I occupy a front row seat right now watching our granddaughter heal from cancer. Harper’s in her sixth month of treatment for leukemia and it’s a grueling contest. A roller coaster, as we often say. While I wish that she could be healed in an instant, it has been and will be a circuitous process. And while I wish her healing always looked like getting better, it doesn’t, and it won’t. It’s going to be an up and down, back and forth, two-and-a-half-year ordeal.
Getting better is a hard-won objective whether we’re healing from cancer or healing from deeply ingrained patterns of personality that keep us from being our best selves, from becoming people who are marked by the Christlike virtues of love, compassion, self-sacrifice, humility, integrity, and truth-telling. Yet this is the point of our human/spiritual journey. And in this case, I also occupy a front row seat.
I have a front row seat in my work as a spiritual director watching many of my directees struggle to overcome nagging, unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving that inhibit their ability to love God and others well. I commiserate with them in their frustration as they seek God for freedom and wrestle with, “Am I getting any better?” “Am I becoming the person God desires me to be?” It’s hard to heal and it takes a lifetime.
I also have a front row seat in my own journey of becoming my better (true) self. It began in earnest in my 40’s when I first read about the concept of the adapted (false) self and became aware of my own inauthentic ways of being. I knew there was something wrong. I knew that I had a divided heart. I knew that I was enslaved by ambition to get the affection and esteem I longed for through people-pleasing and performing.
And to my dismay, I discovered that, like healing cancer, spiritual growth and healing is also a rugged, roller coaster process, and doesn’t always look like getting better.
Thomas Keating described this mystifying conundrum in his thin volume called The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation.
The process of spiritual growth is like a spiral staircase. It goes down, and it also goes up. Every movement toward the humiliation of the false self, if we accept it, is a step toward interior freedom and inner resurrection. This new freedom is not control; it is the freedom not to demand of life whatever we used to feel was essential for our particular idea of happiness.
Humiliation is movement toward interior freedom and inner resurrection, seriously? No wonder so few of us make progress! Yet here it is again—the theme of down-to-go-up, backward-to-go-forward in order to become our better selves! There are two directions that seem important to note in this healing protocol:
1. We have to accept the process of being humbled and brought to an end of our (false) self
2. So that we have the freedom (innate to our true selves) to stop demanding that life makes
and keeps us happy
So if this is the therapy for getting better, who is willing to sign up? My guess is only the desperate.
Wandering in the Dark
I remember such a time in my own life, just after our tenth wedding anniversary, when David and I began to face the demands we were placing on each other to make and keep each other happy. We had habitually missed one another because we were trying so hard to get our needs met by the other. This created quite a wedge in our relationship and led to feeling overwhelmed by anger and resentment, and desperate for God to heal us.
It took a couple years of wandering in the dark, begging God to turn on the light before something started to shift. It’s as though we had no choice but to turn into the darkness together and begin to talk honestly and deeply and sometimes for hours. We hashed and re-hashed what we were feeling, how we felt missed, and what we needed the other to know. These weren’t neat and tidy conversations. They were messy, angry, raw, hard conversations.
Amid our wrestling in the dark, at some unconscious moment, our hearts reconnected and warmed toward one another. We owned our own individual contributions to the breakdown of our relationship. We spoke truth to each other and listened deeply to one another.
As I reflect on this time, it’s clear that getting better didn’t come through some magic answer or solution. It came through a process of humiliation that felt at times like getting worse, going down and backward. I know now that it was the process itself that was the healing therapy.
This experience has underscored for me that not only is getting better a circuitous process, it’s a relational process. It was psychologist Henry Cloud who observed that most of our wounds come through relationships; therefore most of our wounds will be healed in relationship. We need one another to get better. We need one other to help us see ourselves as we truly are and be loved in spite of how we are.
Is it any wonder that we often stall-out in the journey of becoming our best selves—becoming people who are marked by virtues of Christlikeness? Getting better is a painful, demanding, humiliating regimen. And then my thoughts return to Harper, a little nine-year-old girl who did nothing to acquire this disease and doesn’t have a choice in what it will take for her to be healed. Oh, God, may we have the courage and tenacity of this bright, courageous, tenacious child who has said “Yes” to getting better! One grueling day at a time.