Monday, December 16, 2013

Human Formation #4

In our last reflection (Human Formation #3 posted on Nov. 20, 2013), we spoke of affirmation, the response to our fundamental human need to have our goodness revealed to us by another.  Receiving authentic affirmation leads to emotional maturity and even opens us up to the love of God, leading to an experiential, felt faith.  Yet, the hard truth is that none of us have been loved or affirmed adequately.  This is obviously true for those from unhealthy families where, instead of affirmation, love deprivation and emotional denial characterize the family culture.  But it is true even for those from the healthiest of families since imperfect people are incapable of perfect love.  I mention this because sometimes love deprivation and emotional denial are subtle in their expressions.  A surprising example of affirmation-in-action will help to illustrate this point.  Dr. Baars writes:

Long ago a friend told me of a childhood incident that had left a lasting impression on him.  He was five or six years old when on a weekday morning the pastor came to visit his mother. His father was outside working on the farm. The older children were in school.  Being shy, my friend John hid under the table, but not entirely out of sight, while the pastor and his mother visited.  Neither one paid attention to him.  When the pastor had left and John had come out from under the table his mother stroked his hair and with a friendly smile said, "Were you shy, Johnny"?  Johnny had never forgotten this incident and the wonderful feeling that it was all right for him to be shy, that he did not have to force himself to be a big boy and to hide his shyness from the visitor. Johnny had been affirmed both by his mother and her understanding visitor. They had affirmed Johnny by allowing him to grow and become who and what he was supposed to be in his own time, in his own way, and at his own pace.  I remember asking John whether he recalled the effect of this particular visit. "Indeed," he replied, "I remember that it gave me a sense of confidence in myself, a feeling that I was O.K. And I'm almost positive that the visit cured, or at least greatly diminished my shyness."  This may sound like a rather unexpected outcome to those of us who find it easier to imagine another version of this visit by the pastor, like: "Johnny, come out from under the table and shake hands with the pastor. Show him what a big boy you are. Come on, Johnny, don't be a baby." But it is precisely the Johnny in this second version who is not being affirmed and whose emotional development will become adversely affected (Dr. Conrad Baars, M.D., Born Only Once).

While love deprivation and emotional denial may be subtle in their expressions, especially in healthier families, their long-term effects are obvious and painful.  These effects include (to greater and lesser degrees):  1) An inability to relate to others, to form intimate friendships; 2) Feelings of uncertainty and insecurity which often manifest themselves in hypersensitivity and an unhealthy need for acceptance and approval; 3) Feelings of inferiority, inadequacy and unworthiness; and 4) Increasing feelings of depression resulting from a fearful and lonely lifestyle.  Do any of these symptoms look or feel familiar?  This may be a tough reality to face, but it needs to be faced for the sake our own happiness (see John 10:10) as well as for the sake of our discernment.  Discernment requires both the freedom and the self-confidence needed to say Yes!.  Still, we do not need to be afraid of our weaknesses, God has sent His son Jesus to heal us and set us free so that we can say Yes to Him and His plan with confidence and freedom—this is the message of Advent!  With this advent hope in mind and heart, we will discuss in coming reflections how we dispose ourselves to receive the affirmation of God and others and how to become authentic affirmers ourselves.

May God bless you this Christmas!

Fr. Isaac Spinharney, CFR
St. Joseph Friary
Harlem, NY

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