Authorial Note: The importance of counselling in my future ministry endeavours will be so great that this blog would be bereft if I did not chronicle how it has become so.  The account here has been a difficult undertaking, requiring a reconfiguring of my sense of self with the worry of losing that self. It has required digging through painful experiences that much wiser or perhaps less brave souls would not encounter again. But I cannot apologize for writing this, as personally revealing as it is, because it is the story of how in reconnecting with my soul of how I have reconnected with the lover of my soul.

      Depersonalization. Stress. Depression. Self-Punishment. All of these emotions and psychological states, which never even registered on my radar of intellectual inquiry, in the summer of 2017 took everything from me. O.C.D., turns out to have been just the tip of the iceberg of psychological understanding that God deemed me strong enough to learn about and prepare myself for encountering in the pursuit of my vocation. “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body”, a phrase often falsely attributed to C.S. Lewis, was not a mere apologetic quip for me. Before O.C.D. and before the summer of 2017, having a rational intellect that stood above and was more important than my body, was an unexamined assumption I had based my entire life on. Diet, exercise, clothing, memory, environment, were ‘vain’ in importance, in comparison to one’s thought life.images.jpeg Evangelical morality can often come with a Cartesian dualistic assumption of a separation of mind and body, but what psychology, being attentive to one’s body and one’s lived experience asserts even more forcefully is that while the mind is distinct from the body, it is never separated. When our bodies are not well, our brains are not well, and the life of the mind suffers. Our emotions waging war within our psyches do not have the dominance that people often think they have, but to imagine that they do not live in a relationship with one’s thoughts will blind one to their power.

      With regards to last summer, guilt accompanied the difficulties, thinking that perhaps I shouldn’t feel so bad. But, how we feel about our lives, surprise surprise, does not change according to objective reason, especially not by the logics of guilt or shame. Our emotions are frequently informed by (1) our expectations on ourselves, (2) the expectations of others on us, (3) our dreams about our future, and (4) idealizations of our past. It’s the difference between absolute poverty and relative poverty, between being poor in the objective sense, and the feeling that one is impoverished. When K’Naan raps about Somalia in “What’s Hardcore?”  that “If I rapped about home and got descriptive/ I make 50 cent look like Limp Bizkit” we can see the brutal wake-up call that absolute poverty is. Objectively children in Jamaica Queens have it better than children in Somalia. But we still empathize with 50 Cent’s feeling of impoverishment when he raps on “Hate it or Love it” that he “Tossed and turned in my sleep that night/ Woke up the next morning, n*ggas had stole my bike/ Different day, same sh*t, ain’t nothing good in the hood/ I’d run away from this b*tch and never come back if I could.” Let no one misconstrue this then- I’m a young man with supportive parents living in one of the most free and prosperous societies the world has ever seen, life is good.  In the following then I am describing the impact of circumstances upon my feelings and emotions, in order to explicate why psychology has become so important in my spiritual life.

      Impoverished. Cheated. Lonely. Angry. Confused. Resentful. All of these ugly emotions coursed through my veins. Take stock of all this: First, a relapse of my O.C.D. at the beginning of 2017, with horrific religious obsessions; second a month of radical disorientation when I returned home to Toronto in May in which I was not sure if I was going to move to Ottawa or not, resulting in minor depersonalization; thirdly a period of intense stress from lack of employment, community, and structure. Fourthly returning to the home and room where I first experienced the traumatic onset of my O.C.D., in which I would have to face the disappointment of having my ministry dreams crushed.  Finally, all of those collapsing into a state of moderate depression that came with the desires to punish myself. When stretched in all of these ways, you begin to lose your senses of self, time, purpose, and rootedness- all of which contributes to your anxiety, that you are already prone to! Even in writing this, I am struggling to really believe that this happened to me- there’s a beautiful self I believe to be me, but then there’s the f*cked up mentally unwell person that I can also become. The transparency of this brief account will be uncomfortable for many, but it is in the ability to even trace and bring out the redemptive substance of such trials and tribulations that the words of the Apostle James hold true, to “…let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing. If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” (James 1:4-5)

     Psychologically, let’s begin with expectations that I held myself to. The summer began with the full expectation that as a perfectly self-sufficient person I would have been able to enter into a full time ministry position in Ottawa after four months of an O.C.D. relapse. Only in hindsight, can I see the stupidity in this. If someone in this situation were to have come to me, I would have advised that they take a vacation, not a ramp up of work. But I don’t hold myself to the standards I hold everyone else to. “Perfect people don’t take time to rest from important work! I just want to be perfect! Is that too much to ask?”- “Yes you crazy asshole!” was the dialogue in my head. 300px-Nuremberg_chronicles_-_Flagellants_(CCXVr) The roots of my perfectionism still elude me, but Jesus’ own words in Matthew 5:48 of “Be Perfect Therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect”, combined my anxiety disorder came up as a decent hypothesis. The voice of self-criticism, the accusatory voice, for the perfectionist takes the place of the voice of God in one’s life. Improving in moral virtue is acknowledged by everyone to be a ‘good.’ To be told then that to pursue the good of moral perfection is harmful, is met with the reply of ‘So what? We all agree that we should be better people and I will make myself into one even if it kills me!” Therein lies the rub, one’s pursuit of moral perfection has now sanctified not merely perseverance and endurance but the deliberate infliction of harm and suffering upon one’s self. Moral perfectionism towards oneself is two steps away from monastic self-flagellation.

     Experience of this tyrannical self-critical voice has forced me to learn the importance of self-empathy and self-love.* Protestant Christianity generally encourages self-reflection and scrutinizing one’s own character for moral improvement. But for an anxious perfectionist, such a focus is psychological torture, leading even to traditional ‘catholic guilt’ over masturbation and feeling the need to confess such a sin to others. Self-empathy is releasing me from my temptation to overburden and hurt myself with unreasonable expectations. If I use a standard of reasonable expectation after a mental health crisis, I was doing remarkably well with my summer in Toronto. I was applying for jobs, going for my driver’s license, trying to go out with friends, went on dates, travelled back to Montreal, applied for housing, and sought help in counselling. The expectations that I had set for my present due to my perfectionism made me feel like absolute sh*t, even when things were only moderately sh*t. It was an uncontrolled need to punish myself for failing my own moral standards that eventually led me even to consider the thought of punishing myself like a monastic–which by God’s grace I did not act upon. If I did not hold myself to be perfect according to my own standards however, knowing that God only wants us to pursue being perfectly loving as God is loving, I would have been able to love myself despite my flaws as God does. In so loving, I would have actually gotten closer to the perfection that Christ was pointing toward.

     But then there was also the external weight of failure over not having meet the expectations of others, whether I was actually under them or not, returning from Montreal to Toronto still without a job or conceivable future. Hopefully those in our lives want the best for us, wanting everything they conceive of as the ‘good life’ for us. But when our good lives do not fit within the framework of how others have conceived of the ‘good life’, we can start to believe that our lives really aren’t good. A common narrative for twenty-somethings is that they should have a full time career, a place of their own, on the way to car ownership, married or on the way to being, or thinking about kids etc…It can be crushing to know that you don’t meet those implicit expectations, especially when many of your peers have. Furthermore, because of our culture’s illusion of meritocracy, we feel as if we’re the ones who are failing us when we don’t come into the ‘good life.’** We begin to disappoint ourselves, becoming quite depressed about our ‘lot in life.’ The resentment that we can carry, over this disappointment can led one to hate life and to lose the will to live. If all you can focus on is that life that you do not have, you will begin to believe that life itself should not be. Gratitude won’t be an antidote, it won’t be a reasonable moral prescription, until we can let go of the expectations that others either consciously or unconsciously place on us.

     Friends of mine have good paying jobs in a variety of areas, but academia and ministry, two areas in our age of a hyper-financialized economy that are increasingly devalued, is how I choose to spend my life, even switching part way through!! One humiliating experience I had during the summer of 2017 was when I went to an alumni gathering of the University of Edinburgh. Others were advertising their career success to prospective students- “Get a degree here, you’ll become well employed!” Meanwhile, I was wandering around as a foil to that message. “What are you doing now?”- “Going for my second masters because my first one got me diddly squat.” 8RnwLk2N-3456-2304
But what I want to say firstly is that the meritocracy is a lie. Life is filled with undeserved chaos but even more unearned grace. Until we can accept this, our ability to truly mourn the chaos as undeserved, instead of seeking to rectify it, and to truly appreciate the grace as unearned, instead of seeking to justify it, will be dulled. Second your life can be good, even if it does not look like the ‘good life’ that others wanted for you. No wife, career, or a place of my own (yet…), but I enjoy a variety of passions and creative endeavours, have a wide supportive community of friends, and a life that has made a beneficial difference in the lives of others. No one held these out as standards to meet, but truly, not everyone has them, and they are good. Gratitude now I embrace as an antidote to the resentment I carry that leads to depression, not out of some guilt that I ‘should’ be more grateful for what I have, but to see how, whatever the expectations others hold us, our lives can and should be worth celebrating.

    Dreams, the third element of our unpacking, are those wonders we ourselves run toward, not begrudgingly merely ‘held to’ like expectations. We all have our own little personal individualized eschatology. We all have a vision of what we want our future to look like. Unlike the expectations we hold ourselves to, these are not things that if we fail to meet we must punish ourselves, they are the things that if we fail to meet then we believe we can’t be happy. While not having the power of The Secret that ‘if you can dream it, it will happen’ (yes, tell that to the Yemeni children wanting Saudi Arabia to stop bombing them) but they nevertheless unconsciously shape our present mindsets in the decisions that we make. For instance, my vision for my future since high school has been to be an authority figure in life-example and teaching for individual Christians and for the Body of Christ. Previously I unconsciously pursued having this kind of authority through academic accomplishment convinced that if I knew a lot about the Bible I could be that authoritative voice for the Church. Transitioning from academia to ministry however was also unconsciously informed by my vision because I now believe that the kind of authority I want to have will be based on love and service to people, not merely knowledge. But what happens when we cannot realize these eschatologies in the present is that the stress of trying to accomplish them ourselves can literally eat away at our muscle mass if we’re not careful.

    Since coming back from Scotland, I have not stopped for a vacation in what’s been almost four years, I didn’t even give myself the time to mourn the loss of some idyllic ministry prospects coming to an end. Last academic year, I studied full-time for my MDiv, worked part-time at Starbucks, had a tumultuous romantic relationship, and came into a new spiritual tradition. But in the summer of 2017 the stress of being unemployed was one of my greatest preparations for ministry ever because I now understand the stress of the working class who I hope to serve like never before. To work your ass-off, to try to come into a meaningful vocation, but being unable to do, is soul crushing. But if we hold our visions tightly, we can make ourselves inflexible for satisfaction now. An interesting analogy is to be made between muscles and imaginations, for if you work them so hard in one direction, you make them inflexible thus causing more than necessary stress. But if you take the time to stretch them every so often, our personal eschatologies can become flexible enough to accommodate happiness in the present. While I am still pursuing ministry to the utmost, I have had to learn that I must always be able to imagine my life differently–even if that’s becoming a manager at a Starbucks or a YouTube academic!–if I am to keep the stress of pursuing my future at bay. We do not have to give up on participating in what could the divine vision for our lives, it is more that we might have to give up the presumption that we know what that is.

    Eschatologies are often mirror images of idealized pasts, so too with our personal histories. It is here where memories have just as much power as our imagination, for our memory is not our access to the past, it is our imagining of our past. Only half-jokingly I refer to my year in Scotland as my Gaelic paradise, but what is amazing is how the memory of such a paradise has influenced my life since. 100117_Next-1024x1024Since returning from Scotland, I have pursued travelling (e.g. New York, Alabama, St.Louis, Montreal, Quebec City), learning about old architecture and art, trying to have a place of my own (e.g. living in a cramped apartment in Montreal, or living on university residence) and even desiring to pursue a PhD study of Dostoevsky. The independence, adventure, sense of moving forward in my career, the beauty, the history, and everything else has been something I have unconsciously pursued afterwords in Toronto, being informed by that memory of paradise. Do I remember the portions of getting rejected by women in Scotland? No. Do I remember the ridiculous amounts of scotch I consumed? No. Yet, it has become a mythic idealization, which I use to contrast with my less than ideal present. Everything good was in Scotland, Toronto was total sh*t. The problem with past idealizations is not that they are good thoughts, its that they are selective memories.

    In the summer of 2017, another paradise I carried was Montreal, where I lived in a community house, surrounded by surrogate siblings–an experience of love that, as an only child, I never had before. However, when I came back home to Toronto I was an only child once again. Preferring my community house experience over my more isolated experience at home, I began to erase the truth that I went through a horrific relapse of O.C.D., while in Montreal! Even more so, I erased the reality that I spent many happy years as an only child at home! Once again, everything good was in Montreal, Toronto was total sh*t. But the good news is that our memories are not fixed direct accesses to the past but are rather our imaginings of the past. We can train our imaginations to reflect on our pasts differently, thus experiencing our past differently. We do not have to look upon our past as paradise, with which our present must only be hells. The depersonalization the literal pulling my conscious self away from experiencing itself as tied to my body, that I experienced was because my present self wanted to live in my past idealizations so much that it could not live in the less ‘ideal’ present. But the great news is that your memory is malleable enough to rid yourself of the lost paradise. Slowly but surely I’ve worked on redeeming my memory, not denying the goodness of Scotland or Montreal, but also trying to remember that there has been so much good in Toronto as well. To be able to have more conscious direction of your memory, allows you to live more fully in your present experience, as your wholly experienced self. As you do so a narrative of your life will begin to emerge. Not one fully comprehensible or linear, but a narrative nonetheless, which does start again at chapter three in order to make sense.

    It is in the enriching of our souls, our psyches, by noticing how we treat ourselves, how we experience others treating us, of how our hopes shape our decisions, and of how our memories contribute to our sense of self–that is by psychology, the study of the soul– that we come upon the greater sense of ‘I AM’.  Perfectionism, desiring to be seen as perfect, is the idolatry of the inner critic. Your moral standards, whether you meet them or not, are not the arbiter of whether you live or die. Resentment over not fulfilling the expectations that others have taught you to have is slavery to another’s vision of goodness. The desires of others, whether you fulfill their prophecies or not, are not worthy to be your guides toward Life. Working stress over not coming into your imagined future is the toil of an Adam believing he can live forever. Your detailed eschatologies of the fulfillment of your desires and hopes, whether they come to fruition as planned or not, are the stone roads carved by urban planners with no knowledge of rivers. Depersonalization, the removal of self from the body of the present, because of an idealized past is the yearning of an Eve for the Eden without the snake that was slithering there. Your recollected memories of what your life was and how your ‘was’ defines your ‘is’ are the diary entries of a Twitterbot!

    Know that the judge of all men is more merciful than the demoniac perfectionist inner critic. Know that the only expectations for the good life that will be met are in the God of your joy and gladness. Know that the Omega of all history rested on the seventh day, knowing that Creation would continue to unfold its own goodness. Know that the one who choose to become a Person without leaving the body, crushed the snake under his foot as he told you he would.

 ____________________________________

Theoretically, its something I don’t really understand as it does not seem to grow naturally of a Christian idea of self-sacrifice, there’s a tension there I can’t resolve. I also prefer this terminology to the notion of ‘self-forgiveness’ which is often what people use when they mean ‘self-empathy.’ The notion of ‘self-forgiveness’ is problematic as it implies that there can be sins that aren’t by nature relational, that can be resolved simply by your say-so. 

**Its for this reason I believe young people are gravitating toward socialism. We acted as if the meritocracy were true, then we discovered our society was an oligarchy, and not only do we want to solve this unfair arrangement, we have some resentment that we bought into lie that our society was a meritocracy.

____________________________________

P.S. While writing this, I have come to see that many of these insights have been formulated through a variety of helpful books on this journey, which you might want to consider reading yourself, including (but not limited to by any means):

On Self-Definition: Christopher Heuertz, The Sacred Enneagram

On Perfectionism: Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection 

On Gratitude and Resentment: Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

On Negotiating with our visions: Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life

On Memories: Curt Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul