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.


Anna said...

One of the saying in our mission agency is "Cheer up...your are worse off than you think"....I think of then as I read what you are writing here Paul. I am so grateful for the fact that whenever we are realizing something about ourselves or isnt new to God...HE has known all along and persues and loves us despite those things.

What you said here so transparently I have felt as well and I am so glad that you did pen your thoughts. When will I ever learn that what was done on the cross was enough for me? I dont need doubt...I dont need guilt...


Thinking of you this morning...take care.

THIS PHOTO IS STUNNING. You are an amazing photographer!

Awareness said...

Your thoughts and words are full of stunning gems.......i'm sitting here in tears after reading this Paul.

You have captured "doubt" and transformed it from a nasty little troll to a smiling friend. I'm grateful that you shared both your vulnerabilities and your insights because it feeds me with a new which will come in handy. thank you.

You know that testimonial you mentioned you had written years ago? This seems to me to be the beginning of an updated version?

A gift, you are, you are....... :)

Welcome! said...

i am keeping this post to read again later...thank you

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

hi anna, i like that...cheer up you are worse off than you think....

the photograph is one of my old 35mm stuff that i got put on disk a while back - was taken in Mariposa Grove, California - it was very humbling to be by such giants of creation....

dana you daft thing.....glad it moved you though. I remember it being one of those times when my emotions fell out into words that kind of made sense - maybe i should go back and re-read some other are right, i think it just could be the beginning of my updated version (after all i did say the F word!!!

barbara, again, i am pleased it was helpful - i guess we all hope our ramblings are that (after first saving on therapy)....

Christianne said...

Thank you for writing this, Harbour. I have felt these same things often. I'm in the middle of a series on my blog, in fact, that's working through some of my own demons of the past.

A number of months ago you wrote a post that mentioned Jen Gray and her thoughts on God. I visited her site and have been visiting ever since. Thanks for mentioning her again here. Her photographs and poem-prose writings never fail to move me and evoke recognition.

Suzanna said...

it’s as if my heart is too oversized for my fragile thin skin.

... a kindred statement.

So here's a poem for you about spring that I wrote a few years ago. I edited the pronoun for the Spirit-


The green leaf lies dormant & unseen under gray soil.
Damp bark coats the muscle of the tree’s limb.
Petals and stem are somewhere hidden far from sight.

Nothing smells of moist heat, yellow light or blue sky.
It’s only a dream now
during February’s night.

But we’ll all wait and believe in growing plants
and muggy rain.
It is a creed
Our dogma of professed truth;
The spring buried for a new Day.

And the prayer and tongue and faith that knows
Will be tested in a snow-white light.
How can we trust in green and heat when the world looks like this?
Our own skin can only feel the constriction of dry ice and frost’s bite.

Unlike any religion, there is never a doubt in spring and soft gestures of grass.
A winter’s unbelief in thaw doesn’t disturb our hope.
All of us know and everyone understands

That the same Spirit who proves herself,
Is coming as she always has
In checkered sunlight, muddy ditches
And rhythmed breezes bent with heat
And we will all breath moist growth together.
We all believe.

Jackie said...

I took a jog today passed by doors and city streets, and two men checking the nutrition content of chocolate and white milk. I passed billboards saying "precious" and "tired of the ordinary?" and people sitting and chatting on benches and walking their dogs in the sunshine. I listened to "you've already won me over..." by Alanis Morrisette.

Tired from trekking up a hill, I sat on a bench under the blue sky, overlooking golden fields and it dawned on me: there in front, below and beyond me was a beautiful and surreal orchestration of atoms that for today, for some reason, made extra sense. I hoped it was God. And for a moment, I felt more at peace than I had ever felt when I rested secure.

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

hi christianne
thanks for your encouragement - i guess i grew up being told that doubt and lack of faith was a 'sinful' thing, and for years lived with the guilt that power filled control freaks fill your mind with. Now a little more battle weary and maybe worldly wise i recognise that God's world is a little topsy turvy and that doubt is actually someting that can be very positive.....a conversation i would like to have with Thomas....

.....glad you like and get much from jen's work - for me the rest of us are playing catch up..... will be dropping by to read your musings....


love the poem, thank you thank you - will use it for my meditation this morning.

am particularly struck by this part:
'But we’ll all wait and believe in growing plants
and muggy rain.
It is a creed
Our dogma of professed truth;
The spring buried for a new Day.' is a creed, thank you

'Tired from trekking up a hill, I sat on a bench under the blue sky, overlooking golden fields and it dawned on me: there in front, below and beyond me was a beautiful and surreal orchestration of atoms that for today, for some reason, made extra sense. I hoped it was God. And for a moment, I felt more at peace than I had ever felt when I rested secure.'

this is stunning and beautifully written - so much better than my sure it was her that popped by....

Mr. Althouse said...

Hi Paul,

This is very good. I don't think that anyone has failed to question meanings and purpose and faith at least at some point in their lives. I know for me it is a regular place to dwell - to meditate and try to get the answers to the unanswerable, to forge on ahead not knowing where I am going. In the end, for me, it has to come back to faith. It just has to.


bluemountainmama said...

this beautiful mess, huh? that's how i see myself a lot. very sincere and thoughtful ponderings here......

i, for one, realize how few things are really "black and white" and how little i DO know as i grow older. the pat faith answers don't sustain me anymore. and those pat answers are really a barrier to the kind of relationship God wants with us... in my estimation, anyways.

i think our salvation is something that is constantly being "worked out"..... not a one time event. it's a journey.... one that won't be completed until we meet Jesus. glad to know fellow journeymen and beautiful let-downs along the way. :)

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

hi mike
you are right my friend, from within it all being guided by a hand we cannot hold is what it comes down to

really enjoyed your recent posts

glad to have you back in blog land - you too, i think, are right, our slavation is something that is a process - i think that's why Jesus over 100 times says "follow me" and only twice (in 1 situation) does he say you must be born again - i think the dynamic is very different because we do need to be 'born again' every day....we also though need to 'grow up again', move from milk to meat.....hmmm now there's a tough one

ohchicken said...

i once had a philosophy professor who speculated that nietzche proclaimed "god is dead" in the hope that what he was saying was not true. that he wanted god to be alive. and maybe voicing his doubt would give him back a little hope.

Karen said...

I came to your blog by way of Julie. I am from Guernsey, a born and bred Donkey. I left the Island permanently in 1997 when I moved to Scotland with a Missionary organisation, met a wonderful Kiwi man and moved to Auckland NZ. How do you find things in Guernsey spiritually? I used to see sooo much potential but there could be a real legalism, some heavy stuff going down.

Inheritor of Heaven said...

I just (July 12) posted some notes I took from a sermon I heard called, Dealing With Doubt. One of your readers (thanks Awareness) linked me to this post. It is interesting to see some places where they overlap. I would love to link you also to a sermon I heard regarding Hope but it has not been uploaded yet. I will definitely be reading more of your blog. Thanks.

Inheritor of Heaven said...

Here is the link to the sermon regarding Hope. It is called "The Greatest Hope."