Today, many Christians celebrate the feast of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel came to Mary and announced God’s plan for the healing of all creation.
This is also, of course, the event that inspired our company name and informs our value of working with people of all beliefs, races, genders, and backgrounds.
There are several lessons from the Annunciation for me as a healthcare professional. This year in particular, I have been moved by its lesson of–as one Orthodox hymn puts it–bringing “opposites to harmony.” God is man, the virgin is a mother, and the uncontainable is contained in a womb. As the events unfold, more paradoxes arise: the poor are rich, the marginalized are central, the unclean are pure, and death brings new life.
What do we do with this? Holding opposites in harmony is a nice quip, but it may feel difficult to experience in a world that promotes health as a reduction to only the cleanest and the purest. There is very little room for complexity. Instead, if you just follow the rules and do all the “right” things, avoid all the “wrong” things, you can be made pure and healthy. But is that really how wellness happens? While that version of health is very attractive, it denies important aspects of what it means to be human, what it means to be part of a big and beautiful and messy creation. Making space for our whole selves and others is foundational in creating a truly catholic (meaning holistic or pertaining to the whole) approach to wellness.
How can we begin to do this? This year, I have grown to see the value in starting with acceptance. We can acknowledge what is here, what is present for us, even if it is uncomfortable, even if it’s messy, even if it’s beyond our comprehension. The first step in creating space for complexity is acknowledging exactly what that complexity is.
I think that true acceptance leads to presence and growth, rather than sort of blindly going with the flow. In fact, Carl Rogers, the pioneer of person-centered therapy, famously said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I change.” He said this in the context of helping his clients to move forward and heal from unhelpful thoughts and behaviors. He noticed, both in himself and in those he served, the tendency to grow and heal only after having allowed themselves the opportunity to accept rather than deny various aspects of themselves. Steven C. Hayes is a contemporary psychotherapist whose research and development of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, builds upon what Carl Rogers began by encouraging the ability to accept what is and to commit to action in the direction of our values.
The desert fathers and mothers of Christianity also discussed acceptance and presence as paramount to true healing, especially when we have inner conflict. They described this type of presence as “stillness” or “watchfulness,” and it involved focus on the presence of God alongside an acceptance of temptation as part and parcel of the monastic’s life. Though they had removed themselves from the world, they had also accepted the reality that sins like avarice, vainglory, or acedia could be accomplished in the monastery as well as in the marketplace. This led to the development of spiritually therapeutic methods that saw an opportunity in temptation to learn more about one’s self and to grow nearer to God in the struggle between vice and virtue.
The Annunciation is a reminder that sometimes, entering into the beautiful mess of the present moment is what’s necessary. Sometimes, it’s being able to hold opposites together, rather than one or the other, that makes us truly whole.