I had been attending outpatient group-therapy sessions for several weeks. Though my mental health still had much to be desired — my spiritual health, too, for that matter — I had settled into a comfortable place with these people. Not that I was overly chatty, but I talked more than I had in those first few reclusive, virtually mute days.
When I talked, usually providing feedback for others in the group, my words were "golden," they told me. I didn't offer just observation to these people who, like me, were wrestling with depression and anxiety and other paralyzing issues. At least so they told me. My insights were welcome, respected, even treasured.
I tried to brush it off as merely my accumulation of time and life experience. At 56, I clearly was the oldest patient in a room that featured maybe 20 different people over the course of the week. They jumped all over me when I deflected their compliments.
Still, it's a lot easier to advise others than work on your own issues. It's far more interesting hanging out in someone else's head than staying bogged down in your own.
"Brittany" was 24 years old, paying her way through school by toiling at unpleasant work while living with her sister and brother-in-law. Brittany didn't really get along with them, but that was better than living in her car, which she had done previously. She drank too much, smoked weed and changed majors several times.
Like so many of us, she felt lost.
"How do I figure out who I am?" she asked the group one day.
That grabbed my attention. I anxiously looked toward the therapist, the only person in the room older than me. Shockingly, she was looking directly at me. "Mike," the therapist said, "I'll let you answer that."
All eyes turned to me. "Yeah," said 30-year-old "Alanna" with a smile, "impart some of that salt-and-pepper wisdom."
I've been looking for wisdom on that subject myself for many months. Praying for it, in fact. Such an exercise — figuring out "who I am" — has deep psychological roots. Self awareness, therapists call it; seeking your authentic self was the path espoused by many philosophers.
Such exploration is as much spiritual as psychological, though. The late Thomas Merton, who mused about true self and false self, has been my encouraging guide nudging me that direction for years. Providing further spiritual motivation has been St. Teresa of Avila, who counseled on the need for self-knowledge.
"We shall never succeed in knowing ourselves," St. Teresa said, "unless we seek to know God."
I didn't want to sound "preachy" or religious in that therapy session, so I didn't give Brittany such advice in those exact words. But I did share a thought from Merton's book "New Seeds of Contemplation."
"Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self," he stated.
We've all made that mistake. We've all thought we had a clear understanding of who we are based on the superficial, the surface, the illusory false self. Such a man or woman takes on many forms, I've discovered.
When feeling unsettled with myself, I reflect on when I felt happier, more joyful, even more fulfilled. I think, "I miss the person I used to be." Upon further reflection, I realize I'm actually missing the person I only thought I was, or the person other people thought I was. Or the person I wanted to be — the man I thought I should be.
This false self "is the man that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him," Merton stated. "The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God. ... If I find Him, I will find myself, and if I find my true self I will find Him."
Look past what you see in the mirror and what only brings you temporary happiness, I told Brittany and the group that day. Look deeper, with humility and honesty. Look for what appears genuine and rings true. Pursue your journey and not someone else's.
Ah, if only I could listen to my own "salt-and-pepper wisdom."
Eisenbath is a member of St. Cletus Parish in St. Charles.