Recently I was standing at a crosswalk waiting for the light to change when a woman and her five- or six-year-old daughter walked up behind me. “Mommy,” the little girl was asking. “Can we get a guinea pig?”
“No, honey,” her mom replied. “We can’t get a guinea pig.”
“Well, because if you’re going to take care of them properly, they’re a lot of work, and we have a lot on our plate right now.”
Her daughter was not deterred. “But can we PLEASE get a guinea pig?”
“Sweetie, I told you: we’re not getting a guinea pig.”
“Oh,” the little girl said with a downcast sigh. Then her eyes lit up with hope. “Well — can we get TWO guinea pigs??”
I laughed, and the mom and I exchanged a smile; but oh, isn’t this a parable for the human condition? We try our best to get what we want from others and from life, and when our attempts are unsuccessful — rather than try something new, we double down!
“We are lived by powers we pretend to understand,” Auden said; there are motivational patterns and behavioral compulsions that are steering the ship of our psyche and keeping us from inner freedom. One doesn’t have to be a Christian to resonate with the words of St. Paul, who describes the human condition from the poignant depths of his own experience: “What I want to do, I cannot do, and I find myself doing the very things I don’t want to do.” It is a struggle, sometimes, for us to be good, for our sincere intentions to be lived out in our deeds. That’s much of what the Enneagram, which you’ve perhaps heard me talk about, is concerned with.
As we begin a new year, many of us will be thinking about resolutions: what would be good for us, can we keep them, can we change? For some, this is an introspective process, particularly if 2022 has brought challenges that we hope to avoid in 2023. The following are some reflections on growth and change.
Change is possible
John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish poet and mystic, once observed:
“One who has lost all is ready to be born into all.”
What does this mean?
It shouldn’t be taken as a glib presumption that loss is trivial. John is not in the mindset, here, of someone who tells a traumatized person to “pull yourself together and socialize for once; don’t spend the holidays moping!,” or of a person who’s just been through a devastating breakup and jumps immediately back onto the dating apps. Grief, naturally, takes time to process.
John’s observation exists on a deeper level. First of all, there is the monumentality of the word “all,” as my work facilitating a monthly grief group reminds me: loss has many dimensions and cannot be fully reckoned with at the moment of impact. Many ripples have yet to reach a newly bereaved person’s shores: the many reminders, the many questions about one’s new identity, the many lonely mealtimes (twenty-one per week, fifty-two weeks per year). It can be hard to know at what point we have truly lost “all.”
Next to this monumentality is the delicacy and interiority, in John’s aphorism, of “readiness”: it’s not that the “all” we’re born into is the same as the “all” we had before, but that we are capable of real growth and change.
I think that John is describing what many addicts experience as “rock bottom”: after losing their grip on sobriety time and time again, to the point that it seems their substance use will be a lifelong curse, there can come a moment that is so shattering that a person recognizes, in the depths of their being, the absolute need to surrender. The person comes face to face with the “hole in the soul” and they realize that happiness won’t come from doubling down on the behaviors that make them unhappy but from facing their innermost wounds.
It’s astounding to see it happen. I’d call it redemption.
I used to volunteer as a chaplain in California state prisons. Describing his own lowest moment and the change that followed, one inmate put it like this:
“There are still moments where I sit in my cell and the loneliness is so crushing that I ache beyond explanation. During those moments, I speak to God from the depth of my heart and soul…
“‘Fifty years to life.’ Saying it saddens me. It’s a reminder of all the anguish I created for so many people. The true miracle that emerged from this reality is the life born into existence despite all the sorrow. Open your heart, and then your mind and eyes will open up to the beautiful gifts that life has to give you. You will possess life.”
Another man in a faith-sharing group in prison told me: “Chaplain, when you leave here, please tell everyone you meet that change is possible. Everyone’s written us off as criminals, but the guys you see here in this group have truly changed. Please don’t forget to tell people.”
I believed him, and I’m often telling that story. Of course, in however attenuated a form, it’s a universal story: we all need to be recognized for the ways we’ve grown and changed through our mistakes.
How does it happen? Change requires dedication and transformative work over time. It must be integrated. More on that in a moment.
And yet I like John’s aphorism because I have known about three moments that divided my life into a “before” and an “after.” It’s always been a culmination of intense struggling or searching that had mixed results up till then but was catalyzed in a moment of transformation. The moment can be one of serene simplicity or of heightened drama, but the message is the same: “You are finally ready. In this very moment, you are being born again into a new way of being. Change is about to get a little easier.”
Spirituality and attachment theory
As someone who works in spirituality, I feel it’s important to pause a moment and consider how spirituality can help or hinder us.
First of all, every spiritual reality has a psychological dimension. For instance, most canonically, Freud observed that some people have mystical experiences that he calls “oceanic.” Yet Freud shunned otherworldly explanations for such moments. They’re just reminders, he said, of an undifferentiated consciousness we had as babies, when the world was one big unified blur and we hadn’t yet developed a sense of you vs. me.
Of course, we can square this with a religious worldview by saying that we come from a divine source, that the world conditions us to the illusion of our separateness, and that the recovered memory of a non-dual consciousness IS, in fact, an experience of the transcendent reality that is our origin and our destiny. But I am inclined to agree with those who would caution us against spiritualizing too quickly.
When we have an oceanic experience of connection, or on the other hand when we have an experience of loneliness or longing, we can certainly pray to God, but there is another story being enacted here too. Attachment theorists have done an admirable job describing the lasting ways that abandonment by caregivers and unmet needs in childhood leave their mark on people’s adult struggles with independence and intimacy. It can all seem so big that many of us will look for a religious language to describe our longing and our needs. As Kierkegaard put it, “If you didn’t exist, God, I would invent you, because I need something majestic to love.” But religious idealization can obfuscate necessary self-work, distracting us from the real root of the problem.
Many key figures have tried to identify the central question in the history of philosophy: for Plato, the great philosophical question was, “What is truth?” For Heidegger, it was, “What is Being?” For his part, the French phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion thinks that it’s this: “Does anyone really love me?”
Yet a corollary to this question is perhaps even more poignant. It is: “Would I recognize what it feels like to be loved, within the limits of human ability, if it happened to me?” Thankfully, some are able to answer this question, “Yes.” For others, it is more difficult. The love we grow up with is always imperfect and for many, it is quite imperfect indeed. This is the root of insecure attachment: the inability to recognize the reliability of love and the seductiveness of love. We may continue to long for it, but if we associate love too much with an ideal — whether that is God, or the perfect person, or what have you — it will always remain out of reach, consigned to the otherworldly.
In my work as a chaplain, I feel this very urge within myself: speak to people of God’s unconditional love! A phrase like the one from Isaiah — “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great tenderness I will take you back” — can feel quite uncomfortable. I can imagine people panicking: “Do you mean to say that God COULD abandon me?” But perhaps it’s necessary for us to hear this sometimes, anyway. Certainly no love that we could express or receive on earth will ever be found in perfection, but in the capacity for return, forgiveness, and repair measured by consistency, respect, and growth.
Working with one’s needs
Relatedly, it’s all the rage right now to talk about needs: Identify your needs, ask for your needs. This is so important for the process of growth and change, but it’s easier said than done, and I feel it can be counterproductive to encourage a language of need without also offering a sense of how to work interpersonally with need’s enormity.
Lately, I’m finding it helpful to conceptualize needs as having two dimensions. One is outward-facing: what can I ask for someone’s help with? One is inward-facing: what is the underlying wound here that I can’t expect an external source to heal for me, but which I must tend to myself?
If we focus too much on the outward-facing dimension, we can make the mistake of assuming that self-love and self-acceptance are something someone else can give us — if we could only find the right partner, the right job, the right guru. Some people can be very demanding where this behavior is concerned, and it may not coincide with being particularly skillful at asking specifically for what it is that they want! Good luck telling someone, “I need to be loved,” or “I need to be understood.” It’s too big a burden and too broad a task. A better approach is to say: “When we talk about these sensitive things, it would really help me feel seen if you could stop what you’re doing, sit down next to me on the couch, and hold my hand.”
If we focus too much on the inward-facing dimension, on the other hand, we risk becoming cynical and disconnected. We might disparage others who haven’t “pulled themselves up by the bootstraps,” as though this were possible when it comes to facing the often unfathomable depths of a person’s wounds. We might write off opportunities for deeper connection or reconciliation. We might lack humility and the ability to reckon with our own mistakes. We might end up like the character in the excellent new movie “Banshees of Inisherin,” who — in order to protect his solitude from someone who’s annoying him — threatens to chop off his own fingers if the guy ever tries to talk to him again. “Men will literally mutilate themselves before they’ll go to therapy,” ran one online commenter’s review of the film.
And sometimes we just lack clarity that all of this is a balance. We think we are clear about a need but we vacillate between trying to address it ourselves and demanding it from other people. Conceptually and experientially, the need gets lost in the middle ground, not specific enough for someone to help us and not integrated enough for us to realize we must help ourselves. It instead becomes a sheerly emotional expression of discontent with a workplace, a relationship, or a community, without any practical sense of how to address the issue spiritually or interpersonally.
It’s a challenge with dangers on both sides. We should surround ourselves with those who can meet our needs, and we shouldn’t give people repeated license to hurt us because we believe we don’t deserve better. We need to have a good radar for toxicity. At the same time, we can’t expect other people not to be works in progress, themselves, and the more volatile our own trauma, the harder it can be to ask for what we need in a way that doesn’t trigger their own feelings of defensiveness or inadequacy, thereby making our fear of abandonment a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Conceptualizing need as two-dimensional may help: We have to commit to inner change, to recovering our self-respect, to offering the self-compassion that will make it safe for us to accept our ugliest flaws and mistakes. God may be involved in this. At the same time, it is impossible to do this alone. We need the milk of human kindness, others who can help us and encourage us and celebrate us and forgive us. If we’re attentive to the two dimensions of our needs, and aware of who is responsible for each dimension in a specific situation, we may find ourselves more mindful, more patient, and ultimately more fulfilled.
Embracing the unnatural
Can the spiritual and psychological dimensions of this human journey be woven together? I agree with Sandra Maitri, who said that spirituality without psychology is too airy and unspecific, not properly attuned to the specific shape of a person’s needs. On the other hand, a psychological approach that doesn’t recognize the presence in us of “essential states” — connections to something that transcends the personality, like love, mercy, or surrender — will not be very helpful in harnessing a person’s capacity for transformation.
We can access essential states through many kinds of spiritual experiences. It could be that a conversation with someone opens up a new way of seeing them or ourselves. It could be that a mountaintop experience in nature or in prayer gives us a feeling of such inspiration that the defense mechanisms we’ve used to ward off life’s sharp edges feel less necessary. It could be that we wake up from a dream or hear a song on the radio that makes us realize we’re capable of forgiving someone we’ve been angry at — or even that we’ve already forgiven them without realizing it.
Spirituality is largely about memory: remembering these points of contact with essential states, hanging on to moments to which we want to be faithful, and resisting the inertia of the ego. (Professional spiritual direction can help us with this task of noticing and remembering.)
But then what happens is that we re-enter our daily lives. Not only does the mundane take over in our external experiences, but we slip into the familiar patterns of our personality structure. Spiritual experiences begin to seem distant or too difficult to live up to in the midst of the grit and grind. We can be tempted to dismiss their importance as an excuse not to do the hard work of growth: “That was an amazing feeling, but we all get a little starry-eyed when everything’s going well. This, on the other hand, is ‘real life.’ Let’s be realistic.”
One of the most important lessons that I think any of us can learn is that living up to our true spiritual potential will feel unnatural when we try to do it in the day-to-day. We need to embrace this unnatural feeling: discomfort is inevitable when we’re discovering new spiritual possibilities beyond the habitual patterning of our ego.
For instance, someone highly driven may know intellectually that she needs to slow down and stop working so hard in order to preserve her health and experience her true feelings; but being emotionally vulnerable or finding her identity outside of work may be so uncomfortable that she may balk, fearing that in the end it won’t be good for her. Or: a person who is highly ambivalent may know intellectually that it’s time to step up and make a commitment, but the experience of commitment can be so unfamiliar that he’ll constantly be asking, “Is this the right opportunity, or is there a better one coming down the lane that will be clearer to me at the time?”
Leaning into discomfort looks different for everyone: Some people need to stop over-analyzing and trust their heart; others listen to the heart’s whims way too much and need to become more rational. Others act too quickly on their gut impulses, and others aren’t in touch with their gut at all.
Whatever the details for us personally, any “unnatural” experimentation with our non-standard centers of wisdom can feel like a betrayal of our “true self,” but it’s really quite the opposite: it’s an expansion of the self beyond the limits that have long constrained us. We are used to making decisions because they “feel” right, but that can just be habituated comfort with chronic patterns that form the core of our spiritual paralysis and suffering. Disidentifying with those patterns will feel uncomfortable and take a lot of effort, and that’s where spiritual attunement to essential states is so important as an act of faith. If we don’t have a spiritual memory that helps us to trust the “unnatural” feeling in the day-to-day, then sooner or later it will take a crisis to force us into recognition of that hole in the soul — and no one wants to go through crisis.
The importance of love
Because human beings are capable of inflicting tremendous pain on one another, our secular and religious ethics have come to highlight a number of important interpersonal qualities, like justice; behaviors, like boundary-setting; and wounds to our personhood, like what is known as soul injury. As far as values go, calls to love and forgiveness can seem quaint at best and enabling at worst.
We must certainly consider mindfully the form that love should take in all of our interactions; yet I think it’s a mistake not to consider it at all. We need to receive love so that we can be kept safe; we also need to give love in order to remain human. The road to change is uneven and often strewn with mistakes; it is important to recognize that even when we fail one of life’s tests, we are capable of passing others, and this often comes through showing compassion to those in need.
“Love is patient, love is kind,” begins the hymn to love that is read at so many weddings. Its author, St. Paul, was the one I mentioned earlier, who described the experience of wanting to do what we can’t and falling into patterns we don’t want to fall into. He knew human frailty well and he knew that in any human community or relationship, only the sort of love he described can help us to survive the risks of conflict and intimacy. The whole human/spiritual journey, perhaps, can be found in that passage.
Love is also at the heart of the “essential states” I’ve been discussing. It does not presuppose or require any kind of theological language or belief, but I have found experientially that love is behind all authentic human growth. Of course, this includes love of oneself. As psychologist Kristen Neff points out, self-compassion doesn’t mean letting ourselves off the hook any more than compassion towards others means making ourselves into doormats. Rather, self-compassion makes it safe enough for us to take responsibility for the things we need to examine in ourselves and change.
For Paul, love is another word for God, and in the original Greek, Paul uses verbs, not adjectives. In other words, the passage is not just a dictionary definition of love; it can be paraphrased into the second person as though God were speaking to us. It goes like this:
I will be patient with you; I will be kind to you. I will not take it personally when you lose your focus on me, and I will not lord it over you when you’re finding your way back. I will never put you to shame. I will not stay mad at you.
I keep no record of your wrongs.
I miss you when you go astray, but I rejoice when we’re back together again.
I will always protect you, always want what’s best for you, always have hopes for you, always be faithful to you.
My love will never fail. The things you think will happen may not happen. All your words will ultimately fall short. Everything that seems so certain to you will change, because everything you think you know is just a little piece of the puzzle. But don’t be afraid, because it’s all leading you gradually to oneness, to union, to the whole. Yes, sometimes you have been childlike in the ways you’ve spoken and thought and behaved, but now you are growing up. It’s like becoming less self-centered and really seeing another person face to face: allowing yourself to really know them, and allowing yourself to be fully known.
In the end, there are three things that will always endure: my faith in you, my hopes for you, and my love for you. But the greatest of these is my love for you.
These, we could say, are the words of a securely attached God, down to the little details that emphasize loyalty over perfection: I will not “stay” mad, and yes, I will be frank when you’ve been childlike, but I’ll still forgive you.
After the mountaintop, though, the integration. After we hear the message, there’s everything that comes next. What needs to shift in each of us so that we can be true to the invitation of love? Is there some part of this description of love that invites us to say it or receive it more deeply in our relationship to ourselves, to others, or to God?
Maybe that’s a way to focus our new year’s resolutions this year.
We are all essentially children, with our fragile longings, and I do truly hope that you all get whatever your one (or two!) guinea pigs may be this year. But regardless, if 2022 brought any of you to your lowest moment, you can remember that
“one who has lost all is ready to be born into all.”
Copyright Nicholas Collura 2023