We are just days away from celebrating Christmas followed by the New Year. To say the obvious about how quickly time passes would only be redundant. So let’s talk instead about what we are doing with that precious gift of time. This year my wife and I moved from our family home where we raised our children, shared treasures of memories, and experienced the joy of friendships. It was not an easy move for me as I struggle with transitions of most kind. The professional in me knew it would likely be a challenge, but I underestimated how challenging it would be for me. I spent perhaps too much of my time grieving and bemoaning the change, without being grateful for the new home God had provided to us. The focus of our minds can so greatly affect the condition of our hearts. Transitions of any kind pose a threat to our wellbeing, regardless how necessary, good or planned they might be. We are drawn to the seeming security of the sameness in our lives. My prayer this season is that you and I can find our security in the eternal constancy of our Creator whose love for us is forever before us and we are reminded of that gift of love at this season of expectation, Christmas and newness!
As you think about your own attachments that bring you a sense of security consider this thought from the 4th century Church Father, St. Basil the Great:
“The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry. The cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked. The shoes you allow to rot belong to the barefoot. The money in your vaults belongs to the destitute. You do injustice to every man whom you could help but do not.”
We are well upon a new year and for me it has already been a challenging one. That shouldn’t come as a surprise after these many years, but I find the need to still be reminded of why I do this work and why Family Counseling Associates (FCA) still exists after 23 years.
The word that keeps coming to mind is perspective to describe what we do and why we do it. People come to us in pain normally and they are absorbed with that pain with an emotional and cognitive myopia that does not permit them to see much beyond the present suffering. When we engage with our clients it is an opportunity to enter into their worlds and help them recover a new perspective, one that is filled with hope rather than despair. Few things are more rewarding than being able to bring a fresh light to someone going through a dark night.
We all get bruised by life. No one escapes this world unscathed by the wounds this life inflicts upon us. It matters little whether you are a rule-follower or a rebel. Observing the guidelines and trying to do what is right is always our ethical responsibility, but observe caution if you think that in doing so you will avoid the painful realities that come from living in a fallen world.
Jesus knew this better than any of us. Entering into this world as a helpless infant he sought to bring us home to the Father for eternity. Yet in his sinlessness he still was perhaps the most misunderstood and mistreated among mankind. Despite it all he never let it deter him from his life mission—to bring grace and love to a lost world!
My life mission has been to help the hurting and support the helpers. That’s what we do at FCA, not perfectly and not necessarily any better than others in our field. Thankfully there are countless providers who are doing the same work and doing it well. We are just one of many who attempt to use the discipline of counseling to bring hope to those who hurt and recover a perspective that extends well past any temporary pain.
May the love and grace of God bring hope to your world and may you pass those gifts on to the hurting ones you encounter!
We awoke a few days ago to the news that actor Robin Williams was dead. Within a short time, the news media was reporting his death to have been a suicide. Having confirmed that sad truth, the focus then turned to the depression that oppressed him most of his life. The contrasts of William’s life are not easily missed. His career included some of the most hilarious, slapstick comedy since Charlie Chaplin, but also included dramas of darkness.
We chalk it up to him being a remarkable actor, exceptional at his trade. No question, but perhaps that exceptionality was also an expression of a deep seeded condition that left him vulnerable to the winds of pressure from a demanding world, without a corresponding internal world stable and secure enough to ground him in the wake of it all.
I never met Mr. Williams, but I have had the privilege of sitting with hundreds over the years who have shared his pain. Unless you listened carefully, observed closely and then were given some opportunity to glimpse within by the person, you would not know these lonely sojourners. They are not all actors. Some are teachers, accountants and physicians. Others are business owners, tradesmen, stay at home parents, pastors, priests and police officers. Whatever their profession or lot in life, their lived experience is overshadowed by a dark cloud we call depression.
Thirty years ago, I was on a path to hopefully become a professor of Hebrew and Ancient-Near Eastern Studies in higher education. The direction of my life changed (or perhaps was changed) when I encountered numerous people in pain up close while serving in a pastoral role. I discovered two striking truths at that time that could not be ignored. First, that there were many more people living in pain than what I had ever imagined. Second, that I was not the only one. Three decades later, I go to my office and wait for one of those pained souls to let me in...and it is always a gift I treasure with care and grace.
Sometimes my clients appreciate the experience and share with me how understood they feel in our relationship. A good education is an excellent preparation to enter the field of mental health, whether that be from the formal halls of a credentialed university or the inner chambers of one’s own experience in pain. Did I fail to mention...even psychotherapists can know this dark cloud up close and personal.
If this all sounds too melodramatic and confusing for you, that probably means you do not struggle with the illness of depression. If, however, these words resonate for you, find someone you trust and tell them your story. Take your time and use your best judgment to locate that person who will respond with patient acceptance and you may discover the one gift you have yet to experience fully--hope.
Smile, though your heart is aching
Smile, even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky
you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you
Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness Although a tear may be ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile what’s the use of crying
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you’ll just
(Charlie Chaplin, another depressed comedian)
I always have hope when I see my clients come to therapy in the midst of a crisis. That may sound sadistic, but it is true. A crisis is definitely not the worst thing that can happen. It can be the catalyst for incredible change, because it is the occasion for incredible motivation. The couple who presents in the midst of the tragedy of a spouse’s infidelity is in a crisis. And, for the first time in years, the unfaithful spouse looks into the eyes of the partner whom he/she has offended and wounded so deeply, and sees the one who captured his/her heart so many years earlier. And in that painful moment, motivation returns. Desire surges. Hope is resurrected.
The woman whose despair has plummeted to depths of depression she never thought imaginable, finds herself in a crisis of unfathomable pain. And in that crisis, she comes to the end of herself, the end of hope, the end of meaning. And in that moment, she is most open to encouragement. Not of the “feel better” variety, but the encouragement that speaks to the innermost being and ignites the spark of life within the soul.
The man in the midst of the financial crisis that has all but left him ruined beyond economic description, stripped of his materialistic symbols of success, now looks into the mirror and sees a man whose life has revolved around the temporal and not the eternal, the peripheral and not the substantial. Now, he is ready to invest in the lasting dimensions of life--family, friends, God.
So, if crisis has come into your life or lurks around the corner, do not be frightened. This may be the first signs of change that will bring you into new and unimagined places of joy.
Some days I wake up, look back at the day before, and wonder, “Was that me? Surely not.” Had a date with my wife last night and I was looking forward to it. At some point in our evening, during a pleasant conversation, she said something and it triggered feelings of hurt, guilt and failure for me. Of course, being a trained, educated and licensed therapist, I handled it expertly-I withdrew into irritability, self-pity and self-condemnation. This morning, after a few hours of restlessness and discomforting dreaming, I awakened to a deep sense of conviction, rather than the self-condemning guilt I had felt only hours earlier. That is when I asked the question-“Was that me?”
I recall hearing Rich Mullins (singer, songwriter and college classmate) tell the story of being in a train station in Europe, talking with a close friend about their struggles with sin and temptation, only to have someone from behind tap him on the shoulder and ask, “Are you Rich Mullins?” To which Rich thought, “Well, let’s see, in light of what this guy just heard, am I Rich Mullins. Yes, I guess I am.”
Somehow I doubt that Rich and I are the only ones who have felt that way. Most of my clients have heard me speak of our “Parts,” these sub-personalities, of sort, who have become either pained Exiles or Strategic Protectors for us as we negotiate life with all its pitfalls. Perhaps it can bring some encouragement to you to know that most of us clinicians in the field of mental health have not mastered this internal complexity either. Please keep that to yourself as I wouldn’t want that to get out.
By the way, my first act this morning, after a thorough teeth-brushing, was to text my wife the most difficult words any man can utter, “I am sorry. Please forgive me. I love you.”
“But I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Romans 7:23).