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.

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.

Purity Culture (Part 2): Lie Detector

Lies are more subtle than you think. Or at least more subtle than I suspected for a long time. A college friend wrote the forward for a now infamous book about Christian dating and abstinence, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Sam retracted his forward in this article in 2016. I have a lot of respect and admiration for Sam, and the whole retraction is worth reading (as are the recovery stories on the site). One sentence Sam wrote has really stuck with me: “thought I was anti-legalistic at the time, not realizing that legalism was part of the air I breathed.” There is a subtle, insidious deception in legalism that’s so close to us it’s like it’s in the air we breathe. We’re not originating it, we’re simply copying what we hear. And it’s often not in the content of what we say, but how we say it. Intent matters. Timing matters. Context matters. If Satan could get under Jesus’ skin using scripture, he can do it to us, too. I’m not saying that to scare you. I’m learning from it, and I want to share what I’m learning so we can take back our culture from this m———f———— a—hole.

I’m going to spend the next few posts using the lie detectors I listed in my first Purity Culture post to uncover some lies:

1. Does it cause or encourage fear?

2. Does it cause or encourage guilt or shame? (A corollary: does it make the hearer feel like his value as a person depends on his behavior?)

3. Does it isolate?

4. Does it make the hearer question her sanity?

Let me say up front that I’m not on a witch hunt. There are definitely some people out there lying deliberately, and they deserve to go down in flames. But I think in most cases these are well-intentioned people just echoing their own fears—the lies they’ve been told that they believe about themselves—into a huge megaphone. It’s an easy trap to fall into, one I fall into myself sometimes. I pray over this blog every day that what I write will be True, but sometimes I am just not self-aware enough to catch things. Sometimes my intentions are self-serving. I hope you will take these principles and apply them to me and tell me if you hear me lying. Lies can sometimes come through good people, people who usually speak the truth. My battle here isn’t against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12), it’s against lies and the destroyer who originates them.

There’s also the fact that lies don’t have to originate in what we’re reading. We sometimes tell them to ourselves. We filter what we see and hear through lies that we’ve learned to tell ourselves. When I was going through my divorce, I started to become more aware of my self-talk, and how much of it was lies. Things like, “Friend A and Friend B who are coming to my house for dinner. They are going to have a REALLY bad time if I don’t clean up these dust bunnies.” Or, “I’m so broken I don’t have any control over my sex life.” Or, “God isn’t going to fulfill my desire for a loving spouse because I don’t deserve that.” Worse, “The Bible says my heart is wicked, so my desires have no value. In fact, they are probably wrong. All of them.” I kept track one day, and I was telling myself a lie that checks a box on the lie detector list once every 7 minutes. All day. That’s a lot of shit to unpack.

When we’re breathing legalistic air, we tell ourselves and each other a lot of lies about sex. So, let’s take a look Amazon and I’ll show you the lies I hear. They might originate from the material, they might be in my head. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where they originate, but they’re there, and I’ll bet money that most of you hear them, too.

I started to search Amazon for “Christian sex” and was given a few suggested searches. First was “Christian sex education for 8-12 year olds”. I don’t think I’m the only one who reads that and thinks, “dear God, these kids coming up on puberty and we’d better educate them before they fall into the SEX DEATH TRAP.” (Lie detector #1) Second search suggestion is, “Christian sex books for married couples.” If I didn’t click that, I’d be reminded of my past when I enjoyed sex with someone who wasn’t my spouse. I feel bad for even LOOKING at books about sex since I’m not married. I remember the verse that says “any man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32). Lie detector #2, my friends. I feel alone because, well, sex advice is for married people, and I am not. Lie detector #3. I haven’t even looked at the search results and I’m already feeling so small I’m ready to walk away from the computer. For you–my readers–and for truth, I will keep going.

Search result #1: The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex (And You Thought the Bad Girls Had All the Fun) I like sex without reading a damn book… does that make me bad?

Result #2: Intended for Pleasure: Sex Technique and Sexual Fulfillment in the Christian Marriage Is it just me, or does it seem like a bad sign that we need convincing that it’s intended for pleasure? If I was unhappy with my married sex life, I’d feel a little less-than for not GETTING it.

Result #3: Under the Sheets: The Secrets to Hot Sex in Your Marriage Putting my married person hat on here: what if I’m so relationally shut down that I don’t WANT hot sex in my marriage? Or what if my spouse is asking me to do “hot” things that I’m not comfortable with?

Result #4: Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option-and Other Things the Bible Says About Sex I might actually read this book, but why does EVERY Christian conversation about sex start with talking about chastity or celibacy or abstinence (including my own blog)? Why is our starting point a RULE? Shouldn’t the starting point of this conversation be love and joy? Even if you’re trying to unpack the shame of sex, starting the conversation talking about shame might give it more power than I want it to. Ugh. Now I’m feeling ashamed for writing a blog that tries to uncover sex lies because I might be propagating the sex lies as I’m writing it.

Okay, my brain is already in a knot. But I hope you get the idea. I’ll tackle some gnarlier knots in another post.