During my last 25+ years of recovery, I have repeatedly run into a relatively small number of recurring themes that seem to be foundational to the process of restoring and growing our emotional and spiritual health. Nearly every problem related to repeated cycles of defeat or getting stuck in life has to do with one or more of these basic issues. And one of these critical areas is what we have come to refer to as The Intent to Protect versus The Intent to Learn.
We are all subject to the intent to protect. It is in fact our default position. Whenever we react to uncomfortable life experiences without thinking, our most common basis for that reaction is an intent to protect our feelings, our self-worth, or our emotional investment in an issue. When we self-justify or shift blame or deflect negative comments, we are usually trying to protect ourselves in some manner and trying to minimize our feelings of loss or shame. For most of us, most of the time, this is really very automatic. We don't have to stop and think about what to do or say; we want to protect ourselves and these things just come out of us.
Now much of the time, these efforts are fairly harmless. We might even apologize from time to time for being on auto-pilot and reacting without thinking. But for many people, their intent to protect is not merely a momentary reaction to an unpleasant feeling — it has become for them a lifestyle, a way of managing their world so as to avoid the pain of changing their own way of being.
All of us carry within us a map of life, a way of thinking about the world around us as well as who we are and how we fit into this world. As we go through our daily experiences, most of us find small areas on the map here and there that need to be revised or updated in order to better fit the reality in which we find ourselves. Now imagine that you are using a map to get around a city, but your map is 30 years old. Or worse yet, that your map has been altered by factors over which you had little if any control, and many of the streets are marked wrong or come to dead ends or don't even exist in the real world. You can see that the more open you are to revising the map, the better things will be for you over time; while the more dedicated you are to the map, the more frustrated and angry you will become. The same is true for our map of life. If we are willing to revise it as we encounter places where it fails us, we will be able to change and grow. If we insist that our map is right no matter what we encounter, we will make life miserable for us and everyone around us.
Unfortunately, there are many people who are adamantly opposed to the idea that their map might have anything more than a few minor errors. When confronted with any sizable disconnect between their map and their experience, they will always accuse the circumstances and people around them of failure, or even malicious intent. For them, the problem must exist outside of them. Their discomfort can never mean that their map is distorted or even out of date. For some reason that we don't quite understand, they have come to believe that their map is who they are, and it is keeping them safe. Questioning their map either terrifies them or feels like an attack upon their very personhood. In the most extreme cases, challenging the map never even crosses their mind any more. In any case, they are determined to defend their map no matter how strong the evidence to the contrary, and no matter who gets hurt in the process. This is what we are calling the intent to protect.
On the other hand, if we are willing to be uncomfortable within our own skin and are open to revising the map whenever it makes sense to do so, we are then able to learn from our own mistakes and our own mistaken ideas about how life should work. Once we figure out that our map is much more flawed than we originally thought, and that revising the map leads to much more freedom and abundant joy, then life is no longer a fight to protect ourselves — it becomes an adventure in which we are continuously learning about who we are, who God is, and how life works in the kingdom. We have discovered the beauty and wonder of embracing the intent to learn.
Wherever it is that we fall on this continuum — between intent to protect and intent to learn — makes all the difference in the world in terms of what kind of life we will have and whether or not we will be able to recover and grow. The more we are committed to protecting our map, the more we will remain stuck and continue to harm ourselves and others. The more committed we are to revising the map (or even tearing it up and starting over!) the more we will experience the artesian well of water springing up to eternal life, that Jesus talked about (Jn.4:14).
God is not afraid of how messed up our map might be. Nor is He disgusted with us, even when we have contributed to the distortions on the map ourselves. The only thing He cannot work with is any refusal on our part to deal with the map. But once we surrender our intention to protect our map, and invite the Spirit of God to revise it to His heart's content, our life will never be the same and our joy will know no bounds! This is one of the most important keys to life we have open to us. All we need to do is let go of our efforts to "save our our own life" (Mk.8:35) and embrace our Savior's invitation to become His apprentices and to "learn from Him" (Mt.11:29).