Today I’m honored to present more thoughtful information in the series Issues in OUR ORBIT: Substance Abuse & Recovery. This guest post is by Gregory K. from his website Suchness: A Mental & Spiritual Health Blog. Gregory K. holds a Masters of Divinity degree and is working toward a graduate degree in counseling. His goal is to help Christians and others who struggle in “finding some measure of peace living in our own skins.”
At my request, Gregory K. was kind enough to address the very problems that arise in fictional form in my novel Our Orbit. Part 1 of his discussion is here. Many thanks to him—
In Part 1 of this set of posts we considered a teenager who uses alcohol to find relief from her troubled feelings. Some rudimentary ideas were laid out for how a mental health worker, pastor, or caretaker might approach this problem. For this second half we will instead consider the spiritual components of her suffering and healing.
These posts are responses to a pair of questions given to me by Anesa Miller, an author who has considered these same themes in her most current book Our Orbit. Anesa asked for input on a spiritual approach in helping a teenager who has suffered spiritual alienation in her family. Religion in the West has become more polarized even as politics have become more polarized. This can certainly create a more caustic environment in some families when it comes to the way religion is approached. During my years at both the seminaries I attended I heard many stories from other students about how they were mistreated by spiritual people or how they had difficult breaks with family members over all kinds of religious stuff. This topic has become more important every day, even as it has become more difficult and dangerous to try and talk about it.
I wish that I could begin this discussion being very serious and spiritual, dispensing words of wisdom and matching Scripture. But when it comes to religious alienation in a family, at least according to my experience with it, the spiritual component is actually secondary to what is really upsetting things. Of course every family is different, but much of the turmoil surrounding religion in a family may connect with a certain lack of emotional honesty or emotional vocabulary.
I wish that I could begin this discussion being very serious and spiritual, dispensing words of wisdom and matching Scripture…
Let me break it down further by considering our hypothetical teenager and her family. Let us say that she has a father who has a very conservative Christian bent and she has been struggling with him and his religious ideologies for much of her life. In this case there are two parties. There is the teenager and there is her father. The teenager yells at her father, she throws things, she slams doors, sometimes she even leaves home without saying where she is going for hours or even days.
The father also yells, also slams doors, and he is constantly reminding her of his rules and beliefs and of how she has disappointed him. The fact that he is disappointed seems to throw her into a deeper rage and this elicits a new volley of ultimatums from the father. Around and around it all goes. As you can see by my description spirituality and religion are not actually what is driving this whirlwind of father and daughter. They may shout about God or sermons or morals, but those are not the deepest truths of what father and daughter are experiencing in those explosive moments. Getting to the deeper truths becomes the real work.
Perhaps in working with the teenager we discover that what she really wants is to feel heard by her father. She doesn’t want her words and deeds to bounce right off of him unacknowledged. She doesn’t want to feel that she has no say in the way she interacts with her family, as if she were only a servant or even a pet. At the bottom of it she really just wants a taste of that unconditional love we all crave. She wants her father to love her no matter what, without her always having to compete with his religious views. So she shouts to be heard, she breaks things to make noise, and she runs away hoping he will chase her and hoping that he won’t. This is certainly one possible scenario for the teenager in this position.
Perhaps in working with the father we discover a sense of betrayal and the grief of loss. Having the same views on religion and morals is one of the ways that families can feel connected to one another in simple straight-forward ways. So when his daughter seems to reject the family’s religious views it looks like she is rejecting the family. That is a betrayal that can really hurt. So he strikes back in the bitterness of that hurt, and he strikes back with a wild hope that maybe this time she will finally listen and join the family again. Because deep down he just wants her to be his little girl again, to be a part of his family like he always imagined it, and each word she screams at him is like a rock thrown through the walls of his glass house. This is certainly one possible scenario for the father in this position.
We discover a sense of betrayal and the grief of loss… Ideally we would be working to bring the family to a place of emotional honesty.
Ideally we would be working to bring the family to a place of emotional honesty, where father and daughter become able to express their feelings in ways that actually penetrate through the guardedness of the other. This is not easy work. It takes some tact and skill, and will only be accomplished after many mistakes and much backpedaling. But, as far as I can see it, this is the heart of the matter. A spiritual approach can work for this teenager if that spiritual approach honors her frustration and helps her to feel truly heard. There are certainly many seeds of inspiration in all the world religions that can help us along this path. On the other hand Scriptures tossed at the teenager like hand-grenades will just make her angrier or drive her to despair. Morals for the sake of morality (that is, without being grounded in anything solid or pragmatic) becomes just another smokescreen preventing the intimacy that this teenager craves.
At last we get to the actual nuts-and-bolts of doing this work. But describing all the actual techniques and approaches out there is beyond the scope of this post. There are just so many paths. For example, much of my approach in this post is informed by my study of Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT) which was created to help couples better communicate but which has since been generalized for use in other kinds of therapy work. What is important for us then is that we have a path in the first place. There is a temptation to help others relying only on our instincts and our empathy, but such an approach lacks any real goals and any real methods that can be tested and shaped by experience. A person can play a videogame and receive some inkling of what it is like to fly an airplane, but they would be utterly lost in the cockpit of a real fighter jet. So for some this may mean developing a spiritual approach, studying the pastoral skills of many successful spiritual teachers that have lived all through history. For others this may mean studying things like EFT or other therapy models, even if they are not mental health workers specifically. Whatever way you decide to go it is essential to have some real honesty with yourself about this path, and to spend real conscious energy on preparation.
The opposite of love is the making of assumptions. When we give up the process of pursuing and discovering we have closed off all the real channels of communication…
Perhaps I have gotten a little away from the original question given to me. So before I finish I want to consider how a person who has a more spiritual approach to helping others might help someone like this teenager who has received some form of religious injury. At the start it appears to be a daunting problem, trying to use spirituality to heal spiritual alienation. I personally believe that what I have described about emotional honesty already in this post is essential if we are going to try and accomplish this. That emotional honesty begins with us as the spiritual helpers.
Consider our hypothetical father from earlier in this post. He is not yet able to fully understand why his daughter’s attitude hurts him so. He does not yet understand that he feels betrayed by her. As a result he throws his religion at her like a weapon trying to subdue her without being fully aware of why he is even so furious.
Can spirituality help heal spiritual alienation?
Are we similarly ignorant of the beginnings of our own spiritual work? What is it that put us on this path of being spiritual helpers in the first place? Of course many will answer that they were “ordained by God,” and this is certainly true, but it is not the whole answer. It is not enough. I have become a counselor interested in emotional honesty myself because emotional honesty was difficult to come by in my family growing up. I could say that God turned that difficulty into a calling in my life, but sticking too closely to that perspective can lead me to easily gloss over the painful details of my own history. And just like that I can find myself furious at dishonest clients, not knowing why, not caring why, using my counseling skills to hammer instead of heal. So I ask again, what has brought you to this path and to your particular spiritual perspective?
Next this emotional honesty must be extended to the teenager we are working with, but let us not get ahead of ourselves. This emotional honesty is not just about the teenager but is between us as helpers and the teenager herself. We must become aware of where the teenager is at in her life. We must learn her way of thinking and feeling, her way of understanding the world and her place in the world, as well as her history. We must exercise our spiritual love. A thing cannot be loved if it is not known, and love naturally drives us to learn all we can about the beloved. In this case then it is useful to remember that the opposite of love is not hatred. The opposite of love is the making of assumptions. When we give up the process of pursuing and discovering we have closed off all the real channels of communication between us and the teenager. She will feel this and respond in kind.
I wish I had all the time in the world to fully explore all of these topics and ideas, but I must cut it off at this point. As always I encourage you to take what is good in what I have written here and leave the rest. Also, feel free to tell me your own thoughts on all of this. I am always interested in hearing about the experiences and perspectives of others, especially since I am just starting off with all of this myself.
Thank you again Anesa for your great questions. I hope this at least a good start to finding the answers. For those of you interested in reading a more narrative exploration of these themes feel free to purchase Anesa’s latest book Our Orbit now available on Amazon.
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The links below provide helpful information on addiction and recovery.
Visit the Harvard Help Guide
Visit Parent Treatment Advocates
Visit Gabbertsite from mental health counselor Gail Gabbert
And here’s a recent article from the New York Times on teenagers discussing what might have stopped them from using drugs.
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I agree that use of discipline can be limited when a teenager is already alienated from the family’s beliefs. “You have to do as I say, because God…” will not work at that point. But it is still important to keep reaching out. Thanks for this.
Thanks for stopping by and sharing your perspective, Brian. It is certainly important to keep reaching out to alienated children as best we can. This can be trying but is so important. Grateful for your comment —