The novelist Ralph Ellison wrote in ‘Invisible Man’: “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” There is much wisdom in that short quote; it takes seriously the work of discovery and the individual nature of that quest.
Identity is important It gives us a sense of well-being and self worth; it celebrates our uniqueness. It is also inextricably linked to how we find and express meaning and purpose in our lives.
Lutheran Minister, Theologian and anti-Nazi activist, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, expressed the contradiction that we often find at the heart of our identity in his poem ‘Who Am I?’ At the end he finds his answer: ‘Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!’
Logotherapy & Existential Analysis is a therapeutic approach that allows and promotes self-discovery in each individual. Each journey is unique.
In this short video I explore some of the issues surrounding identity and why it’s important in our lives:
Today, on World Bipolar Day, I’m reminded of the words of Carl Jung: ‘The one who learns to live with his incapacity has learned a great deal’.
We all live with incapacity to some degree, not just those who live with a Bipolar diagnosis. Adapting to it, and finding meaning and self-transcendence in it, and through it, makes an enormous difference.
I know many people, who use the insight gained through living with a particular illness, to help others in comparable situations. They turn their incapacity into an advantage (and of course to the advantage of others). In that respect they are unique and are fulfilling a task no-one else can in quite the same way.
As Paul the Apostle wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:27: ‘But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong’. An apt reminder of the purpose inherent in living with a life-limiting, but also life affirming condition, such as Bipolar Disorder.
As a Logotherapist & Existential Analyst I often get asked the question, ‘what is Logotherapy’? It’s actually simpler than it might sound! So, to help with that question I’ve produced a short video that explains the basics:
The perversion of medical ethics that characterised the Third Reich is painful to comprehend in both its scope and form. From initially murdering children with disabilities, participating doctors and nurses moved on to the involuntary euthanisation of adults with mental illnesses and learning disabilities.
Although generally selected by physicians, the actual killings were normally carried out by nurses, either by passive (exposing patients to prolonged cold) or active (lethal injection) means. Why did the nurses carry out these killings? The answers are complex, deeply disturbing and instructive.
Cizik School of Nursing has created a 56-minute documentary entitled ‘Caring Corrupted: the Killing Nurses of the Third Reich’. The film explores how nurses participated in the Holocaust, and in-so-doing abrogating their professional ethics at the behest of a corrupt Nazi ideology.
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of this historical reality is how easily those ethics were sidelined and debased. It provides a powerful reminder of what can occur when an entire society is gripped by an evil ideology which becomes normalised over time. As such, it is a warning to us all in general, and to those in the caring professions in particular.
Carl Jung was a fascinating, engaging and pioneering Psychiatrist who had an in-depth knowledge of theology, anthropology, philosophy, archaeology and mythology; he was a unique polymath and very much ahead of his time. Jung’s ‘Analytical Psychology’ has had, and continues to have, an enormous impact in various fields of human endeavour.
Jung was interviewed in his home by the BBC in 1959; here he discussed autobiographical details, his difficult relationship with Freud, as well as the findings of his clinical work which spanned many years and included psychological types, the unconscious, and the effect of religion and death on the collective and individual psyche.
For me, one of the most intriguing insights came when he was asked about his belief in God; his response, after some thought, was “I don’t need to believe, I know.” In essence he was pointing out the intuitive nature of the psyche, and also that the word ‘belief’ has unfortunate, and erroneous connotations; the nature of God is complex and our rush to reductionism is cautioned against by Jung.
Significantly, he ends the interview by stating, quite correctly in my opinion, that “Man cannot stand a meaningless life” and that: “We need more psychology, we need more understanding of human nature because the only real danger that exist is man himself”. Indeed.
For those who are interested, I have a second website dedicated to my role as a Logotherapist & Existential Analysis. Logotherapy was developed by Psychiatrist and Holocaust Survivor Prof. Viktor Frankl; its premise is that humans are motivated by the pursuit of meaning throughout their lives and in individual circumstances. In his book ‘Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning’, Frankl writes: “Man is originally characterized by his “search for meaning” rather than his “search for himself.” The more he forgets himself—giving himself to a cause or another person—the more human he is. And the more he is immersed and absorbed in something or someone other than himself the more he really becomes himself.”
Logotherapy can be characterised as ‘healing through meaning’ and has a broad range of applications, especially in relation to navigating existential problems e.g. career choice, retirement, relationships, bereavement and living well with chronic ill-health. Logotherapy helps us to take control of our loves by accepting that “Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” (Viktor Frankl).
I generally write a short reflection for our (Cliftonville Moravian Church) newsletter. Here is the May instalment:
Quite a few years ago now, when I travelled extensively with work, I would often pick up items of interest from the countries, town or cities I visited. One of my favourite items is a Malaysian painted face mask I bought whilst visiting the Johor Bahru region, a few miles across the causeway from Singapore.
These masks, I later found out, were historically tribal attire that was used in a range of ceremonies, in addition to decorating homes. I was struck by the intricacies of the hand-painted design and the beautiful mixture of vibrant colours that really brought an inanimate object to life.
And so this ‘souvenir’ sits proudly on a display shelf in my sitting room; the colours catch my eye each and every time in walk in to the room. It is a welcoming face that reminds me of an earlier period in my life, filled with travel and the joy of learning about new and diverse cultures, some of which are significantly different to our own.
The mask is an item known to many cultures throughout antiquity. In our own contemporary society, we frequently ‘put on a mask’, although in a metaphorical sense. We hide our true emotions behind that mask, which can be multifaceted and every changing, but however it manifests itself, it always has a spiritual dimension at its core.
How many times, I wonder, do we hide our true emotions behind a smile or an upbeat demeanour? How often, do we say ‘I’m fine’, when the truth is somewhat different, or even radically different – when we are struggling to cope with a painful life event or series of perceived failures? Or what about those instances when we wrestle with a spiritual malaise that there seems to be no answer to?
In truth, we can never really tell at first glance whether or not the facade is real or forced; it can take some time to unearth emotional turmoil and pain bubbling underneath the surface. And that is why we need to take to heart that aphorism attributed, sometimes to Plato, but by others to John Watson: ‘Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle’.How hard that battle actually is we can only guess at, in each individual we meet, from an emotional and physical distance.
As a therapist I see people from all walks of life; many exhibit an outward demeanour of confidence and contentment with life, but behind the mask, constructed to please others, or even to convince themselves, there is much suffering and pain, struggling to find an outlet. As a Minister I know that those who care for others are sometimes the hardest hit and feel under the most pressure to retreat beneath the facade they have either carefully constructed and cultivated, or has been projected on to them.
But society is changing, and I would contend, very much for the better. No doubt you are aware that recently, in their quest to encourage us all to tackle the stigma and prejudice that still sadly accompanies mental illness, the new generation of the royal family have been very proactive in encouraging us all to step from behind the facade and to talk openly of our emotions. That can only be a good thing, for individuals, but also for wider society. The typical ‘stiff upper lip’ approach of our culture has been advantageous in displaying fortitude and Stoicism, but leaves us ill-prepared to deal with the emotional health and wellbeing of ourselves and others.
As a community of faith, we should be especially alert to these messages of openness and honesty. After all, Jesus himself was a master of seeing beyond the facade and engaging with the real person behind it. When we consider those many awe-inspiring and life-changing encounters he had in his earthly ministry – reaching out and touching the spiritual core of those on the margins. We read of a Jesus who could see the pain of the Samaritan woman, the struggles sick man at the Pool of Bethesda, and the spiritual distress of the woman who was haemorrhaging and ostracised from her community.
Also as a community of faith, we are reminded in an equally important manner of the Jesus who saw beyond the legalistic and pious mask of the Pharisees, and found within a dearth of spiritual connectedness with the God of grace and love for all.
So what do we do? Where do we go from here? Well, it is no small step to admit our vulnerability, to each other as a loving, Christian community; it is no small step to open up and admit when we need help or support, emotional or otherwise. It can be hard too, to see those around us in the light of their own struggles. Remember those words of the famous Lutheran Minister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote in his book ‘The Cost of Discipleship’: “Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his master. Following Christ means passio passiva, suffering because we have to suffer.” And I would add, not being ashamed to own that suffering and to let others enter into our emotional and spiritual lives to share in all that we go through; we can only do that by ridding ourselves of the ‘all is well’ mask.
Bonhoeffer did of course put this more poetically than I ever could, when he observed: “We must learn to regard people lessinlight of what they door omit todo, and more in the light of what they suffer.” And we can only do that when we begin to chip away at that facade and reveal our true selves to those we live in community with, and to live honestly in the light of God’s love.
We all have burdens that we carry – some less significant and disabling that others – but they are burdens nonetheless that prompt us to turn to God. We all know those immensely powerful words, uttered by Jesus and recorded in Matthew 11:28, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”.
But as we turn to God, we need to be cognizant of the fact that he works through others in their vulnerability, and opens us up to new possibilities through our vulnerability. Here, I want to finish this short reflection with the words of Teresa of Avila:
“Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”
So I look now at my magnificent souvenir mask, as an object of beauty and a reminder of new cultural vistas explored, but also as an aide memoire that the mask is not always meant to be worn – the contours of our true selves is infinitely more cherished and loved by God than any facade we may construct.
I came across a very widespread quote the other day that made me stop and think for a few seconds – ‘A lot of what weighs you down isn’t yours to carry.’ Yes, I have seen it before, but for some reason it resonated with me that day. Perhaps it was because I felt an extra burden of being faced with a situation I found both painful and almost impossible to change?
Or maybe it was a by-product of dealing with some difficult cases in my patient advocacy job; ‘turning off’ after work can be a difficult task at times and the thoughts linger – have I done enough? Have I missed something?
Being weighed down with worry, the expectations of others, our own expectations and the situations in our lives that are – no matter how hard we try to change it – beyond our control, are common to the human condition; more common than we might think. We all carry something within us, whoever we might be and whatever our life circumstances are. Jesus understood this: that is why he uttered those immortal words from Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light”.
These words, and the sentiment behind them, do not occur in isolation. Consider this, from Psalm 55:22: “Cast your burden on the Lord, and He shall sustain you; He shall never permit the righteous to be moved”
And so we have no need to carry such heavy weights of failure, expectation, brokenness, fear, guilt and despair. Those burdens are not ours to carry, at least not alone. We need to take God at his word here and let go of what holds us back and prevents us from living a life of faith, hope and love – love directed towards others, and ourselves.
All of this is difficult and takes time and effort. But we need to look towards the future, and indeed the present moment, with confidence In God
The American ‘inspirational’ writer, Orison Swett Marden, made the point that: ‘When we are sure that we are on the right road there is no need to plan our journey too far ahead. No need to burden ourselves with doubts and fears as to the obstacles that may bar our progress. We cannot take more than one step at a time’.
One step at a time. No overwhelming worry. Just one step at a time. Time to let go and let God shoulder the burden, just like he said he would. And remember: ‘A lot of what weighs you down isn’t yours to carry’. So take a deep breath and let it go.