Where does the notion of a therapy of resurrection come from?
It’s Good Friday, today, and so, it’s not surprising that I find myself this morning musing about what is undoubtedly the central story of western culture, and of many other cultures, that of resurrection. And I find my mind effortlessly drifting to a question about the relationship of those stories to therapeutic practice. It’s clear to me that the idea of renewed life after death has its psychological expression in the belief that painful experiences, those episodes in our lives we are unsure we will be able to move through, are actually but a stage in a greater story of our personal growth. Stephen Joseph’s relatively recent book on trauma, “What Doesn’t Kill Us”, is one example of such a narrative, in which he uses the term posttraumatic growth to describe the natural process that tries, often against great odds, to heal, strengthen and make us more resilient following an experience of trauma. Such an approach can be described as a therapy of resurrection.
In both my work and personal life, I have encountered the notion that “bad” experiences have the potential to lead to outcomes that are unexpectedly beneficial. Of course, I have also recognized that events can unfold in the opposite direction, from good to bad, so it seems what I’m left with is that whatever is happening now won’t necessarily last forever. At some point it will probably change. This changeability is a defining characteristic of life. If a living organism cannot change to meet its circumstances, its survival is threatened.
So, of what use is knowing this basic biological law in our efforts to remain sane human beings, to make difficult decisions, overcome our fears, fulfill our needs, improve our relationships, get a higher-paying job, enhance our sexual satisfaction, lose unseemly kilos and not get distracted or fall asleep when we’re meditating? The simple answer is no use at all–at least if knowing this law, having an intellectual grasp of it, is as far as we go. What, however, if we not only have the knowledge, we start to bring it into our daily living by quietly observing how our thoughts and feelings change from moment to moment and how our relationships, interests and goals change over longer periods of time: the new work colleague whom I initially judged to be a bit flaky turns out, after our first conversation, to be a rather interesting person, or we discover that our life-long ambition to be the smartest person in Newstead, in addition to not being achievable, seems to be contributing to my lose of friends. Over a period of time, such observations might encourage us to see life differently, to see it for what it is as opposed to what we think it should be. To see the world in that way might in turn help us to see ourselves differently, not as the persons we expect ourselves to be or fail to be, but who we actually are. This is a first and crucial step in self-understanding. It is also the first step in changing a piece of knowledge into a living practice, and grounding therapy in a sense of resurrection. (It is important to say here that this deepened, experienced understanding is not the same as what is often meant by the word, acceptance. Acceptance can carry the connotation of passivity or resignation. Experiential understanding, on the other hand, is knowing things as they are, or as close to that as is possible. Resignation is aware of little outside its own sense of defeat.)
When an idea, or a story such as one about renewed life, starts to become a practice, it starts to be increasingly real. That doesn’t make either the idea or practice good or bad, but it does make it a part of who we are, which will also impact on those around us. Our ideas begin to shape us when they become a part of our living, and the relationship is mutual: as soon as our ideas are exposed to the seeming chaos, the endless complexity and subtlety of living, they are forced to become more fluid, in other words, more real and alive.
An approach to therapy that gives us the hope of using the tragedies, the anguish of our personal and collective lives to fashion a renewed, deepened strength of character is what I understand as a therapy of resurrection. It knows that renewal of any sort can only emerge when preceded by some sort of dying, and that the former can provide a meaningful, sustaining context when we are confronted with the pain of the latter. For some, living meaningfully may represent an even deeper need than living happily.
Many years ago, I came across a couple of words that comprise the final line in a poem by the American poet, Wendell Berry, and which have remained with me ever since. The poem ends with the sentence, “Practice resurrection.” I daresay, a practice that seems worthy of the effort.