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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

TSL Pt. 3 - A Lukewarm Life

One of the consequences of trauma can be that we have felt pain for so long that we decide the only way to move forward is to dampen the pain. Whether our original pain was physical, emotional, or both matters little because all suffering eventually impacts our emotional life. Consider that chronic physical pain eventually has emotional consequences. We don't just say, "Ouch! That hurts!" Sooner or later we start to ask why this has happened and the pain - now physical and emotional - starts to wear us down. Eventually we blunt the pain, effectively turning down its volume. That decision comes at a price, however, because we can't selectively dampen only the pain. The result of turning down the pain is that we turn down everything. It doesn't
matter how we turn our pain down, whether chemically, through concentration techniques, through distraction, the effect of our "remedy" is that we live a lukewarm life. Beyond that, our coping techniques only work up to a point. There is pain that is too intense to be ignored, and all of our pain will eventually rise to the point where we can't ignore it. Then we may have a second problem on our hands, as the shot of whiskey that used to help us get to sleep turns to two, three, and four or more shots.

Human nature being what it is, the odds are we will put off addressing our issues until we are left with very little choice. Since it is almost certain that the "very little choice" moment will come eventually, why not start dealing with the impact of our trauma today? Why not take an honest look at where the past is influencing how we deal with people or circumstances today? In my last post I wrote about trust being impacted by trauma. Those trust issues are ubiquitous, affecting all of our relationships - even our relationship with the Divine. If I can't trust other human beings that I can see, how will I ever trust God who cannot be seen? Even before all of that, when we have been betrayed so often that we have lost count we likely don't even know how to tell when trust is appropriate. We have some work to do!

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Trauma and the Spiritual Life (TSL) Pt.2 - Trust

We may as well just jump into the deep water. If we have experienced trauma, and in Part 1 of this series we established that nearly everyone has, we will have problems with trust. If we sit with the question for a while, we will even come to see that we don't trust ourselves. We don't trust our judgment about nearly everything. We have been burned so many times that we may even wonder if we can choose which pair of shoes to wear today! We have trouble deciding what to order for lunch, which movie we want to see, it seems our lives are ruled by ambivalence. It is a self-protective attitude that eventually turns on us. We say we don't care because we are trying to protect ourselves from disappointment, but our ambivalence leads to some pretty crappy lunches - and much worse - which further erodes our trust.

For years I walked around with one foot in my relationships and the other outside of them, waiting for the least sign of betrayal. When that sign popped up, or even a hint of a betrayal that might come a decade down the road, I was out the door. This was only compounded by the fact that I was so sure I was unlovable that I wasn't very discerning in who I let into my life. In my professional life I chose to work alone, either in the field away from the main office or in self-employment. My trust had been pretty thoroughly demolished by some very professional trust hit men and hit women, and I wasn't going to let it happen again. The problem is that very attitude almost guarantees it will happen again. We set up a kind of feedback loop that doesn't serve us very well at all.

The solution? The solution is NOT to trust indiscriminately. We need to trust ourselves first, and that means we have to make some choices. We have to care what is for lunch, we have to dive in and choose a pair of shoes, and we have to decide what we want to do this weekend. A year from now we might be able to defer decisions, but right now we need to learn to make them. We also need to learn to establish boundaries. If we can't say, "that's not okay, stop that" then people will continue to walk over us and our trust will be further eroded. All of this takes practice, and it much more complicated than can be addressed in a short blog post. That's why this topic will come up repeatedly in this series!

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Trauma and the Spiritual Life, Part 1

I have been tossing around the idea of writing about trauma and the spiritual life for some time now, asking myself if it would be to self revealing. The last thing I want to re-create is that great coming out of Hollywood people who needed the world to know they had been abused as children, acting as if they were the only ones. It degenerated into a festival of both self pity and self promotion, a curious game of "my life is a bigger pile of crap than yours!" You must admit, that is a rather odd contest!

Nevertheless, the truth is that many if not most Americans have experienced trauma at one or more times in their lives. Merriam Webster defines trauma as: (a) an injury (such as a wound) to living tissues caused by an extrinsic agent, (b) a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress of physical injury, (c) an emotional upset. Wikipedia defines psychological trauma as "...damage to the mind that occurs as a result of a distressing event. Trauma is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one's ability to cope, or to integrate the emotions involved with that experience.

We can experience trauma producing events more than once in our lives, as well as from all three categories in the Merriam Webster definition. Possible causes of trauma are automobile accidents, bullying, all types of assault, combat, witnessing violence or being acted upon violently; physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; child abuse and/or neglect, harassment of all types including sexual, and a host of others. It should be rather obvious that most people experience trauma inducing events in their lives. For reasons that aren't entirely clear, we have different levels of impairment that arise as the result of those events.

My interest in this series of posts is to explore the impact of trauma on our spiritual lives. As a nation that has been at war for nearly two decades and, if we are honest, has struggled to navigate daily life since the Industrial Revolution, I believe we desperately need to understand the impact of these events on our lives and our spirituality. We begin the journey with my next post! 

Friday, February 7, 2020

The Line Separating Tradition from Cement Overshoes

It has been said, I think by Jaroslav Pelikan, that tradition is the living faith of dead people while traditionalism is the dead faith of living people. What he meant was that blind adherence to the way things used to be, or "always have been," eventually leads us to stop growing - to die, if you will. The truth is that every living thing has two basic choices - to grow, or to die. There is no real choice of equilibrium in a living thing. It must either continue growing - replacing dead cells, processing nutrition, breathing in the way appropriate to its species, and so on - or it will die.

For religious and spiritual people, this truth represents a challenging reality. There are things to which we have sentimental attachment. Our mother's favorite hymn, Grandma's prayer beads, the translation of the scriptures we used when we first understood our faith, the third pew on the left, a pipe organ that shook the rafters, and the clothing clergy and religious wore "back in the day" are all examples of things to which we become attached - and these are good things. They are also things that will change, and that is a good thing too. Each new generation needs to find things that speak to them, that help them feel at home in their spiritual journey. Some of these will be the same as their parents, others will be different. We parents need to see that our children and grandchildren finding their own meaningful symbols isn't a rejection or us or our symbols, but rather a discovery of their own unique paths.

Sometimes when I am reading a spiritual "classic," I find myself wondering how the text in question could ever have spoken to anyone. I sometimes face the same question when reading contemporary texts. The problem often is that my world, my reality, just doesn't contain the same concerns as those of the author of the text in question. This is why we have a constant need of new classics, classics in training if you will, that do speak to contemporary people. It's also why we need to constantly be mentoring new, younger leaders to one day take our place. For those of you in leadership today I ask, are you mentoring someone or have your cement shoes already been delivered?

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Diversity? Only When Convenient.

We like diversity, we value diversity, we believe in diversity - as long as it only has to do with appearances or other external qualities in adults, that is. If you happen to be a child, or if you happen to excel at things that aren't within the subject areas the institution has decided are valuable (STEM), or if you are creative in a way that isn't officially sanctioned, then you are pathologized.

If you are a child and you don't learn in the same way the majority of children learn, then you have "special" needs. We all know that any child in "special" education is pathologized as "slow"or, by their peers, or "stupid," yet we don't bother to change that labeling or challenge the stigma because once you are othered you are determined to be less valuable, less likely to succeed, less likely to be profitable to the capitalist  and academic institutions - but only because those institutions are too lazy to teach you in a way that maximizes your potential. That potential in all likelihood exceeds that of the average students, but we don't want to take the time to deal with you.

Maybe you perceive the world around you only too clearly, and you are depressed about the future and what it holds. Once again, the pathologizers rears their ugly heads. Those who have not been sufficiently anesthetized by the culture will become subject to a psycho-pharmaceutical anesthesia, labelled as mentally ill, and sent to very caring people whose future employment depends on diagnosing enough people in predetermined categories, the treatment of which insurance companies will subsidize. If you deviate from those predetermined categories in an attempt to better reflect what is happening, you won't get paid. Could their be a greater motivation for compliance?

So before you tell me how unfortunate it is that your special interest cannot gain acceptance, please tell me why you would want to be accepted by a broken system.