The Toxicity of Toxic Language

When “Toxic” becomes Toxic

Here’s the thing about “toxic” relationships: it’s not always restricted to one person being *the* “toxic” person that needs to be excised from the group or broken off with. Though, this is commonly what is conveyed in the dialogue of aftermath of relational split: “that person was toxic; so glad that person is gone. Now, we/I can go on being/becoming more healthy.” While I don’t have a very high anthropology (meaning: I still question the inherent goodness of human beings but not the inherent dignity; plus, I’m a Luther theologian, it comes with the terrain), I still believe that *anyone* can be “toxic” in *any* given situation. It’s the mix of personalities in their potential for toxicity. Potential for toxicity can be other wise dubbed as the beloved and oft used term: “brokenness.” However, in common parlance, it’s not just “brokenness” (because general brokenness is acceptable for the most part), “toxicity” is like the dark underbelly of “brokenness,” the thing that is the deal breaker and can’t ever be tolerated by anyone. Thus, people who have otherwise standard issues and problems and “brokenness,” get labeled as “toxic” and should be avoided at all costs because they bring “toxicity” to everything. They’re essentially and inherently harbingers of poison to every relationship they touch; they’ve been ontologically defined as poisonous.

(Side note, I’d like to argue that it is better to render “brokenness” as “bentness” in order to adhere to the inherent dignity of human beings. “Brokenness” can indicate being useless and worthy of being trashed; all human beings are never ever, never ever of that category.)

“Toxic” is the new “co-dependent.” One of the problems of the language of toxicity becoming so popular is that it has lost its actual definition and impact (there are legitimately toxic people, things, and places in our lives). It has become easier to label someone as “toxic” because they are causing us *any* discomfort. Also, It has become all the rage to label someone, some-place, something as “toxic,” in order to scapegoat our own problems on to someone else, some-place else, or something else. It’s easier to just cut someone, some-place, something out of your life, rather than take a long hard look in the mirror and realize you are fucking up your own life. (I say this as someone who was caught too long in “toxic” this-and-that language and finally had to come to terms that *I* was (me and my trauma narrative) more of the problem than any other person, place, or thing.) Rather than knee-jerk reacting and labeling someone, some-place, or something as “toxic,” it might be worth slowing the roll and asking: why is this causing this reaction in me? Therein answers lie.

Another problem is, from my perspective, we all carry within ourselves potential for acting caustically[1] toward others; our potential for this activity can be actualized by other people acting out of their issues and trauma (and vice versa). Also, our caustic behavior can be actualized by another person’s otherwise normal personality traits because we’ve had some sort of trauma associated with those traits even if they’d never be considered categorically “problematic” by any professional. It’s rarely the fact that only one person is the “toxic” source, but rather the mix of personality traits we have that conform and collide with others. Conformity with others creates a wonderful sense of peace and acceptance, but this does not mean collision is out of the question nor does it mean that when collision occurs it’s a deal breaker and the other person is now “toxic.” Collision occurs as conformity becomes bedrock in a relationship. When the honeymoon of a new relationship wears off, it’s then where we start to see how different we are from each other and also the potential for triggering and being triggered. (And I am not speaking of small things like a disagreement and miscommunications that run standard in any relationship. Rather, I speak of the big collisions, the ones that demand terms like forgiving and forgetting.)

When collision happens, it’s a time for introspection and dialogue. The normal and healthy response in situations where collision has occurred—in any way—is: discussion, both interpersonal (what happened and what can we do together to grow and move forward with our relationship (if possible)?) and intrapersonal (why did this action trigger this response in me?). Granted not all relationships are or need to be carried forward, some are mutually too caustic (as a whole) to be continued; not because one person is inherently “toxic,” but because the unit doesn’t work and we are both mutually bad for each other because we trigger each other, you trigger me, or I trigger you. None of us wants to be in relationship that is primarily collision and strife. None of us want to be causing the caustic reaction. (I’m a firm believer that not all personality types should be anything more than cordial acquaintances because the relational scales tip too much in favor of the potential for collision and triggering.) Often times, though, a good conversation will allow for light to be shed on issues that either or both people in the relationship were blind to, where acceptance of your own and the other person’s contribution to the issue can be owned, and create the space for solutions to move forward to be implanted and embraced.

We have used and abused the word “toxic” in all its forms, and the results prove disastrous. We are all bent, traumatized individuals making our way through this journey of life. Even the most integrated of us still has plenty to work on and will continue to aggravate, frustrate, and bother other wanderers. The most we can do is admit our own weaknesses, realize when those weaknesses are not beneficial to others, and realize where we can and need to become strong.

Something that I loved learning about when I started studying Luther and his conception of justification and the proclamation of the Gospel, was not that he let me off the hook of the law of God, but that he put me on it. Far from being a therapeutic hedonist, Luther has a high view of the law both as it plays into the believer’s relationship before God and in the believer’s life. No, sin boldly isn’t the same as: you do you as you please at whatever expense and at whomever’s expense. It’s about the reality that you are, by encounter with God in the event of faith, right before God, that this event-encounter is not born of your particular activity but does have significant bearing on your present activity. Luther’s dialectic of law and gospel and the need for the good theologian to be able to distinguish between the two is never about being given the license to avoid the law at all costs and to reject all people and things and words that give off even the hint of personal discomfort and conviction to us. Rather, it’s always about being able to really *see* with our own eyes what is the law and what is the gospel, what brings death and what brings life, and to act accordingly—not to avoid it but to enter into the event, to be encountered there in by God and God’s grace.

Sometimes, we must enter into the death present and terrifying in relational collision (to face it head on, eye to eye, word to word) in order to be brought into something so much more beautiful and alive than it could ever be if we had sidestepped the entire problem in the name of comfort. I will be more alive, you will be more alive, and even the relationship (either sustained or terminated) will be life giving (even if there is grief and pain as a result of termination). With God all things are possible, even abundant life out of what feels like and looks like certain death.

 

[1] I like “caustic” rather than “toxic” because there is an allusion to a chemical reaction, neither chemical is bad in it’s own state, but when combined the reaction is bad.

“Here, I live”: a birthday reflection

Birthdays can cause us to take that self-reflective pause in which we examine our lives. In that pause, we take stock of what’s happened over the course of the past twelve months. We are like late night Netflix addicts, rewatching all those life episodes to which we already know all the lines and all the outcomes. We watch and (maybe) relive the great moments, the heart-stopping moments, the difficult moments, and even the moments where we thought our worlds were going to explode and implode at the same time….but didn’t.

We hear Birthday’s haunting and incessant questions: are you where you want to be? Are you where you thought you would be? Are you who you want to be? Who you’d thought you’d be? Are you happy with who and where you are? Birthdays aren’t very good at having their questions ignored; most of us will at least whisper some response, and we all know silence is itself an answer and rarely a positive one.

This past year, I’ve had some tremendous ups and some tremendous downs. But those specific events (the ones replaying in my head as I review this past year) will not be the substance of this post. The details of the events–at this point–mean very little to me because they’re dead and gone. The totality of those details, the mega-form they took, what as a whole they left me *is* what matters. In my opinion, what has remained with me in the aftermath of those events is more important than merely the petty details of this thing or that, of the he said-she said, of what went up or down. Because it’s in this aftermath where I looked at what I had and built from there. (We never really start over from scratch, we always build from what we’ve learned.)

From the very wonderful, amazing, heart-stopping, I-Can’t-believe-this-is-happening-right-now events to the dreadful, horrible, gut-wrenching, I-Don’t-see-how-I’ll-ever-make-it-through-this events, what has remained with me, over and over and over again is: life. In every way that word can be used type of life. Because no matter how much my knees knocked because of nerves or my stomach churned because of emotional turmoil, I kept stepping forward. And each and everyone of those steps drilled home the reality that I am very much alive.

I don’t credit myself with this aliveness, though I’m aware that I did play both an unconscious and conscious role in the process of stepping. (Some synapses have to be firing intentionally for a mind and body to engage in the act of stepping in a specific direction.) I do give some credit to really neat friends who refused to let me keep rehearsing the same lines of my favorite trauma script…even when it’s all I wanted to do. They used their words to turn my head in the right direction and urged me forward and not backward. Mostly, if not entirely, I give credit for this aliveness to my daily encounter with God in the event of faith. Because it’s here, in this encounter where I’m brought face to face with God, where I am wrenched from and out of a world that demands my allegiance and obedience and has me scrambling for some modicum amount of control, stripped of all that I *think* I am and of all that I let control and define me, and made painfully aware that there is no other way to embrace the future but through my pained confession that I do not know what comes.

All I know in this event encounter is God (all other knowledge, presuppositions, ideas, and conceptions have been exposed and burnt up by the friction of this encounter). And this knowledge, this face to face encounter undoes me completely, renders me to dust, brings me into crisis with everything around me. It’s in the crisis where the crucible is formed and my faith made to be as pure as gold; for in the tension I’ve nothing but what faith will locate itself in and that is God. Thus, all I can know is God, I cannot stand on my own here, and it brings me to death. Here, I die.

But yet even though I die, it is not merely unto death or to indulge the wicked intentions of a sadistic god. The God I believe in is the God of love and life, mercy and peace, humility and justice and in abundance. What has been proclaimed to me, shown to me, made known to me in the word and wisdom of God–the proclamation of Christ crucified–is that the activity of God moves from death to life, life in the here and now in vibrant, remarkable, awe-inspiring ways. Life out of death is resurrection.  My feet are (daily) planted firmly in this wholly other God on whom and in whom I am wholly dependent and that is life and life abundant; I’m alive. Here, I live.

What has proven itself time and time again over the past 365 days is: it’s in this event-encounter with God that I am made and caused and given the strength to stand and withstand the events (good or bad) that have come my way and will come my way because I am not dependent on the outcome (good or bad) or on myself. My dependence is on and in God alone by faith alone by grace alone. These events that happened to me only pushed me into a deeper dependence on God, which resulted in resilience, confidence, and strength that define me today. It is in and has been in the good and bad events of my small and short yet large and long life where I have experienced God in God’s self-disclosure as, “…Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…” (Is. 9:6).

Thus, I’ll close by answering Birthday’s questions early in the day:

Am I where I want to be? Yes. The view from where I am is wonderful

Am I where I thought I would be? No. I could only have have hoped to be here.

Am I who I want to be? Yes, and there’s still room for more improvement.

Am I Who I’d thought I’d be? No. I don’t think I had the wits to see her coming.

Am I happy with who and where I am? Yes. 100%, yes.

 

The Greater Than Great Mute of 2018

I spent the month of April without any cis-het, white, male voices in my Twitter timeline. What follows are my observations.

(Background: Last year–for about a week plus a few days–I muted all my cis-het, white, male Twitter friends. Why did I do it? Well, because I wanted to see what would happen to my timeline and my anxiety. (Minimizing the number of voices I was being exposed to, did help my anxiety, btw.) I didn’t get an opportunity to write anything about the experience because life got away from me. So, this year, as Sexual Assault Awareness Month (#SAAM) rolled around this year (April), I decided I’d do the mute again, but this time for a month (for the entire month of April). And this time I was going to document what I noticed about myself and my timeline. I chose cis-het, white, men to silence again because, in my own life, those are the voices that have been the most violent–specifically my most traumatic assault was accompanied by a cis-het, white, male, voice threatening my life and calling me a host of horrible names. What I couldn’t control then, I controlled now. Was it some sort of technological, intellectual retribution? Maybe. I hope not, but the subconscious is a powerful function. With that said, let me proceed to what I noticed…and none of what I’m saying below should be applied universally; as in: this may not be what you would experience. This is strictly my experience.)

  1.  First, some data points that are interesting: at the time of the mute, I was following 526 accounts. 245 of them were muted. That’s almost half of my follows. Which says a lot about who I follow.
  2.  The very first and most substantial thing that I noticed about my timeline was that by nearly halving the voices behind the accounts I follow it became significantly calmer. Makes sense. Cut out half the noise, things are quieter and calmer. There’s nothing earth-shattering about this fact.
  3. However, what is interesting is that my timeline also had a significant dearth of theological discussions. This dearth contributed to the relatively quiet timeline. As the mute went, so did my exposure to heavy, charged, theological discussions. Now, mind you, it’s not that I didn’t see theology floating about, it’s that it was relatively calm: tweets about scripture and theology, some engagement in reply, but in general it was nothing but a thing. The heat in *my* timeline comes from my cis-het, white, male friends. (Fascinating!) They are the ones that stir up my timeline.
  4. Concurrent with 3, whatever was going on in cis-het, white, male twitter rarely made it into my timeline via the people that overlap in following. As in, the LGBTQ and POC, and white women I was listening to were not retweeting or engaging all that much. Maybe once of twice I was I made aware of something occurring in muted twitter man land, but not often. So, to some extent, whatever happens in cis-het, white, male twitterverse, stays in cis-het, white, male twitterverse.  I even kept some key males (specifically, Juan Torres) that I knew would be good bridges between me and the muted, and those connections weren’t as productive as I thought they would be.
  5. Also of note is this: way less storming. Not even joking. Of all the people I follow, my cis-het, white, male friends storm way more on twitter than my LGBTQ, POC, and white women I follow. I wonder if there is privilege working here. As in, if you are raised to think your voice should be heard, you may be more prone to express your opinion about things…and in like dozens of tweets. But if you are raised to, say, only speak when you are spoken to, you may even approach your twitter with the same reluctance to voice yourself. Also, the voice behind the tweets often came across less authoritarian than what I was exposed to when my cis-het, white, male friends were unmuted in my timeline. It was as if the tone was more: “hey, look what I found and am sharing with you…”; rather than: “This is how it is.”
  6. Connected to 5, is this: I had more confidence. What’s the most interesting about this observation is that I didn’t block my cis-het, white, male friends; I only muted them. They could still see everything I was doing; I just couldn’t see them. And in not seeing them, I was more willing to share what I wanted without concern. Now, why is this? I think partly, some of my cis-het, white, male friends intimidate me, but this speaks to my own issues concerning men and their power over me (daddy issues, big brother issues, assault issues). I spent a good deal of my early adulthood having a what was close to a worship posture toward men, seeing them as smarter than me, better, stronger, etc. I’m sure that beast is in its death throes as I type this, but I’m also aware that that beast also dies hard. One other thing I think operating here is that I think men have no problem confronting each other (even aggressively so). Whether it’s because society tolerates and encourages such behavior or the old adage is actually true that men are just bolder with each other and women aren’t, the impact is significant. By removing the visual stimulus, I was less prone to be concerned with whether or not I would be dealt with as they deal with each other. Now, this has way more to do with me than them. I’m afraid because I have issues with feeling and presuming I’m being attacked. I have a tendency to read aggression into words (even of those I know love me).
  7. There was very little engagement from the muted group with my tweets. A very consistent few would engage, but on the whole there was very little engagement. There’s a few things to say to this. The first is: clearly, I do not have to be worried about being engaged in an aggressive way (even if it’s my perception and not reality); that is a false fear (lol). The second is: the twitter algorithm probably weeded me out of their feeds because I wasn’t engaging with them. So, I actually wasn’t showing up or being featured as prominently. The less I engage with someone, the less likely I’m going to appear in their feed or “In Case You Missed It” section. The third (and last) could be: I don’t figure prominently enough to engage and cis-het, white, male twitter is a closed group. This isn’t my favorite option, and it’s the one that’s the furthest stretch. I do think there is a tendency to interact with a specific group of regulars, but I’m not sure “closed group” is fair. Yes, I know there is (at times) some what of a “broseph” (to quote my friend Kate Hanch) feel to boy twitter, but I’m not going to broad sweep and declare that because the boys wouldn’t always come play with me that it’s automatically explicit sexism. (It could be implicit and unknown, for sure.)
  8.  I was the outsider among the LGBTQ and POC groups. I found myself (a few times) in significant and deep conversations with other people of the groups mentioned, and often found myself in the position of needing to be the one who was listening.  I realized that I have a privilege being a cis-het white female. When I realized this, I spent the rest of my time reading and listening to those speaking through my timeline. I learned *a lot* during this month. I have to say, for this result alone, I’m glad I did what I did.
  9. So, I was able not only to listen and learn, but I was also able to bolster my exposure to those voices that are often submersed and muted because they are the minority voices. I was able to follow people I wouldn’t have been exposed to if I hadn’t muted about half of the people I follow. I hope that in doing so I’ve given more prominence to those other voices in order to balance out my daily exposure to a variety of voices.
  10. I did miss my some of my male friends; specifically the ones who are working really hard to change themselves, ever ready to be challenged to do better, using their platform to promote people lacking the privilege that they have (and not just speaking for the voiceless, but actually giving them the mic). You know who you are, and I see you.

So, those are my experiences. It was a fascinating experiment and I learned a lot about myself mostly, but also about social dynamics and how important it is that we stay alert and always moving forward. We need not grow complacent and become lured back to sleep; we’ve had good change, but we need to keep pressing forward for more change. I explain to my students that in order to get change to become normal, we have to press forward long enough for that change to become normal, where going backward would feel weird. If we just take change as a one time achievement and forget that we need to hold ourselves accountable to maintain that change, we will eventually slip back to the way things were. It is easy to fool ourselves into thinking change has occurred while drifting back to sleep.

Before I go, I’d like to recommend some people to follow. The following are the people I learned a lot from during the past month (follow them if you aren’t already):

Saint Big Tina (@anarchistsaint7); The Professor is Out (@WilGafney); Kate Hanch (@katehanch); Juan Torres (@orthoheterodox1); h.e.kavanaugh (@HETillich); Rabbi Ruti Regan (@RutiRegan); Emily Cunningham (@EmC_Hammer); Sam Grewal (@samGrewal133); Mandy Nicole (@TenaciousMandy); Susan Vincent (@susanv); Ligand-gated Vibranium (@neurondidi); Rigadoonaroundyou (@DeLisaPerry_); Amanda Quraishi (@ImTheQ); Lisa Colon Delay (@LisaDelay); Jewels (@BlackBlocBoi); it’s Britney. (@sarcasmforChrist); Rachel Cohen (@pwstranger); Danielle Larson (@DanielleELarson); Sara Misgen (@saramisgen); Kelsey Lewis (@KelseyMLoo); Jes Kast (@JesKast); Sabrina (@sdrp_); she got up 10x (@haettinger)

Thank you for all that you say and all that you share.

 

The Silence of God, God of the Void: A Reflection for Holy Saturday

Silence is disturbing. Personally, I’d rather know bad news than sit with myself in the midst of silence of reply. I’d rather a verbal explosion go off, leaving word shrapnel strewn about; that’s something I can tangibly make sense of, examine, create order with. Give me baskets piled high of “what-you-actually-think”, and no matter how much pain I may have, at least I have something to work with and to fight with. The whole idea that “no news is good news” escapes me; I find no comfort in having nothing with which to do battle against. I can’t kick against silence; there’s nothing to fight in the void.

God gifted me with the ability to be a very good and efficient problem solver. A MBTI INTP, I live to order chaos, to make precise connections over vast intellectual distances, to build and construct and expand and to push and to see just how far this *thing* can go (be it object, idea, or my own person). Thus I would naturally expect that God would meet me as I am: give me riddles to solve, puzzles to put together, ask me to follow along a trail of thoughts dropped by God’s divine hand so that when I arrive at the end I can, as if by intellectual paint-by-number, assemble these thoughts to get the full picture I’ve been desiring.

But rarely is this so. Rarely?…Better yet: never. That I expect God to meet me in such a way is my own demand on God, it is my own form I’m forcing God into. I forget that God self-discloses God’s self. The reality is that my encounter with God in the event of faith is often in the midst of total silence, where I feel as if I am suspended and hovering above a void and an abyss that it is threatening to take me into it. Where my repeated whispers of “Why?” are pulled from me only to float off into the distance and seemingly evaporate like a lone cloud does as it floats over the dry Colorado desert. Where my “Where were you when…?” stack up and collect dust and become brittle, like old books long forgotten. Where the word “hope” has no value and where doubts of God seem to ontologically define my spirituality and my personhood.

I’m not alone in this particular encounter with God in the event of faith. According to one scholar, Elie Wiesel has a similar conceptualizing of God,

“For Elie Wiesel the struggle of the survivor is not merely an inquiry with the mind while knowing in the heart but a shattering of that knowledge, that trust in God. Wiesel’s God is not a God who gave man freedom in history but rather a God who promised deliverance and remained silent in the hour of Israel’s greatest need, a God who made it impossible to believe in the promise of future deliverance. Wiesel’s theodicy is a theodicy of the void. His God is a God of silence. Wiesel’s struggle is to live in the face of the void.”[1]

Everything that has been held dear is shattered and rent asunder. Like Wiesel, everything I’ve put my “hope” in is and has been demythologized. The stories become like playground taunts to my pain and suffering, to my deep abiding questions. The God I’ve historically worshipped is, in the silence and in the face of the void, demythologized; and I come face to face with God’s Thou-objectivity as it is and not as I assume it to be. I’m exposed as the one who has worshipped the stories and not the one to whom the stories point: God. Thus, I am demythologized.

Recently I was reminded of a concept Luther articulates early in his lectures on Galatians and one that I use frequently with my students when explaining the journey of faith. Faith is a journey into darkness[2] not up and into the light but down and into the darkness, being lead by the hand and not by our own sight. Luther writes,

“Here let reason be far away, that enemy of faith, which in the temptations of sin and death, relies not on the righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness, of which it is completely ignorant, but on its own righteousness or, at most, on the righteousness of the Law. As soon as reason and the Law are joined, faith immediately loses its virginity. For nothing is more hostile to faith than the Law and reason; nor can these two enemies be overcome without great effort and work, and you must overcome them if you are to be saved. Therefore when your conscience is terrified by the Law and is wrestling with the judgment of God, do not consult either reason or the Law, but rely only on grace and the Word of comfort. Here take your stand as though you had never heard of the Law. Ascend into the darkness, where neither the Law nor reason shines, but only the dimness of faith (1 Cor. 13:12), which assures us that we are saved by Christ alone, without any Law. Thus the Gospel leads us above and beyond the light of the Law and reason into the darkness of faith, where the Law and reason have no business.[3]

In the event of faith, we are ushered out of the light and into the darkness; we are completely undone unto death of the self that was. Where faith is undone unto it’s own death. Where our self-created depictions of God are undone unto their death. Where we are thoroughly and completely brought to nothing in the divine silence and in the void.

“Therefore we are nothing, even with all our great gifts, unless God is present. When He deserts us and leaves us to our own resources, our wisdom and knowledge are nothing. Unless He sustains us continually, the highest learning and even theology are useless… Therefore let no one boast or glory in his own righteousness, wisdom, and other gifts; but let him humble himself and pray with the apostles (Luke 17:5): ‘Lord, increase our faith!’”[4]

In the silence, stalwart faith turns to haunting doubt; hopeful stories are exposed as hopeless myths; reason is exposed as enemy; and I am left naked and exposed and in what feels like certain death. I let go of the things I’ve had a death grip on and give in to the pull of the void. Arms clinging to unsubstantial things go limp and unfurl to the left and right; head drops back and eyes close waiting to be sucked in and all the way down into nothing, in to the void.

But in this silence, in this seemingly deathly void, there is life. The “I am who and what I am” is. I am in God’s intimate embrace, locked deeply in the divine kiss summoning me from death–resurrection from the dead–and as I wake and the divine kiss pulls back, one word, “hope”, remains, trailing on my lips.

We rush from Good Friday to Easter Sunday clinging to the stories therein as if these were our only hope. We skip over Saturday because it has no story to offer us, no story for us to anchor our faith in, no words that we can cling to when we face doubt and despair. We skip over Saturday because silence is disturbing and the void feels most threatening. But maybe, maybe it’s the silence of Saturday that is the most divine because we are brought deep into the darkness, into the silence, into the void and asked to die to everything we’ve held on to for life.

To have faith in God’s activity in the world depicted in the stories handed down to us makes sense but is not the substance of faith but of the rational. Rather, to have faith in the wake of the cessation of divine activity, when words aren’t spoken and heard, where there’s nothing to cling to but God’s ambiguous and alarming “I am” is the substance of faith. To have faith today, when it doesn’t make sense because all seems lost and gone, is the substance of faith. And this is the substance and demand of the silence and void of Holy Saturday.

 

 

[1] M. Barenbaum “Elie Wiesel: God, the Holocaust, and the Children of Israel”. See also, Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God and his reference to Elie Wiesel’s Night, pp. 273-4.

[2] Dr. David W. Congdon mentions this concept of Luther’s (via Rudolf Bultmann) on this episode of Whit Hodge Podcasts: https://soundcloud.com/whitehodgepodcasts/s2-e1-everyone-be-saved-dr-david-congdon

[3] Martin Luther Lectures on Galatians: Chapters 1-4 LW vol. 26. Pp. 113-4. Emphasis, mine.

[4] Ibid, 114.

Projection and Distortion, more from David Schnarch and “Passionate Marriage”

The following excerpt from David Schnarch’s “Passionate Marriage” caught my eye as I was reading a couple of days ago. The chapter is “Your Crucible Survival Guide” and the section is Holding onto Yourself Requires an Accurate Picture. The quote starts on page 333 of a 408 page book, this means that when something catches my eye as I’m trucking through to the end, it’s significant. A concept, statement, or thought, has to be so substantial as to still my quickly moving eye. The following quote is one of those concepts/statement/thought. (Bold is mine.)

We all have distorted views of our own lives–it’s part of being human. We develop ways of stringing together events that are plausible and give them particular meaning. Sometimes we create overly bland pictures of our childhoods; other times we may overemphasize some points and ignore others. Overall, the interpretation and emotional impact of things remembered–not just things forgotten–are blunted. The truth is often hidden–right out in the open–camouflaged as something else. People make a lot more sense (and seem less crazy) when their picture is accurately focused; until then the hazy image can be interpreted in ways that they prefer.

Invariably, poorly differentiated people hold onto the part of themselves that constructed the distorted self-portrait. They demand that their partner understand them, in part, because they don’t really understand themselves. They feel understood, accepted, and validated when their partner sees them the way they picture themselves. Their partner’s refusal to see them the way the want to be seen is upsetting. But the problem isn’t a failure to communicate: their spouse can’t understand them the way they demand, because they view their own behavior and the details of their life differently than their partner does. This discrepancy challenges their inaccurate picture of themselves–which they have difficulty maintaining to begin with.

You may think it’s a problem when your partner won’t ‘accept you the way you are,’ but consider what happens when you demand that he validate the distorted lens you use to look at yourself, your life, and your marriage. The problem in many marriages is not that spouses won’t validate each other, it’s that what gets validated is an inaccurate self-portrait. Distortions and projections keep us from seeing our partners and ourselves. That’s important to remember next time you feel like demanding your partner ‘understand’ you the way you understand yourself.

Here’s what caught my eye: demanding validation for a distorted self-portrait. What does this mean exactly? In my opinion, it means that I demand that another person see me as I see myself. This can work in two ways. 1. I may demand that someone view me as awesome as I think I am, which leads to a worshiping situation. In this case, there’s an automatic hierarchy created in the relationship, which results in one person consuming the other person in order to satisfy the attention appetite of the consuming person. There’s no room here for two distinct selves; just one self in love with itself. Narcissism should come to mind. While Schnarch isn’t talking about this narcissistic attribute in relationships, I think it applies. One can easily up-sell themselves as much as one can down-sell themselves.

And that leads me to: 2.  (The down-sell) I may demand that someone view me as poorly as I view myself. (And, this is inherent in what Schnarch is talking about, but I’ll tease it out a bit differently.) It’s not just that I (and I’m using I to make writing clearer) have a “false” perception of myself that is fabricated from a hyper-focus on a negative event or a glossing over of a bland childhood; it’s that I legitimately have been handed the script for a negative view of self and am refusing to read from any other script. I then force others in my life (and here, again, we can expand from the marriage relationship mentioned above out into other relationships like friendships/work relationships) to read from the same script. The problem is everyone in my life is the worst method actors and can’t (for the life of them) stay on script let alone read it correctly.

In other words, I have had traumatic experiences that have radically altered my self-perception and now I look through that experience and claim it as my identity. Anyone who comes up against that identity with an alternate identity for me (what they say/see to be true) is shut out. To remove from me or challenge my trauma-identity, would result in the loss of myself. My trauma-identity is my shell that protects me and keeps people away and either you play along (validating my trauma-identity) or you fight it and then reject me and (still) validate my trauma-identity. It’s lose/lose for you; I control the whole thing and, thus, it’s win/win for me.

I allow my brokenness to be the genuine thing about me. It also becomes my justification for things, like: not changing, rejecting those who won’t play along, and defaulting to the “see, I knew I was always a failure” when I’m rejected. It’s the defensiveness and anger that rears her head because someone dare ask her not to see herself through the lens of her past. It’s the, “You just don’t get it, do you!?” that flies from spiteful lips or bounces around an irate mind. Who likes to have their identity–that they’ve mistaken for their essence–ripped from their death grip. As Schnarch mentions above, “This discrepancy challenges their inaccurate picture of themselves–which they have difficulty maintaining to begin with.” I need you to play along because I’m barely keeping this act alive;  your playing along helps me dupe myself and is the fodder for me pressing more and more into that distorted self-view.

If you’ve ever become angry because someone pushed against your trauma-identity, then you know exactly what I’m talking about and explaining. The scariest thing in the world is to step out from this broken identity (and I don’t mean identity of brokenness; I mean the identity is broken). To shed the costume of the always victim and leave behind the familiar and over-handled script is to step into *real* vulnerability and the unknown. (I stress *real* vulnerability because I can use my trauma-identity to share my trauma with you as an act of seeming vulnerable but I’m still standing behind that trauma. Vulnerability demands full exposure of the self in the presence of another different self. There’s no standing behind anything in the truly vulnerable.) Being willing to say, “Yes, I will move on from this; I will begin anew” demands a death of the old identity and self, new eyes and ears, even new language. It demands habitually forcing your mind to work in a different way; it demands that you train your own voice to call yourself higher. It demands a dare to believe this other identity. Dare I believe another story about me one that is future oriented and present focused rather than stuck in the past?

And, oddly (at least I find it odd), in this shedding of the trauma identity and stepping into real vulnerability, I’m concurrently stepping into my real self. My real self isn’t my trauma self because the trauma self is dependent on an other validating that story line; stepping out from that distortion demands an alterity and a self-validation. I am more myself as I move forward in the present than I am when I’m consumed with the past.

 

A Video Interview with John-Marc Ormechea

I don’t like being in front of a camera; I avoid it in fact. (Yes, I know the irony of saying that and being the woman who sent half-naked photos of herself through the Twitterverse earlier this year.) So, when my friend John-Marc Ormechea (otherwise known as @EpicTillich on Twitter), asked me to talk with him via Zoom my response was: hell no! Nah-ah. No way. Hard pass. But what I said was: “uh, sure.” And I mustered up all the courage in my 140 pound frame and sat with John-Marc and talked about my journey in Christ, Martin Luther (#swoon), and Liturgy as a beautiful feature of The Episcopal Communion. It was fun. I talk with my hands *a lot*. I choked up at one point (now you’ll know what I look like when I’m about to cry).  I’m *VERY* animated; everything is right there on my face to see (good news: I’m a bad liar because of this animation).

 

Anyway, here is that video. And, all my gratitude to John-Marc Ormechea for asking me to talk to him about things that I’m passionate about. I’m beyond honored.

 

 

You can find John-Marc Ormechea here: https://epictillich.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter: @EpicTillich. You’ll blessed as I have been.

Prepare the Cabin for Landing

In little over a month, I’ll step in to a new role: religious educator. To be honest, it’s not a particularly new role for me, considering my participation in the church–the very reason I’m am being ordained to the priesthood is based on my calling and gifting to teach, which I’ve demonstrated. So, the newness of the role is more about it being an official, paid, vocation/occupation. I’m excited about this new role and this opportunity to use my gifts in a professional way and, well, receive some perks apart from internal satisfaction.

But in the midst of this excitement and affirmation (for truly I see to have received a call as an affirmation), there lies a hiccup. Every part of me wants to embrace, arms open wide, the level of excitement I want to have, but I wrestle with the ever persistent shadow of the accusation: selfish. To take the call, I’ve asked (demanded?) my family to uproot and move to another state, to another job, to another school, to another life. And this request is contrary to how I’ve lived my life for the past little-more-than-a-decade as a stay-at-home-parent. For these people, my family, I’ve pushed myself aside giving them spots one through four. Even when I was working so hard on the very training that allowed me this very opportunity, they came first; I wove my education and exercise of my gifts into the cracks of my days as not to disturb the ebb and flow of our family life.

It doesn’t help that the mama bear in me is active; I’d do anything to protect my kids from pain and discomfort. However, the very pain and discomfort I wish to always protect them from and that they are currently experiencing comes from me.  This is the internal war being waged in my mind. No matter how hard I shake, no matter how fast I run, I can’t seem to escape the accusation: you’re selfish. Yet, I can neither shake nor run from the reality that this new job is a real good, a good I need to (and want to) grasp with both hands, a good I’ve been training for for over a decade.

It’s here, in the midst of this struggle in my mind, I need to rest fully on the grace of God. And I don’t mean the trite: let go and let God. (Though, I’ll admit that probably colloquialism does apply to some degree here.) What I means is the grace of God that is the rod and staff of comfort that walks us through the shadow of the valley of death (Ps 23:4). The type of grace of God that holds us up as we descend into the darkness that is faith. As I navigate this delicate walk between accusations of selfish and affirmations of good, I am reminded that just as my life has been (for both good and for bad) in God’s hands, my children’s lives are there, too. God’s providence is not for me alone, but also for them and my fear shouldn’t cause such shortsightedness: (once again) this isn’t solely about me.

The accusation is silenced in this grace of God that as I am lead by the hand through this dark valley because it is God leading me into this new phase of my life so are my children being lead; it is God who is the author of this new chapter in my life and in theirs.  I am reminded that this opportunity benefits my children and does not take from them in the ways that I imagine it does/will. I will be stepping out of one way of providing comfort into a whole different version of providing comfort. This job allows my children a new way of viewing their mother and thus women in general. This job allows me to take steps to the side, giving them a clearer view of their own path. This job allows me to start to untie these apron-strings and assure them that I’m fine and that, when the time comes for them to leave–and it will and quick–they not only will but can.

In this job rests the beginning of what I’ve truly been training for this past decade-plus: landing this plan.  Taking this job and making these requests that I have, is me beginning the initial descent. And while this flight has been great–not without  major turbulence–a plane can’t stay in the air forever. So, I flip the switch that illuminates the directive: “fasten your seat-belt.” And my voice sounds out in breaks and crackles over the loudspeaker: Please prepare the cabin for landing.

 

Some Thoughts on the Billy Graham Rule

A couple of weeks ago I had a bit of a rant on Twitter about the foundations for the Billy Graham Rule. (If you are (lucky enough to be) unaware of such a rule, I’ll send you out in to the inter-webs to read more: BGR.) I turned the rant into a “Moment” at the advice from one wiser than I about these things (h/t Travis McMaken*). In order to make the Moment available to a non-twitter audience, I have embedded the tweets below. Enjoy!

 

*You are encouraged to visit his blog: http://derevth.blogspot.com/p/about-die-evangelischen-theologen.html

Whatever You Do, Don’t Ask “Why?”

(The following is my personal inquiry about suffering and questioning God’s Will in that suffering. None of it suffices for a proper treatment of doctrine surrounding the question. Take it as is: personal musings)

A few months after I graduated from seminary with my MDiv, I found myself back in class at the same school. I had noticed there was a night class being offered on reading through John Calvin, so I jumped at the opportunity. After having been solely a stay-at-home-mom for only 3 months, I needed–NEEDED–an adult, intellectual, theological outlet, and a reading class on Calvin would do nicely. Plus, I’m that obnoxious person who loves being in class and learning; I’m also that obnoxious person who rewrites B papers, so auditing a class post graduation for no reason than just because is well within my standard range of activity.

One night the discussion revolved around God’s will, a topic most of us find somewhat frustrating and intriguing. Specifically, the discussion revolved around a certain aspect of God’s  will: does God will or allow bad things to happen to us? I’ll be honest, I don’t care for the question, so when the discussion proceeded I checked out; plus, I was a graduate and an auditor, this wasn’t my battle. It was the question posed by the professor that jerked me back into the real-time of the class: if you’re the victim of the violence does willing or allowing feel any different?

The question hung in the air; the classroom had gone terribly silent.

“No.” I said. “It doesn’t feel any different.”

There’s a reason I hate the question about whether or not God wills or allows bad things to happen to us: because I’ve suffered.  I’ve suffered both physically and emotionally, by hands and by words. I hate the question because the questions I end up asking and their corresponding answers are bad news. If God willed my suffering, then I’m left asking was I created to suffer? to be a receptacle for violence?  is this what I am good for? If God allowed my suffering, then I’m left asking why? why didn’t God intervene? is this suffering pleasing to God?

The discussion about God willing or allowing suffering in a person’s life always launches me directly to the question of “Why?” and that’s the one question, the absolutely and positively one question I can’t ever let myself ask. Whatever you do, don’t ask why. The why question and the multitude of possible answers is a veritable mental, emotional, and spiritual vortex that sucks the mind and the heart into the utter recesses of the dark night of the soul, and that place is a crushing place that will make life and existence actually painful. And that’s a scary place to be, because when we’re in that amount of pain we can become desperate to ease that pain and to silence the evil narrative to which we’ve fallen prey.

So, the “why?” question is off limits. That doesn’t mean I don’t find myself there periodically. It just means that when I am there, I’ve to do active self-willing and mental gymnastics to get my mind and my heart to ask a different question and to focus on that question’s answer. The only thing that I want to know in light of my suffering, the only question that actually has an answer of comfort (for me) is a “What” question: what now? What happens now? I’ve suffered, yes, but tell me that that suffering is not the final word. Tell me that Jesus wept. Tell me that God has delivered his divine verdict to that suffering. Tell me that my heavenly Father’s righteous indignation was set aflame and burned brightly. Tell me that God can restore what the locusts have taken, that even out of that evil, God can call forth something good, something beautiful, something divine. Tell me that I’m not the sum of my deeds or the deeds done to me. Tell me of God’s radical activity toward me on my behalf in Jesus Christ and His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

The “Why?” causes a disruption in the flow of the story that is my life; it places that part of my story outside of the story-line and out of reach. And if that part of my story is out of reach I can’t do anything with it, it moves from past to the present and into the future unanchored. The “Why?” and it’s corresponding (possible) answers will never substantially ease the burden of the suffering. But the “What now?” question puts that story into my own hands and gives me the opportunity to put it where it belongs in my story-line: chronologically in the past as an historical event. I can admit it and confess it, and thus there’s a spiritual placement: at the foot of the Cross; this is the only way to lift the burden of the suffering. Whatever you do, don’t try to answer the “Why?”, just tell me about the what and the who that is the very good news now.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (Jn 3:16)

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Mt 11:28-9)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.” (Mt 5:3-4)

Not Self-Righteous Pricks: In Defense of the Runner

My husband and I have a joke: when I get back from a long run, he asks, “So, how much more righteous are you than me because of your run?” And I laugh, “Honey, I was completely more righteous than you when I got up at 6 am!”    We laugh;  both being Law/Gospel theologians, we know righteousness is only imputed to us by Christ and faith in Him. Nonetheless, truth lingers in the joke: runners have a bad rap; we’re often viewed as self-righteous pricks.

Yes, I’m sure there’s been that runner somewhere who rightfully earned said title of self-righteous prick, but I’ve never met him…or her and I know a lot of runners. Unicorn! So, I’ve no choice but believe that most of us (maybe even all?) are mislabeled and radically misunderstood. We are just runners out running and rarely are we running and thinking, Man, I’m so damn awesome..too bad that sucker over there isn’t more like me.  I mean, seriously, I’ve never had that thought and those whom I know–who are also runners, even competitively so–don’t think that way either. We’re just running, minding our own business, our footsteps, and oncoming traffic. “Other People” and any comparison to said “other people”–in terms of awesomeness and righteousness–falls in to the very distant background, especially when we’re facing mile 3 of a 14 mile long run. Oh, Good Lord, do I really have 11 more?…i think I may die…let’s burn this candle!

Too many times I’ve either heard in casual conversation or read in blog-posts that all of us runners are out to achieve our righteousness, that we give head nods to each other as we pass each other because we both know what we are really doing out on the road at 6am. And the later part of that statement is true, we do know what we are out doing but it’s FAR FROM trying to run to achieve righteousness. Runners know how fleeting (like sand through your fingers fleeting) trying to hold on to a sense of righteousness from running is.  So, we’re not running toward righteousness; rather, what is more likely is that we’re running from our unrighteousness, from our failures, from our emotional and spiritual turmoil and pain. We’re running at all times of the day and in degrees varying from 0-95 because that small scope of time while we’re out running is a reprieve from the things that haunt us present, past, and future. The head nod to another runner at 6am is the head nod of camaraderie, camaraderie of brokenness.  You, too? Yeah, me too. 

More often than not, when I get to know another runner, there is something in their past that jump started the running, something bad, something painful, something that altered their lives in a radical way. For me, running blossomed as a way to deal with the pain and suffering from being sexually assaulted. When I initially tried to self-destruct, I was eventually turned toward running, and running gave me that break from my pain that I needed. As my foot hit the ground and pulled my body forward, I felt the strength of the body God gave me, a body that is good, that is loved and not horrible and only fit for abuse. In that moment where I defied gravity and both feet flew through the air, I was weightless and I was flying, not burdened and weighed down. For those few moments, through those  many movements of my body, I did feel God’s pleasure…not because I was running, but because everything else in my cacophonous head was silenced long enough for me to sense it and feel it. Many of us runners have stories: stories of pain, abandonment, sorrow, grief, and loss  (in all their varying forms), and the backbone of our addiction and love of running stems from the very respite from those stories and current ones by getting picked up and carried away…even if  for only 30 minutes.

Far from being self-righteous pricks, most of us runners (all of the runners I know) are compassionate people who understand on a visceral level the limitations and brokenness and failure of the human body and mind. Running is our lover, yet we are more than aware that she is a very fickle one.  Just a few days of not running and our mile times drop. Too many  miles too fast will cause our joints to remind us the next day that we’re all too human. We’ll train for a race and bomb it…damn. We lose toe nails and gain blisters, neither one deterring nor hindering our running…because we’re addicts, and we know it. We understand the importance of community; we carry each other with words of encouragement and cheers and celebration for a long run well done…ah, heck, even if it’s just 3 miles…Way to go!!  Plus, no one else fully gets a runner like another runner (insert head nod here), so we runners kind of need each other, that’s why we can be clique-ish and why we speak a language that seems foreign to so many others, and if we need to apologize for anything it’s probably that. So: we’re sorry. (But here’s a website to help you translate our running lingo; you’ve now been sufficiently informed.)

We also love you, our non-running friend. There’s very little if any judgment towards you for not running because we are–if we’re honest–saving all of our judgment for ourselves and our slack-ass mile times. And, at least for me, sometimes I envy you my non-running friend, because you don’t look crazy at 5 in the morning running with 18,000 blinking lights and bedecked in safety green reflective material like some sort of whacked out neon Christmas tree. You’re sleeping like any sane person should at 5 in the morning; but as a runner, I’m not that sane so sometimes I’m jealous of your slumber and sanity.

So now you know. Now you know that we’re not self-righteous pricks, but fellow broken human beings, taking one step at a time just like you…albeit sometimes our steps are just quicker and well lit.