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“Why haven’t I learned this lesson by now!?”

“Why haven’t I learned this lesson by now!?” On when we seemingly struggle with the same things again – and again – and again.

One of the best things that I’ve done in my life is see a therapist. She has been instrumental in helping me navigate significant trauma and unhelpful – even destructive – learned responses in my life, giving me tools of reflection, honesty and growth to navigate conflict and challenges.

Nevertheless, as much as this process has been helpful for me, I’ve been putting off making a renewed appointment with her for over two years now, largely because of the shame of what I would be seeking wisdom in – or to be more specific, because of what I would bring to the sessions – once more.

“Aren’t you done with this yet?” I taunt myself in my therapist’s voice.

“Haven’t you learned that lesson by now?”

FAKE, MEAN THERAPIST

The shame is real, friends. Surely at nearly 40 I am not struggling with the same things that I was when I was 15, 20, or 30?

In so many ways, of course, I am not. I have grown, I have matured. The challenges, dilemmas and anxieties at 15 are not those of 38, nor will they be of 45 or 60. But what is real, are common threads of how I respond to those evolving challenges.

What may be common, and same, is the specific triggers that bring anger, shame, jealousy, bitterness, resentment and shut down.

For example, I have written before of my wonderful excruciating journey of wanting to be capable. I don’t like trying new things because failing them would be the worst possible experience of life. So I don’t “put myself out there”, initiate, or assume responsibility because “If I don’t try, I can’t fail”.

It’s annoying. and painful. And I wish I was better. But here I am at almost 40 and I apparently haven’t solved the ‘problems’ of me yet!

Indeed, I have kept journals off and on most of my life. Looking back on them, many entries and prayers contain the frustration;

“Why, God, haven’t I learned this by now? WHY am I praying this same prayer? Why aren’t I ‘better’?”

My historical read of these entries is one of embarrassment and shame, tallying the lack of progress, the proof of my failure, the justification of critique of my personal, professional, and spiritual growth.

A weird thought occurred to me today though.

Instead of being embarrassed, what would a kind response to my repeated ‘failings’ look like?

What if I often struggle with these things not because I’m broken, but because I’m wired a certain way?

What if those failings – and identical failings are simply aspects of my humanity

Please hear me, this is not a justification for ‘staying the same’. This is not me saying that my failings/errors/mistakes are “just me”. It is not your “boys will be boys-esq”, Kirsten will be Kirsten” excuse for ‘bad’ behaviour or for the absence of growth or effort.

Nor is it the denial that people can change and grow, that we can conquer certain traits that are destructive or unhelpful.

Rather, the truth is that I am human, and I will probably definitely need help navigating challenges in my life.

For example, in my own life, the truth is that I need help navigating fears of inadequacy and comparison.

The truth is that I need support to step back from anger and brittleness in the face of unfair responsibility.

The very sobering truth is that I may always need help to do so.

And the surprising question is – is that a bad thing?

Maybe the need to need help is just the reality of being a human.

I’ll say that again.

Maybe the need to need help is just the reality of being a human.

The way that I am wired, what I have experienced, and the various contexts that feed into my life have resulted in certain responses, triggers, failings and faults. And for the first time in my life I am considering the possibility that not only do I probably need help to counteract and breathe life into those spaces,

but maybe it is ok that I will need help – and continual, life-long help, to do so.

I can be empowered if I have a sober and measured understanding of myself. Because I can see what I am triggered by. I can see what my learned responses have been. I can notice if those responses are life giving or destructive. And amazingly, I can recognise when I need help – and I can seek it. That help may look and be different in different seasons of life. But I shouldn’t be ashamed to seek it.

I’ve been thinking of how people who live with alcoholism view their sobriety. Rather than being ‘cured’, alcoholism is seen as a condition that sufferers will negotiate their whole lives. In a journey of sobriety, an individual recognises situations that are more dangerous for them. They recognise what steps they need to protect themselves. The victors in this space aren’t ones who do it ‘on their own’, but are those who receive support to do so – usually for the rest of their lives.

Likewise, the process of naming or personifying a problem is used as a tool within narrative therapy to externalise and create some space between the person and the problem, which enables the person to begin to revise their relationship with the problem (Russell & Carey, 2004). Having the opportunity to revise the relationship we have with ourselves and our ‘issues’ may be one of the most powerful tools we can access.

If we take this journey of a sober understanding of ourselves into the world of spirituality, one of the fundamental premises of the Christian framework is that:

  1. We are human – and fallible.
  2. God is God.
  3. We need God.
  4. God is happy to help. And does so.

Those who profess faith are encouraged and exhorted to bring yourself to God. Expose yourself to him and he will bring it to light. There will be welcome. And shelter. And hospitality. And nourishment. And respite. And comfort. And courage. So we/I/many do.

The prodigal son is welcomed. The prostitute is given mercy. The weak are healed. The tax collector is forgiven. The annoying persistent appellant is granted justice. The denier is given a new name. The laughing and disbelieving – and old – father of none is given innumerous descendants. The prophet who runs away from responsibility – and is swallowed by a fish – is spat out and given grace.

There are countless stories of a God who meets our humanity with Grace, and is generous with it.

Likewise, there is a strong narrative in our culture that those who seek help can find it. Those who want better for themselves can receive it.

This is awesome. Until it’s not.

At its best, the narrative here is that when you seek help, you will receive it. We can claim victory over our past and engage in a new future.

At its worst, however, the narrative is that when you seek help, you can receive it – and “you WILL be better“. Translation: progress always [should] occur.

At its worst, this narrative argues that not only will you be “better”, but we tell ourselves – or judge others, that there is a limit to the help that we can ask for, and a minimum expectation of progress to be met when we do so.

We wonder if the prodigal son will still be accepted if he went out and spent the inheritance all over again. We wonder if the prostitute continued to ‘sin’, would she still find acceptance? We wonder if we are met with an eye roll and a sigh of exasperation when work up the courage to ask for support.

Here we suffer from a pathologising linear way of seeing the world. Regardless of a faith or secular framework, a danger of the western mindset is to assume a very strong relationship between Experience and Wisdom, between lessons learned and progress. 1 of X = 1 of Y:

Kirsten


…But what if it’s not?

What if 1 of experience does not equal 1 of ‘progress’?

We do not have much grace for others – or ourselves – when we ‘haven’t learned the lesson yet’ – or more important, not yet – again.

I have to say, I don’t really like that model anymore. Again – I’m not rejecting the premise of growth or learning in and of itself. We cannot justify bad behaviour or selfishness with a shallow dismissal of our faults. Nor am I arguing that people cannot change or transform for the better.

But maybe there’s a more helpful – and healthier – way of engaging with our supposed failings. It is a circular model of growth, a circular model of seeking help.

Returning to a premise of seeking help from a faith perspective, let us revisit & add to our steps:

  1. We are human – and thus fallible.
  2. God is God.
  3. We need God.
  4. God is happy to help. And does so.
    Here, however are the often-forgotten aspects:
  5. We will always need God – because we are human.
  6. God is always happy to help. And does so.

We read in the scriptures a God who is not only happy to help, but does not tire of doing so.

read that again.

We read in the scriptures a God who is not only happy to help, but does not tire of doing so.

We read in the scriptures the invitation to expose ourselves to God -and find welcome and grace and mercy in that moment. Part of that welcome may also include an invitation to choose better and be wise – but the help will always be there to do so.

Never is that invitation rescinded. Not if you ask once, twice, or 1000 times.

The glorious picture of a feast that is told and offered in scripture is one of welcome, hospitality and sustenance; “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost”…

When I read this verse I like to picture the table that is set at the end of the world in C.S Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader – a sumptuous table, renewed daily, covered in dishes a plenty. There is welcome and respite for all.

May I suggest a caveat here. Perhaps not only is there a spot at the table for everyone, but the sustenance/respite/grace may look or manifest a little differently for those of us around the table. The help we need – the ‘food’ that is required’ may differ from person to person. If you’re old enough to know Sizzler, have that smorgasbord in mind. All the food’s good – but some people need a heck of a lot of steak, others, need those veggies, but others are filled by the parmesan bread alone.

I’ll stop with the analogies here.

But the truth remains.

Some people need to hear more reassurance at times. Others need to hear more forgiveness. Others need courage. Others need to hear approval. Still others need to feel respite. Some might need all of it.

And that’s ok.

It is unhelpful to berate ourselves for being human.

It is unhelpful to pile guilt and shame on ourselves for having tendencies or triggers.

We may and do always require help with our limitations and humanity. And that may actually be ok.

Whatever stops us from seeking help is a bad thing. Even if it is ourselves.

I had a wonderful conversation with a friend about this issue and the journey we have of healing and growth; she had this to say:

Like anyone I’m a weird mix of personality traits, life experience, & frankly, the luck of the draw in terms of the era I was born into & the opportunities I have. I’ll always have big emotions that one could attach labels to. But why?? Why pathologise me? I’ll always have some things which are, to speak the language, trauma triggers. And that’s ok. That’s just part of my humanity. And frankly, it’s part of my redemption too.

There is a great deal of power we receive in a sober recognition of what we often need help in. As much as it is painful, I can be proactive in those moments and reach for help early. I can offer grace to myself that these responses are deeply ingrained and they sometimes require lots of unpicking. I can remind myself of the help that is available, of the promises of welcome and acceptance on offer; and I can model that hospitality to others so that other people can experience that welcome too.

Maybe my humanity can be part of my redemption, too. x

 
 
Kirsten M 016 f
 
Dr Kirsten Macaitis is a Senior Lecturer and Academic Support Coordinator in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Tabor Adelaide. Read her blog Better with Pockets here.