In spiritual direction we are always considering helping the individual see where he is with himself and where he is with his spiritual understanding of who he is in relationship to God.
Do the following exercise with a trusted helpful advisor who can assess and help you move through your feelings. Seek a trusted counselor or spiritual director to journey with you.
Here’s the little spiritual exercise. Make a list of traits for yourself in about two minutes. List as many as you can. What were the first traits that came up in the list? Why do you think they came up first? What does this say about where you are? A spiritual director can make a list about what he sees in you. I wonder where the comparisons exist? What we perceive and how others perceive us can be a huge gap.
Keep in mind that you may be blocked. That’s okay. If you can only think of five or six or ten or twelve, you may see more later. The point is for you to see where you are right now. Be honest with yourself. How many traits were negative and how many were positive?
These lists can not only tell us where we are with ourselves but tell us where we are in our spiritual relationships. Sometimes we can be our own worst enemies. Sometimes our lists may surprise us in seeing things we didn’t consider. This reflective time can bring about extraordinary results.
Sometimes the negative character traits win out over the positive ones. We get stuck on the perceptions that others have imposed on us and this has a tendency to win out. Sometimes we get too hard on ourselves because someone in our lives has imposed their own traits of what they want us to be, and we live up to that image and become that image.
I recently ran into someone I haven’t seen in 40 years. This guy said to me, “I remember you as being the happiest kid on the street.” Considering that we had over 76 kids on the street between the ages of five and fifteen, what a compliment it was, I thought to myself. I really loved my family, friends and that neighborhood. I counted my blessings and was well aware of how they impacted me. I was surrounded by people who cared deeply for me. It was a protected and nurturing environment. My childhood was wonderful.
When I moved out of that environment, I felt like I lost something. It was very hard for me as a child to adjust to a new home and new friends. This wasn’t lost on my parents who worried about me and a few other family members making the adjustment to a new life. It was, maybe, the most important move of my life, because I had to take what I knew and make it work for me, and I did. My enthusiasm tended to win out, and I put on a positive face but was miserable that I left behind a place that satisfied my needs emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually.
I leaned on my family for support and they helped me through that challenging time. As a result, I was able to socially rise above and navigate tenuous situations pretty well. I moved when I was in 5th grade and my classmates in school voted for me to be the class representative even though I moved into the class in early November.
Growing up we tend to lose that childlike sensibility due to preoccupations, obligations, shame and negative experiences, and being self-conscious in social and work situations. The goal in life is to retain a childlike wonder and spiritually attune to hopes and possibilities in order to draw good things to us.
Positive thinking tends to draw strong positive results to us and can inspire grace in meaningful ways. Jesus is constantly reminding his disciples to be like children and see the world as children see it. Don’t lose that wonder, that humility, that joy that is a part of the human experience. Don’t lose that sense of innocence that comes with the harsh realities of the world, because it can eat you up and spit you out and make you something you don’t want to be.
It’s also important to be honest like children — honest with ourselves and honest with others, so we may not rationalize and live life in denial.
We make bad choices because of insecurity and sometimes those choices lead to bigger problems which lead to more preoccupation and more self-loathing or fear-based thinking. Sometimes we become trapped in that. You can see that life can beat up on people and take us down rabbit holes where we don’t want to go.
We live in denial of life because we think that is an easier way to approach life. Dealing with feelings can be messy and stifle us, but, in truth, it is the most important thing we can do in life.
I saw other friends from childhood who have been able to navigate the waters of life because of positive self-images, optimistic personalities and tenacious “can do” attitudes. Although the fears and concerns for their children and family members can shake them, their faith, hope and centeredness in love wins out. It is this strong sense of identity, honest self-evaluation and meaningful course corrections that take a person where he needs to be on the path.