In one of my lives, I lead a training program for psychotherapists.
A few years ago, a specially gifted young therapist was presenting her work with an extremely challenging patient. The patient’s difficulties were several and severe, her despair was great, and the therapist was feeling, quite understandably, overwhelmed.
Despair can be contagious, as you know, and this therapist had caught it. She didn’t know what to do to help this patient, but beyond that, she was doubting herself. “I don’t know if I can do this,” she said. “This” meaning: help this patient, help any patient, and be a therapist at all.
I already said this therapist is specially gifted, and I cannot say that strongly enough. When she interviewed for the training program, it was instantly clear that she had “it,” that impossible to describe impossible to miss quality that sets someone apart as exceptional. She exuded safety, she listened deeply, and she spoke honestly and without pretense. I remember thinking, “Whoever the baseball scout was that watched Henry Aaron try out, this is what he felt like.” And her time in the training program had proven me right. She was, and is, a great therapist.
But everyone gets rattled sometimes, even future Hall of Famers.
“What should I do?” she asked.
I said the first thing that popped in my mind. “Try getting really small.”
I bet this happens to you, too, moments when intuition gets there before the rest of you does. But you trust it enough to go forward, use it, and figure out later what it means.
I had to say something else, of course, and I did. But it was no less opaque: “Try feeling in your body how small you are in comparison to her and her problems. Notice what you can do when you’re small and what you can’t. Give yourself a minute to feel how ok it is to be small. And see if that helps.”
Which it did.
In the Christian world, today is the first Sunday in Lent. Lent, I would offer, is the season for learning it’s ok to be small.
Lent is known mostly as a time of solemnity and self-denial. Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday are our last chance to go crazy and have fun before we wipe that smile off our face and give up something we love for 40 days. The chief practices of Lent, penance and repentance, both come from the Latin paenitere, to be sorry.
Solemnity, self-denial, and sorrow are all fine, if that’s what it takes. And sometimes it is. Sometimes we need all that and more to recognize our own darkness and the ways we project it and inflict it onto others. But none of that, I think, is actually the point.
The point of Lent, for me anyway, is to be brought back into proportion and restored to a proper posture. We get too big. We feel too sure of ourselves. Lent helps us learn again our right relationship with everything that is: with the world, with others — friends, enemies, and strangers — with God, with our own selves.
Think of Lent as a spiritual chiropractor. It’s where we go once a year to get adjusted.
The first words of Lent are these, on Ash Wednesday, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you are returning.” Dust is pretty small.
Dust is also the great equalizer. Everything comes from the dust of that first great explosion. Grass and trees, birds and bees, and everything else a human sees.
Feeling a little big? Feeling important? Feeling pressure to make the world right? Sleep with these words for 40 nights: Humus. Human. Humility.
If dust is the first word in Lent, wilderness is the first location. On the First Sunday of Lent, Jesus goes to the wilderness. “Goes” isn’t entirely accurate. Matthew and Luke say he was “led” there by the Spirit. Mark, the grittiest of the Gospels, says he was “driven.”
However Jesus got there, wilderness is a mighty fine place to relearn our size and place in relation to the rest of creation. The bigness. The wildness. The lost-in-it-ness. The warmth of light. The chill of darkness. The whisper and whoosh of wind. The older-than-your-oldest-ancestor-ness of stone.
Oh how different to be on the earth, with the earth, than to look at a map of the earth. And each night, to lie down again in dust.
Lying down in dust, in wilderness, is the movement described in Wendell Berry’s poem, “The Peace of Wild Things”:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
For the past few months, I’ve been working to solve what feels like an unsolvable problem. (The details, while important to me, are not essential to the story I’m telling here.) My therapist has been saying to me, “You’re not going to figure this out,“ meaning that I’m not going to think my way out of it. And fortunately, she is skilled at helping me not-think, but trust instead the realms of the subconscious and the superconscious.
In my session last week, I closed my eyes and saw myself in milky white cloud. There were no objects by which I could orient myself. I could not tell where I was, but all the same, it felt like a safe space. I felt relieved, at ease, and unhurriedly curious.
“What’s happening in there?” she asked.
It was not immediately clear what to say. I could describe the cloud, but I had to wait a bit for words. “I’m feeling . . . happily . . . lost.”
Lost, because I don’t know exactly what to do. Happily, because I feel relieved and content to wait and wonder, to move with less speed and less certainty, to be led rather than be in charge of leading. When, by “knowing,” I have painted myself into a corner, maybe a little not-knowing is the best way forward.
So I invite you, Christian or not, to enter into Lent.
The world is a mess. Maybe you are, too. And you might be tempted to muscle up and see if you can overpower it.
But maybe try some time in the dirt instead.
Try being lost.
Try getting really small.