… which is okay, too.
Part 6 of a 7-Part Series on Spirituality, Self-Image & World Religions
I have a vague memory of my mother’s paperback copy of I’m OK, You’re OK sitting on her dresser in the late Seventies or early Eighties. I can’t confirm whether she actually read it or not. But the fact that she picked it up at all tells me a couple of things:
- 1) The 1970s saw much growth in the marketing of self-help books, which popularized certain practices and ideas that up until that time had mostly been left up to therapists, academics or clergy. America is still on that path as readers, as the popularity of such books as The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (buy it), The Secret (skip it) and The Purpose-Driven Life (live it) give ample evidence.
- 2) Mom felt the need to pick up the book. So I can probably infer that shame, blame, insecurity, co-dependence and a poor sense of boundaries tend to run in families. In my case, I can recall evidence (like the book, or certain addictions) of these difficult family dynamics going back at least two generations, on both sides.
This is not to say I “blame” my parents for causing me to suck (or to be turned in on myself, to use St. Augustine’s image). That kind of thinking is unproductive, the result of being too bound by those past wounds. So I must remember that my spiritually warped, wounded identity was formed by both nature and nurture, and I made plenty of choices on my own along the way that were not even remotely healthy.
But our families of origin, our spouses, and our community do have a role to play. There’s no denying it. God is a Triune God, who literally contains a family in His very being. And by putting Jesus into a flesh-and-blood human family, God put us all on the path of trying to understand the role of our families in the development of our spirits and identities. In other words, as Brother Thomas Merton titled one of his books, “no man is an island”.
So on Ash Wednesday, in the Lenten tradition, I ended on a note of reconciliation. For the Jesus way of self-help is this:
1) Receiving forgiveness from God and other people is the surest path out of the chains of sin (or out of of “sucking”, or in my case out of being a shame-bound person);
2) Offering forgiveness, seventy seven times if necessary, is the surest way to avoid perfectionism and judgement, and to build a sense of family and community.
Yet still, as I do an honest inventory of my past tendencies, I realize I want to deny and forget, instead of forgive and forget. I cannot forgive life (or my wife, or my boss, or my parents, or myself, or my car) for being who they are. I’m a nice guy on the outside, but an angry, depressed mess on the inside.
I am forever tempted to give up the fight, to stop relating to God and other people in a healthy way. They’re the problem, not me. Thus I push away the honest, realistic admission about the necessity of my own internal and external soul-maintenance tasks. At the same time, I push away the task of accepting that other people are imperfect.
Be it in our own spirits, in relationships, in life’s infrastructure or in the bodily/medical realm, we prefer to be reactive rather than proactive. We’ll patch up a hole later, we’ll have a drink first, we’ll keep that problem at a distance instead of embracing it…
…instead of doing more planning and working smarter now, in order to prevent a major breakdown later (not that all breakdowns can be prevented). So maintenance and spiritual discipline is about responsibility, instead of opportunity. It’s about finishing things, or keeping them running, rather than the fun of starting them. It’s about being reconciled to your life.
It doesn’t feel good to have to maintain. It feels like work. And it is equally difficult to admit that we ourselves are essentially powerless in these struggles, and to therefore give them over to God (and sometimes other helpers) to sort out and deal with them in the context of our daily life.
Yet for me, true health and peace and generativity is about building the house of my life on the Rock (an immovable object), instead of on sand, and then inviting Jesus into that house. Then the whole “Jesus team” can get up on the roof once a year (or once a day) to help clean out those leaf-clogged gutters in my head and heart. So now the good feelings can get flowing again, and the productive behaviors will increase.
So why do we put off such a good thing as confession, conversion, and “coming clean”? For me, it is partly because these maintenance tasks offend my secret, childlike desire that life be all mudpies, Legos and candy, all the time. I deny the compromises necessary to grow up, to stay healthy, to stay in relationship, and to release control to somebody else. I deny that the “work” of life is not only necessary, but is actually GOOD FOR ME. This is a true state of arrested development, a passive refusal to engage in a mature way with the world and what it asks of me.
Along the way, we often lose track of our blessed inner child, and the gifts it has to offer us as adults. We distance ourselves from our own curious, messy, but ultimately beautiful souls.
We instead get angry at ourselves, God, other people, or –most ridiculous and immature of all– some inanimate object that breaks down. Somebody stole my Legos. Or they want me to clean up for lunch, but I’m not ready to stop making mudpies yet. Then we feel guilty, we scold ourselves for “doing it again”, or are scolded by others, and in the end feel more torn-down than ever. Plus, if we have that wounded “I’m a failure” core identity, we are now even less inclined to believe we will ever contribute in a positive, permanent way. We lose sight of our inherent value, as children of God. (I saw a hilarious and moving 16-minute video called “Validation” this week, that also pointed toward that inherent human value and beauty.
When we get angry about how a certain relationship is going we’re often, secretly, as angry over our own mistakes (real or imagined) as we are at the other person (or group). But pointing out someone else’s clogged gutters is just so much easier than getting our hands messy by dealing with the smelly, rotting, unreconciled sin in our own gutters. Heaping judgment and playing the victim is also easier than owning and using our gifts, and putting them to the best use we can for God’s kingdom.
This is why God needs to be at the center of our relationships, why we need to see (and should expect to see!) Jesus within ourselves, and in the other person, broken and imperfect though we all are. For the Holy Spirit does not need to live in perfect containers. He is the giver of life, hope, and healing. He will patch us up and get us back to work, if we let Him. He is the foreman, the true boss, who holds us all accountable and yet loves us just as much every time we fall, …or when we push somebody else off of that roof where the gutter-cleaning was supposed to be going on.
But proceed with caution. Don’t fall off that roof. Don’t try cleaning your gutters all on your own, and hold the task of helping others clean up very loosely. We must own each others’ brokenness and beauty, and our own. But God does not leave our holy gutters clogged. So while you’re up on that roof… JUMP! As long as it’s a leap of faith, into the arms of our waiting Father below.