Offering space to wonder together
I’ve had this intellectual love affair going on in my mind for the last 25 years, a wedding of sorts, between psychology and Christian spirituality. My journey in following Jesus led me to study psychology and particularly psychotherapy with a sprinkling of brain science. I’ve been at this integration work since the 1990s. In countless ways this has brought me deep freedom and hours of wonderment. These aren’t “my” ideas in any strict sense and I hope as you read these notes from our Zoom gathering on January 23, you gain more clarity about your own ideas and even more so I hope you deepen your experience of God loving you as you are in the here and now. Together we find our way, never alone. I’d say that’s by God’s design.
We live in stressful – or perhaps better said, stress-filled times. All the markers of psychological overload are presenting all through society — suicide rates climbing, overdose deaths on the rise, people seeking mental health services radically increasing. The Latin derivation of the word “stress” is helpful: the Latin word strictus, means “compressed.” Recently someone was telling me about how their brain feels compressed, squeezed by everything happening around us from political strife, to cancel culture, to injustice, to isolation from pandemic and fear of illness and death. We’re all squeezed. Stress is connected to having too little space – the need to spread out. I think this compression has to do with a broad scope fear that is running through our world. We don’t feel safe. We spread out when we have a sense that the space we are in is safe and we can relax and release the tightness that readies our bodies to flee or fight.
So, pause even as you read and take a few moments to breathe deeply. To spread and expand your lungs. To take some space. first notice what you’re feeling in your body right now. Take a moment to scan your whole body, from the top of your head slowly down through your whole body. What do you notice? Where is there tension? Where is the pain? Where is the stress? Now breathe in for 5 counts and let your lungs and belly expand. Take space. Breathe out for 5 counts slowly, letting go. Consider this an honoring of the body God has given you. Take 10 deep breathes and remember to exhale thoroughly for 5 counts.
What do you notice in your body now? Has anything changed? Often people report pausing to concentrate on their breathing brings a calming effect.
And now let’s consider a fable from the world of psychotherapy.
Deborah Anna Luepnitz, wrote, Schopenhoser’s Porcupines (2002) and retells this famous fable on p. 2:
A troop of porcupines is milling about on a cold winter’s day. In order to keep from freezing, the animals move closer together. Just as they are close enough to huddle, however, they start to poke each other with their quills. In order to stop the pain, they spread out, lose the advantage of commingling, and again begin to shiver. This sends them back in search of each other, and the cycle repeats as they struggle to find a comfortable distance between entanglement and freezing.
Later Luepnitz also reference’s Donald Winnicott’s notion of “potential space.” Winnicott was a mid-twentieth century theorist in psychology – probably most famous generally for his concept of the “good enough mother.” But he has so many brilliant contributions. His idea of ‘potential space’ has to do with the in-between space between the subjective and the objective. He pushes away a binary understanding of what is factual and objective and what is perceived/interpreted and subjective for humans. He makes many comparisons between psychotherapy and play. In play, little humans (and the smart big humans who enter into play with them) engage in the in-between space of creativity where toys take on personality and provide real comfort and rich solutions often emerge to emotional impasses. Memories get processed in new ways that allow for new freedom. Therapy also takes place in this ‘potential space’ between. Therapy isn’t happening in the mind of the therapist or in the mind of the client, but in this potential space between them. It’s a relational space where creativity brings surprising moments of healing and of change.
Our world today is certainly a porcupine world (always has been) but it seems to me it’s been made worse by this sense of fear that our quills will poke and so we’re freezing. It’s made worse by people defining how we poke each other in abstract terms and some eager it seems to draw attention to how they have been poked and the injustice of it all. Injustices surely need to be corrected as best we can, but what’s happening to us now is sending us into isolation and some of us into despair. We’re freezing and can’t figure out how to move back together.
Christian practice has always contended that you have to draw close regardless of the pokes. So, we are instructed to forgive 70 x 7 in a single day, to love enemies and give our coats and shirts, enduring slaps. But I’ve been wrestling with the reality of safety also. How do we enter into ‘potential space’ where creativity can flow, where we can play together, where what’s happening between us is considered as essential and worthy of our focus rather than an exclusive focus on what is happening in me, for me, finding my voice, etc. It’s a dilemma, isn’t it?
Luepnitz has helped me here as well. She revisits Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, that tale making a hero of the outsider who stops to care for the person in need. In Luke chapter 10, Jesus is rejoicing in the good news and excited with his returning disciples as they share the stories of their journeys in pairs to share about Jesus and the Kingdom of God. He exclaims: Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! He’s thanking God and rejoicing. And it’s then that one of the religious lawyers stands up to test him with an abstract question about how to live well and rightly. Loving God and neighbor is the agreed upon answer, but this guy then presses Jesus, who is my neighbor? So, Jesus creates a practical story that makes the hero a Samaritan, a racial and religious outsider, who is the only one who stops to help a victim of abuse and injustice. Jesus’ hero takes real-world steps that disregard the political mandates of the day. “When he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’” (Luke 10:33-35, ESV)
Often, I talk to Christians who consider this a command to do everything for people who are victims. Lately I’ve reconsidered this with Luepnitz’s help. The Samaritan makes his compassion into action certainly. But he delegates the caregiving. He does the emergency care and then he calls in others to use their expertise, an innkeeper, to oversee other aspects of the care. He gathers a team to do the compassionate work. He gives the money that he seems to have, but he does NOT DO EVERYTHING HIMSELF. He helps and then moves on.
This taking space. This offering what we can and not more. This honoring our call to do other things that we deem needed in our lives. They all seem crucial to me.
So, I’ve been wrestling a lot with getting poked and poking. With forgiving and turning compassion into action. With trying to find the space between to allow for creativity and to escape being run by fear and squeezed. To offer what is mine to offer rather than considering how to do everything. And I’ve been trying to notice when I’m freezing and challenging myself to move closer, to enter the potential space where love grows between us.