There are a couple of deeply meaningful lessons that I’ve learned that have become even more salient to me recently as these issues are at the heart of a current interpersonal conflict. So, for my sake and yours, dear reader, I offer these nuggets:
1) My first big psychological breakthrough came about a decade ago, when I learned that if I’m really upset about something and my reaction seems at all disproportionate to what is happening right now, I’m probably not just reacting to the present situation. As someone who experienced significant childhood abuse, this is a particular challenge for me. What it means is that I, like most people I would argue, am driven by often unrecognized "junk" from my past. In my case, because of the way my mother abused me, I learned early on not to share much information with her. I would come home from school and she would ask me how my day was, and I would give the classic "fine" response- and no more. However, in my case the stakes were much higher, because I wasn’t just giving the usual male adolescent cursory answer. I knew that any piece of information I gave her might some day be used against me, in ways I will not describe here. So I tried to walk that fine line between giving enough information not to cause offense, but only just enough so that I didn’t provide extra ammunition that I could later be hurt with. All of this happened when I was a kid. Now, in my 30’s- ten years into my marriage- I still have to muster great courage to tell my wife anything that she doesn’t ask for. I do it because I love her and it’s important for our marriage, but if anything happens to disturb that process- like a minor interruption after I’ve begun talking, the compulsion to "shut down" and not give anything else, and my related feelings of fear and anger, are still hard to manage. This is why the old adage to "know thyself" is so important. Because I know this about myself, when that situation occurs and I start to get overwhelmingly angry at the minor interruption, I can immediately connect the psychological dots between past and present, remember that I’m not really upset about the interruption, and- Lord willing- choose better behavior, especially/even if it takes a little while for my feelings to come in line with what I know I should do. This is a related and equally vital point. Feelings are wonderful and amazing tools. Like any good tool, however, it is important to know what they are for. Feelings are not, for example, a comprehensive guide to reality. One’s feelings in any given situation do not tell them everything they need to know about what’s happening externally. If I feel angry at or threatened by an individual, for example, that feeling probably doesn’t give me all the information I need to be able to respond well to that person and whatever they are doing (or not doing) that is stirring up those feelings. In fact, it is my ever-more-deeply-held belief that more than anything else feelings are useful as an internal tool rather than an external one. They tell me a lot more about what’s going on inside of me than they do what’s going on outside of me. If I’m careful to "listen to my life" by taking a hard look at myself- at those feelings- I can probably trace them back to a past wound that is being re-opened (if it ever healed in the first place).
2) All of the above led to my second, more recent breakthrough. For a long while I did the hard work of looking at my life and making all kinds of connections between present and past pain. I even did the further hard work of not only being aware of those connections, but newly armed with the knowledge of them, I did my best not to let that past pain drive my current behavior. Rather than being stuck in the cycle of old patterns, I tried to break free and chart a new, better course. However, those good intentions often devolved into something a bit less noble. I would realize in the moment that the nasty old feelings that were being stirred up in me as a result of the actions or words of another weren’t only about what was happening now, but then I would blame the other for their impact on me- an impact they wouldn’t or couldn’t even be aware of. So, for example, when present conflict with my mother-in-law stirred up the emotions of past conflict with my mother, I would blame my mother-in-law, whether I realized it or not, for how I felt, demanding that she stop whatever she was doing that resulted in dredging up that old "junk." This was my fatal flaw, and it took a while for me to "get" that I couldn’t hold the other responsible for causing me to re-experience, through their current actions, my past "junk." It’s my "junk," after all, not theirs. Now, inasmuch as whatever the other was doing was hurtful or wrong in its own right, then sure, there was something for us to talk about, but we couldn’t even get to that conversation until after I had taken a really, really hard look at myself in which I made all the necessary connections between past and present and then did my best to "keep ’em separated."
Sadly, I am currently dealing with some folks who I believe are making the same fatal (as in relationship-killing) mistake that I did. Those folks have suffered abuse both in their personal lives and particularly in their personal lives as a part of the Church, and for whatever reason have made me the focus of all their anger at God, the Church, Christians, etc. I act and speak in a way that dredges up that "stuff" for them, and I am being blamed for how threatened and attacked they feel as a result, but there is a deeply significant sense in which this isn’t really about me. Being a deeply flawed fellow myself, I am sure that I have done some hurtful things in my own right, and I recently acknowledged and sought forgiveness for this. This effort did not become reconciliation, however, because it was not mutual, and the latent issues, as far as I can tell, remain submerged. In the meantime, these folks are- again as far as I can tell (which is an admittedly limited view) are ready to throw out Christ with all the nasty old Christians. They’ve learned that Scripture isn’t useful (or trustworthy) as a science textbook, for example, and seem to be rejecting its usefulness for "teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" as well. They seem to have embraced postmodernism, but fail to recognize the trappings of Modernity and the manner in which the Church permitted the Bible to become ensared in them. After all, what is "truth?" Is it something that must be subject to the proofs of the scientific method? Must it be observable, verifiable, repeatable, etc.? Is the Bible only "true" if its ancient writers- inspired by God or no- got all of their facts straight according to the point of view of Modern science? Is it only true if it can be viewed like the transcript of a videorecording- as a recording of observed happenings- and that only? Like my seminary professor was so good to ask: "Is the story of Jonah the story of a whale, or a whale of a story?" Does it matter? Honestly, I don’t really care; there’s no way on this earth that I’ll ever know. In the meantime, it tells me much of what I need to know about running away from God- about how God is gonna do what God is gonna do anyway, and he may even use my rebellion to bring about what God is gonna do (so I’m "okay" either way), but it’s probably better for me to just go ahead and (literally, in Jonah’s case) get on board with God’s agenda in the first place rather than pursuing my own. This is the lesson of any good children’s story. It may not describe an observed historical event, but the meaning behind it all is no less real- or true. It’s like one of my favorite quotes from the movie version of V for Vendetta: "artists use lies to tell the truth while politicians use them to cover the truth up." I think this isn’t altogether different from what Jesus did when he spoke so often in riddles, parables, puzzles, etc.- and consider, just for a moment oh Modern Westerner- that some larger parts of the Biblical narrative may function this way as well. Does this, then, make it any less "true?"
Now, there are some events depicted in the Bible that I think you cannot do without- like, obviously, the resurrection for example. Jesus just isn’t Jesus without it. He may be a great teacher, a miracle worker even, a revolutionary- whatever. But without the resurrection when he comes along and says "follow me" I’m sure that I would have difficulty rousing from my endless consumer slumber. I think what is so threatening about this to some "Christians" is that they base their faith on the Bible, rather than on the person of Immanuel- "God with us." They’ve become "bibliolatrists." They’re afraid of having a real relationship with a real, living God, and so they reduce the relationship to a set of rules- a series of checklists regarding belief and behavior. As long as they check everything off, they know that they are "okay" (and not coincidentally, they can label/judge everyone else according to how they measure up). Sadly, by doing this they ignore the teaching of Jesus in the very Bible they say they revere. Jesus said that he would write his law on our hearts. He said that he came to fulfill the law, and to build a kingdom in which love is the only law. Many so-called Christians sadly don’t get my favorite credo- that "rules are for relationship." The "rules" are a means to the end of right relationship, but the rules aren’t the thing, the relationships are. What, then, of faith? How can one be sure without an "inerrant" Bible? Well, I won’t speak for everyone, but I will say that I am sure because, however failingly I do so, I believe Jesus. I didn’t say I believe in Jesus in the sense of lending intellectual assent to a series of propositions about him (though this may be true as well). Rather, I believe Him- so that when he comes to me and says "follow me," I do. This doesn’t mean I do it all right or well, or that I don’t run the other way or get mad and scream at him sometimes; it simply means that, by the grace of God, I have the courage still to scream– to question, to pound my fists on his chest before burying my head in his arms as I sob….and then finally rest in those arms, knowing that I am safe, and loved, and that it’s not all about me. Like Bart (see my last post), this at least is what I hope for- and that hope is what I am "sure" of.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure if the folks I’m currently having a hard time with "get" a lot of the above, and as far as they’re concerned, our relationship is very much in jeopardy because some of the "rules" and unacknowledged-emotions-related-to-deep-seated-"stuff" are getting in the way.