It took me about a year of sessions before my counsellor told me “that’s really the first time you’ve properly opened up.” I was stunned. I had entered into the process fully intending to make the most of it. I was at the end of my resources and knew I needed help, so I dived right in. To be told after a year of sessions that I was only now opening up was a deep shock.
She was right, though. The problem, however, was not that I had been unprepared to be honest about myself. The problem was that I didn’t know myself well enough to be fully truthful. When I eventually ‘opened up’, what was revealed was as much a surprise to me as it was to my counsellor.
I’d been diagnosed as clinically depressed several years previously, and the help I was offered at that time turned out to be disastrous. That’s a really long story I won’t go into here (another time, perhaps). The result of that experience, though, was a deep distrust of doctors and mental health professionals. I felt that to them, I was a simple creature whose problem could be solved by answering a few clichéd questions about how I felt as a child when mummy or daddy said or did one thing or another.
I am not the mere product of my upbringing, I had decided. I am who I have chosen to be – and what’s more, you’ve never met anyone like me. Whatever my problem is, you’re not going to get at it that way.
Well, it turned out I was both right and wrong. What my counsellor did (this second attempt, after the eventual failure from a few years of gritting my teeth and attempting to go solo) was take the time to really get to know what was going on in my mind when things went awry. Then, and only then, did we venture deep into the past. That day when I ‘properly opened up’ was when the dots were suddenly joined into a complete picture, and I realised the truth – the person I am is deeply and fundamentally shaped by the environment of my childhood and youth. I am who I have chosen to be, but I’m also the person that my experiences have made me.
From Simon to Peter
This knowledge has led me to consider the idiotic behaviour of characters in the Bible in a completely different light. I used to read the gospels and breathe a deep patronising sigh whenever the disciples (usually Peter) did or said something stupid. I used to think that those narratives were there to teach us this: “Here’s Peter. He’s stupid. Don’t be like Peter.” It’s like those pictures in the flatpack assembly instructions that have a cross through them. Don’t use a hammer, use a screwdriver. No, Peter, don’t try and stop me from dying on the cross – that’s Satan talking.
I’ve come to realise that Peter and others aren’t there for simple “don’t do this” instructions – as though we can somehow avoid their mistakes by reading their tales of woe. They are, rather, a mirror reflecting us. They’re there so that, when we inevitably make the same mistakes, we can see how God responds to us. No, Peter, not that way – this way. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but my ways are not your ways.
They say you should never meet your heroes, because they will inevitably disappoint. The picture you’ve built up of a person is based on the fragments of a person’s presentation that you have found attractive and desirable. When you meet the actual person, you realise they’re all sorts of normal, in ways that tend to tarnish the picture you had created. It had never occurred to me that exactly the same was true of my own self.
When I finally met myself, I realised that I had created a picture and idea of myself that was based on the bits I found attractive and desirable. One bit in particular – autonomy. I was convinced that I was completely free and able to choose who I am and will be. Every time a bit of me surfaced that was beyond my control, I instantly responded with anger and disgust. Rather than getting to know that part of me, and working through the issues there, I instead tried to force it to disappear by power of will. My depression was, in part, created by a swelling up of those things to the point where I was constantly at war with myself (I say ‘in part’ because there were physiological issues solved with antidepressants too). It was the real self vs. the false self. Or, more accurately, the full self vs. the idealised self.
I love Peter, because we see his journey of meeting himself. I would never deny you, Jesus. I’d die first. Cock-a-doodle-doooooo! Oh. Crap.
The journey of discipleship is as much a journey of discovering oneself as it is one of discovering God. When we read the pages of the Bible, we are not just experiencing a revelation of God, but a revelation of ourselves. And it is only when we come into contact with our full selves that we can truly give ourselves to God. Those unloveable parts of us that we deny can only ever change when they are brought into the light and surrendered to our loving Father.