Loving Your Inner Gollum

fares-hamouche-677535-unsplash(This post was originally published on faithandmarriage.org)

I’m currently reading the Lord of the Rings for the third time; 12 years have passed since I last read them and I am picking up more of the rich nuances in the novels than ever before. The whole story is an allegory for the struggle of life, the battle against sin, and Providence at work through it all. There are many rich characters in the story, but the most intriguing and contradictory one is the treacherous Gollum. He is conniving, manipulative, dirty, slimy and solely fixated on his “Precious” (The One Ring). Because the Ring is an embodiment of sin, Gollum, therefore, reveals the true effects of sin: he is isolated, obsessed, fractured, and less-than-human.

Gollum and Frodo stand in contrast to one another. The villain and the hero. Gollum is the character who is almost beyond redemption, so twisted in his own evil and lust for the Ring that his personality has literally been fractured into two: the naive child and the sociopathic killer. Frodo takes the Ring not for lust, but for charity. He feels and knows its power but resists its seduction for a greater good: to destroy it. One of the many marvels of this story is that Frodo empathizes with Gollum’s plight, unlike many of the other characters in the story. Everyone wants Gollum dead, but Frodo is moved with pity for him. Frodo clearly understands the power of the Ring and knows that it would not take much to end up like Gollum. That is empathy. Mercy is loving that which does not deserve it.

We all desire to be the hero, but the truth is that there is an inner villain inside of us all (as Jordan Peterson likes to remind us). Gollum embodies that inner demon; that part inside of us that we hate about ourselves. The vice that we fear. The thorn in the flesh. The sin we regret. All of that is Gollum. It is the part of us that we would kill if we could. We ask ourselves, “Why won’t it just go away?” “Why does it keep showing up and ruining things?” We try hard to ignore it, forget that it is there, or stuff it deep down.

I think it is safe to say that most of us struggle with being our own worst critic. We continually condemn ourselves for not being enough. Yet, I think Tolkien is inviting us to consider another option. Rather than constantly trying to kill those things in our lives that we identify as Gollums, we should begin to see them for what they are: a lost part within us that needs saving. Rather than meeting our anxiety with contempt, greet it with love and affection. The way of redeeming that villain within is not through condemnation but through mercy and clemency. Self-Compassion, as Kristin Neff calls it, would be the answer.

We often reject our weakness because we do not understand it. Therefore, let’s turn our attention to Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians.  St. Paul proudly proclaims that “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” (2 Cor 11:30). Huh? What? This is the missing piece and why it is important to not be ignorant nor condemning of your struggles. Paul boasts of his weakness, because our Lord tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9). It is in those moments of weakness that we encounter our human limitations; ergo our need for salvation. We run from those struggles because we fail to see how God can use them for his Greater Glory. But the mystery of the Cross is that in our poverty we are most likely to encounter Jesus. Paul understands this, which is why he can see the purpose behind the “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7). It is given to him to keep him humble and prevent him from developing pride. See it this way: God loves Paul enough that he didn’t want him to be an egomaniac because of his great preaching skills. That elusive thorn is the vehicle used God to make that happen. The thorn in the side is God’s mercy. That’s Providence at work in the mystery of sin.

Paul’s thorn was his own issue that he needed to understand, but we all have thorns and struggles that we are trying to make sense of in our lives. We have no idea how everything will play out. Frodo didn’t. He had no idea what mercy towards Gollum would do. In the end, it becomes the thing that saves Middle Earth. Yes, we absolutely should have a clear aversion to the sin in our lives and sincere desire to be free from it, but I reiterate my point… harsh criticism is not the answer. It only makes matters worse. Rest in your neediness and trust in God’s love to meet you there.

Learn to love your inner Gollum, because God does, and one day you will see why he was there the whole time.

Married Life and the Theology of the Body

IMG_4465During our engagement, a friend of ours gave us a copy of a purple paperback with an odd title: “The Good News of Sex and Marriage.”  Kristin and I read it together over the course of our engagement and the first year of marriage. Along with our classes on natural family planning, we felt that it was the best marriage preparation we had received.

Thus, began my love affair with the Theology of the Body (TOB). I dove head first into studying it. I listened to talks. I attended workshops at the TOB Institute. Spent countless hours having conversations with people about it. I read and prayed with the text over and over again. I really wanted to understand the context of the material, not just the text itself. JPII was a genius and one of the most profound thinkers in the history of the Church. I wanted to make sure that I understood him and was properly nuanced in my teachings of his material. It has been a bit of a zigzag over the years, but I think I finally get it now.

Concurrently, I began my graduate school work and practice as a counselor. I always knew that I would be working with couples in distress and preparing engaged couples for marriage. My training was from a public university and as many of you know, modern counseling theories are rooted in postmodernism, which rejects objective truth on principle. Being Catholic, I could not accept that premise but still chose to “dialogue” with the theories and find the points of connection with the faith. In short, God baptized my education.

The TOB provided a shift to the very foundation of the practice of counseling. If we start from the presupposition that man is alone in the universe, then no counseling theory could bring any substantial comfort to the hurts and struggles of life. If we are just going to die someday and not live on into eternity, then what could I possibly say to give someone hope? At best, I would encourage hedonism, because you might as well enjoy life while it lasts.

The TOB shift is this, man is not alone but called into relationship. Believing that humanity is called by God to be in relationship with Him for all eternity now gives us a better foundation to work with in counseling. (Honestly, this has been the Catholic vision since the beginning; which makes the TOB the best type of theology: new and ancient at the same time.) JPII gave us a vision for humanity that put love and relationship as the center of our being, not subjectivity and thought. It is not “I think therefore I am;” it is “I am loved therefore I am.”

Moreover, the invisible God gives us visible signs of his love. One of which is the love between married couples. Marriage has been raised to the sacramental order and now becomes a tangible manifestation of God’s presence in the world. Yes, this is a great mystery! (See Ephesians 5) Married couples are invited by God Almighty to witness His love and have the opportunity of offering all aspects of their life together back to God. Biting one’s tongue in a fight becomes an act of virtue. Getting up and doing the dishes is part of becoming holy. Going on a date is something that makes God smile. Every little thing now has the opportunity to be sanctified and redeemed. (This includes sex, which is so awesome that I’ll leave that for another post.) Those mundane and little things in marriage become the precise vehicles God uses to make couples into saints. Wow! (or as they say in Southern Louisiana..Geesum!)

In this light, the goal then of marriage counseling is not just learning how to communicate better, rather the goal is to teach couples how to love better! This makes a lot of sense to me. Communication is not the end. Even, healing is not necessarily the end. Love is the supreme end and direction of counseling sessions. The counseling theories I learned were now properly ordered.

15 years later from first reading that purple book (FYI, the cover has been changed in the latest edition), and 12 years later from beginning my counseling practice, I have learned a lot as a husband, father, and counselor. Wisdom comes with age or as my wife likes to remind me when she sees the grey in my beard…age comes with wisdom! I see very clearly that everything I have learned or experienced in my personal and professional life is not just for me, but should be used to help others. Therefore about 7 years ago, I put together a marriage retreat (Living the Gift of Marriage), because it gave me an audience to share this message with. Counseling is great but you can only work with a small number of people at any given time. Retreat ministry provided another outlet for these reflections.

By God’s grace, I have had the opportunity to offer my little retreat in a few different places: Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, and even on a cruise to Cozumel. It was always a moonlighting gig but I have loved every time I have done it. I am grateful to the many folks who have come with hearts open and laughed at my bad jokes! I know it has helped people.

Then, some amazing happened, after years of studying, teaching, and practicing, I had the opportunity to offer my talks for the Theology of the Body Institute. Along with Dr. Greg Bottaro, we offered “Together as One” in Feb 2016. It was a dream come true! Even though it was the coldest winter in years for Philly (literally -18 degress after wind chill…that’s cold for a Southerner!), I was on cloud nine. It was a graced opportunity to help couples from around the country. Many of whom were in ministry and felt the pressure of perfection. Often Church leaders don’t know where to go to let their hair down and be vulnerable. I think we provided that safe space for people.  It’s needed. We are all human.

Having said all of that, I am happy to announce that we are offering “Together as One” again in November. If you are a married couple who is looking to boost your relationship or in search of a couples retreat that is both spiritual and practical, this is the event for you. The TOB is driven by theology and spirituality, leaving many of the practical aspects to evangelists, catechists, and theologians. We like to believe that our retreat helps to make those points of contact for married couples today.

Please come and join us for this weekend. Hopefully, it won’t be as cold as last time! But should be just as powerful (God willing).

For more information, find the event on Facebook or TOBI website. We hope to see you there. Email me if you have more questions.


Men, Emotions, and Words

As many a woman understands (and at time laments), men just simply stink with words. “You don’t talk enough.” “All you want is sex.” “Boys, stop hitting your brother.” “Use your words!” “Talk to me.”

Although, women want to rest their accusations on men being emotionally shallow, the answer to this problem is found in new understandings of the human brain.  Men and women’s brains are different, this is becoming more and more evident. The reason for these differences is due to the chromosomal differences in our DNA, which results in different chemicals floating around in our respective brains. The amounts of testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone influences the development of different brain structures and activity.  This results in various changes, but for the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on one distinction. (If you are interested in this topic and would like to learn more, check out the works of Michael Gurian and Leonard Sax. Both have written extensively on the topic.)

As a result of sex-specific human development, men have less synaptic activity between the left and right hemispheres of their brain. In an over-simplification, the left hemisphere controls language and analysis. The right hemisphere governs emotion and creativity because it has more connections to the limbic system, which is the emotion center of the brain.

A woman’s brain has more synaptic activity across the various brain structures, therefore making her brain more efficient in doing tasks that stretch across various parts of the brain. A task like articulating your feelings. It is easier for her to name (left brain – analysis) what she is experiencing (right brain/limbic – feeling).

In contrast, a man has more synaptic withins across the whole organ. This is why men tend to be more task and goal oriented. Or have a ‘one track mind,’ so to speak. This also means that when a man feels something, he may struggle to be able to talk about his feelings because where we experience emotion and where we articulate those experiences happens in two different places. It is harder for a typical male brain to go and fetch the appropriate words to describe the emotion he is feeling. He still feels and experiences life; he just is not able to talk and share about it as freely as women. Therefore, ladies stop accusing your husband of having the emotional depth of a teaspoon, it is just brain anatomy.

This does not mean that guys are off the hook of talking and sharing. We men still need to learn how to articulate our thoughts and feelings better (and be given permission to do so). However, women need to know that men often express their emotions in ways other than words. Men are more inclined to express their feelings through action or physicality. Men do. A guy will punch another guy as a sign of friendship. Men want to fix things. Open the hood of your car and see how many of your male neighbors will come over and see what you are doing. Those are signs of affection. Most men may not be good at words, but emotional expression is not solely contingent of vocabulary, there are many other ways to express what one is feeling.

So, what are the implications of these differences in marriage and family life? I’ll lay out three brief thoughts here:

1) In a recent episode of the podcast The Art of Manliness, Michael Gurian decried how often we tell young boys “use your words!” If the issue is that the boy cannot use his words as easily as his female peers, are we not then shaming our boys and making them feel at fault for something they have little control over? We need to give space for boys to figure it out. While also providing other methods of emotional expression that go beyond the verbal. Physical expression and visual arts are options to consider.

2) Men’s brains are more efficient when they are doing. I stated above that men have low cross hemisphere activity; although, when men are engaged in physical activities this is not the case. Men can better access words and feelings when they are doing something. This is why men often bond over activities – fishing, hunting, and playing sports. They share an experience, cut up, and have stories to tell later.

For fathers, it is so important to get outside and be with your sons. Shoot hoops. Play catch. Go fishing. Do a project together. Those are great opportunities to build memories but also to be able to talk about life issues. Those are prime moments to talk about heavier subjects and to (maybe) get some sort of response from your sons.

For wives, consider dates that get you out and doing something together. Dinner and a movie are nice, but get out and share an adventure together. It’ll mean a lot to your husband.

3) In marriage, the stereotype runs that men only care about sex, but I invite you to rethink sexual intimacy in light of what I’ve stated above. For men, sex is a primary manifestation of affection. Without question, this desire has been misunderstood, abused, and distorted for selfish gain. “A man has his needs, baby!” is a poor excuse for intimacy. But in its purest form, a man’s longing for physical intimacy comes out of his longing for emotional connection.

When a man has poor control of his desires and poor understanding of his emotions, sex becomes a dividing force rather than a unifying one. If a man is willing to do the work of redeeming his sexuality, he will find that the woman in his life will be more open. This leads us back to words. Sharing and connecting builds trust. Trust allows for vulnerability. Vulnerability allows for intimacy. Intimacy allows for sex. Verbal emotional expression and physical emotional expression should work together. The marital embrace should honor both the good of men and women; including their brain anatomies. (I have more to say on the topic of marital lovemaking, but I will leave that for future posts.)

I’ll end by saying this, whenever a post/article like this is written, there immediately is a backlash filled with every exception to these distinctions. I write this post as a man who is good with his words. I know there are exceptions. Biological understanding of the differences in men and women’s brains is not neurological typecasting. I firmly believe in nature and nurture shaping our abilities. Yet, it is still okay to say that there are generalities, even if your particular experience might not correspond.

(Featured image by Cole Hutson on http://www.upslash.com)