There’s an old story I’ve heard many times throughout my life. I encountered it again a few days ago at the Alternatives Partial Hospitalization program. It’s a story that’s sometimes called “The Two Wolves.” It goes something like this:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
We talked about how this connects with Cognitive Behavior Therapy, which is probably the most common form of talk therapy used today. Cognitive Behavior Therapy, or CBT, is based on the idea that our thoughts, our feelings, and our behaviors are all intimately connected, and a change in one of them effects a change in the other two. So, if you want to change your feelings, a change in either your thoughts or your behavior can accomplish that.
So the Two Wolves story is appropriate for CBT, because it shows a person to have agency to change whether a positive or negative force inside that person will “win.” The person has the agency to feed one wolf or the other, and in the framework of CBT, “feeding the good wolf” might look like deliberate reframing of negative thoughts, or deliberate actions to encourage that good wolf to gain power, thus affecting our feelings.
I was thinking about this story in terms of my own “two voice” theory. I’ve often written about this, particularly in Darkwater (a book that I hope to God you will be able to purchase and read SOMEDAY, but that’s another story…). I experience a continual struggle inside me between two voices. The first is one I call the Dark Voice, a voice I’ve heard since childhood, a voice that constantly tells me that I am worthless and useless, an imposter and fraud, that the world would be better off without me. The second voice is the voice of God, the still small voice that continually whispers to me that I am loved, that I am a child of God, that my life has meaning and purpose.
It’s occurred to me how similar my “two voice” theory is to the story of the Two Wolves, and I wonder how far that analogy can go. Is it possible that I can choose to feed one of those voices? Perhaps I have been feeding the Dark Voice for too long. A few weeks ago, before I started the partial program, I finally had my first session with my therapist in about six months. (This lapse in therapy was certainly both one of the symptoms and one of the causes of my long depressive spiral this year.) In that session, he asked me a question that has dwelt with me ever since. He asked, “Is it possible that you’re addicted to being depressed?” As I’ve pondered that question, it seems to me that the answer just might be yes.
I have certainly taken depressed as a part of my identity: I have so often seen myself as “the depressed pastor.” That’s who I am, the pastor who lives with depression. I have also found that times of deep depression bring some positives. When I have severe depression without much anxiety (when anxiety is also high, there’s nothing pleasant about it at all), there’s a strange melancholic comfort in wrapping myself up tin the depression and hiding myself away. It gives me an excuse to curl up and isolate. And it also gives me a certain level of attention. I get far more views and comments on my blog posts when they’re about depression than when they’re about anything else. Those comments are often full of affirmations: you tell me that I am loved, you tell me that you want me to be better, you tell me that my sharing this helps you and others. That can certainly be addictive! It’s easy for me to say, “Look, I seem to be making the biggest difference when I talk about this. So that must be the most important part of me.” So I get stuck in that identity, and inadvertently feed the Dark Wolf. It’s almost like there’s a part of me that gets scared of beating the depression, and instead I make sure that it’s well-fed for our next fight.
So what would it look like if I fed the other wolf in me instead, the voice of God? Well, first off, that sounds very weird and presumptuous. Certainly, I don’t need to offer God anything to increase God’s strength. It’s not like God is saying, “I’m trying to help, but I’m so weak.” No, but maybe there’s a way to feed my ability to hear God’s voice. I can practice listening, and I’m doing some of that right now. I had let my daily prayer life drift for a while, and now I have a new app that I’m using every morning to use an adapted form of Morning Prayer, along with scripture reading. Keeping up this habit will help me practice listening to God.
And I can also repeat to myself the things that the Voice of God tells me, rather than the things the Dark Voice tells me. I’ve been trying to do that in the past two weeks as well, telling myself, “I love you, and I will do what I can to keep you safe.” This has been a very challenging exercise for me, because I have spent so much time believing that I didn’t love myself. But this is probably a way to feed the Voice of God.
CBT tells us that we can change our feelings either by changing our thoughts or by changing our behaviors. I am working on my behaviors as well. How would I act if I really believed God’s Voice instead of the Dark Wolf? I would treat myself as though I loved myself. I would take care of my body. I would take care of my mind. I would act as though I believed I had something to offer the world. I would forgive myself for my mistakes. I would encourage myself when I slip. So I’m trying to do these things. It’s not always easy, and it’s probably going to get harder as I get back to my normal work routine this week. But I can do it. I don’t need to do it perfectly. I don’t need to get this all correct, and somehow be changed overnight. It’s not easy, because I have negative patterns dug in my synapses so deeply, ruts throughout my mind that are worn so well. I will slip back into them sometimes.
But I can lean more on God. I can feed the Wolf of God rather than the Dark Wolf. And over time, I will dig new pathways in my mind. Or at least, dig deeper on some existing ones that aren’t as well traveled as the dark ones. And over time, it will be easier to slip into those positive patterns. And that means leaning into my identity as Child of God rather than Depressed Pastor. I know that in my rational brain, but putting it into practice with my emotional brain is hard. Digging these new paths might help.