Fire in the Soul; A New Psychology of Spiritual optimism
By Joan Borysenko
I was sitting in the dining room several weeks after my son's friend Mat Hitchcock died, looking out through a big picture window. Beds of petunias and cosmos, flowering and producing seed in their short season, blazed in pink and purple splendor in our quiet yard. The sweet scent of honeysuckle wafted in through the screen and I sat in a kind of reverie, thinking about how life had changed in the month since Mat's death.
Mat's mother, Yvonne Drew, and I had bonded through the tragedy, and our friendship was growing. My husband, Myrin, and I had likewise become closer to several of Andrei's friends who, prior to the tragedy, had moved through the house with relative anonymity, stopping to chat about "safe" things, impersonal things like the weather or the color of their new sneakers. I was reflecting on what one of them had pointed out-that it was too bad tragedy had to strike for people to slow down and show their real selves to one another.
Life did indeed seem curiously fuller since Mat's death. I was thinking about how his loss had woven lives together in a way that never would have happened otherwise and how he would have liked that. I was missing him, too, tears welling up as I thought about his family's loss, our family's loss and, to some extent, all the losses we suffer in life. The doorbell interrupted my reverie. It was the agent of Providence, the anonymous hand of coincidence, disguised as a UPS delivery man.
He plunked down two big boxes. Andrei knew what they were right away. They were copies of the "Mat book," compiled from pages that his friends and family had written in the days following his death. Andrei was too excited to go into the kitchen for a knife. He tore the packing tape off with his bare hands. The colorful cover of the top copy nearly jumped out of the crate. It was a flaming heart, drawn by one of Mat's friends. The kids had decided on the cover two days after Mat's accident, the night that almost fifty of them had gathered at our home to write a page for the book.
After his family had received it and added their own pages, we had intended to take the book to a local printer so that every person who had written a page could have a copy of the whole book. Mat's father, however, is an artist and volunteered to have the book laid out and printed more professionally. I was wondering if he would give the book a title. He had. And it addressed the question of why bad things happen very simply. The title was Love Is the Answer.
"Love is the answer" is a radical statement that may appear simplistic, maudlin, foolish or a wishful cover-up for grief. My conventional training in psychology would write off such a statement as "magical thinking," out of touch with reality. But what is the reality we are out of touch with? According to conventional scientific thinking, reality is that which is directly observable and measurable. In a world that is clearly unsafe, where seventeen-year-olds die in car accidents and leave their loved ones heartbroken, "Love is the answer" seems illogical. But, according to the experience of more than thirteen million Americans (the 5 percent of us who have survived clinical death and returned to tell others about the near-death experience), it is science that is out of touch with a larger reality where love is, indeed, the very fabric of existence.
Whispers of Eternity - Evidence For a Larger Reality
While there are many worldviews that claim to describe reality-scientific, psychological and religious-they lack impact unless they accurately describe human experience. When journalist Bill Moyers asked mythologist Joseph Campbell whether he was a man of faith, Campbell laughed and explained that he didn't need faith because he had experience. Although people have always had experiences that defy our usual beliefs about life, until recently these experiences have remained outside mainstream awareness.
As a medical psychologist I have heard dozens of stories that defy conventional scientific and psychological theory. In Guilt Is theTeacher, Love Is the Lesson I told several stories of patients, colleagues and friends who had visions, near-death experiences and meetings with a radiant light through which they directly apprehended higher levels of meaning, found physical and/or psychological healing and came to believe, like Mat's father, that despite the tragedies and trials of life they were safe in a universe that was ultimately loving.
"David," for example, had recently discovered that he was an incest survivor. Shocking, painful memories of his father's betrayal that surfaced for the first time at age forty-one made it hard for him to function, a common occurrence when repressed trauma comes to light. What was unusual about David is that he became aware of a loving, protective-in his words, "angelic"-presence that provided information about his father's childhood that helped explain why he had grown up abusive. David felt safe and cared for by the unseen presence.
The feeling of safety-and the strong belief in a loving universe that it awakened-allowed David to move very quickly through the stages of recovery from incest. In a relatively short time he was able to grieve his childhood, access the anger toward his father, understand the origin of the abuse in his father's own childhood pain and then forgive both his father and himself. David also came to peace with the fact that his father was unlikely to take responsibility for his actions and that it was best not to see him again, at least in the forseeable future.
When David tried to tell his therapist about the angelic presence, however, his experience was dismissed as "magical thinking," and he wisely decided to keep that aspect of his healing out of the therapy. Science has declared such experiences impossible, and psychology has sought to explain them away as episodes of mental illness. As Lily Tomlin once quipped, "When we speak to God we are said to be praying, but when God speaks to us we are said to be schizophrenic!"
Data from studies conducted by the National Social Survey based at the University of Chicago indicate just the opposite. People who have direct experiences of the sacred score at the top of the scale for mental health. Visionary experiences are not the province of mentally ill people or misinformed, fanatical weirdos. Furthermore, they are not rare. Fully 35 percent of the American people have actually seen a vision-a dead relative, an angel, an apparition of light, an entire scene from another level of reality. Fearful of ridicule, a majority of these people keep their experiences to themselves, a fact that is beginning to change as we let our mysticism out of the closet.
The general public is currently far more accepting of these experiences than my psychological and scientific colleagues are. Since visions and voices can also be symptoms of psychosis, in which a person is unable to separate everyday reality from hallucinations, there is certainly reason for caution. Visionary experiences, however, are quite different from psychotic hallucinations. Whereas psychosis usually leads to losing touch with this reality (not being able to tell what is real and what is imagined) and to dysfunctional behavior, transcendent visions lead to an expanded appreciation of this reality and to more adaptive, healthy behavior.