Truth, therapy and being present in prayer
My belief is that when you are telling the truth you are close to God.
I shared those words by Anne Lamott, from her book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayerson my social media yesterday.
I shared them because they resonated deeply. Not only at this time in my life (more on that in a bit), but because they remind me of a connection that, in my experience, both religious or non-religious folks tend to miss.
See, I believe prayer has more in common with therapy than is often recognised — which means prayer, like therapy, is work, and that work can sometimes even be more intense than we care for.
And the reason why prayer, like therapy, is work, is because both are about truth.
I often tell patients to be honest and open about their symptoms — anything they hide may be more important than they imagine, and may lead to the wrong diagnosis, which in turn might mean the wrong treatment. Lying to your doctor or not being completely honest can literally kill you.
And I’m talking about physical medicine, where at least the doctor can always examine you and perform tests to guide them in the right direction with how best to care for you.
You can imagine how that’s even more the case with mental healthcare, where the symptoms are less visible and tests less helpful. But at least with psychiatric disorders there are still often definite things to look out for, even then.
The real tricky stuff is stuff like emotional issues and personality problems and unhealthy habits: they’re just as potentially destructive, but more vague, and easier to hide.
To put it differently. With a physical problem, even if you don’t believe it’s real, we doctors can always point to your body or to a test and say, “Look, this is real — you need to do something about it.” With a psychiatric disorder we can’t as often point to your body or tests, but we can often point to your behaviour and your functional level and say, “Look, your life is falling apart, you need to do something.” (And if you’re at enough risk and unable to see it, the law can actually step in.)
But with emotional problems? The entire thing about those is that, unlike with physical and psychiatric illness, you’re still able to cope. Maybe below your potential, but who’s to argue that? You’re coping, on a level, and no matter what anyone points to, you can argue that you’re alright and they need to back off.
And they simply have to respect that.
It’s scary, almost — but in a sense we can be our own worst enemies.
If you’re like me, you’ve had multiple times in your life when you finally accepted help after denying a problem was real for the longest time. And if you’re like me you actually believed it was not a problem, and maybe only finally accepted when things fell apart, or came close. And hopefully it wasn’t too late by then.
The truth will set you free, yes, but it often makes you feel like a fool first, doesn’t it? Because the problem with accepting the truth is often not the truth itself: it’s having to accept that up until then you were living a lie.
That’s profoundly humbling, isn’t it?
And yet, there’s no other way forward. Physical growth is mostly painless, but emotional growth is mostly painful, because it requires letting go of things you held as important: of people, of places, but especially of principles that had previously guided you.
And sometimes we hold on because we can’t imagine any other way to be.
That’s where therapy — and prayer — come in.
They give us a space to mourn what we let go of, and to imagine what it might look like to replace it. They allow the space to be vulnerable, to be emotionally naked, to strip off our bravado and stand in uncertainty and admit that we don’t know as much as we want others to think. They offer a space for us to be as children again, because the only way to mature is to recognise, without the shame that would have us hide it, where we are immature.
But we have to not only be honest — we also have to accept honesty of the other.
Because, another thing both therapy and prayer have in common is that, done rightly, they are conversations. Often, in therapy, people want to be honest, but they don’t want the other person to be: they want to speak their mind without hearing that of another. But there is no truth in that, which is why honesty alone is not enough.
It’s about a conversation where we open our hearts to something from another, beyond ourselves.
Which is why I agree with Anne Lamott that when we tell the truth, we are in that moment close to the God, and closer to our true selves — it often feels like losing ourselves only because we are losing (and mourning) the lies we had lived in.
What did it feel like the last time you tried to be at your most honest and open to truth?