I am reading a wonderful book about connecting to God and to God’s healing by way of knowing yourself; and, you know yourself by listening to your own story. The book is To Be Told by Dan Allender. Much of what he says is strikingly similar to what I was taught as a doctorate of ministry student at Palmer Theological Seminary studying family systems and marriage therapy. For an individual to be truly healthy, he or she has to read his or her own story honestly and discerningly. We have to come afresh to the story of our own lives and read and re-read that story. On this Allender is most certainly on track. My own experience at Palmer and even earlier as an MDiv student at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond affirms all I am learning from Allender.
My one bone of contention is Allender’s neglect of the positive experiences in one’s life and here I am specifically thinking of chapter 5, “Facing the Tragedy that Shapes You.” In this chapter, he says, “All passion is founded on pain, grown through risk, and marked by the decisions we make in the face of tragedy” (p. 65).
I affirm that “passion is founded on pain ... and marked by the decisions we make in the face of tragedy.” I do not agree that all passion comes from personal experiences with pain. Some passions – things we care about deeply (or passionately) – come from good experiences.
Also he says, “There is not a person on earth who has escaped life’s pivotal, inciting incidents – incidents that are full of sadness, injustice, failure, and cruelty; incidents that require action to change or redeem them. If we are listening to another person’s story, we must presume that shalom has been shattered and the he or she is on a journey to restore balance” (p. 66).
Yes, I say with Allender that shalom is shattered. No, I do not think we presume that. Presumption is not a good thing in listening. The conclusion is decided before I’ve told my story. Before I say anything, Allender already has decided shalom has been shattered in my life. He won’t hear my story because he’s listening with an agenda. He is so determined to find my pain that he may see pain that is not there. We do not need to presume the shalom in another person’s life is shattered. Simply listen to their story and that will be evident.
And finally, “Tragedy shapes our deepest passions, and our passions shape who we are and what we will become. Each person living in a fallen world will encounter abandonment, betrayal, and shame. You can’t avoid it and neither can I. It’s necessary in the context in which we come to grips with how we will live. It is in the midst of affliction that we become our truest or most false self” (p. 67).
I agree that tragedy indeed does “shape our deepest passions.” I do not agree that it is only in the midst of affliction that we become our truest self.” We do become our truest self in affliction, but positive experiences also reveal and create who we are.
By way of example, I share my own love of the outdoors. It goes back to when I was 13, the summer of 1983, and my family went backpacking for the first time. There are two times in my life that I recall my breath being taken away because of the awe and wonder that poured into me. The second time that happened was on my wedding day when my bride walked down to aisle to me and I was utterly taken with her beauty. The first time was when we hiked on that summer day through fog to the top of one of the mountains outside of Roanoke, Virginia. As we came to the clearing on the top, and I looked out over the valley, the first time I had ever had a literal mountain top experience, my breath left me – taken by beauty. My love of the outdoors was born.
It came not by pain (unless you count the pain of hiking up hill, but I was a 13-year-old bundle of energy). It came through love. The love of my mother and father to take me out into the woods; the love of green and trees and the sounds of nature instead of the sounds of the city; the love of what God did when he created and “saw that it was good.” My passion (or deep love for the forest) came from a positive experience, not a tragedy.
Later, in my first years of being a senior pastor, I discovered loneliness that comes with responsibility. I was in my late 20’s trying to figure the whole pastor thing out. I was single and seemingly not getting any closer to changing that. So, there was sadness in me. Sometimes it felt tragic. What did I do in those days to escape?
I retreated. I got in my car and drove west, away from Arlington, VA where I pastored, and out to Shenandoah National Park. I found my true self in a place of memory – the woods, the mountains. I did not have to be afraid there. I would go hiking for hours, alone, and the forest filled me with life. Even the time I stumbled upon an adolescent black bear turned out to be more laughable than scary. He was in the thicket a mere 10 yards to might right.
He looked, I looked, and I ran. After several seconds, I realized the bear had not run me down and tackled me. So, I stopped and turned around. Then I chuckled. He had run the other way faster than my retreat. That exhilaration, that closeness to nature was life-making within me.
Perhaps Counselor Allender would say I made a choice – to get in the car and drive to the forest. In the midst of my tragedy (unwanted single adulthood), I responded to my sadness by going to a place of joy and safety – the woods. But, I rejoin, this not from abandonment, betrayal, or shame. I had not yet gotten married and that coupled with the pressures of being a senior pastor coupled with the reality of my glaring inexperience made me feel quite stressed. I handled the stress by doing something I love.
I know Allender’s game – he could frame this conversation to bring out of me the shattered shalom, the shame I felt in my failure to wed, the elements of my earlier childhood that led me to react as I did to things. He wouldn’t be entirely wrong. I had a professor in my DMin program pry into my psyche by burrowing into my past. I kept feeling like she was determined to find something in me that had to be healed. I couldn’t find it and I wasn’t going to fake it for her. And I won’t fake it for Allender either. But, I get where he’s coming from and that professor did help me. She helped me re-examine some things.
To be honest, what I learned in my sessions with her caused me to take a closer look at how I went about relationships. I made a conscious effort to change what I did and it started with noting my own reactions in dating. The next person I went out with, and this is 12½ years ago, has been my wife for the last 11. So, I please, believe me when I say my professor/confessor and Dan Allender and others like them are psychologists who know their stuff.
What I would say to her and to Dan is that the positive experiences in some lives are just as profound as the tragedies and they should be heeded as well. Yes, the world is fallen. However, when God created he saw that it was good. The fall corrupted the good, but underneath the corruption, the good is still good; good by God’s standards. In my life, the inspirational, joy-filled, positive, good experiences carry more weight than the tragedies. I urge the good psychologists like Allender not to ignore the positives just because the negatives make juicier stories. That does not make you good listener. Seeking out only pain makes you listener with an agenda. All parts of a person’s story are parts that need to be told. The good parts too.