Recently, I’ve been going through some spiritual turmoil. Now hearing about other people’s spiritual turmoil can be boring. Nevertheless, spiritual turmoil is a common enough problem that I think it’s worth spending some time thinking through what spiritual turmoil is, and what one does about it.
First of all, I think it’s very important to remember that spiritual turmoil is not pathological; it is uncomfortable, but it is not an illness. Our society shies away from discomfort; our default setting (especially amongst the middle class and upper middle class) is to try to buy our way out of discomfort; we might try to find a convenient pill or medication that will remove our discomfort, or go shopping or take a vacation to cover up the discomfort in the undeniable pleasure of buying new possessions or buying new experiences.
But spiritual turmoil is not an illness; it is not pathological. In my own experience, and in talking with others about their experiences, spiritual turmoil results when you can no longer adequately answer one of the big spiritual questions. The big spiritual questions include: Who am I? What ought I do? What is the ultimate nature of reality? What is the final destination of human beings? (These days, I’d add the question: How should we raise the children? — it is important enough to stand on its own, I now think, and not be lumped in with the question What ought I do?) Most of the time, most of us have come up with answers to these questions that serve us well.
But every once in a while, something happens to most of us, and we no longer feel satisfied with our earlier answers to these questions, and the result is spiritual turmoil. One classic example of this: most children in our society have a reasonably good answer to the question “Who am I?”; but when they hit puberty, with all its attendant physical and emotional changes, they find that they need a new answer to that question. The result is spiritual turmoil. The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson called this adolescent spiritual turmoil an “identity crisis,” and although I resist reducing spiritual turmoil to psychology, I agree with Erikson’s analysis that this is a normal event, not a pathology. In fact, pathology arises when one tries to ignore an adolescent “identity crisis”; if you don’t face up to your inner turmoil, and deal with it, it will come back to haunt you later in life.
Not surprisingly, our society does tend to pathologize adolescent “identity crises,” and adolescence in general. I was talking with a group of middle schoolers recently, and they said one of the things they disliked about being an adolescent is the way most adults assume that adolescents are bad. Many in our society consider adolescence a problem that can be solved through restrictive standardized testing, abstinence training, and educating teenagers to be good consumers. But teenagers don’t need to be punished for struggling with the question “Who am I?”; and they need more support in their spiritual turmoil than the usual adult query, “Well, what do you want to be?” — meaning, what job will you fill; and by the way you better go to college or you won’t get a good job and you’ll be nobody, a non-entity.
Spiritual turmoil happens frequently with adults as well. Many adults find that spiritual turmoil is triggered when someone close to them — a parent, a sibling, a spouse or child — is dying. This can cause the question “What is the final destination of human beings?” to loom large in one’s consciousness. When someone dies suddenly and unexpectedly, you can find yourself confronting the question, “What is the nature of reality?” — is reality inimical to humans, or indifferent to humans, and if so, what are the implications of that?
Another trigger for spiritual turmoil in adults can be the loss of a job, or some other major career change, including retirement. In our society, much of our identities is wrapped up in our work — we frequently respond to the question “Who am I?” by giving our job title. But if you lose your job, or if you have to change jobs so that you’re no longer doing something you spent a great deal of time training for, this can cause you to confront anew the question “Who am I?”
I said earlier that there is a tendency to pathologize spiritual crises. Feel depressed because you lost your job? See a shrink, take an anti-depressant. Feel sad because your parent died? See a shrink, they’ll cure you. But when you try to cure things that don’t need to be cured, I think you’re just going to cause more trouble. The grief that comes when someone close to you dies remains an acute feeling for at least a year and a half to two years, and that time does not lessen just because you take an anti-depressant or see a shrink.
Mind you, if there is another pathology present, such as depression, then of course you should see a psychotherapist and take medication if you need to do so; especially if your grief makes you non-functional to the point where you can’t carry out your ordinary daily duties. But medical help alone is not going to get you through that spiritual turmoil; somehow, you are going to have to come up with another answer to that spiritual question, when the old answer no longer satisfies.
It’s also important to realize that some people are spiritually tone-deaf, as it were. The philosopher Richard Rorty, a long time despiser of religion and spirituality, finally admitted late in his life that he must be religiously tone-deaf — as a pragmatist, he saw that religion and spirituality were perfectly genuine experiences for many other people, even if he didn’t couldn’t share in those experiences himself. People who are spiritually or religiously tone-deaf don’t seem to struggle much with the big religious questions, and they literally cannot understand why others do struggle; we can only pity them for missing out on some of the richness of human life, just as we pity those who are literally tone-deaf and cannot appreciate music; and we must also ask them to keep their scorn under control, just as we ask those who are literally tone-deaf to keep their scorn for music under control and not inflict it on us when we are listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
In short, spiritual turmoil is real, and it is not pathological. And I’ll go further and say that spiritual turmoil can lead to growth, and move us towards becoming better people, if we let it. Spiritual turmoil is not always comfortable; neither is birth, or puberty, or menopause and “man-opause.” Yet all these things are normal aspects of human life. So if we face up to spiritual turmoil — face up to the discomfort, rather than trying to buy our way out of it — the potential is there for leading a more harmonious life, becoming more in tune with our own selves and with humanity and with the wider universe.
For a follow-up post, click here.