Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Discerning Balance Between Holiness and Wholeness: A Hallmark of the Resurrected Life

The Wild Reed's 2014 Holy Week series concludes with a final excerpt from John Neafsey's 2006 book A Sacred Voice is Calling: Personal and Social Conscience. (To start at the beginning of this series, click here.)

Unlike the previous four excerpts shared in this series, today's focuses not on suffering but on the authentic life or, as Neafsey puts it, "living as though the truth were true."

Why have I chosen to share this particular part of Neafsey's book today, Easter Sunday? Because I believe that another way of talking about the authentic life is to talk about the resurrected life.

After all, if we are truly to be followers of Christ then we must follow Christ out of our various tombs – tombs of fear and of hubris, tombs that cause isolation and inaction – and into the new life of resurrection. It won't, of course, be the full life of resurrection as, obviously, we're still living with our finite bodies. Nevertheless, we're called each day and in all kinds of situations to open ourselves to the transforming love of God and so die with Christ and rise with Christ.

Put another way, we're capable of experiencing and embodying intonations, aspects, qualities of the resurrection in our daily lives; capable of being – indeed, called to be – people of the resurrection.

In the following excerpt from A Sacred Voice is Calling, Neafsey explores wholeness and holiness. He contends that the call to a life of authenticity requires us to discern balance between being ourselves (wholeness) and behaving ourselves (holiness). Seeking, finding and embodying this balance is an aspect of the authentic life or, as I like to say, the resurrected life.

In discerning and embodying this balance we must be prepared to acknowledge and take responsibility for the shadow dimensions of ourselves, those parts of ourselves that, as Neafsey puts it, "don't neatly fit with our ideal mental image of the person we think we should be, our idea of what a 'good' or 'holy' person is like." I think it's possible to view the story of Jesus' descent into hell, between the time of his death and his resurrection, as a powerful metaphor for acknowledging and dealing with the shadow. Of course, exploring such an idea could comprise a whole post of its own! For now, though, I share a fourth (and final) excerpt from A Sacred Voice is Calling, one focused on holiness and wholeness in the call to a life of authenticity.

In the call to authenticity there is an inherent tension in our strivings for wholeness and holiness. The tension centers around the complex moral task of finding a discerning balance between being ourselves and behaving ourselves.

Holiness and wholeness have different associations in the minds of most people. They seem to be organized around different principals, oriented toward different aims, motivated by different values and ideals. Holiness is usually associated with our aspirations toward moral perfection or self-transcendence. It has to do with rising above our human weaknesses and limitations so that we can live up to certain standards of righteousness and good behavior. From this perspective, holiness requires efforts to tame or conquer our unruly, disordered, sinful selves, which might otherwise incline us in unholy directions if we are not careful to keep them in check and focused in the right direction. Wholeness, on the other hand, is associated with strivings for integration or completion or self-realization. Instead of focusing on overcoming the self, the emphasis is on embracing or accepting or expressing ourselves in all our complexity and imperfection. In a nutshell, wholeness is about being ourselves and holiness is about behaving ourselves.

We are called to both wholeness and holiness. Although they have different emphases, it is possible for these seemingly contradictory aims to work together in harmonious and complementary ways. Perhaps the most complex moral challenge we face in our discernment of these simultaneous calls is the problem of what to do with all the aspects of ourselves that don't neatly fit with our ideal mental image of the person we think we should be, our idea of what a "good" or "holy" person is like. In psychoanalysis, this is referred to as our ego ideal. For example, if our ego ideal centers around the idea that we should always and everywhere be loving and compassionate, we are likely to experience considerable discomfort when we experience feelings and inclinations in ourselves that do not seem particularly "nice" or loving or compassionate.

The shadow was Jung's name for all of the dimensions or parts of ourselves that do not conform to our ego ideal. The word shadow does not necessarily mean that these aspects of ourselves are bad or sinful, but rather suggests that some dimensions of our inner experience are darker or morally ambiguous and may not comfortably fit with the kind of self we aspire to be in the light of day. In my clinical practice I have worked with many idealistic, conscientious people over the years (especially those from Christian backgrounds) whose shadow side is often associated with thoughts and feelings related to anger, sex, and personal emotional needs. For example, feelings of anger that are perfectly appropriate in certain situations make some people extremely anxious and guilty, usually because anger conflicts with their idea of what it means to be a loving person. Natural sexual feelings and desires can also create inner conflict and tension because they are perceived as self-centered or sinful. In a similar way, normal human needs for attention and love from others may be perceived as "selfish" because they do not seem to be sufficiently generous and other-centered.

The shadow is perceived as emotionally, spiritually, and morally dangerous for good reasons. If we act out our shadow side thoughtlessly or irresponsibly, we are likely to get ourselves into all kinds of unhealthiness and trouble. Anger that is not carefully sorted out and expressed properly can be hurtful to others and damaging to our relationships. Irresponsible acting out of sexual feelings, of course, can also have disastrous consequences for ourselves and others. Likewise, an excessive and unbalanced focus on gratification of our own needs is a manifestation not only of egocentrism but also of a poorly developed conscience. And so a discerning attitude, common sense, and self-restraint are called for in all of our dealings with the shadow side of ourselves.

On the other hand, the seemingly dark and destructive feelings and inclinations associated with the shadow can also potentially play an important and constructive role in our personal growth and development. While impulsive action has its dangers, problems also develop when we get caught up in the opposite problem of denying or repressing the shadow side of ourselves. Defensive denial of our inner reality reflects a lack of psychological honesty. When it is based on pretense and denial, being a "good person" can also mean acting as a kind of false self. If we are too defensive, too controlled, too good all the time, we lose touch with our authentic feelings and all of the vital life energies they contain. When we are out of touch with our anger and our sexual passions, our capacity for authentic emotional and spiritual passion can become blocked.

Unconsciousness of our shadow also makes us more prone to hypocrisy and judgmental attitudes toward other people. If we are unable to admit our weaknesses to ourselves, we are more likely to project them onto others. We end up criticizing in others what we are actually ashamed of and afraid to look at in ourselves.

. . . And so the call to authenticity requires psychological honesty, which means that we need to acknowledge and take responsibility for the shadow dimensions of ourselves. . . . Just because something makes us uncomfortable does not mean that it is bad. From God's perspective, things might look very different.

The challenge centers around finding the proper attitude to take toward our shadow, the right kind of discerning consciousness with which to regard our inner experience. In psychoanalysis, this complex attitude or state of consciousness has been referred to as "conscious, loving self-restraint." The basic ingredients of conscious, loving self-restraint are psychological honesty and a commitment to loving care and respect for ourselves and others. We must be courageously honest in acknowledging our own inner truth, including shadow feelings and inclinations that may seem objectionable, while also being very conscientious and responsible about our attitude and behavior with others.

In the Zen Buddhist tradition, something comparable to "conscious, loving self-restraint" is summed up by the term "mindfulness." The essence of this attitude or state of consciousness is a relaxed, compassionate, non-judgmental awareness of whatever we may happen to be experiencing at any given moment. This includes our experiences of events and people in the external world as well as the thoughts and feelings that enter into our awareness within the internal world of our own mind.

. . . The great emotional and spiritual challenge of the call to wholeness is learning to acknowledge and accept and love ourselves as we are. . . . [The] humbling awareness of our own weaknesses helps us to be less judgmental and more forgiving toward other imperfect human beings. Paradoxically, the capacity to love and care for our imperfect selves is exactly what enables us to develop a more mature and generous love for others. The calls to wholeness and holiness come together in a right love for ourselves that frees us to be more just and compassionate in our dealings with others.

– John Neafsey
A Sacred Voice is Calling
pp. 51-62

For previous Easter reflections, see:
A Girl Named Sara: A Person of the Resurrection
The Triumph of Love: An Easter Reflection
Easter: The Celebration of the Sacrament of Transformation
Jesus: The Revelation of Oneness
The Resurrected Jesus
Jesus: The Breakthrough in the History of Humanity
Resurrection: Beyond Words, Dogmas, and All Possible Theological Formulations
The Passion of Christ (Part 11) – Jesus Appears to Mary
The Passion of Christ (Part 12) – Jesus Appears to His Friends

See also:
There Must Be Balance
Prayer of the Week – October 28, 2013
"Then I Shall Leap Into Love"
The Soul of a Dancer
Seeking Balance

Related Off-site Link:
In Easter Message, Pope Remembers Areas of War, Conflict Around World – Joshua J. McElwee (National Catholic Reporter, April 20, 2014).
"Every Life is Different Because You Passed This Way and Touched History": Easter Meditation Points – William D. Lindsey (Bilgrimage, April 20, 2014).
An Interview with John Neafsey – Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation (PTEV).

Opening image: Subject and photographer unknown.

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