Much of my life revolves around questions. As someone who enjoys theology, I love posing a question to, or about, the divine from the crux of my doubt or unknowing and then wrestling with it. As a writer, journalist, and storyteller, I love asking others questions about their lives and personal journeys so that I can share a compelling story with the world. The other day, however, I was confronted with the interesting notion that perhaps two of the things I enjoy the most in my life—theology and storytelling—have somehow become pursuits that help me to avoid dealing with my brokenness within. In this sense, as meaningful and fulfilling and helpful and transcendent as these pursuits may be to me, I’ve begun to realize that they can also become distractions—avenues that help me avoid directly confronting my brokenness. In a single week, both my friend and my counselor at Forest Hill Church in Charlotte confronted me with ideas that reflected this question: Have you ever asked yourself questions with the same fervor and intrigue that you ask God questions and the same curiosity that you ask the subjects of your stories questions? Though this was directed toward me, I believe this idea is for all who are reading this. We all have questions about the world and our existence. But far too often these questions are exterior-focused (Why did he/she do that to me?; How could my boss treat me like that?; Why did God allow this to happen?) rather than interior-focused (What are my blindspots in relationships?; Why I am afraid of leaving this job or moving from this city?; What does my spiritual approach or prayer life say about my God-view?). I recently heard a parable from Irish philosopher Peter Rollins about a man who was undergoing intense psychoanalysis because he was convinced that he was a seed. The man was eventually released to return home because he finally began to believe that he was not a seed. However, when the man saw his neighbor’s chickens, he ended up back in psychoanalysis, crying hysterically and having a mental breakdown. His therapist asked him, “What happened? You know that you aren’t a seed,” to which the man responded, “I know that! But do the chickens know?” Many of our problems might seem as if they are on the exterior—the chickens of our lives—but usually the root of the problem is somewhere within us, where real change, growth, and maturity needs to take place. The more we can gain energy from within, the more soundly we will approach the exterior, the cruelties of this world. If I can awaken more to who I am and who I am not, I will not be so fearful of being eaten. I’ve divided this post into two primary sections: “mystic of my mind,” a challenge for me to apply my same mystic-like intrigue and wonder to the temple within, and “seeker of my soul,” a challenge for me to apply my same journalistic curiosity in seeking to understand my own story. I hope this post will be an encouragement to you—to be your own mystic and journalist as you explore what my pastor calls the “universe within.” As St. Teresa of Avila writes in The Way Of Perfection, “Almost all problems in the spiritual life stem from a lack of self-knowledge.”
Mystic of my mind We are all mystics, in sense, because there are things about our present reality that we do not understand. In Peter Scazerro's brilliant book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, he discusses the metaphor of an iceberg—how 90 percent of an iceberg is beneath the surface of the water. What’s visible to others is rarely the entirety of our struggles. So how will I further explore the density of the dangerous and deadly icebergs in my mind, my psyche? Am I willing to plunge into the freezing waters and evaluate its magnitude and explore what might be contributing to the iceberg’s existence?
Spiritually, a mystic is not one who denies the existence of absolutes but rather believes that these truths are beyond comprehension and must be explored more and more. And, though these truths are beyond comprehension and are therefore beyond language, a mystic cannot stop talking or writing about that which cannot be explained, though she recognizes such words will fall far short of Glory’s reality. How can I engage in the mysteries and complexities within me and attempt to name them, all the while knowing that my interior work will never be completed? The intersection of Mystery, it seems, is within our very selves. Christians have done a phenomenal job of elevating Christ, which I suppose is natural, but what’s most interesting to me is that, biblically speaking, Christ said that it was best for him to return to heaven so that his followers would receive something better: the Holy Spirit, a mysterious indwelling of the divine which will never leave us or forsake us. It would seem logical then that to know God I must know myself, where God resides. If divine union is true, what would it look like for me to become aware of how God longs to not only fill my strengths and securities within but also my weaknesses and insecurities? How can I, in a form of surrender, bring my brokenness and the fragile spaces within me to the surface?
Seeker of my soul Though I am a journalist and a writer by trade, we are all storytellers. We are co-authors with God in the books of our lives. Good journalists and writers are seekers—seekers of truth, story-gatherers. They do not shy away from conflict or messiness because they realize that truth is found in discomfort and confrontation; they realize that plots are born in fragile places, in pain. How can I enter into discomfort and disruption within so that I can awaken to these jeweled mysteries and truths? How can I healthily explore the uncomfortable, fragile and painful places of my past and present so a plot can be born—one that will propel me into the future?
As a journalist, I know that a good story involves a good plot. But I cannot stumble upon a good plot if I do not ask good questions. This is how a journalist "seeks" a story. By asking good questions and intently listening to the subject’s responses. Am I asking myself good questions? How can I ask better questions? What are the questions I am afraid to ask? If my soul is the subject, does it dare to answer the questions? Why is it hesitant or quiet? How can I listen to its responses, even if the truth is difficult to hear? Whenever I am interviewing someone and he or she shows me a hint of emotion, I usually try to dig deeper into that subject. I’ve recently begun to do the same thing with myself in my everyday life, taking author Elizabeth Gilbert's advice to approach my emotions and responses as if I am an anthropologist, analyzing the behavior gracefully and non-judgmentally. Why did I cry during that scene again? What does my emotional response say about what I deeply desire? Why did that person’s words cause anxiety to well up within me? Is my anxiety a byproduct of unprocessed pain?
Sometimes there are answers. Sometimes there aren’t.
But it’s always worth asking the question. It seems that the dark corners of our souls is where the plot of a story hides and resides. It’s usually hidden because every plot involves pain, but pain seems to be something that naturally runs away like a frightened rabbit and hides, somewhere in the deep recesses of our psyche. But as Irish philosopher Peter Rollins says, we must not suppress our ghosts if we want them to one day become holy ghosts. How can I engage with my own messiness, brokenness and ghosts so that a beautiful story can unfold? In closing, the other day my friend KC sent me a profound text message that read: “Unless a seed goes into the ground, bursts open and pours out its insides it cannot bear fruit. A seed experiences the greatest resistance right before it bursts through the soil.” How can I enter into resistance and allow a new story to burst through the soil?
By Stephen Copeland
This blog was first published on copelandwrites.com.