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.

Not So For You: A Mother’s Day Post.

“To bring children into the world and slowly to birth one’s death and to accept it rather than to get it over with, quickly and if possible without awareness of it–as our shabbiest fantasies would have it–are acts of participation in creation. They refuse to fall in love with the alien reality of money and violence that has laid hold of life. The pain of birth encourages and convinces us of life. Just as a piece of bread can convince us of God, so this pain is a sacrament, a sign of God’s presence. How could we ever have lost it?” – Dorothee Sölle – Against the Wind: Memoir of a Radical Christian

 

During a conversation about summer break awhile back, my second son casually offered, “Well, mommy’s always on summer break.” The statement was like a needle scratching across a record; the party went silent. My eldest son sat up straight and gave his brother the look of, “Dude, you’re on your own now…” as he scooted down the bench at our dinner table, creating a healthy distance for/from the wrath he expected to land in his brother’s lap. My husband was in the kitchen slicing something; the slicing stopped as his eyes–filled with what I would call a healthy (and proper) dose of panic–darted from my second son to me, back to my second son, back to me. The toddler babbled about something; she saw the whole thing as an opportunity to shove the remainder of her dinner on to the floor… “oooops…fressert pweeze?”… <<giggle>>.

 

The one who uttered the statement looked around; everything about the tension in the air told him he’d just said something wrong. Very wrong. He realized it. His head slowly turned, and his blue eyes slowly met mine.  I was calm–let’s be more honest about that–I was as calm as I could be on the outside. In a cool and very controlled tone–the tone that my children know as the tone of sit-still-say-nothing-nod-amply–“Summer break?…Really?” I asked him. He nodded. I knew why he’d assumed that and even why he said it…out loud. “Just because I don’t leave to go to a job or go to work, doesn’t mean I’m not working at a job. If you really want the truth, Mommy doesn’t get summer break and she barely gets a vacation. Not even my sleep is mine. Mommies are at work every hour of every day, every day of every week, every week of ever year… Summer break?” I chuckled, and shook my head slightly. I poked around my dinner plate with my fork. “Not even close, buddy.”

 

No this isn’t a post about the unsung heroism of the stay-at-home-mother’s work day. Though, these works should be praised. The myriad of things I do every day from the hours of 4am to 9pm (when I practically fall into bed) to keep this house running, to keep #TheLarkinThree alive, and to maintain the barely existing heartbeat of my own professional work is worthy of applause. But I don’t want applause. I hate applause. (Anyone who knows me well enough knows just how much I hate applause and praise.) So, I’m not writing to be told I’m doing a good job or to be told that being a stay-at-home-mom is a noble choice…if I hear that one more time when I meet someone from my husband’s office, I’ll lose it.

 

I told the story above because what dawned on me (much, much later) is that if my son thinks I’m always on summer break, then maybe I’m doing my job right and well.  That he doesn’t see me as working hard or that I’m always burdened by them, is indicative of a daily aspect of motherhood most don’t see in operation until death.

 

You can look upon my body and see the scars of having become a mother. From the moment a plastic stick tells me I’m “with child” my body starts to change.* My brain chemistry will alter (forever); I’ll be hardwired from here on out to put an other before myself. When he cries, I’ll come. When he stumbles and falls, I’ll scoop him up. When he’s troubled, I’ll comfort. When he runs away, I’ll run after. During pregnancy my body will betray me. My own body will choose him over me. My nutrients course through my body first to him and whatever is left, I’ll get. My mind and my body sacrifice me for his life; way before holding him in my arms, I’ll go through a multitude of deaths to bring forth life.

 

Not least of which is laboring to deliver. In labor I am confronting death to bring forth life; no small task. And I’ll confront death alone. No one takes my hand and guides me through it. It is here where the ferocity that is woman comes to the fore; I will come close to and growl at death, bring it, Death! I’ll stare it down. My life for his! I’ll cry. And I’ll bear the wound of this battle in my physical body.  (Wounds that will later allow men to judge me as unattractive and unappealing, judgments I’ll absorb and utter against myself as I look over my body reflected back to me by the bathroom mirror).

 

I could bring up the continued wounding of my physical body–how my breasts are now oddly shaped because of years of nursing, expanding and contracting; how my weight fluctuates depending on the time I have to take care of myself; how the nutritional values of my meals is skimpy because I’m gleaning from left overs remaining on little plates by little people. But the reality is that it’s not merely my physical body that incurs the wound, pain, and suffering, of being a mom. As I said, you can look upon my  body and see the scars and disfiguring of being a mom, but there’s more you can’t see unless you not just look but also listen.  For the suffering and pain of being a mom isn’t merely restricted to my body, but also to my mind and my soul. My body–inside and out–is continually broken for these children of mine.**

 

“The real question the pain of birth gives us would be how we might come to understand pain as birthing pain, labor pain as doors opening, groaning as ‘the onset of the glory of the freedom of God’s children.’ How do we approach our pains so that they do not torment us like pointless kidney stones, but, as pains of labor, prepare the new being?…We need a different theology of pain that finally feminizes the questions and relates our pain to the pain of God. The question then will be: How does our pain become the pain of God? How do we become part of the messianic pain of liberation, part of the groaning of a creation that is in travail. How do we come to suffer so that our suffering becomes the pain of birth?” – Sölle***

 

But there’s more beyond the inner and outer breaking of my body. There is something you can’t see or hear, because this war that wages is one that is mine alone. This battle is between me and the age that has come before me on behalf of the age to come. And it wages everyday I walk the earth; it’s the battle I’ll take with me into the grave. (And, truly, if I fight well, you’ll rarely see the effects or feel the impact of this war.) It’s more than just a my-life-for-his: it’s: his-life-will-be-free. Free from all of the generational shit that has been repeatedly passed down over and over and over again. Free from pain and suffering that should’ve never have happened…ever. Free from anxiety, stress, fear where there should’ve been peace, tranquility, and comfort. The battle is one that is not about a body breaking but the very opposite; it’s about a body strong, resilient, being a stronghold in the time of disaster. Like a dam holding back tons of water threatening to wash out and drown what lives peacefully in its shadow and protection, my body will hold back what has come crashing into it from the repetition of history to protect those who live and depend on my protection. Everyday I will awake and make intentional choices, decisions, and actions that repeat my motherhood-mantra: it will not be so for you. And, this shit ends with me; I’ll wrestle it into the grave it so deserves. Everyday, I will utter the divine “no more” that has infiltrated my language because of my encounter with Christ who defined love as suffering, love as a body broken, love as freedom where there was oppression, love as comfort where there was fear, love as tender embrace where there was abuse, love as acceptance where there was rejection, love as new life as a gift to us out of/because of Christ’s death and resurrection.

 

 

 

 

*In rather imperfect terms (needing some renovating and updating) I’ve written more about the process of death to life as it relates to the very beginning of motherhood here: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2016/08/12/death-to-life-in-fertility-to-birth/

 

**I’ve written here about the inner body breaking: https://laurenrelarkin.com/2016/06/22/my-body-broken/

 

***Thank you to David W. Congdon who supplied me with the quotations from Dorothee Sölle.  You can follow him on twitter @dwcongdon; I’d recommend it. 🙂

My Body Broken

One of the hardest things I’ve ever done is become a mother, specifically a stay-at-home-mom. When I found out I was pregnant with my first son, I knew that I wanted to be the one to stay home. My husband had a wonderful full-time job that provided for me to do just that–plus, I wasn’t pulling in anything substantial being a seminarian with a part-time job working with the Doctor of Ministry Department. I have to tell you now, still holding that positive pregnancy test and knowing I would stay home with my future baby, I was naive, a bit taken with the rose-colored glasses of new, budding motherhood. It would take just a few days to realize that this entire endeavor would be hard.

Between battling morning sickness, hoping that my fellow classmates wouldn’t notice my new diet of seltzer and jolly ranchers, and suppressing fear that my body was (again) rejecting because I was spotting over half-way through the first trimester, I was tossed back and forth on the waves of reality setting in: I was not my own, my body was not my own, I was being broken.

As I grew bigger and more uncomfortable, as I pressed through exhaustion and discomfort to finish up my second to last semester of seminary, and this finally giving way to going into labor on the morning of the 5th of December. My son was born at 9:42pm on the 6th of December; yes, that’s about two days of trying to give birth to my son. I couldn’t do it. The unique thing my body was gifted to do, I couldn’t do. I was rushed to the ER after a contraction left my son’s heart rate too low. A week later I sat on the floor of our bathroom holding my just bathed 9lbs of baby boy in my lap. My husband looked at me, “Why are you crying?” he asked. “Because…I’m a failure,” I was able to articulate while crying. “How can you call yourself a failure while holding our son?” I didn’t have a good answer. What I knew was that a reality was being hammered home: I was not my own, my body was not my own, I was being broken.

This reality would be made more clear, in a physical way, as I embarked on nursing and raising not just this new born baby boy, but his little brother 21 months later, and their little sister born just about three years ago.

But looking back and looking at my current situation (a stay-at-home-mom to a toddler), I realize that it’s not merely my physical body that has been broken, time and time again. For the past decade I’ve sat on the academic and occupational side-lines. I’ve watched class-mates and peers graduate years after me in seminary, get ordained, get doctorates, move to other countries and back to the states and (in one case) back to another country. I’m here. In deciding to be embark on the parenting that I wanted for my children, I had to push all my other dreams and desires aside. My research is painfully slow, my writing interrupted, my attention divided. I wrestle internally with envy of my friends who have far surpassed me academically; I struggle with frustration with myself for being unable to do everything in the pace I want to do everything. As I wrangle my toddler into her room to finish her i’m-gonna-scream-so-loud-so-every-neighbor-in-the-neighborhood-hears tantrum, another peer wrestles with an editor/publisher over another book. In the fullness that is my mind and soul: I am not my own, my body is not my own, I am being broken.

I’m not saying any of this to garner sympathy or pity; I willingly volunteered my whole person to this vocation, to this process of being broken over and over and over again. I gave myself–body, mind, strength, soul–to be broken; to be broken for these children of mine. IMG_20160621_113610055 For these, my children, I lay aside myself, my dreams, my desires, daily, and give them as much of me as I can. For these, my children, I close Luther and open the screen door to go outside and blow bubbles for my daughter because she asked me to. I can’t do anything else, because I love them.

And in this I understand God’s love for us, his beloved children. In this, I understand why Mark records in his Gospel that when all the men ran when Jesus was crucified, the women who followed him looked on from a distance (Mk 15:40-41). I know they didn’t run because they were of low stature and had nothing to lose; but I also think that love that drives to the breaking of one’s own body made innate sense  to them. To look upon the crucified Christ, to see the blood shed because of love made sense on a visceral level to a bunch of women whose whole life was devoted to bearing and raising children through the breaking of their own bodies. It makes sense to me and it blows me away: He gave himself fully and completely for us in ways that I’ll never understand or be able to do because of my frail and faulty human flesh. His “I love you, my beloved child” is more heartfelt than mine to my own children.

And as they were eating, [Jesus] took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’ (Mark 14:22-24)

More than a mother loves her very own Children does God love us.

And I am undone, I am broken.