As I have moved through the progressive classes of my counseling program, I have been challenged on many occasions, to doubt who I am and what I believe. I am a naturally humble person and I am quiet in my faith and beliefs. I do not boast or try to convince others to live or believe the way I do. I do not feel it is my calling to change others or to lead them down the path of light to the moment they will indeed be saved. I am not even sure I know what such an attempt would look like or what being “saved” really means.
I have however, spent so many moments listening to others and drinking in their thoughts and beliefs. Questioning what I was hearing and asking myself questions such as, does this resonate with me? How does this compare to what I was taught to believe? Where do my beliefs come from and how did I come to believe them? Who am I and how does what I believe affect others? What exactly are my values? Who am I as a person and who am I as a counselor; are these two parts of me different or separate?
As part of the counseling program, we are taught not to allow our values to affect how we counsel others, while simultaneously being told to “bring ourselves into the room.” How exactly does that work?
It has been suggested that wearing anything that might indicate personal values or culture is not the best idea; as it might affect how clients will view the counselor and whether or not they will choose to continue counseling. While simultaneously being told how valuable culture is and the importance of being culturally competent and aware. This seemingly constant stream of conflicting information has been some crazy-making business for sure.
In more ways than one, it has been hinted at, suggested and sometimes outright blatantly been said that being part of an “organized religion” is not a positive trait. I have been told outright as well, that it is not possible to be “spiritual and religious.” With the negative connotation being focused on the religious aspect. Even though, I honestly believe I am both. I have been witness to several conversations and sometimes films while in class, tossing those who practice religious faith, into a grouped pit of hate-mongering.
As time passed, I found many moments where I doubted my ability to be a good counselor. Where I doubted whether or not I should even be in the program and I even considered quitting a time or two. It caused me so much heartache to hear how others in my program perceived those of religious faith or background. Throwing the phrase “organized religion” around like a dirty word. So I kept my head purposefully down and my mouth shut, in an attempt to survive and be liked. I was convinced if “people really knew who I was” they would not like me. Even when on the verge of tears or wanting to run out of class, I forced myself to sit and endure. To listen and be as open as possible to others thoughts and opinions. I did not do or say anything to defend myself or others of faith. After the first few attempts at admitting I was a Christian, even though I do not follow the same exact belief systems as many of my fellow Christians, I began to qualify who I was. I learned quickly, admitting I was a Christian was putting myself out there to be ostracized. As one of my professors said, “I placed a target on my back.” So I began to say things like “I only call myself a Christian because of some of my core beliefs, but I don’t even really get along with or agree with most of my kind.” While this statement is true, I hated having to qualify myself as a person. I often felt ashamed. While my professor, on the other hand, felt I had finally come to understand what it was like to be “marginalized” and “a minority.” He considered this to be a valuable learning experience for me.
Towards the end of my practicum experience, I began to really resent having to hide who I was and how I sometimes felt unsafe. I resented all of the conversations I sat through, where my classmates were encouraged in their hate and defiance of religion, and in specific at times, Christianity. Mostly in the name of “social justice.” I resented being asked to be open to others beliefs while being told my own beliefs and people were “part of the problem.” Never mind the fact that no one ever asked me what my actual beliefs were. I think many just assumed they knew the second I announced my faith as part of my culture.
This caused me to take a huge step back and really begin to identify what my beliefs are. I came back to the questions of who am I and what do I believe? This first question is a lot harder to answer than the second, believe it or not. Regardless, both of these questions are a life long pursuit for the answers. However, due to the process of beginning to really dig into these questions, I began to identify some of the cornerstones of my values and personal faith.
Some of my values to name a few are honesty, integrity, faithfulness, forgiveness, grace, kindness, openness, loyalty, compassion, being educated/seeking knowledge, empathy, listening, being well traveled, being courageous/brave, non-judging, living wholeheartedly, the idea of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and spirituality. I believe in the power of story and believe every person’s story matters. The cornerstone of my personal faith is founded in the simple, but extremely hard to follow through with concept of, “love thy neighbor.” Mark 12:30-31 says “And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength.” The second is equally important: “love your neighbor as yourself.” No other commandment is greater than these.
First of all, I love that it identifies all four parts of one’s self, calling attention to one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength as though they are indeed separate entities. Secondly, I love the idea of loving your neighbor as yourself. There is no qualification of this statement and nowhere in scripture does it say, love your neighbor only if your neighbor looks, walks, talks and thinks like you do. Nor does it say “tolerate” your neighbor. To me, this is beautiful and this is what I imagine God is like. For me personally, the God I envision is full of grace and forgiveness and simply wants us to love one another.
The old testament is full of what some refer to as “hell, fire, and brimstone” casting a light on an angry and vengeful God. Yet there is also the new testament, which speaks of free will, grace, and forgiveness. I tend to lean toward the new testament more often than not. I have not been in a church in years, I must confess, and I tend to feel closer to God when I am either helping others or am out and about in nature. I do not feel I am justly loving my fellow human beings if I am busy judging, talking about or ostracizing those who do not look, act, think or believe the way I do.
Which I suppose is part of why I find many churches difficult to be a part of. I have looked at several different types of religions and spiritual ways of being and find them to have very similar concepts. Therefore I try not judge or condemn others by which religion or spiritual path they chose to live by. It also does not bother me if someone does not believe in God or a high power, or if they have a different name for the higher power, such as referring to the universe or mother earth.
It is my personal belief and studies have also shown, that having faith or a belief in someone or something greater than you, can have a healthy impact on one’s life. For example, many studies say it helps reduce stress. I think this is true, as when I am beginning to become troubled I remember certain verses of the bible. Such as, “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” and “This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you.” I also lift up whatever I am concerned or worried about and then I try to let it go; feeling as though God will hear my concerns and things will work out however they are meant to be. I often ask for guidance and strength to endure the difficulties and hardships of life. I also think my faith allows me to be a kinder, more patient and forgiving person.
I have found in my explorations, that I love meditation and yoga. I find some of the practices of other spiritual or religious beliefs to be beautiful and heartwarming; founded in positive thoughts, concepts, and love. So, I have broadened my horizons! I find other cultures fascinating and hope that we never melt so far into one another, that we lose sight of our cultural heritage, practices, and independent ways of being.
I do have a hard and fast line when it comes to religions, spiritual practices or other ways of being and living, which promote hate and/or violence towards mankind or animals. Nowhere do I believe that hate and violence is justified or approved of by God unless one is protecting themselves or their family from harm. I just cannot live with accepting violence or hate crimes as being “just part of the human experience.” I believe we have the power to chose love above all and should do so as often as humanly possible.
Lastly, I believe we are responsible for ourselves. People do, will do and have done all sorts of hateful and violent things in the name of religion or culture; genocide, rape, slavery and genital mutilation to name a few. This does not make any specific religion or culture inherently bad in and of itself; it means people do bad things in “the name of” whatever they claim to be affiliated with. I heavily dislike generalizations and stereotypes.
All of the passages in the bible, for example, no matter which religion you practice, is left up to the interpretation of the reader and can be used to either promote love or promote hate. It can be used to either promote violence or acceptance. We can argue about it “until the cows come home” and we may never agree. The funny thing about free will is we are free to choose what we believe and the only one responsible for our actions is us. In the end, it is the individual who has to live with what he/she has chosen to do or become. It is a deeply personal choice.
As for me, I am tired of being ashamed. I am not done growing in my faith and feel as though I am just beginning my spiritual journey. I believe I have a lot to learn and that change is inevitable. I will do the best I can to live up to my beliefs, to stand firm in my values and to treat others kindly and with respect. I will most likely continue to be a “quiet Christian” as I believe humility and humbleness are also important values. I also believe actions speak louder than words. I do not stand completely with many beliefs that some of my fellow Christians practice and I do not stand at all with the most highly conservative and sometimes overbearing “old-school” Christians who preach hell, fire, and damnation. As a friend said to me once, we are the “new, modern Christians” and I kind of like the ring of that.
As for who I will be as a counselor; I believe my values will play into that. I do not know how they can be completely separated from me when I put on the “counselor hat.” If people chose not to see me because my values show through in my work, that is their choice and I completely respect it. I will always have my clients best interest at heart, as it does not matter what I believe, the client is on his or her own personal journey and my only goal is to support them the best I can in helping them reach their goals. I do believe in the health care creed, “first do no harm.” I also strongly believe in the concept of “love thy neighbor.” If I am following these in both my personal and professional life, I will literally be doing the best I can, with what I have, in the moment. Everything else that comes my way can be resourced by the ACA code of ethics and state law, which I will also adhere closely to.
In the infamous quote of Alfred Adler, “It is easier to fight for one’s principles than it is to live up to them.”
With much love and compassion,