So, what do we do with the tension of life? How does our psyche cope? When we’re threatened, how do we protect ourselves?
I believe there is a lesson to be learned from, of all places, the inter-testamental period – that mysterious interregnum between the silence of the final prophets of old, and the emergence of “a voice crying in the wilderness,” John the Baptizer. As I’ll often tell my classes, this period is a lesson in psychology. God’s people, thrust into a time of insecurity and uncertainty, find three main ways of coping. Some become the protectors of the law, and they are called Pharisees. Some become militant, and they are called Zealots. A final group chooses escape over engagement, and they are called Essenes. In a time when the very identity of Israel was being threatened, it is fractured into three extreme postures of identity-maintenance. The first is a Protector. The second is a Reactor. The third is a Retreater.
You might say that these three postures are quite like our ordinary ways of coping with reality. Karen Horney (1885-1952) argued for three main kinds of neurosis, labeled “Moving Toward,” “Moving Against,” and “Moving Away.” All behavior, she posited, could be traced to one of these fundamental neuroses. Those who “Move Toward” are addicted to approval, and work hard to ingratiate themselves to others (and to God) by any means necessary. Sound like a Pharisee? Those who “Move Against” cope by reacting and fighting – for power, for stability, for justice, for position. Sound like a Zealot? And those who “Move Away” cloister themselves from pain, choosing self-sufficiency, self-protection, and self-realization rather than dealing with the complexity directly. Horney believed cultures and individuals demonstrated these inclinations, though she did not see the inter-testamental Jewish movements as relevant to the discussion.
But let’s take this a step further. A relatively new perspective in psychology called IFS, or Internal Family Systems, seems to capture this in their understanding of internal realities. IFS argues that have parts, as I’ve been blogging about for the last week. We’re an orchestra, and at our best, the conductor (our “self”) is guiding our parts in harmonious movement. But the pain of life causes internal fracturing and polarization. Parts of us become Protectors or Managers, as IFS calls its, guarding us against more pain and assuring we won’t get hurt again. Bob has a part he calls The Caretaker who makes sure he, and everyone else around him, feels good. He constantly apologizes when he has no need to. He sees 30+ people in his counseling practice, and is known to be continually encouraging and never apt to give hard feedback to his clients. And he seems to put a positive spin on the hardest things in life, including the recent miscarriage his wife experienced. Bob has a part that will not allow him to feel pain again. This is his inner Protector/Manager, a kind of Pharisee that controls his world by caretaking and approval-seeking.
But Bob also has an inner Firefighter, as IFS psychologists call it. This is a reactive part of himself, an inner Zealot. Bob is a compulsive man, whose eating binges and pornography binges seem to arise when he feels most lonely and afraid. He doesn’t know this, of course, because he doesn’t allow himself to feel his loneliness, fear, shame, or insecurity. But in the quiet of the night, when his wife goes to bed, Bob begins his binge. He powers away his difficult feelings with all-out compulsion, often choosing the supposedly ‘safer” route of binge-eating, but often finding that compulsive masturbation is the only form of relief. His self-violence is reactive and harmful, the working on an inner Zealot.
Finally, Bob also has hidden inner Exiles, as they are called in IFS – parts of him that have retreated, walled away from further harm. Like the Essenes of old, parts of Bob are simply too afraid to engage. Parts called Fear, Shame, Powerlessness, and Reject lurk behind a wall, as it were, living a cloistered life yet empowering their polarized opposites to wield all-too-much power as Managers and Firefighters within his inner family. Talk to Bob about his fear, and out will pop another Manager, reminding you that Bob is just fine coping in his own way. One Manager, named Bible-Man, will actually offer you a proof-text for his apparent ‘control’ of his situation.
As I’ve said in this series of posts, we are complex individuals. These categories end up being immensely helpful ways of making some sense out of the complexity. Yet, as Christ incarnates Himself more and more fully in us, through the Spirit, He invites Exiles out of hiding, Firefighters to let go of power, and Managers to relinquish their control. Repentance, in other words, takes on greater beauty, as different parts of us that refuse to relinquish control to God give up their unique strategies for self-management, choosing transformation over slavery. The inner journey (or “journeys”) from slavery to freedom become occasions for celebration, as we become more and more alive to the freedom of Jesus and more and more dead to old, tired strategies for coping. And, this journey also allows us, part by part, to grieve and lament the conditions that brought about the inner strategy – family conflict and struggle, neglect, abuse, and even the very real wounds that come from imperfect parenting (something I realize every day as a Dad trying to do his best).
It’s quite fascinating, when you think about it, that you can learn so much about yourself from an inter-testamental fracturing of the identity of God’s people. But then again, truth shows up in stranger places…
(More to come in this series – stay tuned)