A Christmas Story: Divine Pain

The war on Christmas is here. By now you’ve heard this infamous and nonexistent war referenced at least once. The fact that holiday cards say ‘happy holidays’ or ‘seasons greetings’ instead of Merry Christmas is somehow evidence that Christmas is under attack. This war is so well-known that it became a campaign promise during the 2016 election.

Truth be told, there is a war on Christmas. At least there was, but it was lost long ago. Capitalism won, and as a result, we’ve been led to believe that Christmas is about the joy, that comes through gift giving. You’ll be shocked to hear this, but that isn’t the original message of Christmas.  

I know what you’re thinking. “Ben, I’ve already watched ElfA Christmas Story and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I think I know the true meaning of Christmas.” I get it. The “true meaning of Christmas” motif is as ubiquitous as the war on Christmas itself. However, the Christmas message I’m referring to isn’t mentioned in our favorite holiday songs, movies or even the Bible.  

At its root, the Christmas story is one of sudden joy and hidden pain. The joy is a result of God’s manifested presence through Jesus, but Jesus couldn’t have arrived without Mary’s pain. The details of Mary’s pregnancy and delivery are omitted from the Christian tradition. We have sterilized Christmas so that it is soft, sweet and mystical.   

There is no record of Mary’s flesh being ripped open or her screams piercing the otherwise quiet night air. Neither the blood that covered Jesus, nor the sweat that drenched Mary are depicted in any nativity scene, but the absence of those details does not detract from their importance. There was joy on that first Christmas, but it wasn’t possible without pain.  

What’s true in childbirth is often true in other aspects of life as well. Pain can be a signal that we’re doing exactly what we’re supposed to do. I felt that signal strongly during December of 2009.  

Flashback Alert: (I’ve found that looking to the side and tilting my head at a slight angle really adds to the flashback experience. Join me). 

I’m sitting on the floor in my grandmother’s living room watching tv with my younger brother. There are four chairs, two along each wall. As usual, my grandma is in the chair to my left. She’s making small talk with my girlfriend, Brooke, who is sitting across from her. I’m leaning against the chair behind me and watching my brother as he laughs at whatever is happening on tv. For a moment everything feels right. I’m spending time with people I love. No stress. No pressure. Just quality time. The moment evaporates as I remember that there is someone else in the room: my biological mom.  

She is sitting in the chair across from me, and as I look up to see her smiling and talking with Brooke, the normalcy and peace I felt moments ago vanish. It feels as though I’m living in an alternate reality. My past has encroached upon my present and the merger is disorienting. Refusing to pretend anything is awkward, I talk with my mom and occasionally even laugh as we both try our best to pretend this is normal. Internally, I’m fighting desperately to hold off the upheaval that is taking place. The visit ends, but as I drive home the real work begins.  

I soon feel the undercurrents of anger, betrayal, and rejection move through me like a boiling river. I’m so overwhelmed that I can’t process what I’m feeling; I just know it feels terrible. The pressure that was used to bottle up my emotions for a decade now fuels the explosion happening in my chest. I feel everything and yet nothing. It’s all jumbled together, one emotion wound up in the next forming knot after intense knot in my chest.

I shut down and push people away. My parents, my girlfriend, and anyone else that wants to be around me meets a wall of resistance. There is no reason for me to celebrate; no excuse to be thankful this Christmas. I just want to be angry, and my God am I angry.   

As I look back on that week in 2009, I recall being triggered because I realized I couldn’t escape from the past. I assumed I could put it behind me. I did my best to live a happy life without being defined by what had happened to me. I didn’t want to remember the pain I felt when my mom left. I didn’t want to remember the anger I felt when we were placed in foster care. I sure as hell didn’t want to remember the fear I felt when I was around my step-dad. I honestly thought I was over it all, but in one fell swoop, I was undone by a past I thought I could bury.  

It was by far the worst holiday I’ve had in the last twenty years.  As painful as that moment was, I know I needed it. I needed to have my wounds reopened so they could heal properly. I needed to be reminded that my work wasn’t done. Most of all, I needed to be reminded that I can’t outrun ghosts. My past will always win that race.W

Have you ever tried to get over your past by simply moving on? It can feel easier to pretend we’re ok than to carefully examine the invisible scars we carry but what is easy is not always beneficial.

I invite you to an intentional awareness this Christmas and New Year. Take note of the feelings, situations or memories you’ve been trying to avoid. Give them the space they’re asking for. I’m not asking you to wake up every day and think about all the things that are wrong with your life. Rather, I’m suggesting you carve out intentional pockets of time to let the feelings you’re uncomfortable with exist without trying to get rid of them. If you give your hurt the space it needs, it’s less likely to encroach upon your joy.

For example, I’m making space to grieve my dad. The process isn’t spectacular. I take a moment every day or every other day to sit still, breathe deeply and be aware of the sorrow that sits like a softball in my chest. I hold it gently and with reverence because it too has a purpose. I’m not trying to feel better. I’m not trying to lessen the grief. I’m just noticing it and letting it be. After a few moments of this holding, knowing and breathing, I let go and continue with my day. It’s simple but effective.

Find a practice that works for you. Maybe it will incorporate exercise, music or meditation. As long as you’re making time to be present, you’re doing it right.  

The war on Christmas may be over on a national level, but in your own life and with your own family, you can still mount a resistance. As we move closer to Christmas, imagine that Jesus’ birth wasn’t announced by angels, but rather by the anguished screams of Mary forcing new life into the world. 

Hold the discomfort and exuberance of this holiday season just as she did, and look for moments when pain is calling you into your deeper purpose. 


Permission to Be…a lesson from Kanye

Photo by Jorge Saavedra on Unsplash

Kanye West is known for many things. Most of them are of the infamous variety, but he’s recently outdone himself. During a meeting with President Trump, Kanye said the MAGA hat made him feel like Superman. No, I’m not making this up. Kanye “George Bush hates black people” West, said the MAGA hat makes him feel like he has superpowers. 

If you missed the moment I’m speaking of, click here for the full transcript. While I’m both concerned and disappointed in Kanye, I’m also aware that he consistently does something most of us wouldn’t dream of. He expresses his authentic identity. He doesn’t let the pressure of who people want him to be limit who he actually is.  

We won’t live that boldly. The thought of being cut off from our communities, damaging our reputations or risking our careers is too much to bear. Therefore, we live so that feathers aren’t ruffled, and we never give ourselves space to be curious about who we really are. As a result, we fail to live into our greatest potential. Desires go unnamed. Dreams are locked away. Destiny is rerouted as we pretend we’re okay living out the identities assigned to us.  

Who do you need permission to be? 

In the past, I’ve needed permission to be a man in the way that is most authentic to me. I’m a heterosexual, cisgender male. As an adolescent, I noticed that I was more emotionally sensitive and more comfortable relating to women than most hetero, cis boys I knew. People often assumed I was gay, and as a teenager, I took that as an insult.

It meant that I was somehow more feminine than I should be. Moreover, it made me feel deeply misunderstood and judged. I felt a large knot in my throat as I wrestled with the shame of not being masculine enough to fit in.   

Why did my feelings get hurt so easily? Every insult whether levied seriously or in jest was taken as an attack on who I was. Even if I logically knew it wasn’t meant that way, my emotions still got the better of me. My chest and throat constricted and my eyes watered as I desperately fought back tears. Each time this happened, the shame rose within me as I told myself I was stupid for caring so much about what other people thought of me. 

Why was it easier to make female friends than male friends? I would regularly find myself at the lunch table surrounded by girls. Before you ask, they weren’t fawning over me. I was firmly entrenched within the confines of the friend zone. Girls just felt easier to talk to, and less threatening. They didn’t want to fight or wrestle when they hung out.  They just talked, and I liked that. 

As a result of my emotional sensitivity and my preference for female friendship, I often held one significant question about myself…

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

What is wrong with me? 

Can you feel the weight of that question? The inherent shame oozes from each word and like hot asphalt on a summer day, it stuck to the deepest parts of me. For years I held that shame believing I was somehow broken. Slowly I found a way to erode the asphalt and experience grace, and two things helped with that process. The first was greater awareness of myself. 

I realized I was sensitive to criticism because I spent seven years of my childhood getting berated and assaulted by my stepdad. His words cut me deeply, piercing my still-forming identity and crippling my young masculinity. As a result of the relationship I had with my step-dad, I gravitated more strongly towards my mom and learned to relate to women more.

In some ways, men still feel threatening to me. There is a silent alarm in my subconscious that gets triggered when I’m around men whom I perceive to be more masculine than myself. I feel my anxiety spike almost as if a low-level fight or flight response is activated. I know it is illogical, and through awareness and self-talk, I hope to one day shut down the alarm system. For now, I accept it as it is without allowing it to dictate how I relate to people.  

The second thing that helped me accept grace was beginning to understand gender as something socially constructed rather than divinely instituted. Concepts of masculinity and femininity have been applied to gender in order to sell clothes, market perfume, disempower women and desensitize men, but they are not a natural part of our existence. Gender is constructed in the same way that race is constructed. Whereas race was constructed around differences in skin color, hair texture, and facial features, gender was created based upon differences in external genitalia.  

Both gender and race are arbitrary distinctions loosely based on biological characteristics, and both are designed to keep people in their place so that those in power can maintain it. Unfortunately, these arbitrary distinctions continue to play a significant role in our identities. Even though I’m now aware of the illusion of gender, I still succumb to my embedded beliefs. 

For example, I fall into the trap of trying to protect Brooke’s emotions. I am tempted to withhold information from her because I’m afraid it will be too difficult for her to hear, or I’m worried it will upset her too much. When I withhold information to “protect” her, I’m intentionally or unintentionally denying the existence of her strength and agency. What I’m really saying is “I don’t think you’re strong enough to handle this.”

Logically I know that’s an antiquated and misogynistic way of thinking because I’m failing to see her with agency and power. Moreover, it is problematic because I think my masculinity comes with an inherent right to be the gatekeeper for her emotions. It is unhelpful at best and hurtful at worst. The trouble with embedded beliefs is that, like shrapnel, they’re difficult to remove all at once. 

The truth is, my wife is a bad-ass woman with immense strength and deserves to be treated as such.  If I’m really being honest, the underlying fear isn’t that she won’t be able to handle the truth I’m holding, it’s that I won’t. Once I express it to her, I’m forced to fully confront it as well, and that is terrifying. Fragile masculinity is motivated not by the weakness it perceives in femininity, but by the weakness it perceives in itself. Most of us aren’t curious enough about ourselves to understand the roots of our fragility. 

Who do you need permission to be? 

This question is not one answered in a moment. Rather it is a slow-cooker question. You reflect on it for a while, let it simmer and when the time is right an answer will present itself. In the meantime, pay attention to who you are at various moments of the day. Which identities present themselves? Are they identities that you have chosen, or have they been given to you? Which identities are whispering and waiting to see the light of day?  

Most of us will never receive as much national attention as Kanye, and that is probably a good thing. Fame can mess a person up. What I hope we learn from Mr. West, aside from the reality that no one looks good in a MAGA hat, is that sometimes we must do the hard thing; step beyond what is comfortable in order to live into our deeper truths. 

Take time this week to explore the identities that you carry. Notice when they feel uncomfortable like wearing a shoe that is a size too small. Notice when they perfect like your most comfortable pair of jeans. Give yourself the freedom to be curious, self-aware and bold this week as you ask questions that you’d normally ignore.

Who do you need permission to be?

P.S. You have permission. Now go be you! 🙂

Dissonant Truth

Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

Truth is uncomfortable. It shatters our preconceived notions about right and wrong and must be uncovered intentionally. It must be sought out, or at the very least, invited. It doesn’t stand in plain sight shouting at us. Like wisdom personified, it gently knocks and waits for us to open the door. We’re often able to distract ourselves from truth’s subtle call until the norms we comfortably depend upon are shaken by the inevitability of death. It is the reminder that control is an illusion and time is not our servant.  

This past Wednesday, the U.S. observed a national day of mourning to commemorate the life and death of the 41st president George H. W. Bush. As soon as news of his passing broke out, articles touting his conservative credentials and strong leadership style emerged. In contrast, others asserted that the president put political expediency over the common good and that his policies did lasting damage to the lgbtq+ community.  

Which perspectives are true? As most of our childhood stories have taught us, you’re either a hero or a villain. There is no room for complicated legacies or nuanced understandings of history. We’re an either/or society. However, in death, we have the opportunity to hold competing perspectives with grace.  

One of my dissonant truths emerged slowly but forcefully one evening several weeks ago. I sat on the back steps and intentionally took in the crisp autumn air. With each slow breath, I gathered and held my anxious thoughts, before releasing them into the atmosphere as I exhaled. With every cycle of breath, I became lighter, clearer and more still.

Soon, I was still enough that the truth washed over me like the first waves of high tide, steady and unsettling. Instead of stepping back from the waves, I remained in that moment, allowing myself to be rocked back then gently but firmly drawn into the depths. This truth was deep, unsettling, and challenged long-held narratives about my childhood, my family and my own identity. The truth I was faced with on my back steps was that… 

love my mom. 

Mind-blowing right? If you don’t know my history, you’ll likely think I’ve just wasted your time, so allow me to take you back to 1997. You remember ‘97? I didn’t, so I had to do some research. Turns out, it was quite a year. Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, and Notorious B.I.G died. Mike Tyson bit off a chunk of someone’s ear, O.J. Simpson was finally convicted, and the cinematic world was set ablaze by such classics as Flubber, George of the Jungle, Austin Powers, Liar Liar, Men in Black, Hercules, and a lesser-known film you may not have heard of called Titanic.  What a time to be alive!  

I wasn’t aware of any of this because I was nine-years-old and living in a homeless shelter. I have my own memories of that year, but one, in particular, stands out above the rest.   

I’m standing in a homeless shelter kitchen. My is mom walking towards me, but something is wrong. She looks upset, and my gut initiates that slow and steady lurch which tells me something bad is about to happen. As I’ve done many times before, I brace myself. My mom kneels down in front of me, so we’re looking eye to eye, and says what I imagine are the hardest words of her life.  

“Ben, I have to go away right now. You’re going to stay here, with your brothers and sisters, but don’t worry. I’ll get a lawyer and come back to get you.”  

With that, she hugs me, turns and walks out the door. I stand there struggling to comprehend what has just happened.  

Why does she have to leave? Who is making her go? Why can’t we come with? Who is gonna take care of us? Will we have to move again? 

The anxiety surges through my thin, nine-year-old body, causing question after question to race through my mind faster than I can comprehend. I stand there for a moment searching for answers and desperately trying to make sense of the life that is shifting beneath my feet. As I watch the only constant thing in my life walk out the door, I feel rejected, alone and abandoned.

Then, right on cue, my coping mechanisms, which have been tested by years of abuse and neglect, kick in and I feel the familiar resolve to survive. I will not let these feelings overcome me. I can’t. I have to it keep it together for my brothers and sisters. I don’t know what is coming, but I know we must survive.  

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

While we did indeed survive, and at times thrive in our new home, the pain from that moment remained. One night my foster mom was tucking me into bed, and I laid there overwhelmed by a sadness, maybe even a deadness within me. She asked what was wrong, and my eyes immediately filled with tears. I laid there in my bed, fighting back the deep, dark sorrow that threatened to take over and I said: 

“I miss my mom. It feels like there is a hole in my chest where my heart used to be.”  

Over the years, that pain continued to present itself as anger, depression, and longing. The more I processed my childhood experiences, the more betrayed I felt by my mom. Before that moment in the homeless shelter kitchen, I never would have questioned her, but after that, I started to see things through a different lens. 

It occurred to me that she not only left us, but she never protected us from our stepdad. Every time he punched or kicked, she stood to the side and allowed it to happen. Every chance she had to get away and start over, she refused to take. She kept letting him back into our lives after every arrest and separation. With these realizations, the illusions I had of my mother began to crumble. She not only caused deep emotional hurt, but she allowed us to be hurt physically as well.  

I love my mom.

Do you feel the dissonance of those words now? They trigger a flurry of questions and unleash a torrent of anxiety. If I admit I love her, does that let her off the hook? Will it make my adoptive mom feel less appreciated? Will my brothers and sisters feel betrayed by my admission?  

I’ve spent twenty-one years carrying the scars, trying to forgive, and hoping I’ll stop being affected by her. I’ve spent twenty-one years trying not to be that vulnerable ever again, yet here I am. 

I love my mom. 

As I sat on my back steps allowing the weight of this realization to wash over me, I experienced the warmth of healing slowly emerge as the first light of the sun at dawn. I was swimming in both the discomfort and the release; truth embedded in dissonance.  

Within this dissonant truth, I’m finding a restoration. In some way I can’t fully articulate, I am more fully myself today than I was two weeks ago. The pain has not gone away. That homeless shelter kitchen still brings tears to my eyes and anxiety to my heart. However, I know that I don’t have to protect myself anymore.

I’ve lived my whole life waiting for people to hurt me. Which means I never let them in, or I emotionally detach at a moment’s notice. These are coping techniques designed to keep me from experiencing vulnerability and pain. While I will remain discerning about who I trust, I will also trust God enough to know that I can be deeply hurt, and still be restored. Healing is always possible.  

Truth can be present in dissonance. We have to be willing to remain in the discomfort long enough for it to emerge. Once it presents itself, do your best not to judge it. Give it space to be validated. Let it be, and feel how it begins to change you. The process of remaining in the dissonance and holding your truth will be uncomfortable or even painful for some of you. Some truths are shrouded in shame while others are shackled with pain or regret. Allow your truth to exist without the shrouds or shackles and listen for what it will tell you. Not every truth will make you suddenly feel more whole, but each one will help you experience more of your true self. There is freedom in that.  

Find space this weekend to get into a quiet place. Through your own practice of centering, find that stillness which makes room for dissonance. When your truth emerges, invite it in without judgment or condition. Hold it gently and trust that it will do the work it set out to do, even if that work is not immediately evident to you. Then, as you’re ready, share your truth with someone you trust so that they too might see more of who you are.  

More will be written about the dissonance in President Bush’s life and legacy. His death has given the nation an opportunity to choose how much discomfort we’re willing to hold for the sake of restoration. As you formulate your own opinions on our 41st president, remember that truth is knocking. Be still and open the door.