Unpicking Our Delusions

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Blessed are the mourners, for they will be comforted.
Matthew 5: 4

 

In a commentary on the character of Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, he psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz writes:

Ultimately Scrooge changes because the ghosts unpick his delusion that you can live a life without loss. They undo his delusion by haunting Scrooge with the losses he has already experienced, the losses now being endured around him, and the inevitable loss of his own life and possessions. . . .

Sometimes change comes not because we set out to fix ourselves, or repair our relation to the living; sometimes we change most when we repair our relation to the lost, the forgotten, the dead. As Scrooge grieves for those he had loved but put out of his mind, he begins to regain the world he had lost. He comes to life. (The Examined Life, p. 114)

One of the most difficult and unhealthy effects of a cultural life without a sense of spirit is the way we turn some of the deepest expressions of the human spirit into illness. Among these is mourning and sadness. If life is but immediate and surface, what goes on beneath, in our depths, is a disturbance that threatens our functionality, what we mistakenly define as sanity. When a parent, or a spouse, or a child dies, we are supposed to feel sad for a limited and defined amount of time or else we are considered depressed and requiring medication. We are not taught and so do not learn how to live with sadness and mourning. In the United States the most successful form of Christianity is that which preaches the “gospel of prosperity.” Rightness with God, it teaches, results in and is signaled by prosperity and happiness.

Yet, Jesus teaches us in the Beatitudes that it those who mourn, who will be blessed. Interesting enough, psychoanalysis has come to the same conclusion. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, we tend to replace our deepest human capacities for love, awe, reverence, and intimacy with possessiveness and compulsion for illusory management and control because of our inability to suffer and mourn our losses. The poor in spirit are blessed because they know and live from the truth of their own poverty. What so many of us fail to realize is that we are all “poor in spirit.” For all our attempts to secure our comfort and and security, everything passes. In time we shall lose everyone and everything, including our own lives. Our souls are always suffering this truth.

So, true insanity is our denial of this truth, our dissociation from our own heart and soul. The source of this beatitude of Jesus is Isaiah 61:3. Chapter 61 is the passage quoted by Jesus in the synagogue at the beginning of his public ministry. Jesus says he is the one whom Isaiah describes who has been sent “ . . .to comfort all those who mourn and to give them/for ashes a garland; for mourning robe the oil of gladness,/for despondency, praise. They are to be called ‘terebinths of integrity’,/planted by Yahweh to glorify him.” A measure of human integrity is the capacity to mourn our losses.

The emphasis of the psychoanalytic view is on our losses of those on whom we have depended, who have loved us and whom we have loved. These, however, are not our only losses in life. We must mourn our loss of much of the wasting our our own lives, of our own refusals and failures to receive and offer the true gift we have been given. We must mourn not only our own sinfulness but the sinfulness of our whole race, of what we constantly and continually do to each other and to our common home. We must mourn the horrors that constitute the daily experiences of so many of our brothers and sisters, that is the ongoing passion and suffering of Jesus. At the level of ego, we think that the best way “to survive” is to forget and deny the realities. But, as Isaiah says, we do this at the cost of our human integrity.

My mother was a very strong and independent person. it was only later in life that I began to learn how much she had purchased that apparent strength of hers by a willful refusal to remember or even acknowledge the losses and the pain of her early life. These losses were ones that are part of the lives of all of us: the loss of her father as a very young girl, a difficult and conflictual relationship with her mother that led her to leave home as a high school student, the loss of her first child and the death shortly thereafter of her first husband. These were aspects of her life I never knew until late in her life and well into her diminishment from Alzheimer’s Disease. When I asked her about why I had not known some of these things before, she replied: “You don’t talk about sad things.” As I learned of these things well into my own middle age, however, I realized that although I never knew them, these “secrets” became communicated to  me through a profound and sometimes anxiety provoking sense of the fragility of human life and relationship. Beyond the apparent strength which the refusal to mourn had purchased, there lay an even deeper vulnerability and, not in a moral but in a spiritual sense, a lack of integrity, a fear of the suffering that lay beneath.

The integrity in truly mourning what is to be mourned is the willingness to suffer reality. it is to realize that true comfort comes only from going through the loss and pain, so that we can realize a life that is beyond the apparent death, what we call resurrection. When we suffer profound losses, we feel as if we have died, as if there is nothing more in us to give, no further ability to love. The paradox is that if we wear the “mourning robe” we are in time given “the oil of gladness” and if we allow ourselves to be formed by our “despondency” we discover a yet deeper capacity for “praise.” The Mourner’s Kaddish recited at times of loss by every faithful Jewish believer begins: “Magnified and sanctified may His great name be/In the world that He created as He wills.”

We are told that in this life “a continual conversion is needed.” We cannot be converted or transformed, however, until we mourn our own failure to be faithful and thus recognize deep in our hearts our need to be converted. Mourning is not easy for us; neither is true repentance. As counter-cultural as it is, we must truly experience and mourn our own sinfulness before we can know the “comfort” of God’s merciful love and forgiveness. As Scrooge, we cannot change until our ghosts “unpick . . . [our] delusions”. As individuals, as communities, as nations we desire to “feel good about ourselves.” True comfort and true change, however, do not come from feeling good about ourselves (let alone “great again”), but rather from mourning our own sinfulness and failure, and the pain and loss that have been the outcomes of that. It is then, in the midst of death, that we can truly receive the new and eternal life that is offered to us, not in our strength but in our weakness.

This kindness gives rise to compassion and to a general sympathy with everyone, for only a kind person can share the sorrows of all others. This compassion is an interior movement of a heart filled with pity for the material and spiritual needs of all persons. . . . .

Compassion also makes a person look to himself and recognize his faults and failings in the practice of virtue and the worship of God, his lukewarmness and laziness, the multiplicity of his failings, the way he has wasted time and the way he presently falls short in the practice of virtues and of a perfect way of life. This makes a person have pity on himself in true compassion. . . .

This work of compassion and of a love common to all overcomes and drives away the third capital sin, which is hatred or envy, for compassion is a wounding of the heart which love extends to all without distinction. This wound cannot be healed as long as anyone still suffers, for to compassion alone, above all other virtues, God has commended sorrow and suffering. For this reason Christ says, “Blessed are the sorrowing, for they shall be consoled” (Mt 5:4). That will take place when they reap in joy what they now, through compassion and sympathy, sow in sorrow (cf. Ps 126:5).

Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, III, A

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