The Grief of Growth


In my professional life, I have the privilege of journeying with persons who are, like most of us, on a developmental journey of sorts. They come to work with a host of life experiences, expectations and hopes, fears and anxieties, and patterns of behavior that have developed over many years. Most understandably expect that they will receive instruction and guidance in their acquisition of theory and skill in spiritual care work. What surprises many, however, is the focus on self-awareness and spiritual formation that undergirds this increasingly outcome oriented learning process. In clinical pastoral education, students are introduced to the discipline of spiritual care through an inductive approach to adult learning that assumes that one learns best by doing, reflecting on that action, and then making necessary adaptations to one's work in subsequent encounters. Through this approach persons and the varieties of systems and social locations that serve as their holding environments are at least as much a part of the instruction as what I have to offer to them. As you can imagine, there are infinite possibilities in any spiritual care encounter, but one must make choices in these encounters that will either deepen the conversation and/or empower the other or, on the other hand, choose to cling to safety by standing with one's feet halfway off the proverbial diving board but never taking sufficient risks in the conversation for an encounter to occur. There are myriad reasons why persons choose to move in certain directions in their caregiving, but the strongest reasons are those that reflect what Carl Jung and others call unconscious behaviors. An example might be a student whose parent died at an especially formative period in her life that caused her to fear having direct conversations with people about death. She does not knock on the door with the conscious thought, "I plan on skimming the surface with this terminally ill person today," and yet that is what happens again and again in her encounters. These are behaviors that are patternistic and that seem to run automatically regardless of the situation or persons involved. All of the instruction in the world isn't going to make a dent in these patterns, so our work together is to explore whether these well worn grooves are serving her well in her work. Part of this work is to help her get her story straight. Where does this tendency come from in her? More often than not, many persons who feel inspired to work in spiritual care and other religious vocations carry a considerable amount of grief that has not found sufficient expression. Part of my role is to lift the lid slightly on that pressure filled container so that people can begin to relate to their grief, move toward integrating it honestly, and then have it as a resource from which to draw in their capacity to hold space for others' grief. 

This process of making the unconscious conscious is not for the faint of heart. As anyone who has sought out counseling will attest, there is painful learning when one takes responsibility for one's being. Jung once wrote, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” I find great hope in this idea, as do most of the persons I walk beside in their learning. It's just that the process of getting to that hope and freedom is often through a period of the dark night of the soul. As I often tell students at the outset of their time in our program, "You are not here to add more information to your existing container. You are here to build a bigger container that can hold more than you ever thought possible." Robert Kegan, noted developmental psychologist at Harvard, talks about this in terms of a shift in one's subject object relationship. In order to move from one developmental plane to another one, one must let go of one way of understanding and seeing the world before grabbing a hold of the next, more comprehensive, epistemic frame. The most pressing movement in my work is helping persons who are somewhere along the developmental bridge between what Kegan calls the socialized mind move further toward what he has called the self-authoring mind.

Roughly defined, persons operating from the socialized mind are subject to social convention, how others view them, what their various systems of belief tell them about the communities to which they belong whether country, religion, political ideology, or philosophy. Persons look outside of themselves to ascertain whether they're "OK," and as such lack a clearly defined, independent self.  If you were to ask them what they believed about something, they would appeal somewhat uncritically to an authority source or community with what appears to them as a sufficient and clear answer. The good news is that because others' opinions matter so much in this stage, empathy develops and adherence to behavioral norms are sustained in order to protect one's relationships. 

The person operating from a self-authoring mind, on the other hand, can take those prior relationships as object (they "have" them instead of being "had" by them) and are capable of standing outside external authority as they begin to develop a source of internal authority. These are people who can hear arguments from different perspectives and find the good and bad in each of them while aligning oneself with the one that most clearly reflects his or her values regardless of the source of those ideas. They can hear feedback from colleagues or loved ones, and rather than simply introjecting critique ("He said I looked foolish when I gave that comment, so I guess I am foolish.") they can talk back internally to others' feedback and determine if there is validity to it before accepting or rejecting it. These are persons who can exist within traditions and have their own perspectives that may run counter to what external authorities tell them to believe. 

More than half of the population in Kegan's research operates at the level of the socialized mind. For many, life does not require more from them than this way of looking at the world. For others, however, being subject to these norms inevitably runs into limits. For example, parents who have for most of their lives believed "what the Bible says" about same sex relationships are surprised to find that one of their children identifies as queer and are faced with numerous crises at once. How do they balance their approach to reading scripture with their love for their child? What will their friends at church think if they support their child and "turn their back on scripture?" Tragically, many parents choose to remain wedded to their ideological purity and their standing in the community at the expense of relationship with their children. They remain at the edge of the diving board, safely dry from the chaos that inevitably awaits them in the waters below. Others, however, choose to jump and enter into the unknown, often sacrificing greatly in their search for a way to love and support their children while not losing touch with their deep appreciation for scripture or the need for religious community. This faith filled decision to embrace uncertainty necessarily entails a feeling of being beside oneself, not recognizing who they are for a time. Regardless of the reason we make that initial leap, we experience a moment of free fall. Kegan calls this movement the source of e/motion, for it is the felt experience of the motion of our lives. This is also a place of profound grief for most of us because we are in between. We have left "home," but we have not yet arrived at our next destination developmentally. There is no time table for how long this period of free fall lasts in our lives. Perhaps you are in that place today and have been for some time. If you are like me and the many students who have allowed me to bear witness to their own journeys toward greater wholeness, sometimes we would rather return to our previous worldview where we knew what to expect and in relationships that at least felt familiar. The problem is that our soul will not allow that. Once we have made the leap into the chaotic waters of we know not what, there is no going back. Where we are headed requires letting go, and letting go necessitates grieving. 

For so many of us, grief feels like a wrong turn, a detour from where our lives are supposed to go. What if grief is telling us something quite different? What if grief is a signal that we have begun the process of letting go of a perspective that has limited us for far too long? Maybe the Source of our wholeness is preparing us for something bigger. Jung once said that we all walk in shoes too small for us.

There's a long road ahead.

Let's find shoes that fit for the journey with confidence that grief is a trustworthy guide.