by Claudia Black, Ph.D., MSW
When you set out on a new course in your life, the course of recovery, you are on a spiritual path. It is a path that leads to forgiving, accepting, loving, and finding serenity within yourself and with others. This spiritual path promises to lead you from aloneness and emptiness to a sense of connection and meaning in your life.
On this new journey, we are often involved in a process of spiritual growth before we recognize the spirituality of it. Looking back, the turning point came when we allowed ourselves to begin letting go of our fears and defenses to hear the truth:
There is another reality than the one I live.
I want it. This insight led us to learn more about the “other reality” and to learn more of the truth. The truth is that we are all human, both unique and ordinary, filled with dark and light. The truth is that all of our life experiences, whether admitted or denied, form the ground we stand on now. And the truth is that – in spite of our imperfections, our past and present pain, and the roles we’ve adapted to survive – we now know that we are free to choose how we live our own lives. Realizing this, the victim’s passive plea, “Why me?”, becomes a new, proactive question instead: “What can I do now?” This shift brings us to another turning point and another awareness:
I am responsible for the choices I make in my life.
When we accept our humanness and exercise our responsibility for making our own choices – for example, choosing what we do when we are angry, lonely, or sad – we are involved in a spiritual process. Our spirituality must be based on a vision that attends to our whole self and honors our whole experience, while at the same time acknowledges that we are accountable in the present for our own feelings, beliefs, and behaviors.
In The Spirituality of Imperfection, Ernest Kurtz writes that we have suffered zerrissenheit, or “torn-to-pieces-hood.” Spirituality, as he describes it, is the healing process of “making whole.” Spirituality helps us first to see and then to understand, and eventually to accept the imperfection that lies at the core of our human be-ing.
Accepting our human limitation brings us inner peace. What a relief it is to put an end to the fight within ourselves. Also, as we find the permission to be the imperfect beings that we are, we become able to let others be who they are.
The experience of inner peace is foreign to those of us from shame-based families because there was so little peace and harmony in our lives. We didn’t have the models that projected unconditional love, acceptance, or gratitude. As a result, we came to believe that if we were anything less than perfect we were inferior and of little value. So, we sought perfection, believing it was our only avenue to acceptance and love.
We were so hurt by the absence of the nurturing we needed to thrive that we have spent a great portion of our lives trying to make that unconditional love happen in the present, hoping somehow to make up for the past. Paradoxically, when we are willing to believe that we cannot change the past, then we become willing to let go of our pain.
Think about the family being a house with many rooms. Our growing up years were lived in our parents’ room, which was connected to their parents’ room, and their siblings’ room, and so on. The present day is the room where we have lived our adult lives. A mixture of experiences has taken place in all of these rooms. Some experiences were good, some caused a lot of pain. We need to realize that all families are imperfect, as all of us are imperfect people. Those of us who don’t understand or want to accept that truth remain actively in denial. As Thomas Moore writes in Care of the Soul, “The sentimental image of family that we present publicly is a defense for the pain of proclaiming the family for what it is – a sometimes comforting, sometimes devastating house of life and memory.”
To deny or disown any part of our experience leaves us dangerously incomplete and especially vulnerable to our shame. The lifeblood of shame is secrecy, fed by the dark fear of being found out. To grow toward wholeness in the context of our family home, we have to open all the doors and windows to let in air and light. Then for us at last, healing will begin.
“You and I are children of mud, earthy and moist,” Jane Smiley writes in A Thousand Acres. “We’re not all fire and light – no matter how much we wish otherwise.” Facing this truth, we reach another turning point:
It is in the acceptance of all that was and is that our spirits become whole.
Bill Moyers described acceptance as wholeness and health in an interview about his book, Healing and the Mind:
“Health is … a state of mind that recognizes the history of life, which includes moments of great delight and moments of deep sorrow. When we see all these parts of our being as connected, we come to terms with where we come from, who we are and where we’re going. Health is a whole.”
In the process of becoming whole, we may say we “have spirituality.” But spirituality isn’t an event or a possession. It’s a way of living and being. Spirituality doesn’t mean we never get hurt again, or that we are always smiling, always happy, never angry, and never scared. In part, spirituality means that when we are hurt or afraid we can respond without making matters worse. Also, as we change course and take steps on this spiritual road, we are able to enjoy the good feelings of being solidly balanced, open and unguarded, peaceful about the past and generally positive about how we are living in the present.