There are a lot of people from whom I have learned about spiritual development, and perhaps one of the most helpful has been James W. Fowler who has written books, now classics, on the subject, entitled, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and The Quest For Meaning, followed up by Faithful Change: The Personal and Public Challenges of Postmodern Life. If we are to seriously apply the third principle of Unitarian Universalism, “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations”, it is important that we have some idea, some model, some frame of reference by which to understand what “spiritual growth” entails. Fowler’s model and analysis is very helpful.
In his book, Faithful Change, Fowler writes about the importance of shame. “Spiritually, shame is related to the deepest places of truth in our souls.” p.92 Polonius says in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, “above all else, to thine own self be true.” What happens when we are not true to ourselves? We harbor a deep sense of shame which most often we are unaware of until someone asks us our deepest, darkest secret that we have never told anyone and we shrivel, embarrassed, frightened, defensive.
Most religious traditions tell us that we should live in an open hearted way loving everyone, and Unitarian Universalist minister, Galen Guengerich, teaches that the ethical imperative of Unitarian Universalism could be gratitude. The problem is that shameful people cannot be genuinely grateful. They are too distrusting, too insecure, feeling too inferior, and they are, at least to some extent, close hearted, and close hearted people are not grateful people except in disingenuous, sycophantic ways. A person can’t give what he or she doesn’t have; can’t share what they don’t possess. Gratitude cannot be manufactured except in pretentious, artificial ways unless a person’s underlying sense of inadequacy, defectiveness, inferiority is resolved and healed first.
Some very successful and ambitious, intelligent, charming people are full of shame because they are driven to prove something to someone even if it is to themselves. And if you ask such people what makes them tick, what drives them to excel, they usually can’t really tell you, but at a deep level it is a fear of inadequacy and defectiveness. With such people, their successes, their achievements are never quite good enough. There is always a need for something more, something better, something more perfect. Perfectionist people who are driven are not grateful people because for them, there is always something missing; something that will finally fill up what John Bradshaw calls “the hole in the soul.”
Some people mistakenly perceive these shame based feelings, thoughts, and behaviors as a problem in self esteem and self worth and while these feelings can be part of the picture, artificially trying to enhance someone’s self esteem with congratulatory interactions usually don’t help with the person’s underlying sense of toxic shame. What does help? Coming to understand that every person has inherent worth and dignity, and at one’s core, one is already perfect and loved by his or her Creator. The opposite of shame is not self esteem and self worth, but wholeness, okayness.
Back in the 70s, with Eric Berne’s development of Transactional Analysis, there was a description of four basic life positions: the first, I’m not okay but you’re okay is the depressive position; the second, I’m okay but you’re not okay is the paranoid position; the third, I’m not okay and you’re not okay is the position of despair, psychosis, and suicide; the fourth, I’m okay and you’re okay is the mentally healthy position. Elizabeth Kubler- Ross, the psychiatrist who mapped out the grieving process, taught that there was a fifth position which is I’m not okay, and you’re not okay, but that’s okay. Helping people get to this fifth position is the work of psychotherapy and religion.
People come to Unitarian Universalism from other religions or paths in life in which they felt abused, confused, refused, and failures. They are looking not only for a place where they can be their inadequate and defective selves, but where they can be accepted in their defectiveness, and be healed, and helped to be made whole.
The question from this perspective is how can Unitarian Univeralism revive, and rekindle a demoralized spirit? Is what UU has to offer inspirational? There are some UU preachers I listen to in podcasts who almost always are inspirational because they are not afraid of pain and suffering. They can see into the depth of human sorrow, injustice, inequity, brokenness and find a way to the light, to break open a ray of hope. These are preachers who often seem to have suffered greatly themselves. In is in transforming their own suffering that they are filled with compassion and mercy for others.
As a former Roman Catholic I was often told that church was a hospital for sinners and that healing grace was conferred through participation in the sacraments. Unitarian Universalism is not a sacramental church but what they like to call a covenantal church. Healing grace is conferred by covenanting with one another to practice our seven principles. So ask a friend, a family member, fellow church goers, “How can I help to facilitate your spiritual growth like I’m asked to do in our third principle which we covenanted together to affirm and promote?” Will they be embarrassed, feel put on the spot, feel awkward because they don’t know what to say? How would you answer if someone asked you?
As a psychotherapist sometimes I ask my clients when it seems appropriate and we have a trusting relationship, “Will you tell me what your interior spiritual life is like?” Surprisingly, I have never had anyone fail to answer the question. Some people are more articulate than others, but I have never had anyone not share something. It is a very intimate question, isn’t it? We are asking the person to share something very personal about themselves, and perhaps they might feel vulnerable, but often it is something they have never been asked before and with an inquiry made with curious interest, people seem not only willing to respond but somehow even complimented to be asked. Try it. See what happens.
Dr. Paul Pearsall, the neuropsychologist, wrote that no therapist should try to help a patient unless the therapist has some sense of how the patient might answer these three questions: why was I born? What is the purpose of my life? What happens to me when I die? I would add a fourth question, “What matters the most to me in my life is___________? And a fifth question, “What would it take for your life to get on a little better track, and is there anything I can do to help you?” I suspect that just asking the question is a big help in and of itself.