The headline leapt at me like a blast from the past.
School Shooting in Colorado Leaves 1 Student Dead and 7 Injured
-New York Times
I was searching for statistics on negative self-image and somehow found my way to facebook when this article came across my newsfeed. I instantly stopped scrolling, halted my search and abruptly ended my initial train of thought.
My heart dropped even further as I continued to read.
Douglas County Sheriff’s Office released a statement confirming that one of the eight who had been shot, an 18-year-old man, had died
-New York Times
I can’t explain why this jumped out at me because truthfully I’ve grown numb to these headlines. When a gunman killed a student at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, I barely batted an eye, but this stopped me in my tracks and unleashed a tide of grief, anger and indignation.
FUCK. THIS. SHIT.
No other words capture what I feel in this moment. I knew I needed to write something. Not because this is my way of trying to make a difference. This blog post won’t change the minds of those who are against gun control reform, and it certainly won’t alter the hearts of elected officials. This is not my act of resistance or contribution to the movement.
This is an expression of rage and an outlet of grief. Even as I type, I can hear the silent sobs of mothers anxiously waiting by their phones hoping to receive word their child has survived. I feel the uncontrolled tears of the parents who suddenly have to make arrangements for a funeral instead of a graduation open house.
As the sobs grow in volume and the tears flow faster, I’m transported to Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, and I see the bodies 5 and 6 year olds strewn about as if they mean nothing. Innocence crushed as laughter gives way to screams and joy to terror. Older siblings forced to process death far too soon. Young souls burdened with intense fear, embedded with incomprehensible loss and overcome with unimaginable sorrow.
Again parents wait in the parking lot and cling to their phones hoping against hope that they will soon hear that voice they cherish and be able to put their arms around that part of themselves they entrusted to the world though it was against their instincts to do so. Parents now forced to hold the unjust truth that the world once again failed them, and the price they paid for their trust is far too steep.
As the images of these parents flash through my mind, I’m whisked back even further into a school library in Colorado. Bullets kill bodies and dreams alike as two young gunmen open fire. Confusion reigns as the unthinkable unfolds. A community is rocked awake and a nation warned that their children are no longer safe. What will we do with this warning?
Twenty years after Columbine, seven years after Sandy Hook and three days after Highlands Ranch we ignore the warnings claiming any action is an affront to our perceived freedom. We send our children off like lambs to the slaughter all the while pointing to an improper interpretation of the 2nd amendment as if it is somehow holier than those we’ve lost.
The blood of children and tears of parents are too great a price to pay. Like Judas, we sell out our most innocent members of society for blood-stained silver. Most of us never see the profits that are made, but we see the shine of bullet casings and the blast of gun barrels as they snuff out life at an alarming rate in our schools, our neighborhoods and on our streets.
My heart breaks today for the victims and survivors alike. I mourn the more than 1000 children and teens who’ve been killed and injured by gun violence in the U.S. as of May 9th.
I weep with the tens of thousands of family members affected, and I tremble as I imagine the river of tears which have been shed this year alone. May this river sweep away our bullshit and drown our apathy so that one day soon, we can plan fewer funerals and more graduation parties.
(There will be minor spoilers for those that haven’t seen every MCU movie.)
There are few movies I’ve anticipated as much as Avengers Endgame. Since 2008, I have seen every Marvel movie at least once (and some as many as 7 times). I was there when Tony Stark emerged from that cave in the Middle East. I watched Thor lose an eye at the hands of his sister, and I saw T’challa after he was pulled from the icy waters of Wakanda by the Jabari Tribe. Needlesstosay, I’m hype for this final movie.
In all of my anticipation, I began thinking about the plot of Endgame more deeply. To recap: In Infinity War, Thanos collected all of the Infinity Stones, snapped his fingers and wiped out half of Earth’s population along with beloved heroes like Spiderman, Black Panther and Groot. Now the Avengers must undo the catastrophic actions of Thanos, and I assume they’ll be successful because Spiderman Far From Home premiers this summer, and it would be hella awkward without…well…Spiderman.
So we know that ultimatly the Avengers will somehow re-write history and save the planet. Which is awesome. I obviously want them to win, but I can’t help to reflect upon the idea that, in reality, the past cannot be undone.
That reality hits close to home for me as I continue to uncover the residue from my childhood traumas. I lament the ways my relationships are impacted and my daily existence is altered by the scars I carry. I’m not conscious of any active desire to change my past, but deep within me I sense the presence of a silent hope. A hope that I will eventually do enough to undo the effects of all I’ve endured. I’ve prayed, sought counselling support and endlessly worked to understand myself so that I might feel immune to my past.
The truth I struggle to live with is that there is no antidote to history. We don’t get to escape the broken hearts, failed relationships or buried dreams that are behind us. We can’t refund our tears or bottle our anguish. Unlike the history of the MCU, our own reality can never be undone or rewritten. We live with the daily reminders of every arrow we’ve taken, every knife we’ve plunged into the backs of those we love and every wound we’ve sufferred or inflicted. It all stays with us.
I’m slowly coming to accept the tension between my reality and the fantasy of the comics I love. I want to believe there are parallels and lessons, but there is a limit to what they can teach. As I approach this limit, a phrase from the Endgame trailor emerges from my subconscious like the sun rising over the horizon at dawn.
“Whatever it takes.” As this phrase meets my grief, I begin to think of how far I’ve come. Then I recall all of the other people I know who have endured the brutalities of life yet still stand every day to face what comes. I recall the heroes. Heroes that…
…carry the searing pain of sexual assault day in and day out.
…hold the memories of neglect, abandonment and rejection deep within your psyche.
…see the hurt they’ve caused in other people, but instead of being undone by shame are cleansed by grace.
…rise despite the health scares which make you feel as though your body is failing you.
…nurse a broken spirit and fractured ego after hearing again and again you aren’t good enough.
Heroes like you. Those who don’t run from the invisible wounds which afflict them because they believe restoration is possible. Avengers Endgame reminds me that my own past can’t be rewritten, but my future is not yet set.
I look forward to watching Endgame. I plan to laugh, cry and applaud as this chapter of the MCU comes to a close. As I leave the theater, I will ponder what is next for my onscreen heroes and offer appreciation heroes like you. Our past can’t be re-written, but our future can still be shaped.
To all of you who don’t get enough recongnition for facing what is within. To those who encounter your shame and continue loving yourself anyway. To those who are detemined to be defined by the love, resiliency and determination you show day in and day out. Thank you. I hope you continue to do “whatever it takes.”
Self-Care is vital to the personal healing work I’m doing. Part of my self-care regimen has included yoga among other things. Now I’m no yogi, so I visit a local yoga studio in Indy a couple times a week. I’m just kidding. I go on YouTube and look up Yoga w/Adrienne. (C’mon I’m a millennial afterall).
Near the end of one Adrienne’s practices, she instructs her viewers to cross their legs, sit with their feet in front of their body and massage their arches with their thumbs. I promptly oblige and awkwardly fold my legs. The moment my hands make contact with my feet, I immediately become uncomfortable.
As I massage my arches, I become aware of two simultaneous impulses. Impulses that speak to the internal conflict that has been swirling within me since January: disgust and compassion. Disgust registers first because it is most familiar to me. It is the first emotion that I’m aware of when I think of my feet.
I often look at them with derision because they can become smelly, sweaty and dirty. They are also beset by dry skin, callouses and a persistent lack of melanin. I honestly don’t like my feet. I hide them whenever possible, so the notion of even touching my own feet made me feel dirty.
Then, as swiftly as I noticed my disgust, I began to experience the sensation created as my thumbs made contact with the soft flesh of my arches. First clockwise then counterclockwise, I worked my thumbs and fingers over each toe, ball joint and heel. I applied more pressure and soon found tender spots begging for relief. There were places that hadn’t felt the compassion of touch in a long while.
As I began to feel the release of tension, my perception changed. I sensed a deep appreciation for these appendages that do the thankless work of carrying my body everywhere it wants and needs to be. They bear all of my weight and endure whatever terrain I subject them to without fanfare. I run, jump, swim and do so many other things because of my feet. As the waves of appreciation continued to wash over me with each touchpoint, I became more deeply connected to my body.
I now realize how much I genuinely take for granted, and how easily I allow shame, cultural judgments and negative perceptions to influence the way I experience myself. My feet aren’t the only body parts that have been the subject of my withering criticism. I could make a solid list of body parts that I’ve wanted to curse or change during my 30 years of life. The trouble is, in cursing my body, I’m also cursing myself. The curse is that of disconnection. To be disconnected from my body is to be disconnected from the primary medium through which I experience the world and the world experiences me. It also means that I’m not experiencing parts of my own being.
My sense of sexual desire, emotional intimacy and vocational purpose all suffer because I am disconnected from myself. The most direct example of this involves coitus. (I could have just said sex, or sexual intimacy, but I love Big Bang Theory). If I judge my own body, I’m bringing my embedded disgust, shame or displeasure into every sexual experience. That trinity of disconnection either remains internal and cripples my ability to be present to the power of the intimate connection I’m experiencing, or is projected externally onto someone else thereby damaging their self-image or identity.
While I’m less accepting of other’s bodies when I can’t accept my own, the converse is also true. The more I’m able to accept myself, whether I’m freshly showered or drenched in sweat, the more easily I can cast off the false definitions of what is or isn’t desirable and find beauty in the unique manifestation of someone else’s embodiment.
Embodiment is a gift that I pray we don’t take for granted. It is such a gift that Jesus did it twice! (Didn’t think I’d go a whole post without mentioning something Easter-related.) I dare not take such a gift lightly for fear that I’ll not only devalue myself but creation as well. Even when my body feels as though it is betraying me, I strive to accept it and all that it is communicating. Accepting my body isn’t about it being perfect, it is about me recognizing it for what it is and choosing to be present to all it has to tell me.
Take a moment this week to rub your feet, shoulders or whatever body part needs the most love. (Go crazy, but please lock your doors first.) If you feel you’ve got that down, find ways to appreciate and show love for someone else’s body. (With consent of course). This may mean giving a hug, a compliment, a massage or tantric sex. The possibilities are endless.
P.S. I want to acknowledge that I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who is able-bodied and cisgender. Appreciating embodiment may be different for those who identify as transgender or those who are differently abled. I don’t pretend to fully understand their experience, so I recognize that as a blind spot for me as I write about appreciating my body.
No one wants to grieve. It feels messy, painful and outright overwhelming. So overwhelming in fact, that we’d rather pretend grief doesn’t exist.
Grief is the colonoscopy of emotional well-being. You don’t want it. It is terribly uncomfortalbe, but if you never experience it, you could miss vital information about your health.
Not feeling that analogy? Ok try this one out. Grief is the check engine light for our psyche and spirit. Ignore it long enough and the problem compounds with ever-worsening effects.
Grief sucks, but it is of vital importance.
I bring it up this week because April 10th is my dad’s birthday. Its been nearly 8 months since we lost him. 8 months since the phone call I’ll never forget.
I’m in my living room having just gotten home from an overnight shift at the hospital. As I sit in my arm chair, I feel the familiar vibration of my phone. I slowly fish it out of my pocket so I can see who is calling before deciding if I want to answer it or not. (Don’t judge me. You do it too.)
I’m surprised because my mom is calling. We don’t talk on the phone every week, so when she calls, I make it a point to answer. Within five seconds of hearing my mom’s voice, I sense something is wrong. She sounds tentative, unsure, almost unwilling to speak the words that must be said.
“Son, are you sitting down?“
I know what this phone call is…someone died, but who? The thought lingers for a split second before I intuitively know she’s calling about my dad.
She manages to say the words though she still can’t believe them herself. She sighs deeply and chokes back tears as the conversation continues. We speak for a few more moments before she ends the conversation to make more phone calls. We hang up and time stands still as if its awaiting my response to this life-altering news.
The news that my dad, the man who chose to love me when others couldn’t or wouldn’t, is dead. He’d collapsed while finishing a landscaping job, presumably from a heart attack. All at once a million thoughts flash through me.
“Had he felt pain? If so, for how long? Was he afraid to die? Did he feel alone?”
I imagine these are things the things people who’ve never died wonder but can never know. A blanket of shock and sadness slowly settled on me, but I knew I didn’t yet feel the full weight of my loss. I wondered how I would respond once everything finally hit me?
Eight months later, I still wonder. For much of the last week I watched April 10th approach with curiosity and trepedation. I sensed the sadness grow within me day after day like the rising waters of a flood plain. What will happen when the river crests? Will I lash out at the people around me, make destructive decisions or find myself completely immobilized?
I honestly didn’t know how I would respond. Having watched the 10th, come and go, I can now report that I made it through the day, and most of the week, without lashing out or being self-destructive. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel different.
My world is different. I’m in the strange position of being fatherless. Losing my dad was like losing a guiding presence in my life because I believe our parents, at their best, serve as guides for us. There was a sense that even if my dad and I disagreed, and we always disagreed, I knew he was covering me with prayer and love. I somehow felt protected and safe.
Spiritually speaking, he still reaches out to me from time to time to give me advice or to let me know that he is okay. Those assurances ease the grieving process, and remind me that though we aren’t connected in the physical world, our spiritual connection remains.
I’m grateful for our spiritual connection, but I miss his big ‘ol bear hugs and his grizzly laugh. I even miss his grossly innappropriate sense of humor which included utilizing the term “pube” as an official metric unit of measurement and creating a NSFW version of The Night Before Christmas involving a drunk Santa and rodent diaharrea (my dad was a trip).
As I remember all of this, I feel the gulf that is now between us and grieve. Not necessarily for what I’ve lost, but for what will never again be. I feel blessed that several weeks before he died, my dad and I got to have a conversation in which everything we needed to say was spoken. He knew that I loved him despite our differences and I knew he was proud of me regardless of my beliefs. We finally heard each other over the noise of our disagreement, and it was beautifully healing for us both.
Looking back at Wednesday, April 10th, I can say that the tide of grief rose within me and I faced it as best I could. I accepted that it was my reality in that moment and knew that it was not only necessary for healing, but also evidence of deep love.
The last 8 months have rocked me in ways I never imagined being rocked. Along the way I have become more willing to be uncomfortable, more accepting of my pain and more trusting of my grief. As I continue to embrace this grieving process, I’ve learned a few things that you might find helpful.
Grief is not something to be expelled from your system. Like a runny nose or a mild fever, it is actually a sign that your system is doing what it is supposed to. Accept it, and allow it to run its course.
Learn what you need to be healthy while you grieve, and adjust your rhythms accordingly. When we’re physically sick, we know we need rest because our body is exerting energy to fight an illness. Active grieving also exerts a great deal of emotional and physical energy, so adjust your life rhythms accordingly. This may mean you need extra space to cry, rest, pray or write. As much as you’re able, make that space. Put it on the calendar, so you know it is there. Take care of yourself. You deserve it.
Own your grieving process. There is no single right or wrong way to hold and process grief. Your body will give you clues as to what it needs, so pay attention. There is no set amount of tears that should be shed to legitimize your pain. Your grief is as unique as your fingerprint. Accept it as such, and appreciate it for what it is.
I still feel the dull ache that reminds me I can’t pick up the phone to call my dad. I miss him. Each holiday that rolls through will bring with it the reminder that he is gone; there is a different degree of separation between us now. I can neither escape this reality nor change it, but I can embrace it and allow my grief to cleanse me, heal me and teach me about myself. I pray you’re able and willing to do the same.
The Mueller report came out last week, and according to the four-page summary written by the Attorney General, Mueller’s team found no evidence of collusion between the Russian government and Donald Trump during the 2016 Presidential campaign. While I’m disappointed, I’m not surprised. This is the outcome I expected.
There will likely be no impeachment proceedings which means we’ll be saying President Donald Trump until 2020 at the earliest. While he is a terrible, low-down, no good President, he is also as much a product of our history as is Barack Obama. If nothing else, the news that there was no collusion reinforces one of life’s bitter truths.
The past cannot be altered, undone or rewritten.
As challenging as this truth is to hold for our nation, I find it even more overwhelming when it comes to my personal life. The promise of healing, holds within it the hope that the damage of the past can be undone or reversed to some degree. At least it has for me, so accepting my past and its effects on me proves difficult. So difficult in fact, that I believe I’ve partitioned myself into separate personas.
I know this because I’ve spent much of the last month attempting to access my repressed rage and grief. They feel separate and distinct from me, as if there is another person holding them for me. Oftentimes, when I’m trying to focus on my emotions, I close my eyes and imagine falling into myself; breaking through layers of awareness until I approach the deepest levels of my being. I fall until I land in a dark void. I stand to my feet and suddenly see the face of my nine-year-old self looking back at me.
As I approach him, I can both feel the tension that consumes his small frame. Years spent clenching his teeth and bracing for the next blow have taken their toll.
I draw closer and notice clenched fists hovering on either side of his body. His arms slightly bent at each elbow. This child is ready for a fight. Just as I step within reach of him, he jerks his head to the sky and a guttural scream explodes from his miniature body. Hot tears stream down his face as he continues to scream and shake.
I’m not startled by this display because I intuitively know what he means. He is communicating that life is not fair. His innocence has been compromised and his hope euthanized. He is emitting the deep holler present within everyone who has ever been a victim. As intuitively as I know the meaning of his behavior, I also know that I’m supposed to draw him into a deep embrace and sit with him in his pain…in my pain.
As his screams are enveloped by darkness, I consider moving even closer toward him, but…
I don’t. I won’t. Honestly I can’t.
Doing that would mean forgiving the past and though I’ve been trying since I was ten, I’m still not ready. Forgiveness, as a concept has often alluded my understanding.
Does forgiving someone mean you don’t want them to suffer blow-back for their actions? Do you stop feeling angry or hurt? Is forgiveness a myth we’ve bought into or another religious saying without practical value like “let go and let God”?
Amidst these questions, I have found one definition of forgiveness that speaks to me. “Forgiveness is the process of letting go of the hope that the past will be different.” As I hold that definition, I feel what the rich young ruler must have felt when Jesus told him to sell everything and give it to the poor.
“I can’t even have hope that my past could’ve, would’ve or should’ve been different? Now you’re asking too much.”
I know people who believe that everything they’ve been through is being used for their betterment, and I’d like to be one of those people, but I’m not. Every time I feel the residue of physical abuse, I wish the past were different. When I’m being pulled into the inescapable darkness of depression, I wish the past were different. Each moment I’m barraged with doubt about my value, I wish the past were different.
For years I’ve always sought the next experience, job or relationship thinking it will bring the fulfillment, excitement or freedom I seek. I’ve spent so much time looking into the future that I’ve missed the beauty in front of me. Even more damning, I’ve exerted too much energy trying to fill the gaps with things external to me, when I’ve always had exactly what I needed within me.
The truth is that I can’t control + z my past. Nothing can be undone; no moment rewritten. My options are to swallow the lie, or embrace forgiveness. It feels like completely relinquishing the hope of a different past is the final act in my struggle to forgo control. As acceptance of what has been washes over me, I reach forward and pull my younger self into a deep embrace. He is still screaming while hot tears run down his cheeks, and I don’t try to stop him.
If the past is to remain unaltered, so must his screams. So must MY screams, for he is the imagery I’ve created to distance myself from all I’ve repressed. As I lose my grip on this false reality, I feel myself falling again. This time I fall through the darkness, past the void and into the icy, yet refreshing, waters of the river of God. As I flow in this holy baptismal, I become weightless and my movements turn fluid. Like this coursing river, I too am present in this moment. Always connected to where I’ve been and where I will be, but responding to what is current. This is the nature of God, I Am.
The 2020 election is around the corner and it looks as though we’ll be stuck with President Twitter Fingers for the next 21 months. Even after that election, we will be grappling with the effects of this administration. Our past is what it is, so we can embrace the lie that the next election will change everything and negate the damage of her predecessor or we can face the uncomfortable truth. As our politicians have shown us, lies are often more palatable than the truth.
I’m not qualified to tell you that you should let go of the hope that your past will be different. I don’t know where you’ve been or how your journey has shaped you. No one gets to make this decision but you. Letting go will not mean you suddenly stop hurting. It won’t mean you feel warm and fuzzy feelings for the one who violated you. It sure as hell won’t mean you are done being affected by your trauma.
I can’t tell you what it will mean for you. What it has meant for me, is that I’m lifting the siege on myself and embracing aspects of my identity I’ve long kept hidden. In this embrace, I experience a kind of release. The weight of expectation is slowly lifting. As I settle into the river of God, I’m free to be. That is enough in and of itself.
“Hold your truth loosely, and appreciate the journey.”
If I could go back in time, that is what I’d tell my 18-year-old self. I used to be certain of my religious beliefs. I took pride in how little my beliefs had changed and how dogged I was in my ideological consistency. I felt I needed to protect the truth against the onslaught of doubt from the secular culture.
What I didn’t know was that seeking the truth would actually mean blowing up my theology time and again. Though I have wanted to write about my spiritual journey for a while, I’ve struggled to condense twenty years of belief and doubt into a 1200 word blog. Rather than crafting a cohesive narrative, I’ve decided to share brief snapshots of my experience. These snapshots represent significant turning points in my journey.
Snapshot One: Heart-to-Heart
One Sunday morning, in the fall of ’97, I sat in the back of a gymnasium-turned-sanctuary. As the service concluded, those that wanted to receive Jesus as their savior were invited onto the stage. I remained in my seat because I had gone to the stage the week before and felt nothing. No profound encounter with God. No salvific vision of Jesus. Just a prayer on a stage in a dark gymnasium.
The pastor invited those of us still sitting to repeat the words of his prayer, and I obliged and repeating the prayer word for word just as I had a week before. As I said “Jesus come into my heart”, I felt a warm, tangible presence enter my chest. I sat there shocked, excited and a bit confused. It was as if God was saying ‘I hear you, and I’m with you’. That was my introduction to the Spirit.
I had no real theology or belief system in place. I hadn’t taken communion or been baptized. I just believed enough to ask God to meet me, and God did. Honeslty, I believe God still does. More on that later.
Snapshot Two: Weeping Prayer
I don’t know exactly how old I was, but I couldn’t have been older than 15. I was kneeling on the stairs of the altar during worship one Sunday and as I prayed, I was overcome with deep sorrow. As the weight of the sorrow condensed, my shoulders began to shake and tears flowed down my cheeks. I sobbed uncontrollably for what must have been 10-15 minutes.
At the time, I thought I was feeling God’s sorrow for the world. I imagined he had let me glimpse the depth of his grief for those that weren’t christians. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder if God actually allowed me to experience my own sorrow that day. Perhaps it felt so far removed from who I was that I didn’t recognize it, and rather than showing me what God felt for creation, God was trying to show me what needed to be seen and healed within myself.
Snapshot 3: The Deconstruction
I remember the day I started to doubt my interpretation of the Bible. I had just heard my professor explain that the stories of the patriarchs in Genesis were a compilation of various tribal origin stories rather than biographical accounts of specific people. This may not seem like a big deal, but to someone who understood scripture to be infallibel, inerrant and literal, it was earth-shattering.
My mind was blown as I considered the possibility that what I had been taught about the Bible was wrong. This small anectdote by my professor, motivated me to continue exploring the history of the chrisitan tradition, and the more I learned, the more disillusioned I became.
As I continued to wrestle with history, theology and the implications of my doubts, I prayed something that was both dangerous and prophetic.
“God I want to know the truth. Strip away every belief that is false and build me back up”.
Over the next four years layer after layer of my theology was examined, found lacking and discarded. By the spring of 2015, my theological house had been deconstructed and I was ready to declare myself an athiest.
Snapshot 4: God of Liberation
In the fall of 2016 for reasons unknown even to me, I entered seminary. Moreover, I was agnostic, yet for some inexplicable reason, I felt confident that was where I needed to be. As I began to take courses, read texts and dialogue with other students, I soon encountered a God more concerned with racism, homophobia and sexism than tithing, evangelism and premarital sex. I encountered a revolutionary teacher named Jesus who was neither white nor Christian. Most importantly, I was reintroduced to the Divine in ways that were logically consistent and personally meaningful.
One afternoon I found myself standing on a small rock, looking into the woods saying “God I don’t know if this is gonna work, and I may actually be talking to myself right now. But if you’re the God who came to set the oppresssed free and loose the bonds of wickedness, thats a God I can follow.”
Over the next two years I would rebuild my theology to the point where I had answers to the deepest questions one could ask about God. I thought I had constructed a belief system that was meaningful and logically consistent. Then, just as before, God showed up.
Snapshot 5: Angels at a Bar
The final semester of seminary was by far the most eventful for me, and it all started on a warm August night at a hotel bar. Hotel bars are underrated by the way. Free parking, comfy seats, smaller crowds, what isn’t to love? I digress. I was talking with my friends Kerry and TJ about the class we’d just finished. The conversation gradually shifted, as all convos with good friends do, and we were soon talking about our families and sharing personal stories. As my friend Kerry was talking, I felt a physical shift in the room.
I can’t really describe it except to say that I got the deep sense that I was experiencing time differently. More specifically, it seemed as though there was something present that existed outside of the space-time continuum…something eternal. As that was happenning, I also felt a deep, maternal love. It was a biological love that I hadn’t felt in a long time, but was somehow present in that moment. Needlesstosay I was freaked out at the specificity and intensity of what I was feeling.
I wondered if Kerry or TJ was feeling something similar, so I shared my thoughts with them. Outside of maybe some vague affirmation that I wasn’t the only one feeling something strange, I don’t know what I expected them to say or do, but this is what I received: “hmmm. I wasn’t gonna say anything, but there are spirits here and some of them are angels.”
Since I didn’t believe in angels, that explanation seemed far-fetched but I couldn’t doubt what I had experienced. Something had invaded my reality at that hotel bar, and I knew I had been changed. Over the next several weeks, I had more experiences, and I came to realize that God was forcefully expanding my paradigm.
It was as if God was saying “there is more that is true than what you can see.” I’m still putting the pieces together and learning what this means for me, but I do believe I was met by angels in that hotel bar, and that I needed to know they were there. My carefully thought out theology has been forcefully expanded, but I no longer feel the need for certainty.
These snapshots represent specific moments of my life. Between each are periods of self-doubt, intense criticism, crippling uncertainty and acute fear. No insight has come easy. I grew up believing the truth would set me free, and it has. What I didn’t know was that truth, and thus freedom, is discovered through pain. It is only known after deep uncertainty and can only be found by those willing to brave the darkness of their own souls.
As you’ve read through these snapshots, I hope you’ve gotten a sense of just how drastically my spirituality has changed over the last thirty years. Perhaps you too have deconstructed your belief system only to build it up again. Maybe you’ve just started asking uncomfortable questions, and you’re afraid of what comes next. Perhaps you’ve been told that you just need to believe, but no amount of clicking your heels together takes you back to Kansas.
Wherever you are, may you find the strength to press on. Seek the truth with courage and when you come face-to-face with darkness, step forward boldly. Above all else, hold your truth loosely and appreciate the journey.
The words lazily floated through my mind as I waited for the light to change. I was on my way home from a particularly intense counseling session, and as I sat at the stoplight, I lamented my perceived brokenness. Some counselling sessions leave me feeling happy and uplifted while others make me acutely aware of how much my trauma has shaped me. The more significant the trauma, the harder it is to heal. I’ve been trying to heal for two decades and sometimes I grow weary of the process and long for this faux state of being called normalcy.
I know that normal is as much a mythological construct as unicorns or Obama’s Kenyan birth certificate, but it is embedded in my psyche. Normal is an imagined state of being that allows me to get through a day without experiencing anxiety or depression. It is an unencumbered existence in which I can be in relationships without overthinking or putting up walls. This is what I imagine when I say I wish I were normal.
I know normal doesn’t exist, but I also know I’m not the only one who longs for it. Judging by my social media feeds, more than a few of you are carrying weights you shouldn’t have to and bearing scars you don’t deserve. Unfortunately for us, there is no easy button when it comes to personal healing. Instead we must do the hard, but beneficial work of being radically self-aware.
What is radical self-awareness? It is the practice of discovering your unique self which includes your defining values, core beliefs and innate characteristics. It allows you to see yourself as you are without pretense or expectation. To be radically self-aware is to be open to loving self-criticism, intentional self-evaluation and total self-acceptance.
How does one become radically self-aware? It starts with curiosity, patience and openness. Be curious about yourself. Take time throughout the day to check in and ask:
What am I feeling right now? Why is this important to me? What do I need?
Once you become comfortable with these questions, you might become aware of deeper wonderings that were previously hidden. Such as:
Where do I belong? Who are my people? Where does it hurt? (for more on this question, click the link)
Questions act as emotional seismographs that help key us into the shifting of our heart’s tectonic plates. As we allow our curiosity to develop, we begin to find answers that lead to more questions, and the string of Q&A continues until we find the root of the issue. Each time we are able to uncover the roots that lie deep within, we uncover a hidden piece of ourselves.
This work of asking questions and seeking answers requires patience. The process of self-awareness, like the President’s twitter account, can’t be controlled. Answers come when the time is right and we’re ready. All you can do is position yourself, hold the question and wait. Waiting when you want to be healing is incredibly difficult. I’ve felt frustration so intense it turned to despair, but the answers have always come. I’ve found that one reason for the delay has been my own lack of openness.
Openness completes the trinity of radical self-awareness. When I think of openness, I think of the soil beneath a maple tree. Not every helicopter seed that haphazardly cascades from the tree branch to the ground takes hold and sprouts, but a select few do. That is how openness should function within this context. Every Tom, Tricky Dick, and Harry will have opinions on what you need to do, so you’ll be bombarded with seeds. However, the seeds you need to receive and let take root are those that come from your inner circle.
They offer seeds of perspective, challenge and insight that can lead to breakthroughs. Some of my most fruitful conversations have been with friends, mentors or counselors who have pushed and challenged my way of thinking. If I’m honest, I will tell you that my ego hasn’t always allowed me to receive what they’ve offerred, but when I have, I’ve been grateful.
Though I have moments when I long for normalcy, they are few and far between. It is natural to grow “weary of doing good” as the scripture says. Healing is hard work, and those of us tasked with it don’t get to take days off. Wherever you find yourself on your own journey of restoration, may you remain curious, patient and open. I don’t expect that I’ll ever be healed, but I’ll always be healing. I hope the same for you. Be radical!
It feels like this week has lasted forever, so I’m going to compensate by keeping this blog post short. You’re welcome :). I’ve now written twelve blog posts and each one has forced me to dig deeper into myself. In doing so, I’ve uncovered beliefs that had gone previously undetected: aka “invisible truths”. It takes a while for these truths to present themselves, but I’m usually tipped off to their existence by the presence of a strong emotion like anxiety or fear.
That was the case this week as I reflected upon the comments some readers left on earlier blog posts. As I read through them, I noticed a tide of uneasiness and fear roll through me. It was triggerred whenever someone expressed sympathy, regret or sadness over parts of my story. There is nothing wrong with any of those expressions, yet they caused a strong reaction within me.
“Ben why would sympathy make you feel anxious?”
I’m glad you asked. As I began tracing my fear back, I noticed that it had to do with feelings of weakness. Whenever someone commented and expressed sympathy, I immediately wondered if they perceived my post as a cry for help. Again, seeking help isn’t a bad thing, so I sensed there was still some deeper messaging operating for me. As I continued to trace these emotions, I realized that on some subconscious level, I associate seeking out help with weakness.
“Gasp! Say it ain’t so Ben!”
I know…I know. I hate to admit it, but it’s true. Whenever I’m struggling with and contemplate reaching out to people, this small but persistent voice in my head tells me that I should suck it up and handle it myself. It tells me I’m weak if I show my pain, and I’ll look pathetic if I ask for help. Deeper still, this voice is the guardian of two embedded beliefs that I’ve yet to uproot:
People will fail me.
Emotions are to be overcome, not indulged.
If you know me at all or have read any of my writing, neither of those will surprise you. I learned early on that people are unreliable. My step-dad and biological mom reinforced this lesson through years of neglect and abuse. This truth set in most deeply when my bio mom lost custody of us. She was the one constant in my life and once she was gone, I recognized that not only could people fail, but they could leave as well. This meant that if I depended upon anyone but myself, I ran the risk of being let down, disappointed or abandonded.
While my adoptive family helped me heal in many ways, there was one aspect of the family system which reinforced my emotional protectionism. Our unofficial family motto was “life sucks, move on”. Meaning you’ll have bad moments and days, but you can’t let them keep you down. Suck it up, and keep moving because there’s no time to wallow. While there is something to be said for grit, I don’t think this attitude placed enough emphasis on recognizing or exploring our emotions. This mindset strengthened my understanding of my feelings as obstacles to my goals rather than guides on my journey.
As a result, I tried my best not to rely on people and I suppressed my emotions. I built emotional walls so high they would make Donald Trump jealous. I had periods where I would see a counselor or occassionally talk to my parents about something that was deeply affecting me, but by and large I kept everything bottled up. It wasn’t until high school that I began loosening the lid on that bottle.
Despite nearly 15 years of work tearing down my walls and unerthing buried emotion, I still find those same lies influencing my thoughts. Here I am writing a blog about authenticity, and I still fear vulnerability on some deep level. While it won’t be easy, I’ve decided that its time to establish new embedded beliefs. If you also put up emotional walls or bury your feelings, you may find these new affirmations helpful as well.
People will fail me. I am worthy of love and support. Emotions are to be overcome, not indulged. Emotions are to be explored and accepted.
These two simple statements help me challenge the negative thinking that can cloud my judgement and pull me into destructive patterns. They seem fairly basic, but if I’m being honest, I still struggle to accept them, and I suspect I’m not alone in that. However, If I am indeed worthy of love and support then I need to seek out and accept both when they are offerred to me by people I trust. If my emotions need to be explored and accepted, I must create the time and space to do that work by myself and with the help of others. In short, if I’m living out both of these beliefs, I will actively ask for help.
My committment this week is to be more intentional about asking for what I need. As you move through this next week, I hope you do the same. The people you reach out to may feel honored that you trust them enough to ask, and you may feel encouraged that they care enough to help. By the way, “helping” doesn’t mean fixing the problem. It can be as simple as listening or even sitting in silence with someone. When in doubt, favor being over doing.
This blog has helped me continue the work of radical self-awareness which I believe is part of my purpose. I hope you’re getting as much from it as I am. Keep those comments coming my way because they’re clearly teaching me something. 🙂
It’s your Darkness. I read your letter, and I have a lot to say. It has been a long time since we’ve really connected. Maybe too long. I realize that you have no idea why I’ve been trying to get your attention all these years, so let me set the record straight.
I may be the “darkness that has yet to brighten and the weight that has yet to lighten,” but that’s because you’ve been unwilling to face me until now. I’m not here to cripple your motivation or suffocate your desire. I take no pleasure in draining you of your joy or affecting your relationships. In fact, quite the opposite. What I need you to understand is that, believe it or not, I’m here to help you. You need help remembering what you’ve hidden.
I know you move through life feeling as though something deep within you is fractured or broken. You’ve secretly hoped for some diagnosis that would help you make sense of the ways you feel different than most. All the while you’ve run from the depression that has been with you for as long as you can remember. You’ve sought to avoid the darkness within hoping to outrun it, but you can’t. You can’t outrun it. You can’t outrun me because I’m part of you.
I have to give you credit though. Your will power is incredible. How you’ve managed to maintain this façade of being calm, cool and collected is beyond my comprehension. Every time I’ve tried to get you to slow down long enough to see me, you’ve found a new distraction to divert your attention elsewhere. Luckily, it seems as though God has finally decided you’ve run long enough and now that you’ve stopped moving so quickly, I can say what I’ve been trying to tell you for over twenty years. Except I can’t just say it. I need you to see it and feel it.
I need you to think back to the time your stepdad hit you for saying a curse word. Do you remember that? You’re standing in a motel room, at the edge of the bed furthest from the door. Your siblings are off to your right and for some reason, your stepdad thinks he hears you cuss. Despite your objections, he is convinced of your guilt and storms over to enact his heavy-handed discipline. As his hand makes contact with your pre-pubescent face, you feel the sudden sting followed by a searing heat on your cheek. Tears fill your eyes and as you prepare for the next blow, you notice a more subtle heat ignite in your chest.
It is a small, but familiar flame. You stand there defenseless, embarrassed and afraid, but there is another emotion. One that burns deeper than the others because it never completely goes away. It’s as if by hitting you he somehow reminds you of every bruise he’s inflicted, every tear he’s caused and every ounce of fear he’s made you, your siblings or your mother feel. As you traverse this continuum of abuse, you notice the flame within grow into an inferno that begs to be unleashed, so that it can consume the man who has stoked its flames for so long, but you’re too small and he’s too strong. Any altercation could result in more pain or even death, so your survival instincts suppress the fire within.
Do you remember that fire?
That fire is your anger and aggression. You once felt it frequently, but you realized it could be dangerous, so you buried it. I’m here to help you remember that you’re angry. Incredibly, justifiably, consistently angry for so many reasons. But your anger isn’t here alone. It is accompanied by the grief you’ve buried with it. Do you remember what your grief feels like?
I need you to remember. Look back in your mind’s eye and see one evening in particular. You’re in foster care now and your foster mom is getting ready to tuck you into bed. As you lay there waiting for her to kiss you goodnight, your thoughts drift to your previous life. You focus on the person you were closest to. The person you loved most. The person who left. You’re thinking of your biological mom, and as you wonder where she is or if she’s going to come back, you become aware of a dull, throbbing ache in your chest. The pain isn’t physical, but it feels tangible and real, as if there is a literal hole where your heart once was.
You describe this hole to your foster mom who hugs you and lovingly tells you that she understands. You know you should be grateful that you have a safe place to stay and a family that loves you, but you can’t stop missing your mom. She’s your best friend, and now she’s gone. The aching void within you that feels as deep and cold as the pacific is your grief Ben. You have a lot to grieve. More than you’re even aware of.
Your anger and grief have been waiting to be acknowledged. When they couldn’t get your attention, they summoned me. Think of me as the bat-signal of your most uncomfortable emotions. I’m here to help you remember that you’re angry because you lost a large chunk of your childhood.
I’m here so you remember that you grieve because you’ve always carried burdens you weren’t meant to hold.
You’re angry that your parents didn’t protect you when they should have.
You grieve the loss of security, joy and comfort.
You’re angry that you couldn’t defend yourself against the abuse.
You grieve all that was taken from you with each act of emotional and physical violence.
You’re angry that you never had the chance to confront your step-dad once you were big enough to defend yourself. Death robbed you of that vindication.
There is so much more that stokes the flames of your anger and causes the seas of your grief to churn. There is more for you to remember. You’ve judged your grief and anger as too dangerous to explore, and no one is blaming you for that, but now it’s time to investigate your darkness.
While we’re talking, I should let you know that it isn’t just anger and grief that you’ve tucked away. In suppressing them, you’ve suppressed yourself. You aren’t broken, but you’ve shut off key parts of your identity. Your sexuality and sense of intimacy have suffered and in ways been distorted. So I’ve come to help you restore your balance. You are strong enough to feel the flames of your anger and the waves of your depression without being consumed or consuming others. Behind the smoke and mist, YOU are waiting.
You’ve been searching for your deepest truths, but they cannot be known apart from your darkest emotions. Your anger and grief are informative, healthy and cleansing. Both possess the capabilities to be restorative or destructive, but balanced they lead to regeneration.
I guess what I really want is the chance to reintroduce myself. Yes I am your darkness. Yes I can feel all-encompassing, insatiable and persistent, but I have a purpose and you need to feel me. I’m here to help you see yourself, your whole self. I’m here to reintroduce you to anger and grief. Your anger won’t destroy the people you love and your grief won’t swallow you whole. You are strong enough, and have enough support around you to experience them and still be healthy.
Most importantly, I’m here to remind you that you aren’t broken. You’re just missing the hidden parts of yourself, and you feel incomplete. Love me or hate me, it doesn’t really matter. I am your darkness, and believe it or not, I’m here to help. Some days this will feel like the hardest thing you’ve ever done, but know that those days are only part of your story.
Now that you know who I am and why I’m here, what you do next is entirely up to you. Suppress me, run from me, pretend we’ve never met and that you aren’t angry or grieving…it’s your call. Know that I can’t leave until my work is done. If you’re willing to accept my invitation, you’ll find what you’ve been searching for. Your move.
On Tuesday, Republican members of the Indiana Senate stripped protected categories such as race, sexual orientation, and gender identity from proposed hate crimes legislation. This caused a backlash from people across the political aisle who derided the move as a step in the wrong direction including Republican Governor Eric Holcomb.
My feelings on hate-crime laws are complicated, but at best I seem them as a symbolic gesture that signals some level of desire to deter violence against marginalized people groups. Which is a good thing, but that is also what makes the actions of our state legislature so frustrating. We can’t even get a symbolic gesture right. (If you want to know more about the law, and why I feel conflicted, check out the work of Elle Roberts. She does a deep dive into the complexities of this issue).
Days like Tuesday make me feel as though the world will never be right. I know people are working hard to improve their communities and protect those who are disadvantaged, but due to gerrymandering and supermajorities, common sense is often sacrificed at the altar of privilege, power, and prejudice.
As much as I believe change is possible, the climb up the mountain feels overwhelming. Its easier to bury my head in the sand and focus on my own problems. I have family members with health issues, student loan payments that seem unsustainable and a career that I can’t quite get a handle on. With the little space I have, I just want to zone out and binge The Office when I go home.
Y’all been there?
Checking out feels like a natural reaction to the fires that are perpetually burning, but when I stick my head in the sand, I feel that slow creep of guilt permeate my reality. My guilt is fueled by the fear that I’m not walking my talk. I speak and write about social justice, but if I’m not backing that up with action, I’m just another talking head. Fear of my own hypocrisy is a powerful motivator. I would love to pretend my motives are always altruistic, but they aren’t. Regardless, I oscillate between involvement and disconnection. One such cycle played out last spring.
I joined a group of people who were supporting a young woman named Erika Fierro. Erika moved to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Beech Grove. She got married, had two children and became an active member of her church community. Early last year, her husband was pulled over and detained on his way to work. After a couple months in a detention center in Chicago, he was deported to Mexico. ICE then targeted Erika and placed an ankle monitor on her. She was ordered to check in once a month knowing that every time she walked into the ICE office, she could be deported.
In support of Erika, Faith in Indiana organized a group of people to come alongside her. Press conferences were held, local clergy were involved and people were present at every check-in. To make a long story short, Erika “voluntarily” left the country in order to keep her family together. Despite the media coverage, the community support, and our constant presence at each of Erika’s check-ins, the forces of division and racism successfully upended Erika and her family. We lost that fight.
I knew that was a possibility, but seeing all of the attention and support that Erika received gave me hope that we could make a difference. Even if it was just for one family, in one city, I thought we could change the outcome. This wasn’t a story I saw on Facebook. This was a real woman who hugged each of us every time we showed up. This was a mom who worried about what would happen to her children if she were detained. This was a wife who missed her husband and suddenly had to hold a household together by herself.
At first, I was angry that this was happening to her, but by the third check-in, I just wanted to cry. I cried for her children who were suddenly without their father. I cried for her husband who was ripped away from his family. I cried for Erika who carried the grief of what she’d lost and the fear of what else might be taken from her.
You can imagine how deflating it felt to learn that despite our best efforts, our prayers, presence and tears, Erika’s family was forced from their home. Knowing they might never return.
That loss left me feeling uncertain and hopeless. Much like many of us felt as we watched the 2016 election results roll in. This may sound short-sighted and immature, but for a second I wondered what the point of it all was. If we can’t even keep one family from being uprooted, what hope is there to stop any injustice? I tucked the question away but didn’t address it until last week when an unexpected teacher helped me make room for hope again.
Brooke and I were driving home from our counseling session, and we saw a dog roaming the neighborhood. He looked friendly and a little lost so we coaxed him into our car and took him home. He had no collar or microchip, which meant we had no way of knowing who he belonged to.
We snapped a picture and placed it on a lost pet website hoping that whoever was looking for him would call. Unfortunately, no one was looking, so I made plans to take him to animal care and control in the morning. It only took one night for this little guy and me to become attached. He loved cuddling and had no limit to the amount of affection he wanted to receive. It was as if he was just grateful to not be alone.
Thursday morning came around and as the time drew near for me to take him to the shelter, I began to imagine him sitting in a cage crying hour after hour, and I started feeling guilty. I knew we couldn’t keep him for a variety of reasons, but I didn’t know what would happen once I dropped him off. How could I, in good conscience, turn my back on this little guy? If you’re not a pet person, you may not understand my dilemma, but anyone who has a dog knows how easy they are to love. As my regret and disappointment crested, I suddenly felt the familiar whisper of intuition, spirit or both and it said:
“Do what you can then let go.”
Translation: you aren’t his savior. Play your role and play it well. Easy to hear, harder to practice, but it was exactly what I needed. I get so caught up in my own ego-driven savior complex that I forget I don’t have to move heaven and earth every day. Once I accepted that humble truth, my perspective changed.
As I sat in my living room, petting Zeus (as he’d later come to be named), I recognized that what I could do is love him and ensure he got somewhere that could take care of him until he found his forever home. That was my role, and I would do it well; trusting that those after me would do the same.
As you consider doing what you can then letting go, what comes to mind? Is there something you’re putting off because it feels too overwhelming?
Maybe you feel the call to make a major life change like becoming a foster parent or joining the Peace Corps. Perhaps it is less drastic like getting arrested at a protest or becoming vegan. Whatever it is, take the first step. We don’t have to fix everything or solve all the problems in order to make a difference. Crazy right?
We can bring healing, salvation, and transformation into the world moment by moment with each decision we make whether monumental or mundane. We don’t have to see the whole picture or know what happens after we play our part. Minute by minute, and day by day, we create lasting change as we do what we can then let go.
I have little hope that Indiana will adopt meaningful hate crime legislation, but true change is not dependent upon state legislatures. If it were, I still wouldn’t be able to vote. True change happens when we accept our limitations, relinquish the illusion of control and do what we can. That is all we have to do. Sometimes what we can do feels like a lot, and other times it doesn’t. Each moment will reveal what is required of you if you pay attention.
Where do you hear the invitation to do what you can then let go today?
P.S. The pup we picked up ended up being adopted by my sister, so he’s getting all the love he deserves.