An Encouraging Word — The risks of being too dependent

There are many parts, but one body. I Corinthians 12:20

A friend of mine lost her husband recently. A few days after the funeral, I called to ask how she was doing. I am still carrying her extremely insightful answer around in my head: “I knew who I was when he was here. Now I don’t.”

I have been trying to understand why those words resonated so deeply with me. I think I know. Retirement is exactly two years away this month. (Oct. 28, 2014, is my retirement date. I will be 70 ½.) It occurred to me that I could be saying the same words to myself in a little different way when that day rolls around. I know who I am as a very active priest, but will I know who I am when the pace dramatically slows down?

I am beginning to realize that I am so enmeshed in priesthood that there is practically no difference between “Father Knott” and “Ron Knott.” I realize that I will be a “priest forever” theologically, but in reality my identity will change significantly upon entering retirement. Some priests, like widows and widowers, are so unprepared for that transition that they are left feeling totally lost, while others thrive in their new identity.

Most of us find our identity in our relationships, and when those familiar relationships change or end, we feel lost and do not know who we are. Some seem to manage those changes and losses better than others.

Many people find it hard to successfully moderate the forces of individuality and togetherness that mark their relationships. Too much aloneness can lead a person to disconnect from those around him, while too much togetherness can lead a person to helpless dependency. Too much dependency on other people is called “enmeshment.” Merging totally into one’s vocation could also be a form of
“enmeshment.”

“Enmeshment” means being entangled with another person or one’s vocation to the point of becoming dependent upon them for the totality of one’s emotional needs. It is when you are so close or so involved that you don’t know where you end and they begin.

A businessman who cannot take time away from his work to be with his family could be called “enmeshed.” A priest who cannot relate to people in any other way than a priest to parishioner could be called “enmeshed.” A parent who is overly-involved in the life of their adult child could be called “enmeshed.” A marriage partner who is unable to engage in independent thought could be called “enmeshed.”

People without a core sense of self cannot usually maintain healthy relationship either, for that matter. They become so clingy and suffocating that they make the object of their desire feel so oppressed that they have a need to run away. As I like to tell couples who come to me for marriage, “Two half-people have never made a happy couple, any more than a half-person an effective priest.”

Father J. Ronald Knott

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