The habits of prison, the tug towards Home

December 8, 2009

“I often feel that the refusal to actually speak to your imprisonment condemns you to that walled off place for the rest of your existence.  One part of you will constantly remain in some form of prison or another and will compensate in your outer actions for this inner lack of freedom.  And yet a person who has an inner sense of spaciousness can be walled up for most of their life – I think of Nelson Mandela – yet can be contagious even to their jailers in what it means to be a free individual, a free man.”  David Whyte, Our Home is So Close to Us (from Free Minds, Wild Hearts)

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Why is it that in the most free country in the world – the United States – addiction runs rampant?  Stock brokers snort coke.  Stay-at-home mothers report feeling empty when their soap opera isn’t on.  Seminary students binge on porn.  An anxious CEO plots the timing of his next drink.  A high school cheerleader carves the word “disgusting” into her arm with a knife.  A secretary chugs a fifth cup of coffee by noon.  A young couple goes into debt buying a 3000 square foot home.  The supermodel secretly binges and purges.  A star athlete with a beautiful wife cheats on her.

Along this New Exodus way, we’ve discovered that though we may be free from Egypt, parts of us remain imprisoned, addicted to the habits and patterns formed in our enslaved state.  God gives us a wilderness to strip us of childish dependencies, but we’re prone to finding ways of making the wilderness hospitable.  We call this “coping” or “surviving,” and many of us find that it’s about all we can do.  Deep inside, our hearts still beat for a land like Eden, flowing with milk and honey.  But, truth be told, we’ve resigned ourselves to marriages that are barely tolerable, a daily therapeutic dosage of alcohol or porn or food, and the perpetual return of Friday when we can further descend into our catatonic state of survival.

As Thoreau once said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Yet, a cynical resignation is not the answer.  These parts of ourselves that continually seek the satisfaction of Egypt have stories to tell.  One of my clients from some time ago lived much of his life as a successful businessman, seen even as a mentor and encourager to younger staff.  Yet, a secret part of him wanted to die.  This part chose slow death over a quick suicide, consuming hard liquor and porn and fast food whenever he could get away.  It was a part of him that was walled off from his family, his co-workers, his fellow elders at the church, and even himself.  When this “dark monster,” as he called it, indulged its Egyptian appetites, my client would quickly clean up, dispose of the shame, and re-emerge into his wilderness with a determination to stay clean.

These parts of ourselves exist within us as mini-selves, in one sense.  They are like little people, or distinct personalities, which hold memories, have stories, and feel pain in unique ways.  They are our inner prodigals and elder brothers, our inner lions and lambs, our ashamed little children and our rageful critics.  And each has a story to tell.  My work as a therapist is to draw out each story, and all of the many internal stories.

One of my clients had a part of himself which would overtake him in times when he felt misunderstood or second-guessed by his spouse.  At his best, he lived from the new self Christ renews within, manifesting in compassion and patience, forgiveness and wisdom.  But, in other moments, he’d say that something was “triggered” inside of him.  For years, therapists convinced him that if his wife would change her dismissive way of relating to him, things would get better.  But even as she changed, his inner world did not.  An enraged part of himself would be triggered at work, or in his church small group, always when people seemed to misunderstand him or question his opinion.  However, other internal voices would enter in, too – “You know you’re an idiot.  Just stop talking.  You don’t make any sense, anyway.”

How do we unlock these chains of slavery?  How do we contend with powerful parts of ourselves which seem mired in their old habits?

Therapists and pastors have hundreds of different strategies which, in my estimation, only lead us in the direction of sin-management. Our behavior may change, but our hearts do not change.  We’re not ultimately led to the Cross, where each part of ourselves must be surrendered for our whole person to be free.  These sin-managing parts of ourselves remain imprisoned and enslaved, and often find creative and sometimes more sinister ways of expressing themselves.  As the poet David Whyte says, “I often feel that the refusal to actually speak to your imprisonment condemns you to that walled off place for the rest of your existence.  One part of you will constantly remain in some form of prison or another and will compensate in your outer actions for this inner lack of freedom.”  Whyte hints at something important – freedom begins by simply naming these imprisoned parts of ourselves.

Yet, as a therapist, I find that simply talking about these parts of ourselves and analyzing them intellectually are not enough.  We need to talk with them.  These parts often hold feelings and store memories which require more intentional engagement.  One client, for instance, found at least two parts in one of our counseling sessions.  Initially skeptical about my approach, he agreed, at the very least, that parts of himself were still imprisoned in his own internal Egypt, addicted to ways of managing and coping that walled himself in and walled Christ out.  In this session, he identified a part of himself that he thrived living through – the “rock star.”  A star marketing executive, he was able to wow an audience with his creative ideas.  But the rock star seemed to have a shadow following him, a dark presence that simply said, “Phony.”  As he closed his eyes and listened within, this dark presence walked toward him and became more clear.  It was him, 20 years prior, as a chubby middle schooler who was dressed funny and who had a problem stuttering.  Tears came to his eyes as, in his mind’s eye, he opened his arms for this boy to come to him.  When I asked if this formerly walled off young boy needed God, he immediately said, “Yes, yes…I feel God coming toward me and wrapping his arms around me.  It’s like I’m here with this chubby kid and holding him, but God is holding me.”  He sat in that position for almost 10 minutes, as tears fell from his eyes.

Later, we saw that the “rock star” worked very hard to make sure that the chubby middle schooler wouldn’t emerge, and spoil the show.  Now it was time for the rock star to turn around, leave Egypt, and move toward the Promised Land (a turning we call “repentance.”)  The rock star was initially skeptical.  He wasn’t about to trust my client living from his core and true self.  And trusting God seemed all-too-risky, as well.  The rock star had made his way in the world, and wasn’t sure that change was most beneficial.  In his mind’s eye, my client saw the rock star, dressed in his finest Joseph Banks suit – the power suit – going in for the marketing kill.  But when I asked my client to look at him a bit closer, he saw bags under his eyes, as well as bloodshot eyes.  “He’s tired,” my client said.  “He’s been working hard to make sure I made it in the world, to make sure no one viewed me as an unacceptable failure.”

“Is he ready to relax, and perhaps to let you lead the way?” I responded.

“I think so.  But he needs God in a different way than the middle schooler.  He says he feels like he needs God to be strong -  a King, a Lord – so that he can relax.”

“Why doesn’t he ask God to be this for him,” I said.

Again, tears came to his eyes.  And he relaxed.

In one sense, he was saved that day.

Indeed, we preach the Gospel over and again to ourselves each day, inviting each un-surrendered part of ourselves to bend the knee, to release the burdens, to choose freedom over slavery.  Truth be told, this is a life-long process.  Even as I write this, I’m aware of my own seemingly endless ways of fighting God’s invitation to faith, hope, and love.  My heart seems to crave its Egypt-formed identity more than God’s better offer of life and freedom.  I’m encouraged by the reality that it is not my effort, but God’s grace, that draws me forward, that allures and invites me into the better land.

Daily surrender requires us to recognize that we’re far more enslaved than we thought we are.  Parts of us fight hard to retain their Egyptian chains.  But, God’s promise of a land flowing with milk and honey stirs in me something deeper than my addictions, igniting desire, drawing me forward, onward, to Emmanuel’s land.  God give me the grace to keep traveling ahead, unburdening more and more along the way…