Struggles… and Balm

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God.

Psalm 42:5,6a NRSVA

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder sucks. Its most insidious symptoms are toxic guilt and feelings of worthlessness. They are, in every sense of the word, crippling. Frankly it’s a miracle that I even get out of bed, if I’m really honest. Mindfulness meditation allows me to settle into the present, knowing my full humanity, my full made-in-the-likeness-of-God self.

I can b r e a t h e.

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

1 John 4:10 NRSVA

Self-compassion has allowed me to begin to love myself as a parent loves a child. I am able to see myself from a godly perspective – through the prism of Love. God has no desire to beat me up continually over my flaws – on the contrary, so why do I do it to myself? God loves me. I am redeemed. I am no more than anyone else, but I am certainly no less than anyone else. I don’t need to know any more than that. So I wrote the following, to remind myself – and maybe you – of what it really means to be a child of the Most High God:

You are a child of God, beloved and precious. Christ paid the price for you to not be shackled by sin. He loved YOU so much that He paid with His LIFE. This doesn’t mean that life is (ever) easy but it DOES mean you are no worse than anyone else – and if Jesus says you’re forgiven, what in heaven’s name are you beating yourself up for?

You’re ok. One step at a time. One day at a time. One foot in front of the other. Jesus is right there with you as you go. So stop beating yourself up and get on with living.

Life is a gift. Every breath is a miracle.  What had to happen for the confluence of atoms to become molecules, for the molecules to become living cells, for the cells to form a hugely complex organism – for the universe to create YOU? You’re a miracle. You are God-breathed. This is cause for celebration.

 

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole

There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

Sometimes I get discouraged, or think my work’s in vain,

But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again...

~ traditional spiritual

 

So let’s stop chasing self-esteem and start being compassionate to everyone, including ourselves, as Kristin Neff so eloquently explains in this video.

The only negative thing about this video is that for the speaker one of the most difficult things in her life is the fact that her son has autism. For me, the fact that my son has autism is really the least of the horrible things that have happened in my life. In fact, I don’t consider it as ‘happening’ to me at all – he’s the one with autism, not me. I’m his mum. It’s my job to be there for him. Why on earth do we presume we have the right to a ‘perfect’ child? Our Westernised, consumerist mindset is beyond crazy, especially when it comes to our own children. Ugh. I am so glad it is not possible to diagnose autism antenatally, as is frequently done with Down’s Syndrome. Anyway, I digress… The video is in many other ways excellent (and I’m not criticising Kristin – just pointing out something about our culture) and Kristin Neff’s audiobook Self-Compassion Step-by-Step has been hugely beneficial for me and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is struggling, whatever your reason. And perhaps I should recall the words of Edith Eger, Holocaust survivor and author of The Choice – there is no hierarchy of suffering.

See also Positively Powerless by LL Martin (blogger at Enough Light) for what the problems are with the self-esteem movement and an unhealthy emphasis on positivity and the consumerist mindset, particularly within Christianity. God is not a slot machine. The very notion is appalling… but that is a post for another day.

The featured image is from By Deror_avi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36512852

 

 

Made in God’s Image?

Even without overt sexual abuse, all young women are known to experience a descent into low self-esteem at puberty, probably as they realize their role as sexual objects.

Aron, Elaine N.. The Highly Sensitive Person (Kindle Locations 1732-1733). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Are you the parent of an adolescent – past, present or future? If not, I imagine you were one yourself, once! Do Dr. Aron’s words shock you? I hope so. I hope that they shake the core of any decent human being. If you are a mother or a father, how can we best instil into our adolescent sons the non-objectification of women and girls, given that it is e.v.e.r.y.where? Do you recognise where you yourself have objectified women, however unintentionally? This is just as much a question to women – women’s magazines, etc., attest to the fact that women buy into this objectification of one another. How can we best teach our daughters that they are worth so much more than just their physicality?

If you are a follower of Christ: Jesus is recorded on many, many occasions taking care to give particular respect and esteem to the women that He encountered, who were at the time generally treated as ‘less-than’ the men. It is clear from the New Testament that the early Christian church – the living expression of the New Covenant – was a place where women were included and valued. Jesus in fact told men, in no uncertain terms, not to objectify women. So why is this rarely addressed in churches? Why is a structure in which men’s voices are always the loudest (reflecting the world – not Christ) still the status quo? I ask this of Christian men and women, not just men. Men have to recognise their privilege and women have to recognise where they are reinforcing stereotypes against one another (which is also a reflection of the world, not Christ). We need to stop these generational inflictions on our young people. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God – and all, by grace, are lifted up and made beautiful. A healthy self-esteem is a recognition that we are bound, in this earthly body, to fall and to fail, but that we have a dignity bestowed by a loving Creator, who made us in His image.

There are words of hope for those for whom this is a daily struggle, for whatever reason, and they come from the same chapter; Jesus was on a roll that day 😉 Can you imagine what it would have been like to actually hear Him speak, to be there in His presence? Amazing!

Jesus said:

Blessed [spiritually prosperous, happy, to be admired] are the poor in spirit [those devoid of spiritual arrogance, those who regard themselves as insignificant], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven [both now and forever].

Matthew 5:3, Amplified

Sometimes blessings come from the places we least expect, eh?

What are your thoughts on the prevalence of the objectification of women in Western culture and on the subsequent effects on young people? Is it something you have given any thought to? How do you think men and women within the church can respond?

 

Thoughts on Samantha Morton, Childhood Sexual Abuse and Co-dependency

I was pleased (if one can be pleased about such things) to learn of actress Samantha Morton’s interview in which she spoke of the way she was treated when, as a child in care, she was abused by her carers. Actually, ‘pleased’ is not the word. The interview is outstanding, or rather, Samantha is outstanding; she speaks the brutal (painful) truth with courage and dignity. Although her circumstances were very different to my own – I cannot claim to know what it is like to have been in care – the response Samantha received from the police and from those in ‘authority’ sounds suspiciously like the response I received. In essence, they were not interested, and the victim was made to feel as if she was the one at fault by both the abuser and those around her, who colluded by doing nothing about it. My heart goes out to Samantha in this interview, and to all those like her who were removed from abusive families only to be subject to round after round of abuse from countless different people. Samantha’s courage and ability to carve for herself a brilliant career as an actress is nothing but inspirational. In that sense she is like Wess Stafford, former CEO of Compassion International, who also experienced childhood sexual abuse and, despite everything, grew up to be a courageous, compassionate, intelligent adult.

Personally, I have made the decision not to pursue any civil action against the police (after they told me last year that there was ‘not enough evidence’ to take my case to court whereas there would have been plenty had they acted on the information they were given 20 years ago) because a family member said she couldn’t go through it all again. I have to respect that, despite the fact that sometimes I want to shout and scream and show the world how unjust it is while it pretends to be civilized. Jesus’ words to the scribes and Pharisees seem particularly apt for describing those who abuse, and those whose behaviour condones abuse (including those who look the other way):

You are like white-washed tombs, which look fine on the outside but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all kinds of rottenness. For you appear like good men on the outside—but inside you are a mass of pretence and wickedness.’ 

Matthew 23:27 (JB Phillips)

In addition to watching Samantha’s interview, I have been thinking about the effects of abuse and how victims can lose, or rather, never gain, ‘normal’ boundaries (by which I mean a sense of ‘self’ as separate from others, which is something we usually learn in childhood and it grows stronger as we get older). This lack of ‘self’ leads to co-dependent behaviour. ‘Co-dependency’ is one of those words that are frequently thrown about and oft misunderstood. I remember when I first came across the word I thought it must be to do with being an alcoholic – which it is, but that is just one of a broad range of behaviours that can be associated with being co-dependent. At this point I want to stress that being co-dependent is not just the result of abuse. It can begin in many ways.

Recent events (i.e. something that happened yesterday) have left me considering again the nature of co-dependency. It is a complex issue, but at its heart, in its most simple form, co-dependency consists of two things:

1. The belief that others are responsible for my feelings.

and/or

2. The belief that I am responsible for others’ feelings.

Of course, there are occasions when a person’s actions will deliberately and directly affect my feelings and in that sense the one ‘causing’ the situation can be said to be responsible for my feelings. Also, of course, there are degrees to which I am responsible for the way other people feel. I am responsible in no small way for the feelings of my children, for example. I also choose to interact with people in a kind and sensitive way (for the most part), which is a way of taking a degree of responsibility for others’ wellbeing.

So where does the line lie? When you’re co-dependent, this may seem an impossible question. Or, you may know the answer rationally, but fail to act accordingly (denial being a very prominent feature of co-dependent behaviour). Both of these were true for me, in the past. Childhood sexual abuse can take away your boundaries until you have no sense of ‘self’, and too much sense of ‘others’. This can and does last well into adulthood. Everyone around you may seem as if they have huge, overwhelming emotions; this is scary. Your own emotions were buried somewhere, a long time ago. In order to survive, the sense of ‘self’ became locked in a nuclear bomb-proof vault. I don’t know if this happens to everyone, but it seems to be what happened to me. My instinct, even well into adulthood, was to placate those big, scary emotions. Sometimes the other person doesn’t cause big, scary emotions, but they impose upon you all the same. I have family members who do this and I don’t think they even realise they do it. I believe this more subtle imposition is called passive aggression/manipulation.

Back to my question – where does the line lie? Well, if another person has deliberately set out to hurt me, they share some responsibility for my resultant reaction. But feelings are not behaviour, and the onus is on the individual to take responsibility for their own behaviour. When you begin to take responsibility for your own behaviour, particularly in the way you respond to other people, your feelings change too. First, you take responsibility for your behaviour, and then you take responsibility for your feelings. You learn to separate those things which it is reasonable to be happy/sad/angry/scared about, and those things about which it is not reasonable. You learn that, even if you have some big emotions from your past clouding your judgement in the here and now – you are still responsible for you. For clarity: feelings are not wrong. Anger, sadness, bitterness even, are not wrong; they’re all phases we go through in response to certain situations, e.g. abuse, grief, etc. If you’ve been abused you’re allowed to be angry! Jesus had some very strong words for those who took advantage of those weaker than themselves:

“…if anyone leads astray one of these little children who believe in me he would be better off thrown into the depths of the sea with a mill-stone hung round his neck!”

Matthew 18:6 (JB Phillips)

In conclusion, this is the most important lesson: you can’t change other people. You can only change you. If you’re a follower of Christ, you do this with grace. It is no longer ‘there, but for the grace of God…’ but ‘there, with the grace of God…’ and you begin the first, tentative steps on the most wonderful journey towards healing and peace. God is good. God is always.