(A weekly portion of a book I am slowly writing entitled “Preferring Paralyzation,” which I hope to publish in some form in 2012!)
I can’t shake the feeling that I am living almost entirely for myself in this season of life. Not to deny the inherent joy in the season of engagement, nor the fact that God has truly brought me full circle into the thing that I most deeply want in life, but I have noticed that I am growing in boredom these days. I am not sleeping well, and I can’t shake the nagging feeling that my life doesn’t add up in sacrifice for what matters most in this world.
Call it conviction, a waking up, or a growing discontent, I sense that this restlessness is the fodder by which God is prodding me forward into a larger portion of the Story I am to write with Him. A few weeks ago, Maxie turned to me, and out of the blue, mentioned that she was quite ready to enter a season that was not focused on ourselves. I stared at her with a mixture of guilt, conviction, and wide-eyed fear, both wanting what she said to become the reality of our lives and fearing for the coming discomfort said change would require.
Quite frankly, I prefer my comfortable, suburban, semi-middle class life. A few years ago I was stunned to learn that what I value is determined by how I live my life. Essentially, what I act upon is truly what I believe, not what I say that I value, as if some list of things I scribble down actually made up the substance of my existence. Looking hard in the mirror, I confess that even on mission in South Africa this deep spiral of seeking that which completes my own life remains my top priority more often than not.
John Coe, the Director of the Institute for Spiritual Formation at Talbot School of Theology, used to regularly admit in our classes that he would read a spiritual classic for the feeling of ‘filling’ that accompanied such meditation. A spiritual gluttony of the soul, he joked that he “smoked Henri Nouwen” much like others would light up a joint. One time, he even remarked that Freud used to think of gluttony not as a disease of overeating as much as a ‘pathology of the throat,’ a desire to fill one’s self with anything that, well, filled one’s self.
Reflecting on the last decade of my life, my pathology has unmistakably been me! Not too shocking for a person to admit having just climbed out of his 20’s, but nonetheless, I am growing in a desire to live for something other than myself.
This past year I listened to a gifted leader within our missional community teach on inner healing prayer. He began to describe the seemingly endless internal struggle I have in never arriving at a point where I am truly satisfied with myself, terming this struggle “the disease of introspection.” Transcribing a combination of my own personal thoughts mixed in with his words, I found myself writing:
“We accept who we were truly made to be very little. American culture is very hard on feeling American in particular. People who are gifted with sensitivity of feeling actually struggle much deeper with self-acceptance than those who are ‘machismo’ or gifted in sports. Although God created me to ‘become myself,’ we often deny and refuse to be this very person. We must come out of our compartmentalization boxes, as lack of self-acceptance occurs when we compartmentalize to such an extent that we cut off ourselves from ourselves! The natural inclination is to fail to relax in the safety of my own self, and to turn in comparison towards others, seeking affirmation in context of how ‘well I am faring’ compared to my neighbor. This ‘walking beside ourself’ comparing our progress with others results in the stunted development of a self, as we remain passive, watching and hoping we become someone worthy, as opposed to stepping forward into someone living a life of worth and inherent value.
The disease of introspection is a consistent gauging of who we are to such an extent that we are never fully present within any experience at all, destroying such experience by analyzing it to death. I am ashamed at how often I watch myself live life, as opposed to engaging fully in what is before me. It’s as if I am the white angel and black devil from the old Looney Tunes cartoons, hovering over myself with a constant chatter that ultimately results in almost complete paralyzation. As I have matured these past few years, I have come to realize that for a certain type of person, introspection has dangerous side-effects that result in almost complete inaction and false growth. I can self-reflect in profoundly accurate ways, and yet this insight has often not catalyzed into actual transformation and self-sacrificial service for the good of the world.
One of my oldest friends has been gently prodding me through this ‘disease’ these past few years. Brian Penrose replied to an yet another self-flogging email I sent a few friends last year with these words: “Don’t get stuck in your head, my brother. You’ve done enough intellectual learning in the last decade (college, grad school, endless self-study) for several people. May this be a wonderful season of ‘experiential’ learning for you. Sometimes the only way to live life, is to live it unexaminedly for awhile. Do stuff that makes you happy, and let the simple joys center you.”