She grew up the youngest of four children during the Great Depression. Born in late 1929, she could not have been welcomed by her dad the way she wanted or needed to be. He didn’t know how he was going to feed her. And though her Mom was a saint, the family left the comfort of the Georgia to go West where her Dad could work, first as a laborer on the Hoover and Grand Coulee Dam projects, and then later in the Vancouver Shipyards during the War.
She considered herself to be unwanted, ugly, and fat even though she was never bigger than a size 12. She was a perfectionist. Indeed, she demanded perfection, not only of herself but also the world around her. If things were perfect, it meant that she stayed under her Dad’s wrathful radar and life was easier to control.
An exceptional student she graduated from Fort Vancouver High School at the age of 16 and followed her older sister to Bob Jones University where she majored in Speech and Communications. A year after graduating, she left her fiancé to go as a missionary to Europe, a single 22-year-old radio producer. She was the first to produce a weekly Christian radio show that broadcast across the continent. She was excellent in all that she did, and she was lonely, convinced that it was a sign of her holiness.
She met her husband, a rising gospel star in 1951 in London. Their first date was King George’s funeral and 9 months later they married. By all
accounts, they had a storybook romance and she and her husband were love birds that couldn’t get enough of one another. They lived a poor but Christian-jet-set life — living by faith and traveling the globe together — ministering side by side.
After eleven years of globe-trotting married bliss, she had two boys and her life turned upside down. Nearly everything she liked about her life disappeared and was replaced by the lonely drudgery of raising two rambunctious boys by herself while her husband traveled for the sake of the gospel. She went from loving her life to despairing that she’d ever regain it. Publicly she retained the air of a Christian dignitary, but privately she was majorly depressed, wrathful and abusive.
Growing up the son of an itinerant evangelist has perks: travel & a certain level of status within the Church’s subculture. It also meant that my Dad was away much of the time when I was little and I grew up with an image of God that, if true, still scares the bejesus out of me. We were at church Sunday morning, Sunday evening and, later when we were older, on Wednesday nights for AWANA. Our life was centered on our church rather than the community in which we lived. Though we only embraced the moniker, “inter-denominational,” we were truly conservative Baptists. This came more of my Mum’s demand than my Father’s, but she did go to BJU, right?
Conservative Baptists brought in a flurry of “Scare-you-straight-for-eternity” films in the 1970s, and my church showed them all. While Larry Norman sang, “I wish we’d all been ready,” people poured to the altar rail; scared that if they missed out on this promised glorious relationship with Jesus, they’d be condemned to her for all of eternity. I distinctly remember Mom saying, “We are commanded to use all means to save a few. And fear is one of the reasons people come to Jesus.”
When I was five, a singing group from Multnomah Bible College (now Multnomah University) visited my church on a Sunday evening. My five-year-old brain couldn’t handle it anymore. I knew if I didn’t do something I was going to go to hell. I prayed telling God I didn’t want to go to hell, asking him to forgive my sins and save me. I took out fire insurance. I did it alone because I knew my parents must think that I was a Christian already and I didn’t want to disappoint them.
As I grew older, the thought of eternal life continued to scare me. I was stuck in an existential crisis. I didn’t want to cease to exist and I didn’t want to live forever. It was all unfair! I couldn’t make any sense of it. It was far worse than the fear I got watching any horror film I could think of simply because I lived in this terror — I was a part of it, not a mere observer. Dad was away, I was alone with my fear, sweating, and couldn’t sleep terrified of life. It was worse than any nightmare, and there was no escape — one way or another I was going to live forever and I didn’t like that one bit. I didn’t want to go to heaven or hell, and I didn’t want to cease to exist. The very fact of my existence was my nightmare. It was in the middle of that crisis that I first walked into my mother’s bedroom alone, late at night so the isolation of my existence wouldn’t overcome me. It was the first of too many visits and unmistakable pleasure and guilt that I still can’t put together In my soul.
They say that victims of sexual abuse (particularly abuse by a parent) blame ourselves rather than our abusers. They say that we minimize their roles in our abuse…
I was always the one that walked to my Mom’s room late at night. I ran from the ennui of trying to sleep alone into my abuser’s bedroom, and I enjoyed being there with her. It was my salvation from an abyss I still can’t face. I chose abuse rather than loneliness. Anything is better than that dreadful feeling of complete abandonment, and isolation. Anything is better than the blackness that I still don’t know how to face.
I hate that part of me — the part that escaped to unmentionable and life sucking, forbidden pleasure. Cognitively, I know that is s silly stance. If, as an adult, with years of seminary and graduate studies under my belt, I still can’t emotionally handle the darkness; how could anyone expect that little boy to handle it any better?
As I grew up, the orgasms I learned at the hands of my mother became my solace from the darkness. Certainly, they weren’t all fueled by loneliness. Fury and hatred fueled them more and more as I got older. I disassociated from them completely. I was Jekyll and Hyde — Truth be told, the dissociation hides parts of me still. A part of my journey is to discover and integrate those parts, long hidden and still petrified of the dark in order that I can be whole; or, in the words of Pinocchio, “…learn to be a real boy.”
I wrote 18 chapters that detailed my fall into grace. They catalog my Grace-fall. As I continue my work, I realized that those chapters don’t exist apart from this prolog. They don’t exist apart from my drive to escape the spiritual abyss born of the union of an unhealthy theology, an absent Father; and a needy, depressed, and sometimes monstrous mother.
I’m going to go into eternity wondering why I chose to walk into abuse and into addiction. For those choices are on me. I carry the shame of them and am still not sure what to do with them. None of the words here or that I wrote earlier in those 18 chapters take any of the blame of my actions away. They may help me understand those actions better, but they don’t excuse them.
I write for myself. But I also write for the thousands of others who have and do walk in my shoes, finding escape and reprieve from their own pain in the pain of others.
There is no other way to say it: I, and maybe you, are offenders. At best we’ve objectified other people made in the image of God. At worst we’ve done untold damage to their bodies, their souls, and their psyches. Like leeches, we sucked the life from others to escape the death in our own lives. Some of us will choose to make amends for those choices for the rest of our lives.
We are guilty. But we don’t have to be shameful. As Brené Brown says so eloquently, “Shame can’t live in the light.” Here before you is my shame. May it die a grizzly death in the light as it comes out of the shadows. Maybe together we can shed some light, “Kicking at the darkness til it bleeds daylight.” I pray so.
~~Stephen G., May 2017
Neville Symington (1993), an incredibly influential psychoanalyst suggests that Narcissism is at the root of all pathology. Loosely, he defines narcissism as a choice to turn away from the “Life force,” and any other outside force to meet my deepest needs.
John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, and Allan Schore, the father of Modern American Attachment Theory (the 21st century’s version of attachment theory) point out that our early experiences with our primary caregiver shapes how we view the world. We all have “attachment styles:” Secure, avoidant, anxious, or disorganized. In oversimplistic terms, our attachment styles demonstrate our narcissism.
“Wait a minute,” many argue, “attachment styles aren’t chosen. They are foisted upon us by imperfect parents who are incapable of being perfectly in tune with our needs, and therefore, fall short of meeting all of our needs.” We absorb their anxiety or evasiveness. Controlling and anxious mothers produce controlling and anxious children; avoidant parents produce avoidant children. If you need to be convinced of this, look at your friends’ Facebook pages and observe the pictures of their’ infants and toddlers. You will see the expressions of the parents carved into their children’s features.
The most chilling, bone-shaking video of this reality can be seen in the still face experiment revealed on Youtube. Watching this seemingly innocuous, short video still rattles my core. Symington’s argues that attachment’s cause and effect features are, in reality, choices for self-preservation and Narcissism on the part of the preverbal infant.
While Symington is correct, he is missing a step. When there is a breakdown in attunement, the child most certainly is confused, not understanding why this all-powerful force in his life, who provides sustenance, care, and love to her, fails her. She naturally asks, “Is the problem with them or with me? ”
It is much easier to assume that the problem is in me: “I’m not good enough… I’m not beautiful enough… I’m not strong enough… I’m missing something important…I’m repulsive… I’m misunderstood… etc…” Or, “I’m too much for them… they can’t handle me… I’m too needy… I’m too scared… I’m too loud… I’m too hungry… etc…” The two refrains of “I’m not enough” and “I’m too much” come from a dark foreboding chasm of a sense of unworthiness. This sense of unworthy inadequacy is “shame.”
Shame leads to our narcissism. Our narcissism leads to all of our other pathologies and psychological issues.
In Genesis 2 God tells Adam that if he eats from the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, he will surely die. Sunday school taught me that the death he and Eve experienced in the Garden after they ate was a spiritual death — and it surely was that. And it was far more than that. The first thing that happened after they ate was that they discovered their nakedness. They had to hide, and so they fashioned leaves as clothes to cover and hide. This is the first record of shame. This is also the first hint we are given that from God’s perspective, shame is death.
The God of the Bible is Trinity and in a perfect relationship. Ontologically (in his being) he exists in triune relationship. Shame destroys relationships. Therefore, shame is the death that was foretold in the Garden. If it grew large enough, it would threaten the existence of God Himself. It is at the root of all sin. It is at the root of all pathology. It is Death. It is Evil.
As Curt Thompson, in his book, The Soul of Shame (2015) alludes, shame is not stagnant, but mimics life itself. It continually besets and torments us. It will destroy us if given the opportunity. It is the defiant and Satanic urge to replace God with ourselves; freeing ourselves to finally feel as if we are “perfectly enough.”
If we want to address our ongoing relational and internal issues. We must face and address our shame. It is seen most easily in our relational styles, and in our stories of hurt and betrayal. It always manifests “between,” or, in our relationships. If we don’t address it, we will never realize the fullness that God has for us. Addressing it is not as easy as you might think, however. It requires courage, perseverance, and the company of friends along the way.
Heather Plett is a gifted writer and thinker. If you don’t subscribe to her blog, I hope this guest post by her will inspire you to do so. I wrote to her asking to republish this particular piece because, her description of emotional colonization, is a description of what the church often calls discipleship. It isn’t. It is far more insipid. It is spiritual abuse.
I hope you will read her timely, and horrifically beautiful description of emotional colonization below.
During an interview for a podcast recently, I was asked, “what’s the opposite of holding space?” Though I’ve done many interviews on the subject of holding space since the original post went viral, that’s the first time I’ve been asked that question. As is typically the case for me, the right question can crack open months worth of thought, and this one did just that.
As I contemplated, I searched for a term or word that might describe the opposite of holding space, but I didn’t find one that fully satisfied me. Finally, I came up with this:
The opposite of holding space is emotional colonization.
Wikipedia describes colonization as “an ongoing process by which a central system of power dominates the surrounding land and its components (people).” Colonization involves overpowering, dominating, and taking away the autonomy and sovereignty of other people. Normally we think of colonization… (for more click here)
Alex was the first to talk to me about Martin Buber as we sat outside one of Portland’s better brew pubs on a summer night in 2013 talking about my upcoming inaugural term at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. Ostensibly, my intention was to study with Dr. Dan Allender, the founder of the small, almost anonymous school on the shores of Elliot Bay. Allender’s books were already formational in my thinking about pastoral care.
As we broke bread together, Alex talked about other professors who would impact my life and thinking. Foremost among them was a man named Roy Barsness. Alex was unable to talk about Roy without mentioning Martin Buber, whose name I knew, but nothing more. Alex told me I’d soon know Buber well and prophesied that he would become seminal to my thinking. He was right.
When I started school in the fall of 2013, the Seattle School created cohorts of students who entered and traversed together a semester of classes that every student, no matter their degree program was required to pass. The course rotation was rigorous: Dan’s “Faith, Hope & Love,” created a grid for us to view our calling in the Kingdom of God, Dwight Friesen’s, “Hermeneutics,” helped us think about our interpretation of, not only the Word of God but all of life. This is important because the Seattle School endeavors to live at the intersection of “Text Soul & Culture,” and Dwight’s class made us carefully and thoughtfully explore the ramifications of when, where and how “text, soul, & culture” meet. Finally, my cohort met Roy, the creator of a provocative deconstructionistic class entitled, “Interpersonal Foundations.” In our first class, Roy asked us what we believed about God, people and sin, declaring that our answers would shape our approach to our work as therapists. So, the rest of the term we worked on those topics together.
It is perhaps that simple prolegomenon that sets the Seattle School apart from other schools. Everything we studied for the next three years caused us to wrestle with answers to these questions. They became the prolegomenon of our understanding about therapy.
Buber is important because of his emphasis on “I-Thou” relationships. This brilliant, Jewish philosopher taught me more about the importance of the Trinity than all my seminary professors. Buber’s understanding of the I-Thou is a Trinitarian understanding of relationships. For what Buber calls his readers to consider is that our very identities — The Imago Dei — are formed as we relate to others and God.
I define sin as “anything that violates a relationship.” This statement is true, in part because anything that harms relationship, in reality, violates the very nature of the triune God. A sin is a sin because it is the anthesis of God’s nature.
It is not hard to see how these core beliefs about the nature of God and who he made us to be and how we become who we are supposed to be, affect our work as therapists. Our endeavor is to live into the Trinitarian image in all our work and all our relationships. We are truly children of our seminary. We think that holding onto this Trinitarian truth throughout the counseling process sets us apart, and calls us to a new kind of relational holiness that increases the fullness of our lives and our clients’ lives and makes God laugh with delight.
By Alexander W. G. Seidel
In my many years as a church leader, planter, board member, or plain old attendee, it is remarkable how many of the leaders I’ve worked with struggle with an inordinate need for approval. I include myself in this struggle. I think we would all agree that it is nice to be liked, respected and affirmed for a job well done. But life becomes fraught with peril if we enter our vocation to fulfill a deep need for approval. This is especially problematic for those that choose the vocation of pastor.
Every 12-step / 12-tradition fellowship has slogans to help addicts; all of whom struggle with forgetfulness. Nearly all of us forgot we were addicts, and the results were almost always disastrous — if not for us – for the ones we loved. One of the first slogans people coming to meetings are introduced to is the “HOW” of recovery. Recovery requires “Honesty, Openness, and Willingness.” Honesty corresponds to the 1st step; openness to step 2, and willingness to step 3.
We admitted we were powerless, and our lives had become unmanageable.
We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
While it seems straightforward, the first step requires a level of honesty with which most addicts struggle. There are two things to admit:
I can’t stop, and
My addiction has beaten me and will continue to do so.
Most users can acknowledge one of those two statements. The trouble is that while we admit our powerlessness one day, and then, the next, admit our unmanageability. Acknowledging them both at the same time feels impossible. It requires reaching the end of ourselves to accept that both are true. And only after we have done that can we resume our climb the stairs.
The second step is about openness — being open to something outside of ourselves that can set us free.
Neville Symington wrote a book he titled, Narcissism. The book shook the foundations of the psychoanalytic community. For Symington argued that narcissism is at the root of all pathology. That is a big statement and creates a huge paradigm shift. Symington believes that narcissism develops in infants when their needs are not met. So they turn away from something Symington labels the “Lifeforce,” and choose to rely on themselves to find relief.
Adapting his construct is helpful. It explains how choosing to turn inward and isolate leads to pathological behaviors. The choice certainly leads to addiction and death. The second step responds to our narcissism. It asks us to repent, turning back to the lifeforce, and in so doing, overcome our pathologies.
The second step is addressed in many ways in 12-step rooms. Invariably, if you stick around long enough, you will hear, “First, we came… Then we came to…. Then we came to believe.” Most addicts who grew up in the church think this is going to be the easiest step. It isn’t. On the contrary, my reformed, evangelical, fundamentally-sound, biblically-based God; created by some of history’s greatest theologians could not help me get sober. Though I tried for over a year. I drove my sponsor and friends nuts. Finally, after learning how to work the second step on paper, I disregarded my impeccably crafted, reasonable, all-powerful God who I was unable to
trust, and I got sober. I’m in good company, for I’m not the only one that gets stuck on this step. Bill Wilson addressed us in the Twelve and Twelve on pages 29-33. It is worth reading. (The link takes you directly to the short chapter on the 2nd step, and you can read for yourself what he had to say.) The second step was the hardest step for me to take. Probably, because I thought it would be the easiest. I wasn’t as “open,” as I assumed I was. It took me a long time to realize that fact.
The third step in this recovery three-step dance is, “Willingness.” If you make it this far, someone will ask you, “Are you willing to do whatever it takes to get clean and sober?” and, you’ll have to decide; for step 3 says, “We made a decision…” It doesn’t say that we “Turn our will and our lives over.” Rather, it means that we make a decision to do so. If the step said, “turned our will and our lives over,” it would become something we do once. It isn’t. Instead, we make a decision, “to continually turn our will and our lives over.” When we realize this simple truth, we start to understand why another slogan, “One day at a time,” is so important. For, it is too much to say that I will turn my will and my life over tomorrow or the next day. I can’t be sure I will want or be able to. I can only say that I’m making a decision to do so today. And, frankly, if you are like me, you have to make that decision much more than once each day. However, when I commit to doing so daily, my friends remind me of my decision, and I get to live.
It is important for those of us raised in the church to notice that the third step also has two-parts. When I grew up, right before the altar call, preachers used to beseech us to turn our lives over to Christ. Because we’ve heard about, “surrendering our lives,” so often, it almost became part of our DNA. Turning our wills over to God, however, wasn’t anything I heard in church. I’m glad because I don’t like doing it. Turning my will over became my sticking point. To be willing to do so required me going back to my second step again and again, until God became trustworthy.
I couldn’t do it alone. We are not supposed to. All these steps are “we,” steps. My sponsor used to say to me, “Remember, we don’t have to do any of this alone.” My addiction made me isolate. It was created and flowed out of shame, and shame is the destroyer of relationships. Shame pushes us further from others and deeper into isolation. We find recovery to rediscover relationships. We go to recover our relationships. And, as we do, we live into our Imago Dei. When all is said and done, we go to 12-step rooms to recover the Imago Dei.