On the other hand, I know self-knowledge has always been an important part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. If we do not know our true condition, how can we undergo that transformation, that metanoia, from misery into joy? So much of our human suffering is rooted in isolation: from others, from creation, and from ourselves. Redemption begins when the divine life bridges those chasms between us: knowledge and love of all that the Father has created makes us at once more like God in his knowing and in his joy. Depression healed.
And so, I began the sessions with a secular psychologist with a mixture of apprehension and hope. At that point in my struggle, my basic instinct was, "Why the heck not? Self-knowledge tells me: I need help!" I had no idea what to expect or what that help would look like.
The beginning sessions were familiar: Know thyself.
Naming my demons (only figurative demons; she is, after all, a secular psychologist!) was the order of the day. Anger, envy, self-hatred... We examined various situations I found myself in, and I tried to uncover hidden emotions or "narratives" that were expressing themselves in depressive thoughts and behaviors.
All good. It was even fun to spend an hour every week just examining my conscience, even if the doctor couldn't absolve my sins.
I began to notice that we were hitting a wall. Every time I would regale her with a story of angry feelings, she would listen and say, "Good for you!" I would mention that I told my husband I felt angry: "Good for you!" Hidden anger was bad. Expressing my anger was good, she explained, because I would name it for what it was. It would no longer have the power to depress me or manifest itself in chronic pain.
Then she counseled me: "You need to tell Todd (or person x, y, or zed) that you feel angry. Don't try to explain it or fix it. Just tell him and ask him to know your anger with you. Be transparent."
"I don't want to always be angry," I said. "I hope to someday receive all these stresses of life with more grace. More graciously."
She smiled and fretted, "Oh, dear."
The message was: This anger is your self. Receive yourself. Express yourself. Do not allow anyone or any religion or any code to suggest that your experience of yourself is untrue or deficient. It is what it is. Be. Any attempt to transform yourself will mean more pain, more depression.
Again, this all sounded vaguely familiar. There is that strain in Christian thought, too: God accepts us as we are. We come to him broken, and he sees our brokenness and has mercy.
She, "Have mercy on yourself, just like you believe God has mercy on you."
My self. My experience. My truth.
So, I bit the apple. I took that fruit and ate it.
It was death. Not to be too dramatic here, but that self-affirmation almost literally the death of all love. Once I started down that path of "express your anger," "receive all your emotions as gifts," I felt great. It felt good to just let it all out, like a 3-year-old at the end of a long grocery trip. "You make me feel trapped! I feel rage! Don't take this personally, it's not your fault, but dammit am I angry with you!"
That is not love.
You see, I began to notice that the "truth of my experience" was that I expressed my feelings and let it all just hang out precisely when love called for discretion. The truth of my experience was that I stayed silent and failed to express joy exactly at those moments when charity demanded I speak. The truth of my experience of self is that myself is unreliable, weak, and destructive. Left to myself, everything I touch will turn sour, because I touch with both love and hate, joy and anger, healing and cruelty.
Because myself is fallen. That is the truth of myself. My sweet, lovable, sister Ass self --and I do love myself, both with a perverse and a true love-- is in desperate need of more than herself.
I returned to the psychologist's office one last time before we moved away forever.
I gave her a biography of Teresa of Avila, who knew both light and darkness and chose the light. And I said, "I believe suffering is an essential part of the human condition. I cannot escape it."
"Good," she smiled.
"And I believe I can be changed. I can in future receive suffering more graciously because of the life that is in me."
"Oh, dear," she fretted and shook her head. We parted in disagreement. I'm sure she's expecting to land right back on another leather couch within months. I may. I may not.
I do not believe those hours on her couch (yes! I actually sat on a leather couch!) were wasted. In fact, in a sense I found myself. But instead of naming myself holy, I named myself wretched. Along with acceptance of my wretchedness, I rediscovered my true and unfailing hope. The fulfillment of hope is not in me, but in something outside of myself.
How is it that any therapy --without reference to repentance or transformation-- could touch and heal the effects of that original wound in my soul?
I reject the idea that myself is immutable, unchanging, something I can abase only at my peril. I am more than pop-psychology can affirm; the psychologist has no idea how fearfully and wonderfully I am made. I turn instead to the Author of myself, who is not myself. He is greater. He is the awful, awesome, loving Father, who alone is perfect and who alone is holy. The eternal Word, the Logos, the Crucified One who lives and through whom all things have their being. The Paracletus, the Comforter, and Spirit. The three in one and one in three.
I reject self-actualization in favor of being a creature. I'd much rather my being be written by him --a God like the God of the Scriptures-- than by me. A healthy self-skepticism alone allows me to freely--and without any fear--submit once again to his healing touch.
A self-skeptic's Bibliography:
Frederica Matthews-Green, "Self and Skepticism" podcast
Peggy Noonan, John Paul the Great
Blaise Pascal, The Pensees