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Stauros Notebook: Reflections on the Mystery of Suffering: Suffering and the Self, Spring 2004, 11-13.
Healing and Redeeming a Psychosomatic Life
by John Render and Phil Welches
Part I: A Personal Perspective
I am a 78-year-old Catholic Priest. I have spent 50 years as a Passionist Missionary. It has been a wonderful fifty years of religious experience. My life has also been one of conflicting mental and emotional experience.
A month ago I could hardly get out of bed, suffering from a deep depression. My physician sent me to a hospital rehabilitation program. I stayed there a week, participating in physical, occupational, and psychological therapies. The work of the therapists was very helpful.
A Psychosomatic Life
As a child, I learned two different ways to respond to reality. From my mother, I learned to value the truth above all else. Her dictum was: “The truth is big enough to take care of itself.” She lived with a man who was an alcoholic and often could not stand the truth or ever admit his basic weakness.
From my father, I learned that whatever he said was the truth and not to be contradicted. He was a good, gentle and giving man much of the time, but one who could also be cruel and mean without realizing it. He ended up a paranoiac schizophrenic in a nursing home next to the Monastery where I lived. I took care of him the last two years of his life.
In 1970, at the age of forty-six, I was diagnosed with a malignant cancer of the colon. The cancer was ready to metastasize through the walls of the colon. A doctor said he didn’t know if I could live through the operation, but he operated on me for five hours. He saved my life. He told me afterward: “There is something inside you eating you up, and you better find out what it is, or it will kill you.” He was right. I didn’t find it out until years later! Thank God I found it out then.
Throughout my life, I experienced attitudes similar to my father’s: others’ insistence on their own opinions. I often did violence to myself to live up to others’ expectations. I felt I had to live by what someone else said was true. The energy needed to live such a contradictory life was tremendous and much of it uselessly spent. I lived with this conflict from childhood until I was seventy-eight years old. It did not lead to a peaceful or happy life.
Time Unraveled, Time Rewound
In my first hour of psychotherapy, I established a working relationship with a psychologist, Phil Welches. His existential approach fit my needs. Dr. Welches helped by not saying anything until I talked. He then entered into the experience l was trying to describe, making the effort to think and speak on the same wavelength. Rather quickly, the talk went back to my childhood, when I picked up the two contradictory and conflicting ways of approaching reality:
- The truth is big enough to take care of itself.
- What another believes and says is the truth.
From then on. I went through my life and was able to judge sharply what was really true for me and what was not. It was enough to trust one’s own truth.
Time for Feeling Free
From the fourth day of my sessions with the psychologist on the rehabilitation unit, I was determined to express only what I really felt was true and nothing more. Since then, I have done that faithfully and freely. The relief I feel is boundless. I am more totally myself than I have ever been. It amazes me to know how easy it had been to adopt other people’s feelings as my own. I have felt more positive energy to live than I have in months. I have learned to accept other people’s feelings as truly theirs, but never accept them as mine unless they really are. I know and express today the difference, and I ask others to accept my feelings as honest and genuine. If they cannot do that for me, I recognize that is their problem, not mine. No one has any right to demand another person feel as they do, but many people (especially insecure people) do. I believe that it shows a lack of respect for themselves and other people.
A Paradigm Shift
In the world today there is a Paradigm Shift taking place. Rather than limiting reality to what has value for one in a limited selfish way, many people are learning to view reality as having different values for many people in their own unique circumstances.
Today in our religious community, we are undergoing a great paradigm shift in perceiving the world not as limited by our own religious experience in American culture, but learning to value a Cosmic Christ who is everywhere and in everything, as St. John tells us: “All things were made through Him and without Him was made nothing that was made“ (Jn. 1 3).
St. Paul has the same teaching of the truth of Christ’s presence and power: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in Him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible ... all things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:15-16).
The Passionists are in fifty-four countries in the world. I have been in many of them myself and know that God is infinitely greater than our limited experience.
In the past two months, I have gone through a dramatic personal transformation: physically, mentally, and spiritually. I had been a creature caught in different opinions and different demands, often contradictory. Today, I can search and test. I can rest in the truth when I can find it, or else wait for the truth to reveal itself.
Part II: Psychotherapist’s Perspective
Father Render’s personal story is one of hope and encouragement. It is an account of his faith and courage to transcend a life perspective and approach to which he had adhered for many years. It is also a testament to the inner wisdom of the individual. He was healed, not through his adopting an external “mental-disease” model (which may have only exacerbated his lack of faith in his own experience), but through a process of looking within and trusting what he knew to be true.
When the therapist makes an attempt to see the patient’s world as the patient sees it, the patient becomes, in effect, a consultant to the therapist. Naturally, in this process, the patient self-reflects. He describes himself in his life-situation, and his awareness deepens. The therapist’s requests for clarification and reflection fuel what becomes a process of discovery and growth. The patient becomes increasingly conscious of his basic assumptions that provide a foundation for his world-view and life-strategy.
Father Render reported that he had tended to take-in what another says as if it were true even if what was being said stood in contrast to what he (per his own experience) knew to be true. Not only were the others’ perceptions, beliefs, and opinions internalized, they became his norms for life. He described the internalizations as “weight” that he carried inside and tried to “push” out of the way. His own perceptions, beliefs, and opinions, of course, remained within; and there ensued an inner struggle that depleted his energy. He didn’t feel like getting out of bed and doing things. He avoided others in order to avoid situations that may place him at risk of “taking in” more.
This psychological process of “taking in” others’ reported perceptions and beliefs as if they were his own, and then struggling internally with them, was a longstanding interpersonally-related psychological process for Father Render. He found its origin in his early relations with his father: “If I didn’t take it in, he’d explode.” Father Render clarified that his father, who was a hard worker and decent man, would not have physically hurt him, but that his father’s criticisms “would devastate me.”
Father Render put forth a possible “solution:” That he “get the courage” to insist on the validity of his own experience and opinions, to express his experience and opinions, and ultimately to accept that the other person may not relent. Through his commitment, he moved the interaction from an inner (psychological) conflict, into the interpersonal sphere where it naturally belonged. In doing so, Father Render freed himself of the inner conflict that had weakened his physical health. Secondly, his forthright but respectful social approach improved his relations (and friendships) with others. The resonant principle in Father Render’s transformation had been there for years: “The truth is big enough to take care of itself.” It has been for Father Render.