Linking Emotional Health and Spiritual Maturity

For Baptists Today
July 23, 2010

Linking Emotional Health and Spiritual Maturity
By Steve Scoggin

“What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been!”

Thus says Parker Palmer in his book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, which explores the quest we are all on to find our true calling. For twenty-five years, my call as a pastoral counselor has been to be a faithful companion who walks alongside those who have found the courage to search for their “birthright gift of self.” Educated as a theologian and clinician, my ministry has stood at the intersection of emotional pain and spiritual confusion. The interdependent relationship between the emotions and spirit, where improvement in one area informs improvement in the other, is much like the dilemma of the chicken and the egg. Yet, the paradox is that many times, in the midst of our darkest emotional episodes, our spiritual sensitivities pave the way towards wholeness.

Life is an experiment with truth. We begin our lives unable to hide the truth of who we are as children, but over time, we discover ways to cover this truth with protective masks, lies, power, ego, and deception. The voice of our childhood succumbs to the many voices we hear in adulthood, and the noise prompts us to lose touch with our uniqueness. Failure to awaken to this conundrum that the life we are living is not ours but someone else’s can set us forth on a path of imbalance and ultimately pain and despair. We are disabused of our original giftedness in the first half of our lives, and if awakened to our loss, can spend the second half trying to recover and reclaim the gift we once possessed. The way back home is simple but profoundly difficult in a world that is loud and calls us towards activity rather than receptivity. We seek out guidance everywhere from without, and the therapist’s office becomes the modern day confessional. The link that bridges the gulf between our false and our true self resides in the practice and discipline of listening. We listen everywhere for guidance except from within.

In this quest for truth and wholeness is an often ignored dimension we are invited to embrace, which is holding what we dislike and find shameful about ourselves, as well as what we are confident and proud of. The link between mind and soul, emotional health and spiritual maturity, is found only under quiet conditions where the soul can speak its truth. There is a Hasidic tale that reveals, with amazing brevity, both the universal tendency to want to be someone else and the ultimate importance of becoming one’s self: Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”

So, as a pastoral counselor, one way I invite persons to begin to reconnect with their spiritual self is to seek clues in stories from their younger years, when they lived closer to their true self. It is through our stories that we find those “thin narratives” that have shaped who we are and the faces we have tried to put on as our own. We find our calling by claiming our story and becoming the author. By being whom God has created us to be, we dwell in the world as Zusya rather than straining to be Moses.

This quest towards spiritual maturity is arrived at only after a long journey through alien lands. It is most akin to the ancient idea of pilgrimage -“a transformative journey to a sacred center” full of hardships, darkness, and peril. It is a journey where we are invited not to distance ourselves from the shameful, fearful, and embarrassing chapters of our story, but to find the grace to embrace, listen, and learn that these truths are important for our moving forward in reclaiming that which has been lost.

It continues to be my experience that the way to God is not up but down. When the way we have been living becomes closed, I invite people to look down and within before looking up and out. Let me illustrate this by the example of depression. The underground is a potentially life-giving place to which depression takes us; a place where we come to understand that the self is not set apart or special or superior, but is a common mix of good and evil and a place we share in common with others. To embrace this holistic view of life is to accept a more demanding life because once you embrace this you must live your whole life from the mountain to the valley. Life becomes a mysterious soup of joy and sorrow, both of which are critical ingredients for a whole life. Theologically, it is to embrace a cross – a symbol of death and ultimate disconnection with an empty tomb, a symbol of new life and reconnection.

Depression is the ultimate experience in being disconnected. It deprives one of relatedness, which is the lifeline of existence. Like Job’s visitors, we often offer sympathy, explanations, and solutions to the despondent out of our own discomfort and feelings of helplessness. Many times our sincere efforts to help the depressed only compound the weight of their darkness. What we can offer the depressed is not so much our words as our authentic presence. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke says, “Love…consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.” This is the kind of love that does not invade the inward awfulness with false comfort or advice, but simply stands on its boundaries, modeling respect of the other and their journey and the courage to let it be. Rilke describes a love that neither invades nor avoids the soul’s suffering. It is a love in which we represent God’s love to a suffering person – a God who does not fix us, but gives us strength by suffering with us. By standing respectfully and faithfully at the borders of another’s solitude, we may mediate the love of God to a person who needs something deeper than any human being can give.

As I learned from one of my clinical supervisors along the way, Dr. Bill Oglesby, depression is not the enemy trying to crush you, but can be the hand of a friend, pressing you down to the ground on which it is safe to stand. Parker Palmer reminds us of this by commenting on his own depression. He states that sometimes we can live our lives so ungrounded and at such an altitude that it becomes unsafe. The problem with living at such altitudes is that when we slip, as we always do, we have a long way to fall and the landings can literally kill us. The grace of being pressed down to the ground is also simple; when we slip and fall, it is usually not fatal, and we can get up. So, in the case of depression, it can be the hand of a friend pressing us down to the ground on which it is safe to stand – the ground of our truth and nature, with its complex mix of limits and gifts, liabilities and assets, darkness and light.

This delicate interplay between the life of our emotions and our spirit is a relationship where what is underground/unseen informs the shape of what is seen. This “hidden wholeness” that Parker Palmer describes transcends shoring up the emotions to grounding our mind in the vitality of the spirit. This deeper reality was the call I responded to thirty-three years ago as a young seminarian. It was the call to walk alongside those who had lost their way with the hopes of pointing them towards the “truth that can set us free.”

– Steve Scoggin, Psy.D, LPC, is president of CareNet, Inc., a subsidiary of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, in Winston-Salem, NC.


Please site Steve Scoggin, Baptists Today and the Center for Congregational Health if this article is reprinted or quoted.


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