Thursday, December 31, 2020

So Long, 2020

Well, it is the end of 2020 and I will gladly say along with everybody else on the planet, "Good Riddance!" It has certainly been one helluva year. 

Earlier today I was revisiting a season of life from 2017 that was hard. So hard I really did despair of life itself. There was a time in the spring of that year where it was blow after blow after blow of more stress and complications of life than I was able to handle. I distinctly remember standing up at church, telling people that I understood how some people are so beyond hope that they choose to end it all, and begged my church family to remind me that somehow, some way God was making something beautiful out of it all. 

I compared that season of life to the disaster that has been 2020. Both very hard years, but very different kinds of hard. And I realized that, while 2020 is not a year that any of us would want to repeat, the hard has been so much more bearable. 

The difference is camaraderie. 

What I have suffered in 2020, pretty much everybody has suffered. We understand each other's pain. We can empathize. We can commiserate. We can "me, too" all over each other. At every turn we read articles about why things are so hard. How many people are struggling to make ends meet or how loneliness has skyrocketed. We can all bemoan together the polarization of society. Whichever camp we fall into, we can find others in our camp. And those of us who are too liberal for some and too conservative for others even can commiserate with one another. Even the Island of Misfit Toys is getting rather populated. 

The difference between 2020 and any other year is that suffering has been normalized. 

I have had some really rough years in the past. I remember saying, at the end of 2019, that 2011 was a horrible year. And 2014 was a horrible year. And 2017 was a horrible year. And I was really just getting kinda skittish about 2020, math being what it is and all. 

But all those other years, the hard things in my life were private. Many of them seemed to be of my own making. If I had parented better or worked harder or could just suck it up enough then things wouldn't be so bad. My pain was hidden and, in some ways, it was my hard life was own damn fault. Or so it seemed. And all the while everybody else's lives seemed to be on cruise control. 

There is a lot out there written about what kind of pain gets support and what doesn't. I've even written on it a time or two myself. A death gets support. A divorce does not. A physical illness gets visitors and casseroles, a mental illness gets silence and shame. It is the aloneness that is so devastating.

There is something about collective suffering that makes it easier to swallow. When we are all carrying a load, it seems lighter. In some ways, years like this year level the playing field, even if just a little. Toilet paper was scarce...everywhere. Kids were out of school...everywhere. Parents were pulling their hair out... everywhere. 

Even in the midst of all of the conflict over major issues and minor ones (and people will fight over EVERYTHING), there still seems to be the universal recognition that all of this is hard. For whatever reason, that acknowledgement is incredibly comforting. Pain acknowledged is less powerful than pain ignored. 

So while 2020 has been a rotten, rotten year and the future is still so unsure, I can't say that, at least for me, it has been the worst year ever. I am incredibly thankful for the honesty, vulnerability, and compassion I have experienced and witnessed this year. Thank you, my friends. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

On Underachievement

Yesterday I posted the books I read (completed, not just opened) in 2020. All of them were nonfiction, as per the usual. Why do I read nonfiction? Mainly because I love it. I love information. I love learning. My favorite toy in childhood was our World Book Encyclopedias (1965 edition).

People tell me I should read fiction. Fiction makes me anxious. I can't explain it other than to say I feel like I need to be learning. Always learning. Maybe I am making up for something.

When I was 11 I went through a battery of psychological testing to find out what was wrong with me. What was wrong with me was anxiety and depression (and OCD, though that wasn't a diagnosis in 1975) and the fact that I had a high IQ. I was classified as gifted.

To get into my high school (a private all-girls school which was then grades 7-12), we were given an IQ test. Then our entire grade was divided into five classes, depending on IQ. Everybody knew which class they were in. I was in the top class with all of the smart people.

Within a year or two that literal classification broke apart. Some of us in the "smart" classes fell away while some of those in the more average classes excelled. By ninth grade I was in danger of failing certain classes such as geometry (I put together my end of semester theorem notebook while drunk). I honestly didn't care. I didn't care about school at all.

It wasn't until my junior year that I started opening a book and trying to learn. Unfortunately, my eating disorder made it hard for me to think clearly and was able to retain almost nothing that I learned. My grades got better as a senior and I was able to pull myself up in my class ranking so that I graduated as 42nd out of a class of 67 (yes, that was AFTER I pulled my ranking up).

College wasn't a whole lot better. Those preliminary classes didn't make a lot of sense to me and I was still bogged down in so much angst over life that I just.didn't.care. I wanted somebody to love me. That was it. Again, it wasn't until my senior year in college that I opened a book and actually began learning the stuff that interested me.

So, why do I read nonfiction? Well, to a certain extent it is what I love. And yet, I think so much of it is trying to make up for lost opportunity. I had an incredible education placed before me and I pushed it away.

I suppose I was (and perhaps still am) the classic underachiever. An underachiever is someone whose performance is considerably less than their ability. The only ability that I have ever had has been academic (oh, and dieting, but we all know where that got me).

In trying to understand my underachievement I came across this article about gifted children and depression. Reading these words were like looking into a mirror.

Gifted people of all ages have unique traits that may make them vulnerable to this form of depression. They tend to be highly sensitive, intense, empathic, passionate, idealistic, and likely to analyze things more thoroughly than most people. When they notice injustice, mistreatment of others, poverty, and abuse of power in the world, they can feel hopeless and alone and wonder why those around them appear to be unconcerned about these things.

That was me. That IS me. There are so many things in the world that I see and need to process and want to address that I just don't have the time or energy or mental or emotional bandwidth for some of the more common activities that are our cultural metrics for success. I lack the drive many people have to perform. I lack the ambition. I lack the energy. Alas, I also lack the confidence.

But reading this article helped me understand that my underachievement wasn't just because I was lazy or incompetent or crazy, though I was told that I was all of those things, it was because I was, and am, wired differently. And when my wiring met my circumstances, the result was not a stellar report card. So where does that leave me now? I think I will still want to read nonfiction. My appetite for information and understanding is as strong as ever. But hopefully I will quit beating myself up for all those years of wasted education.

And maybe, just maybe, I'll pick up a work of fiction, just for the fun of it.

 

Monday, December 28, 2020

2020 Book List

It is December 28 and, unless I get the chance to speed through one of the four books I am reading right now, this will be my list of books I read in 2020.

As I read through this list I realized just how hard of a year it has been, my book choices reflecting my hunger. This past year I did not read for fun. I read to understand. With the exception of a handful, the following books were chosen in my attempt to make sense of my own experience and the world around me. 

In some books I found validation, in others healing. During a year of so much loss, including the loss of a dear community, I found within these books comfort that what I had experienced was indeed a thing and that I was not alone. I found confirmation that my concerns had been valid. I found words to help other people make sense of their own experiences. I found hope for a healthier culture out there. Somewhere. 

My plan is for my 2021 reading to be considerably less heavy. And yet I don't regret immersing myself into this incredible collection of books. 

-Broken Trust: A Practical Guide to Identify and Recover From Toxic Faith, Toxic Church, and Spiritual Abuse by F. Remy Diederich

-Escaping the Maze of Spiritual Abuse: Creating Healthy Christian Cultures by Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys


-Courage, Dear Heart: Letters to a Weary World by Rebecca K. Reynolds


-Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk, and True Flourishing by Andy Crouch


-When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community From Emotional and Spiritual Abuse by Chuck DeGroat


-Images of America: Swannanoa by Anne E. Chesky Smith


-The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days by Frederick Buechner 


-The Seasons of Life by Paul Tournier


-Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero


-Post Traumatic Church Syndrome: One Woman’s Desperate, Funny, and Healing Journey to Explore 30 Religions by Her 30th Birthday by Reba Riley 


-The Confident House Hunter: A Home Inspector’s Tips for Finding Your Perfect House by Dylan Chalk


-Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving


-The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism by Jemar Tisby


-This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers by K.J. Ramsey


-Born With Teeth: A Memoir by Kate Mulgrew


Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation by Kristen Kobes DuMez


-Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After a Hurtful Church Experience by Carol Howard Merritt


-When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions by Sue Monk Kidd


-A Brave Lament: For Those Who Know Death by Andrew Bauman and Christy Bauman


-Narcissism in the Church: A Heart of Stone in Christian Relationships by David C. Orrison PhD


-In the House of Friends: Understanding and Healing from Spiritual Abuse in Christian Churches by Kennett J. Garrett


-Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church by Diane Langberg


-A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture That Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing by Scot McNight and Laura Barringer


-Something’s Not Right: Decoding the Hidden Tactics of Abuse--and Freeing Yourself from Its Power by Wade Mullen 


-Stumbling Toward Wholeness: How the Love of God Changes Us by Andrew J. Bauman


-The Great Belonging: How Loneliness Leads Us to Each Other by Charlotte Donlon  


Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Accepting Limitations

Accepting my limitations, possibly even embracing them, has been what I have come to see as a developmental task, perhaps a spiritual discipline, over the past year. 

It's hard, it really is, to accept our limitations. Especially because we are taught to believe we don't have any. We can be anything we want to be. If we can believe it, we can achieve it. Don't let anything get in the way of your dreams. Do more, try harder. Just do it. 

And yet, we can't. We can't be everything to everybody. There is so very much in life that we have absolutely no power over. Our lives cannot be a trajectory of success upon success, though it seems like some have certainly cracked that code. We can't do it all.

Peter Scazzero says, "Often we have larger fantasies and wishes for ourselves than our real lives can support. As a result, we work frantically trying to do more than God intended. We burn out thinking we can do more than we can." 

And sometimes those fantasies and wishes aren't coming from within. There are so many pressures out there. Pressures from work, community, family, friends. Pressure from culture in general. Pinterest. Instagram. Facebook. Photoshop. Motivational videos. Fitbits. And on and on. The pressure to perform...to be the best, or even a mediocre, worker, spouse, parent, child, friend, neighbor, citizen. To have the fit body and the classy house and the happy clients and the full bank account and the satisfied spouse and the thriving kids and, in some circles, the effective ministry and the proper spiritual disciplines and the right theology all the while keeping the peaceful demeanor and having no needs....DANG! It is all too much. 

Some people seems wired to do it all. And to do it all well. Most are not. So much goes in to your ability to perform be it genetics, temperament and personality and wiring, family of origin, life experiences, training and education, passions, priorities, circumstances. The reality is that all of us have limits. Some of us more than others. 

And the reality is that we can't do it all. And nobody should expect us to. 

Peter Scazerro again states, "Getting off our thrones and joining the rest of humanity is a must for growing up. A part of us hates limits. We won't accept them. This is part of the reason why grieving loss biblically is such an indispensable part of spiritual maturity."

I've spent years beating myself up over my limitations. It was such an incredibly healing thing to hear that not only is it OK to have limitations, it is important to accept them. It is part and parcel of growing up. Learning to grieve what I cannot do is as important as learning to pursue what I can. I think I can get on board with that. 


Sunday, December 6, 2020

Wounded Alone, Healing Together

This post may make some people angry or uncomfortable but I am going to say these things anyway because in this area in particular, I KNOW that I am not the only one. 

Of all of the ideologies I have encountered in the church, this one may be the most heartbreaking to me. It is the idea that human people, broken people, do not belong there. Biblically speaking there could be nothing further from the truth, but the culture is there nevertheless. I've seen it. I've been the target of it. And so many others have, too.

How does this play out?

It plays out when you share your story and nobody in the group speaks to you again. It plays out when you are told, in an accusing tone, that you are the only one in the church with any needs. It plays out when a leader complains that you are always complaining about how stressed out you are (while he has never asked how he can come alongside and listen and encourage). It plays out when you are told that brokenness has only to do with sin and repentance. It plays out when you are told it doesn't matter why somebody is doing something, you just have to hold her accountable for her sin. It plays out when, no matter what input you try to give, you are always "projecting your bad experience," turning you into the problem. It plays out when the pastor complains about having to spend the first few months on the job counseling church members instead of doing his work (and that isn't his work?). It plays out when relationships are traded for agendas. It plays out when you run out of gas and drop out of church and are treated with suspicion instead of care. It plays out when the weak within the church are called wolves that don't even know they are wolves. It plays out when the "weak" are considered dangerous to the true mission of the church. 

Yes, the above are only a few examples that I have experienced personally. But I am not the only one. 

-A husband is asked what sin he hasn't confessed when his wife's mental illness takes a serious turn.
-A pastor is criticized for admitting the getting regular counseling. 
-A wife is excommunicated for leaving her abusive husband without the church's permission. 

Oh, I could go on. 

Where does this from? Not from the Bible. 

It comes from:
-An ignorance of mental health and the strange belief that all struggles are spiritual issues.
-A bootstrap theology that tells you to do more and try harder.
-The idea that the Christian life is some sort of escalator ride up and up to the next levels, not the twisting road that sometimes leads you through the Valley of the Shadow of Death or the Dark Night of the Soul. 
-The idea that all that matters are saving the lost from hell.
-The idea that emotions are bad and not to be trusted or acknowledged and intellectual assent is always good. 
-The idea that people were made for institutions, not institutions for people. 
-The idea that ministry equals numbers. That the Kingdom of God can be measured on a tally sheet. 
-The idea that healing should come in the instant variety and the long-term effects of trauma are a result of a victim mentality or poor character. 
-The idea that the best way to win the war is to shoot your wounded. 
-The idea that those in spiritual authority are always right and should be trusted and obeyed no matter what. 
-The idea that every problem is a nail and all you need is a hammer. 
-The idea that power over is somehow more spiritual than gentle presence. 
-The toxic combination of ignorance and arrogance. 
-The idea that theology is more important than love.



Somebody last week said that I need to be the change that I want to see in the church. So here it is. I want to change these things. I really do. I'm not really sure how but for starters I can speak up and speak out. I can hold these ideas up to the character of God. But maybe first I need to start by asking God to heal my own spiritual wounds. 

As Carol Howard Merritt explains: 

"The reason religious wounds can cut so deeply is that they carry the weight of God with them. In some way we have felt that God was behind what wounded us. So the first step in spiritual healing is to learn to love God by separating God from our experience of being wounded."

And  

 "Our souls are tender places. We hold our ideals, hopes, wishes, and dreams there. That's why spiritual wounds can feel so devastating. In response to that inflicted pain, we can reject God. We can grow scabs in order to protect ourselves from further suffering so that our souls might not ever be susceptible to that sort of pain again. But that will inevitably harden us to the beauty, wonder, and mystery of God. There is another way. As we heal, we peel back those hardened places and allow our souls to be vulnerable again. We learn to protect ourselves with wisdom instead of simple rejection." 

To be honest, much of my writing, my Facebook posts, my honesty and vulnerability are part and parcel of my working through this for myself. I invite anybody else out there who has been similarly wounded, to join me in the healing process. I am actually thinking of starting a private Facebook group just for that purpose, so we can support one another, tell our stories ("the healing is in the telling," I hear), and share resources. 

We may have felt so alone in our wounding, but we can heal together. And maybe we can bring change together. Anybody with me?



Friday, November 27, 2020

"And Yet"

I started my first diet 43 years ago today. Well, not to this date (it was November 25 as opposed to November 27) but it was the Friday after Thanksgiving, 1977. It took me years upon years to see the connection, to see that my first diet of oh so many diets began the week that my world crumbled to ruins. Three days before, I had come home from school to find that my father had moved out, the garage empty of all his belongings (an image that would haunt me the day he died). It was one day before when I watched as my mother fell to pieces, quite literally to the floor, beating it with her fists and shrieking at the top of her lungs in mourning over the death of her 31 year-old marriage. I was 14 and powerless. 

I had grown up knowing that the worst thing that can happen to you is to be fat. Never having been a popular person, never having much skill in any area to speak of, and having struggled with intense shyness for most of my life, I knew that my value in my world rested on what I looked like. And in my world, that value was determined, for the most part, in what I weighed. 

I cannot remember a time when my mother was not dieting. Our shelves were filled with every diet book imaginable. We did not eat the chicken fried steak and gravy, the sweet potato pie, the fatback and collard greens of our Tennessee South. We ate cottage cheese and grapefruit halves. Boiled chicken. Stewed squash. We drank skim milk. Lipton Instant Tea with saccharine. Tab. And glory hallelujah the day Lean Cuisines were invented. 

But I digress. My diet started the day after Thanksgiving, 1977, but it did not end there. I've told the story enough places and times that most know it. The story of how, 2.5 years later I started a real diet in earnest in hopes of putting shattered life back together. Funny how we assume that pulling ourselves together on the external will mend our fractured insides. The story of succeeding quite well at dieting and then losing control of the very thing I thought I could control. The terror of gaining weight. The horror of a 3 week stay in a psychiatric hospital that knew nothing of eating disorders (who did in 1981?), the healing acceptance of a psychiatrist who saw beyond my frustrating impasse with food, the encounter with God. 

There has been so much healing that has happened over the past several decades (yes, decades, because healing doesn't come in the instant variety). And yet....there is still an "and yet." I'll stop here for a minute to clarify some things. I don't struggle with eating. I actually have a very healthy relationship with food. I don't restrict. I don't avoid categories. I don't count calories and haven't since 1988. I don't weigh myself. I don't skip meals. And I listen to my body and eat when I am hungry. That is one thing I have certainly learned over the years. 

So what is the "and yet"? 

I think the "and yet" is that I am still somehow affected by the toxic fitness culture. To be totally honest, I can still beat myself up for not being as fit as other people. And while I know that walking 30 minutes a day several days a week is a perfectly healthy, reasonable, and sustainable way to live a life, I am still affected by the social pressure to do more. 

This, to me, is probably where social media is its most damaging. Oh, I can handle the political posturing and put up with different people's views on all sorts of things. Sometimes I will push back if I think a post is espousing a particularly damaging idea. But somehow what affects me most are the posts of people biking their 50 miles or running marathons or comparing how many steps they took today. 

Yesterday Matt and Lizzy and I were hiking a chunk of the Mountains to Sea Trail. I mentioned something about how my grandparents never would have done such at thing at our age. Nor either of my parents. And yet what we were doing was nothing, really. Such small potatoes compared to what most people I know do. 

There really does seem to be a push to always do more. Run more. Hike more. Bike more. Exercise more. Join a gym. Join Cross Fit. And the older the people are who are doing these things, the better. We applaud them. After all, health is what matters. After all, our country wouldn't be in such bad shape if we weren't so fat. That's what I hear. 

I didn't realize just how powerful those messages were until, thanks to a counselor friend (thanks, Julia), I hit upon the Instagram posts of Dr. Colleen Reichmann, a clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders. Her posts are brilliant and so life-giving. She talks a lot about the toxic fitness culture out there. The pressure to always do more, to earn your calories, to earn your rest. And I totally get that. 

It wasn't until reading her posts that I realized just how far from a wholistically healthy life our fitness culture has pushed us. And how badly at least I need to resist it. 

While I know that my worth was never in the number on the scale or the size of my jeans or the purity of the foods I eat, I need to remind  myself that my worth is also not in how many steps I take a day or miles I walk or hike and doing more and trying harder.. My worth is not in fighting my aging body because the world says it's not OK to slow down or look my age.  

It is actually this "and yet," this last vestige of struggle, that might be enough to take me off of social media. Or maybe, rather than escaping social media, I will use it to send a message it's OK if you don't keep up with the frantic pace of fitness culture. That your value is found some place much deeper. And I need to remind myself of this. Daily. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Can You Choose Your Hard?


I have seen this posted several times in the past few days. It has floated around as a meme so I don't know who the original author is. I understand what he or she is trying to say but this is a very simplistic, black-and-white view of life. To be fair, these words may encourage some to be more intentional with their choices and not let the hard just happen to them. I get that. But SOMETIMES it just isn't quite that cut and dry.


Marriage is hard. Divorce is hard. Choose your hard. 

Obesity is hard. Fitness is hard. Choose your hard.

Being in debt is hard. Being financially disciplined is hard. Choose your hard. 

Communication is hard. Not communicating is hard. Choose your hard. 

Life will never be easy. It will always be hard. But we can choose our hard. Pick wisely. 

The truth is that you can try your best to choose the right "hard" and still end up with the other, or with both.
You can work your hardest to have a healthy marriage and still be abandoned or abused or betrayed.
You can work your hardest to be physically fit and still be obese, often for reasons others don't see or understand.
You can work your hardest to live a frugal life and still go into debt when an unexpected expenses or tragedy come your way.
You can work your hardest to communicate clearly and still have your words misunderstood or twisted to mean something you never intended.
No, life is not that simple. We don't always have control. We don't always get to pick the hard we get. Sometimes the hard picks us.
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