Going for walks and hikes is always good for my soul. It is good to be out in nature, of course.1 But it is also good for me to have space to think, to process, and to just be. And, by stepping away from screens and breaking out of routine there’s more opportunity for a little unexpected adventure, perhaps bringing greater potential for me to learn something new about myself and about life.
Sometimes on hikes there will be a stream to cross. In warmer weather it can be fun to take my shoes off and wade through. But I also like making a game out of trying to find a way across without getting wet (a la the wonderful, imaginative childhood game of pretending the floor is lava!). On this recent hike it was a chilly day, and thus icy, cold water was not feeling appealing. So I visually surveyed up and down the bank for a place where there were either some rocks to step to, or perhaps it would be narrow enough to jump. And thus I eventually found myself at the edge of the bank, contemplating a “leap of faith.”
My gut/intuition had sized up the distance and was telling me I could just make this leap–as in, my felt sense was that I could jump this distance, but probably not farther (even another 6″ felt potentially beyond my current ability).2 Knowing myself, I knew that if I deliberated more than a few moments I might start to talk myself out of it. But the likely risks were relatively low: Maybe wet feet, or perhaps a sprained ankle. More severe consequences lingered in the back of my mind–not likely, but quite undesirable.
I could feel my heart rate rising somewhat, and the presence of some fear. But my body still was telling me, “We can make this jump. Trust us.” My side of the stream was relatively thick with underbrush, so no room for a running start beyond maybe a step. It was now or never–wait longer and I’d likely lose my nerve and/or my equivocation would start to decrease my ability to fully commit to the leap (and this was not something to be done half-heartedly!). I planted my feet, one ahead of the other such that I could get one good step in, rocked forward and back…once, twice, and then…I’m in the air!
I can feel my whole body working in unison, hurling me across the water. This is not something I can think my way through. It is not something I can even plan for (though my daily yoga practice and other ways I care for and challenge my body undoubtedly help!). No amount of analyzing or foresight or seeking good counsel or being a good person or trusting God will guarantee me a good outcome.3 In a brief moment I have literally cast myself into the arms of my body and soul, trusting my deepest self to somehow carry me to the other side (or help me hobble home if I painfully fail).
And this is life, for all of us–the choice over and over again of, “Do I trust my soul, and leap deeper into my own life? Or do I succumb to self-doubt, fear and shame and shrink back into the shadows, ‘living’ a life not really my own?” I wish I could say that I always “leap,” that I always trust myself, but the reality is, I often have not. I am 43 years old. I have grown and accomplished much, and experienced many good things, along with a fair amount of pain and loss. And in many ways I am grateful, particularly for who I am becoming. But as I look back I can see the ways that I often have not lived my own life.
So what does this mean, that we are all prone to “living”4 some form of life other than our own?5 An easy example is the classic dynamic of choosing a life path in order to win the approval of a parent, such as becoming a doctor, or marrying a certain kind of person, not because we feel deeply drawn to these directions, but because we secretly (i.e., potentially subconsciously) hope this path will gain us something that has been missing emotionally / relationally. And that last portion is really the crux of this dynamic, and why it can be extremely subtle at times. Because we can be choosing good things, and even things that are generally good for us and others, and yet be secretly hoping these things will somehow be our “answer” for our pain, our fear, our shame, our insecurity.6 I can become a genuinely better person, and yet the wounded parts of me can still have a secret agenda that this path (e.g., of becoming a better person) is what will finally bring me enough peace, love and joy. And when I am “living” partly out of that secret agenda I am not fully living my own life, because there are things I will unconsciously choose or avoid based on however my wounded parts think they can protect their agenda.
And the thing is, these secret agendas we all have are not entirely wrong. We are right to want to be loved, to be appreciated, to be respected, to feel safe, to feel cherished, to be at peace, to feel enough. And yet we each have to reckon with the ways that we haven’t experienced all that we have needed, both in childhood and adulthood–the ways in which the wounds of our lives cast long shadows. And out of those shadowy places we each have developed strategies to help us cope and survive. And in a sense we should be genuinely thankful for these strategies, even though they can be destructive and even though they are insufficient for truly living our own lives. Because in spite of all the negative aspects of our coping strategies (i.e., our secret agendas), they have indeed helped us survive.
I’m not trying to say that the negative effects don’t matter, because they do. We are still culpable for the ways that we hurt ourselves and others out of our attempts to survive life, our attempts to somehow fix what’s been broken. But we need to learn how to have compassion and gratitude for how we’ve done the best we could with what we were given, while also holding ourself accountable for how we have failed ourself and others, and then call ourself toward deeper healing and more true living.
This mix of compassion and accountability is foundational to all growth and healing. Because the parts of us that we cannot give compassion to will not dare risk coming into the light of healing (because why should they, when they know we will just shame them?). And the parts of us that we do not find the strength to hold accountable will continue to wreck havoc on our life and relationships with their distorted (though good-intentioned) attempts to find what we’ve been missing.
But when we start to be able to bring a little (even just a tiny bit) of compassion and accountability to ourself7 we can then begin to turn towards the deeper work of learning to live our own life. We can begin to let the pain, the hurt, the longing we’ve been avoiding to start to have a place inside of us, instead of forcing those wounded parts to perpetually live in the shadows. This is not easy–this is one of the hardest and most rewarding tasks we humans are capable of!
This process, of learning to welcome all of our wounded parts, takes us to uncomfortable places. It brings up pain, of course–the past-pain of where our wounds were formed and then repeated. And that is plenty scary (and again, usually necessitates having a wise, compassionate guide to walk with us). But an equally scary, yet more subtle, discomfort comes from increasingly realizing that we have been doing so many aspects of our life for different reasons than we were conscious of. In essence, we start to wake up to our own life, and to the disparity between what we’ve been choosing, and what our soul, deep down, longs for us to live into.
This gap can be quite significant, which can be both painful and shocking. So should we immediately set out to close the gap? Do we need to make some drastic changes, like changing careers, or moving to another state? Are these healthy “leaps of faith?” Maybe…but maybe not. Our culture frequently makes a mistake here, and with the intention of seeking to honor a person’s individual journey will encourage them to immediately “throw off the shackles of their life and go do whatever they want.” What is tricky is that this can actually become another coping strategy. Our insides are very complex, and our wounded parts do not give up their agendas easily!
So maybe you don’t love your partner, or your job, or your home anymore. Or maybe you don’t love what they have represented to you. Maybe you need to start to be with, and understand, the meaning your wounded parts have assigned to this person, vocation, etc. and how that connects to your deep places of unresolved pain. I have consistently found there to be more layers inside us than we expect and so it is always worthwhile to wait on big decisions8 and instead keep making space for the uncomfortable feelings, thoughts and impulses that start to arise as we feel the gap between how we’ve been “living” and the life our soul is calling us to truly live. We want to take action now because we want a way out of the discomfort as fast as we can. But that, while very human and understandable, almost inevitably short-circuits our healing and just becomes another coping response, and thus not really living our own life (but instead, just living in an extreme reaction).
So as I was hurtling through the air toward an uncertain outcome, how did I know it was the right choice to make the leap? Well, I didn’t know, not for certain. It was a guess. It was a hunch. It was a feeling. But this is a place I have much practice, not just as a counselor, but even more from my own inner-work as a client. So I was able to recognize in that moment on the bank that the hard-to-put-into-words feeling in my gut (in my intuition) somehow felt more trustworthy than other types of feelings I have had that were driven more by my wounding than by my grounded, core self. But there is nothing sacred about my leaping across a tiny stream. It makes for a great analogy, but on a different day at a different water crossing my gut feeling could have been to get my feet wet in the cold mountain waters. What matters is: Where is this impulse coming from? Am I being driven by fear, shame or pain? Is there some emotion, or wounded part of me, that I’m trying to avoid feeling by taking this action, this leap (whether literal or metaphorical)? Any “leap” that is driven by an avoidance of some emotion or part of us is not a leap of faith, but rather a dive of distrust.9
Again, words are inadequate here, but there was a distinct feeling in those brief moments on the bank as my insides somehow calculated the distance as just within my ability, and I felt a sense of resolve in my body and soul (even in the midst of my fear), and then quickly took action in a way that didn’t feel forced or effortful (though obviously I was working hard to leap well). And that is another quality to highlight: The more we are acting from our grounded, core self (i.e., from our soul) the more our actions, even when they involve intense labor, take on a certain easeful quality (such that even great effort doesn’t feel effortful).
And finally, when we are living from our core self–when we are living our own life–there is a unique sense of unity both with our body, but also within our psychology. The feeling is of everything within us working more in unison, all the parts of us working together as a team. The reality, of course, is that none of us is able to live in that kind of unity all the time, and never perfectly. We’re all in-process. As I continue to grow and heal I have moments, and days even, where I feel more unified and congruent than ever before. And I also have periods of time (always longer than I wish!) where I feel divided, confused and afraid of feeling the parts of me that are longing to be invited into the light to be healed.
But in that moment, on that bank, I was wonderfully unified, which is to say, I felt relatively whole. I felt my fear, and I felt my trust. I felt my strength, and I felt my limitations. And so all of me, strengths and weaknesses, quickly launched me into the unknown, moving me through the air…
And then I am planted…firmly…solidly on the narrow little edge of the far bank, without wavering, and also with the felt awareness that this was as far as I could jump (and no farther). I become aware of the rush of adrenaline. My heart is beating faster. I spontaneously let out a “Whoop!” or two, reveling in the delight of feeling my whole self work in unison so well. There’s a sense of satisfaction in having successfully landed, exactly where my gut had felt I could reach. But more than that, there is the joy of feeling undivided, of feeling relatively whole and at peace.
And then, as is often the case in life, I had to slowly make my way through underbrush (the far bank was even thicker than where I had come from), and then walk a few more miles to reach my car and head home. But the experience lingers… Not because it was super-human, or somehow perfect, but because it was an embodiment of the easeful unity we’re all invited to grow into.
- Related Post: Green Space and Your Mental Health ↩
- Our brains and bodies are amazing. This complex assessment happened faster than I could think about it. In fact, the longer I try to think about these things in the situation, the harder it becomes. ↩
- To be clear, I’m not denigrating trusting God here. I have my ups and downs with trusting God, of course. But my point here is that God is not a vending machine where I “trust” Him, or “do all the right things,” and then He makes my life go the way I want it to. Faith is complicated and messy, and certainly not a guarantee of good outcomes (we need only look to how many of the New Testament Christians fared for evidence of that). ↩
- I say “living” in quotes because I would argue that living any life other than one’s own is not really living, but more of a sleepwalking, more of a zombie-like existence. And if this makes you wonder about our culture and the proliferation of zombie movies over past decades you are on the right track. ↩
- There are books, to which I am indebted, which say all of this much better and more extensively than I will here. Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up, by James Hollis is a great example. ↩
- And of course we also choose things that are clearly bad for us as well. But I’m wanting to highlight the subtlety of how this dynamic plays out in all of us even in our choices that don’t seem immediately problematic. ↩
- which, quite frankly, can’t be done without someone walking with us who has built some of these muscles themself. ↩
- I don’t mean to suggest that we must always wait on big decisions, but rather that there is wisdom in cultivating the ability to feel the difference between when we are making a decision out of our old, unconscious agendas versus when we are making a decision out of a more grounded place. And this is especially true when we are early in the process of “waking up.” Too often folks have an initial awakening and then too quickly make massive changes to their life only to find that they feel much of the same discontent (just now dressed differently). ↩
- I say “dive” because rather than taking flight we are digging a hole to climb into. And I say “distrust” because rather than having faith in God having created us with an amazing capacity for growth and healing we are distrusting not just Him, but our own self–we are saying, in effect, that we don’t really believe we are up to the task of living our own life. Our wounded parts are clever (they often contain some of our greatest gifts, if we will only do the work to free them) and so we might be engaged in much activity that can, on the surface, seem empowering. But the degree to which that is driven by avoidance it is still a fundamental distrust in ourself and our God-given ability to grow. ↩
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