Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Laughter Therapy for the Recovering Fundamentalist

My daughters are 12 and 13.  They take a lot of classes at the homeschool enrichment center through our public school system.  We joke that our homeschooling is mostly on-the-way-to-school-schooling because almost every day on the way to school something comes up in conversation on which I give some exposition.

Some months ago, early in my explorations as a recovering fundamentalist, during one of these extemporaneous lectures, one daughter summed up my explanation of growing up fundy as “living in the fear bubble”.  The phrase has become a family word for the fundamentalist paradigm that results from being afraid of everything Out There and wanting to control the fear by following some magic formula.

Today on the way to school we got to talking about how living in bubbles isn’t just a religious thing. After I left Christianity, I didn’t start breathing fresh air, I simply stepped into a new bubble whose rules weren’t theological but were educational (Waldorf, Montessori) and nutritional (Nourishing Traditions, Michael Pollan).  We reminisced about my days of being violently anti-Barbie dolls, plastic toys, and most television; how I maintained rather rigid rules about organic food, no sugar, making our own flour.  I had, upon being pressed, to admit to continuing to hold all these ideals as virtues but we all agreed that I no longer see them in such black-and-white, all-or-nothing polarities.

The turning point, I said, came when I got sick three years ago and it became so obvious that following the nutritional advice from the expert that was guaranteed to bring me health instead made me much sicker and way crazier than I’d been before I sought help. After that, I was just too ill to maintain my bubble—everyone had to feed themselves, educate themselves, take care of themselves—and I realized that, for the most part, everyone thrived on a mixture of healthy and crap food, that how they related to their toys was much more important than what materials they were made of, and that television had an awful lot to offer.

But now that I have recognized how much of my life as a daughter and as a parent I have spent living in a bubble and I’ve consciously stepped away from the bubble, I am struggling to breathe that fresh air outside.  (The fresh air metaphor is not mine; it is my younger daughter’s.) I agreed that when one has been brought up having to accommodate some deformity of environment, there is great difficulty in learning to accept and physically use the healthy environment.

At this point, general discussion wound down as I got revved up on a lecture.  I brought up an experiment on cats wherein the kittens were raised in specialized environments in which there were only vertical lines or only horizontal lines.  When the cats were allowed into normal environments that had both vertical and horizontal lines, the cats were functionally blind to the lines they had not been accommodated to seeing.  They literally could not see what was right there in front of them. (From the back seat, there was a glazed-eye gaze and a white-noise hum, but I paid no attention and forged on.)

I extrapolated to my daughters’ upcoming teen years.  My only reference points to teen-age girl development are my own teen years in fundy evangelicalism, the waldorf education paradigm that can be just as isolating and legalistic as religion that I had gravitated to for their earlier years, and the extreme negative pole of the promiscuous partier that was what the bubbles are designed to avoid.  Obviously, between my reference points is the huge arena of Normal Teen Stuff that my girls will inhabit but, since I’m so entrained to the extremes, I really can’t see what that might be.  I concluded my lecture with the acknowledgement that we will all three of us be exploring normal-teenager together.

The silence was complete. 

“So, uh, when did you guys quit listening?” My overachiever first child assured me that she had still sorta listened because sometimes I give pop quizzes on my lectures.  Both girls quickly started volunteering keywords that they remembered—cat? bubbles? blindness?—so I asked, “did you at least get the take-home point?”

“You’re not normal?”

“We’re horizontal lines?”

“She’s horizontal and I’m vertical but you’re so used to seeing crosses that you can only see half of us?”

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Original Sin vs. Imago Dei III: Selfish Babies

[comment] … any parent can tell you just how selfish and completely lacking in empathy babies are…

I completely disagree with this thought.  I found my babies to be very empathetic to each other and to my moods and they continue to be.  A lot behavior of babies and young children that is commonly regarded as rebellious or selfish, I found to be the product of inappropriate nutrition or exercise or poor parenting on my part.  My first daughter used to be a very aggressive, crabby, biting, hyperactive infant/toddler.  It would have been easy to see her as selfish or "willful", in fact, most people did think that, even I thought so, although less often than most people.  Then she was treated for her excessive allergy load, we moved out of a house with lead-based paint dust and ancient leaky plumbing (heavy metal toxicities), and 80% of those behaviors disappeared.  Later, when I began to understand how foods triggered my own tendency to temper tantrums and I began to avoid those foods for myself (evening out my own moods), even more of her “willfulness” and “disobedience” disappeared.  Then I learned about the correlation between exercise and hyperactivity and began to look for ways that she could get a huge workout. Since then, when she has sufficient nutrition and exercise, she become the sweetest, most agreeable, humorous, generous child I've ever met.  

When I hear people talk about selfishness, sin, the rebellion of children, I hear an implication that this is somehow the child's fault (a sin nature to be overcome, "whip the devil out of him", “break her will”, etc) that puts the fault on the child rather than on the whole system of influences that contribute to a collection of behaviors that we call a child's character.  From my own experience, the shame of being sinful did not lead me to feel grateful for anything to do with God—after all, God made me, right?  But God made me defective? And the only means of becoming better was prayer and trying harder?  How exactly was God supposed to fix me in any way that turned me into someone more acceptable to the Powers That Were in my world?

I think there IS a huge aspect of personal responsibility that children need to learn: how to manage the influences to which they are susceptible.  I consider the biggest ongoing lesson of my daughter’s childhood to be helping her to recognize how to manage and prevent moods and behaviors that are not community-building.  The largest part of this lesson is teaching her to regulate her protein:carb ratio, getting a hard enough physical workout for her needs.  Without management of these things, she is so volatile that she "can't stop herself" from violence or temper tantrums.  With appropriate management, the anger, tantrums, and tendency to violence disappear. 

I see this learning to manage as hugely different than owning sinfulness and repenting.  Regulation of the chemical processes of the body (the vehicle of modification of selfishness that works for her) is not at all what I think is meant by church teachings on eradicating our sinful nature, even though the resulting obedient, joyful, peacemaking child is the same.  Thus for me it begged the question what is "sin" and the "sin nature" if it could be managed by diet and exercise much better than shame, punishment, prayers asking God to make me behave better.

[comment] …that does not make babies "bad" that's simply their natural state. We need to make the choice to be unnatural/supernatural, to accept the grace God offers to overcome our natural tendency toward sin.

Although I hope this writer is not meaning this "need to make the choice to be unnatural/supernatural, to accept the grace God offers" the way I heard it...ugh, I absolutely recoiled just reading it.  We, out of all God's creations, need to become unlike our created nature in order to become acceptable to God? We are born "sinful" in our nature (although no other natural creation of God is "sinful") and have to act entirely against nature, which is God's masterpiece, in order to be what God wants us to be?

No other created thing, no matter how corrupted by human intervention, is considered "sinful":  for example, wildlife that has been genetically damaged by pollution--is this a fair analogy to the Adam in the Garden version of Original Sin?  The bird that can't fly didn't choose to be genetically flawed anymore than we choose to be born as "Adam's seed" but we don't call the bird "in sin" or expect that somehow it is not acceptable to God.  Why are people considered as less worthy right from birth than birds?

Original Sin vs. Imago Dei II: Universal Dissonance

Original Sin is the idea that because Adam and Eve sinned, mankind is forever doomed to being inherently evil and redeemed only through an Act of God (or through believing in the Act of God, depending on where you are on the Free Will/predestination spectrum).  While this paradigm may make you delight in the greatness of God, it presupposes that you were in your original state unacceptable to God.  I find that presupposition to be deeply damaging.

During my heathen years I developed a personal cosmology that starts with God as the sentient, eternal, creative, sustaining, resonance/harmonic/vibration, the OM of the yogis, the Word, I AM. My cosmology is in my own mind a nexus of the realms of subatomic and astronomic science with philosophy and spirituality through the ages.  But my Big Idea is, to oversimplify, that this sound (the “Word”) that is God.  All created matter is a harmonic of that sound.  For various reasons, such as entropy, cumulative effects of short-sighted actions during former eras, evolutionary accommodations that are no longer necessary, any individual subset of matter (in this discussion, a person) can become mistuned.

The worse the mistunement (the more we are "separated from God"), the greater propensity for consequences of dissonance: selfish thought, destructive behavior, susceptibility to physical illness.  Physically, we can carry the mistunements of our ancestors in our DNA (perhaps as a kind of retrovirus that develops from suppressing the consequences of their dissonance?) and that acts as a predisposition to various manifestations of dissonance in our own lives—familial disease, inherited “personality quirks”.  

I think the Fall of Adam, Original Sin and the Sins of the Father doctrines are metaphors for this Universal Dissonance.  Grace is the possibility by which this dissonance is brought back into the right harmonic that is God.  This is "the moment of salvation". But because the predisposition for dissonance is hardwired into our matter (the theory of entropy), our souls have a tendency not to stay in harmony.  Wanting to stay in the harmonic, actively doing stuff that keeps us there (do justice, love mercy, walk humbly) increases the pattern that keeps us in harmony.  That is the "working out of our salvation".

A visual metaphor is a guitar: it is created at the factory to resonate at certain frequencies.  When it is strung the first time, it needs to be fine-tuned to the proper frequency.  But over time, through no fault of its own, the instrument will become dissonant and need retuning.  No one imagines it is a “bad” guitar, or that the guitar is “desperately wicked” or “depraved” for needing tuning.  There is no call for the guitar to “repent” from its dissonance and be “saved”. 

There are actions a guitarist can take to help the guitar stay in tune better—not throw it around, expose it to musical vibrations (store it near speakers)—but there is no moral judgment of either the instrument or the owner when the guitar needs constant tuning. 

Original Sin vs. Imago Dei I: Born to Sin

[commenter] What if ...  

• We were CREATED in God's image in Genesis 1-2
  • All God's creation (including man) was declared GOOD (i.e. perfect)
  • Sin entered the world in Genesis 3 and BROKE the goodness/perfection of creation
  • Because of sin, we are incapable of any truly good works/motives on our own (totally depraved, not as in always at the worst, but as in there is no part of us that escapes depravity)
  • Because of Christ, by faith in Him (even for pre-ressurection believers who were looking forward to the coming Messiah), we are RE-created to be perfect again in God's eyes, and to be slowly renewed in the whole man (body, soul, mind, spirit, social, etc.) as a work-in-progress that will be fully completed in the resurrection
  • We still REFLECT God's glory in this life, but imperfectly, as in a cracked and stained mirror

...  just some thoughts....

Interestingly, of all the religions in the world, only Western Christianity, Roman Catholicism and most Protestant denominations, subscribes to the idea that we inherit guilt from sin (or actions that foster less than good) not our own.  Islam, Judaism, Orthodox Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, all hold that we are judged strictly on our own choices in this lifetime after reaching an age of reasoning skills. Only Augustine, Luther and Calvin, the biggest names in the Original Sin/Total Depravity game, insist that we are born evil with no capacity whatsoever to do good until and unless we “accept the grace of God”, which phrase will have to be its own whole other post.

The thing about Original Sin/Total Depravity is that it emphasizes the human end of the duality.  I think, from the explanations of those for whom these doctrines work to bring communion with God, that the point of the doctrines is to bring the outrageous grace of God into sharp relief.  To highlight the vastness of his love and the marvel of his works.  All to the good, but my question then is this?  Is God not gracious, vast, and marvelous enough all on his own or does he really need us to be belittled, shamed and beaten down in order for him to look good?

I prefer to worship a God whose people acknowledge that we humans are in our free will sometimes awful, sometimes really great, and usually both at once, and that our God is infinitely more.

I'm reading a book by a fairly traditional (though not at all fundy) preacher--and surprisingly I really am enjoying it--but I'm at a point where he's bemoaning that we don't talk about sin much anymore.  It makes us feel bad.  Well... yeah!  Who wants that? 

Perhaps the Sin/Depravity motif worked in Christianity for so long because it resonated with how people actually already felt about themselves.  I mean, most people in Christendom really had harsh and brutal lives until the modern era so maybe it wasn't so much a beating down of humanity as much as recognition of their place in the world--lowly, abused, exploited, short-lived.

Modernity changed a whole lot about our view of the world and our place in it.  As religion lost favor among intellectuals, psychoanalysis grew in its place.  Sin/redemption themes became alienation and recovering the unconscious.  People still feel separated from the Divine but no longer feel as though they personally are lowly and shameful.  Without Christianity telling me how morally bankrupt I am, any wretchedness I feel has no shame attached.  Most people that I know feel pretty good about their work and their place in the world and see no reason to think of themselves as Sinful--except as it is pounded into their heads from preachers, parents, and religious authorities.

I grew up on the "hearts desperately wicked", "from the moment of my conceiving" (or whatever those verses are that supposedly prove Original Sin). The idea that I started out behind the cosmic eight ball, through absolutely no fault of my own, so that from the very moment that I came into being, God couldn't stand the sight of me and considered me used tampons ... yup, hard to believe in a God as Love after that. 

And I still carry that baggage embedded in my soul--that I am utterly disgusting and that only when God looks at me through the Jesus-colored sunglasses will I ever be anything else. 

Even though, I no longer rationally subscribe to anything resembling an Original Sin doctrine, or any kind of moral overlay to the fact that there is suffering in the world, I can't seem to transform this hideous indictment of myself.

During my time as a heathen, I developed some interesting theories to describe how I think this whole thing works, based on physics and sound theory and other stuff, that took the whole judgment aspect out of it and also gets rid of the whole either/or polemic that Christianity is so fond of---either I am totally depraved or I am perfect in Christ (when obviously neither one is literally true). And rationally I accept these and reject the total depravity BS. Now if I could just convince my psyche to let go of that ghoul...

I suppose there are those who would use my ongoing struggle as proof of the Holy Spirit convicting me of the truth of Original Sin--except that I've supposedly been saved and made perfect from that so why exactly am I still feeling like steaming dog poop on the bottom of God's foot? No amount of reason and intellect is working on this one, nor is praying or meditating. My husband has suggested exorcism once or twice....

(for a fuller explanation of Original Sin and its history:

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Wounds and Scars

[commenter]  The poem is good, but it seems a bit hard to get a handle on in my book.  I’m not very esoteric, more practical and hard nosed … and hard headed.  So I get the idea that God won’t give us what we cannot use, and maybe we’ll know more later than now; but how does one “live the questions”?  That I don’t get.

Maybe I should just tell you the questions that I am living so that you can see the Rilke quotation in the context that it became appropriate to me:  Last month I hit another boulder in the path of my psycho-spiritual journey.  Instead of climbing atop the rock and surveying the landscape around me, instead of taking the long broad view, I curled up into a little weepy heap underneath it, letting its looming shadow overwhelm me. 

I know and have known for months that I am not 100% recovered from hypoadrenia, not even really back to where I was before I realized that something was terribly wrong three years ago, but I've been pretty functional for most of the last year.  Until this summer, when I’ve felt increasingly less able to see the healing process moving forward.  Stagnation would be the most positive spin but backsliding seems the most accurate description.  Or perhaps just setting aside the blinders of denial I’ve been wearing, trying to convince myself and those around me that I’m not really as ill as I am.

A friend of my daughter’s has been very ill this summer with what has finally been diagnosed as dysautonomia with POTS as its most outstanding symptom.  As she and her family have struggled with finding help and healing, I became increasingly conscious of how much her symptom picture, and even more, the corporate symptom picture of dysautonomia in general, resemble my own situation.  With that awareness, I also became less able to trick myself into thinking I was almost healthy.

Desperate for encouragement about my physical health, I pulled out the Adrenal Fatigue book I used to guide my healing journey.  I haven't done the function tests since mid 2008 when I got the book.  So I thought I could cheer myself up by retaking the tests and seeing how much better I am—NOT!  I still flunked the tests really badly, although not quite as spectacularly as the first time I took them in 2008.  I got really depressed after that and wrote my Middle Aged Rant.

So the question has become how do I live from here on out?  Do I accept the diagnosis and prognosis of a chronic disease that I will probably never fully recover from, accept my limitations, accommodate them, and turn my focus on living the rest of my life well?  Or do I keep focussing on trying to find healing, to be not physically limited, even if that means another year or more of my life spent in little more than pursuit of physical health?  Do I start looking again for outside help (doctors, therapists) again in a vain chasing after diagnosis and prescriptions? Or continue with my own self-care but with the attitude of maintenance rather than recovery?

I am convinced that fundamentalism in its various guises, with its insistence on pursuit of perfection and shaming attitudes for failing that perfection, is largely responsible for my having become ill in the first place.  Fundamentalist legalism, fear and shame, the cognitive dissonance that most fundamentalisms perpetrate were the driving forces that used up my adrenal function and left me prey for this half-life I feel as though I now have. The question I live is whether the fundamentalist disease has left me wounded (with the immediacy of healing) or scarred (all possible physical healing has occurred, accepting limitations and moving on is the focus)?

Of course, the correct response to any of Life’s apparent either/or questions is not to accept limiting polarity but to look for the resolution that accommodates both/and.  Therefore it is true that I have both wounds still in need of healing and scars that need accommodation.  It is true that I have both physical disabilities and that I have psychological conditions that exacerbate those disabilities.  A hysterical disease is neither “all in her head” nor not-at-all-in-her-head.

It is also a long-established pattern in psychoanalysis that when a client comes very close to uncovering deeply-held unconscious issues, the protective strategies that enabled those unconscious issues in the first place work very hard to maintain the status quo, often manifesting as a worsening of the client’s presenting condition.  Looking back this summer, I notice that my illness took its steepest turn for the worse immediately after a week in which I got very excited about a new direction in theological reading I had begun and I had an interview for a volunteer position where the director was strongly hinting that I consider a new career direction (the hinting was not significant psychologically, the fact that I encouraged the hint was significant).  By the time I got home from the interview, I was overset by symptoms that have not let up since.

Quite obviously, when I can look with eyes that see, …

… although I can say in my head what I see so clearly, I am not able yet to admit it in print.  As I got to this sentence, I was interrupted by several things that included a fight with both daughter and husband and a subsequent crying jag.  Some time later, now I just can’t get back to writing that concluding paragraph; I’ve been on several procrastinating tasks and I’m admitting defeat.  I’ll write what I’m beginning to acknowledge to myself as I can.  It will surely be less startling to others than I have found it myself.

Friday, August 6, 2010

And Then Came Peace

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves ...
Don't search for the answers,
which could not be given to you now,
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps then, someday far in the future,
you will gradually, without even noticing it,
live your way into the answer.

rainer maria rilke