Therapy as Poetry

Poetry can be a form of therapy. But have you ever thought about how psychotherapy itself is a lot like poetry? Yeah, me neither.

Until the other night in a dream, I was telling a group of other psychotherapists that “Therapy is like poetry?” I sounded as if I knew what I was talking about.

But truthfully, before my dream, I had never considered the analogy.

It’s not so unusual for dreams to reveal knowledge that seems like uncommon wisdom — similar to the kind of wisdom found in poetry. Once I had a dream in which I heard the distinct voice of a German woman, with a thick German accent, telling me, “Whatever you do that is not from a place of authenticity, will incur a debt!” She sounded like she meant business, so when I woke up, I wasted no time calling a woman whom I had been dating for a short time to say what I had been afraid to say before my dream: “I’m sorry, but it’s over.” It was the right decision, though awkward and sad.

Dreams and poetry can do this for us, can’t they? Images and metaphors clarify and penetrate us in a way like no other forms of communication. Images speak to us, disturb or enlighten us, and they can transform us. Through images, we are able to imagine what’s going on with our souls and what our souls actually desire — authenticity, for example, as in the dream of the German woman’s warning.

A long time ago, I was in a marriage that would eventually dissolve, and I had a dream in which a man who was suicidal split himself, right in front of me, into multiple clones of himself. If it had been a poem, it would clearly have been a poem of travesty and despair and deep internal conflict. But, at the time, I didn’t interpret the dream, nor did I present it to my therapist. Only two years after my wife left me, did I dare open my dream journal to review what had been going on inside of me prior to my marriage’s demise. When I finally looked into the frightening image, I saw the self in me I had been afraid to face at the time I had the dream. I saw that my sadness, fear, and anger had escaped my conscious awareness because I did not want to see it. I had been holding onto my marriage too tightly, ignoring problems that were festering underneath what seemed like an otherwise very good relationship.

“Therapy is like poetry,” then, in the sense that therapist and client listen to the spoken images and the unspoken ones. Often, for example, it is the image of the “inner child” who has been forgotten and ignored. He or she will show up in symptoms such as burn-out, or irrational anger or overwhelming anxiety because that part of the self has not been given a voice in the cadence of our lives. Just as poetry can stir up emotions and thoughts we didn’t know we had, so does good psychotherapy make space for spontaneous thoughts and emotions that lead to healing and hope. It’s as if we need to speak out loud in order to know ourselves in the presence of someone who cares to hear our deepest inner rhythms.

I recall these lines from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “The Man Watching”:

How small that is, with which we wrestle,
what wrestles with us, how immense;
were we to let ourselves, the way things do,
be conquered thus by the great storm,—
we would become far-reaching and nameless.


What we triumph over is the Small,
and the success itself makes us petty.
The Eternal and Unexampled
will not be bent by us.


Think of the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when his opponent’s sinews
in that contest stretch like steel,
he feels them under his fingers
as strings making deep melodies.


Whoever was overcome by this Angel
(who so often declined the fight),
he strides erect and justified
and great out of that hard hand
which, as if sculpting,
nestled around him.
Winning does not tempt him.
His growth is: to be deeply defeated
by ever greater things.

Rilke is referencing the story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel of God in the Old Testament; but even if you aren’t familiar with that story, you can probably feel it’s sense in the “sinews” of your body and soul — especially during those times when an illness or a relationship or a loss has wrestled with you all night, or for weeks, or years. Or you’ve wrestled against something, as in my marriage, that you wouldn’t or couldn’t face — until, if you were to move on with energy and desire and hope, you had to come to terms with your own dark Angels.

So if we listen deeply, as in therapy we try to do, we may hear the sounds, the images, the hidden rhythms of our lives seeking to sing songs of our souls. We may have to let go of something precious — like our egos, or a relationship that’s run it’s course, or a dead-end job — but what we find may be far greater than we could have ever imagined.

Becoming Empowered

Recently, I re-read the spiritual classic, Journey to Ixtlan by Carlos Castenada, a book that was wildly popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I didn’t understand it at all in 1984 the first time someone recommended it to me. But having to recover from COVID the last few days, I had plenty of time, and I devoured every word.

Castenada was later suspected of being a fraud, having borrowed from others and fabricating much of what he experienced with Don Juan, his mentor-shaman. But what made his work so relevant was his attention to the human need for myths to live by — at a time, when all myths of the establishment were being called into question and dismantled.

While counseling a young man with whom I had worked for over three years, discussing his thoughts about the kind of man he wanted to be, Journey to Ixtlan spontaneously popped into my mind. It was if I had suddenly time-traveled back to a period in my young adult life when I, too, was struggling to decide what kind of man I wanted to be. I had a shaman of sorts — a Chaplain supervisor — who often helped to put me back together after long days of tending to the sick and the dying. Young men and women need such shamans or mentors to model what a meaningful life as a man or woman looks like. They demonstrate what personal empowerment is and what a difference inner power makes.

Falling apart and putting oneself back together is not an uncommon experience — if you live long enough. Like Castenada following Don Juan into the pitch-dark night, you have no choice but to trust your instincts in the face of the terrors that befall us: broken relationships, lost jobs, depression and anxiety-filled traumas of all sorts and kinds, and near brushes with death. We’re left feeling disoriented and off-balance — not readily aware that these “brick walls” sometimes turn into welcome “detours.” I consider myself fortunate to have had several mentors along the way who had already built up a store of power from their own life experiences. I became an apprentice to how they had learned to manage ordeals of suffering. They spared me the gory details of their own experiences, but in essence, they taught me how to transform my own encounters with sorrow and suffering into personal power.

We pay it forward anytime we lend our emotional support to a young adult who is looking up to us. Our own experiences of transformation help them, not by giving them our power but by showing them how to develop their own internal resources.

A client may say to me in the middle of a counseling session, “I wish this wasn’t so hard!” I feel that, too. But then, reflexively, I think, “If it hadn’t been for the hard things I’ve dealt with, I might not be here, right now, today.” I may recall and even share a funny but poignant scene in the movie, A League of Their Own, when the coach, played by Tom Hanks, yells at his right fielder for dropping a fly ball. Right there on the baseball field, in front of all to see and hear, she melts in tears, crying out at her coach, “It’s too hard!” To which Tom Hanks replies, “Hard? Hard? It’s the ‘hard’ that makes baseball great!”

The most important, if not all, lessons that I’ve learned in life have come by using the storm force winds of life to steer me along the edges of apparent or real defeat towards some new perspective or some new awareness that I may have, otherwise, missed completely. The guiding stars of my life have only been noticed by embracing the darkest of times.

So when my clients sometimes comment that they wish they didn’t have it so hard, I’ve been known to quip, “Is it really harder to face this and challenge yourself than it is to continue doing what you’re doing? It may take as much energy to change as it does to maintain the status quo – but the payoff is a heck of a lot better.” It would not surprise me at all if, in response, I was told “Go to Hell!” But so far, that has never happened.

Our best friends, by far, are those who can tell us the truth in the face of our ordeals, while being kind about it, too. Personal power comes from these moments of truth that are like seeds that take time to germinate and grow. Later, we may laugh together when they tell us, “I’ll never forget the time when you told me…, fill in the blank.” What was hard to hear at the time became a lesson never forgotten, because it was exactly what we needed in order to move forward, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Light found in the midst of darkness becomes truth that empowers us to live fearlessly and with joy.

You can make an entire life worth living by mining the treasures buried in sorrows, frustration, and defeat. It probably won’t be easy, but each time we face our ordeals with the right kind of support and with courage, we experience a new burst of power, while becoming stronger, wiser, and more deeply in love with the mystery we call life.

Guardian Angels

Do you have a guardian angel? I do. And I don’t even believe in them.

I know there are many people who place their faith in angels, but I am not one of them. Once, I was leading a small group adult Bible study, and the lesson was on angels. When I asked the class how many people in the class believed in angels, I was stunned when more than half of the participants raised their hands. They should have been teaching me.

The fact is, though,I do have a guardian angel, albeit a Flat Tire one.

In the past 25 years, whenever I have had a flat tire, within 5 minutes, some total stranger shows up to help me out. One time, I was in a rush to pedal home after a 30 mile bicycle ride, and it started to rain as I was just a mile or so from reaching home. “Whoosh” went the front tire. I was stranded, and I was frustrated to the point of nearly losing my religion. But within a few minutes, a fellow cyclist stopped and literally changed the tire for me. I made it home in time for the meeting I had been afraid I’d miss.

That’s just one experience. I could tell you many more.

Except this last time. My guardian angel was nowhere to be found. My friend and I were returning from an evening Charlotte Knights baseball game and while driving through a pretty sketchy part of Charlotte on the way home, I felt one of the wheels grinding on the roadway. So, I pulled into the nearest gas station — fortunately only a few hundred yards away from where I’d had the flat.

It happened to be one of those evenings during the gas crisis when people were running out of fuel while waiting in line at the pump. All of AAA’s roadside service vehicles were delivering gas to stranded motorists. No one was available for flat tires. But Geico, my insurance carrier, said they could send someone — it would just be an hour before they could get to me. Great! It was already past 10 p.m. No angel to be found.

Within 20 minutes, however, a truck’s lights emerged from the dark night and pulled in beside of me. The very kind driver quickly assessed the situation and changed the tire as easy as that. “Where,” I wondered though, “was my Flat Tire Angel?” I felt let down, like maybe I had been punished for some sin for which I had not paid my dues. My track record of being helped within 5 minutes had been shattered.

Then, as I was about to get back in my car to continue our journey home, I looked at the side door of the truck that had come to my rescue. The sign read, “Guardian Angel Towing Service.” I swear on the Bible this is true!

When I do a google search, the closest towing service called “Guardian Angel” is in Baltimore, Maryland. There is NO “Guardian Angel Towing Service” in Charlotte, North Carolina nor anywhere else nearby.

I have a witness! I didn’t just imagine any of this.

If you have a guardian angel, would you share your story with me, and tell me what it means. Because the best I can figure is that “someone” is definitely looking out for me, and maybe the Flat Tire Angel is just God enjoying the experience of letting me know that I’m being looked out for in lots of other ways that I fail to notice.

So that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Whether I believe in angels or not.

Endings

“My life is over. I’ll never feel the way I felt when I was with…” Fill in the blank. A relationship with a man or a woman who fulfilled you for a time — briefly or extended, has come to it’s end. To heal a marriage from the destruction of secrets and betrayal, doors must be closed — for good.

These endings happen, more often, it seems than is publicly acknowledged.

I once attended a play at a community theatre in a small town that is the county seat of one of the most conservative sections of North Carolina. The title of the play has vacated my memory, but I well recall the two people who occupied the stage — a man sitting at a small desk on one side and a woman at her own desk on the other. They had met for one glorious date when they were young adults. But they never met again, for whatever reason — life. And yet, they maintained a correspondence through love letters for the rest of their lives into old age. That one date was the experience of their young lifetimes, an experience never forgotten, unrepeatable, and transformative. Despite marriages to others, they kept their secrets of fulfillment to themselves. The audience stood in rapturous applause at the curtain call, and I wondered: “What deep, enduring chord did this love story touch in such a conservative audience?”

Of course, the answer is obvious. Unrequited love is more the norm than the exception. The one who got away, the woman or man about whom we wonder, “What if?”

A photo of the one who escaped from me sat in the bottom of a metal file box I used to keep, along with other mementos, ribbons, and rewards from my past. Her 7th grade school picture displaying her pretty face and blonde hair and blue eyes, and a smile that filled a universe. Her image, slightly tattered through the years, traveled with me from place to place each time I moved, well into my 40’s. Then one day, I decided that I was being silly and immature — it was time to say goodbye. So, into the trash can she went.

But she never left me.

A phone call from time to time, whenever I visited the city where she lived, would reawaken the longing and the wondering. Once, we even met for a glorious afternoon walk at a nearby park, deciding afterwards that it might be best to forego such meetings that could result in the disruption of our lives and relationships. But still, once or twice a year, she visits me in my dreams, and I can’t wait to talk to my therapist. “WTF? Why can’t I get her out of my head?”

It’s not me, I’ve learned, that won’t forget. It’s my heart. It’s my soul.

At the end of the movie, “Shakespeare in Love,” there is scene where a broken-hearted Shakespeare says to his beloved Rosalind that his life is now over. Sadly, Rosalind is betrothed to royalty and will leave England the next morning for a new life in colonial America. That Shakespeare is bereft is an understatement — their mutual loss is deep and palpable. Yet Rosalind is prophetic. She tells Shakespeare that his life is far from over, delivering to him the plot for his next play and the next chapter of his incredibly creative and artistically prolific life — a legacy and labor of love for the world and for the ages. A woman who he would have preferred to marry, became his Muse.

When my lost love visits me in my dreams, I feel alive and excited. My heart is full to overflowing and I don’t want the dream to end. But like Rosalind, my lost love sends me back to the daytime universe to search for that aliveness and exuberance in my relationships, my work, my creative outlets, and in the world. Sometimes, successfully….Sometimes, not so much. Not necessarily a destination, but a journey worth pursuing.

Prescription for Despondency

The dictionary definition of “despondent” is this: feeling or showing extreme discouragement, dejection, or depression. Synonyms for despondent might be these: disheartened, forlorn, or hopeless.

We’ve all been there, from time to time. To start with, there’s COVID, then Vladamir Putin and the Ukraine, the stock market doldrums, children and teachers murdered in Buffalo and in Uvalde, conspiracy theories, and Roe vs Wade. I’ve noticed lately that I’ve felt despondent way more often. And I don’t like it one bit.

On top of it all, I’m 69 and my body is not what it used to be. I’ve become part of the club of arthritis sufferers who I’ve heard talk about how they have their good days and their bad days — inflammation and stiffness of joints that fluctuates with no rhyme or reason, or with the weather. Whatever! I do strength training, stretching, watch what I eat, and get plenty of sleep. But I’ve noticed that, when I’m near a crowd of people, the ones my eyes follow the most are the ones in wheelchairs. I wonder, “Will that be me someday?” I hope not, and I’m banking on knee replacement surgery to stem this tide of aging body parts. But who knows. So, I refuse to give up my bourbon. If one must go through this stuff, there still needs to be joy.

When you do a Google search on “despondency,” you get quotes like this one: “The greatest pride, or the greatest despondency, is the greatest ignorance of one’s self.” I don’t find this helpful. I’m already at odds with myself for being despondent. What am I supposed to do?

I’m nine years older than my wife, a very attractive, youthful, active, and fit person. As I have slowed down in my level of activity, I’ve noticed fragments of shame and guilt creeping into our relationship. I feel like I’m fighting off the gravitational pull towards becoming a grumpy, old man. When she invites me to go for a walk, instead of answering with an enthusiastic “Sure,” like I used to do, I experience a surge of anger at myself because I’d rather read a book or watch NBA basketball than drag my stiff joints through the neighborhood for a mile or so.

The other day I decided it was past time for me to lean into my shame. “Honey, I’ve got something to say,”

“What’s that?”

“I want you to know that just because I can’t keep up with you like I used to, it doesn’t mean I don’t love you like I used to. I’ve been feeling despondent about how I’m slowing down — not to mention all that’s going on in the world.”

“That’s ok. You don’t have to worry about that. I love you as much as ever.”

And then the best part of all. She came over, put her arms around me, and hugged me for longer than we usually hug. It was what I needed.

Interestingly, the next two days, the despondency disappeared. I’m sure it will come back, from time to time. But I had found something better than any drug or even knee replacement: self-acceptance, vulnerability, understanding, and compassion.

If you’ve been experiencing despondency, I recommend what I discovered in the refuge of my marriage. Maybe you will find it there, or with friends, a therapist, or your church. I hope so. But definitely skip the quotes on despondency. You can have your down times, and still cherish the beauty, joy, and wonders of being alive.

Modern Day Icarus: Flying Too High

Wishing one could fly must be a fantasy for every child — I don’t know. Maybe only for boys. My fantasy was to be like Superman. My mother safety-pinned a towel around my neck, and off I would fly around the house, faster than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings with ease. Of course, by suppertime, I had to wash my hands, sit down at the family table, and return to my Clark Kent life.

The Greeks told stories about this kind of fantasy, only the stories were meant for adults. The myth of Icarus was about a young man who was given wings made of wax and feathers. Icarus was warned that he could fly at will and as far and as high as he wished, but to be careful not to go too close to the sun, else his wings would melt. This is akin to placing a child in the middle of a chocolate factory and telling the child not to eat too much. Good luck!

We have modern day stories of Icarus: men and women who fly too close to the sun, crashing and burning for all to see. They’re like modern day morality plays, reminders of what happens when we get carried away with ambition, or swallowed up by sexual desire, or lost in our greed or our grasping for power, success…, you name it. We’ve seen it all. And sometimes, we’ve even been there ourselves. We know what it’s like to have to rebuild our lives from the carnage and wreckage we’ve incurred. Friends of mine in recovery programs tell me that the day they hit bottom was the worst day of their lives,…and the best. The beginning of sobriety and the birth of hope.

The most common form of the myth of Icarus I see in my private practice are those corporate employees who have been given the golden handcuffs: outsized salaries with bonuses and perks, paired with otherworldly expectations that amount to three words….Produce. Produce. Produce!

When human beings imagine themselves to be human doings, Icarus is being constellated in those persons’ souls. A slim portion of employees on the bell-curve of success — the ultra Type A’s of the world — can actually do this, apparently, without much damage. The rest of us on the upslope and downslope of the curve have to really struggle to keep up the pace, and the price is usually high: broken relationships, families that are starved for the heartfelt presence of an absent parent, all forms of addiction and depression and anxiety-disorders, and any number of demons related to threats to one’s physical and spiritual health. Our inner lives, home to the values inherent in being a human being, becomes relatively forgotten or rationalized in comparison with our outer concerns and values related to treating ourselves as if we are robots or machines.

Carl Jung, the famous psychologist who wrote MAN’S SEARCH FOR A SOUL, wrote that “…when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.” We see this most glaringly, not just in individual lives, but in the larger culture as well. When there are more guns in America than people, for instance, Icarus has flown too high, with disasters happening with tragic regularity. When corporate and individual profit is more precious than care for the earth, Icarus is close to a having a meltdown. We, as a nation, seal our fate, when we ignore the values of protecting our children above all, and when we create economic and environmental debts that generations to come will most certainly have to pay, and painfully so.

It’s not all so dire as it might seem, though. The Greeks told stories like the myth of Icarus for a reason: to remind us of who we are and what we are capable of creating, with enough awareness and courage. It takes heroic courage to make one’s family a priority over productivity and profit. It takes heroic courage, to strive for balance in one’s life, vocationally and spiritually. It take heroic, Icarus-like courage, to use God’s gifts for improving the world, rather than just dominating it or selling our souls for the sake of political and economic power. Falling to earth doesn’t have to be the last word. It can be the beginning of reclaiming our souls and the soulfulness of the world.

Affairs: Cancer or Cure

The couple sitting in front of me in my counseling office looks nervous and concerned, almost frightened. It’s as if their marriage has been threatened by a kind of cancer and they already know that the outcome is going to be disaster or a very painful process of recovery unlike anything they ever imagined. I know and they know this won’t be easy. We have a lot of work to do, and we need to get going. The sooner the better.

I have been doing this kind of work for over 30 years. The couples who have experienced infidelity surprise me. The ones I think will be able to heal and rebuild trust often fail. The ones who succeed defy my expectations. Those ones are often the “worst case” scenarios — multiple affairs over many years with secrets on top of secrets, and betrayal on top of betrayal. Yet, these couples are the ones that have taught me the most about what it takes to heal from the damage caused by infidelity.

The question I hold, privately at first, is this: “What was the soul of the one who had the affair looking for?” And “What was it in the soul of the marriage itself that was missing?”

So often in our culture, marriages begin with lots of soulfulness, magic, mystery, inspiration, and of course romance. But the demands of jobs and careers, raising children, maintaining homes and loyalties to extended family and friends take precedence over the deeper needs of one’s soul. What began with spontaneity and lots of heartfelt desire devolves into a relationship that is functional and conventional — mystery, novelty, and romance have left the scene.

Looking for and finding answers takes time. In therapy, hurt and anger are center stage initially. Truth-telling, too. The whole truth. Though, there’s only so much truth a wounded partner can take, and it has to be administered in doses, like chemotherapy, so as to not kill whatever slim rays of hope there may be of rebuilding trust and desire. The one who betrayed may promise that it won’t happen again. But of course, it will, unless the soul somehow gets a voice.

What couples have taught me is that an affair is, almost always, an unconscious agreement on the part of two people to bring a third party into the marriage in order to address a problem or problems they have been unable to resolve on their own. The marriage has become centered around the children, with no time to nurture the relationship that brought those children into the world. Or work at the office and at home has consumed all hours in a day except what’s left for sleep. There’s no time for nurturing the self. The couple has forgotten that playfulness and freedom fed the soul of the relationship in the beginning, and the marriage has gotten lost in a life of obedience to multiple commitments, paying the bills, and keeping a constantly busy schedule. You get the idea. It’s a familiar story. Often, it’s the price of success — success narrowly defined, that is.

And yet, most textbooks treat infidelity as if it was a cancer to be removed or destroyed; and then, all will be restored to the way things were before the betrayal ever happened. The story of how the couple unconsciously created the affair can get lost and forgotten. The symptom has been cured, but the seedbed for the next potential betrayal simply lies dormant, undiscovered, and unhealed. I tell a couple in the first session the most important sign of healing is someday, if they’ve done their work well, a total stranger could ask each of them separately, “what happened,” and the story each of them told would sound basically the same: stories of what their souls had lost and what their souls had found.

I receive postcards and notes occasionally from the couples who have been willing to go deeper together. They are smiling and happy, usually in some scene on a lake or in the mountains, or at the beach. I know the courage it took to reinvent themselves and recreate a marriage with legs for the long run. They didn’t just get rid of the problem. They used the problem to discover paths of soulfulness and hope. Marriage 1.0 was exchanged for a completely revamped Marriage 2.0: marriages with plenty of responsibilities, but also marriages filled with heartfelt honesty, emotional vulnerability, playfulness, and dreaming together about lives of meaning, honesty, and renewed desire. Every marriage has it’s set of problems, even the happiest ones. What makes the problems worthwhile is a couple’s willingness to stay conscious of their authentic needs and working towards their dreams together.

A HERO’S LAST STAND

This is a scene from my memoir, Three Marriages and a Minister. It’s a story about how a man who is both an ordained minister and an experienced psychotherapist has gone through three marriages and three divorces, and wonders “What is wrong with this picture, and what is wrong with me?” His story is one of confusion, humiliation, discovery, healing, and transformation, as he attempts to put what he has learned to use as he prepares for yet a fourth marriage.

* * * * * * *  

“I had an image that frightened me the other day, Louis. It was shocking. I was sitting on my couch with my laptop computer, waiting for my next client to log on for a Zoom session. My camera was on, so I could see myself on the screen. The left side of my throat looked swollen. When I reached up and touched it, it felt larger, too, and it was tender.”

My friend, Louis, and I were sitting on the front porch of his brick cottage at Aldersgate Retirement Community where he had lived alone since his wife Jodie’s death just a few months before. Jodie had lived with Alzheimer’s for several years, until she finally succumbed to a malnourished body and the damage inflicted by several falls. This was the first meal that Louis and I had shared since the COVID-19 virus had shut down the entire facility to visitors a year ago. We were celebrating our reunion by feasting on hamburgers and pimento Mac-and-Cheese from Jack Beagles, a local eatery in NoDa near my home. Sitting socially distanced in the warm, late afternoon ambiance, we had caught up with each other on most of the particulars of what was going on in each other’s lives, and now we were moving on to weightier matters, as was our standard cadence.     

            I continued. “The next thing I knew, out of nowhere, came the thought: ‘What if I have cancer? That would give me an excuse to slow down and put off selling my house and delay my marriage to Elaine?’”

            “That’s horrible,” Louis said with a grimace.

            “I know, but isn’t that how some people get cancer? An unspoken or unconscious wish that can’t otherwise be expressed? The cancer becomes an answer to that wish?”

            “I suppose so,” Louis just nodded thoughtfully.

            “It reminds me of my father. He was diagnosed with lung cancer within a month after retiring. He was a lifetime smoker up until a week before he died. After all of those years of being a surgeon, it must have killed him to have nothing to look forward to every day – just golf and martinis. His marriage to my mother was mediocre. The timing of it all was too coincidental.”

            Louis listened as he finished off his cheeseburger, the wheels in his head turning. At 83, he had had his own health scares, like the time he had gone in for a stress test, and ten hours later found himself on the operating room table getting prepped to receive three stints in his heart.

            “I can’t keep doing this Louis. It’s killing me. Back in May, I felt like my life was in balance. But now, my caseload’s picked up. I’m writing a memoir, and Elaine and I are getting our houses ready to place on the market so that we can sell them before the end of the year. I had no idea how stressful it would be. The pre-listing inspection for my house came back with about a hundred repairs that need to be fixed and paid for. I haven’t slept well all week.”

            There was a long pause as the last few minutes of sunlight faded into dusk. All was quiet, except for my Cocker Spaniel, Theo, padding back and forth hoping for something to fall from our plates.

            “Well, this is very interesting to hear you say these things now,” Louis said. “I know you haven’t believed me, John, when I’ve told you that I can tell that my cognitive abilities have slowed way down. You’ve said that you haven’t noticed, but I have, and for some time. I’ll be reaching for a thought, and it’s just not there.” Louis moved his head up and down for emphasis. The pain was written on his face. But he was right – I hadn’t noticed. To me, Louis’s ability to think deeply and broadly about political, social, psychological, and theological issues was as keen as ever. And I relied on his superb intellect to help me make sense of difficult clinical conundrums. The thought of life without Louis’s friendship and particularly life without Louis’s mind was dreadful. Our visits over the years had been like a compass to me, more often than I can count, helping me to adjust direction or fine-tune treatment plans – or steering me clear of vocational or personal boulders, the size of two-story houses, into which I was headed for a crash. Louis had become an essential part of my life; and, in my way of thinking, irreplaceable.

            “I’m starting to understand, Louis. But it’s only this very moment as we’re talking that I can hear what you’re saying. I haven’t wanted to admit how much I’m slowing down. I’ve started taking two naps a day since the COVID hit. I cherish those twenty minutes of peace and quiet and rest.”

            “I’ve been amazed at how much you’re able to take on: your travels with Elaine, dance lessons, your Airbnb’s, your counseling and your teaching and your bicycling – and now your writing. I don’t know how you’ve been doing it.”

            “I’ve just always thought I was like Clark Kent. When necessary, I could throw on my Superman cape and overcome whatever: a problem at work, a conflict in my marriage, a hip or knee replacement – neck surgery. I’ve always been a fixer, a problem solver. I’ve tackled challenges a lot of people never would have tried. I always feel like there’s a way to do it. But not anymore. I don’t want to. It’s like I reach for my cape, and it’s not even there. That image of cancer frightens me. But I know I have to listen to it. I have to slow down. I have to say goodbye to the Hero.”

            In Jungian psychology, The Hero is an archetype – a form of masculine energy that is universally experienced in every culture known to humanity, and throughout history. Women can live heroically as well; but the archetype of the Hero is an innate form of psychic intelligence that informs how we live. It’s the stuff of the Knights of the Round Table, Lord of the Rings, John Wayne films, Indiana Jones, and 007. The Hero’s Journey is a mythic tale from ancient times that describes clearly how men are to relate to themselves and to others and to the world. In my own life’s journey, The Hero has enabled me to accomplish much – a career in which I served five different churches and built three counseling centers from scratch, completed three graduate degrees, fathered two children, survived three marriages, and juggled innumerable unforeseen disappointments and challenges. In a man’s sixties, however, the Hero must step aside to make way for a different, emerging form of psychic intelligence – the Elder – to stay whole and healthy. At sixty-seven, holding on to the Hero way-too-tightly, it was high time for me to put down the battle gear. My body, my soul, and my bicycle were all slowing down as if a wounded soldier, against his commander’s orders, was waving an invisible white flag – not a sign of failure or defeat, but certainly it was time for a truce and a new plan.

            “I’m enjoying my solitude more and more, Louis.” I reflected.

            Louis burst into laughter. “Oh, I’d trade places with you any day! My life is nothing but solitude. I’ve been quarantined for a year now – it’s like a prison.” Absent his beloved Jodie, I had heard Louis often on this topic. He would fall into a monologue vividly painting for me the perils of loneliness – his only company an aging cat named Sallie, Netflix, and MSNBC. I felt guilty for wanting the solitude that, for Louis, was a torment; but that didn’t slow me down.

“I understand. I just never knew how good it can feel to live alone and to enjoy my freedom. With Elaine’s energy and enthusiasm and my introversion, how will we ever blend our lives? I can’t keep up? Do I even want to?”

            “You sound like you’re at a crossroads, John. Are you?”

            I paused to let Louis’s question sink in.

            “I think so.”

            Those short, three words felt like air bubbles coming up from below the surface of a deep pool in an ancient cavern; or like a mountain spring that had been plugged up for decades, finally finding the tiniest of openings and bursting out from the pressure. The words came to the surface and out of my mouth and into the silence. I didn’t want to say them, nor did I want to hear them. But it was as if it wasn’t me speaking at all – someone else, a thousand years old, was saying them for me. If it had been up to me, my mouth would have stayed shut. But to Louis and to whoever created the Truth, the words came out…. “I think so.”

            In those moments of quietness, except for a few cicadas screaming loudly against the darkness, I noticed that the Hero had left without saying goodbye. He had simply vanished. After governing my every waking moment for sixty-seven years, he was gone – and I didn’t miss him. A curious sense of peace had taken the place of my fear. Would the Hero come back? I hoped he wouldn’t.

            “I want to marry Elaine, but I don’t want to keep up this pace. I want to slow down, and that’s new. I never saw it coming. I’ve been fighting it: working out every chance I get, trying to eat right, keeping a full caseload. But I know that selling a house and buying a new one and getting married are three of the top five stressors on the Stress Inventory. My score is probably already in the red-zone. You’re vulnerable to getting sick when that happens. I don’t want that.”

            “What will Elaine say if you tell her you want to slow down?” I had been wondering the same thing ever since my text message earlier that afternoon. 

Just then, a notification flashed on my Apple Watch from one of my Airbnb guests. I had left my iPhone in the car, so I went to check it. I opened the car door, grabbed my iPhone, and instantly saw that I had missed a text from Elaine. The message that I had sent to her before picking up supper had simply said, “I can’t sustain this pace. I can’t be good for you or for anyone else with this much stress. I’ll need more time to get my house ready for sale.” I had worried that Elaine would overreact and think that I was calling off our plans to marry – it wouldn’t have been the first time I had inflicted my doubts on her. Or would she freak out herself and call the whole thing off? How much of my flip-flopping could she stand?

But Elaine wasn’t mad at me. Her message was calm and reassuring. She acknowledged how much pressure I had been under, and that was all I needed. It was more than enough. Hope rose within me as I digested the written words on the screen. Maybe we could, indeed, create the kind of lasting, soul-filled alliance that would last us through this last chapter of our lives. I had fought off the death of the Hero with the force of willfulness and with the energy of heart-felt goals, mixed-in with heavy doses of shame and fears of failure. But what Louis had helped me to see was that I had also been fighting off nature – the Elder had arrived. The Elder, the masculine archetype of wisdom, was taking over the reigns from the Hero. The Elder’s role is to stand at the perimeter of the community, to remind people of their values and their history and their traditions, but not immerse himself in the center of community life any longer. In the place of Hero energy is the energy of patience, peace, spirituality, friendship, love, dialogue, vulnerability, harmony, and wisdom. I imagined a new alchemy of self and relatedness for me; and a marriage of, not just two people, but two distinct souls.

Unexpectedly, I felt that I was coming to an end – and a beginning. I did not have to get cancer, afterall, to give myself permission to slow down. I could do so consciously and willingly – even joyfully. I heard myself say to the Elder in me, “Welcome. I’m ready to go. It’s about time.” And silently to Elaine, “Let’s do this.”

In Memory of Mom: The Day Jesus Told Mary to Go to Hell

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Now, you may be thinking that I’m just trying to hook you in with a provocative title — and you would be partially right. But I hope you’ll read on.

My mother would have been 93 today if she was still alive. And I would have visited her gravesite in Statesville, but I can never find her stone in that massive sea. So I thought I would honor her this way. She gave me much and there was much that I needed that she never gave me. But she always wanted me to pursue my dreams. What better gift can a child receive than that?

Most of us owe a lot to our mothers for their caring and for their suffering, for bringing us into the world, and so much more. When I think of Jesus’ mother, Mary, I suspect that Jesus owed her more than most. It could not have been easy raising the Son of God. Freud didn’t do mothers any favors by shining a light on how crucial the first few months and years of life are for the fragile psyches of children. But Mary knew it 1900 years earlier. Wouldn’t you try to be the most perfect mother in the world, knowing how much was riding on it, as Mary must have known? She deserves all of the veneration, and then some, as seen in the hundreds, if not thousands, of beautiful paintings and sculptures of Madonna and Child.

Even with all that we owe our mothers, however, they are not to be worshipped. We owe them a return on their investment of love, for sure. But we don’t owe them our lives.

Obviously, Jesus did not say the words, “Mom, go to hell.” But that was the gist of what he said to her one day, if we take the scripture literally, as well as symbolically. Jesus was out healing and teaching, and it had been a long day, maybe without time to eat or drink or rest. The crowds were immense. People of every walk in life, rich and poor, were drawn to Jesus by his message and by his personality — he was someone that could be trusted. He walked the talk, and they loved him. But Mary led Jesus’s siblings on a different mission that day — they wanted to save him. Save him from what, you may ask? Well, save Jesus from himself, evidently. They were afraid that Jesus was losing his mind — that he was “beside of himself,” in the Greek translation of the text (Mark 3:32-35). These days, we would be more blunt: he’s insane, or he’s lost his mind, or he’s gone crazy.

Because of the crowds, though, Mary could not reach her son. So word was passed from one pilgrim to another, and finally, word got to Jesus: “Your mother and brothers are outside.”

Jesus, at this point, might have said something deferential, like, “Tell my mother I’ll be home for supper,” or “Let’s catch up with each other on the Sabbath — I’m just fine. Don’t worry.” But no, Jesus was a bit of smart ass. What he said exactly was this — a riddle. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Ouch! Not what a worried mother would want to hear just then. And then, this — driving a stake deeper into Mary’s heart: “Here (pointing to the crowd) are my mother and brothers.” Double ouch!

I know some mothers and you do too, I’m sure, that if their sons or daughters talked to them that way, there would be words — and not nice ones — exchanged. I’ve seen some mothers sulk for days for much less, and I’ve seen some mothers threaten their sons or daughters with all sorts of retaliation for such disrespectful speeches. And Jesus said this in public. Was that any way to talk to the Mother of God?

Of course, Jesus wasn’t meaning Mary any disrespect, but he clearly was keeping his biological family responsibilities squarely in proportion to his spiritual family responsibilities. It’s a good lesson to us, because we sometimes confuse the two. Sometimes, even, our biological families and our spiritual families cannot co-exist. It can be a problem that way.

My own son, when he was 21, told me to go to hell. I didn’t like it, but I knew we had come to a point in our relationship, where it was time to put me in my place. I had become overbearing, implying that I didn’t trust him and his decision-making. And it was true — in that moment, I didn’t. The father part of me was terribly hurt and upset at being told where to go; but the therapist in me was silently cheering him on. He was well on his way to finding himself, and he needed, for awhile, to go his own way.

Eventually, we repaired the breach, and I’m so proud of who he became and is still becoming. It’s the privilege of a lifetime to watch our sons and daughters grow and develop into sensitive, caring, passionate human beings who are making the planet a better place to live.

As Jesus hung on the Cross, breathing his last, his mind was clear enough to ask one of the disciples to look after Mary when he was gone. He loved her and she loved Jesus. And we who follow him are so much better for it — for the way they clarified their relationship with each other and with us. We are Jesus’s “mothers and brothers” and sisters and fathers and sons and daughters and uncles and aunts. We who follow the way of Jesus are one universal family.

Therapists and Mister Rogers: Priests of Secular Culture

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

We are the Priests of secular culture. Mister Rogers and me and my clinical colleagues.

Acceptance, unconditional positive regard, warmth, empathy, compassion. We are Church for both the unchurched and many Churched-folk who find sanctuary and solace within the space and time of the clinical hour.

Let’s face it. The Church has not been doing its job for some time. It’s nothing new. People flock to psychologists and therapists of various ilks to cure their ills. We all know it. Masters Degree programs in psychology and counseling know it and they are proliferating while church attendance is dropping precipitously.

We are the new houses of prayer. We are the new confessionals where people come to pour out their souls, where people seek absolution from their failures and neuroses (sins, in Church-parlance). The clinical setting is the new sacred space and therapists are the new priests.

Our partners in crime in this takeover of the sacred are the multitude of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and other 12-step groups throughout the land where men and women who have gone sober relinquish the demands of their selfish egos to a Higher Power. Church is alive and well — it’s just forwarded its new address to a different set of locations. There are no rolls or stewardship campaigns, no mission committees or Boards of Trustees. But attendance Monday through Saturday is incredible.

Insurance companies don’t like to think about such things. They are leery of anything that smacks of religion — what Freud referred to as “the opium of the masses.” But the word religion comes from the Latin root word which means “to connect” — to reconnect to what is essential in being human and alive. Which, by the way, is what therapy is about: reconnecting with ones soul, reconnecting with one’s significant other, reconnecting with the wellsprings of life and of justice.

What is missing from the new Church of therapy is a moral compass in many cases. We still need a moral compass, a system of values to guide us in an age of postmodernism where absolutes supposedly don’t exist. But some therapists get it.

The morality of compassion is universal, for example. Carl Rogers, one of the founders of modern psychotherapy modeled this. More recently, as depicted in the movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Tom Hanks does a splendid job of portraying a Christ-likeness that is more symbolic than literal — and yet, every bit as powerful as the Gospel character from Galilee. Mister Rogers embodies compassion. Feelings matter, and he’s not afraid to “go there” with children or adults: anger, sadness, pain, divorce, death. The existential moments of human life are all on the table in the sacred neighborhood of Rogers-land. Take your shoes off with him — you’re instantly on Holy Ground.

On one occasion, Mister Rogers is talking with a little boy whose story is one of unspeakable pain and suffering. The journalist interviewing Mister Rogers for an article in the magazine Esquire notices that Mr. Rogers whispers something in the little boy’s ear. Mister Rogers shares that he asked the little boy to pray for him — Mister Rogers! The journalist comments that it makes sense that Mister Rogers wanted to help the little boy feel that he mattered. But Mister Rogers quickly responded. He asked the boy to pray for him, not because the boy needed to feel special; but because Mister Rogers himself needed the boy’s prayers. Anyone who had suffered as much as this boy had suffered must be very close to God!

We therapists are close to God everyday because we are close to the suffering of individuals, couples, and families who are hurting. They have come to us because they believe we will listen without judging, honor their pain without giving cheap advice, and steer them towards hope without the kind of preaching that is often frightening and judgmental. We are humans together and we are doing sacred work. We get to see grace-in-action every day.

In this sacred clinical space, we pray for each other, indeed. Church.