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Claim Your Inner Grown-Up

by Ashley D. Prend

Why is the concept of one's "inner child" so popular? Perhaps because the idea evokes images of magic and wonder, a time of simplicity and fun, a time free from adult responsibilities and concerns, a time of innocence. We love that!

But all of our inner children are, in the end, wounded children. No childhood was perfect. As a psychotherapist I often work with people whose wounds from the past continue to affect their present, consciously or unconsciously. Our wounded children, stuck in the past, can affect us profoundly, poisoning us with fear, anger, and selfishness. Many an inner child has become a problem child. That's why it's time for us to claim our inner grown-ups.

I coined the expression "inner grown-up" to describe your best self, your most divine self — the you that is wise, brave, and honorable. This self is rooted in the present while sensitive to the future, not haunted by baggage from the past. We each have this inner self, just waiting to be called forth.

The spirituality of the inner grown-up is about a rich connection with the sacred in life, the divine energy in our universe that is both outside the self and yet paradoxically within the self. In my work as a bereavement counselor, I have found that many people develop this kind of mature spirituality after a major loss.

Jim was a 39-year-old sales manager with a wife and three children. He and his family were driving home from a funeral when Jim's wife, Mary, slumped over in the passenger seat. He thought she might be emotionally fatigued. "Honey, what's wrong?" Silence. "What's wrong?" Jim pulled off the road to get help. Paramedics arrived, administered CPR, took her to the hospital, but Mary died of a heart attack. The couple had just celebrated their 18th wedding anniversary.

That was more than ten years ago. Jim learned how to grieve. He learned how to raise three children alone. Eventually he went back to graduate school and became a grief counselor in order to help others. But it was his faith that changed most dramatically. His theology grew less na´ve, less childlike, riddled with more questions and fewer answers. He told me, "That's what good spirituality does. It's not having the answers but having better and better questions."

After a death, after a divorce, after a job loss, one often questions, reworks, loses — and finds — one's faith. The frame is stretched. For some, the frame is shattered. It may require painstaking rebuilding.

It is nothing short of a miracle to see someone who is split wide open by life, whose assumptions are shattered to the core, who courageously walks into the abyss of grief and emerges transformed. But this does happen. The result is often a new belief system, sometimes a new relationship with the divine: richer, stronger, more complex, more grown-up.

I am not convinced, however, that major loss is necessary for this kind of spiritual transformation. Our spiritual lives can deepen because we decide to let them.

Many of us, myself included, had some form of negative experience with a traditional organized religion. Isn't it possible that our "inner-child baggage" — fear, pain, or anger — may be interfering with our spiritual life, just as it interferes with our psychological and emotional life? Perhaps a negative experience with religion is getting in the way of plunging deeply into a committed life of spirit. So why wait?

The Buddhists say that death is the greatest teacher, but one need not experience death intimately to glean its lessons. Death is the constant backdrop of our lives, a persistent reminder that our time is limited. Daily we press against the veil of death; just read the newspapers or watch the evening news. The time to plunge into a deeply committed, richly satisfying grown-up spiritual life is now.

I wouldn't suggest, though, that you throw out the baby — or, in this case, the inner child — with the bath water. Keep the magic, mystery, awe, creativity, and surprise of the inner child and balance it with the wisdom, the courage, the discipline and the strength of your inner grown-up. And plunge both of them deeply into the life of the divine spirit.

Ashley D. Prend is a psychotherapist is private practice. This essay is adapted from a sermon she preached at South Church (Unitarian Universalist) in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in October 1999. Her book, Claim Your Inner Grown-Up, was published in June.

UU World XVI:1 (January/February 2002): 18.

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