Last month, I attended a series of workshops on self-care, family dynamics, and recovery from complex trauma. In one session, someone asked the facilitator, a counselor with over 30 years of experience in mental health fields, how to balance faith, confidence, and belief in recovery with the reality that sometimes healing can be a rocky road, with missteps, false starts, and restarts. The counselor noted that one of the key concepts he’s reinforced in working with people on their recoveries is that to keep moving forward – to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes, to not give up on ourselves when old patterns resurface, to sustain the energy needed to continue The Work in the face of obstacles, doubt, and fear – we need to be able to hold two truths at once. We need to expand ourselves such that we can hold two realities – that our hope in ourselves is not misplaced, that we are strong and can overcome adversity, and that we can move through our lives with grace and skill; and also that we may slip up and fall short of our ideals, that we sometimes may feel fragile and overwhelmed, and that recovery (from trauma, grief, substance abuse, or illness) may include steps backward intermixed with the forward movement.
This concept was especially powerful for me. As someone who spent my childhood and young adult years mired in black-or-white thinking, my personal healing and much of my spiritual practice has been built around reconciling seeming opposites, not by blurring difference such that the unlike becomes like, but by digging into the ways in which the tension between opposites is itself fertile soil for the activity of creation and growth, art and brilliance. Since creation is, for me, the sacred in action, and understanding of self in the context of the cosmos is sacred practice, this gives the tension of two truths a spiritual meaning and the fluid give-and-take that holds them in balance a spiritual wisdom.
On a personal level, this may mean that we can be confident in many areas of our lives even as we are timid or anxious in others. It happens when we believe in our ability to heal from trauma, grief, and heartache and are secure in our processes of personal growth and healing even as we know some pains will always be with us, in some way, held in tenderness in our hearts. It’s continuing to engage in devotional practice to the Divine even if we never fully comprehend God’s nature or our purpose.
It’s remembering that the same estranged stepfather whose fists filled your childhood with fear was a good grandpa – most of the time – and letting the bittersweet tears flow freely between those truths.
It means knowing that the same scriptures whose teachings have been used to justify rape, slavery, violence, and oppression have brought peace, stability, compassion, and generosity to other followers, and that the same religion that brought us “conversion therapy” also brought us entire churches full of and working to meet the needs of LGBTQ+ Christians. It’s realizing that plenty of religious people have already been through hell and still find healing in their religions, and that plenty of spiritual people fear self-knowledge, darkness, and pain as much as the next person.
It’s knowing that the same “freedom” our Anglo-American ancestors fought for brought devastation to Natives and terror to enslaved Africans, and that the same free-market capitalist ideals upon which we’ve built the concept of the “American Dream” trap the poor in cycles of poverty, smothering them under the weight of low incomes, healthcare costs, and growing debt.
It is hoping you raise the kind of children who would intervene when teenage girls are targeted for their skin color or religion, even as you know that would be shallow comfort if your own baby’s life was taken for their courage and kindness, in the name of “patriotism.”
It may mean having faith in human goodness even as we witness acts of unspeakable horror, and continuing to care for Earth intentionally in the face of scientific predictions that leave little hope. It’s believing in the loved one in recovery even as you consider how you’d respond if they relapsed again, knowing that your birthmother acted from love even as you nurse the sting of rejection, or giving thanks for a long life well-lived even as you grieve the loss of your grandma.
It’s feeling confident, nourished, and healed by your own spiritual practices, knowing them to be meaningful, even as you acknowledge that others may walk vastly different paths with contentment and connection.
This tension? It’s one of the fundamental realities of human existence in a complex cosmos, of personal growth in the face of both our successes and our setbacks, and of spiritual development in a pluralist culture or global context. For myself, in making peace with contradiction, holding space for the tension between seemingly conflicting truths, I learn to accept myself, navigate my world, and celebrate my God – who is both Goddess and God, personal and abstract, singular and many and all.
Christy Croft is a writer, teacher, and healer whose interfaith, personal spiritual practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. She holds an Master of Arts in Liberal Studies with a focus on religion and social justice, and is currently plotting her next round of graduate studies. She has facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, minister, mentor, mother, and friend. Her research interests are ever-evolving and include spirituality, new religious movements, religiosity and popular culture, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy, and she sometimes blogs at The Sacred Loom.