The Spirit of My Father

Photo by Sam Schooler on Unsplash

Photo by Sam Schooler on Unsplash

Author: Josephine “Jo” Bowens Lewis, PsyD

I’m often aware of my father’s presence in the context of working with people. He had a capacity to articulate meaning in words. He certainly was verbose, yet when he spoke, he had something to say. As a minister, he had a gift of speaking to people according to what he was inspired to tell them, and he had a vast knowledge to draw from. At the same time, he would speak to what he heard from the other person. And he had a kindness of intent—that seemed to come naturally to him. That often guides what I say: paying attention to impact.

There’s a way that he attended to each individual while he was taking care of church business. In our community, there were people who required attention, or who at least made sure you had their attention. At church meetings, you could count on my father to restructure or redirect the process in service of keeping things going, and to make sure that people got the attention they needed.

If I’m speaking, and someone interrupts me, even if I don’t think it’s more significant than whatever it was I was saying, I stop what I’m saying and listen. I believe that if what the other person wants to say is not attended to, it will just come back. It’s as if I think, “I might as well take care of this, instead of going on, or talking louder, or dismissing what they’re saying. It will just come back and haunt me. Or it comes back to sabotage something.

It’s your time or my time. If you have a more urgent need, that’s okay. I’m not going to forget what I was saying. To assume that somebody’s interested in whatever I’m saying, or that what I have to say meets someone’s need… I can’t do it. There needs to be a receptacle. Otherwise, it’s just attention getting.

With a group I’m leading, or with a client, my initiating something is almost always—as far as I can tell—based on my perception of their request, or contract, or felt need in real time. As a facilitator or a consultant, it’s not about my need to say something. It’s about them and what they’re there for.

On occasion—like at the end of a day when I’ve seen, say, six people individually—I’m going to have a felt need to say something in the presence of a client, just to say it. So, I’ll say it, hoping it has some relevance. But for the most part, with clients, I’m not initiating anything with them that’s not consistent with what they’ve already said. I need at least a hint of direction to initiate. There are times when I’m not clear about their intent or their direction, or I think they need to go some other way. Then, I might check out a fantasy I have, or offer some options and hear what they choose.

I think that my understanding that it’s not about me comes from a firm orientation in the contracting process. And I’m guessing that I really learned how to do this through the mentoring I got from people who knew this and practiced this in their work. It started with Graham and Vann at the Institute, and there’s a whole bunch of other people who mentored me.
It’s like a shifting of gears before I sit down to see a client: I think to myself, “Now, it’s your turn.” So much of what I do is an integration of learnings and observations of people I’ve worked with. When I was a student at the Institute, dozens of people would come in and do training there. They were people who modeled, “You just sit down and do the work, and the work is about the people in front of you. It’s not show time.”

I learned to put my ego aside. And my basic life position is “I’m not okay, you are.” Using various aspects of my own script in a functional way is a part of who I am. And if I’m in a leadership position, it’s even easier for me to give leadership to others. I’m very aware of wanting to give to others what I would want. Having said all that, I know that there are times when my ego can be all over the place! But when I’m being paid to facilitate or be a therapist, I put my ego aside.

One thing I know about me is that I’m probably operationalizing a calling. I found my calling at about the age of 12. It’s not likely to be a coincidence that four of us kids in the family had a spiritual calling. Doing anything other than something related to people work and healing doesn’t seem to be an option for anybody in my family! My father has a legacy, and there’s a felt need for us to carry it on. So, in some ways, my denial of a spiritual base for my life, having spiritual leanings, and being a spiritual instrument would be absurd.
Personally, I articulate an awareness of the existence and impact of spirit as I was taught by way of religion. I learned to articulate, in my head, that there’s a father, son, and holy spirit. It’s quite useful and handy for me, because I believe that there’s a spirit of creation, a spirit of redemption, and a spirit of forgiveness, all manifested in the present, that takes care of all things.

Whether they know it or not, I believe that a healthy person has, somewhere inside them, the three dimensions of spirit: creation, redemption, and forgiveness. If they don’t know that, there’s a part of me that wants them to discover it. I want them to know either all three parts or at least one of them. (That’s the influence on me of James Luther Adams.)

So, I assume that spirituality is there in the clients I see. Whether they’re overtly owning and articulating this spiritual part of themselves is not a “should” for me. I don’t suggest that they should own and articulate it. Yet if they’re struggling with it, or if I see a “dead spirit”—I don’t know quite how to frame this—if I see that a part of them is not quite alive, and their thinking is a little disordered, their emotions probably have a little cap on them, they’re moving around in the world but feeling a kind of deadness and sometimes a sense of aloneness, then I think that there’s something more to what’s going on than what would traditionally be called depression.

So, I listen for spirituality in clients, no matter what their religion is, or even if they disclaim their involuntary membership in a religion of childhood. I listen for how much of that they’ve kept and how much of that they’ve let go, because all three things—father, son, and holy spirit—are in all religions.

I use their language for these three things. I don’t always have, consciously, those three things I’m listening for, and when I talk about spirit, I sometimes modify what I say, using other language. It’s just that I know what’s in my own head that’s helpful to me, and that is one way of framing matters spiritual: an awareness of an internal spirit and an awareness of a universal spirit that’s external, an awareness of the interaction between one’s personal power and the power that’s created by togetherness and something external that you can’t explain.
If they have let go of a belief in their own creativity or don’t believe that a part of their creation is connected with all other creatures – I’m listening for that. If they have no sense of how to claim redemption, I’m listening for that. And if they don’t recognize miracles—to put it bluntly—I’m listening for that. They don’t need to be able to understand it or explain it—claiming it is all that’s necessary. You don’t have to work for any of this – at least in my frame of reference, it’s all a gift.

If they really think that they and the people they’re interacting with, or the material conditions of their environment is all there is, and that that will get them where they want to go, I’m listening for where they’re going to find hope and where they’re going to recognize that some things are just not in their heads or anyone else’s head.
If someone doesn’t have a sense of spirituality, then I assume that it’s relevant to why they’ve come to me and what they want out of their time with me. There’s something in those three areas—creativity, redemption, and forgiveness—that needs to be worked out.

About 50% of the people I work with don’t differentiate a sense of matters spiritual from matters religious. They’ve got it all in there tied up together. So their religious talk is metaphorically a talk of how they feed their spirit. The other 50% of the people don’t want anything to do with matters religious. They say, “I’m not particularly religious, but I am a spiritual person.” Or they’ll say, “I recognize that there’s a spirit there, but I don’t know what to call it.” I’ll say to them, “Please say more. Let’s explore this.”

So I ask, “Would you tell me about your religious background?” I’m not looking to frame it for them, but most people’s spiritual life has been framed in terms of a religion.

I ask them to tell me about their church life (or synagogue life or mosque life), if they had one. I want to know what part of that life served them well, what part of that life didn’t serve them well, when did they stop going, what’s the price been of not going? I get a history of when they decided to cut off that traditional means of recognizing and feeding spirit.

I now think that what I’m actually trying to construct is a religious or a spiritual script. Then, I have the history of this person’s experience, and I see if there’s some contamination that could be undone around what they had kept or could keep from what they learned and what they want to throw out. And whether or not their longing for community can be found at church or elsewhere, since a lot of the realization of spirit is in community.

I hear more and more people say that their reason for leaving was the discovery of hypocrisy: the preacher screwed five people or embezzled money or something like that. They see this as hypocrisy because they had been taught in such a way that they confused the tenants of religion with the character of the preacher. I find a difference in the North and South in this: in the North, people might be confused about the preacher’s behavior, but it’s more accepted. Somehow, they just keep going to church and ignore what he did, because they have a community and activities at church. But in the South, it seems like they just can’t accept a preacher who does that. Then they see hypocrisy.

If my father were with one of my clients who didn’t recognized spirit in themselves, he’d probably say, upfront, or certainly before they walked out the door, “You’d do well to check your ticket to heaven on earth. Your best bet would be to believe that there’s a God and to accept that there’s a means to salvation, and to live your life in such a way that you’re in contact with the Holy Spirit, at least every now and then.”

I remember on more than one occasion, the Jehovah’s Witnesses would come to our door. My mother would tell my father, “Don’t answer it!” But he would say, “There’s nothing more important to do.” So he’d open the door and invite them in. He’d accept their tracts. One time I saw him give them paper and pencil and write down the address of his Church, and say, “You might want to check this out.” Eventually, they’d walk out and be at his church the next Sunday!

I can’t you tell how many times it would appear to be an “accident” that something occurs to impact a client, that neither of us had any power over. I’ve seen examples where the timing is just right for something to happen, and that becomes a major opportunity for a re-decision or for validation that the change has already begun. For example, a client really needs an opportunity to practice a new behavior and have that rewarded. Sure enough, the opportunity arises, even though there’s been a dearth of opportunities for months. Just when they’re ready and feeling empowered enough to step out there, here comes the opportunity they need, and they get to see how they’ve been internally transformed in order to have the courage to practice that change.

There’s also the process of redemption that appears to be an “accident” and therefore an opportunity to do something that feels redemptive and allows for self-forgiveness. Losing a loved one is the most classic example of the opportunity for a redemptive act that I can think of. A mother who loses an infant and blames herself can come through it whole. I believe that people come to an understanding that whatever happened wasn’t in their hands in the first place: they really did not cause the tragedy or the pain or the martyrdom of some other person.

So I don’t accept the label of being a healer. It sounds like it gives too much credit to what I do. I give credit to the person who is doing what it takes to be well. I give credit to the mother of a client, who happens to call between sessions, and in doing so gives the client an opportunity to explore their anger at their mother. And I give credit to Spirit. I think healing is within the client, it’s in the interaction between the client and the other people in their life, and it’s in the universe. All kinds of stuff brings about healing. I’m just a part of that process.

I honor the legacy of my father in so many ways: in conversations with people, in my parenting, and in doing the work that I do. Although I’ve had the occasion of repeating something he said, I never think of it until right that minute. Sometimes when I’m working with small groups, in matters of business or organizations, I hear myself—after the fact—sound just like him. I don’t think I’ve ever done a marathon when I didn’t quote him.

I feel little or no self-doubt as I speak about these things. And at the same time, I have little or no compulsion to answer the same question the same way next week. I really don’t have much of a “be perfect” driver, in the sense of being accountable for someone criticizing whatever it is I’ve said or done. I do have a kind of mandate, however, to say what I think at the time as concisely and clearly and directly as possible, as best as I can at the time. Of course, that’s my Dad’s influence.