Stoicism and Christianity, Part 4: Changeable Outcomes, the Psychological Immune System, and God as Medicine

This post trots out the psychological piece of my argument that certain notions of God may interfere with psychological well-being.

The research I'm citing comes mainly from Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. Check out his recent book Stumbling on Happiness for a popular account of his empirical work.

The facet of Gilbert's work I want to focus on involves what Gilbert calls our psychological immune system. According to Gilbert, and there is good evidence to believe him, we all possess a psychological immune system. Interestingly, we are often unaware of the immune system's workings, leading many of us to mismanage our lives.

Our psychological immune system is basically comprised of information-processing (i.e., thinking) biases that help us reconcile to our circumstances. That is, all normal, non-depressive folk tend to have some innate psychological mechanisms that aid them in getting through difficult circumstances. Two obvious features of the psychological immune system are habituation (we get used to new situations, even painful ones) and an innate tendency to look for silver linings.

The immune system tends to trigger when we see our situation as irreversible. That is, when we realize that "this is the way things will be" we begin the slow psychological process of settling down and regaining our emotional stability. This can be as simple as spinning events to ourselves to make them seem more attractive. But examples can also be seen in traumatic situations. As an example of this, I think of the story of the Buddha and the mother whose child had died:

Kisa Gotami lived in Savatthi. She married a young man and a son was born to them. The son died when he was a toddler and Kisa Gotami was stricken with grief. Carrying her dead son, she went everywhere asking for medicine to restore her son to life. People thought she had gone mad. But a wise man seeing her pathetic condition, decided to send her to the Buddha.

He advised her: "Sister, the Buddha is the person you should approach. He has the medicine you want. Go to him."

Thus Kisa Gotami went to the Buddha and asked him to give her the medicine that would restore her dead son to life.

The Buddha replied, "I can make the medicine you seek. To make it I need for you to collect some mustard seeds from houses in the town."

Kita Gotami eagerly agreed to collecting the seeds, but the Buddha added one more detail:

"But be sure," the Buddha added, "that the mustard seeds you collect come from a home where there has been no death."

Overjoyed at the prospect of having her son restored to life, Kisa Gotami ran from house to house, begging for some mustard seeds. Everyone was willing to help but she could not find a single home where death had not occurred. The people were only too willing to part with their mustard seeds, but they could not claim to have not lost a dear one in death. As the day dragged on Kita Gotami grew calmer, hearing from house to house how death had visited each one.

At the end of the day as the sun setting Kita Gotami returned to the Buddha still carrying the body of her child. As she approached the Buddha asked her, "Have you found the medicine you were seeking?"

Kita Gotami nodded, embraced the Buddha, and went to bury her son.

The point, psychologically, of the mustard seed tale is that Kita Gotami's psychological immune system--those psychological mechanisms that help us deal with the difficulties in life--could not kick in until she reconciled herself to the irreversibility of her situation. The prospect of a medicine for death prevented her from reconciling herself, in a healthy way, to death. Medicine implies reversibility and that prospect harms psychological health.

This is the link I want to theologically explore, the link between reversibility and psychological health. Basically, there is good evidence to suggest that when outcomes are changeable and reversible we have greater difficulty in dealing with the situation. Interestingly, most are ignorant of this fact. Thus, people tend to like to "keep their options open," to build reversibility or changeability into their plans. The idea is that if you don't like one set of choices you can change to a different set. The trouble is that with the second set of choices as a viable option the psychological immune system doesn't kick in to reconcile you to the circumstance you are current in. Changeability inhibits enjoying the moment and where you are currently in life because you are continually wondering if a different set of choices would be better. We then live in a kind of "grass is always greener" limbo, never fully happy and engaged in life as it stands right now before us.

Here's an example from Gilbert's research. First, answer this question. Which Choice Scenario would you rather be in?

Scenario A: You have to choose between X and Y. Once you make your choice that's it. You are stuck with X or Y.

Scenario B: You have to choose between X and Y. If, however, you don't like your initial choice you can switch at a later time.

Most people would choose Scenario B as it builds in changeability and reversibility. This seems a good thing. Very commonsensical. But recall what we have learned about changeable outcomes and the psychological immune system. A person in Scenario B will be less satisfied with their choice. Less happy. Why? Because the prospect of a switch is sitting there. The choice is actually prolonged. Consequently, rather then getting on with the business of enjoying the choice, the person is still evaluating the choice. And it's hard to like something if you are continually deciding if you like something.

This dynamic has been observed in multiple studies. The conclusion is this: We unwittingly undermine our own happiness by building in too much reversibility. We think reversibility is a good thing but it actually stalls the psychological immune system, those psychological mechanisms that bring a degree of peace and equanimity. In short, many of this are making ourselves miserable because we are misinformed about the mechanics of happiness.

What does all this have to do with God and stoicism?

In my first post in this series I wondered aloud if notions of a hyper-personal or hyper-interventionist (nod to Matthew here) God are interfering with psychological well-being. I think now, in this post, we can see why I'm puzzling about this. Basically, I'm wondering how many Christians are like Kita Gotami, seeing God as Medicine. Not a medicine to heal, but to change, as a continually lingering source of reversibility. Those hyper-views of God place the believer in a situation where God can be appealed to to change or reverse circumstance. Thus, rather than learning to be content in all circumstance we appeal to God to change our circumstance. And this prospect of change, of reversibility, if the the psychological research is true, keeps us miserable. We fail to reconcile ourselves, as the stoics suggested, to life as it stands.

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6 thoughts on “Stoicism and Christianity, Part 4: Changeable Outcomes, the Psychological Immune System, and God as Medicine”

  1. Hmmmm. Veeeeeeeeeeeeeery interesting ;) This makes a lot of sense.

    And of course, accepting the situation before us and learning to be content with whatever happens equates to believing more that God is in charge despite the circumstances. Of course, this wouldn't mean that change would never occur; hopefully it would mean that the divine whisperings to "go here" would be less drowned out by our own every-second desires to change everything.

    Thanks Richard. I shall ponder this all the live-long day :)

  2. Richard,

    I lost both my mother and my grandfather to treatable diseases because they thought that their health would be ameliorated through prayer. They felt the need to show their faith and claim healing. They both died prematurely.

    After reading your post Richard, I wonder how this belief in divine healing made them unable to accept the situation they were in. It's like they were Kita Gotami carrying their sickness around longing for the healthy state they thought they deserved through Christ.

    Thanks for these posts. I came across this same subject of stoicism awhile ago (although I didn’t know it by that name) and it helped my psychological health a great deal. The only thing that is different, and it may be just because you haven't mentioned it yet, is the emphasis on personal responsibility in stoicism. Personal responsibility keeps one from blaming others and looking for a way out which postpones the task of facing up to a situation. It’s like a light bulb moment when you finally realize that the common denominator in all your problems is you!

    Rick T

  3. Richard,

    I am back from Taos, New Mexico, and as I stated in my blog, the only place in the world with a radio station with a liquor license and a cemetery with a pay phone.

    This entire series is stimulating. I have three general thoughts about it.

    (1) Nothing I can find in the Hebrew scriptures or the Christian New Testament suggests that apatheia is a part of the God depicted there. Sometimes distance, but never lack of passion for and with God's creatures and creation. God is not a stoic.

    (2) Job calls God to account as well as his "friends," the "miserable comforters." Neither are very pastoral, placing theology (theodicy) before human suffering. Only when Job states in defiance, "So, you vahhnt that I should repent in dust and ashes,” (Job 42:6, translation by an old Rabbi), does God’s anger arise, not at Job (still and always God’s servant), but at his "friends." Later, he is comforted and given sympathy by humans despite “the evil that the LORD brought upon him.”

    (3) Magical thinking is a reflexive way I avoid contentment and responsibility. It keeps me from centering myself in the shadow and darkness of the moments of our pain. Prayer, not magical thinking, reminds me that God is in the middle of my suffering. And all our efforts at finding God require work—work which rarely has linear consequences.

    I mentioned my blog earlier. I invite all your responders to check it out at It is both experimental and experiential—and a gateway. And it requires imaginative work.


    George C.

  4. Sue, Rick and George,
    Thinking through you comments I'd like to hasten to add that I do think God is personal as in concerned about us. I think of God more as Presence than Change Agent. That is, I think seeking God's Presence and companionship is fully compatible with the stoical stance. In fact, this seeking of God for Who God Is rather than for What God Can Do For Me may be the highest form of faith. In trails I want to be WITH God rather than PETITION God. Which is kind of like how I am with my wife. If I got a terminal diagnosis I simply would want to be with her.

  5. Hey Richard
    I think I may have posted this link before but recently Sarah Coakley and Marc Hauser have been looking into evolution from Coakley's theological perspective and Hauser's discipline of mathematical biology. Coakley wrote up her thoughts in the most recent Harvard Divinity Bulletin (

    The interesting thing about their thoughts in relation to this post is the last part of their article and suggestions of moving away from diestic conceptions of God. I wonder to what extent the "relationality" dimension of God is tied up with this diestic notion that has evolved (no pun intended) in prominence in the science religion debate. Coakley ends up concluding in some fashion that the way forward in the science religion debate is to begin to address God in terms of notions of trinity and incarnation, with the related themes found in ev psych and nature in general of love, empathy, cooperation, and the like. However, nature is littered with both altruism and destruction, cooperation and competition.

    I am wondering to what extent you think Coakley's (and I would imagine Hauser's as well- a practicing Roman Catholic) conception of God is related to this notion of apatheia. In other words, is apatheia our most proper response. Conversely, I wonder to what extent the notion of "relationality" is tied up with our diestic notions and our anthropomorphic tendencies.

    Just some thoughts!


  6. Hi Peter,
    Thanks for the very good link! I find myself in agreement with her.

    Actually, this statement intrigued me: "From the philosophical or theological side, on the other hand, these same phenomena may suggest the possibility of a new form of moral/teleological argument for God's existence (so Alexander Pruss). Not that such an argument could ever amount to a "proof " in the deductive sense, but rather be a constituent in a cumulative set of considerations that would together mount a case precisely for an incarnational God, a God of intimate involvement in empathy, risk, and suffering."

    It interested me because I've made just this sort of argument for God's existence on this blog. The final post in that series is here.


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