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.

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


Bearing Our Burdens

Baptists Today
June 22, 2010

Bearing Our Burdens
Healthy Faith Gives Voice to Pain, Fear and Loss

By Paul Mullen

When Nancy’s husband was diagnosed with leukemia, their lives were devastated. Multiple, accumulating demands spawned a nearly unbearable burden. Her religious faith and upbringing, as important as they were, left her ill prepared to deal with the onslaught.

The emotional pain of seeing her husband suffer was compounded by fears of the unknown. Anger brewed at the threats to their security and the utter lack of control. Untold stress resulted from trying to maintain the household while navigating a complex medical system. Lurking in the sea of sadness was anger at her husband for leaving her to cope alone.

Nancy, an active member in her church, turned to her faith to cope with the assault on her spirit. She and the church prayed fervently for her husband to be healed. When church members visited Nancy and her husband in the hospital, they marveled at how she seemed buoyed by her faith. With a calm demeanor and apparent sense of control, she was the picture of grace under fire.

Nancy’s husband became progressively worse. He was moved to an ICU unit and put on a ventilator. When the physicians said his prognosis was grim, Nancy and her church continued to pray for a miracle. A week later, she was asked to consider removing the life support and allowing him to die. Standing by his bedside, Nancy collapsed in a seizure.

I visited with her several times in her own hospital room. She began to pour out her heart, sharing closely guarded thoughts and feelings. “I’d prayed so hard for my husband to be well, but it seemed like the harder I prayed, the sicker he got. I was confused and afraid.

“I thought I was supposed to be a tower of strength, a witness of faith for my family and church family. I thought if I believed God without doubting, and kept my faith from wavering, that He would answer my prayers. When the church members came by, I knew it made them nervous if I wasn’t doing well. So I pretended that everything was all right.

“But underneath, I sometimes wondered if my prayers were doing any good. I secretly wondered where God was and whether He cared. I felt angry and disappointed with God. Mostly, I felt ashamed for feeling that way. But the harder I tried to push the feelings away, they stronger they got. I think that’s maybe why I had the seizure.”

With spiritual support focused on empathy, honesty and compassion, Nancy gradually felt permission to embrace her authentic feelings. She fully experienced the depth of pain and sorrow. Over time, the intensity of her anticipatory grief subsided. When her husband died a few weeks later, she went through a process of normal, healthy grief. She emerged with a stronger and more resilient faith, with a deeper connection to Christ than she had ever experienced before.

Nancy and her church had done the best they could to cope with the harsh realities of pain, suffering and loss. Like all of us, they just needed some help along the way.

In the face of overwhelming anxiety, our religious coping efforts often take an unconscious turn toward emotional denial, suppression or repression of our honest feelings. What is adaptive in the immediate aftermath of tragedy can become maladaptive if it lingers. What appears to be a healthy faith, holding our fears and pain at bay, can work against us in unhealthy ways – physically, emotionally and spiritually. The anxieties of church members who want to offer support can add to the dilemma.

How people handle emotional pain in the face of the harsh realities of life is central to healthy adaptation. When our faith reinforces denial and suppression, the physical, emotional and spiritual outcomes are usually negative. Prosperity theologies, with an emphasis on positive thinking, can heighten the denial.

Candace Pert, a neuroscientist and expert in mind-body medicine, observed that while positive thinking may be helpful, it becomes harmful when the truth of how you honestly feel is avoided. “Undigested emotions” create stress in the body and increase vulnerability to disease.[i] David Spiegel, a Stanford psychiatrist, wrote, “Adapting well to a situation does not require that a person maintain an upbeat or rigidly positive attitude. Ventilation of negative emotion … helps patients acknowledge, bear, and put into perspective their distress.”[ii]

Lamentations expresses a similar theme from a faith perspective. Israel was torn apart at the seams following the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian exile. The author arranged many of the poetic verses into acrostics, where each line began with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The intent was to express the full range of emotions in the nation’s suffering and grief – from crushed hopes and anguish to renewed faith and hope as Israel remembered God’s mercy and power.

James Hollis wrote, “Life is a series of gains, but it is also a series of losses; failures to grieve loss and disappointment openly, honestly, will rise again, as unbidden ghosts from their untimely burial, through depression … or captivation by the mindless distractions of our time. Failure to incorporate loss into our lives means we have not yet accepted the full package life brings to us. Everything given is also lost… Jung challenges us: ‘Real liberation comes not from glossing over or repressing painful states of feeling, but only from experiencing them to the full.’”[iii]

I remember a mother and father’s great courage in experiencing loss to the fullest when their young child was killed in an accident. Active church members, they had turned to God immediately after the accident in effort to bring order to the chaos. Initially, they were sustained by faith and the support of their church family.

However, within months they came undone in a season of “spiritual disorientation.” They cried out to their pastor, “Why did God let this happen? Why would God want to hurt us like this? Where is God? Does He care? Is He even there? Are we losing our faith?” Walter Brueggemann[iv] and Logan Jones[v] wrote well of the importance of embracing, rather than denying these questions.

The pastor managed his own anxiety well enough to listen without denying the pain of life’s most poignant questions. After a time of silence, he said, “I’m so very sorry…. You’re not losing your faith at all …. Grief has times of peace and tremendous pain on the way to healing – a time when you’ll remember with more joy and less pain. But not right now. God completely, fully understands – like He did with David, Elijah, Jeremiah, and Jesus on the Cross.”

Some time later the parents experienced a “new orientation,” in their spiritual lives, as God began transforming the darkness into hope. They were able to say, “We have a much clearer sense of God’s presence in our lives. Our faith is deeper than before the accident. We’d give anything to have our child back, but with God’s help, we’re making the best of life that we can.”

The package of human experience brings pain, fear and loss to all of us along the way. As we entrust to God our authentic voices, giving expression to the whole range of human emotion, God can transform the ashes of despair into renewed hope. Spiritual wholeness emerges in the context of courageous, honest, healthy faith.


[i] “The Research of Candace Pert, Ph.D. Your Body is your Subconscious Mind. Mind-Body Medicine becomes the Science of Psychoneuroimmunology.” Healing Cancer: the Latest Research in Mind-Body Medicine 14 June 2010 <www.healingcancer.info/ebook/candace-pert>.

[ii] “Healing Words: Emotional Expression and Disease Outcome,” Journal of the American Medical Association 14 April 1999, Vol. 281, No. 14, p.1328 – 1329.

[iii] James Hollis, What Matters Most. New York: Penguin Group, 2009.

[iv] Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984.

[v] Logan Jones, “The Psalms of Lament and the Transformation of Sorrow,” Journal of Pastoral Care Spring-Summer 2007, Vol. 61, Nos. 1-2.

— Rev. Paul Mullen, Ph.D., is director of Church and Community Relations at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, in Winston-Salem, NC.

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