Everyone is familiar with that “voice in the head.” By this, I mean the negative voice. It is mean, judgmental, angry, jealous, envious, salacious, just bad. Sometimes it goes quiet. Sometimes it is so overwhelming that it drowns everything else out. One simple question we can ask: “Who’s doing the talking?”
This voice is not the product of reasoning. We have not weighed, measured, compared and reached a conclusion that “he deserves to suffer and die!” The words form in our head, often with no warning and without forethought. We may very well be embarrassed that such thoughts even occur. But the truth is you did not think such a thing. Therapists have dubbed this negative voice, “Self-talk.” And it is interesting to note this conclusion: Self-talk is not thought.1
The tradition names this voice “logismoi,” which is something of a diminutive form of the word for thought. But it is clear that the logismoi do not rise to the level of true thought. They are not reason, nor are they the product of reason.
In some traditional treatments, it is hard to tell whether the author thinks that logismoi differ in any way from the promptings of demons. In the service of Holy Baptism, there is an obligatory exorcism (even of an infant). It does not presume that the person is possessed. Rather, it presumes that the dark voice within us has demonic allies. In the prayer, the priest names these forces:
…the spirit of deceit, the spirit of evil, the spirit of idolatry and of every covetousness; the spirit of falsehood and of every uncleanness which operates through the prompting of the devil.
These are not described as demons, but rather “the spirit of,” which “operates through the prompting of the devil.” The voice in our head, the self-talk, is not the voice of a demon. However, it has a very dark origin and is utterly contrary to our well-being. It is the voice of the deepest wound in our soul and body, with origins that are sometimes older than our ability to speak.
In terms of psychology and neurobiology, this wound is seen as the imprint of trauma and abuse (strong in some, weak in others). At its heart, it is a wound to the self, the sense of abandonment and fearful exposure. In time, it gains its own voice. One researcher describes it as our “nemesis.”
We do not have to think about negative self-talk for it to exist—it seems to have a life of its own. The content of that life was born early in our development and experiences. The focus of this self-talk is directed specifically at and is only about one thing: the self. Its exact age is unknown. We can never remember when it began. How could we? It’s always been with us as an affective imprint, stored from the abuses and neglect experienced when we were helpless and needing protection and love. It existed before we were aware of it….. People can attempt an escape from this pattern of events [represented in the voice], but typical escape behaviors (drinking, taking drugs, and other compulsive behaviors) usually only exacerbate their sense of shame. Their inner voice simply screams its disapproval of them. When they listen closely to the self-denigrating messages, they see self-loathing, disgust, and inadequacy coupled with feelings of mortification, exposure, and helplessness. The voice that has formed within them is very young, very scared, and very vulnerable indeed. It doesn’t reason or stop to reflect; it just is.2
I have been reading and digesting studies on the phenomenon of shame, reflecting on my own inner life and what I hear in the lives of others. The insights are useful in and of themselves. However, when coupled with the Tradition, they are more than useful, they become pastoral tools for the treatment of the soul.
I was particularly struck when a researcher described this voice as the “nemesis.” For that is how it behaves. It is like a wounded animal within us, criticizing, judging, negative, destructive, never rejoicing. It offers no wisdom. It builds nothing up. It lives like the enemy within, truly a nemesis of the soul.
This nemesis is a wounded, scared, vulnerable child, unable to comfort itself, unable to reason. Its voice is a voice of pain, but it speaks destruction towards the self, and towards the world around.
When you reflect on the “spirits” addressed in Baptism (deceit, evil, idolatry, covetousness, falsehood, uncleanness), they are indeed expressed in just such a voice. And within the soul, this wound is the most accessible aspect to darkness, most easily manipulated and managed by the demons. It resembles them.
It is also the voice of shame. Shame seems to be the oldest place within the soul’s brokenness, the residence of darkness. Think about the story of the Fall. Eve’s eating of the fruit comes in the course of a conversation. Only, the voice is truly the voice of evil, and not a mere echo in the human psyche:
“Has God indeed said,’You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”
And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; “but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said,`You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.'”
Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:1-5)
The dark voice accuses God. Everything is colored by its resentment and mistrust. “God just doesn’t want you to be like Him…” Imagine that statement coming from a very lonely, very hurt, very suspicious child. And in this case, the voice is being planted and exploited by our true nemesis.
The result is our shame. We hide ourselves. And now the hiding place is a dark wound within us, one that lives like a grumble. It is the shame-filled nemesis who now whispers a narrative for our day.
This voice is stronger in some than others, depending on the depth and severity of the wound. It can also grow stronger, if it is allowed to become the dominant sound in our heads. As Christians, we resist it (sometimes). It puzzles us and shakes any confidence we might have in our own faith. “How can I think such things?” we wonder. You didn’t think them. The words are the voice of something very old (and young) and unattended.
It is a place that, ironically, requires compassion. It is easy to identify such negative energy as an enemy, and nurture a kind of self-loathing. But self-loathing (of that sort), is easily nothing more than the sound of the voice you have come to loathe. It is a loathing that feeds on itself as a toxic rant rather than bringing about healing.
This, I believe, is among the reasons we hear such compassion for the souls in hell from many of the greatest spiritual fathers in the Church. I have become all too accustomed to hearing extreme statements of condemnation towards various persons, or classes of persons, those guilty of sins both real and imaginary. It is not just the statements themselves but the nature of the energy that speaks them. It is often nothing other than the public expression of that inner voice, and, as such, speaks nothing more than the shame of the one speaking.
The well-known conversation of St. Silouan with a brother monk can be applied across the board:
I remember a conversation between [Silouan] and a certain hermit who declared with evident satisfaction,‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’
Obviously upset, [Silouan] said,‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there you looked down and saw someone burning in hell-fire – would you feel happy?’
‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit.
[Silouan] answered him in a sorrowful countenance: ‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all.’
I have encountered more than a few angry contradictions directed towards St. Silouan in this regard. “It can’t be helped…it would be their own fault…after all, they had it coming to them…”
But the darkness that lies within the wounds of our soul differs very little from the souls in hell. Indeed, we may think of those dark places as already speaking from hell. They require compassion. It is for their sake that Christ took flesh and endured death and Hades. It is in that frightful place of darkness that the light of Pascha shines most brightly. The healing of such wounds is nothing less than life from the dead.
Lazarus! Come forth!