A Tale of Two Loves (Part 3): Hope May the Hardest Thing I Know

This is the third in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love, A Tale of Two Loves. (If you go back to read the other posts, start from the bottom. They are in reverse order.) This is a process blog. In this case, that means I’m writing about constrained love in an effort to write my own way out of it. Because once I’ve seen it, I couldn’t live in it even if I wanted to. This post straddles the gap between the two kinds of love, Constrained and… the other kind. I’m not sure what to call it yet. 🙂

The day we decided to divorce, my ex-husband said something that has stuck in my head despite my best efforts to forget it. He told me that he knew when I asked him to move out that I’d already given up on him.

I didn’t respond when he said it. But if I had, I might have said something like this (and yes, I’m definitely this eloquent in real life):

“I didn’t give up on you when I asked you to move out. I did it with the hope and expectation that you could do better. That you would fight for our marriage, fight for me. And you didn’t. In spite of your friends and family encouraging you to. You gave up on us long before I did, and I couldn’t pull you back. We’re here because I could only believe in you more than you believed in yourself for so long.”

Looking back, I don’t remember saying any of those things. Not then, not ever.

I’m not rethinking my divorce. I still think it was the inevitable choice. I’d tried everything I was capable of at the time. But I would be a fool if I didn’t think about what I could have done differently. What I should have done differently because it was the right thing to do, even if it might not have been enough to save my marriage. What he said has stuck with me because his heart was in it. And because, in spite of what I tell myself, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that he wasn’t wrong.

Of course, let me be very quick to point out that I wasn’t wrong either. I did have hope, in spite of what he thought. I still do. I have hope for who I know he can be. I still believe in what we could have been together.

So where was the disconnect?

What I’m learning has everything to do with the flavor of hope, and what I did with it.

Last post I wrote about fear being like a rock in your shoe. It hobbles hope. It hobbles love.

Hope with fear in it isn’t shared. I keep it to myself.

Hope with fear in it doesn’t trust people.

Hope with fear in it doesn’t stick its neck out.

Hope with fear in it doesn’t talk about the hope itself. It sees the gap between what is and what could be and describes that.

Hope with fear in it looks for people and things to blame for not being fulfilled.

Hope with fear in it is so fragile that I don’t trust anyone else to help me hold it.

Hope with fear in it looks for anything BUT people to trust. Believe in the institution of marriage. Believe in conventional relationship roles. (Or believe in NOT marriage. Believe in eliminating gender roles. Anything but relying on the person.)

Hope with fear in it tries to control behavior.

Falling in love is an interesting phenomon. A lot of people talk about the foolishness of it. Don’t lose your head over someone who doesn’t check the right boxes, or you’re asking for trouble. Don’t lose yourself in your emotions. You’ll regret it.

I’m not advocating throwing good judgment out the window, but I’m starting to think that what happens when you first fall in love is a gift to the rest of the relationship, not a weird lapse in judgment. In those early days, our eyes aren’t clouded—they’re clearly seeing what we hope for the person, what we know they can be. Early love is when we catch the vision for what could be. Our heart sees without hurt. When things get harder later on, it’s not necessarily because we lacked good judgment to begin with but because we’re encountering the inevitable gap between what we are and what we could be. Our gaps are where we hurt each other.

Hope with fear in it thinks the gap is the trajectory.

Fearless hope thinks the gap is an obstacle we overcome together.

Hope with fear in it talks about the pain points.

Fearless hope talks about the goal.

Hope with fear says, “You’re not the same person I fell in love with.”

Fearless hope says, “I see your potential even when you’ve lost sight of it.”

Hope with fear in it builds walls and convoluted workarounds to avoid the same pain twice.

Fearless hope knows to expect the same pain several times in the healing process, and counts it as worthwhile.

Brene Brown writes that she and her husband have an old subway sign hanging in their home: “Mind the Gap.” Fear with love in it screams about the gap. Fearless love knows that it is a pain point for everyone involved and treats the gap gingerly, focuses on where we are going.

My ex wasn’t wrong. I had hope for him, but I didn’t speak to him about it. When I thought I was, I wasn’t talking about the goal but the gap. I held hope but blamed him for not fulfilling it. What good is hope when you keep it to yourself? Or worse, isolate yourself in it to protect yourself from the pain when it goes unfulfilled? Or worst, fight against someone over your hope for them?

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (I Corinthians 13:7) 

Why I’m Not Religious

It’s been awhile since I’ve stopped telling people I’m “religious.” More recently, I began to simply respond that I love Jesus when someone asks if I’m a Christian. If another self-identified Christian starts talking enthusiastically about their church activities or their theological beliefs, I try to steer the conversation away from programs and precepts and toward talking about God himself. And if I can’t, I quietly change the subject. You see, my love for God is something that consumes my life. When I won’t shut up about Jesus on a first date, my dates often wonder why I didn’t identify myself as Christian in my online profile… God is an all-day-every-day-of-the-week presence in my life. But I’m not religious.

There’s the obvious reason, the one that seems to be getting clearer by the day: the politics, of course. I have more and more trouble identifying myself as part of a subculture that publicly promotes things that churn my stomach. Yes, we need to come alongside one another with grace toward each other’s faults. Yes, I believe in actively engaging with the church to try to produce change instead of dusting my hands off over every offense. But a church that denies assylum for the oppressed or that promotes “redemption” as a tool for elevating oppressors leaves very little space for grace to operate within its walls.

I used to think those kinds of problems were a few very vocal exceptions. That it was not a pervasive problem. I used to hear the horror stories like that and think, “Okay, but those aren’t the Christians I know. Those aren’t most of us. That’s just a few bad apples.”  Then a few years ago, I began to change my mind. Or rather, God began to work on my heart. It started with reading the Cross in the Closet five years ago. The author—a product of conservative American evangelical culture—posed as gay for a year and wrote about his experience. Say what you will about Kurek’s means for getting the material for his book, reading that book opened my eyes.  I began to understand that I couldn’t dismiss the bad experiences of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as exceptions. I began to see the hurtful things that had come out of my own mouth for what they were. And from that point, I started to look at my dearly held beliefs a little differently. With a problem that prevalent, it was harder to dismiss the growing concern in my mind that there was a deep and fatal flaw in my beliefs.

And then I got divorced, placing me firmly in another population of people who are routinely marginalized and harrassed by good, church-going “Christians”. I count myself blessed that I’ve experienced very little of that first-hand. At worst, for me there was an expectation on me to fix problems that weren’t really mine at a high cost to me personally in favor of the marriage. I lost a relationship with some of my in-laws. But it put me in a position to hear about much worse treatment other people have endured. Here’s one lovely story: a friend divorced her drug-addicted, abusive husband after years of helping him against resistance very strong pressure from her “god-fearing” in-laws to overlook the problems. One even told her, ““we all know what single moms do for money” and refused to help her one bit. I’ve long ago lost track fo the number of women I know personally who were told to try harder in abusive relationships because divorce is wrong, or who were otherwise judged or ostracized when they should have been helped.

Hearing stories like that over and over is enough to make anyone deeply cynical. I am no longer surprised by the news that 71% of evangelical Christians are happy with the job that president Trump is doing, or that some are vocally backing a pimp for political office. It’s harder than it was five years ago to dismiss what’s happening as a “few bad apples.”

The point I’ve come to is that Christianity doesn’t work as a belief system.

Yes, you read that right. I love Jesus, I love the Bible, but I don’t think Christianity works as a belief system. In fact, I think it may be one of the worst out there.

You see, any belief can become oppressive when it is elevated over a person or people. Think about it. This is true on a small scale and on large scales, from momentary selfishness to systematic tyranny. If my belief that divorce is wrong is stronger than my heart for that person, then it is easy to justify saying nasty things to bring them back in line (or, in the specific case I mentioned, to tell that person’s kids that someday you’ll explain to them the nasty truth about their mother). If WHAT I believe is more important than people, it is easier to justify (for instance) supporting inhumane immigration policies because I believe their obedience to the immigration laws is more important to me than their humane treatment. You may be able to balance the two, but when you come to the inevitable point where you have to pick principles or people, elevating principles will almost always take you somewhere bad.

Like I said, I think this is true of any belief system. To pick on something easy, there are a lot of things that are compelling about communism. Redistributing wealth so that everyone has what they need? I get that. But if the idea is more important than the people, you end up with the bloodbaths of the Russian and Chinese revolutions… you get the idea. Yes, sometimes it is simply despotic opportunitists (a few bad apples) hijacking beliefs in a volatile situation. Yes, sometimes the truths driving the action are inherently wrong (saying a certain race is inferior). But sometimes it’s simply good beliefs elevated above people. Dogma and despotism are not far apart.

If being a Christian is entirely (or even mostly) about holding, spreading, and enforcing specific beliefs, it’s not a huge leap to the place where I have to make choices between people and abstractions. It’s not a much bigger step beyond that to taking my beliefs and using them to protect my own insecurities and vulnerabilities. It’s just a few steps farther to where I use ideas as a hammer to try to get other people to do what I think is right at the expense of relationship and compassion, all in the name of Truth.

But why would I say Christianity is the worst belief system out there? Because of the demands its laws make. They are not just demands of behavior, but of the heart. Look at the ten commandments: Worship God. Don’t Covet. Don’t Lie. If you dip into the New Testament, love becomes an explicit requirement. These go well beyond reasonable social contracts. In fact, I think if you tried to really enforce them, the social situation becomes untenable. If Christianity is what we know about God and His universe, if it is about getting closer and helping one another obtain knowledge of an objective Truth, if one of the foundations for believing God’s laws in the Bible are superior because they are the best foundation for social contract—we are all screwed. (Jesus’ disciples got this. See Matthew 19:10)

“But, Amy,” you say. “But, Amy, we (Christians) have Jesus!” Yes, we do. “We have Jesus who died for our sins so we don’t have to live up to those rules.” Yes, also true. But I am not convinced that we Christians fully embrace that any more. Listen the next time you hear the gospel preached—it so often stops at “Jesus came to save us from our sins” without adding the absolutely critical, life-altering “SO THAT He could be with us. SO THAT we can have eternal life united with Him.” The cut-off version of the gospel runs a significant risk of telling us God saved us so that we can live better lives. If improved morality is the end point, salvation is an event that simply enables us to live the life we ought to. It does not relieve us of the burden of dogma and despotism, it (supposedly) zaps us with the power to meet their requirements. We still end up judging one another and ourselves when we fail. Eternal life becomes a reward rather than a restoration of the state we’re meant to live with God. We are left scrambling after a goal that is still unachievable (just maybe a little less so).

Do you see why I’m not at all surprised any more that the same culture that produced the Moral Majority in the 70s helped elect Donald Trump? It may seem inconsistent, but that is where elevating dogma over relationship—where believing that Jesus’ atonement zaps us with special powers to do good—will get us.

Some people see this as a reason to abandon Christianity entirely. If a religion doesn’t work as a belief system, what good is it? For my part, I have learned something different over the last few years. I’m learning to discard faith in beliefs for faith in a Person. I’m learning to read the Bible to help me recognize Him acting in my life rather than looking for truths that I could explain and validate. It’s the difference between knowing ABOUT someone and knowing someone personally. It’s the difference between an abstraction and a life lived alongside a Person.

Religion as we typically think of it today is about a What. About a truth understood in my head. About a way of living that serves as a solid social contract. It’s about a better life lived through precepts. I do not consider myself religious because I have faith in a God who claimed that a Person is The Truth, a Person is the Way, a Person is the Life. For me, loving God isn’t the What but the Who. Instead of dogmatically explaining all of the things I think I know about Him and what He wants by hanging the ten commandments in the courtroom or pointing out the specifics of all of the ways people have broken God’s laws, I can point the people I love to a Person who loves them, who wants to know and be known. I can set judgment aside because the One who has a right to judge died for them and for me. I don’t need to use beliefs as a hammer to show people God’s ways and get them to act right because they have their own path to experiencing the Way themselves.

I’m not religious because I believe in Christ. Christianity may very well be the worst religion possible. To try to follow its laws is to set yourself up to fail. To insist that others do it is oppressive. I believe in a Person who uses those laws to remind us that we need Him, as a persistent call to relationship rather than a hammer to enforce behavior. Who called us closer as He delivered those laws and who ultimately suffered and died for the sake of being able to know us as we are. Religion elevates a way of life as practice. It shows us what is required of us for a good life. Jesus fulfilled those requirements (and paid the price that failing to meet them exacts) so that He could be WITH us. If I’m a Christian, a “little Christ,” I have to constantly ask myself if I’m doing the same. And right now that means not being religious.

Forgiveness: The Story We Tell Ourselves

A few weeks ago, I took an all-day train and boat trip to see some Orcas in the wild. (Side note: sometimes I read the sentences I’ve written about my life and I have trouble believing how magical it is. I love Alaska.) When I wasn’t gawking at the scenery going by (mountains, glaciers, moose, bears… Oh my) I was reading. Two books, both a lot to chew on: Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey and The Emotionally Abused Woman by Beverly Engel. I kept alternating between them because each one was a lot to handle at once. They made for an interesting combination. Two kinds of empowerment, side by side.

The Emotionally Abused Woman was illumating when it comes to uncovering pain. And, as my friend and fellow traveler (physically and metaphorically) pointed out, what woman hasn’t been abused at some point? The number of women I know who haven’t is very, very low.

It’s a good thing to uncover pain, to lean into it, explore it, get angry about it. The first few chapters covered that, but then the author had this to say: “The entire healing process would likely take quite some time. During this time, you would be working on becoming more self-reliant, learning to trust your own judgment and perceptions, and raising your self-esteem…” She goes on to recommend psychotherapy, group therapy. Years of both.

Maybe I’m a dreamer, but… why does that have to take time? I don’t buy that.

Lies are the foundation of abuse. Lies that stick, lies that we start repeating to ourselves over and over. I will agree that it often takes time to realize I’ve been lied to. Abuse imprints the lies so deeply into my psyche that I confuse them for Reason, Conscience, Truth. I begin to see my world through them. If I have lived in that cloud for years, it can be difficult to learn to discern what is fog over my eyes and what is True. The world clear of fog looks unnatural and scary. It doesn’t look Real because it’s been so long since I’ve seen it. That takes time.

But there are two ways to deal with that. One is to clear the fog with a borrowed story specific to the pain. Engel follows her statement about the lengthy healing process with a recommendation for twelve-step programs, specifically Adult Children of Alcoholics and Codependents Anonymous. I have quite a few friends in recovery. Some have embraced the recovery identity, and they are amazing people who have saved countless other lives. I have nothing but respect for them. But there are others who have stepped beyond the recovery community. They feel like the constant reinforcement of the Addict identity is too limiting, that its ability to empower has a ceiling. I tend to agree with them. I don’t want my identity to be Addict/Abuse Victim/[Insert Weakness Here]. I want my identity to be Amy, Beloved Daughter of the Living God.

The power of recognizing pain is that it shows me that I need to be healed. Like the blind man in the Bible, I need to recognize the pain and WANT healing before it can happen. But borrowed identity that focuses on the pain point only addresses one wound at a time (or several). If I build my armor for each flaming dart that comes at me, I will spend my life constantly building new defenses. “My name is Amy and I’m a…[fill in the blank]” only battles the [fill in the blank].

It’s a mentality that builds an artifice around each wound. It comes up with rules that help us battle the thing that hurt us before. “Never again!” I won’t belittle myself again by repeating insults in my head, and here’s how. I won’t marry someone like that again, and here’s how. It acknowledges the power of the thing without overcoming it. If I don’t transcend the fog—if I only borrow some lenses that help me see through it —it has limited effectiveness.

I want to learn to shine in the fog instead of waiting for the light to come to me. I want to be the lighthouse instead of listening for the foghorn. Could it be that this is what Jesus meant when He called us the light of the world?

That is the second way, to BE the thing rather than to borrow it, to tell myself a big story instead of small one that’s pain-specific. I recently told a story at a local story-telling forum about a necklace my ex-husband bought me. As I put it on for a date, I remembered some odd things about when he gave it to me. The past took on a new meaning, and as I unpacked the new story, the necklace became something different for me. I sat in that for awhile, feeling bad for myself. And then I decided enough was enough. And I rewrote the story—the meaning of the past—with the Truth that I know deep in the core of my being.

The thing is, the past doesn’t change. What has happened to us doesn’t change. How it affects us does change, and we have a tremendous amount of power over that. Forgiveness is an incredibly powerful thing for everyone concerned. Lifechanging.

I’m not recommending glossing over the bad things that have been done to us. Forgiveness is not saying, “It’s okay,” or “they didn’t mean it.” It’s not swallowing the bad things others have done to us. It’s not keeping quiet about them, either. I think real forgiveness requires feeling the pain—REALLY feeling it. We have to see and feel the pain before we can look it square in the eye and decide that it will not define us.

The best definition of forgiveness I’ve heard is that it is deciding that the sin done against you will no longer affect you. That you will not try to compensate for the loss by hurting others OR YOURSELF. There may be layers of things to uncover that we need to forgive, but as we do, the decision to forgive at each step in the process can be a quick one. It’s deciding that who I am is not about what has been done to me. It’s a decision that may need to be made over and over, but every time it comes up it can be a quick one if I learn to tell myself the right story.

Isn’t that what Christ taught us? His blood paid the price and we are now God’s children, no matter what we’ve done or will do? I can forgive because I’m forgiven. My identity no longer depends on what I—or others—do. I can suspend my “right” to judge because there is nothing anyone can do that can take away my right standing before God. If I can tell myself that story, wrongs turn into learning experiences. I can give away my cloak and I can turn the other cheek.

Fat and Happy

I had an epiphany today. I am an emotional eater, and more often than not that means I eat because I’m happy. That’s right. It’s a GOOD thing. I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been, but when I look in the mirror, I see French cheese and dinners with people I care about. I’m not saying it’s phsyically healthy or even the best way to deal with happiness, but it’s not the way I’ve been thinking about food.

I was processing that epiphany and what it means for all of my posts where I’ve compared sex and emotional eating when a friend texted me:

“I made 5:15 [fancy special occasion steakhouse] dinner reserverations. Tonight. You in?”

“Hell yes. What’s the occasion?”

“I fucking need [fancy special occasion steakhouse] is the occasion. And you.”

Now, this friend… This will not be the last time he shows up on my blog, so I’ll give him a name—Bernard. He’s quite possibly the least Bernard-y person I know. I figure if I’m going to give someone a fake name, it should be REALLY fake. I’m tempted to call him “Not Bernard” or simply Bernard, but for the sake of my sanity and yours, I’ll just stick with Bernard.

Now, this friend Bernard has had one of the most horrific years I can imagine. And the last week has been kind of the brimstone icing on the cake from hell. When he says he needs [fancy special occasion steakhouse], that is not a throwaway statement. He’s had a horrible year, and he is a man who feels deeply. All the feels. Grief, joy, love, pain—he is not afraid of them.

I thought to myself, “what is it when a person who’s hurting deeply wants [fancy special occasion steakhouse]? I know this person, and I know that for him, this is not a distraction, it’s not a few moments of reprieve from grief. He will bring grief with him to dinner—I don’t think he’s capable of doing anything else. So what is it, then?” And something clicked in me. Something I never understood about joy in the face of grief, about whistling in the dark or the band playing as the Titanic sank or doing a happy thing because it’s what a deceased loved one “would have wanted”. It is this: that hopelessness is not our ally, that sometimes doing battle with wrong in the world means hanging onto joy with every ounce of strength. In the face of suffering (or, worse, the suffering of people we love), it is tempting to feel like I’m countering the Bad Thing by wallowing in sorrow, by taking the hopelessness of the moment and extending it into the foreseeable future. We embrace the reality of our grief and other feelings by letting them become everything.

Joy can feel inauthentic and disingenuous in the face of suffering. And certainly embracing distractions or numbing the pain can rob it of meaning. This is not the place for platitudes. But there is a place where real grief and authentic joy live alongside each other. Where solidarity with someone hurting or lost means that I grieve with them but hang onto hope when they can’t any more. When I own hope and joy and do not let the bad thing take them away from me even if my friend may have lost sight of them for himself. Sing and cry. Hold the light of hope in the face of darkness and loses its power to overwhelm. Weaponize joy.

I don’t know how to do this. I think… for it to be effective, I have to have one foot firmly planted in grief and one in joy. The thing is, I’m not great at either. I’m so accustomed to stuffing feelings away where they’re less disruptive. Bad feelings, good feelings, any feelings. I’m happy to draw them out in other people. But damned if I’m going to show them myself. I don’t have either foot firmly planted in any emotional space—I dance on top of feelings like hot coals. I don’t touch them any more than I have to.

When Bernard and I went on our first date, he got me crying (and cried a bit himself). We cried over life, the universe, everything. When you’re our age (around 40) and dating, there’s a lot of life to talk about, and a lot of it is emotionally moving. But having someone I barely knew SEE me—understand where I was and reflect it to me in such a powerful way—freaked me out. This was not the first time crying has happened on a first date, but it is the first time I was the one doing it. I’m happy to push and prod other people into vulnerability. But I’m not so happy to have someone else do that to me. I’ve gotten so adept at avoiding it by directing the conversation to the person I’m talking to that it is rare for someone to get past my armor. It was scary. I’m glad Bernard pursued a second date even after I turned him down a few times.

When I was going through my divorce, I learned a lot about vulnerability. I cried—openly—in just about every coffee shop in the city of Anchorage. Crisis got past my wall, and it was a good thing. But crisis and vulnerability have faded a bit, and with them my capacity to feel things. Not that the emotion isn’t there, but when I don’t express it, it comes out sideways. And I get scared and hide it.

Apparently I also eat emotion, bad and good. Which raises the question, what if I’m not eating to suppress emotions, but because for me it’s an acceptable emotional outlet? Eating quesadillas is easier than crying. Eating fancy steak dinner is easier than feeling… happy? I consume to express something that needs to come out, and eating is a way I know how to do it. It’s not so much that I am getting rid of the feeling, but that it needs to come out and eating is the way I know how to do it. In a nutshell, I’ve always thought of emotional eating as letting emotions have too much territory. I’m beginning to wonder if I got it backwards, if I eat emotions because I’m not letting them have enough presence and power.

I’m not sure where to go with it yet, but I’m going to chew on it awhile. And maybe next time I feel like eating a mid-afternoon quesadilla, I’ll find a way to let out the Amy who sings and cries instead.