Take Me to Your River (Lent 2019)

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I am too young (albeit not by much) for a mid-life crisis, but I have been thinking about what could be happening when people experience these. The ephemerality of life comes into focus, yes. Time for the many things we’ve put off seems limited, and we reach for some kind of novelty or succor or immortality. Yes, perhaps.

At the same time….

I have been watching a series of talks by Richard Rohr on the Enneagram. I have long appreciated this model of the human psyche for the complexity of its assessment of the nine basic personality types. We are all human, but there are different ways of being human, and our lost childhood messages, our core desires, our basic fears, all vary. It would be a mistake to communicate the same way with every person. Part of knowing people, of listening to them, means knowing them as individuals; and while it may seem like dividing people into nine “types” puts them into boxes, I think it actually opens us up to the broad spectrum we’d miss in talking about a single, undifferentiated “humanity” or “human nature.” Otherwise put, whatever we think of these personality tests, we put people in boxes all the time, because we so persistently see others through the lens of our own needs and obsessions. The Enneagram helps us to reveal our biases.

There are many versions of this test and its analysis, and I’ve always had my favorites, opting to stay away from those which focus on the “core sin” of each personality type because I much prefer to talk about people’s gifts and goodness than to talk about their sins.

Yet Rohr makes a compelling argument that the Enneagram is designed precisely to confront us with the shape of our own particular shadow side. We all have some essential flaw that we’re likely to avoid thinking about. We may not even admit it exists, because it’s also what drives whatever is most good, impressive, and lovable about us. Our strengths and our wounds are two sides of the same coin, perhaps an early ego fixation around which our personality has developed. A principled person’s strong sense of right and wrong may stem from anger that her young self was never allowed to make mistakes, was never forgiven for being the “bad guy” sometimes. A loving person may discover that his apparent selflessness also functions as a grandiose attempt to immunize himself from criticism so that he can be found totally necessary, so that he’ll never feel unwanted again. As for me, my addiction to meaning-making depends on seeing something tragic or missing from my life, for fear that if I allowed myself “simple” happiness, my complex inner world would never be noticed or loved.

That our personality has an underbelly corresponds to something I have learned in chaplaincy, where one’s outward presentation is often only the tip of a surprising emotional iceberg: the sweetest and most generous people often contain extraordinary depths of wounded rage and resentment, while work with an angry person rarely begins until we have surfaced the profound sadness lying beneath his or her perpetual frustration.

How can we disentangle the wheat in us from the weeds when they have grown together for so long? “Tread softly,” Yeats famously wrote, “because you tread on my dreams.” And so our wounded ego-centrism, already so subtle, survives.

***

Rohr believes there is a moment of truth in which it becomes possible to transcend our ego by becoming aware of how it operates. Our best chance to do so is in our mid-30’s. It doesn’t usually happen earlier because our inner compulsions are enabled precisely by what people most admire us for; before our thirties, we are riding too high on others’ praise to notice the shadow side of our giftedness! It hasn’t stung us yet; we haven’t failed profoundly enough yet. After our thirties, however, the holding pattern progressively solidifies; as Eckhart Tolle says, we become so attached to the pain it causes us that we would rather cling to the familiar unhappiness than leap into the unknown in which we might no longer recognize ourselves or know how else to defend ourselves from the world.

I wonder if this sort of struggle isn’t the inner corollary, or seed, of that outward struggle against time and age that we know of as the midlife crisis. In both cases, we are dealing with a lack of equanimity in the face of our failure to attain our dreams; and the dreary superficiality of a hedonistic or materialistic response (the extramarital affair, the extravagant spending) is no less a dodge than the litigious approach of our generation, in which we try to locate the fault — and, even more absurdly, the solution — anywhere but within ourselves.

This all comes to me now because as I reach my mid-thirties — not without having settled a number of major discernment questions and set up a promising career — I see that behind the coalescence of my healthy personality is a self-sabotaging compulsion that has also grown quite strong. At moments when all I have to do is accept the giftedness of my life, I find a way to focus on the one thing I lack — validation and appreciation of my creativity — and all the old demons return: existential paralysis, anxious attachment to uncertainty, a feeling that I am invisible or unseen, elitism, envy, and isolation from the source of life. It interferes with my happiness and serenity so that I fail to see the divine even where the divine is most obvious, and gracious, and abundant.

***

Friends and I have debated whether change in one’s core is possible for a person. Is it best for us to admit that it’s not, to accept ourselves uncritically, and to focus on arranging our external circumstances to suit us better? Or does resignation or refusal in the face of our imperfections doom us to repeating the same mistakes and the same disappointments in jobs, in relationships, in family conflicts, in the spiritual search?

Of course, it’s a false dichotomy. Not all of our suffering comes from within; so much is inflicted by injustices in interpersonal relationships and in social structures. Yet we can marry the “right” person or get the “dream” job or sue the person who hurt us for a million dollars, and it won’t change the state of our soul; so much in our search for happiness depends on whether our true self manages, over time, to out-strategize our false self. Living out this transformation is what is known to Enneagram theorists as being “redeemed,” and it happens differently for each of the nine types. It’s not easy; it is the task of the whole human heart. We’ve all met people who have undergone astonishing transformations, deeply and permanently and sometimes before our very eyes; we also meet those who reach the end of their lives without ever having been given the invitation, or taken the initiative, to do any kind of meaningful self-work, and the extent to which their demons have mastery over them is heart-rending.

As I reread Paul’s famous “hymn to love” in his letter to the Corinthians, I see now how heartfelt and personal it is. He clearly knows what it is like to be blinded by ego, and knows that the work — and reward — of a successful adulthood is to confront that ego: “When we grow up, we put away childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.”

To be “fully known”: Grace — the encounter with a person or community or divinity who sees us not in our idealized form but in all our hypocrisy, yet loves us anyway — is necessary if we are to feel secure enough to face our ego and trust that we will emerge not in tatters but as more serene and integrated people. If we hide our shadow side from those few people whose love is actually powerful enough to redeem it, then our greatest gifts will remain our most dangerous traps, monuments to what they have ultimately failed to attain for us: “If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal…if I comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge, if I have all faith so as to move mountains, but have not love — then I am nothing. And if I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

***

Recognizing that I must abandon the many accoutrements of my clever ego, I find myself in need of “beginner’s mind,” as the Buddhists say. While nothing is more humiliating than recognizing the phoniness and manipulativeness of one’s outward shows of love, the prospect of surrendering their burden and liberating the truly loving spirit within brings hope for new life: for greater generosity, gratitude, and connection.

(That said, I’m reminded of the scene in Whit Stillman’s film “Metropolitan” where the self-assured Columbia student lectures someone at a party on the process of spiritual maturation. “And you’ve experienced this transformation?” she asks him, wide-eyed. “W-well, no,” he stutters. “But I certainly hope to!”)

As we realize how far we have to go, and to what extent we are our own worst enemy, the temptation to self-loathing is strong. Yet if we insist on naming our worst impulses, it is not to condemn ourselves but precisely to save ourselves from condemnation by distinguishing the goodness of our personality from its distortion. It is elitism, pride, deceitfulness, etc., that we need to resist, not — to enumerate the nine points of the Enneagram — righteousness, selflessness, aspiration, creativity, contemplation, loyalty, exuberance, power, and peace, all of which are faces of God.

How moving it is to recognize that one of these faces is our own.

To the mid-stage of life as I have described it, then, these words of Frank O’Hara might correspond: “Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again.”

***

Next week begins Lent, the penitential season of Christianity. These days, Christian devotions are less meaningful to me than they used to be; but there’s something wonderful in this song by Leon Bridges, whose image of the river brings up deep associations with repentance and rebirth. I’m obsessed with it. I hope you enjoy it, too!

Been traveling these wide roads for so long
My heart’s been far from you
Ten thousand miles gone

Oh, I wanna come near and give you
Every part of me
But there’s blood on my hands
And my lips aren’t clean

In my darkness I remember
Momma’s words reoccur to me:
“Surrender to the good Lord
And He’ll wipe your slate clean”

Take me to your river
I wanna go
Oh, go on
Take me to your river
I wanna know

Tip me in your smooth waters
I go in
As a man with many crimes
Come up for air
As my sins flow down the Jordan

Oh, I wanna come near and give you
Every part of me
But there’s blood on my hands
And my lips aren’t clean

Take me to your river
I wanna go
Go on,
Take me to your river
I wanna know

I wanna go, wanna go, wanna go
I wanna know, wanna know, wanna know
Wanna go, wanna go, wanna go
Wanna know, wanna know, wanna know
Wanna go, wanna go, wanna go
Wanna know, wanna know, wanna know

Take me to your river
I wanna go
Lord, please let me know
Take me to your river
I wanna know….