Well, it’s Good Friday, and so, it’s not surprising that I find myself this morning musing about what is undoubtedly the central story of Western culture and its relationship to therapeutic practice. The idea of renewed life after death has its psychological expression in the belief that painful experiences, those episodes in our lives in which we feel that we, or at least some part of our personality, is dying–that these moments 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 a person more resilient following an experience of trauma.
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 last forever. At some point it will change. This changeability is a defining characteristic of life. If a living organism does not change, eventually it will die. 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 around the midsection 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 the township of Hilltop, in addition to not being achievable, seems to be making us socially undesirable. Over a period of time, such observations might encourage us to see life differently, as what it is as opposed to what I think it should be. To see the world in that way might in turn help me to see myself differently, not as the person I expect myself to be or fail to be, but who I actually am. This, I believe, 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. (It is important to say here that understanding is not the same as acceptance as it is sometimes meant. Acceptance sometimes means a form of passivity or resignation. Understanding, on the other hand, is seeing things as they are, or as close to that as is possible. Resignation sees little outside its own sense of defeat.)
When an idea starts to become a practice, it starts to take on life. That doesn’t make either the idea or practice good or bad, but it does make it a part of our living experience, which will also impact on the lives of 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 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 have no choice but to endure the pain of the latter. For some of us, to live meaningfully represents an even greater need than to live 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 alive in my memory ever since. The poem ends with the sentence, “Practice resurrection,” the consequences of obedience to such a commandment I hope appear, however rarely, in my own private practice.