Month: August 2011

On Self-Compassion, Inner Critics, and Becoming the Beloved – Part 2

I love this poem by Fleur Adcock.  Take your time and read it.  I’ll share some thoughts after it…

Weathering

My face catches the wind
from the snow line
and flushes with a flush
that will never wholly settle.
Well, that was a metropolitan vanity,
wanting to look young forever, to pass.
I was never a pre-Raphaelite beauty
and only pretty enough to be seen
with a man who wanted to be seen
with a passable woman.

But now that I am in love
with a place that doesn’t care
how I look and if I am happy,
happy is how I look and that’s all.
My hair will grow grey in any case,
my nails chip and flake,
my waist thicken, and the years
work all their usual changes.

If my face is to be weather beaten as well,
it’s little enough lost
for a year among the lakes and vales
where simply to look out my window
at the high pass
makes me indifferent to mirrors
and to what my soul may wear
over its new complexion.

What strikes me about this is that Adcock has found a place beyond the “metropolitan vanity” of looking young forever.  She has discovered a place that “doesn’t care how I look and if I am happy.”  We aren’t told much about this place, but it seems as if it is without expectation, forgiving, accepting.  And perhaps the most vivid image is one that strikes us at the core of our narcissism:

where simply to look out my window
at the high pass
makes me indifferent to mirrors.

Adcock has encountered a beauty which has so captured her that her own vanity is pointless.  Once obsessed, she is now “indifferent.”  And she is happy.

happy is how I look and that’s all.
My hair will grow grey in any case,
my nails chip and flake,
my waist thicken, and the years
work all their usual changes.

Vain, obsessed, and narcissistic, a part of us longs for her freedom.  We are curious about this place she’s found where her waist can thicken.  It must be a place without advertising billboards and rampant pornography.  She can grow grey, a feature of distinction in men but not so in women.  Ask any actress over 40.

In our vain world, the Inner Critic shouts its harsh message. It comes in different packages:

Fat. Ugly. Unsightly.

Old.  Irrelevant.  Yesterday.

Unwanted.  Worthless.  Stupid.

Failure.  Useless.  Expendable.

Which is your loudest critic?

This place Adcock has found comes in many names and with many different descriptions.  But it is the safest place one can find.  I find it in the embrace of the father in Luke 15, the moment where the prodigal son is welcomed into the open arms of a father whose love is unbridled, unleashed, undignified.  To his own embarrassment, the father risks social ostracism to embrace and welcome his outcast son.  The son is safe – loved, welcomed, celebrated, empowered, covered.  If only this display of reckless love was characteristic of today’s churches.  Perhaps, fewer would experience the power of the Critic.

To live in this internal and external world dominated by the Critic, we need to find this safe place.  Adcock found it.  I struggle each day to live in it myself, as the day is often marked by loud voices that demand, expect, require, demean, and devalue – and most are within. Many who I see for therapy report the same battle.  Life has conspired to create many challenges to our wholeness, to our self-compassion, to our enjoyment of being the beloved.

What is this place for you?  How do you experience moments of self-compassion, of happiness, of being the beloved?  How do experience this extraordinary space in which Adcock can declare:

But now that I am in love
with a place that doesn’t care
how I look and if I am happy,
happy is how I look and that’s all.

On Self-Compassion, Inner Critics, and Becoming the Beloved – Part 1

I’m beginning a new series of blog posts on self-compassion, recently requested by some friends and clients.  It’s an odd concept, particularly if you’re a Christian.  In fact, it may ring of a kind of secularized bastardization of God’s love.  I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time arguing with those who’d desire a theology of self-compassion and self-love though, complete with lots of Bible proof texts.  Rather, I’m writing as a psychologist interested in the inner workings of the human spirit, concerned with how God gets his love deeply rooted in us, and concerned about broken human beings.  It’s a bit like a doctor writing on the complex process of healing from a broken bone.  The Healer is identified in Scripture, but the specifics of healing are not spelled out.  As Christians, we ought to be unafraid to explore what Calvin called the “theater of God’s glory,” this vast and complex world (and inner psychic world) shrouded in mystery, but in need of God’s gracious love.  So, let’s explore.

When I think of self-compassion, I’m reminded of the loud Inner Critic most of us wrestle with.  This intimidating inner voice attacks us with harsh messages – “You made a fool of yourself in that meeting,” “No one really cares what you think,” “Everyone sees that you’re not as smart as you try to be.”  At worst, we say, “I hate myself.  I hate how I look, who I am, what I’ve become.”  This often condemning voice is something we’d rather see go away.  Rather, I think God longs to love even our Inner Critic.

The Critic plays a role within.  At its best, it’s our conscience, reminding us when we’ve crossed a line, or prompting us to consider drinking one less drink.  At worst, it’s a 10 foot tall monster within, attacking us with accusations, and no doubt prompted by the Accuser himself.  But, it’s a part of us no less loved and in need of redemption.  And if God won’t turn away from even the scariest or darkest parts of us, who are we to do the same?

I’ll often tell my clients to imagine gazing compassionately on their scary Inner Critic.  I’ll say, “What if your Critic just wants a bit of love?  Seems like an angry grinch in need of a hug.”  Many can believe God loves them and wants them redeemed.  I’m speaking of the unique instances when WE are the obstacle to love, when we say, “No matter what, I can’t get past this feeling of self-hatred.”

Let’s be honest.  We can argue psychological and theological semantics here, but we can’t deny the experience of the addict, the cutter, the binge eater, the purger, the chronic exerciser, and the gender mutilator.  Our self-hatred drives us toward acts of cruelty to ourselves.  I’ve seen it time and again.  Our broken psyches play vicious games within.

But here’s what I find.  When people turn toward their Inner Critic with compassion, what they begin to see is that this 10 foot monster is just a little thing, trying to keep a frantic inner powerless and pain in check.  In fact, the Inner Critic’s role is to manage the countless inner contingencies that lie underneath – your propensity to get a bit too wild, to drink a bit too much, to harm yourself, or to harm others.  With an eye of compassion, the Critic becomes a beloved friend, shrinking in size from monster to mouse.  Stripped of its power to self-condemn, it can be a powerful ally – a sanctified conscience.

In the next post, we’ll talk about why the Inner Critic is so loud.  What is it protecting us from?  What fears motivate it?  And how can we begin to indwell God’s Spirit so deeply as to become our truest selves, capable of profound self-compassion and bold self-sacrifice, in the likeness of Christ?

But before I end, I’m going to introduce you to a poem of self-compassion.  This comes from Mary Oliver, an East Coast poet who has clearly had to contend with her own Inner Critic. Ask yourself, what is she saying when she says, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves?”  What parts of you betray your First Love?  What false selves clamor for security, attention, approval, acceptance, and more, only to fall under the vicious knife of the Inner Critic?  What would it mean to “find your place in the family of things”?

WILD GEESE, Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

On Christian Hypocrisy 1 :: Who are We?

Dear Skeptic,

Thomas Merton once wrote, “All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything in the universe is ordered.”

If you are truly a skeptic, you likely repel at the thought of a concept like sin.  But maybe you’ll entertain the concept of hypocrisy.  You know it.  You’ve seen it, time and again.  And you’ve noticed its peculiar redundancy among us – Christians.  I’d like to say, in fact, that you’re very right in noticing it.

Hypocrisy.  Its roots run deep.  It was a word applied to Greek actors – people who played a part.  HypocritePretenderActorThe false self.

You might be encouraged that Christians call this sin.  But it doesn’t keep us from engaging in it.

I heard it said recently of Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann, both who’ve spent many hours on stage.  But I’ve also heard it said of John Edwards, who called himself a Christian before his own stage-act was exposed.  False selves can be found in Democrats and Republicans, in theological conservatives and theological liberals, in pastors and in plumbers.  Truth is, we’re all so good at playing the part.

So, I ask, “Who are we?”  Who are you?  Can I trust what I hear and see from you? And can you trust what you hear and see from me?  What we can agree on, at the outset, is this:  I agree that Christians are hypocrites.  But hear me out.  I’m quite sure we all are.

I don’t know a person without a story, and I don’t know a story without some conflict, confusion, struggle, fear, or shame.  How we cope defines our stories, their trajectories, their plots, their highs and lows.  I know a Christian who coped with his tragic sexual abuse by becoming a six-figure success.  On paper.  In reality, his life was a mess.  Just ask his three children who no longer know him.

Oh yes, we’re guilty of hypocrisy.  In fact, I’m going to argue that we, Christians, don’t know how deep the rabbit hole goes.  Sure, we say we believe in sin, even in a concept called total depravity. We believe in a false self, “the self that exists only in my egocentric desires.”  But we’re utter failures at seeing our own false selves.  Ideas are easier to see than human realities.  We’re fearful, scared of looking within.

Who am I?  Who are you?  We have much in common.  I look forward to exploring all of it with you.

Yours in this journey of human curiosity,

Chuck

Pastors and Depression

In just the past month, I’ve spoken with three depressed pastors.  Consider this startling data from Barna, Focus on the Family, and Fuller Seminary:

  • Fifteen hundred pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.
  • Fifty percent of pastors’ marriages will end in divorce.
  • Eighty percent of pastors feel unqualified and discouraged in their role as pastor.
  • Fifty percent of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
  • Eighty percent of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter the ministry will leave the ministry within the first five years.
  • Seventy percent of pastors constantly fight depression.
  • Almost forty percent polled said they have had an extra-marital affair since beginning their ministry.

Now, while there is much to talk about here, my interest right now is depression.  It’s often when pastors hit their early to mid-30’s that they report some form of depression, described with words like “tired,” “discouraged,” “fatigued,” “burned out,” “unmotivated,” and more.  Some wonder if they’ve ‘lost’ their call to ministry.  Others share feelings of suicide, temptations to act out sexually, or a desire to quit ministry altogether.

While I do believe some form of clinical depression may be at work, I’m also quite convinced that the 16th century mystics like St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila have something to say too.  Seeing many of these same symptoms, what John and Teresa found was that something deeper was going on, a phenomenon John called “the dark night of the soul.”

I saw this recently in a 38 year-old pastor who called me for advice.  His church wasn’t growing.  His praying lacked passion.  Previously helpful spiritual practices no longer delivered.  And growing temptations to look at pornography or lose himself in Fantasy Football were worrying him and his wife.  Feeling inept and despairing, he wondered if he’d hit a ministry wall.  I told him that I sensed an extraordinary moment of grace and growth.

As I often do, I told him that he needed to see a psychologist to talk about medications and to evaluate therapeutic issues.  While St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila first envisioned the dark night with both its purgative and illuminative spiritual qualities, they were by no means dualists who discounted psychological difficulty.  Though they did not have modern categories or insights, they were some of the most adept psychological minds of their day, and ours.  St. John specifically counseled men and women that melancholia, or depression, would often accompany the dark night.  For him, it wasn’t an either/or, but more often a both/and.  The spiritual and psychological are interconnected.

One lesson we learn from the sixteenth century Spanish mystics is that moments like the one the pastor experienced are not problems, but opportunities.  This may be the key distinction, one that moves us beyond the question “How do we fix this?” to the question “What might I learn in this?”

In our North American context, failure and struggle is often viewed as a problem, a jagged detour on what is supposed to be the straight road of life.  It’s a uniquely American phenomenon, but one that subtlety impacts our Christian perceptions.  Thus, pastors feel as if depression, doubt, or distance from God amount to obstacles to ministry, rather than opportunities for it.

When that pastor called me, he was worried for himself, for his family, and for a congregation that expected him to be ‘on’ each week.  As I listened, it was clear he’d benefit from some therapy.  He had never explored his family-of-origin before, and a few questions showed that Dad’s high expectations manifested in self-criticism and a fear of failure.  That was clear enough.  But was his issue a family-of-origin problem to be fixed?

St. John of the Cross would say No.  And I’d agree.  Most psychological issues parallel real spiritual issues.  And what we call difficulty or failure or even “issues” afford us moments of awakening.  I suspect St. John would see this pastor’s prayer difficulty, or his lack of passion, and even his pull toward pornography as signs of the dark night.  The purpose of the dark night, of course, is to strip us of our futile attempts to find God on our own terms, and to awaken in us a much more simple desire for intimacy with God.  And what I find in my work is that time and again, pastors tell me that they’d just like to know God…more purely, more simply…beyond the complexities we create as the neurotic men and women we are.

What we often find through this process is that we’re stripped of what we thought God to be – our theological certainties, our moralistic practices, our emotional highs – and drawn into a more pure, simple, and substantial intimacy.  However, pastors who fail to see this opportunity often devote themselves to working harder and succeeding more, all in an effort to cast out their demons of depression and despair.  It doesn’t work.

However, if we’re willing to listen in to our lives a bit more closely, we might find that God is looking for us, even in our darker moments.  The mystics were convinced God works even when we’re asleep.  And if we’re ready and willing, we may even awake to the dawn’s fresh light, more convinced than ever that God speaks not only in our successes, but even in our difficulties.