From paranoia to metanoia

Sometimes, we’re a mystery to ourselves or, perhaps more accurately, sometimes we don’t realize how much paranoia we carry within ourselves.

Sep 23, 2016

By Fr Ron Rolheiser
Sometimes, we’re a mystery to ourselves or, perhaps more accurately, sometimes we don’t realize how much paranoia we carry within ourselves. A lot of things tend to ruin our day.

I went to a meeting recently and, for most of it, felt warm, friendly towards my colleagues, and positive about all that was happening. I was in good spirits, generative, and looking for places to be helpful. Then, shortly before the meeting ended, one of my colleagues made a biting comment which struck me as bitter and unfair. Immediately a series of doors began to close inside me. My warmth and empathy quickly turned into hardness and anger and I struggled not to obsess about the incident. Moreover, the feelings didn’t pass quickly. For several days, a coldness and paranoia lingered inside me and I avoided any contact with the man who had made the negative comments, while I stewed in my negativity.

Time and prayer eventually did their healing, a healthier perspective returned, and the doors that had slammed shut at that meeting opened again and metanoia replaced my paranoia.

It’s significant that the first word out of Jesus’ mouth in the Synoptic Gospels is the word metanoia. Jesus begins his ministry with these words: “Repent [metanoia] and believe in the good news” and that, in a capsule, is a summary of his entire message.

But how does one repent? Our English translations of the Gospels don’t do justice to what Jesus is saying here. They translate, metanoia, with the word, repent. But, for us, the word ‘repent’ has different connotations from what Jesus intended. In English, ‘repentance’ implies that we have done something wrong and must, regretfully, disavow ourselves of that action and begin to live in a new way. The biblical word, metanoia, has much wider connotations.

The word, metanoia, comes from two Greek words: Meta, meaning above; and Nous, meaning mind. Metanoia invites us to move above our normal instincts, into a bigger mind, into a mind which rises above the proclivity for self-interest and self-protection which so frequently trigger feelings of bitterness, negativity, and lack of empathy inside us. Metanoia invites us to meet all situations, however unfair they may seem, with understanding and an empathic heart. Moreover, metanoia stands in contrast to paranoia. In essence, metanoia is “non-paranoia”, so that Jesus’ opening words in the Synoptic Gospels might be better rendered: Be unparanoid and believe that it is good news. Live in trust!

Henri Nouwen, in a small but deeply insightful book entitled, With Open Hands, describes wonderfully the difference between metanoia and paranoia. He suggests that there are two fundamental postures with which we can go through life. We can, he says, go through life in the posture of paranoia. The posture of paranoia is symbolised by a closed fist, by a protective stance, by habitual suspicion and distrust. Paranoia has us feeling that we forever need to protect ourselves from unfairness, that others will hurt us if we show any vulnerability, and that we need to assert our strength and talents to impress others. Paranoia quickly turns warmth into cold, understanding into suspicion, and generosity into self-protection.

The posture of metanoia, on the other hand, is seen in Jesus on the cross. There, on the cross, we see him exposed and vulnerable, his arms spread in a gesture of embrace, and his hands open, with nails through them. That’s the antithesis of paranoia, wherein our inner doors of warmth, empathy, and trust spontaneously slam shut whenever we perceive a threat. Metanoia, the meta mind, the bigger heart, never closes those doors.

Some of the early Church fathers suggested that all of us have two minds and two hearts. For them, each of us has a big mind and a big heart. That’s the saint in us, the image and likeness of God inside us, the warm, generative, and empathic part of us. All of us harbour a true greatness within. But each of us also has within us a petty mind and a petty heart. That’s the narcissistic part of us, the wounded part, the paranoid part that turns self-protective and immediately begins to close the doors of warmth and trust whenever we appear threatened. Such is our inner complexity. We are both bighearted and petty, open-minded and bigoted, trusting and suspicious, saint and narcissist, generous and hoarding, warm and cold. Everything depends upon which heart and which mind we are linked to and operating out of at any given moment. One minute we are willing to die for others, a minute later we would see them dead, one minute we want to give ourselves over in love, a minute later we want to use our gifts to show our superiority over others. Metanoia and paranoia vie for our hearts.

Jesus, in his message and his person, invites us to metanoia, to move towards and stay within our big minds and big hearts so that, in the face of a stinging remarks, our inner doors of warmth and trust do not close.

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