my defenses: my protection or my prison – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 7

Yesterday, I considered myself done, at least for the moment, in reflecting on human behavior. Yet, as oft happens with me, I had the proverbial second thought. Something else came to mind…

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Years ago, I had the privilege of working with a wonderful therapist, who (at times, working me over, pummeling, sometimes gently, sometimes not, my defense mechanisms into submission) helped me continue my journey toward that psychic land of a larger, more authentic me.

At the end of one of our weekly sessions, she asked me what I had learned about myself. I looked at her, my eyes wide with incredulity. I couldn’t believe that she wanted the always loquacious me to (try to) compress my ever-expanding-thoughts-and-exploding-feelings into the limitations of the final five minutes of our standard 50-minute-hour. “OK,” she laughed, nodding knowingly, “when we meet next week, first thing, tell me.”

I had seven days to prepare; the same time frame in which I composed weekly sermons. I could do it, but, with that much time, my native skepticism arose. Would my response be what I thought she wanted to hear (chameleonic behavior being one of my trusty default positions)[1] or a word of heartfelt honesty? Or a bit of both? And, if that, then how much of each? Indeed, even if that, would I know how much of each? After days of wrestling, like Jacob with the angel (perhaps, for me, with the devil!), I decided to be truthful or, truth be told, as truthful as I knew how to be.

At our appointed time, we met. I said (I know this, for I read from notes I had scribbled in a journal that still sits tucked away on the end of the bottom shelf of my bookcase): “I have learned that I’m good, very good at two things. Repression. I bury painful thoughts and feelings, believing I can make myself unaware of them. But they arise in my dreams, sometimes nightmares. Sometimes the symbols are difficult to decipher, but, given how I react in the dream, I know what they represent. And rationalization. I justify my behavior, especially the worst of it (for example, when I disregard another person’s feelings) by citing acceptable reasons (for example, what I’m doing at the time is more important because it involves the greater good of serving more people). In doing this, I disavow my real motivations, which usually are selfish.”

Resting her pensive chin on her folded hands, she said, “Good.”

Good? (I thought, but didn’t dare say) That’s it? Good? No accolades? No praise? No brownie-and-a-gold-star prize for perspicacity?

Reading my thoughts, she said softly, “Paul, you don’t need my approval. Even if I gave it, what would it matter? This is about you. And what you’ve named for yourself are defenses we all have. Now, are you ready and willing to let them go?”

What? Now, I did speak. “Let go of my defenses and be defenseless? No!”

Even softer, she said, “Paul, you’re one of the most well-defended people I know. What I suggest is that you assess when your defenses, which we all need, no longer serve as protection, but have become your prison.”

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That conversation on a Tuesday afternoon over twenty years ago, gave me an enduring image and an abiding awareness, both of which continue to guide me to my healthier self.

The image. Protective armor that serves, verily, that suits me well as I remain a given size. As I continue to grow in the depth of my knowledge of myself, the world around me, others, and God, and, concomitantly, in the breadth of my personality, that defensive armor, becoming, being too small, constrains, suffocates, imprisons me.

The awareness. That a healthy, helpful behavior is the power – the ability and willingness – to respond to life’s fluctuating circumstances and fickle chance not rigidly following my old-once-effective-patterns-and-habits, but rather with flexibility in accord with my ever-evolving understandings of who I am and how life is.

Through the light of this consciousness, I saw and see that I am (and I daresay we are) alway in the simultaneous process of being who we are and becoming who we will be. This realization also gave and gives to me new meaning to the words of my namesake, the Apostle Paul: “…as for knowledge, it will come to an end…when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”[2] In one sense, Paul, speaking of “the complete”, alludes to that future time, truly out of time, when God’s eternal kingdom of righteousness is fully realized. In another sense, I perceive in Paul’s observations of the movement from partial to complete, from childhood to adulthood the daily, existential cycles of growth in knowledge and awareness that are possible in this life in this world…if I choose to embark and remain on that journey.

Amen.

 

Footnotes:

[1] See my previous post, October 18: “and…authenticity & toxicity” – a personal reflection on human behavior, part 6 (and last), paragraph 2, where I wrote of “a chameleonic trap (of) adjusting what I do and say, even what I think to adapt to others’ expectations.”

[2] 1 Corinthians 13.8b, 10-12

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