt: Well yeah, because I think suffering, I mean to be human is to suffer. If you were to walk outside of where you live today and you were to just pull the first 10 people that you run into and you were to say, I have two questions. One, do you suffer? I would say the majority of those would say no. Now some might, but no, I’m not suffering. Or you might say, in what ways do you suffer? I don’t really know what you’re talking about because we like very few other cultures in the history of the world, we just simply have a lot of ways of distracting ourselves from our pain. Every human being has a core at which they’re suffering. I just have an iPad and that’s all I need to, that’s just my drug. And I can keep myself from myself in this way. But the Romans couldn’t do this, right? The church in Rome couldn’t, they couldn’t keep themselves away from the real world in the way that we can. I think the other thing that is really crucial then here is that we learn that because we imagine things like faith, hope, love, right? I don’t love you anymore so I’m leaving the marriage. I talk about love as if it’s this, again, this thing that emerges from within me that I can’t really measure and so forth and so on. But then she turns to me and says, but dude, we’ve changed diapers together. We’ve washed dishes together. You’ve held my hair back from the toilet when I’m throwing up. How is that? What do you mean you don’t love me? Of course you do, but I know because I don’t think that love has anything to do with my embodied actions because I’ve so separated these things. So when it comes to hope, for example, I put hope in the same category. It is a thing that I somehow hopefully can capture within my inner self. It’s this emotional, mental state of mind. I don’t imagine that it is a thing that I literally form with my body. And the way that I form it is in the context of communities in which as I share what is painful for me, and I am seen, soothed, safe, secure in those contexts, which my pain is brought into the room. This is good Friday, God coming for us in the center of our pain. I practice having experiences in which I sense glory in the middle of my brokenness. And it is not a thing that magically happens to me. It doesn’t drop out of the air. It happens in a room with embodied human beings in which my brain, this is what I’m saying, it has everything to do with physics. My brain is seeing your facial expression, hearing your tone of voice, all the things. And that creates a moment for me of joy and of repose in the middle of my awareness of my marriage that’s on the rocks or of my parents who continue to behave badly or of this rheumatoid arthritis that continues to create trouble for me over and over and over again. And then this is where we would like to say this is where we want to then use and take advantage of what the mind actually does. And that is this, that we become what we pay attention to. And so if I am in the room where this is happening and I work to pay attention to this, which means when I leave the room, I’m going to, over the next seven days before I come back to the same room with this same community, I’m going to practice three times a day thinking about reviewing, being in the room with you and what am I doing? I’m actually encoding this memory into my neural networks. It is becoming an embodied reality. This is physics, embodied reality to me. It’s not just, oh, a thing that happened to have happened back there in a thing I call the history of last week. It is a real embodied thing. The things that which I pay attention to on purpose, I remember. And what I remember becomes my anticipated future. Hope is a function of the mind that addresses the future. And this is what I mean when I say hope is a thing that I form by paying attention to the glory, that is offered to me in the middle of my pain, in the present moment. And it requires lots and lots of practice, but it then is not like, oh, maybe I’ll have hope. I hope I have hope. It’s a thing that I maybe I won’t like. And so no, I have to, I’m going to have to practice. I have to practice the piano. I have to practice forming hope. Again, my modernist way would be like, okay, Curt, you read this. You go home and by yourself somehow you practice figuring that out. No, my brain can’t do that by itself. It needs to have the context of a community in which we are all together collectively practicing, forming hope. And then this becomes like, oh. And then it just becomes this cycle. The hope allows me to imagine a different outcome for a future such that the next time something painful happens, it’s happening in a context of a neural network state that is already ready to receive it differently because of what I’m practicing in this community.

Dan: So to be in a realm where the last more than 500 years has taught us to be critical, and the core word underneath critical is dividing, to be in a place where we’re suspicious, where actually good intellectual process is a lack of trust, always questioning, always looking for, and therefore the idea of hope is it’s ephemeral. It’s at best magical, but for the most part deeply isolated in terms of you either have hope, but you really talking about, again, I’m putting it far too superficial away, but a practice of hope in a way in which you’re shaping not just your own neurological processes, but you’re actually shaping by holding memory and memory in anticipation. You’re actually creating neural shared pathways with a community. Is that a fair summary?

Curt: Absolutely. Absolutely. And so I mean, look, we are being formed whether we want to admit it or not. The question is always who or what else is forming me? Nobody’s forming me. I’m forming me. That’s just utter horse hooey. It’s just utter horsey. It doesn’t fly in the face of the science. And so the question is going to be, am I going to be formed? I mean, I love right text, soul, culture. Do I have those words right?

Dan: Yep. You do the Seattle school,

Curt: Right? That’s what I mean. We’re being, I want to put myself in a place in which I’m going to allow the texts, but it’s not, I like we’re going to be formed by the texts and I’m going to be formed by this community in which I’m assuming that the work of the Holy Spirit where two or more of you’re gathered, like I’m showing up and I’m going to be on the loose. And those things, this community, the spirit, the texts are forming me, but I have to practice submitting myself to that in the way that I often, whether I’m consciously aware of or not, my other choices is I submit to the rest of the culture to form me. The way it tends to isolate me, the way it tends to shame me, the way it tends to distract me, which is what it’s all about. We divide and conquer. This is what evil is up to. It wants to devour the universe and that’s how it wants to do it.

Dan: But that suspicion that so deeply takes away something of the innocence of what hope brings, feels like again, right there for me to be able to go, oh, deal with reality of to open my heart, to anticipate goodness, beauty, redemption feels naive, feels foolish, and therefore it’s easier to, in one sense escape disappointment by actually limiting how much hope one operates in the middle of. So when you think about how deeply we as a culture and often persons really do feel a certain terror about hope, you’re underlining that without love, there can’t be a deep movement of hope. Yet hope is in some ways what begins to allow the heart to taste and to experience something of the love of God. So they’re so deeply interconnected.

Curt: I mean, when we read 1 Corinthians 13 and Paul, in that magical poem talks about this culmination of faith, hope and love. These three remain, but the greatest of these… because we would say at the appearance, when the new heaven and earth emerges, faith and hope will no longer be necessary. But until we get there, they’re absolutely necessary. Love is required to initiate their formation, which is why we talked about in the last episode this notion of Rachel’s child has that experience of shame, and Rachel’s going to come find her. She has to come find her. Your daughter comes to find your granddaughter. This sense of an embodied movement toward, in a way to give that person the experience of being hopeful. Hope is all about, look, if I go downstairs from this… I’m recording, I’m on the east coast. If I go downstairs to make my lunch, it’s fine. I’m anticipating that the refrigerator is still working and that the milk in the refrigerator is not going to be curdled. So I don’t actually have to hope that my refrigerator, because this is why hope for us in many respects is not something that we have to cultivate because life is so convenient for us where we find ourselves in our world. But if I’m a person who, I’m a person who’s had an experience in my family of never being seen, if I have that kind of a neural payload of anticipating that anytime I open my mouth, I’m always bracing for the impact of being invisible to come into a community that is tempting me to believe that I will be seen. What does it do? It activates all the memory networks that says like, dude, don’t be a fool. This movie is going to end badly. And at some level it is true. I’m going to have to take the risk of deciding whether or not I’m going to be willing to be receptive to Jesus loving me. Because I don’t have, if I have a really broken attachment structures and I don’t have a middle prefrontal cortex that has a way of putting that into practice, I have very little to work with. And so I start, I’m like, I’m the dude at the end of Mark 9 who brings his son and Jesus says, all things are possible if you believe, they’re like, I believe help thou my unbelief. I’m going to bring you 5% of my owning and that they believe the other 95%, they don’t believe, you got to help me. And so there is this thing. That’s what I mean by the formation of hope. It’s not this monochromatic, I either have it or I don’t have it. I’m having to create, I’m having to build it, but I myself, don’t. We form it for each of us and we acknowledge this is really freaking hard to do. Because we all come with our stories that tell us that hope is going to betray you. It’s going to betray. And we’re saying, we get it. We get it. We want you to take a risk just for the next three minutes. And then you check it out. You check it out, you go home, you think about it. And if you come back next week and we haven’t betrayed you, then you might do it for another three minutes. And we’re going to keep doing this because we’re practicing for heaven. I’m imperfect at it. But like Leslie Newbigin again said about the disciples and their witness, he said, just because the disciples witness was imperfect did not mean that it was ineffective. I’m like, okay, there’s hope for me.

Dan: There’s hope right there indeed, in that sense that hope is actually after you. As much as we’re meant to grow hope, there is something within our being in our brain that a kind of, you don’t so much choose hope as hope chooses you. And there is this relationship with even in our own body, let alone our own fragmentation. But again, what I love is that you’re framing in a way that feels obvious, but on the other hand is so profound, and that is that we are sharing hope in a neurological pathway, in the way we practice in community. And that this notion that you practice alone in your own room, yes, there is a dimension, but it’s meant to be practiced in relationship with others so that we are growing that. And I think as you speak that I go, oh, wait a minute. I’m actually more hopeful even for me than I might think. And part me goes, oh, that’s dangerous, but lovely. So if you can summarize, it’s just brutal to do this. If I were asked this, I’d be like, just shut up. Summarize what you most hope you want people to gain as they engage your brilliant book.

Curt: Well, I would say I would want people to know that God takes us far more lovingly seriously than we can imagine. That’s one thing. And therefore he knows how hard this work of forming hope is, and he’s not afraid to stay for as long as it takes for us to do it. And it’s in my growing persuasion that Jesus never leaves the room that my hope is most durably formed.

Dan: What a sweet gift. A sweet gift. Curt, thank you again, gracious. It is so much a gift to have you with us and many more conversations to have.

Curt: That’s beautiful. Beautiful to be with you. Thank you.