It’s a very dark room. I’m near the entrance, having just stepped in. Everywhere I look, there are cobwebs, thick lines and ropes strewn all over. Except that they’re not made of sticky strings, but rust. Thick cables of rust, that as I reach out a hand to brush them, crumble into piles of ochre dust that coat the already dark and ugly floor. Not that I can see through the muck to the floor itself.
And there’re so many lines and ropes. They are grotesque and loom everywhere. I don’t even have to see them to feel the weight of all the rust cobwebs over my head. The ones I touch crumble. But there are so many, and what if they don’t crumble when I touch them? Can I bear that eventuality? Can I put up with it? Do I dare try?
Then my therapist suggests, it sound like we need to change the light bulb in this room. You haven’t been here for so long. Too long. That’s why all the rust has accumulated, and we really need to spend some time in here. Shine some light on everything. I balk. It’s too much.
“I can see that you’ve not able to maintain eye contact.” It’s too much. Too overwhelming. She suggests a candle. A torchlight maybe. To just shine wherever we want it to shine. A softer light. She also gently reminds me that we’ve already looked at one of the items in the room. It’s already progress. I tell her, I fear. Entry to this room has been prohibited so far, and I’ve been sorely punished every time. Either it’s direct punishment, with harsh words and harsh actions, or indirect punishment. Circumstances. Consequences.
So I promise. I won’t close the door on that room anymore. Maybe dust the plaque on the door itself. I don’t know. Not today, maybe. But I can’t change the lightbulb. And I can’t stay in the room for long.
The plaque on the room door? That says “Pride in achievement”.
We were talking about my December. I’d stepped into parks and locations that I hadn’t been for a couple of years or more. I was simply updating my therapist, and I thought, that’s it. Nothing good to say about escaping my thoughts by being physically active. It wasn’t like I’d made long hikes, or anything ground breaking. But it was “nice” though I was ashamed that it was active escapism. When I’m walking and making plans on where to go, I don’t have to think. Or feel too much.
It was a bit of a surprise when she stopped me and said, let’s talk about this a bit more. I want you to bask in the feeling of having done something different, having accomplished an achievement. I was totally not ready for it, but I tried. I really did. I sat for a bit to try to just sit with the idea that I had done something worthy of celebrating.
I simply couldn’t do it for long. The idea was too foreign. I had gone on the walks with my wife, and I could remember the glimpses of her having fun. But I could not bring to mind my own feelings or pride that I had been able to do these things. That was when the image of the room appeared, and as I told my therapist about it, we used that imagery.
If you’re non Christian, you may want to skip the next section. But I see it as how Christian understanding and humanistic psychology might intersect – so that Christians who struggle with these things can bring things together for themselves.
Pride in achievement is something I struggle with, not just from a humanistic standpoint, but religiously as well. Christian tenets are pretty clear that all glory is to God so the idea of taking credit for things I’d done did not sit well with me. A frustrating lunch with the wife followed, as we both tried to understand where pride in achievement sat in the whole theological worldview of things, which I still subscribe to and agree with. But armed with what we had talked about, and prompted by the severity of the conversation, I talked further with a pastor-friend of mine. How amazingly God works! That pastor-friend-brother ended up gelling all the pieces that I and my wife could not bring together, without even knowing that it was what he was doing. And the Spirit provided the final piece.
That final piece fell into place when my pastor-friend mentioned that we can celebrate our achievements as God’s gift to us as well. This is of course, on top of glorifying God from whom all blessings flow, and who works through us in spite of our brokenness and sinfulness. It helped me to realise that my main problem – prideful as this may sound – wasn’t that I lacked pride enough to celebrate my achievements as they were. I am correct in not seeking pride in what I do, for my own glory or glorification, and it’s okay for me not to seek pride in my achievements. But I extended that, problematically, to any pleasure or joy in being part of God’s big picture.
The room shouldn’t be named Pride in Achievement. It should be named Pleasure in Achievement. And that’s kind of same same but different… and also makes the room okay to stay in. (Yes I’ve renamed it… but at the same time, the plaque is still dirty.)
Theologically, even Paul refused to take credit for all that he did in God’s name. Jesus Himself was the way, the truth and the life, but only as a conduit to God and His glory. Taking credit for what God’s goodness has produced, is essentially pride. I am stating that these things were achieved by my own hands, and other reasons are secondary.
But it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t experience the joy and pleasure of being part of God’s big picture. I do give thanks completely – but it is a sterile thanks, that has no joy in it, because I am afraid of enjoying what is not mine to enjoy.
Alright. Theological bit over. Non Christians can uncover your eyes now.
It’s important to understand that while I seek no pride in my achievements, that it’s still harmful that I take no pleasure in them either. It is part of my values that help me to be content in not seeking pride in what I do. But the joy, the happiness, the pleasure itself of being able to be part of a big picture, of being able to give back, is all absent, and THAT is what I need to get back. To accept that I am allowed to enjoy my achievements, enabled by God, giving glory to my God.
That room, renamed, is still hard to step into. But I’m now clearer about what that room is, and why I should explore it. It gives me more hope and motivation to explore it. Pride isn’t something I want to pursue, whether in achievement or in self, but esteem is needed. Esteem for a Christian, is embodied in the very fact that we are made in the image of God. Add on to that, the salvation that is given by a good God, through His only Son, to broken people like us. I struggle very much with this – God cannot be wrong, but why did He extend that to me of all people? I don’t deserve anything good.
So to allow that esteem to build, I first need to recognise that I can find pleasure in doing things that are good. God Himself is good, and allowed me to do these good things. And since the things are good, I should enjoy the results of them, and enjoy being part of them. I am someone worth something, to that God who made me, evidenced by the good things He allows me to be involved in too. Even if others disagree.
But as of now? Fear reigns. I was punished for pleasure in the past. It had to be earned, or it came with a price tag, or I was outright punished for indulging in pleasure without working for it. Boy could that price tag be high! It could be anything from guilt trips, to actual demands for performance as a result. Why indulge in appreciating my achievements when it would end up being used against me? Why accept that I could do anything good? You can’t be disappointed if no expectations are held, right? So by not taking anything positive from my achievements, I didn’t get disappointed.
So I struggle to accept compliments, even if said compliments were to be redirected to God. To accept them would be to partake of pleasure. I struggle to accept that I have made achievements, even if they are factual, and even if I say that it is a result of God’s grace. That means that I would have to face the pleasure of actually having done something with His help. That’s…
Yeah I can’t deal with it.
Therapy continues to surprise me. A few weeks ago, I crashed in therapy because I had been told to pick out parts of myself that I’d like to keep, as a goal for therapy to work towards. I was unable to, and the guilt of it weighed on me terribly for a few weeks. Today’s session was supposed to be an update, and I was ready to talk about some other topic. Because of my therapist’s timely seeming distraction, we figured out that I crashed because that was the same issue coached differently.
If I were to analyse what I want to keep about myself, I need to first figure out what I feel are good qualities, qualities that are granted by God, or taught by my life in God. But in doing so, I will have to be able to take the pleasure and acceptance that comes with accepting that God has granted me these qualities. That’s like replacing the light bulb in this room that I’m struggling to even enter, where staying inside makes me feel like I don’t belong. It makes me feel like I should tear a piece out of my skin just to afford the price of entry. I simply can’t. Cannot. CANNOT.
So instead, we shall work on a little bit of illumination into the room, onto the existence of this room that I didn’t know about. It’s one of those things where you’re like, oh I KNEW about this place, but uh, I think I forgot about it so much it didn’t exist. It’s a room full of good things that I feel I don’t deserve, that I know is not about whether I deserve it or not. It’s a room that I want to forget again, as a reflex, because of all the trauma that comes with it. However, as my therapist pointed out, my critic, one of the dark figures hovering around the entrance to that room with a baseball bat, is a product of my past. We can work on letting it go. I have to.
Only because of God’s kindness, the room made an appearance in my mind. Only by His grace, was I able to immediately identify the theological conundrum about pride vs pleasure, and how it was going to cause my healing to be very much crippled. Only with His help and providence, could all this be resolved in less than a day so that my healing can continue, while reconciling my theological knowledge and the faith that He has granted me in His salvation plan.
Pleasure. Joy. Hope. All things I never thought I have to say, that I need practice to feel once again. All the things I dare not receive because I fear being hurt. But I have to learn.
One little bit at a time. With His help.