Sunday, July 08, 2007
Psychological self-harm and the internal gift of doubt
I have been busy with lots of things of late - hence not much writing - re-read this piece I penned for GB a while back - thought I would put it out there in blog land.....
I had a conversation with God this morning. It went something like this: “Sat at my desk, very low and slightly confused. What am I about, what am I really doing with my life, and God, what am I trying to say with these tears rolling down my face? I don't know really. Maybe it's just that life is in the end ordinary. Maybe that's your gift?”
Maybe I'm just being selfish. Maybe I'm behaving like a spoiled child who expects and expects and expects. All I know is that I need you, and you can't really be there for me - but I guess you know all about that don't you. That's why I feel as though I'm being selfish. I suppose nothing can come between our hearts and minds except me. I seem to be very good at psychological self-harm right now, tormenting myself with images and circumstances that just aren't there. I give birth to the seeds of insecurity in my head and then, stupid fuck that I am, I water those seeds and allow them to germinate and grow, and before I know it they overcome me and I can't cut the weeds back at all. I suppose it's all about how we lose ourselves.
I guess most of the time I run not from others, but from myself. I know the barriers have to come down, but I just can't seem to be able to do it right now. Through it all though, I love you, your not so good friend, Paul”.
Don’t panic, I’m not on the edge of something silly, merely having a rough morning, a time of insecurity and doubt. Year after year my demons come and pay a visit. Sometimes just for the weekend, other times they really do outstay there welcome. My point? Doubt and the psychological self-harm it can do, but more importantly what we do with that wound. There is a place where missing the point becomes the beginning of the journey into the gift of doubt. There is also a place where we internally self-harm ourselves so much that we self-destruct and become so dysfunctional it’s difficult to regain that which has been taken.
Recently I was sat in an airport lounge drinking a beer (or three) and pondering life. This always happens to me when I travel. I think it’s something about standing on the threshold of the unknown, the threshold of challenge and change. I say this because of late I’ve been feeling like I have been in the middle of a voyage of missing the point.
What? Well, I used to have concrete doctrines on most issues of life, but these days I have more doubt than assurance in my life of ‘missing the point’. Confused? Me too. Sometimes I wish I didn’t feel everything so deeply, wish I could be more content, it’s as if my heart is too oversized for my fragile thin skin.
Sometimes I wish my skin were thicker, that I didn’t feel the pain or yearn for compassion of those, who just like me, are confused about what it means to be a human being. A consequence of this confusion is, quite understandably, doubt. Now, I was raised in a tradition that frowned upon doubt; that saw it as a sign of weak (or lack of) faith. These days though I’m not so easily persuaded. I think we may be underestimating its purpose, and dare I say it, missing its point.
I think doubt is the fire that purifies our faith. Tony Campolo even suggests in his book co-written with Brian Mclaren that ‘doubt burns up the hay, wood, and stubble, leaving behind pure gold’. We all experience our own high and low tides of faith and understanding, our dark night of the soul, but I really think that expressions of doubt (where we are blunt with big honest questions, rather than a blind spiritual dishonesty with pap answers) allow unparalleled spiritual nurture and growth.
Pip Wilson wisely observes that, ‘Being with humans who cannot do anything else other than leak fragility is hard hitting. But it is far less hard work than being with humans who have a front of being 'together' and 'stable' - when really they are hurting just like the rest of us – the wonder’ of vulnerability.’ I think that’s why God likes honest questioning, why we should see doubt ultimately as a gift. After all, we all get lost sometimes.
Of late I have been so tired, exhausted, done in, worn out, basically, I’m pooped. Almost to the point where I don’t know where I’m headed for anymore – life seems to be something passing me by. I can see other lives being lived out, but they almost feel as though they are in some kind of parallel world, that I can see them but can’t reach anyone.
Winter is coming, you can feel it, autumn, it seems, has given up her fight for another year. The things of the earth they make the claim, as Bruce Springsteen suggests, so that the things of heaven may do the same.
‘Life is a funny thing’ my Grandma used to say. Now I understand that only years coupled with (and maybe because of) wisdom can birth and give understanding to such a seemingly glib remark. Yet the cradle to the grave is a peculiar journey, and one of the most difficult qualities to be found is something I call hopeaholism. I’m not even sure it’s a real word, but then if Shakespeare could make words up, why can’t I?
You see, of late one particular question has been biting at my heels. How does one shift cultural conscience to allow in the confusion and at times hopelessness of our world? Well, I have come to think that maybe doubt and hope are inextricably linked, maybe even two sides of the same coin. This is also a theological dimension that lurks deep within our souls, a dimension that surely must be explored if we are to see the other side of that coin. What if it is God behind all these doubts and disillusionments? What if this is God’s peculiar way of revealing mystical truths to his peculiar people? It’s as if God uses our disappointments to actually allow us to glimpse hope and so ultimately lead us all to the point of being hopeaholics.
Maybe the reason is that when we doubt. When we have questions, we are humbled – admittedly perhaps even a little pissed off – but moreover we realise that we are small and the mystery of God is much bigger than our finite minds and weak hearts can comprehend. The flip side to this is that when we are sure of things we stop questioning, and actually if truth be told, we become conceited. In my 35 years on this planet I have met very few people who can dovetail ‘knowing it all’ with humility. Ego’s are swelled when we (think) we know it all. Yet we are usually brought to our knees when we recognise and accept our place in the grand scheme of things.
So maybe when we have the kind of conversations much like the one I had this morning, when we feel so lost that we just can’t go on God just might have the space to whisper into our souls. And maybe that whispering goes something like this prayer of Jen Gray: ‘If I could, I would sneak into your head and sweep out all the crap of your past. I would give your mind a clean room, allowing the company of truth. And the truth is, and always has been; that you are not bad, and that you are not going to hell, and you are enough. You can choose today to beat yourself up or you can choose today to value your being and create some magic. I hope you join me on the magical side.’
God intrigues me. And I wonder if Jesus ever missed the point like I do, I mean, is it a sin to miss the point? Isn’t it part of being human - to get things wrong from time to time - isn’t that how we grow? Winter can seem long, dark and shapeless, but its lack of colour does make spring something so much more indescribable, doesn’t it? As an aside I also wonder if it’s possible that God ever feels lonely...or is that just a human thing?
I do though think about how much I have blamed God for my own poor choices, and I’m sorry about that. Yet I do find it ironic that it has been in those moments when I have known humility most. And here is my real point about missing the point, about doubt and failure – it seems God knows this is the most effective way to transform our character to that of his of her own. (Did you know that in the New Testament Greek - God the Father and God the Son are masculine, but God the Holy Spirit is referred to in the feminine, interesting is it not?)
I talk of missing the point not to criticize, but invite us all to consider ways in which we just might be ‘missing the point’ – to share our journey of rediscovering what it is we’re supposed to be about in following Jesus on this road we call life – and more importantly that we don’t beat ourselves up and psychologically damage our soul because of it. As I finish this column I sense a time of quiet and waiting, the air here in Edinburgh (which is where I was traveling to when I began all this) is cold and tender. So, in the words of artist Michael Leunig, ‘Let it go. Let it out. Let it unravel. Let it free and it can be a path on which to journey’ – the internal gift of doubt.