Empathy is the skeleton key, or, How to dispose of the body in the basement.

We all live our lives as fugitives. We all live life constantly in the fear of being found out. We all live like we have something to hide. Be we anxious, shy, nervous, full of self-loathing, turning everything into a joke, fiercely angry, passive aggressive, losing ourselves in work - whatever you do, it is all an attempt to ignore some long forgotten crime. People seek ways to feel alive, to convince themselves that they exist, to quiet the nagging voice that they are sleepwalking through life. You might not believe that you live life that way, but you do. You just don't know it. You want to keep denying that there is anything wrong. We passionately defend our beliefs and world-view because these things define us. They make us who we are. If these things are threatened, our whole existence feels threatened.

We all have a skeleton in the closet, a body in the basement. Collapsed, rotten and decomposed, all the pieces are there. Memories, events, guilt and shame, things we would rather forget about, but it is there, eating away at our inner being, and informing every thought and action down to the present day.

Some might say that the dead body is God - but let's not be rash. Let's not spoil things. What few of us realise is that that body, locked in a cupboard, shut away in the basement, pushed into the darkest corner - that skeleton is your counterpart. Abel to your Cain; Yang to your Yin; good to your evil. It is your authentic self. That is the real you, and what you are masquerading around in at the moment is a tragically imperfect ghost of your former self.

Carrying around that guilt is exhausting. Things are all out of whack. The spirit level is registering an incline. The bubble is over at one end. Life is an uphill struggle. For some it is a sheer wall, a rock face, people clinging on by their fingertips, petrified. It might not manifest itself as guilt in you. It might be bitterness, resentment. They all amount to the same thing: The inability to let go.

We want that body to go away. You can try and run forever, and kill yourself trying, or you can stop and address the problem. The first thing we need to do is stop being anxious. You are not guilty of murder. It was an accident, nobody meant for it to happen. More than this, what we do not realise is that the body in the basement can be brought back to life. Ironically, the only way it is going to leave the cupboard is by walking out on its own two feet. Just as you killed him, so you have the power to bring him back to life. We need to reanimate the corpse.

The prophet Ezekiel imagined such a reanimation:
Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones and say to them, 'Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.'"
(Ezekiel 37:4-6)
The body might be dead and decomposed, but a disembodied voice is crying out for help. That voice is your salvation. A faint voice from deep within the cellar of your heart. This is the voice from behind. It is the voice of John Keating, enlightened professor of English Literature in Peter Weir's Dead Poet's Society, whispering to his charges as they peer at photos of long-dead old boys, "Caaaarpeee....carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary." As soon as you become aware of that voice, your inauthentic self will spring in to action and attempt to silence it. You will struggle with yourself: The basement door is locked, there's nothing down there, the light doesn't work, the closet is locked. The inauthentic self does not want the body discovered. It senses its own demise. It will raise all sorts of barriers. It survives on addiction, on negative thinking. When you cut off its air supply, it begins to fight for survival. This is evidence of guilt, and a powerful incentive for forging ahead.

The key to this struggle is empathy. My favourite definition of empathy comes from David D. Burns, MD, author of Feeling Good - The New Mood Therapy. On page 185 he puts it this way:
Empathy is the ability to comprehend with accuracy the precise thoughts and motivations of other people in such a way that they would say, "Yes, that is exactly where I'm coming from!" When you have this extraordinary knowledge, you will understand and accept without anger why others act as they do even though their actions might not be to your liking.
Empathy is a largely misunderstood tool. It will get you through all the locked doors. At its very simplest level, empathy is understanding. It merely acknowledges unquestioningly that an event took place, and it understands that there were consequences to that event. Empathy is a kind and compassionate listener. It diminishes the fear by explaining that it is not the event that is the problem, but the interpretation of the event. David Burns goes on to say,
Remember, it is actually your thoughts that create your anger and not the other person's behaviour. The amazing thing is that the moment you grasp why the other person is acting that way, this knowledge tends to put the lie to your anger-producing thoughts.
It is not what happened, but the message you received that matters. Understanding is the key. Empathy will allow you to look at yourself as one person looking at another. Your authentic self looking at the creation of your inauthentic self. As your authentic self grows in understanding, your inauthentic self begins to fade away. Things are coming into focus. The two can become one. Balance is being restored.

Reconstruct the skeleton. Join bone to bone by revisiting and reliving the events and experiences that resulted in this body's demise. Every dry section is a memorable event. We need to put flesh on the bare bones of our memories - sinew and muscle.

In order to level an uneven surface you can approach things in one of two ways - either build up one end, or collapse the other.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
(Isaiah 40:4)
We can start at the beginning of our life, and try to fill in the gaps in our somewhat selective memory. Perhaps there is a particularly clear memory. Start there. A thorough examination of such a memory, and all the messages you received at the time is sure to shake loose other memories. Perhaps there was an earlier event you can begin to recall. Was it the first time you began to hear a particular message, or was it confirmation of an earlier accusation. Or, start from the other end: Take a particular world-view you hold to be true today, and question where it came from. Work back until its true origin startles you. In this way we can collapse what we have held true for so long.

We are not looking for amusing anecdotes from our past. We need to find experiences we would be quite mortified about were others to find out. It is not just about the event itself. It might be how we were spoken to. We might simply be embarrassed about the extent to which a seemingly insignificant experience could have such a profound effect on our whole existence. Our mortification might spring from accepting and acknowledging that the mother we love was able to speak to us in such a way, or the father we doted on really did act in such a way. It might be the horror of realising we have visited such iniquities on our children when we assured ourselves that we would not repeat the patterns displayed by our parents or guardians.

Empathy allows us to understand our parents. It allows us to reconstruct the skeleton of our mother and father. They are a mystery to you - they were probably a mystery to themselves. Anything we don't know for sure can be filled in with a little imagination. Empathy allows us to do that. It understands that nothing can come from nothing. There was a reason they acted like they did.

Nobody is at fault. This is not a way to ascribe fault or assign blame. Fault and blame expect justice or retribution. The expectation is too high. Empathy dissolves fault and extinguishes blame. It merely accepts and acknowledges. It understands, and with understanding comes forgiveness - for others, and more especially for ourselves.

It's not just our parents. Empathy helps us to understand other people. It allows us to realise that everyone is hiding a body in the basement, and all their actions are their way of making sure that the body stays hidden.

Once we have fused bone to bone, informed ourselves of how experiences have led to attitudes, and attitudes have led to choices, we will have given life to the body of our authentic self. We live again - we live at last. We are still the sum of our experiences, but now we understand. We know what makes us who we really are.

Ezekiel follows up his extraordinary vision of reanimated skeletons with a somewhat tepid but interesting illustration of two sticks that become one:
The word of the Lord came to me: "Son of man, take a stick of wood and write on it, 'Belonging to Judah and the Israelites associated with him.' Then take another stick of wood, and write on it, 'Belonging to Joseph (that is, to Ephraim) and all the Israelites associated with him.' Join them together into one stick so that they will become one in your hand."
(Ezekiel 37:15-17)
Look past the Israel-centric bias, and simply apply Ezekiel's words to our own situation. This is what happens to us. Our two selves must become one. We are not complete the way we are, not until we have taken the time to fully understand ourselves. Hold a finger up before your eyes. Look beyond it and your one finger looks like two transparent images. When you focus, the two become one in three-dimensional space. Life now has become detached from life back then - but, of course, the two are inextricably connected. At present they are both ghostly images and our aim is to make the two a solid whole. "Two are better than one," the wise man says at Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, "because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up. Again, if two lie together, they are warm; but how can one be warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him. A threefold cord is not quickly broken."

Two for balance. There is a place for a measure of anger, shame, guilt, a healthy dose of cynicism or doubt. But when negative thoughts plague you, the authentic self can reason and regain balance. Throw faith in there - or, dare I say it, God - and you have yourself a cord that cannot quickly be broken.

Imagine if it was God, eh, that body in the basement. God might be dead, but you, you little rascal, you can bring him back to life. That's a bit mind-boggling. There is a famous speech supposedly given by the apostle Paul on the Areopagus in Athens:
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship — and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone — an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
(Acts 17:22-31)
We don't want to fight to survive any more. We want to live, and move, and exist. To be alive, and not just to keep ourselves alive. Fish give birth to fish; ape gives birth to ape; God gives birth to God. This is too much responsibility for people. We bludgeon that God at the first opportunity, like Cain bludgeoned Abel, then, like Cain, we flee like a criminal, demanding at the same time that we be kept alive. Some Bible translations say that Cain "dwelt as a fugitive," but many say that he dwelt "in the Land of Nod." We are sleepwalking through life.

Paul dropped the ball on the Areopagus. He fumbled. He was doing so well until he mentioned the resurrection, and then he lost the crowd. Jesus would explain that a resurrection of sorts took place during his own life. John has him saying, "The hour is coming and it is now, when the dead will hear his voice...and live." We have an opportunity really to live. We need not be ignorant any longer - there is still time. We can look back at life and understand what made us who we are. Connect bone to bone, cover it with flesh and sinew, tendon and skin, breath life into it, and finally live as we were meant to live - as Gods.