I have noticed something about western Christianity lately. Across all perspectives, from conservative through moderate to progressive, there is an assumption that we all live and always have lived perfect lives. They act as if we are all the family from Leave it to Beaver or from Cosby. Parents are always wonderful, they are never divorced, everybody has plenty of healthy friendships and platonic dating relationships, nobody struggles with addiction or mental illness, unemployment and domestic violence are unknown, nobody is slinging drugs on the street corner or shooting up your street. Therefore, parents are a lovely image for what God looks and behaves like, the Trinity tells us about how God exists in (healthy) relationship, heaven is just like being in church for eternity, and on it goes. They are mystified that their metaphors fall flat.
More than sixty percent of American children experience at least one of ten possible adverse childhood experience or ACE. Around fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, eleven million families (32%) with children under eighteen are single parent families, one in fifteen children are impacted by domestic violence and ninety percent of those children witness that violence – and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Despite all of this, many if not most Christian teachers and organizations continue to assume that Pollyanna examples based in an almost completely nonexistent worldview speak to anyone. Remember that the Cosby family on television was headed by a serial rapist when everything came to light. If you want to lead with the idea that the love of God is mirrored in the family, you are going to lose more than half of America in the process.
A healthy spiritual life engages reality rather than running from it or hearkening back to glory days that never existed. A healthy spiritual life also addresses real problems in real life, using relevant spiritual teachings that speak to contemporary circumstances. Teaching that God’s love is just like the love of parents when in truth one parent may very well be absent or addicted and the other neglectful simply isn’t helpful! In fact, it is damaging! Much more helpful would be proposing a God who suffers with us when we are transgressed upon and who motivates people to work in the helping professions so children (hopefully) may encounter them when those adverse childhood experiences occur. This would be a good first step, but it is far from adequate. Much work remains to be done as we build religious and spiritual systems that work for the future, but if we don’t do so in a way that speaks realistically to the lives and struggles then our efforts will be in vain.
I used to joke that my family’s northern European heritage meant that we greeted each other with a crisp salute at family gatherings. If we got really carried away, we would click our heels as we saluted, just as was depicted in those World War II movies about the German army. If only things had been that benign.
My parents were both profoundly mentally ill and addicted. The truth is that they couldn’t tolerate emotional content that wasn’t rage. Even then, my mother’s rage was the one that had free reign while my father cowered in the corner like the spineless wonder he was. The children weren’t allowed to have feelings. Physical illness was fine, but emotionally “fine” was the only acceptable answer. Of course, if anyone had taken the time to look they would have seen that we were far from time. In the days before air conditioning (yes kids, the olden days of lore), anyone with ears could have heard the problem on a nightly basis. I realize I am not alone in this.
Many if not most of us who were raised in last half of the twentieth century were raised by people who just couldn’t keep up with the rapid changes in the world that they and their parents inhabited. The short version is they saw and felt things for which they weren’t prepared, and so they repressed these things. What had worked on the farm didn’t work in the industrial age, but they didn’t have another answer. Some intrepid social pioneers found ways to grow into and through the process, but for most drinking their problems away was easier. That strategy was most definitely not easier for the children.
Into adulthood we sprinted, disengaged from our feelings on a more or less permanent basis. As we learned in Urban Cowboy, we were looking for love in all the wrong places – mostly because we had no idea what the right places looked like. Even if we had found the right place, we wouldn’t have known how to act once we arrived. We said, “I love you,” but what we meant was “rescue me from this hell devoid of feeling.” In effect, we were asking Helen Keller for driving lessons and wondering why we kept crashing. Sociologists tried to understand the divorce rate, but they too had received driving lessons from Helen Keller. Everything from promiscuity to women’s liberation was blamed, but the truth proved elusive. Perhaps it was too obvious to be seen.
People who can’t feel cannot love, and people who try to love without feeling have a series of short, unfulfilling relationships. Those who get married are soon divorced. Those who try to learn to feel find it to be a messy, long term, difficult business that has great rewards that require comfort with delayed gratification to achieve. Like the gardener who pulls carrots from the ground every day to see if they have grown yet, most can’t stay the course without help. The good news is that help is available. Don’t be ashamed to access it.
My wife Erin and I were in a fairly significant car accident Friday night when a pickup truck ran a red light. While we are banged up pretty well, we are alive – and that’s generally not something you think much about less than a week before the holidays. Ironically, the day before that I spoke with a woman whose husband had been rear ended on his way home from work and his car totaled. My conversation partner was on her way to look for a replacement car because they had planned to drive seven hours with their children to their holiday destination. Erin and I had to cancel our holiday trip a mere five and one half hours away because we were going to be able to get our car replaced in time for our trip. What are the odds that I would encounter someone who would foreshadow our holiday turn of events just one day later?
Last week I read a blog post in which the author advised everyone to reconcile over the holidays with any family members from whom they are estranged. Their reasoning was rooted in a rather Pollyanna understanding of interpersonal behavior and a mythic understanding of the holidays. I remember thinking what an absolute load of nonsense the post was when I read it, mostly because such views give a free pass to people who abuse others. It’s one thing to look past petty disagreements. I am all for that practice. It’s quite another to slide into denial about legitimate grievances because of some pie in the sky understanding of the magic of Christmas.
What I do want to recommend in light of my accident is that you be sure to tell the people you love that you love them over the holidays, and every day, because the truth is that we don’t know if we will see each other again. Life might be taken from us at any moment, and that is also why we shouldn’t gloss over serious disagreements. When we pretend that it’s acceptable for you to have abused me, what we are really doing is saying my life isn’t worth all that much. That does everyone a disservice, and no amount of fairytale holiday bliss can justify it.
Imagine if we wished one another an authentic holiday, a holiday season in which we told the people we loved that we love them and also honored everyone’s integrity by being honest about our disagreements, too. We might also commit to be honest with one another and to value that honesty over any misguided notion that our job is to protect the feelings of others at the expense of our integrity.
Many people believe that everything can be explained. I reject that idea. I am willing to accept that all mechanical processes can ultimately be explained – but how much of life is mechanical? Is love mechanical? Is childbirth mechanical? Is death mechanical? Is the feeling we experience at a great concert mechanical? The current tendency to want to reduce everything to something that can be explained is little more than self-deception. It is a product of fear of the unknown.
The truth is that we will never be truly happy until we can make peace with the fact that there are many things we do not understand, and some of those things are the best part of life. In trying to explain them away, we reduce life to a two-dimensional misery that sends us in search of something (substances, sex, control, power over another) to give life a false depth that fools us into believing everything is within our control and understanding. Better to actually experience and live life than to miss it out of fear!