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Emotional Dependency

Although he was Roman Catholic and I am Protestant, I have a great respect for Henri Nouwen. He had an understanding of God that I want and a gentleness towards imperfect others that I wish I had. I have only read two or three books of the many he has written but I hope to eventually own and read them all. The most recent I have read is actually a posthumous collection of his writings on Spiritual Direction edited into a cohesive whole.

I gained much from Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith but one of his personal stories in particular jumped out at me because it is so much like many of mine. Nouwen was a man of God, a priest by vocation and a scholar who taught at Yale, Harvard and Notre Dame universities but left academia to live in a communal home and be chaplain and one of the aides to the mentally handicapped who lived there.

Soon after arriving at this community he developed a very special friendship. He writes, “My friend Nathan had a surprising capability to open up a place in me that had been closed, and I focused all of my emotional needs on him. I became very dependent on him, which prevented me from making God and the community the true center of my life. In his presence I felt fully alive and loved, and I did not want to let him go. At a certain point… he said, ‘I no longer want to be with you.’”

“I no longer want to be with you.” How often have I been told this in various ways? In grade two, a newcomer to the city, I was shut out at the one party I was invited to, shut out on the playground, shut out in the classroom. At age nine my father killed himself. At high school boarding school my best friend and roommate asked that I be moved to another room and because no one else wanted me I was given a room by myself in an unoccupied wing of the dormitory.

In recent years a woman who had become my spiritual mentor and my lifeline to God told me to never make contact with her again; my accountability partner and I became too emotionally connected and her solution was to end our friendship; another long-time friend who I was about to ask to be my spiritual mentor wrote me a scathing letter and said she no longer wanted to be my friend.

With each of these and also with Pearl (who never wanted me to leave her—that time it was me who ended the relationship) all my emotional needs were focused, I became dependent and made them the centre of my well-being.

When Nouwen was rejected by his friend he became so paralyzed and depressed that he went to stay in a therapeutic centre. I know the darkness he must have felt. The rejections I experienced pushed me to the edge of suicide. How could I go on? It seemed impossible. The psychiatrist I saw during one of these seasons told me that if only I would take up knitting all would be well. Nouwen’s psychiatrist wasn’t much better. “It is very simple: you got infatuated with somebody, that person dropped you, you are depressed. It will take six months of grieving to get over it. Be sure you never see this person again, and it’ll all be fine.” Nouwen says that he seemed like a horse doctor.

Though the doctor recommended Nouwen leave his community, give up his frock and end his celibacy, Nouwen chose to work through the issues in his life, return to his community and eventually was reconciled in a healthy way to the friend who had spurned him.

“We need to forgive each other for not being God!” says Nouwen. How true! No one can meet all our needs. Our hunger for love and worth go beyond what anyone can give us. Although the pain of past rejections rises in me from time to time I have to say I am glad I experienced them for they pushed me to God. I learned to say and believe, “Whom have I in heaven but you [God]? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.” [Psalm 73: 25 NIV]

Father God, thank you for showing me that I am not some misfit of society because of the emotional dependencies I developed and the rejections I experienced. Even a brilliant man who was sought around the world for his wisdom and his ability to bring others into close relationship with you experienced the same thing. Please keep me in the place where I can always say with honesty, “Whom have I in heaven but you, Father? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.”

Quotes are from pages 120 and 121 of Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith by Henry Nouwen


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