Archive for August, 2010

posted by Amy on Aug 22

An old Cherokee is talking to his grandson. “A fight is going on inside me,” he says to the boy. “It is a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf is anger, envy, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, lies, false pride, ego and fear.” He continues, “The other wolf is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside everyone.” The grandson thinks about it for a minute, and then asks, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee smiles and says, “The one you feed.”

I used to attend an adult Bible study class based on the Lectionary text for each Sunday. One Sunday we were talking about worry. I think the text was Luke 12:25, “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” One of the members of the class, Leela Putney, who was almost 100 years old at the time, said, “Worry is a sin.” She then told of being a young widow with five little mouths to feed, and of praying every day for God to provide for her family. And God did provide.

“Worry is a sin.” That statement hit me like a slap in the face. As my Baptist friends might say, it “convicted” me. I was a compulsive worrier. It was a deeply ingrained habit. I fretted and planned and schemed and fussed and worried all the time, but as soon as she spoke I knew Leela was right. If I believe in a God who loves me and wants the best for me; if I believe Jesus when he says “do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” then worry IS a sin.

I think everyone either acts out of fear or out of love. And the essence of faith is hearing that we are precious, beloved children of God, and then acting as if that’s true. The old Cherokee’s first wolf-and ours-doesn’t believe that. It thinks it has to solve all its own problems, fight all the time to get its share, make someone else lose so it can win. It sees life as a zero-sum game-dog eat dog (or wolf eat wolf). People acting out of fear do damage-to themselves and others. And when they do, they see negative consequences, which they then take as evidence of the correctness of their assumptions. The more they act out of fear, the more they see reasons to be fearful.

People either act out of fear or out of faith. When we feed the first wolf, we are doing something contrary to God’s plan for our lives. God wants us to be in loving relationship with God and with one another. When we act out of fear, we’re sinning. We’re acting as if we don’t believe that God really does love us and really will take care of us. When we act out of fear, we can’t help but feed the first wolf. God doesn’t want us to do that-Jesus said “fear not”-but God gives us a choice so that our relationship with God will be authentic. Love that is not freely given isn’t really love, so God leaves us free to reject the offer.

Jesus said that where your treasure is, there your heart will be. Do you treasure your worries? Does it make you feel more alive, somehow, to fret and fuss? Do you think your loved ones would fall apart if you didn’t step in and run their lives? Is that love, or is it fear? If you are the precious child of a God whose will is ever directed to your good, then isn’t that true of your spouse, or your boss, or your teenager?

The human mind is endlessly capable of rationalizing everything. I can get trapped into thinking that if I don’t worry about everything, then somehow the universe is going to grind to a halt. If I don’t try to fix every situation that my friends or family find themselves in, then disaster will strike. With that mindset, every misfortune or setback seems to validate my worry-sickness.

People either act out of love or out of fear. Acting out of love is an act of faith-faith that there is something more powerful than fear. Whenever we decide to let go of fear and anxiety, to renounce our attachment to it, we create a space that love can fill.

Being chronically fearful or chronically angry (which I think is a close relative of fear) can become a habit. It makes us feel powerful. We can come to treasure it. It causes “fight or flight” hormones to flood our minds and bodies, giving a surge of energy, making us feel more alert and alive. But what good is it? Do you treasure your worries? Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. If you always act out of fear, can you really love? Leela said worry is a sin, and she was so right. If I would rather worry than trust God to take care of me, then I’m turning my back on God’s love and I’m voting against God’s promises.

But just as chronic worry can become a habit that feeds on itself and keeps reinforcing itself, acting out of love can become a habit too. When you act out of love, what you’re really doing is living out of faith. Fearful people are like the trapeze artist who won’t let go of one trapeze and jump out to grab the next one. They stay on one trapeze, refusing to let go, thinking it’s safer that way. Maybe it is, or maybe they’re just refusing to do their part in the show.

More than once, people have said to me, “I wish I had your faith.” That used to leave me speechless, but now that I’ve been hanging out in seminary for awhile I think I have an answer. In my experience, faith is not something that you either have or don’t have. For one thing, we all have some amount of faith. We believe in the law of gravity, for example. Most people don’t need convincing that the sun will come up every morning. We put faith in our watches telling time properly and in swallows returning to Capistrano-and so on. For another thing, faith is something anyone can choose. Every time we decide to act out of love instead of fear, faith grows. God doesn’t need a very big opening to break in and plant seeds of faith. Really, just the tiniest little shred of willingness to follow God’s law of love is enough to make everything new. Start feeding the second wolf, and the first one will starve.

If we can summon just a little bit of faith-decide to act as if what Jesus said is true, act as if there really is a loving God who wants to be in a loving relationship with us; if only for the sake of argument, if only as a working proposition, then amazing things begin to happen. Faith is, as the author of Hebrews says, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

I hope Jesus loves me. I hope God is love. I have never seen God, but once I started acting as if God is love and I am God’s beloved daughter, I began experiencing life as more joyful, more full, more rewarding, and more wondrous. Just as a life of fear keeps validating itself, so does a life of love. Instead of being addicted to worry, I learned to let it go. I thought I’d just find out what would happen if I chose love instead of fear, and that has never been a bad idea. I’m not saying everything has been fine and no bad things have happened. I’m saying I have a way to deal with the bad things. When something painful happens, I get out of God’s way, thank God for sticking by me and loving me, then ask God to show me the lesson, and give me the strength to step out again in faith. It always makes me grow. I have had my heart broken-but it was broken open.

Now consider Hebrews 11:12, which says: “Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendents were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’” In Abraham’s time, the most important things were descendants and land. God promised both of those things to Abraham, and God delivered on the promise, although it seemed impossible, and it took a long time. For our time, what if we think about our legacy as spiritual descendants? What do you want to be remembered for? What values, dreams, treasures do you want to leave behind when you die? I have seen God take people who were “as good as dead,” and breathe new life into them, inspiring them to live lives of creativity and hope and love, to act as if the kingdom of God is not only possible, but here, breaking into a world of pain and fear, shining light into darkness. Out of that new conviction, that decision to love, have come spiritual descendants “as many as the stars of heaven.”

What do you treasure? Is it fear or love? If you treasure love, then you will grow in faith. You will see the world differently, and you will be a blessing to others. Whatever you treasure most, whatever you feed, whatever you put first, that will be what your heart will follow, like a sunflower follows the sun. If you choose love, then you will see everything in the light of God’s perfect love and goodness, and you will be changed.

posted by Amy on Aug 21

When I started writing this blog I was thinking I would keep it fairly impersonal. Nobody really needed to know anything about my past, or anything especially revealing about me. When I wrestle with personal issues, I do it in prayer, or in a private journal, or sometimes in conversations with a few close friends.

I’m beginning to see it differently. When people talk to me about things they’ve read here, they most often comment on personal details. A professor mentioned my description of driving to Philadelphia in 2008, when I started crying and couldn’t stop. Someone else commented on my last post, where I gave some personal testimony about child abuse. There has been other feedback in that vein. That shows me that I connect with people most effectively when I am authentic. If I seem too different, too “perfect,” then people will not relate to me, and I will fail in my purpose. But I also have to be careful.

My reluctance to be self-revealing comes from having made a huge mistake in the early years of my awakening. When people start waking up they tend to tell too much, to the wrong people. I permanently damaged a professional friendship that way, and may even have set back my legal career. I didn’t know it until years later, when my former friend said something like, “Well, considering your background, it’s amazing that you’re not a complete basket case.” Then I realized that the distancing that she and some mutual friends had done years before were most likely deliberate, and not just because of some job changes and moves.

Exposing family secrets is critically important, but it must be done carefully and appropriately–at the right time, to the right people, in the right context. In my zeal to help others I didn’t realize how powerful the taboos I had discovered were. I wanted to help others uncover their own hidden wounds so they could also transform. I was trying to throw them a lifeline. My only reason for telling my truth was to help them discover theirs. I was especially anxious to do that for my siblings. One rebuffed me by saying, “That’s all in the past. Why dwell on it?” The answer seemed obvious to me. First you have to understand what happened. You can’t heal without debriding the wound. But I no longer expect people to wake up just because I tell them how well it worked out for me. They can’t see the connection.

We were taught not to understand, or remember, what happened to us as children.  Alice Miller’s core message is that Western culture has institutionalized child abuse as “normal.” People raised that way turn around and do it again, blindly, unthinkingly, unfeelingly projecting their own inner rage and pain onto their children, and passing on a legacy of abuse. As a result, they will not think they have anything in common with someone who discovers different language for “normal” child rearing. They will make distinctions that protect their parents and themselves.

We do this automatically. I’ve seen it time and again. There was the woman who told me she had broken several wooden spoons beating her toddler. She also worked as a volunteer counselor in a program for abusive parents, and saw no irony in that. There was my conversation last summer with the three young coworkers who had all been beaten and intimidated as children. The one who appeared to have been treated most cruelly was the one who most stoutly defended her parents. And there was the close friend who reacted heatedly to my fairly mild assertion that the things that make us fly off the handle are usually tied to unresolved childhood issues. He said, “That might be true for you, because you had a really weird childhood, but mine was normal and happy.” I know some of the things that happened to him, and although they were, in a sense, “normal,” he most certainly is not happy. He’s been depressed all his life, and he has generously shared the misery with everyone who has tried to love him. He’s also an alcoholic, and he’s in denial about that.

All the things that have happened to me throughout my life made me the person I am now. I am at peace with it, and I have no resentment or bitterness, but I had to work hard to get there. Cheap forgiveness doesn’t cut it. What’s needed is a very costly, painstaking forgiveness. While I completely disagree with those who say, “Anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” I do think that suffering and hardship can be overcome and there can be growth and transformation in that. Going through the ordeal, and reaching the other side, can be transformational, but not the suffering itself. (Many things that don’t kill will, in fact, make you weaker. Chemotherapy is a great example. It might help you survive cancer–in fact it might be the only thing that saves you from death–but it will permanently damage your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to all sorts of other ills. It can even cause cancer itself. You are “stronger” in the sense of not being dead, but you are weaker in many other ways.)

I just want to plant some seeds. Anything that you defend very stoutly, especially anything that you say almost by rote, such as, “I always knew my parents loved me,” might be a cover-up. If you feel very strongly about it, and feel compelled to prove it, then it might be a “methinks the lady doth protest too much” situation. Remember the movie “The Manchurian Candidate,” where everyone recited, word for word, the same story about what supposedly happened? People had nightmares that belied the official story. My parents said they loved me, but I had nightmares, and I eventually had to come to terms with the dissonance.

They loved me as much as they could, but, to be honest, much of what they did was not loving. I am no longer a helpless child whose survival depends on believing otherwise, and my ability to feel, my ability to lead an honest and authentic life of my own, depended on discovering that truth. I now love, honor, and respect them, and I am grateful that they gave me life, but I couldn’t give them real understanding and forgiveness until I first uncovered the truth. I had to face it, and feel the very justifiable and natural rage, pain, sadness, and grief that came with that, before I could accept them and love them unconditionally. It took decades.

Almost everyone says, “My mother loved me very much.” Shouldn’t a parent’s love be so sure, so steady, so constant, that it’s actually taken for granted? Children have every right to expect their parents to love them. They are entitled to it; it’s not a bargaining chip. It’s not something that any child should ever be in fear of losing. I do love my children, with a fierceness and power that amaze me, and I have felt that way for over thirty years. But when I die I don’t want them saying, as if by rote, “She loved me very much.” I want them to say, “She loved life, and she taught me how to do the same.”

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