Henri Nouwen and The Spiritual Life

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psych.

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was a Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer, and theologian. He focused on integrating Christian theology, philosophy, and psychology. He unfortunately died of a massive heart attack while traveling to Russia to participate in a documentary about his book The Return of the Prodigal Son. He authored a total of thirty-nine books and hundreds of articles during his ministry. He struggled with loneliness, but had an uncanny ability to describe his personal struggles in a way that resonated with his many readers.

“I wanted to know how we could integrate the life of Christ in our daily concerns. I was always trying to articulate what I was dealing with. I thought that if it was very deep, it might also be something other people were struggling with. It was based on the idea that what is most personal might be the more universal.

In his seminal book The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles, Nouwen described a persistent urge to enter more deeply into the spiritual life, but said he was confused about the direction in which to go. He desperately wanted to be among the believers who have a deep desire to “know” and experience the “story of Christ.” He noted that heart-knowledge was necessary over head-knowledge in order to accomplish this. He intimated that the method for accomplishing this was to “…set your hearts on [H]is kingdom first.”

I hope to expound on his journey and the results of his search in a way that incites you to do the same.

All These Other Things

I think it is natural for the layperson (indeed, even the young minister) to determine that “the spiritual life” can only be realized through monk-like study and contemplation. Many believe we must sell our earthly possessions, quit our jobs, leave our family and our paramour, and walk into the dessert to confront our flesh and yield to the Spirit. First of all, if this were indeed the only way we can live a truly spiritual life then there would not be many among us who could achieve it.

Nouwen taught that the spiritual life is not a life “…before, after, or beyond our everyday existence.” Instead, the spiritual life can only be real when it is lived in the midst of the pains, joys, difficulties, and successes of the here and now. We simply must begin our search for a Spirit-filled life by taking a careful and thorough look at the way we think, speak, feel, and act from hour to hour, day to day, week to week, and year to year. It is only through this exercise that we can become more fully aware of our need for the Spirit in our lives. While earning my bachelor’s degree in psychology, I learned about a rather unique concept called metacognition. Essentially, this is an awareness and understanding of one’s thought processes. I like to call it thinking about what I’m thinking about.

When we are not content with the way our lives are going, we are not really very happy. There is no joy and no peace. Indeed, Christ said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27, NASB). We must understand that any mood of resignation to our “lot in life” will prevent us from actively searching (and ultimately finding) the life of the Spirit. To get there, we need instead to be honest, show courage, and trust in a positive outcome from our journey. We must honestly unmask and courageously confront our many self-deceptive games.

From a psychological standpoint, we tend to bury (repress) our true feelings. We “stuff them,” hoping that ignoring them will work. That somehow this “baggage” will take itself out to the trash container. In addition, we are prone to project unwanted feelings and attributes within ourselves onto others. In other words, we “displace” our emotions. We also tend to use denial to cope with uncomfortable emotions and, sometimes, actions that have been perpetrated on us. Because many of our so-called defense mechanisms are subconscious and (accordingly) automatic, finding them and bringing them to the light of day requires us performing a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. I first heard of this concept while attending 12-step meetings in Alcoholics Anonymous. Believe me, this is a lot harder than it sounds.

The Essence of Spirituality

Spirituality is described by J.M. Houston as “the state of deep relationship to God.” It is noted that prior terms like “holiness” or “discipleship” tended to turn believers away from seeking a spiritual life, liking it to intense dedication at the expense of the day to day life. In addition, “spirituality” is somewhat abstract. It seems Catholic devotion was a spin-off of spirituality. Interestingly, the influence of secularism, atheism, pluralism, and moral relativism into virtually every avenue of Western life caused enough alarm among ministers and believers that many began to take devotion to Christ more seriously.

Christian heresies within the early church all won popularity because of the ascetic and mystical properties they featured more than the “doctrine” they espoused. Some heresies responsible for this reaction included Gnosticism, Greek mystical thought (especially during the period of Diaspora when the Jews were forced out of Israel), Trinitarian and Christological belief, Arianism, Docetism, and others. In fact, Islam is considered by some biblical scholars as a heresy of Judaism. You may remember the story of Abraham and God’s promise to him to bless him with a vast land and countless heirs through his otherwise barren wife Sarah. God said Abraham would be blessed and he would bless many. It was through Abraham that God instilled his plan for the redemption of mankind. Unfortunately, Abraham grew impatient and his faith waned. He and Sarah agreed that he would have sexual relations with Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar. As a result, Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, through whom the Muslim faith was established.

The Nature of Christian Spirituality

According to J.M. Houston, there are six aspects that characterize Christian spirituality:

  1. Asceticism as such does not define Christian spirituality because much of asceticism involves contempt for the material world. The biblical doctrine of creation recognizes that God created all things, and they were “good” (see Genesis 1). God does not ask the believer to detach from this good life.
  2. Biblical revelation of God as “personal” leaves no place for relying on human wisdom. Moses spoke with God face-to-face, the temple was filled with the Glory of God (Gr. shekinah), and the prophets all manifested God’s will and developed a degree of Christian spirituality never seen before.
  3.  Christian spirituality must be Christ-centered. Paul frequently talked about being “in Christ” to emphasize the union Christians can have with Jesus. The synoptic gospel writers describe following Jesus to mean being in union with love. God’s original purpose was to create man in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-28). Moreover, redemption is interpreted as being “conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29).
  4. Christian spirituality by definition is life in the Trinity: believers accept God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit as one triune God. It is through the Holy Spirit that Christians can cry, “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6).
  5. Christian spirituality is the outworking of God’s grace in the human soul, beginning with conversion and concluding with having been killed, buried, and resurrected (to new life) with Christ.
  6. Christian  spirituality engenders fellowship, and the communion of saints. This aids in deepening the believer’s character. After all, iron sharpens iron. Spirituality can be tested by measurement of a believer’s public behavior and worship (Acts 2:42-47). Frankly, godliness and spiritual fellowship compliment each other. Christian worship is primarily a matter not of special practices or performances, but of lifestyle (Romans 12:1; 14:6; 1 Corinthians 10:31).

Nouwen speaks of being “filled” or “unfilled” relative to the spiritual life:

Filled

It seems that today’s believers are always busy. This is true for all of Western society. It is practically a badge of honor to be “too busy” to get everything done in a day. The fallout is a nagging sense that there are unfinished tasks, unfulfilled promises, unrealized potential. As if that were not enough to distract us, Nouwen says “more enslaving that our occupations, however, are our preoccupations. To be pre-occupied means to fill our time and place long before we are there.” I’ve been there many times. All those “ifs” running through my brain. What if that persistent left lower abdomen pain is cancer? What if I get killed in an automobile accident? What if my mother dies suddenly? What if I can never own a home? What if I can’t find a job in my chosen vocation? This habitual negative prognostication makes us wonder constantly what to do and what to say in case something happens in the future. We ruminate, making us anxious, fearful, suspicious, greedy, nervous, and morose.

What would our lives be like if we were to stop worrying? If we could ignore the urge to be entertained, to travel the world “in search of ourselves,” to buy so much, and to arm ourselves, perhaps our society as it exists today would fall apart. Unfortunately, we all seem to get caught up in materialism, wanderlust, competition, contrived needs, self-sufficiency, and workaholic behavior. We become so filled with the world and our selves that there is no room for God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. When this happens to a follower of Christianity, his or her walk with Christ is sorely compromised. This pervasive materialism can quench the Spirit and lead to a continual walk in the flesh.

Unfilled

Beneath our worrying lives, however, something else is going on. Our minds and hearts are filled with many things, and we wonder how we can ever hope to measure up to the hype. While busy with “this and that,” we seldom feel truly fulfilled. How can we? The material world is experienced solely through the flesh. The result is a gnawing sense of being unfulfilled. Nouwen says, “Boredom is a sentiment of disconnectedness.” He believes to be bored doesn’t really mean we have nothing to do. On the contrary, we question the value of the things we are so busy doing. He writes, “The great paradox of our time is that many of us are busy and bored at the same time” [italics mine]. The most debilitating expression of our unfulfillment is depression. Perhaps we can call this the spirituality of boredom.

This pervasive depression raises it’s ugly head in thought: “Is my life worth living?”

Boredom, resentment, and depression are sentiments of disconnectedness. There it is, plain as the nose on our faces. Man was created to be in fellowship with God and with each other. When we feel unfulfilled, our life is perceived as nothing more than a series of broken connections. Loneliness is one of the most widespread social diseases of our time. It affects not only retired life (although my father was never bored during his retirement), but also family life, neighborhood life, school life, and business life. Frankly, it is because of this sense of separation that many among us are suffering. This is true because when we feel cut off from the human family, we quickly lose heart.

We cannot, however, think of ourselves as passive participants in life who have no contribution to make. I’ve been there way too many times. Not unlike others, I have a need to feel relevant. Without that, we start to believe our pains are no longer growing pains and our struggles no longer offer the potential of a new or changed life. Our past is pointless, dead to us; our future seems to be leading us nowhere. It simply leaves us worried, preoccupied, and without promise.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

One of the most notable characteristics of worrying is that it fragments our very existence, cutting us off from everyone and everything, troubled by events that may never happen. But in our minds, we’ve come to believe we’re no longer destined for success or happiness. We’ve essentially “gone fleshly,” forgetting how to walk in the Spirit. The minutiae of our daily empirical world takes us in a million directions. We struggle to make sense of it all. Nouwen puts it this way: “…most of us have an address but cannot be found there. We know where we belong, but we keep being pulled away in many directions, as if we were still homeless.”

The proper way to address this inescapable spiritual malaise is through Jesus Christ. He responds to this condition of being filled yet unfufilled, very busy yet disconnected, running and looking, yet never leaving home. He wants to bring us to the place where we belong. But His call to live a spiritual life can only be heard when we are willing to honestly admit our own “homelessness” and fretful existence, and instead recognize that we are all from God, and He loves us much more than we could ever comprehend. He gave His one and only son to die a gruesome, painful death on the cross in order for us to live a life for salvation. A spiritual life. Not a life in the flesh, competing, compiling, coveting, stealing, worrying, or amassing material possessions just so we can “become fulfilled” in the flesh.

Instead of feeding our flesh, essentially our ego, with money and fame and “things,” we need to work at feeding our souls with the Spirit of Christ. When our treasure is with God, we will have no reason to worry—economic recession, falling stock prices, government shutdowns, pollution, extinction of various species, failing health. It would be more productive to realize nothing in this world, indeed in the entire universe, is as God intended. Man’s fall has impacted virtually every realm of physical existence, and it has shut us off from communion with God.

Christ did not die to fuel our material desires. He is not pleased with televangelists who speak only of “having it all,” indicating God seeks to bless us with wealth and success (which He does so long as it doesn’t own us, and we use it to bless others) but forgetting to talk about the wages of sin, the essential need for living in the Spirit denying the lusts of the flesh, and moving toward becoming Christ-like. He died an excruciating death on the cross to provide the means by which we can become redeemed and have the power to crucify the flesh. There is no other way to lead a true spiritual life.

References

Houston, J.M. (2017). Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Nouwen, H. (1985). The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles. New York, NY: Harper One.

 

 

 

“I’ll Quit Tomorrow!”

Hung Over.jpeg

It is mind boggling how alcoholism impacts people from all cultures, races, socioeconomic class, gender, religion, profession, and academic background. Interestingly, all alcoholics are ultimately alike. The disease itself swallows up differences and creates a universal alcoholic profile. The personality changes that go with alcoholism are predictable and virtually inevitable.  Alcohol can precipitate the onset of a disease with a predictable, inexorable course. It can ultimately destroy the physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental life of the sufferer. Alcoholism is typified by a progressive mental “mismanagement” and an increasing emotional distress that can reach suicidal proportions.

Hidden costs of alcoholism are not small. Alcohol-related expenses cost federal, state and local governments $223.5 billion. Of that amount, tax payers are footing the bill for $92.4 billion.

Drinking Was Fun, Once Upon a Time

drinkers

Early drinking is a mood-swinger, typically in a positive direction. It gives the drinker a warm, good feeling, that may lead to giddiness. When the effects wear off, the drinker feels normal. It does not take long to learn how to set the amount and select the mood. As the typical social drinker gets deeper into the booze, getting drunk begins to have a very different effect. Heavy drinking creates a sort of undertow that drags the drinker back beyond normal and into pain. This might be the point where euphoria is reached at a big cost—if it’s achieved at all. Now the booze is consumed in order to feel no pain. In other words, to get back to some degree of normal. This is the beginning of harmful alcohol dependence.

In addition to dependency, this phase also involves a rising emotional cost. We we see a significant and progressive deterioration of the personality of the alcoholic, and (eventually) a visible physical deterioration. Ultimately, the alcoholic’s whole emotional environment is torn to pieces and destroyed. Of course, most active alcoholics are in complete denial of the impending bottom.

There is now a progressive emotional cost for every single drink. The carefree days are gone, but the alcoholic is dimly aware of this fact at best. The rising cost is willingly paid. This is proof that dependency has become truly harmful. Of course, the drinker fails to comprehend the increasingly clear signs of destruction by alcohol. Frankly, at this point the alcoholic is learning to depend more and more on rationalization. Intellect begins to blindly defend against reason—indeed, against intervention. Eventually, the alcoholic will be completely out of touch with emotions. Internal dialog will become the soundtrack of an increasingly impenetrable defense system.

Denial is Not Just a River in Egypt

The tragedy is that rationalization actually works! This form of defense—which I employed constantly during my active addiction—continues to operate as the disease progresses. The alcoholic’s behavior will become increasingly bizarre, and the innate and unconscious ability to rationalize will be practiced to the point of perfection. The drinker finds it increasingly difficult to accept blame. Time passes, and the alcoholic condition worsens. Over a period of months and years the alcoholic’s self-image continues to wane. Ego strength ebbs. Feelings of self-worth sink low, and excessive drinking continues, producing painful and bizarre behavior. Eventually, emotional distress becomes a chronic condition. The drinker feels distress unconsciously even when not drinking.

Unfortunately, rationalization works. The tragedy is that this form of defense will continue to operate as the illness progresses.

Now, “mood swings” or personality changes are evidenced while drinking. The kind person becomes angry or hostile; the happy person becomes sad or morose; the gentle person becomes violent. Alcohol causes one’s guard to drop, and chronic unconscious negative feelings are laid bare. The drinker becomes truly self-destructive. All this drinking and emotional distress may lead to a vague but poignant feeling, I just might have a drinking problem. There is a general malaise so strong felt that desperate measures to escape are actually attempted. Geographical cure, a new job, divorce.

The Pathology of Alcohol Dependence

The final stages of alcoholism are close at hand. Continued excessive drinking and accompanying behavior bring on chronic suicidal feelings. I remember thinking many times, I should just go jump in the Susquehanna River! If the course of the disease is not interrupted, the end of all this is suicide—either slowly by continued drinking or in a direct manner. This is because as emotional distress mounts, and deterioration of the personality accelerates, these negative feelings are not clearly discernible. Quite the opposite is true: They are more effectively hidden.

A pathological use of alcohol can be measured by how the individual answers the following questions:

  • Have you ever drank early or first thing in the morning?
  • Have you ever drank alone?
  • Have you ever drank an entire fifth of alcohol in a day?
  • Have you ever felt remorse after drinking?
  • Is there a growing anticipation of the welcome effects of alcohol?
  • Has the anticipation moved into the realm of preoccupation?
  • Do you hide your booze in unusual places?
  • Are you unable to be honest about how much alcohol you consume?
  • Do you suffer blackouts or experience an inability to remember chunks of time?
  • Are you having difficulty with personal relationships, work, or the law due to drinking?

Counselors gather a history of the behavior patterns by questioning those who spend meaningful or extended time around the alcoholic. Here, the basic goal is to discover whether there has been a changing lifestyle secondary to the use of alcohol, which would indicate a growing dependence.

Drug and alcohol counselors often explore this changing lifestyle by asking probing questions. Has there been a growing tolerance to alcohol? Does it take more booze for the drinker to get the desired effect? Does the alcoholic start drinking in the kitchen before bringing drinks for guests into the living room? (I often drank secretly before drinking in front of guests or family.) To what lengths is the alcoholic willing to go to get the amount of alcohol needed? The degree of ingenuity used to get more booze becomes the scale for determining how far dependency has progressed. All instances of harmful dependency that show up in alcoholic behavior patterns indicate a maladaptation of the lifestyle to (a) growing anticipation of the welcome effects of drinking, (b) an increasingly rigid expected time of use, and (c) a progressive cunning in obtaining larger amounts of alcohol.

Rational defenses and projection take hold. Why is it that the alcoholic cannot see what is happening? Simple. They have lost the ability to see it at all. The reason alcoholics are unable to perceive what is happening to them is actually understandable. As the condition develops, self-image continues to deteriorate. Ego strength grows increasingly weaker. For many reasons, they are progressively unable to keep track of their own behavior and begin to lose contact with their emotions. Their defense systems continue to grow, so that they can survive in the face of their mounting problems. The greater the pain, the higher and more rigid the defenses become—and this whole process is unconscious. Alcoholics do not comprehend what is happening. Quite literally, they are victims of their own stinkin’ thinkin’.

stinkin-thinkin

As the emotional turmoil grows in chemically-dependent people, rational defense activity turns into real mental mismanagement. The drinker erects a wall around him or her. The end result is that the alcoholic is cut off from increasingly negative feelings about themselves. They are unaware of the presence of such destructive emotions.

Not only is the drinker unaware of the powerful, highly developed defense systems, they are also unaware of the intense feelings of self-hate buried inside them. Moreover, the problem is being compounded by the fact that these defenses have now created a mass of free-floating anxiety, guilt, shame and remorse, which becomes chronic. In other words, the alcoholic no longer drinks from a “normal” point, experiencing an upswing in mood to feeling great or euphoric; rather, they must start from where they feel depressed or pained and drink to feel normal again.

Drink Takes a Man

Alcoholics drink because they drink. A Chinese proverb says, “First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man.” The drinking pattern becomes thoroughly unpredictable or compulsive. The alcoholic quits, then resumes, and does not know why he or she is drinking again. And whenever they do start again, the resumption is at the level of chronic emotional deterioration. Conditions worsen with each new episode, trapping the drinker in a deadly downward spiral.

Depression and low self-esteem become so great, the alcoholic begins to employ projection—a defense mechanism in which unwanted feelings are displaced onto another person, where they then appear as a threat from the external world rather than from within. The alcoholic does not know this is happening. The more hateful alcoholics see themselves, the more they will come to find themselves surrounded by hateful people. Depending on the personality of the drinker, such projection can present itself in ways ranging from gentle complaining to outright aggression. It is obvious the easier targets are those people typically spending time with the alcoholic, including the most meaningful. Although alcoholics tend to hate themselves, their projection works so well that they actually believe they are attacking hateful people.

People who live and exist around the active alcoholic have predictable experiences that are also psychologically damaging. As they meet failure after failure, their feelings of fear, shame, frustration, inadequacy, guilt, resentment, self-pity and anger mount. So also do their defense mechanisms. They too use rationalization as a defense against these feelings. The chemically-dependent—and those around them—all have impaired judgment; they differ only in the degree of impairment.

People who are chemically-dependent on alcohol have such a highly-developed defense system that they become seriously self-deluded. The rigid defenses that have risen spontaneously around their negative feelings about themselves, and therefore around their behaviors that caused these feelings, would be quite enough, were they the only deluding factors, to draw these people progressively and thoroughly out of touch with reality. Not only do these defense mechanisms become more rigid, but such individuals develop a growing rigidity in their very lifestyle. They are less able to adapt to unexpected change. They eventually reach a point where even schedules are burdensome. This is primarily because, paradoxically, they are less likely to plan ahead. Or, when they do plan something, they tend to feel trapped as the moment closes in.

To Make Matters Worse

Chemically-dependent people have two factors progressively working together to draw them out of touch with reality: Their defense mechanisms and distortions of memory. Consider euphoric recall, which is the tendency for an alcoholic to remember their drinking escapades euphorically or happily—in only the best light—with gross distortion of the truth. They believe they remember everything in vivid and accurate detail, thinking that all was “just fine.” Of course, this will only serve to bury the drinker’s antisocial or destructive behavior. There is a destructive distortion of perception itself. There is a lack of ability to see and appreciate reality. No recognition or acceptance that they are on a downward spiral, fast approaching rock bottom.

Rock Bottom Became the Foundation

Either of these defense mechanisms seriously impair judgment. The time inevitably comes when it is plain that alcoholics cannot see they are sick. Yet they are acutely ill with a condition that will ultimately lead to death and destruction, and which will seriously impair their constitution emotionally, mentally, and spiritually during the final months of year of their active addiction. Accordingly, treatment for acute alcoholism cannot concern itself merely with putting the drink down. It also has to do with restoration of adequate ego strength to enable the alcoholic once again to cope with life.

The Best Approach

Therapy for acute alcoholics must address the whole person. The alcoholic suffers emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Treatment often involves physicians, psychiatrists, sociologists, psychologists, pathologists, and clergy. If the whole person is not treated simultaneously, relapse is simply… inevitable. If, for example, the emotional disorder alone is addressed, the alcoholic may believe he or she feels “so good” now that they can handle the drink. When treatment is short-sighted or limited, friends and family of the alcoholic may be heard commenting, “He was easier to live with when he was drinking!” This is akin to being a dry drunk. As this “dry” condition worsens, mental gains erode away and the alcoholic inevitably reverts to drinking to feel normal.

A description of despair by Søren Kierkegaard found in his book The Sickness Unto Death. Human despair is found at three distinct levels. First is the despair that expresses itself in sentences such as, “Oh what a miserable wretch I am! Oh, how unbearable it is to be me!” Second is the despair  that expresses itself by crying out, “Oh, if only I were not what I am. If only I could be like that person!” This is deeper despair because it considers self to be so worthless as to want to abandon it completely. But the third, deepest, despair of all is despair that does not believe one is a self at all. In other words, “I used to be… but not I am not.”

Physical complications, mental mismanagement, and emotional disorder are accompanied by a similarly progressive spiritual deterioration. Guilt, shame, and remorse exact their inevitable and immobilizing toll as time goes on. Feelings of self-worth begin to decline. As meaningful relationships wither on the vine, the growing estrangements lead to spiritual collapse. At the end, these feelings produce suicidal moods, ideation, and, unfortunately, suicidal attempt and/or death. If asked, “Can’t you see you’re drinking yourself to death?” the alcoholic replies, “So what? Who cares?”

Concluding Remarks

When asked how alcoholism is treated, people commonly think of either the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or inpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation. There are, however, a variety of treatment modalities currently available. Today’s treatment for alcoholism naturally rests upon decades of research. AA was founded by Bill Wilson (“Bill W.”) and Bob Smith (“Dr. Bob”) in Akron, Ohio in 1935. AA’s program of spiritual and character development is based on the premise that turning one’s life and will over to a “personally meaningful higher power” is the key to recovery. It is, in fact, referred to as the key of willingness. Another central idea is that sobriety or recovery depends on the admission of powerlessness with respect to alcohol or other substances.

Treatment for alcoholism has made significant advances in the last 20 years. Researchers are constantly seeking novel approaches for improving the effectiveness, accessibility, quality, and cost-effectiveness of treatment. Alcoholism is a treatable disease. Regardless of how someone is diagnosed as alcohol-dependent, or how they came to realize they have a drinking problem, the first step to treatment is a sincere desire to get help. Overcoming an alcohol problem is an ongoing process that sadly might involve relapse. Granted, relapse is not a “requirement” for recovery—you don’t have to change your sobriety anniversary!—but it is merely a setback and not an indication that you will fail in your attempt to get sober.

 

Self-Deception

The origins of self-deception run deep within us. As we mature, small lies we tell ourselves about the past build into an impenetrable web of denial and fantasy that conceals our pain. This web has to be unraveled if we are ever to find our way back to the people we were meant to be. We all tell ourselves lies; we all have buried truths. Most of us fear revealing them, even to ourselves. So we leave them buried and do whatever it takes to keep them there. Our lives become more and more inauthentic.

One of the ways we can learn to live the truth is by example. When we hear of someone who has shown the courage to look honestly at the most difficult part of his or her life story we can be inspired to do the same. Empathy is a big part of that inspiration. Listening to someone talk about the toughest parts of their life triggers an internal barometer of truth in us. A part of the soul that resonates only with being genuine. We get courage by observing and listening to stories of courage. That’s a kind of miracle.

Interestingly, human beings have a reflex reaction to psychological pain no different from their reaction to physical pain. We withdraw from it. We try to avoid thinking about not only the painful aspects of our lives today, but those in the past, all the way back to childhood. This should come as no surprise. No one wants to feel bad. So the mind uses numerous “defense mechanisms” to distance us from bitter realities. Chief among these mechanisms is denial, in which we unconsciously ignore distressing facts about ourselves or others. Denial can make us look the other way in the face of evidence that our spouse is unfaithful or our children are using drugs. It can make us unable to hear feedback from friends and loved ones.

The impulse to keep one’s truth — especially one’s pain — secret is the most common, powerful and toxic elements of human nature. But when you are willing to hurt in order to heal, people respond to your bravery and honesty. Your pain becomes your power.  All too often, however, patients (and their doctors) are much too willing to settle for drugs instead of exploring the roots of their problem. In fact, many patients go to the doctor already convinced that they need a pill. For some reason, people today are discouraged from doing the right thing: digging down deep into their life story to learn what they can from every chapter.

Carl Jung has said, “That which we do not bring to consciousness appears in our lives as fate.” We need to stop believing that the examined life is not worth living. We need to stop hiding from ourselves. We cannot outrun the past. It always catches up with us. Digging deeper for the truth starts with identifying what trouble needs healing in your life right now. Then you journey back into your life story to see the early conflicts that set the stage for it. This can only be accomplished by looking directly and deeply into your pain, never away from it. Obviously, living in denial or diminishing your feelings with medication involves looking away from your pain.

The comforting distractions in your life are depriving you of the personal riches that are the proper rewards of genuine self-knowledge. The authenticity that comes with editing out the fiction from your existence will make you a better parent, spouse or friend. It can utterly transform your life. If you’re like most people, the biggest thing that stands between you and your buried past is fear. In other words, living in fear can completely stunt your emotional growth. This is because the emotional defenses we use to obscure our personal truths end up obscuring the miraculous qualities that lie beneath those defenses. Our God-given courage, compassion, devotion, trust and capacity to love.

Our emotional vulnerability is in itself a rare gift. Because without being vulnerable to sadness and disappointment and doubt, we would have no ability to truly experience and fully feel their opposites: joy, celebration and reassurance. Living in truth involves paying attention to our defense mechanisms and the range of our feelings, seeing where we are hiding out and trying to avoid our emotions. It is critical that we recognize where fear stops us from personal growth. Where we are denying how we really feel. Self-deception can keep us from facing the things we need to face in order to change and grow into our true potential. And this is the saddest way there is to live.