President's Column

Promises of Renewal

Paul T. P. Wong
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych.
Trent University

No matter how bleak the situation may be, the arrival of a new year invariably inspires promises of renewal and fresh starts.

Despite tight security and threats of terror, the world became a gigantic party to ring in 2003. As the clock struck mid-night, the skies around the globe came alive with spectacular fireworks, and throngs of revellers burst into cheers. At that magic moment, euphoria and optimism filled the air – anything seemed possible and hope once again sprang from the depth of our souls.

Yet, years slip by, like waters flowing downstream. Each passing year seems a replay of the previous one: broken resolutions, missed opportunities and misplaced priorities. Old habits, clinging to us like our own skin, cannot be shed as easily as old clothes. The pull of depravity has a way of defeating our noble intentions and best efforts.

Year-end review of the larger scene also shows plenty of evidence of disorder and decay: terrorism, sniper attack, the specter of war, corporate scandals, the collapse of the stock market, and the escalating conflict in the Middle East.

Is this a case of increase in entropy? Are we doomed to succumb to the second law of thermodynamics? Is renewal possible, if everything will be eventually reduced to dust?

With all its emphasis on optimal functioning, positive psychology needs to find better ways to counter the downward spiral, such as the tragic triad of aggression, depression and addiction.

Within mainstream psychology, the solutions typically consist of commitment, determination, cognitive-behavioral modification, and a host of other approaches of psychotherapy to achieve change. Bookstores are full of self-help books for those who want to better their lives.

However, all these human efforts and ingenuity are helpful only up to a degree, because they are confined within a man-made box – the systems of the world. For example, all the progress in science and technology has not improved the quality of life. In fact, the most successful civilization is reeling under the weight of its own success, as materialism and hedonism continue to corrode the spiritual values that undergird its greatness.

Is there a better way to counteract the downward spiral? Is there a better way to escape the false hope syndrome? I propose that we need to get out of the box and tap into spiritual power for transformation.

The Principle of Spiritual Transformation

I was very surprised to hear a presentation by someone from a Buddhist University in Taiwan at a recent conference on Life and Death Education. He spoke on St. Paul’s view of the new life as based on 2 Corinthian 5:17 from the Bible: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” He presented this verse as a universal principle for renewal and spiritual transformation, because we can substitute “Christ” with “Love”.

Without getting into the theology of Pauline teachings on rebirth, we can examine this verse as a prototype for spiritual transformation. We need to understand the profound inner changes that need to take place beneath the deceptive simplicity of this verse.

Firstly, to be in Christ is to be united with the ultimate source of life, love and light. The world is no longer an island alone by itself, and humanity is no longer an orphan cast at the doorstep of the universe. To be in Christ is to be spiritually connected with the Creator. To be in Christ is to find our spiritual home, for which we are made. This transcendental connection can only be grasped and achieved by faith.

Secondly, there is a profound and pervasive change as a result of being in Christ. The center of gravity shifts from self to God. There is a fundamental change in our core values, which define our everyday behaviors.

By “new creation”, Apostle Paul refers to a new state of being initiated by faith, which opens Heaven’s gate for grace. Life will be lived on a higher plane, for a higher purpose, as it were meant to be lived. Such a life would be so fulfilling that it deserves to be lived eternally.

Just as a flowering plant is produced out of a decaying seed at the expense of the sun, so is renewal of human lives achieved at the expense of the Son of God. As someone has put it, divine grace means God’s Richness at Christ’s Expense.

Thus, at least two sources of energy are needed to counteract disorder and achieve renewal: Human ingenuity through efforts and divine grace through faith.

Much more has been accomplished through faith than the world ever knew. We are just beginning to scratch the surface of the power of faith as an instrument of positive change.

After interviewing 115 people who survived tragedies and heartbreaks, Robert Veninga (1985) concluded: “Faith has a powerful effect in helping people restore a sense of balance, tranquility and hope. I am persuaded that there is nothing in the arsenal of medical and psychological technology that equals the power inherent in simple faith” (p.214).

The Process of Spiritual Transformation

We now need to examine more closely the process of spiritual transformation. I would propose four basic steps, which may not take place in lockstep sequence.

Awakening – It may be a gradual and gentle affair, brought on by an incessant nagging of discontent and a persistent hunger for a better life. It may be a sudden shock caused by a tragedy, which strikes like a thunderbolt from a clear sky. It may also occur in a Kafkasque moment of alienation and despair. In many cases, it is the result of prompting by the Spirit.

When it happens, the scales fall off from our eyes, and we can see ourselves with greater clarity and from a larger perspective. Illusions evaporate and we see our naked selves, and our horrible plight.

Lu Xian, an influential Chinese author at the turn of the 20th century, wrote an allegory about an iron room, which has no window or door. All the people inside this room are sound sleep. The dilemma raised by the author is: Is it better to let them sleep into their certain deaths or awaken them to their hopeless condition?

This dilemma can be easily resolved, if we believe that we can also be awakened to the enduring, spiritual realm, which transcends our present horrible circumstances.

Acceptance – Acceptance goes one step further than awakening. We not only recognize but also accept our dreadful life situations. We accept our inevitable losses and appreciate their full impact on our lives. And, we accept our frailty and mortality without resorting to defense mechanisms.

It is through accepting our impending death that we engage life. By accepting our own failures and limitations, we experience grace and power. By accepting the winter of our lives, we discover the seed of spring.

Paradoxically, acceptance of all the negatives of human existence is the first step towards renewal. As Carl Jung liked to say, there is no rebirth without death.

Affirmation – Just as we accept the negativity of life in all its darkness and depravity, so we affirm the positive worth of life in all its potential and sublime glory.

We affirm the meaningfulness of suffering, no matter how unjust and unfair.

We affirm that there is light in darkness, order in chaos, and vitality in decay.

We affirm that life can be trusted, celebrated and lived fully, despite the many heartbreaks and sufferings.

We celebrate life’s journey in spite of all the troubles and perils.

Action – Inner changes invariably manifest themselves in actions: Love expresses itself in acts of compassion, faith expresses itself in works of heroic courage. Love without deeds is empty; faith without work is dead.

Authentic renewal is not only dynamic, but also continuous. Action requires discipline until it becomes a habit. We need to put on the new self and put off the old self on a daily basis.

Therefore, renewal is a never-ending task. This can be very tiring and discouraging. But this is also the secret key to success. Only in continuing the process of renewal can we overcome all the process of decay.

Some Concluding Thoughts

Jewish tradition tells a story of an immortal eagle that flies towards the sun every 1000 years. As it gets close to the sun, its feathers are burnt and the eagle falls to the ground to renew its wings so that it can again fly heavenward.

This story raises interesting questions? Why does the immortal eagle require repeated renewal? Why does it get so close to the sun only to have its wings burnt?

Three ideas come to my mind, as I think about this story: First, renewal can come only after loss and suffering. Second, renewal depends on moving towards the source of energy. Third, repeated renewal is needed to combat the downward spiral of disorder and decay. These three points pretty well sum up my thesis.

May I wish all of you a year of renewal and growth. May the gift of grace and hope fill our daily lives.

Veninga, R. L. (1985). A gift of hope: How we survive our tragedies. New York: Ballantine Books.