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  • Writer's pictureEllen Nimmo

Misguided Mantras

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

By Ellen Nimmo

Have you ever had a mantra?

A statement, a slogan, a thought, a refrain that you play over and over and over in your mind so much that it becomes the way you see the world? “The world” meaning: your interactions, other people and the way they behave, your work, your purpose, your daily life, and more. Consciously or unconsciously, I reckon we all have mantras we either straight-up are trying to live by or ones we’d claim that we live by.

But what if our mantras are misguided?

Cognitive behavioral therapy is, if one were to boil it down: a mantra-centered therapy. That is, it attempts to take the destructive mantras we repeat to ourselves and replace them with healthier ones. Which sounds like a pretty good process to me, but every balcony has a basement, as they say.

I tried to think if I have any mantras. I reckon I do. But which ones are healthy and which ones are destructive can sometimes be tricky to figure, that's the basement bit.

Like, if I have a mantra that I live by that sounds like this: I am a person of integrity. I do the right thing.

Chances are I will be more likely to actually live with integrity and do the right thing.  Which is a great balcony view! And it makes total sense that the mantras we tell ourselves would have powerful consequences, for good or ill.  But no one has perfect integrity.  This we know.  So to start believing that I was wholly truthful in all my ways would itself be a lie. Eww, is that mold?

Or let’s take it a step further and talk religion for a minute. What if my religion beckons me into a mantra? Lots of religions do. This can be a good thing. A very good thing. It can be toxic too. I’m sure each of us could think of an example when religious mantras became dangerously misguided. I sure can. Can you?

Here’s a ready example I got from a friend a couple weeks ago. My friend messaged me and said, “Stay clear of lettuce the next time you visit your parents.” Pardon me? What on earth did my friend mean? Apparently, my friend had been watching a show that talked about cults. The show mentioned the infamous “salad bar attack” in The Dalles, OR (the town where my folks and sister currently reside). I dug a bit deeper and read about the largest bioterrorist attack on U.S. soil to date. It took place in Oregon, at the local salad bar. The Rajneesh movement began as a new religious movement. It emphasized meditation, mindfulness, love, courage, humor, freethought, creativity and so on. Doesn’t sound too dangerous to me. But, as the movement grew, so did their desire to expand their influence and authority into the culture at large. In an attempt to win legal and political battles, some radical followers of Rajneesh decided to poison residents in The Dalles. Their ideological mantras of love and courage moved into the destructive when the Rajneesh religious became so attached to their views they wanted to force their hand on the rest of society. A harrowing example to any faith group, to be sure.

Still, there’s a lot of good that comes from being aligned with a faith. Surveys have shown that across all creeds, people who attend church were more content, more satisfied with their lives than those who don’t. But before we start attributing that contentment to transcendent factors, most people say it is because they have larger friend-groups which can help care for and support them. Like Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s oft repeated refrain, “Go get yourselves a bigger family.” And he didn’t mean blood relatives necessarily. Just more humans. Yes, he recommended, the more the merrier. It was a mantra in a way.

Getting a bigger clan to share your life with, if you followed Kurt’s dogma there, probably would bring you more happiness. Unless it was severed from other truths. Other truths about relationships, about people and their integrity flubs, about life and the limits of our control, about disappointments, misunderstandings, and the capacity for human err. Fortunately for KV, he knew these realities far too well already. War can really be an eye-opener like that. Unfortunately.

Do you have a mantra?

We talked about religion earlier. I believe in Jesus. I think there’s reasonable evidence to trust that his life, death, and resurrection from that death, so long ago now, was so strange and so powerful and so filled with the message of hope, the message that one day those who put their faith in him will be redeemed from the pattern of this world, resurrected to a life free from corruption and stand in the presence of a holy God. In many ways, it’s my mantra: I believe in Jesus. But severed from other truths, this mantra could become destructive.

Other truths about what Jesus said to and about the religious, for example.

One of my favorite proverbial messages he gave them being, “You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel.”

I wonder if this is what happened with our Rajneesh friends back in 1984? Perhaps it should be noted too, that Jesus was talking directly to members of his own faith. Jesus was Jewish and it was to those “moral authorities,” those religious leaders, who claimed to know, obey, and teach the very best most righteous mantras, it was to them Jesus gave the most warning, the most challenge. And because I hold Jesus’ words as highly-treasured, I take that gnat/camel business pretty seriously.

Could that be a mantra? It’s not exactly catchy, but it sure is memorable.

Russia invaded Ukraine last month. As I was driving to work on that fateful day, I heard a commentator being interviewed by a radio host about the matter. The radio personality asked if the commentator thought that, and I’m paraphrasing, “Does Putin believe everything that he’s telling the Russian people about the reasons for the invasion of Ukraine?” The commentator was very deliberate in answering, he said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I think he has come to.” He went on to explain that perhaps at one time Putin knew he was spinning-up a narrative to serve his own agenda, his purpose, his desire, but that over time he probably came to believe that narrative as gospel.

The misguided mantra, it comes in big and small doses.

So, what is to be done?

For my part, because I think there’s reasonable evidence to support the fact that Jesus was who he claimed to be (God incarnate) my answer to the misguided mantra problem comes from a verse in the New Testament. Romans 12:2 - Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Replacing my old mantras with something like Romans 12:2 . . . I wonder how that would not only keep me free from misguided mantras, those alluring traps of the self-serving and self-righteous, and instead, free me, each day, as I sought to have my mind and mantras renewed.

Straining out the camels first, then the gnats.

I think I might try it out, with the loving help of a large, diverse family.


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