Monday, November 9, 2009

Obstacles to Mourning

Healing is painful. Growing is painful. Healing and growing at the same time is very painful. That is what I am finding out these days. Little by little God is healing my broken heart. At the same time that He is mending me with His comfort, He is growing me. While I knew that my need for healing was great, I was ignorant that the room for growth was great as well. I hadn’t planned on this. It is necessary and good, but it is hard. Harder than I expected. Through all of this I am becoming increasingly aware of the obstacles that I face as I seek to grieve well, to pay attention to my soul.

One of the things that I am discovering about myself is an old, bad, and deeply-engrained habit: ignoring my emotions. Somewhere along the way I picked up and/or developed some faulty assumptions and unhealthy perceptions about emotions, and I think that I am on the front end of a long process of identifying and mending my perspective. I have had multiple situations in recent weeks while intentionally trying to pay attention to my soul in which an emotion, usually heartache, has been stirred up. Strangely, in the same moment that I am trying to pay attention to that emotion – What is it? What triggered it? Why do I feel that way? – a competing reflex disposes of it. Apparently after 15-20 years of practice, I am remarkably efficient at mindlessly repressing my emotions. One moment I am on the verge of tears, and the next moment I feel close to nothing. I am troubled by this. Because of this I think that grieving well requires a lot of intentionality from me.

Recently I have thought of choosing to pay attention to my soul as analogous to choosing to exercise. At least for me, choosing to exercise is always hard. It is even harder when I am tired. It is harder still when I don’t have much time. But when the exercise is physical therapy, motivation is particularly elusive because choosing to exercise is choosing to enter pain. It is always hard for me to pay attention to my soul because the assumptions and habits that I just described are at work against me. It is even harder than usual these days because I consistently feel weary. When 8pm comes and the boys are in bed, everything in me wants to check out and crash and then ride the snooze button in the morning. With work, sleep, household responsibilities, and the fact that everything seems harder these days, my margin seems really narrow also. Most of all, however, it is difficult for me to choose to pay attention to my soul when I know that it means entering into deep pain. I have a hard time getting motivated for that.

The analogy of exercise is helpful for me in identifying yet another challenge to paying attention to my soul. The benefits of individual choices to exercise are not immediately evident, but are cumulative. No one sheds all the weight that they want to lose in one workout. No one achieves their time or distance goals in their initial run. No one’s energy level and alertness is permanently boosted after the first trip to the gym. In the same way, any comfort felt in any one conversation, any rest experienced in any one time of prayer, any healing received in any moments of reflection are incremental and nearly imperceptible. Like the short-term benefits of smart choices, the short-term costs of not exercising and not paying attention to my soul are also incremental and nearly imperceptible.

When it comes to my few windows of margin these days, I find myself considering two primary options: paying attention to my soul and checking out. Checking out (i.e. TV, surfing the web, video games, etc.) is a particularly compelling option because it provides an immediate and tangible respite from both busyness and heavy-heartedness. Unfortunately, the benefits of choosing to check out are fleeting. No one touts the long-term benefits of watching hours of primetime sitcoms. There is, however, a long-term cumulative cost to constantly choosing to check out and a long-term cumulative benefit to regularly choosing to pay attention to my soul. I’m still trying to figure out how to manage the tension between the two in a healthy way, but I am confident that I want to choose to prioritize long-term benefits of paying attention to my soul (i.e. rest, comfort, healing, hope, joy, etc.) even with their short-term costs (i.e. remaining under the weight of my grief) over the short-term benefits of checking out (i.e. a respite from my heavy-heartedness) with their long-term costs (i.e. a wounded and neglected soul). While this is more important than ever for me to do because the stakes are higher, it is also more difficult than ever because the pain is deep, and I am working against faulty assumptions and old habits.

In short, I am realizing that for me in these days, choosing to pay attention to my soul is an exercise of discipline, courage, and wisdom: discipline because my default is to ignore my emotions, courage to choose to enter pain, and wisdom because the benefits of doing so are not immediately evident. Thankfully, I don’t need to muster these on my own. I am known and loved by the God whose Spirit bears the fruit of self-discipline in the lives of those He indwells, who gives courage with His constant presence, and who liberally grants wisdom to those who ask. The choice that I must make is to come to Him and walk with Him. Of course, as simple and obvious as it sounds, this too is hard.

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