How to avoid a dumpster fire

This is an actual conversation that happened at my house last week (details blurred to protect my integrity)

Craig: I saw (unnamed) at (event he attended).
Me: REALLY?!?! Did you tell him he’s a jackass and kick him where he wishes he had balls?
Craig: Yes. I decided utter annihilation was the best way to handle the situation rather than communication and conversation.
Me: Whatever, you totally talked to him like a person and didn’t kick him anywhere. Hmph.

Friends, this is literally my marriage in a nutshell. I want to punch people in the throat and call them names, and my husband has actual productive conversations and doesn’t take my interpersonal relationship advice. It’s ok though, I recognize my need for improvement. Believe it or not, I am trying. Whether I choose to exercise my better social skills and values usually depends on how vulnerable I feel. The more vulnerable, the harder it is for me not to throw the first punch.

One of the ways I am learning to be myself again is to let down my defenses. It isn’t easy to leave an abusive relationship without feeling like everyone else is the enemy. In my situation, I was often told “people” (always nameless) were watching, calling, complaining and it was up to them (men in leadership) to uphold these complaints, rebuke and punish me. This pattern went on for years. I was never allowed to know the identity of those who monitored my every move. I actually began to believe that every person in the vicinity was a potential enemy and that no place was safe.

I’ve been unlearning this false reality for a while now, but when I feel threatened or emotionally overwhelmed, all my defenses slam back into place. My sharp edges emerge. I plot how to hurt them before they hurt me. These patterns aren’t healthy, but they were the lens of my reality for a long time. I’m learning to create space before responding in order to step back and remember not to come out with my flame flower already blazing. My healing process is awkward and imperfect. I’m growing into new patterns slowly, but I am softening.

Learning to be soft and open is a long process after trauma. When we are wounded we tend to guard the area where the injury occurred so it doesn’t receive further damage. But eventually, if we don’t move in natural ways, the ways we are designed to move, we become stiff and stunted where once we were supple and smooth. I feel stiff and stunted most days. It’s easier to resort to defensive techniques and name calling then it is to open to pain again. I tell myself it’s better to drive people away and be safe than to allow them close where they can wound me again.

I know these feelings aren’t based in reality, but they are easy and known. Easy and known can feel safe and true, even if it isn’t.

I don’t want to be a cynical, snarky, and mean person, not even when it gives that little zing of naughty pleasure. I’ve achieved expert level skills in the game of caustic comeback, but it’s not really the reputation I desire. In fact, this narrow, fearful, binary thinking of us vs. them is what led to the abuse which damaged me. In seeking to shut down and silence the ones I see as my “opponents,” I become like the very ones who damaged me so deeply.

I sure as hell don’t want that.

I don’t want to perpetuate the type of treatment I experienced. I want to be soft and open and loving. I want to hear what someone else has to say, which is hard to do when you’ve already punched them in the throat. I want to be warm and welcoming and speak with intelligence and compassion. I may eventually even overcome muttering “jackass” under my breath when I see them coming, even if I don’t go for the throat punch.

I have these heroes (my husband is one) who are strong and emotionally self-aware and able to hold conversations (without crying) about things they feel passionately without being prickly and defensive. I’m starting to love myself enough again to see the value in “the other” more than the value of being right and putting them in their place. I keep practicing vulnerability so these healthy responses are my go-to behaviors rather than all the self-protective bullshit I currently employ.

I’m working on it, working on me. Every day I’m unlearning the lessons of religion and replacing them with the truth of being human, and frail and fraught with error and filled with the Divine even so. Me, you, them, everyone. All of us needing a little less annihilation and a little more space to be heard.

Post-evangelical: This is my real life

This post is part 3 in a series. Read part 1 and part 2.

“How you do anything is how you do everything.” ~ Richard Rohr

Divorcing church is a messy business. They get to keep the moral high ground and we get mimosas on Sunday morning.

I actually wish it was that easy. Divorcing church means there is a great big hole in my identity now, one I am in no rush to fill. At least weekly someone asks us, Where are you going to church now?

We aren’t.

I can barely stomach the thought. I won’t speak for Craig, but he’s in no rush, either. We spend most Sunday mornings on the front porch with coffee and fresh air, reading, talking, resting. It’s communion enough for now.

I recently examined an idea: love can’t exist in isolation. This concept then became a foundation for the argument that christians must participate with a church congregation, or we aren’t truly learning and experiencing love. Looking at my life now, I am far less isolated than at any point over the last three years. I give love; I receive love-love which isn’t control and coercion wearing an “I love you” t-shirt- on a daily basis. Home, work, friends, family. I have a full, glorious life. I agree we don’t experience love in isolation, but I reject the idea that church is the single vehicle to provide a loving environment.

Because I am naturally introspective, I have to discipline myself every day not to wallow in victimhood or go too far down the rabbit hole of what might have been. I also work very hard not to villainize those who abused me. Mostly they are sadly short-sighted men who believe they are gatekeepers for something sacred, blind to the fact that sacredness isn’t found in form and function but in being. Theirs is a narrow vision.

It’s likely they will never acknowledge the damage they caused or the pain they inflicted. They certainly didn’t see it even in our final meeting, which focused on condemnation, rebuke, and correction, not of my actions, but of my emotions and experiences (an emotionally abusive tactic known as gaslighting). Small men with narrow emotional skillsets make for a cold, small kingdom. They are welcome to it.

I want something bigger, warmer and more welcoming, for myself and for people I love.

At least once I every day, I stop and take a breath and tell myself, this is my real life, and I am my whole self in it.

When I practice this, I feel like I could fill my lungs forever with clean, fresh air. This grounding is necessary after I spent so many years trying to escape reality.

Each day, I remind myself that all men are not ‘those’ men, especially men in authority. I work with a number of very fine gentlemen, who in no way mirror the misogynistic patterns which undergird evangelicalism. Every day I relax a little more. I stop waiting for the hammer to fall. I am respected and appreciated. I am also stretched and challenged which is another great way to keep from spiraling into destructive thought patterns. Working with the public is good for me, broadening my worldview and constantly challenging my capacity for kindness and patience.

I focus a great deal on my physical well-being: sleep, exercise, diet. Being well in these areas supports my mental and emotional well-being. After decades of imbibing the message that our flesh, our physical self is fallen, sinful, broken and of little value How did that become good news in any universe? How did any religion think that message would elevate anyone spiritually?

I’m discovering what it is to love the body I inhabit. The walking, talking, feeling flesh. This body which survived cancer, chemo, radiation, pregnancy, miscarriage, c-sections, injury, repair, mountain climbing, scuba diving, shark tanks, a half marathon, eating, and intimacy, breastfeeding, and letting go, grief and joy and anger and shame – this is my one and only amazing and beautiful body. It is not a polluted mess which holds my soul captive until I finally “go to heaven.” It’s the glorious vessel that translates my experience in the world every moment. The more I love my self, the better I am able to love the world around me.

It’s a damn fine world, let me tell you. I’m not eager to “escape” it for anything.

Every day, I awaken a bit more. Freedom is like that, expanding, unfolding calling us to keep moving further up and further into this reality we call life.

Am I a Christian? I don’t know, and what’s more, I’m not sure I care. So many labels are just baggage, as though they could tell anyone anything of value about our unique and shining selves. I know I trust Jesus – the man, the myth and the legend. I know His narrative will always be my native tongue. I will continue to study other cultures and practices, but it’s likely I don’t have enough years of life left to speak any other narrative as fluently. I am at peace with this. I embrace my love of spiritual and contemplative practices. This is me, wholly me, a silly, nerdy, bookish, questioning, wondering, belly-laughing, contemplative, eclectic gypsy down to my marrow.

I believe we grow up more than once in our lives. Biologically we have no choice. Our bodies and brains will mature with or without our consent and with very little effort on our part. But emotionally and spiritually, these are maturities we work towards. These require our blood, sweat, and tears. We can choose to take the easy path and hang on to the patterns and traditions handed to us as children, and we may be well contented in those. But we will always expend tremendous energy defending and protecting them when they rub up against other patterns and traditions which we see as threatening. We can remain children throughout our lives.

Or we can relax our grip, an act of tremendous courage. Opening ourselves to the value of other patterns and traditions is the only way for our primary experiences to assume their proper place in our lives. These events mold and shape us, but they do not define us. Other traditions and practices have intrinsic value even if they seem strange and unfamiliar. We can learn from them, and those who practice them, without erasing our identity. In fact, it may enhance our identity.

I’m open to the possibility of returning to the church one day, though never one that isn’t inclusive or which has no women in lead roles. But even if I embrace those traditions again, it will be loosely, with the understanding that they do not create or save me. Only the Divine within has that power. I can freely participate in whatever resonates with my soul, understanding that those harmonies exist anywhere I go. I am the incarnation of God (or Source, or Universe, or Buddha or Allah…name your identifier) even if I never darken the door of a church again. Here is where I find peace. I don’t need a label to understand this.

When people asked Jesus if he was the Christ, he always answered with a question: Who do you say I am? We have spent millennia answering that question, in beautiful and horrible ways. Not a single one of those definitions have the power to change the essence of the One who tabernacled with us and in us. He/She is.

I AM…me. And will spend the rest of my life reveling in the experience of being one with the Universe which never ceases growing and unfolding.