Many years ago, when I was in high school, I wrote a few chapters of a YA novel. I was sure at the time that my creative talent would soon launch my multi-million dollar/best-seller novelist career. And maybe it would have, if pre-calculus hadn’t taken up all my time my senior year.
But probably not. The novel remains stuck at chapter four and I will never know which of the attractive young men my protagonist would have chosen in chapter 26 or so. Still, as I reread that young author’s work, I couldn’t help but think how insightful she was on so many of the issues that would plague her through the next three decades and beyond. I’m still a mess around so many of the issues that I started to raise through fiction in the mid-1980s.
Since then I have traveled the world, had some successes in both my personal and professional life, and had the chance to explore many issues affecting my emotional and spiritual well-being. Yet, I couldn’t help but laugh as I saw what I had written in high school. The issues are all still the same, it seems.
My controlling mother is dead and has proven her love many times over, yet still I chafe at how her words often manage to hurt, even when it’s my mind speaking and not her lips. My sibling and I have made peace, but I still wage a war inside about whether she is the sibling who tries the best she can or the sibling who doesn’t try at all, thus taking a sledgehammer to my sanity on a regular basis. Even on less personal issues, I see the similarities between my high school self and my now 48-year-old self: making sense of the role of money in society and the human tendency to put down and separate ourselves from those who are different.
I would have said that I had put these conundrums behind me, or at least explored them until they no longer drive me to harmful action or inaction. Certainly in college, I escaped the pain of my family life and learned the value of activism. And then, when I saw how the pendulum swung, I solved these issues again after the Peace Corps as I settled down into a career. And as I went into seminary. And as I started my own family. And as I started regular spiritual practices and found peace in the restful embrace of the Divine Presence.
Except that none of these times of finally getting to the heart of the things that cluttered my mind and separated me from a sense of peace, fully erased any of them. Instead, with three decades of distance from that high school writing journal that started to unearth these “demons,” I see how every attempt to deal with them simply peeled away another layer of the onion. And always, even now, there is something deeper.
But I’m not really a fan of onions, at least not raw. Maybe a better image for me is that of a flower bud, opening a little at a time. Buds are pretty, but they become even more beautiful as they open. You may think of roses, but I think of blush-tipped peonies, my mother’s favorite flower. And, of course, peonies have that nagging issue that you can’t bring them inside because they are pollinated by ants. There’s always something to bite you as the flower opens more and more.
So maybe It really is like an onion – after all the deeper you go into the center of the onion, the more tears you’re likely to cry.
I want to be able to tell people that the work we do together in spiritual direction, or the work they do in therapy, or the work they do in their own time and their own way will eventually heal all wounds and give clear direction to their lives. If I can’t make promises like these, then who’s going to do the work?
But reflecting on this old writing journal of mine, I realize that I probably can’t make promises like these just to make a buck. I can’t perpetuate society’s narrative that we should just “get over it,” whatever “it” is that lives in the shadow places at the center of our souls. It may not be that we can “fix” these things, because they are not problems to be solved, but parts of our true selves that give facets to the glorious people that we are.
I may always keep coming back to the fears and concerns and questions that my early writings raised. And despite our culture’s insistence that we must always move forward, I think it’s healthy that I keep circling back to love, acceptance, enough, and justice – and probably 100 more facets that shape the diamond that is my true self.
For the bud to bloom, it must break open. But that is not the end of the blooming. With every widening moment there is a deeper embrace of ourselves and of the world we are called to serve.
What are some of the spiritual, emotional and practical issues that you seem to be called to explore again and again through your life? Do you feel pressure, either from yourself or from society and those close to you, to just get over them? Think about one of these issues. Is there something in it that rather than being “fixed” would benefit from accepting and exploring it as a part of who you are at your core?
This kind of work is hard to do alone. I remember many times when I resisted the impulse to explore my relationship with my mother or sister, or just assumed I should already know how to respond to issues around money and diversity. My spiritual director is pretty tough – just when I think I’m off the hook, she asks me a question that send me right back to exploring some of these foundational themes of all the stories of my life. We may not fix it, but every opening of the flower and every layer of the onion draws me closer to who I am really called to be. If you are interested in exploring spiritual direction, contact Openings: Let the Spirit In and we can set up a free consultation.