Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Life in the Crevasses

I'm not sure who invented the crazy concept of living in victory, as if it were some type of Christian ideal. Yet, even the Christians don't have the corner on it . . . although a couple of generations ago it may have come out of Christian, Victorian England. I mean, even in the secular, professional world in which I live, everyone must put on a "life is great and I'm in control" facade.  Even in that secular realm of life I often talk very candidly and people are often pointing out that "what you said makes you look weak."

I was first introduced to the Christian version of  "positive living" as a high schooler though Norman Vincent Peale, the mind behind Guidepost Magazine. It really was the Pollyanna approach to life.  Smile, pretend all is well, pretend all us of us have superb motives for everything and life will always be swell . . . you know, the movie Pleasantville, before color is introduced.

In this way of looking at things, we show only the tops of our personal lives that is illuminated in that tangential light of early morn or twilight. But, speaking of square footage, most of life plays out in the crevasses, the places that we are told to hid in the shadows. Places where we feel scared, confused or depressed.

This connects back to my post about words that can't be spoken.  So much is left unsaid about the reality of where we are, what we think, what we struggle with, what we long for, because if it doesn't fit the ideal, then it falls into those deep shadowy places like the crumbling rocks from the pinnacles.

I think part of this presses on my thoughts so much because in my "day job," I'm with patients talking about those crevasses all day long. My perspective is skewed.  I think I would have a common experience as the psychiatrist. You know the stories, husband comes home unexpectedly and finds his wife in the bed with her boss. The mom who hates her life because two babies drain all her energy . . . and she feels hopeless. This isn't even touching on the depression, anxiety, addiction and physical pain that is some much a part of these peoples lives . . . living here in the fallen world.

I can't stand Pleasantville any more.  I can't stand sitting and lying to each other . . . the tips in the tangential sun.  I have to force myself to play, to communicate on the superficial. It doesn't come natural anymore.

I still have a lot of evangelical friends on Facebook and reading their post you would get the notion that they stand around all day just smiling, looking up at the sky and praising God without ceasing . . . and without one cruel thought . . . ever! When you lie long enough, you start to believe your own lies. The deep crevasse are filled with that two-part Styrofoam mix. It expands and covers the holes, the cracks and the voids until the smiling land is smooth and perfect on top. But this yields an incredible alienation.

I had a patient recently talking about her crevasses. It is pertinent because she lives in Pleasantville on the surface. She and her husband and kids all attend a clean, white Evangelical church where the Gospel according to James Dobson is preached every Sunday.  She is in complete distress because she had filed for divorce and the whole church has turned against her, worst of all her own kids.  The most difficult experience of all is when her husband delivered her to his mother, the matriarch of the big church. She lectured my patient about her sin and betrayal of God and gave her a stern warning that if she files, God will punish her.  She knew of a lady who left her husband and then died from breast cancer a year later.

So I explored why she wanted a divorce in the first place. It appears that her husband, a type A, confident, yet "godly" man (and church elder) has been a womanizer all his life, since his football stardom twenty years ago.  The lady kept running into women, usually her husband's co-workers, who where saying that they had slept with her husband in years past.  

So she began to wonder and carry an intense fear about the man . . . if he was still that way.  One day she saw his Iphone laying in the den and she started to review his text message out-box. In it she found many "sexting" messages, to various women he worked with. They were graphic. Actually pornographic as he included some photos of his body parts (think Bret Favre here).

This patient then confronted her husband. His response?

The man expressed "gody" rage that his wife had betrayed him by looking into his phone. "How dare you not trust me!  You've violated our vows!"

I quickly point out to her, "no . . . I think he was the violater here."

So she feels in a quandary. She feels that it would be wrong for her to tell her mother-in-law that her son is a womanizer. She doesn't want to tell her kids the truth. She, at least at this point, is willing to take the fall and be the bad guy and file for divorce . . . or return to being the perfect wife . . . on the surface.

So what am I saying?  I'm really not cynical. I really do see beauty in the world and in people. But I think the worst facet of the Fall of Adam is the alienation that we all have one from another.  Living in one place, pretending the other.  It just seems that the good Church, the true Church--while unable to fix this predicament--would at least be pressing against it, rather that propagating it. Jesus lived honestly. Human godliness is a fraud.  Dobson families are a myth and card trick.

I've gone on too long once more but I think that Dickens expressed this alienation brilliantly in A Tale of Two Cities (which I've quoted before): 

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it! Something of the awfulness, even of Death itself, is referable to this. No more can I turn the leaves of this dear book that I loved, and vainly hope in time to read it all. No more can I look into the depths of this unfathomable water, wherein, as momentary lights glanced into it, I have had glimpses of buried treasure and other things submerged. It was appointed that the book should shut with a spring, for ever and for ever, when I had read but a page. It was appointed that the water should be locked in an eternal frost, when the light was playing on its surface, and I stood in ignorance on the shore. My friend is dead, my neighbor is dead, my love, the darling of my soul, is dead; it is the inexorable consolidation and perpetuation of the secret that was always in that individuality, and which I shall carry in mine to my life’s end. In any of the burial-places of this city through which I pass, is there a sleeper more inscrutable than its busy inhabitants are, in their innermost personality, to me, or than I am to them? 


trevor said...

Good thoughts. I've been thinking a lot recently about the 'tacitly accepted lies' that we tell each other.

In this case it would be the lie that everything is wonderful in our lives. I know that's not true, you know that's not true, and I probably know that you know that that's not true...

...and yet we still pretend that it is.

One of the strange consequences of losing our son was that we could stop playing this game. If someone asked us 'how are you doing', we didn't need to reply 'good thanks,' or 'oh, very busy.'

We could say, instead, 'frankly, life sucks right now.'

We were lucky in that there were some older folks at our church that did practice an unobtrusive honesty. That would give you a thought-out and frank answer if you asked them how they were doing.

But as you note, it's often easier to pretend.

jmj said...

I know that there are excellent exceptions of very honest people, always been honest, always will.

I've never suffer a loss as great as you. But I've noticed that the few losses I've had, that you are granted some grace . . . but that grace has boundaries. It has an expiration date on it. Not meaning that we shouldn't try to pick up the pieces and move on with our lives, but it seems that . . . yes, you are allowed to mourn for a season, but then "good Christians" are quickly joyous.

It is my sense now, some losses are eternal . . . the pain never goes away. You can push it down and you must, but there is never a point that you have the same joy that you had before the loss.

I've known friends in my Evangelical circles who have lost children. They were required(by social mores) to put a positive spin on it . . ."God took him home to be with Him so He could take better care of him than we could." Or, "I trust God and I know He did this for a reason."

But I think such reasoning waters down the Fall and the gospel. Pain is real, it is terrible, it has no rationality behind it . . . it is just evil. Grace is not the ability to sing and dance and say that all is well. Real grace is the ability to get up in the morning, once again, put your pants on, eat and go out the door into the world. To be able to do that, after a horrible loss, is tremendous grace in itself.

Dana said...

Mike, I would encourage you to read Fr Stephen Freeman's blog, I probably have done already. He doesn't post every day, and the comment list rarely gets over 50, so you could "keep up". One of the posts in the last 10 days or so is on telling the truth.

At the risk of being an "obnoxious convert" (and/or being misunderstood because of the different meanings of words between the east and the west), some of the things that attracted me to Orthodoxy were its ability to acknowledge suffering as something all people live in and with. The suffering of Christ on the cross and the Resurrection are never far away, and both are real and held together. Suffering in our life does not give God a bad name; our God is the one who Himself has suffered.

In addition, struggle to acquire virtue is expected, but the holiness is in the struggle, not any achievement. The expectation of "victorious living" is not part of it; the expectation of sober living and humility are. God is not far away with a thunderbolt. All we know of God is Jesus Christ, and he has gone before us, and is now on the sidelines cheering us on! His Spirit, at work in us, through the Church and in so many other places, is energizing grace within us, which helps us as we tell the truth through our tears about who we are. With every tear, grace (actually the Holy Spirit himself at work, not some "stuff" God created outside himself) is energized as we reject our "false self" and turn - repent - even ever so slightly to the beauty of who God and all that entails.

There many old "desert father" story about notorious sinners repenting and then falling back into sin again. The overall consensus of wisdom given is that as you try from your side, God will come to your aid, and even if you fail, God is at work to help you. (This is about virtue and everyday living, not "salvation".)

The heart of Orthodox understanding of God is that he is good and loves mankind - he is always on our side, he has no need to "punish", he has flung open every door so that we can turn to him. The only thing that keeps us from God is if we do not turn to him in trust (repentance and faith).

"A soldier asked Abba Mius if God accepted repentance. After the old man had taught him many things he said, 'Tell me, my dear, if your cloak is torn, do you throw it away?' He replied, 'No, I mend it and use it again.' The old man said to him, 'If you are so careful about your cloak, will not God be equally careful about his creature?'" The Desert Fathers

"When people go to the Lord with a firm resolve, He never allows them to fall back completely. He sees their weakness and works with them to help. He stretches out His hand of power from on high and draws them to Himself. His assistance is at the same time open, yet secret, conscious, yet unconscious, until such time as we have climbed right up the ladder and drawn close to Him." St Symeon the New Theologian, about 1000

"He who busies himself with the sins of others, or judges his brother on suspicion, has not yet even begun to repent or to examine himself so as to discover his own sins... " St. Maximos the Confessor, about 625 (Third Century on Love no. 55)

Your writings recall so much of my own struggles. I wasn't hurt to the depth that you were, but I felt the same feelings and had many of the same thoughts. God was with me in the wilderness, and he is with you, too.


Anonymous said...

Facebook is a horrible place for a depressed person. Everyone always seems to be doing fun things and having good times, and all their children are brilliant. I think my life improved a little when I got off of it.

jmj said...

Dana, I just had the chance to read your comment as I have company (good company) and haven't had time at the computer. I think I could fit well into Orthodoxy. There isn't such a church near me, although I do drive by one when I work in a different city on Fridays. I had a brief conversation with Frank Schaeffer about his conversion to it.

I don't know how much of the "victorious living" is still present within evangelicalism but hopefully it has diminished. But I still dare you to share in an evangelical group about something bad you are going through and the difficultly you are having with it emotionally and then just drop it. Someone will always fill in the blanks with "psuedo-comforting words" such as, "Of course God did this for a reason."

What point is grace if the pain was not evil to start with? If the pain was part of God's plan then it is good and grace is not required.