An Encouraging Word — Spiritual truancy: the ‘Jonah Complex’

Who am I to do this thing? Exodus 3:11

May and June are months when many of us celebrate anniversaries: marriages, ordinations and graduations. It is naturally a time to look back and assess the decisions we made years ago.

I got a nice note from a seminary classmate recently. He wanted to congratulate me on my forty-second-anniversary of ordination. There was a tinge of sadness in his note — a regret of sorts that maybe he himself should have made it to ordination. Even though I believe that God ultimately leads us to where we need to be, that tinge of sadness, maybe regret, stuck with me for days.

It is not uncommon for many people to look back and second-guess the decisions they have made, wondering “what if?” Thomas Merton once wrote that “the biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.”

It is so common that John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a famous poem about it.

It is the story of a failure to act when opportunity knocked, a reticence to seize the moment when the time was ripe, that led to a life-long feeling of “lost love.” The poem ends with these haunting words. “God pity them both and pity us all, who vainly the dreams of youth recall; for of all the words of tongue or pen, the saddest of these: ‘It might have been!’ ”

In a nod to the universality of this experience he offers this hope. “Ah, well, for us all some sweet hope lies deeply buried from human eyes; and in the hereafter, angels may roll the stone from its grave away!”

Nothing stings like the realization of a missed opportunity, but what stings even more is the realization of a refused calling. In that arena, the prophet Jonah is a patron saint.

Jonah was called to preach to the people of Ninevah. He considered himself a poor preacher on one hand and the Ninevites not worth saving on the other. To get away from his unwelcomed call, he went down to the docks and bought a ticket on the next ship sailing in the opposite direction from Ninevah. He thought he could outrun God!

In his version of a get-away-car, Jonah is pictured going to sleep in the bottom of his boat while a storm raged, a symbol today of “denial.” The psychologist Abraham Maslow calls such spiritual and emotional truancy the Jonah Complex: “The evasion of one’s own growth, the setting of low levels of aspiration, the fear of doing what one is capable of doing, voluntary self-crippling, pseudo-stupidity, mock humility.”

We are afraid of failure and success. A calling makes us wonder if we are good enough, smart enough, disciplined enough, educated enough, patient enough, and inspired enough. We manage our fear by “going to sleep,” “settling for too little” and “self-sabotage.”

The truth is this: All of us have answered “yes” in some areas and “no” in others. We both crave and fear becoming who we are called to be.

Father J. Ronald Knott

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