A Tale of Two Loves (Part 4): The Ghost in the Gap

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love. (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. Last week I wrote about my difficulty in speaking hope.

There was another divide I believe prevented my ex from hearing my hope. Sure, I didn’t speak hope often enough. But even when I did, there was often something in between us that filtered what I said and did before it got to his heart. That thing was the story he was telling himself about our interactions.

My ex was in grad school for most of our marriage. I remember once when I was frustrated by how long it was taking him to finish, he told me, “But I’m doing this because YOU WANTED ME TO.”

Now, I never once dreamed up a scheme for him to go to grad school. I have no recollection of wanting him to get a PhD. Or, rather, I wanted it because it was his dream. But it was never something I would have dreamed of asking for myself or for us.

They are strangely strong, the stories we tell ourselves about what people think. As a deeply spiritual person, it makes sense to me that these stories originate from an entity the Bible calls the Father of Lies and the Accuser. If there is someone out to destroy our souls, what better way to do it than by whispering lies into our minds about ourselves and each other:

“You are not enough and this person knows it.”

“You’ll never be enough until you can [fill in the blank: Lose more weight. Keep your house clean.]”

We are really adept at repeating those lies to ourselves ad nauseum until they become part of our identity. I never really recognized my own negative self-talk until my life hit the skids during my divorce. I mean, as a good, supposedly self-aware citizen of the 21st century, I was aware of the concept. But I didn’t recognize it in myself. One day I began to notice that I told myself stories about things people would think of me that almost never became reality. “Better sweep up the dust bunnies or your dinner guests will notice and have a bad time because they won’t be able to think about anything else.” Or, “Everyone is noticing that stupid thing you do at work and thinking about it all day.”

I kept track once and I had a thought like that every seven minutes on average. That’s nearly ten times an hour, every waking hour of the day. And of course 99% of these thoughts never amounted to anything. But that 1% is a bitch. It’s enough to make me feel like the other 99% is right. “I was SO RIGHT when I suspected Joann would hate my hair. And that’s just the one time she happened to SAY something. I bet she’s thinking it all the friggin time. And I bet Jim-Bob and Matilda are too.” Suddenly, being right 1% of the time makes this self- talk essential to my survival. I learn to lean on it to anticipate bad things people might say and protect myself from them.

If I see my negative self-talk as a worthwhile protective instinct, I’m bound to use it to protect myself in the relationships closest to me. And it’s in my closest relationships where I are more likely to have it reinforced by the occasional snippy comment or “constructive criticism”. If I’ve already talked myself into believing people think I’m worthless, any negative comment can send me reeling.

I’ve heard that it takes seven positive interactions to make up for one negative one. And it’s no wonder. Most of us are working overtime to convince ourselves that we’re not enough. We’re operating at a deficit before our loved ones even open their mouths.

I never asked my ex to go to grad school. But the facts of what I actually wanted don’t matter that much. He told himself a story that I wanted him to go to grad school, and he heard everything I said on the subject through that filter. Every complaint, every criticism, anything I did that touched on this sore spot for him was augmented by this idea that he was only trying to do what I wanted him to do. There’s a gap, and then there’s the inadequacy-whispering ghost who lives there, telling us lies about ourselves, lies about our loved ones, amping up our insecurities until they’re the only thing we hear.

It’s amazing how quickly this inadequacy-whispering ghost travels from person to person. Nothing trips feelings of inadequacy like feelings of inadequacy being directed at you (or even blamed on you). If I see a loved one hurting, I immediately blame myself: Was it something I did? Something I said? And if they’re up in my face telling me it was, that seals the deal. The only thing that will get me spun up faster than suspecting I’m not enough is someone TELLING me I’m not. I don’t know about you, but this is the source of the majority of the arguments I’ve had with friends and loved ones. It’s not about the toilet paper roll facing the wrong way, it’s not about whether you called when I wanted you to, it’s about what it MEANS about how you feel about me. I start voicing that, the person I care about says those things don’t really MEAN what I think they do…And around we go.

The lying ghost in the gap is adept at pitting us against each other when our fight is not against one another but against the lies he is telling us. (Ephesians 6:12)

Was it fair to me that my ex thought I was the reason he was in grad school? Not at all. And I put most of my energy into arguing with him about how unfair it was. But his belief in it was a fact I needed to face when I related to him. And it’s that belief that I butt up against over and over in my relationships with other people. I can focus on the unfairness of the story they are telling themselves, or I can help re-narrate the story. Constrained love insists on my right to be understood (which is a real thing. And valid.) I believe unconstrained love can set that aside and fight the ghost in the gap alongside the person I care about. Which do you think is easier in the moment? Which do you think is more powerful? And ultimately, which do you think most effectively paves the way for me to be truly and deeply heard, anyway?

It is NOT WRONG to insist on what you know to be true, to defend yourself. In some cases people’s self-deceit is so strong that you cannot come alongside and help them re-narrate the story. There is a time for digging in your heels. But that is a final battle time, when you’ve realized that the person is so lost to the ghost in the gap that you cannot pull them back. It is not the the starting point, and it cannot be the day-to-day operation of relationships. Day in and day out we are built to fight the ghost together, side by side.

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) 

A Tale of Two Loves (Part 2): Love in the Age of Fear

This is the second in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love. I’m currently writing about the first kind, constrained love. (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.

A few weeks ago, a friend recommended a New York Times Op Ed called “Motherhood in the Age of Fear.” She describes the constant fear that mothers are expected to live under, fear that any little thing could lead to catastrophe for their kids. Or fear that they’ll be judged for their lack of fear. The layers of fear over motherhood are thick and complex.

Two things stood out to me. The first is the label, “Age of Fear”. It is such an apt description of our era that I went looking to see other people using it—they must be. But apparently they’re not, or at least not yet. So let me be the first to echo it. I think that phrase “Age of Fear” will resonate far beyond the scope and moment of that OpEd.

The second is that fear is seen as a facet of love. And not just a biproduct or a sadly necessary part, but something so critical that if it’s not therein sufficient quantities, people call child protective services. ‘I don’t know if I’m afraid for my kids, or if I’m afraid other people will be afraid and will judge me for my lack of fear.’

I think the Age of Fear and what I’m calling Constrained Love go hand in hand. When I first read the phrase the Age of Fear, it resonated because I recognize that I’m a citizen of the Age of Fear. I’m a born and bred citizen, not naturalized. It’s not something I adopted deliberately, and it’s not something with its roots in the last few years. When I first read about the Age of Fear, I thought, “well of course—9/11. This is the result of the constant threat of terrorism.” But I don’t think that’s it. I remember the roots of the Age of Fear being there when I began having thoughts of my own, back around the time the Berlin Wall fell, when the Internet was being born. If anything, it should have been the beginning of a more optomistic, hopeful time. But hope with a grain of fear in it is a different animal.

I remember my dad (who spent a year in Germany in the 70s) reminding me every so often that if the Third Reich could happen in Germany, it could happen anywhere. I remember arguing with Vicky (my childhood best friend) about whether people are inherently good or evil. Vicky loved the optimism of Anne Frank, “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” How could she think that, after what people had done to Anne Frank? Anne and my friend both seemed naive. Whatever peace we found seemed tenuous, fragile, in need of protection from evil empires, maybe even from ourselves.

Like so many people in my age, I looked to ideology to protect me. To protect me from myself and from other people. So much of my faith and the way I interacted with life was shaped by the compulsion to acknowledge the evil at our core and to fear it.

Fear does strange things to hope, turns it into something different. It makes hope conditional. I hope that if I do things just right, I can avoid or eliminate the things I fear. I can shelter myself and my family from crisis by avoiding the mistakes of the past. We can put up a fence so high that the creeps won’t get to us. When Faith, Hope, and Love change to Fear, Hope, and Love, they all end up warped. Fear is the little bit of sand in the shoe that can drive us to take the wrong path. The leaven in the dough that I’ve seen wreak destruction in my own life.

When fear is the root, we protect ourselves from our selves and from each other. Last week I read a book by Rebecca Manley Pippert, who in some ways was before her time when it came to acknowledging vulnerability. She was all about recognizing our faults. It was published in 1989, when I was 10. But looking back at the book through the lens of the last 30 years, I can see the grain of fear. It’s worth quoting Pippert at length because she captures the spirit of the time in a way that I can’t do retrospectively:

“There is something truly wonderful and remarkable about us all. We have a capacity for love, an appreciation of beauty, and moments of genuine courage. But unfortunately, that’s not the whole story. We want to believe that the essential ‘us’ is who we are in our best moments, when everything is going our way, when nothing is thwarting or threatening us. We want to believe that we are what we project to the world: nice, respectable, competent people who have it all together. Fortunately or unfortunately, life doesn’t let us get away with our charade. Sooner or later, whether through a difficult relationship with a berating boss, a demanding spouse, a difficult child, or simply through overwhelming or infuriating circumstances, we are confronted with our darker side.

“Has it ever struck you as odd that, for all our sophistication, we modern people have a remarkably naive understanding of human nature? Living at the end of history’s most murderous century, we flatter ourselves that we are basically good people who occasionally do bad deeds. The founders of our nation were not so naive. The very political institutions they contructed for us, founded on concepts like ‘checks and balances,’ are testimony to their assumption that human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions. People with power cannot be trusted too far. History hardly indicates that our problem has changed—rather, that it is we who have developed short memories. We are struggling the the symptoms of an age-old disease, which we have lost the capacity to diagnose.”

Do you see what I see? The idea that to get to the good, we have to contain the evil? The idea that our bad selves dominate and that our main line of defense is fierce PROTECTION? I hardly mean to pick on Pippert. Honestly, I may be reading fear into it because it had such a strong mark in my own life. It was a view so pervasive that 10-year-old Amy unquestioningly and enthusiastically repeated it. It’s really subtle. So much so that it may just be me displacing my own thoughts onto what Pippert is saying. But I see the idea that the answer to this darker side of ourselves is in our institutions and our traditions. And while they certainly need to protect us, I think we (I?) leaned on them entirely too much. And I suspect this: that there is a bright and direct line between what I remember (and the subtle thing I see in Pippert) and the Age of Fear we find ourselves in 30 years later.

Think about the Late 80s. We were decades past the world wars and Vietnam. We were inches away from winning the Cold War. The Berlin Wall fell the same year Pippert published that book. We had used the power of our military and our culture to dominate evil in the world. The world never seemed brighter than in the late 80s and early 90s. But I think in our victories, we were scared. Scared of one another and of ourselves. Frightened of the creeping immorality in our neighborhoods, in our homes, in ourselves. We had seen the end result of letting the evil in human hearts run rampant, and it was terrifying.

We kept looking for the seeds of evil so we could protect ourselves before the problem got dangerously big. We became proactive. Preemptive.

The news outlets built for war turned the same camera onto car accidents, kidnappings, plane crashes.

The government institutions that had helped us battle evil on an international scale were repurposed for pre-emptive war. And for war on evil within our borders—The War on Drugs. The War on Crime. The War on Poverty.

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

I am definitely not the first person to point out this repurposing of militaristic approaches to international problem-solving. But I see another layer of it. This didn’t just happen on international and national levels. It happened in our schools, in our churches, in our homes. We looked inward, we looked deeper, we saw the darkness within and decided to make sure we were battling it preemptively. Leave no room for evil at home. Or else… or else we might become the next Nazi Germany? Or else… [insert bad thing here] might happen again.

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

On a macro level, laws are used to govern conscience. We outlaw things like straws and suicide. We address tragedy with more laws. (How many laws are named after people who have been kidnapped or murdered?) We look for the kernel of evil and fence it in, building bigger and stronger fences every time the barrier is breached. The children are our future, we need to show them our love by making the world a safer place. World war: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

We’ve amped up our medical technology. We’ve found vaccines for any conceivable virus. We’ve honed our cancer treatments. We’ve mapped the genome. We’ve started talking realistically about eliminating death. We show our love for our ailing family members by throwing every dime we have (or don’t have) into their care. Long hospital stays and prolonged deathbed agony: Never again!

Without big wars, death on a much smaller scale terrorized us. 17 years after 9-11, we are still plugging gaps in our borders where terrorists could trickle in. Almost every large building in the country has cement barriers to prevent someone from driving an explosive-loaded car into the bottom floor. We love our country and our businesses and institutions. Terrorism: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

On a family level, protection becomes a weapon of love. We put up internet filters. We learn to watch for signs of child molesters in our schools, churches, and families. We hover over our kids as they wander the neighborhood, as they walk to and from school. We acknowledge (not incorrectly) that evil can go undetected, can even flourish within the confines of our homes, so we watch for it diligently. We love our children, so we must do ANYTHING we can to prevent these bad things from happening to them. Kidnappings and sexual abuse: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

And on an individual level, we protect ourselves. This I the most obvious to me in my own life. I’m constantly on the lookout for patterns of behavior that led to my divorce. I remember this paranoia hitting a fevered pitch when I spent some time speculating whether the cute guy I’d met on the trail was a homeless drug dealer. When fear reigns, every possible risk has to be accounted for or eliminated. I show my love to myself by vigilantly watching for any sign of repeating the same mistake twice. Divorce: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

Because we love, and because we have learned to express love as fear, we protect our loved ones from the evil outside and the evil within themselves. The effectiveness of my belief system (in my case, evangelical Christianity, but that is certainly not the only example) is evaluated based on its effectiveness at stopping evil, at protecting me from others and from myself.

Pippert asks, “Does God make a difference?” If I can’t answer yes to that question, there’s not much point in engaging with God. But WHY I think God makes a difference matters so much. Is it because I think it makes me safe from the evil in me and those around me? My city on a hill is a place where children are safe, where the environment is pristine and the dolphins thrive, where terrorists can’t get in because we’ve eliminated all of their entry points with giant fences. Otherwise, what good is it? It is not only my right, it is my primary, God-given responsibility as a loving person to see the sprouts of evil in myself and those around me and root it out.

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.” It’s everywhere, in all of us. The statement is not untrue, but oh, what have we done with it?

Fear is like a ghost whispering in our ears at every opportunity: “‘Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.’ Never again! Protect what you love! Evil will not pass the same way twice! If you’ve learned enough from your last encounter with it, you can and must move heaven and earth to prevent its like in other places!”

Fear is sensitive, it detects the evil around me better than anything I know. It protects me and the people I love. Fear is my friend.

Or is it? What if fear cannot live alongside what may be the two most powerful weapons we have? What if fear does not leave room for hope (or it’s close cousin, resilience)? What if fear isn’t a symptom of love, but runs love out of any space it occupies?

If you’re not on board with those questions, ask yourself this: what have we gained from letting fear rule? I know my answer to that question: Not safety, not happiness, not community, not love. When we plant fear, the only yield we get is more fear.

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.

Chips, Queso, & Sex Drive

One reader asked me to write about the male sex drive. Since I’m not male… take this with a very large grain of salt. Perhaps even a block of salt, or an entire salt mine. This is my take based on my non-scientific observations. Because you have to start somewhere… (I’m not even going to try to address gender identity or any of that. I think my brain would explode. Maybe another day.)

I wrote recently about how we often use sex to address loneliness. I honestly think a big part of our sexual culture (from any perspective—oversexed, undersexed, the rules we make, the rules we break) is not about sex, but driven by or shaped to address problems of loneliness and isolation. I think this is a bigger issue for men than for women, for two reasons. The first is that women are taught from an early age to solve problems socially, even problems that aren’t social in nature. Give us an engineering problem, and we’ll address it by building a team and talking about it. Men (for better or worse) are taught to be more independent. I don’t think either is necessarily bad—they both have advantages and disadvantages. However, when it comes to addressing problems related to social isolation, we women seem to be more well-equipped. If nothing else, we seem to be more aware when we’re lonely.

The second factor in difference between male and female sex drives is the fact that boys typically discover sexual self-satisfaction earlier in their lives and more easily. It’s just… out there and easy to find. I don’t have kids, but I’ve heard from many moms of boys how young they are when they figure out self-soothing. Disappointed? Sad? Lonely? Angry? There’s a quick fix that will make you feel great for awhile even if the problem hasn’t gone away. Again, I’m not going to say that’s good or bad. Just different. What it does, though, is open an opportunity for boys to learn to use sex hormones to address problems that could be handled differently. Girls may develop a bigger toolkit for dealing with disappointment because we typically figure out that mechanism for releasing our own pleasure hormones later in life (if ever). We have to solve social-emotional problems creatively.

Here’s another food comparison. (I make so many food-sex comparisons, I’m starting to wonder if my sexual preferences are more kitchen thank kink.) I eat emotionally because it’s worked for me my whole life. Sometime in my formative years, I learned that chips and queso make me feel better, even if they’re not solving my emotional problems. Eating gives me a shortcut to achieving my end goal of feeling better, even if it doesn’t last. It’s not the best, but it’s effective enough that I keep doing it (and I probably will until I find a more powerful alternative). I learned to do that from a very young age—it’s deeply engrained in my habits and very hard to overcome. You may laugh when I say that I NEED chips and queso, but it sure feels that way sometimes.

This is controversial, but based on my own experience I’m going to say that sex isn’t a critical need. We can live without it. People do it all the time. I’ve spent most of my thirties celibate, the majority of that time out of a choice to be faithful rather than a choice to be celibate. That was hard. I remember describing myself as a starving animal at one point. I wouldn’t have chosen the sexless years of my marriage, but I grew through them. I grew even more by keeping a celibate lifestyle by choice later on. Personal growth is not what happens when you are deprived of something you need. If you’re deprived of something you need, you don’t become a more complete person, you eventually go crazy or you die. Was it right for my ex-husband to deprive me of sex for years? No. I wasn’t happy about it, but I was ok.

Celibacy isn’t some magic that you either have or you don’t—it’s an acquired skill. I think sex feels like an urgent biological need because we’re using it to biochemically patch deficiencies in the things we DO need to survive, like love and help and relationship. That’s why, even if we’re getting sex, it can feel like a compulsion. The more sex I have and the less emotional connection, the more I’m going to feel like I need sex, regardless of how much sex I’m actually getting.

So you have a society that’s relationally starved, you have boys growing up with one powerful tool for self-soothing that is well-developed and other tools underdeveloped. Throw in porn, and discovering sex at a time when we’re just learning to function socially as adults, and it’s easy to see how sex can become a panacea for problems it may not actually be the best tool to solve. I’d be sex-crazed too if I thought it was the only way I could fill certain needs. Oh wait, I have been.

I think we (men and women) sometimes use sex as a patch for relational problems. My thought is that there may be reasons men seem to lean more heavily on it. It’s powerfully effective temporarily. So is cocaine, for that matter. But when the hormones wear off, the problem is still there. I don’t think that’s what sex is meant for. (Or, not the ONLY or even primary thing it’s meant for.) Like emotional eating, it’s incredibly painful to remove it unless it’s already been replaced with something else that will fill the same need. Don’t take away my chips and queso if I have no other way to feel better after a crummy day at work. Don’t take away sex if when it’s gone I find myself desperately, irremediably alone.

Waking Desire (Part 5): Unravelling

(This is part five of a story. To read the rest of the series, go to Waking Desire. The posts in the story are listed from newest to oldest. I’m working on fixing that. When I have patience to wrestle with WordPress. In the meantime… back to Emmy and her lumberjack Viking.)

The walks with Bryson were the highlights of Emmy’s days. They talked about all kinds of things. Europe. Food. Politics. Their families. Trees (always). The end of the world. Bryson was a bit of a conspiracy theorist, but that’s pretty normal for single men in Anchorage.

They talked about God. Because, of course they did. Emmy sometimes wondered if she annoyed people with how much she talked about God, but she didn’t really care. Bryson went to church–he was the second person Emmy had met dating who went to some weird underground church that Emmy had never heard of. It met on Tuesdays in people’s houses. Or something. None of her friends had ever heard of it, either. She had a fleeting thought that maybe this was something guys dating Christian women made up. There was probably some Reddit discussion board called r/datingcrazygodfreaks where guys all agreed that Jesus girls find it sexy when you make up an underground church that you attend…

Emmy often had crazy thoughts like that, and she was never sure how crazy they were. She’d recently come to terms with some things about her marriage that she’d been unable or unwilling to recognize at the time they happened, and it was messing with her sense of reality. One day she wondered whether it was possible that Bryson was some random homeless guy who lived on the bike trail (there were some in tents near the bridge). He would always just pop out of the woods, supposedly coming from his home across the creek. A home she’d never seen… Of course, he did have a jacket with the name of a the large oil company he worked for embroidered on it. And he didn’t look or smell like someone who didn’t have regular access to a shower. But still… These thoughts were hard to put away, even ones that she recognized as pretty odd.

One more persistent thought she kept tripping on was that they never did anything but go on walks. This was great for awhile, but after a few weeks, it just got weirder as time passed. It was her habit to walk to her dog on the trail every day anyway, so she kept it up, but he never seemed too enthusiastic about suggestions to do other activities. There was always an excuse, mainly that he didn’t have a car. That didn’t seem right. Maybe he was shy? Maybe she just needed to be more patient?

One day, they passed Emmy’s ex-husband on the trail by the lake. He passed without a word, and his face was so stretched with stress that she didn’t even recognize him until he was already behind them. She was completely discombobulated, and told Bryson, “I know it’s a small town, but… He never goes outside! And definitely not just to take a walk by a lake…”

“Maybe he’s a daywalker and you just didn’t know it?” They both giggled, but the encounter rattled her. She just wasn’t used to running into him randomly, and with the realizations about their marriage that kept bobbing to the surface of her consciousness completely unbidden, the whole thing was more uncomfortable than she liked to admit.

She went home agitated. The walks were still enjoyable, but the generous smattering of the God moments she’d seen at first were getting fewer and farther between. Her experience of God in the last year or so had been radically different from earlier in her life, and very different from most people she met. It wasn’t a shared experience you could count on by checking the box next to “Christian” on dating websites. It wasn’t until Bryson that she began to recognize how much she craved friendship not just with someone who knew Jesus, but company in her ability to see and hear Him. Not all Christians she knew had that. In fact, most didn’t.

Today when they’d talked about God, Bryson seemed like he’d backed away from those shared moments from their first few walks together, the ones when heaven shone through to the bike trail and they had both seen and heard. Not quite together, but ever-so-close. Adjacent visions. Now he’d stepped aside from it, he talked about the importance of the Old Testament law, about how his main experience of God was that he’d come back to God and the law when he was angry at someone for stealing his car. Emmy was looking for someone who knew grace, who knew and talked to God like her. She had thought she’d found that, but… Well, it had been that way for a few moments.

She prayed, “What is going on here? God, I’m confused.” The fruits of the spirit came to her: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. If that is where God is, and they were in her experience, God was there, right? Emmy alwas tries to go where God is, and she began to feel encouraged again. She looked up the verse in Galatians. Yeah, she’d remembered it right… and then her eyes strayed to the next column. It was her verse from Isaiah. Wait… what? She didn’t know it was quoted in the New Testament.

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The context of it floored her after her last God conversation with Bryson…

“Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically… So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.” (Galatians 4)

Phew. Children of freedom require free parents. That… this thing with Bryson wasn’t that, that much was becoming clear. He seemed much more like a child of law kind of guy. He certainly identified himself that way.

That week she was reading Hebrews with some friends, and ran across chapter 4, verse 2:

“For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.”

Could… people could hear sometimes without listening? See without seeking? She’d met so many people who were united by faith but who couldn’t see and hear. Was it possible there were people who could see and hear like her but chose to ignore it? It seemed incomprehensible to her that someone would turn away from that kind of beauty, that anyone could fail to run after it with every ounce of their energy once they’d gotten just a hint of it.

Their moment was crumbling. Emmy hung onto the fading light of it. She didn’t want to let go in spite of increasing doubts. Besides, what was up with the conflicting signs? Why would the light of the presence of God shine on Emmy and Bryson one way one minute and another the next? Ahem, God? Why would you get my hopes up and show off like that if you weren’t going to make good on your “hold my beer” moment? Just thinking about that gave her a lump in her throat. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer.

To be continued…