Jackie: It seems to me that part of deepening our humanity involves accepting, or at least acknowledging, our brokenness. Some call this sin or alienation from God while others describe it as being fragmented. How do you understand human brokenness?
David: Let me start with what I take to be the soil out of which brokenness develops – the human experience of alienation. Like all the basic existential realities of life, no one has to tell us about alienation. We simply have to attend to our depths to notice its presence. At its core is a sense of estrangement – from the world, from others, from God, even from our own self. We feel alienated from our own authenticity and truth. We are, as Nietzsche argued, naturally terrified by the otherness of others. And we feel separate from a distant and largely absent God. We feel desperately alone, lost and isolated. We can’t seem to escape the painful awareness that all is not well and that we are a microcosm of this dis-ease. I suspect this is what theologians are pointing to with the concept of sin. But, the issue is much deeper than morality. It’s more a matter of ontology. It’s a description of the state of our being.
Jackie: There’s something very sad if brokenness and alienation are the state of our being.
David: But notice I spoke of a sense of alienation. I didn’t say we were alienated. Nor do I think we are.
Jackie: So are you saying that our brokenness is an illusion?
David: Not at all. But I am suggesting that the existential and spiritual core of our sense of alienation is illusory. This illusory sense of estrangement and separateness is the foundation of our brokenness. Our brokenness is not reducible to this sense of alienation but it is soil out of which brokenness develops.
Jackie: Why do you say our sense of alienation is an illusion?
David: Nothing in existence would be in existence if it were not continuously held by the Ground of Being that we name as God. This is what the mystics mean when they speak of God within us and us within God – or, in the language of Saint Paul – us in Christ and Christ in us. This means that we are never far from God. God isn’t absent. All that is absent is our awareness of God in us and us in God. But in the absence of this our experience of ourselves as alone is powerfully real, as is our sense of alienation.
Jackie: How did we lose our awareness of our being-in-God?
David: We lose our awareness of our being-in-God whenever we fail to pay attention to the witness of our spirits and do not trust the inner authority of our hearts. Our hearts sense wholeness and presence and our spirits bear witness to the abiding presence of the Spirit. They offer us an inner compass that points us to the larger places of belonging in which we exist and in which we find our wholeness.
Jackie: You spoke a moment ago about alienation from our selves. What causes this?
David: The root of our alienation from ourselves is our choice of hiding and pretending as a way of defending against the vulnerability that is essential for any authentic transformation. It’s the choice of our false self over the truth of our self that has been eternally hidden in Christ.
Jackie: What’s the connection between spiritual alienation and human brokenness?
David: Brokenness is the opposite of wholeness. We often respond to our longing for wholeness with a quest for perfection. We try to fix the things in us that we sense are broken. We attempt to be less critical or more loving, to win the fight with our addictions and compulsions and eliminate our fears, anxieties and depression. But wholeness is not perfection. Wholeness is embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Ultimately, wholeness is to be found in belonging within the larger wholes within which we already exist. Wholeness does not come from fixing or growing our small ego-self but from participation in the fullness of life that is our Christ-self. This is living the truth of our self-in-Christ.
But I haven’t forgotten your question about the relationship between spiritual alienation and brokenness. Recall that I said that our illusory sense of alienation is the existential and spiritual foundation of our brokenness. This leaves us vulnerable to the life experiences that wound us. Our existential sense of alienation is the deepest level of our woundedness but this quickly gets compounded through the experience of life. Everyone will eventually experience emotional injury. Additionally, some may feel betrayed by God in ways that damage their faith. Others may be disillusioned by corrupt politicians or other public officials or be swindled by shady investment schemes. The result will always involve some form of wounding and breaking of our trust, hopefulness, or willingness to take risks. Sometimes the damage is limited to one sphere of the inner life – say, for example, our capacity for faith, but at other times it could lead to a more global impairment that we might describe as a broken spirit or a loss of a will to live. Brokenness includes all of this, starting with our sense of alienation and building on this foundation. But in overall terms we can describe it as a loss of the sense of wholeness and oneness, this including a loss of being at one within our self and within the world.
Jackie: What do you mean by not being at one within our selves?
David: First let’s look at what it means to be at one within our selves. It’s a feeling of alignment – all parts of our self being in harmony, all moving in the same direction. Kierkegaard described it as purity of heart, something he described as the ability to will one thing. We know little or nothing of this singularity and alignment. Rather than being motivated by a single overarching desire that reflects our deepest values and the truth of our self-in-Christ, our desires fragment us and push us around like a small boat on a stormy sea. Our emotions pull us in conflicting directions. Our hearts are divided and even our seemingly most pure motives are shot through and through with impurities. This duplicity lies at the core of our sense of alienation from our self. It’s an alienation that is rooted in inauthenticity and falsity. And it means that we are not at one with ourselves and consequently, are not at home within our selves.
Jackie: Can you give a personal example of not being at one within yourself?
David: My slowness to embrace the givens of my life gave me lots of experience with this. In my teens I felt different from most everyone I encountered around me – more interested in ideas than sports, and the ideas that interested me were ones that pushed me toward the margins of life as a typical adolescent. My best friend in high school shared my intellectual passions and, after soaking in Marx throughout our teenage years together, went on to be the leader of the Marxist Leninist Party of Canada. Politics didn’t interest me as much as science and theology but I did find the parochial nature of our small town and church oppressive. By learning to keep my interests pretty much to myself I was still able to participate reasonably fully in life as a teenager but my intellectual passions set me apart from my friends more than was apparent. I didn’t feel at home within myself because while I was busily trying to fit in as a regular teenager I was spending all my spare time developing a more progressive and inclusive theological framework than what our church offered, and in thinking through the relationship of science and religion. Worse however than simply a matter of a seriously misspent youth, I was driven in my pursuit of competence and respect and the ridiculously high expectations I placed on myself. I was, in short, hugely invested in becoming a self of my own creation and in so doing was setting myself apart from others. It’s no wonder, therefore, that I longed for a place of belonging but found myself unable to truly belong anywhere. I recall reading Thomas Merton saying that he thanked God that he was but a man among men. This came to me like a thunderbolt. I could hardly believe it. Accepting myself as simply a man among men was the last thing I wanted. I had been busy trying to be superman. But I was becoming seriously tired of this and received this single sentence in one of his journals as an invitation to make humanity my tribe and my body my home. It was a huge turning point for me.
Jackie: A turning from what specifically? From outward striving to inward acceptance?
David: That’s it exactly. And that makes pretty clear why turning this corner came with such a sense of rest and relief!
Jackie: You speak of human brokenness in existential terms but it seems that theologians generally speak of sin more as wrong “doing” than wrong “being.” It makes me wonder if we are searching for wholeness in the wrong place and whether this keeps us alienated from our selves.
David: Christians often put the emphasis on sins rather than sin – on behaviors rather than on our underlying lack of wholeness. This definitely puts the focus on the wrong thing. The change we need is much more profound than sin avoidance or spiritual self-improvement projects. What we need is nothing less than a heart and mind transplant; we need to acquire the heart and mind of Christ. Both our identity and consciousness needs to be transformed. That’s the path to wholeness. It’s a path of turning from our false ways of being toward the truth of our self-in-Christ.
Jackie: Which takes us back to our need to believe the truth of our self-in-Christ and what you said about cultivating an awareness of that.
Jackie: If God’s desire is to make us more fully human and whole, why do we so often resist knowing our brokenness? Why do we find it so shameful?
David: Shame lies at the core of our resistance to knowing and embracing our brokenness. It arises in response to a profound sense of vulnerability. It is being caught in God’s garden with your pants down and a half-eaten forbidden fruit in your hands just at the moment when you hear God calling your name and walking toward you. That’s naked vulnerability – something that is so intolerable and unstable that it quickly resolves into shame. What the Genesis story of the Fall tells us is that our fundamental problem lies in the fact that we want to be a god, not human. We hate the vulnerability that comes from being human. And when we experience it, we grasp anything available to try and cover our nakedness rather than embrace it. Shame and vulnerability make us want to run and hide.
Jackie: Vulnerability is often understood as weakness, or being defenceless and susceptible to attack. But it seems you are talking about vulnerability as uncovering ourselves, being tender, or as willingness and courage to be seen and known in our inner depths.
David: The vulnerability I am speaking of is intentional, never circumstantial. It is a choice, a willing allowing of ourselves to remain undefended at a point of acute rawness and fragility. It is choosing not to run and hide from our nakedness. This is why it is a spiritual posture, not a personality trait or simply a statement of how a person is within the circumstances of their life. It is choosing openness and trust. It’s a vote for our true self and is always, therefore, at the expense of our false ways of being in the world.
Jackie: What does it mean to speak of something being healed?
David: Perhaps the best way to recognize that something in our inner world has been healed is when we are able to move on with our lives. Brokenness is the name I give to anything that blocks our continuing growth and development. We feel stuck, and we are. Healing doesn’t remove the issue and circumstances associated with it from our history. That’s magic, not healing. If you were abused as a child you will never forget it, nor should you. Healing manifests itself when the energy we were previously investing in defending against the pain or conflict can now be put into living our lives. We know we are healed when we can once again – or perhaps for the very first time – enter the flow of the river of life.
Jackie: I think of healing as a life journey towards greater wholeness, as a moving through our brokenness rather than simply accepting it. This means we can still put our “broken” energy into our lives and relationships, but as we receive healing we experience deepening capacity for life and relationships. What do you think of this?
David: This is a nice way of putting it. We are all broken; wounding is inevitable. The only alternative to ever experiencing a broken heart is to have a shrink-wrapped, shrivelled heart. Daring to love may involve risk but the costs to the soul of refusing the openness and vulnerability of love are much greater. Cautious living has its own costs and they are very high. So, we can’t avoid wounds. But fortunately, our wounds are essential to our journey toward greater wholeness. I like the way you describe investing our “broken” energy into our lives. It is not only the only energy we have but it is in the midst of our brokenness and woundedness that we experience the grace of not just potential healing but also the grace of further wholeness. It’s like the paradox of sin leading to an awareness of the possibility of grace. Brokenness is the soil out of which we can move toward wholeness. It provides the vulnerability that makes us open and without that openness we can never experience either healing or genuine movement toward increased wholeness.
Jackie: So healing involves learning to live life out of brokenness rather than trying to pretend we don’t have it.
David: That’s it exactly. This is Henri Nouwen’s notion of the wounded healer – our capacity to help others not despite our own brokenness but precisely because of it. Wholeness doesn’t come from eliminating brokenness but trusting openness to life in the midst of it. In the same way, we don’t come to God by eliminating our sin but by receiving the joyful news of our acceptance by God in the midst of it. Paradoxically, our sin is a gift because it makes us aware of our need for God’s grace. In the same way, our wounds are a gift because they make us aware of our lack of wholeness and can be a threshold to healing and further wholeness.
Jackie: We all carry our brokenness with us and, as you say, there will always be more brokenness in our lives than can be healed. Perhaps the challenge is experiencing it rather than defending against the pain.
David: I agree. Again, paradoxically, we have to embrace our brokenness if we are to avoid being stuck in it. That embrace is not an embrace of resignation. It is an embrace of acceptance. It makes me think of the welcoming prayer that has arisen out of contemplative Christianity. It’s a spin off of centering prayer that reminds us that the route to freedom from the things that emerge within us that we wish were not present is to embrace them – to welcome them – but then to release them. This allows us to move on and not be stuck.
Jackie: That reminds me of the poem, The Guest House by Rumi, which speaks of offering hospitality to whatever emotions we experience. This hospitality sounds like a basic principle of psychospiritual healing.
David: It is. From my point of view, Freud’s greatest gift to our understanding of healing of the inner self was his recognition that it is the things about ourselves that we do not accept that become the source of our greatest bondage.
Jackie: This takes us back to our sense of alienation from ourselves and to living out of our adaptive but false selves – both clearly limiting our freedom and movement into greater wholeness. How would you describe bondage in the psychological and spiritual realms?
David: Bondage is a lack of freedom. We find the classic statement of this in St. Paul’s comment about doing the things he wanted not to do and not doing the things he wanted to do. Martin Luther described this as the bondage of the will. Others have simply seen it as the nature of sin. But calling this sin obscures the fact that this very same lack of freedom is at the core of every obsession, every addiction, every irrational fear, and much more. In either the spiritual or psychological realms, bondage involves a lack of freedom. This is why increased inner freedom is one of the most important markers of genuine healing.
Inner freedom comes from awareness of the forces which influence us. To be unaware of these influences is to be controlled by them. Self-awareness is, therefore, the way in which we can enhance our freedom. Yet, most people choose to go through life unaware. It may not feel like a choice, but it is a choice – it’s a choice we make over and over again, one way or another. But what we choose in terms of awareness will do more than any other single thing we do or choose to determine our overall level of inner freedom.
Jackie: Most of us are unaware that we are making the choice to be unaware. Consequently, we have a limited awareness of the freedom available to us.
David: Absolutely! This brings us back to our lack of awareness being the soil out of which our sense of alienation arises. Lack of awareness is the ground of our dis-ease and brokenness. But you are so right that we seldom think of it as a choice. We blame our circumstances rather than see that it is precisely in the midst of those circumstances that we face the choice of awareness or oblivion. Choosing awareness opens up to finding God in the midst of our present realities. And it opens up the possibilities of us growing in and through them rather than simply reacting to them. Awareness is the key to so much. This is why it is, in my opinion, the single most important spiritual practice.