I’m in therapy. Not just counseling, not coaching, not mentoring. Therapy. Those others are helpful and powerful. I’m a counselor, coach, and mentor myself. I need therapy. Deep. Hard. Soul cracking work. A recent painful, unexpected transition woke me to this. It brought life-long fears and wounds to the surface. As Bruce Cockburn sings in “Last Night of the World,” “That was the straw that broke me open.”
“Therapy,” my wife said, “you’ve always been able to figure things out yourself.”
My therapist asked me to chronicle my life losses. I’ve experienced an avalanche of loss. Falling down the stairs and fracturing my skull as a two-year-old and standing in a metal hospital crib crying as my parents were ushered out is one of my earliest memories. And the beginning of life-long health and learning issues. Reading my Faulkneresque list my therapist joked, “I’m surprised you’re not drooling in some psychiatric institution.” Strangely that made me feel better. But it also surfaced how full of trauma my life has been.
Consider 2015. In September, my wife and son contracted pneumonia. Nearly deadly for my son. In October, I slipped on ice, conked my head four times going down, and acquired a severe concussion. On Thanksgiving, my younger brother died unexpectedly. Also in November, I changed jobs. And—drum roll—on December 28, 2015, I suffered a near fatal heart attack.
It does seem I’ve been able to handle a thing or two myself.
But maybe not.
I remember driving home from Denver Seminary many years ago. After class one night, I forced a foot of concrete-like snow from my 1979 Toyota pickup windshield. Visibility was zero. About ten minutes into the drive, my windshield wipers quit. I plowed the final agonizing fifteen miles swiping the snow off my windshield with my foot-long snow scraper.
I consider myself somewhat handy. My dad was a mechanic after all. I diagnosed that the wiper motor had failed. But after knocking my knuckles for several hours, I couldn’t even get the damn wiper motor out. I called my younger brother, who was a far better mechanic than I.
“Dale, I need help fixing my truck.”
“You usually do,” he said.
I told him the story. He laughed and came over on Sunday. We (he) worked on it for a few minutes and looked up and said, “Did you check the fuse?”
“There’s a fuse?”
He laughed again, crawled under the dash, and pulled out a blown fuse. We replaced it, bolted the wiper motor back in and it was done in about fifteen minutes!
He lit a cigarette. Triumphant. “Always check the easier fix before the harder one,” he said over the Winston hanging from his lip.
Also be willing to say I can’t. I need help.
Those who say I can’t, avoid trouble better than those who say I can. Addicts (including myself) always believe they can handle the drugs or alcohol until they can’t. Then it’s too late and they/we seem unable then to utter those healing words, “I can’t control this. I need help.” This even after our lives have gone to shit and it is obvious to everyone else that we in fact can’t control it. A.A. is based on this subtle idea.
I’m not refuting The Little Engine Who Could. Grit, hard work, and a can do attitude make a difference in success. When I used to rock climb, I quickly realized I would never make the top when I doubted myself at the bottom. But even sometimes when I believed I could at the bottom, I failed to summit. And when I did summit, I would not have without help.
Claiming I can and admitting I can’t in the same breath are not contradictions. They are paradox: two truths—seemingly opposed—operating at the same time. Truth is a cord stretched between two seemingly opposite ideas that work better together than apart.
Jesus taught the power of this paradox long before A.A.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . Blessed are the meek . . . for theirs is the kingdom of heaven and they will inherit the earth.”
Notice everyone Jesus blessed is needy. Being blessed is more than a sassy, ironic Southern idiom. For Jesus it meant bowing to receive God’s personal touch of grace. We cannot receive God’s blessing standing tall and proud, unwilling to recognize our need for God’s grace. It is admitting I can’t do this alone but I can do it with you.
As I said, I’m in therapy. Like with my Toyota story, I have a history of thoroughly busting my knuckles before I call for help.
I harbor shame—founded and unfounded—that escapes its hiding place in my heart during the emotional equivalent of massive snowstorms. I know—on Facebook and Instagram—I appear well-adjusted and perfect but——.
Ironically, my shame is tied to my feeling of inadequacy. That I can’t take it. That I don’t measure up. Mired in difficulty my mind slogs back to the times I did not live up to my dad’s expectations, or when I dropped out of high school, or when I received rejection letters for my writing, or when I lost a job. These wounds flare up like embers in a garbage pit.
See! You suck at life, I scold myself. At the worst of times, I believe my shame is unredeemable. At the best of times, I know God can redeem even me. “I believe. Help my unbelief.” Another powerful paradox. At both times, I need help navigating life.
Doubling down, grabbing a bigger wrench, and posting a myriad of believe in yourself memes is not the answer. Just be yourself? “What if you’re an asshole?” one famous comedian said, who actually turned out to be an asshole. The self I believe in needs help!
There is no such thing as you—yourself alone. God created us not independent but interdependent. Study after psychological study shows humans (probably most animals too) were designed for connection. As clinical psychologist, Dr. Sue Johnson, writes, “We are building a culture of separateness that is at odds with our biology.”
Reaching out for help, saying I can’t, is as natural as eating. Rugged individualism is unnatural and as deadly as not eating.
This relational need is not a flaw that will be overcome in the heavenlies. It is part of the image of God in us. God is relationship, Father, Son, and Spirit. The Trinity is a “community of being.”
I try to remember my need for others is not a flaw. Loneliness, desperation, and a need for help—even in small ways—are all calls back into living within the image of God in community.
For me, tearing down the walls of shame I’ve built require the help of Someone who has endured shame and travelled the road ahead of me. But it can’t be just “me and Jesus!” I also need my gifted, humble eighty-seven-year-old therapist. With them–and many others–I feel the weight of many troubles lightening.