Being present in the now was a gift to be prized, American psychologist Robert Wicks told a gathering in Sacred Heart Cathedral one Saturday morning last month.
Robert Wicks who specialises in the integration of psychology and spirituality has been in New Zealand sharing his wisdom on letting go of unnecessary obsessions in order to deepen one’s spiritual life.
The three elements of a deep spiritual life, he said, were presence to ourselves, presence to our neighbour and presence to God – unlike the James Joyce character, Mr Duffy, who ‘lived a short distance from his body’. But this was not always easy.
He told of a young psychology student and musician who was playing the organ at a funeral one day when a seven-year-old boy appeared in the organ loft.
Thinking this was unusual, she asked him where his parents were. Matter-of-factly he told her ‘Well, my mommy is downstairs and she said I could come up to see you. But my daddy is over there,’ pointing to the casket. She willed herself not to cry since she was sure this boy had seen enough tears already. Trying to smile, she looked at him and said, ‘oh’.
As a counselling student she thought there must be something better to say to a boy who had just lost his father. As it turned out this one word reassured him enough to tell her, ‘That song about eagle’s wings was my daddy’s favourite song; he sung it real loud in church. Now it’s my favourite song, too.’ She nodded and smiled, not saying anything for fear of crying.
The boy then went to the balcony rail and looked down on the casket, then touched the organ keys quickly and was gone. Several minutes later, his mother came upstairs to apologise for the intrusion. She said her son had not spoken, cried or eaten solid food since his dad had died. And then she thanked the organist for playing ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ by Michael Joncas because it had opened him up so that he could begin to grieve. (This story is in Robert Wicks: Riding the Dragon: 10 lessons for inner strength in challenging times Sorin Books 2003, 11-12).
Dangers in compassion
Robert Wicks talked of a ‘circle of grace’ which is formed by love and freedom in which people can rest their burdens and their worries, ‘when we reach out to others because it is natural’. ‘Whoever has a heart full of love always has something to give.’
But he warned of the dangers of being a compassionate person. In the spiritual life, one needed motivation and wisdom.
‘You can be sincere and still be stupid. My grandfather used to say when you fell off the bike it was important to get back on again. But my grandmother said, “You also have to pedal, you old fool.”’
One danger was that of having unrealistic expectations, like the Yiddish proverb: ‘Sleep faster, we need the pillows’.
‘The expectations of friends and colleagues will always be through the roof.’ Sometimes one needed to say ‘no’ – to keep a perspective.
‘The reality is that if you want to continue to care, you need to take some distance.’
Another danger was in being drawn into the fragility of people.
‘Don’t give away your Spirit of Christ to them. If you don’t keep it for yourself, at least keep it for your friends – they need your love.’
Self-debrief brings perspective
A psychological debriefing with relief workers evacuated from a bloody civil war in Rwanda in 1994 highlighted the need to keep a perspective.
‘In the course of one of the final interviews, one of the relief workers related stories of how certain members of the Hutu tribe raped and dismembered their Tutsi foes. Soon, I noticed I was holding onto my chair for dear life.’
The way to avoid the acute secondary stress that comes from working with people who have been abused and catching their grief is to go through a review of the day asking: What made me sad? Overwhelmed me? Sexually aroused me? Made me extremely happy or confused? ‘Being brutally honest with myself, I try to put my finger on the pulse of my emotions’ (Dragon p 55).
The next question must be, ‘What did I learn from this?’ followed by, ‘How can I change?’
Another danger to avoid came with colleagues and friends ‘wanting to make us into martyrs’ by telling us that we are doing too much, ‘Why do you do so much?’
‘Don’t listen to these people. We want to be thankful that God is calling us to be committed Christians.’
A good way to maintain a perspective on life is to spend some time each day humbly in solitude and prayer.