WHOLEHEARTEDNESS: Busyness, exhaustion, and healing the divided self. By Chuck DeGroat. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016. Viii + 200 pages.
Are you exhausted? Do you feel like you’re so busy with life that it seems like you’re being pulled in a thousand different directions? If you’re not, God bless you! As for the rest of us, exhaustion is the name of the game. As a pastor I often feel pulled in multiple directions. Part of that is my own failure to set boundaries and say no when necessary. But again, I doubt that I’m all that different from many others, including members of my own congregation. So, what is the solution? Some would say, get some rest, but is that possible and is that the solution? Just sleeping more might not rectify the situation.
For those seeking some guidance in these matters, Chuck DeGroat’s book Wholeheartedness might prove helpful. DeGroat is a therapist and professor of pastoral care at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is the author of another book that I had the pleasure of reviewing: ToughestPeople to Love: How to Understand, Lead, and Love the Difficult People in YourLife -- Including Yourself, (Eerdmans, 2014). In both books I found wisdom shared by one who has not only studied the challenges of life, but has learned from his own challenges.
In Wholeheartedness DeGroat addresses the challenges of our busy, distracted, and divided lives. Instead of suggesting we get more rest, which may not be possible, he suggests that we experience whole-heartedness. What is "wholeheartedness"? Speaking out of his own Christian faith, along with his studies and experiences as a therapist and teacher of pastor care, he believes that we stand to benefit from attending to both the resources of our faith and from the social sciences, including psychology.
The book is divided into three parts. Part One, focuses on "diagnosing our unwholeness." In this section DeGroat speaks to our experiences of feeling pulled in many different directions (we all feel this -- work, church, family, etc.). The result is that we fail to thrive, and because to thrive we fail to flourish. He writes: “Created to flourish, we experience nagging despair. Made to receive and give joy, we battle cynicism and resignation. Invited to relax our control strategies, we anxiously perfect ourselves for others and sometimes even for a God who we believe is eternally disappointed in our lack of progress” (p. 30). And so try to multitask our way to perfection. The second chapter of part one lifts up this need for perfection that often drives us to despair and exhaustion. Recognizing that we all fall short of perfection, he invites us to embrace our imperfection (this is a good Calvinist diagnosis!). He notes that “perfection isn’t the goal of a proud puffed-up soul, but of a deeply insecure one” (p. 37). We busy ourselves, seeking perfection, because we feel like we don’t measure up. Seeking perfection can be toxic to our lives and our relationships. In the final chapter of part one, DeGroat invites to use our brains. That is, he addresses the question of neurobiology. I found this chapter to be fascinating. Like many I’ve had conversations about being right or left brained, but the way we’ve been talking about brains might be a little off. It’s not quite as simple as has been suggested. Thus, he suggests that we seek to live a “whole-brained life.” Too often let the "reptile" brain, the oldest part of the brain dominates, but to find wholeness we’ll need to engage the neocortex, which is the most developed part of the brain. Why? Because it’s not reactive like the reptile brain, but allows us “to love with a self-giving love, to discern our unique vocational inclinations, to write a poem, to envision a way to attain peace in the Middle East.” This part of the brain, which allows us to move toward wholeheartedness, apparently, isn’t accessed near as often as needed! So the key is to integrate our brain functions.
Part two is titled "Awakening to Wholeness." In this section he seeks to point us toward models of wholeness, so we can move in that direction. He starts with the poets and mystics. He introduces us to poets and poetry. It is appropriate to note here that I’m not the most poetically attentive persons in the world. Nonetheless the point is moving in a more contemplative manner so we can awaken to the realities of our lives, thus find ways of breaking free of our dividedness. While we all seem to want to pursue self-improvement, he suggests we abandon the quest as a fool’s errand. From this poetic awakening, DeGroat moves on to address the question of holiness. Holiness is the destination, but it doesn’t occur through efforts at seeking perfection. Holiness should not lead to exhaustion, but we get exhausted when we give free reign to our “inner critic.” Holiness involves removing obstacles to union with God. That means letting God do the work of clean-up. Finally, in the process of awakening to wholeness, we must learn to understand “our whole story." That is, it is essential that we understand ourselves in light of God's presence and purpose. Thus, we discover the antidote to exhaustion, and that’s to be found in wholeheartedness, which is participating “in the life of God, or the only whole human being who has ever walked on earth—Jesus” (p. 118).
When we reach part three we have examined the challenges to wholeheartedness and have discovered models of wholeness. But, what about actually experiencing wholeness? While we tend to look for quick fixes, none are to be found. Experiencing wholeness takes time and attention to certain practices. The first step (first chapter of chapter three) is to return to our true self, our core being. That means finding ways to look inside, and one of those ways is contemplative prayer (I must again admit my struggles to engage in true contemplative prayer—probably because remain too divided). To guide us toward wholeness, the author offers two exercises. The same is true for the other remaining chapters. One of the exercises involves sitting up in a chair, breathing in and out, and then listen to those inner voices that continually speak to us. The second chapter in this section seeks to guide us toward wholeness by engaging in “self-compassion.” I appreciate this word as too often the idea of “self-love” because narcissism. But “self-compassion” speaks to a different sense of identity. In this section DeGroat draws on the principles of Internal Family Systems (IFS). He speaks here of three aspects of the self: Protectors, Exiles, and Firefighters. I won’t go into details here, but this is fascinating stuff. Wholeheartedness comes as we extend grace to ourselves. That’s easier said than done, but he makes a compelling case. Finally, in the third chapter of part three, we’re invited to experience “sweet communion.” In this chapter the author explores the contributions of prayer, of worship, and of community. He notes that in many cases healing will take place through therapy, and not (unfortunately) from being part of church. Indeed, he shows us that church can be a source of dividedness rather than wholeness. There is much truth in this analysis!
As we take a path toward wholeheartedness, we may find our vocation as ambassadors of shalom. That is a good ending. It leads from inside us to the outside world. But by finding peace within, we have a way of overcoming our dividedness.
This is a very timely book. I probably will not implement everything he suggests. That’s likely because I’m still addicted to the quick fix! Nonetheless I learned much from engaging the book. He draws on important resources, both from faith and from the social sciences. These need not be at odds, but together can be God’s gift toward wholeness. That is important because we all struggle with our divided selves! In these words, there is grace. Thus, I recommend Chuck DeGroat's Wholeheartedness highly!