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David Pincus

David Pincus Ph.D.

The Charlie Brown Christmas Blog

Chaos theory, Charlie Brown, and Christmas all fit nicely together

Hi chaospsychology readers. First I apologize for taking so long between blogs. I'll spare you the details. And some qualifiers and caveats up front before this entry, which will consist of some reflections by a Jew on the depth and personal significance of Christmas. If I offend, it is unintended - and if I must defend myself, I will claim ignorance. So if anyone is inclined to be offended, it would just be a waste of your time.

This blog is about chaos theory and psychology, and the topic will be Charlie Brown and Christmas. Chaos theory, Charlie Brown, and Christmas all fit nicely together actually - and it will not take a chaotic mind to see how. Let me start with some nice research results. Just what you wanted for Christmas right? But for me, a non-linear researcher trying out a brand new methodology for measuring self-complexity, research results were the perfect gift. My lab assistants at Chapman University worked diligently all semester long and finally got a data set I've had on hold for three years ready to run some analyses: lots of tedious work. What we got was some very nice initial results which suggest that complexity theory applies to the structure of the self concept. This means essentially that the self-concept is organized as branch-like fractal pattern. Furthermore, the self-system appears to be shaped and to grow and change just like plants, arteries, bronchial tubes, heart rate patterns, neurons and many more natural systems. A healthy self-concept is a more complex self-concept. Complexity = flexibility = balance = health. Nice results indeed. For the geekier minded out there - we've got several thousand MMPI-2 personality profiles with reaction times (number of seconds) to each of 587 items and found significant fits to power law distributions. This would make sense if answering the items on the questionnaire involved introspecting on a fractal structure (i.e., infinitely complex branching structure). Next, we found that the fractal dimension (i.e., complexity) of those distributions was significantly correlated with MMPI-2 personality scores including: two anxiety scales, two depression scales, ego strength, schizophrenia, 2 addiction scales and marital discord. This means that the degree of complex branching in who you are predicts healthy psychosocial functioning in a very broad way - across diagnostic categories.

Along with past published research we've done (see prior blogs), these results suggest: a) that the self behaves like a fractal; b) that multiple selves coalesce to create social dynamics that also are fractals; c) that unresolved conflict or fear-based dynamics create constrictions in self and interpersonal processes that lead to a destructive loss of balance and flexibility; and d) that resolving these imbalances through "love-based" dynamics (e.g., self-acceptance and social understanding, mindfulness and empathy) leads to spreading growth and healing - downward into our biological systems and perhaps below, and upward through our social networks.

 This is what happened symbolically to the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree in the classic special from many of our youths'. If you don't recall, Charlie Brown was in charge of buying the tree for the group's Christmas pageant. But he screwed up, buying a spindly rigid looking tree (low fractal dimension in non-linear jargon). His dysfunctional cohort judged and shamed him for this. Indeed, the tree was a good symbol for Charlie Brown, children with untreated dysthymic disorder like Charlie Brown (chronic low grade depression) would be expected to suffer as he does, particularly socially and during the holidays. And where are his parents anyway? But he's not the only one of the gang who is struggling through the holidays. It is clear that Lucy has borderline personality disorder; she is very internally conflicted and creates conflict all around her. Ironically, she is the psychologist for the rest of the group. Draw your own conclusions there. Linus likely has generalized anxiety disorder, and Snoopy is a classic narcissist (that's why he is so attractive right?). The healthiest of all the characters is Peppermint Patty, along with her partner Marcy, likely because they are lesbians and have had to go through some growth during the coming out process. Nevertheless, they would likely be in better shape psychologically if they could be assisted through the process of coming out completely to the rest of the peanuts crew: Maybe in Christmas 2009? But I digress...

What I would suggest to you this holiday season, and better yet throughout 2009 is that you behave like the peanuts, and symbolically like that little tree, which only needed a little love to become full and merry. When you are with yourself, notice your dysfunction - your fears that scare you, your fears that front as anger, and your fears that cover your pain. Notice the fears of others too. Once you see your fears and the fears of others, aim to accept them and to come up with new ways of loving yourself and others - in your habits, in your outlooks, and in your heart. When your most annoying relative does that thing you hate, see the vulnerability that drives that behavior, and love that vulnerability. When you feel yourself getting sucked into an old role that you dislike, embrace the newness of your current self. And when your caregivers, now aging or gone, don't satisfy your deepest unmet needs this year, see their humanity and forgive their flaws. Seriously - this is all cliché, but if you really do it, even here or there, you and the broader world will be healed - just a bit - from your molecules to your neighborhoods and beyond.

As a Jew, I am able to stand back from Christmas and appreciate it without any baggage of my own family traditions. I spent Christmases bored and alone as a child, with the pride that I was being a good Jew, suffering the minor loss of Santa which put me in solidarity with my ancestors struggled even to exist. I spent wonderful, loud, delicious Christmas's with my Sicilian friends the Manones in High School. And now I spend what I think is a traditional Norwegian farm style Christmas with my wife's family in Wisconsin, going to Lutheran Church, singing songs, eating Christmas foods, and playing games in front of the fire. Perfect? Yes, in many ways, yes. I love the way that my in-laws still care for their grown children, who regress for two days - wearing pajamas and drinking root beers, and playing dominoes. But no one is perfect, even in this idyllic setting. Certainly not I, the Jewish son-in-law who likes to sing out load and proud in monotone at church, who is picky about food and likes to do his own thing? Perfect? I think not. And perhaps I am not the only imperfect one.

If Jesus was a Christmas tree, he clearly would not be the biggest or most expensive; the greenest, or the longest lasting. Jesus would be the fullest tree, symmetrical, yet rich with full thick beautiful branches. If those branches were habits - they would allow him the flexibility to love his enemies yet rebel angrily against those who ruled the temples and the empire without integrity. He was not reckless, but he was complex. He was pure, but not simple. He loved prostitutes and lepers, yet rallied against the powers that be, and always strived to move the god of the Old Testament, the god within each of us, to a place of love.

Do I believe then? No, still a Jew. But he was clearly a messiah, even if only because of his far reaching impact. Most Christians don't practice correctly (nor most Jews - present company included). But that's okay. You see Jesus's complexity allowed him to dial in to something very deep and large, and to spread that complexity across time and interpersonal space. Once everyone is done practicing, perhaps "he" will indeed "return." Probably the most difficult bit of New Testament for a Jew is the part about the way to god only being through Jesus. But as a Jew, we love to pour over scripture - to wrestle with it. I believe that Jesus was correct, but not that heaven, or other "presents" would come only to those who believe blindly that he was the literal son. No. Rather, he was correct that the way to create heaven on earth is to be like him - to grow, to branch out, and to open our hearts, minds, and habits to love. You don't need to be as rich or full a tree as him, and it might not be a good idea to try for such a lofty goal. There are already hundreds of modern day Jesuses in the psychiatric wards of our big cities. But you can look for love here and there, especially in the coming thaw of spring. If someone won't allow you to love them, then seek to understand them instead. This is the better part of love anyway. Within self and other understanding, new growth and healing - this is where psychology, chaos theory, Christmas, and the Charlie Brown Christmas tree can come together [thanks again to Clint Sprot for the 'fractal of the day']

Peace...

Dr. Dave

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About the Author

David Pincus

David Pincus is a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Chapman University in Orange, CA.

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