The first time I sensed death, I watched my younger sister gasp for air, her small hands clutching at my step-father’s fingers trying desperately to pull them from her throat. I stood maybe 5 feet away in complete and total shock. My mind screamed at me to do something to stop him, but every muscle in my body remained frozen. I screamed, yet no sound came. I was so overcome by horror that I couldn’t move or speak. Time stood still as the moments stretched into eternity. After what seemed like years, but was only a few seconds my mom intervened and saved my sister’s life.
Death passed us by, but it’s grandchild, terror, did not. I still feel the intensity of that fear in my muscles. My vocal chords instinctively tighten as those frantic seconds play again and again in my mind. Just as my feet were frozen to the floor, that moment is forever frozen into my being. I can barely fathom how my sister carries that trauma within her. While most children my age were imagining what they wanted to be when they grew up, I only hoped to keep my siblings and I alive.
I knew nothing of shooting for the moon or landing among the stars. The notion of a greater purpose wasn’t even a dream for me. It was nonexistant. In its place stood the need to survive. Traumatic moments have a way of stickign with us because trauma is embodied so that even if our memories fade, our bodies never forget what we’ve gone through. I’ve coped with this living trauma by disconnecting from my emotions and as well as body.
In some ways, this disconnection was my way of trying to outrun the pain, doubt and lingering fear. Sadly I’ve only managed to outrun myself, and my purpose. When I say purpose, I don’t mean a future goal or an Avengers-esque drama. Google describes it as (I’m a Millennial, of course I googled it) “the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists”, and I trust Google.
I can’t possibly live into my reason for being until I more deeply live into myself. Which means that my purpose is present. The reason I exist is not found next year, but rather within my next breath. It is found within me, right here and right now.
Purpose is found within the truths I don’t want to admit to myself or anyone else. Truths like, I often don’t feel good enough. I relish the attention I receive from people who find me charming, charismatic or attractive because it validates a part of me that I struggle to name as worthy. Worse still, I somehow move through life feeling both confident and completely inadequate. How can that be? I’m not sure, but I think we all hold dissonant truths within ourselves.
Something about facing these uncomfortable, embarrassing or even shameful truths decongests our intuitive centers and allows us to feel, know and sense more deeply. When I name my truths, I feel as though I’m peeling back a layer of my false self and inching towards the truest essence of who I actually am. I’m removing the face paint one layer at a time, so that I can see and be seen in the most genuine way possible. As I do so, I feel the release occur. It is terrifying as it is happenning, but I never regret facing the truth. It really can set us free if we are open to hearing it.
Trauma blinds us to the truth, limits our ability to dream and conceals our most authentic purpose. However, purpose is both present and persistent, always waiting for us right here and right now. We can only access it by remaining present and facing the messy truths we desperately want to ignore.
What internal truth stands between you and your present purpose this week?
P.S. Last week I ended my blog post by referencing someone who called me out for saying things that didn’t align with my feminism. This week, another friend of mine informed me that though I appear confident, fear and insecurity still affect me to the point that they even hinder my writing. As a result, I’ve tried to be mindful of the moments in which I most notice my insecurity and fear take charge.
“You’re wasting your time. Push yourself! You’re suppossed to be uncomfortable!“
The voice is so subtle, I almost forget its there, but steadily it pushes me harder, further and faster. Not to be confused with “higher, further, faster” from Captain Marvel. The voice echoes in my mind like a drill sergeant telling me to ignore my body, focus and push past my limits. While that push is useful from time to time, it isn’t meant to ring out during each and every run. Yet for me, it does.
Moreover, the drill sergeant doesn’t just ask that I try harder. When I come up short, and I often do, he is there to berate me as well. Criticism my effort, dedication and intention. This is the voice I contend with on a daily basis
The self-criticism isn’t limited to my workouts either. I hear the judgment in my relationships, at work and even when I’m relaxing. In fact, sometimes I feel guilty for relaxing because I imagine everything I could be doing instead. If I’m not careful, the constant judgment allows shame to seep into my consciousness, coating every thought and infecting every emotion as I’m left wondering:
What is wrong with me?
The answer seems obvious: I’m not enough. Not strong enough, disciplined enough, tough enough, etc…My inadequacies continue to play in my mind on shuffle. Every time I make a mistake, real or perceived, the aforementioned question rings out and unleashes as a flash flood of guilt which cascades into the deepest, most vulnerable parts of my being.
For example: I was speaking with someone close to me about my own struggles with the parts of myself that demand perfection and restraint and the parts that demand freedom and enjoyment. Seemingly out of nowhere they offerred up this nugget of truth.
“I think there has to be a balance. For instance, you go too far sometimes in your quest for freedom. In fact, you even sound like a pig on occassion. I don’t think people want to tell you that, so no one brings it up, but I’ve seen it. You can be pigish (objectifying or demeaning to women).”
I sat there dumbfounded and embarrassed. My first reaction was defensive. Then confused because it felt off-topic, but I slowly realized that I trust this person, so if they’re telling me this, its likely true. As this dawned on me, my inner dialogue turned negative. “I’m such a hypocrite. Can I even call myself a feminist anymore? I bet a lot of people think I’m two-faced. I talk about feminism and mansplain, but when it comes down to it, I’m no better than anyone else.”
I was definitely shaken. For better or worse, the opinions of people, particularly those close to me still matter a lot. So as I imagined all of the people who might also think I act pigish, I felt deeply ashamed.
If that conversation had occurred a year ago, I would’ve been imprisoned by my own self-talk. My mind would have continued to highlight every failure as evidence that I’m broken, flawed and not good enough.
Fortunately that conversation didn’t happen a year ago. It happenned this week. Even more fortunate for me is the fact that two days beforehand, I heard another voice that challenged the drill sergeant.
I was five minutes into my run on Monday when I started to become concerned with my pace. I pushed myself to move faster as my lungs heaved to keep up with the demand I was placing on them. Just as the drill sergeant was starting to demand even more from me, another voice broke through the noise and offerred a soothing admonition.
“Run the run you can.”
The words settled on me like an aloe vera salve for the soul and I soon settled into a rhythm that felt more comfortable. In doing so, I not only reconnected with my body, but I accepted what it was telling me. Rather than the rush of shame and frustration, I felt a gentle peace wash over me. I was hearing the voice of my inner coach.
In fact, the first time I heard the phrase ‘run the run you can’ was from Coach Bennett on the Nike Run Club App. He often starts runs with this gentle admonition. It is a reminder to let go of expectations, pay attention to your body and accept how you’re feeling. While this is great advice for athletes, it is also great advice for life.
That simple phrase is my invitation to be gentle with myself and receive the grace I so readily offer everyone else. In an ideal world, I’d be a perfect feminist ally who never said or did anything offensive. Unfortunately this isn’t a perfect world, so I can fixate on all I should have done or acknowledge my mistake and move forward with what I can do.
So when I was told that I sometimes come off as pigish, I accepted that truth, then offered myself grace. I didn’t spend the evening trying to remember everything I’ve ever said that could have been offensive. I didn’t berate myself or question my feminist credentials. I accepted my mistake, took a few breaths, and let go with the intention to be more aware so that I don’t repeat the same harmful errors.
As you contemplate the places in your life where you most often hear the inner critic, where do you need to accept and let go? These questions may be helpful for you to reflect upon.
What expectations do you need to let go of for yourself, your situation or your relationships? Discontentment is often the result of our refusal to let go of the expectations we hold. You have permission to discard harmful or toxic expectations, so be honest about what needs to fall away.
When was the last time you paid attention to your body? Remember that attention=intention+time.
Which feelings are you unwilling to accept? Our emotions have a lot to teach us, but we can’t learn if we silence them.
If you’ve ever felt the rush of shame from your inner critic, you’re familiar with the voice that works diligently to magnify your inadequacies and highlight your shortcomings. Remember that another voice is also present, inviting you to give yourself grace.
We can’t always run the run we want to, but we most definitely have everything we need to run the run we can. Let that guide you as you journey this week.
P.S. To the person who called me out this week, thank you. One of the most underrated verses in all of scripture is Provers 27:6. I use the NIV translation because it is the first I learned. “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but the enemy multiplies kisses.” True friends call you out in love.
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. 🙂