Hello friends, family, and followers! It’s been a while in the making (just about a year!), but I have decided about 90% to move forward with something I’m really excited to tell you about.Read More
I grew up hearing sermons about this thing everybody is supposed to have called a “God-shaped hole.” The point of these messages was that we all have lack or need that we try to fill with sin or addictions or idols, but really only God can fill that need. Go to church, read more scripture, spend more time in prayer or in the presence of the Holy Spirit, and that will fill this need. Somehow these sermons always fell flat for me, and I struggled to define that hole in my life that was the shape of God, a silhouette of a robed, bearded man who was approximately my father’s age. In recent months, I’ve begun to wonder why.
As my journey of healing from trauma unfolds, there is a part of my inner landscape of which I am acutely aware. It’s a giant crack, a gaping seam rent down the very center of my being. It’s the place where my most pointed anxiety resides, a pit deep and bottomless whose name is lack. Sometimes I call it the “Place of the Scream.” This hole is shaped nothing like God. I feel it most when I am alone for 95% of a weekend, or four out of five weeknights. I feel it when I’m facing illness or financial uncertainty. It’s very definition is alone-ness and un-being. To be in this place is akin to awareness without existence.
Object relations psychology has a term for such places we might encounter in the human soul. Psychic deadness is a phenomenon that occurs as a result of catastrophic parental failure or abandonment at the developmental level. When I say catastrophic, I mean a situation in which some critical need of the child is missed in a highly acute or consistently neglectful way as to create a deep wound in the psyche. It’s not inaccurate to conceive of this failure as a physical trauma, since the body responds physiologically to the emotional event or atmosphere that creates this place of psychic deadness.
And we all have them. We all have a place, or places, of screams. Places of abject loneliness or terror. Places where our attachment figures deeply failed us and we live with the consequences. These holes are not God-shaped. They are mom-shaped, dad-shaped, family-shaped, loving community-shaped. The face of that hole is your own face, registering the memory and emotion that you find too terrifying or painful to acknowledge and allow yourself to consciously experience.
For years I have tried to outrun the crack in my own being, tried to escape the gravity of this supermassive black hole. My escape is usually through fiction books or Netflix series. As a teenager I tried very hard to knit myself together with scripture, seeking God’s face in scripture verses about peace while I was literally tormented with anxiety. Sometimes I succumb to its pull, and find myself frozen on the couch or at the kitchen table for hours, just sitting, waiting for the next rhythm of the sun or my own biology to help me find a window out. I wait for the next meal I can cook, or the next workday to arrive. In the past year, though, my relationship with this place has changed.
A premise of many therapeutic traditions is that these places in us that we most fear are not to be ignored or cut off, as if they never existed. Jesus was being facetious when he suggested that we enter heaven blind and maimed as a sin-management strategy, because he desires something far kinder for us. If we try to ignore or outrun these places, they will continue to rule us from the shadows. But what might happen if, in context of a loving, safe person, we begin to have a conversation with these places? What if we begin to listen to their stories?
The premise of therapy, and, on a greater level, the premise of the kingdom which Jesus promised, is never that of undoing the past. That would be an affront to human agency and is contrary to what scriptures tell us about Jesus’ very own body. As adult humans, we can never go back and have the perfect parents or childhood that we needed. But love does time travel in this way: as we encounter love in the faces of others around us, we gain the capacity to become the mothers and fathers we never had for ourselves. We gain the opportunity to enter those deepest, darkest places and mother them. We hear their stories, we grieve them, and we invite them to the table. And as we interact with them, they change.
I can’t tell you definitively how they change. I can tell you metaphorically that I have begun moving into those places in my own soul and imagining what it might be like to build a home. My home is a splendid wilderness kingdom, as the iron walls that kept me protected from the outside yet cold and miserable inside have softened under the influence of grief, and they are turning into mountains. The horrifying black waters that used to haunt my dreams are becoming soothing places, suitable for life to flourish. And I am learning the names of the lake monsters that live there. The metaphor Jesus uses in the gospels is that of yeast working through dough. The yeast doesn’t replace the dough, and one doesn’t cut apart the dough. But rather the yeast works within what is already there and transforms it into something paradoxically the same yet different.
This work is hard. It takes immense time and care to begin teaching your body to be a home. You will likely need to eat and sleep a lot, and you will regularly feel like you have just run a marathon. Your face will change its shape to accommodate regular wailing and tears. You will still feel pain. This will disrupt not only you but others in your relational matrix as you change to become more fully alive. I promise you that the beauty and joy are worth the cost. The more I heal, the more the hole in my heart is shaped like God. Together we are building this place into a home where I am welcome, where She (God) is welcome, where many are welcome to enter and find refuge.
Theorists I have read whose work underlies many of the principles in this post:
Bessel van der Kolk
I went to church this week for the first time in a while because the advent story has nourished and filled me with wonder this season, and I want to celebrate Jesus. In past years, celebration of any kind has not been easy.
Family trauma and resistance to celebration is sometimes obvious. It is obvious when a family member promises to visit on Christmas, but 19 times out of 20 doesn’t show up. It’s obvious when a family member storms out of the house angrily on Christmas morning, without warning, muttering bitterly through clenched teeth and pointedly missing Christmas coffee and caramel rolls. It’s a little less obvious when I survive Christmas Eve dinner by spiking my sparkling cider with the dusty bottle of bourbon I found in the back of a kitchen cupboard.
Since my teenage years, I protested Christmas under the guise of religious objection to its pagan origins and syncretic symbolism. I won’t go into the history of these debates around the icons of the holiday, but refusing to engage “pagan” symbolism around Christmastime was largely a defense against my own shatteredness around holidays and celebration. How easy it is to justify this trauma pattern in religious language of being “not of this world” and “in the world but not of it.”
This year I’ve been on a journey to understand what it means to no longer be at war with myself. If Jesus “makes wars cease to the ends of the earth,” what better place to start than my own war-torn psyche? This exploration has led to two things: deeper grief and greater celebration. Instead of perpetuating cycles of violence and abandonment, I am in process of grieving places of harm and loss. I am also in the business of building both an internal and external sense of home. I’m learning to be a good mother to myself, and this carries over into my interactions with others. It’s like my insides are being stretched into a greater capacity for kindness and nurture, as well as sorrow for myself and others.
My home externally has reflected this change, and has become a place of refuge and hospitality. I love having people over for dinner or tea or a good movie. This year I decided I would not go to my parents’ house for Christmas, but that it was time for me to build myself a home and form my own traditions around the holiday. And it has been a fight. I’m planning to host Christmas for myself and a few other “orphans” who will kindly not return to their families. Already I’m aware of my own fragmentedness, as well as that of the people I’m trying to coordinate with. Issues arise over how we’ll organize food, whether or not we’ll exchange gifts, and what liturgy we might create to observe the sacredness of the space. I pointedly feel each of our orphan-ness.
Yesterday I found myself alone all day, as plans with a friend fell through. For those who are partnered and have families, consider yourself fortunate to have someone who shares your bed, brings you tea when you are sick, takes your car to the shop when it needs fixed, manages your bills and taxes, grocery shops, cleans the house, cooks, sits and reads the paper or scrolls instagram while you cook, works, and goes to school. I do all those things by myself. A married friend who just had a baby recently told me, “Ya know, I used to get really angry when I was single and my married friends told me that being single was hard but marriage was hard too. Maybe they didn’t have happy marriages, but after being married, I can tell you that being single is way harder.”
I decided this year as the proprietor of my home of one, I wanted a Christmas tree. I had just come off of some difficult conversations trying to coordinate with the friends who will celebrate Christmas at my house, and realized I needed to claim my space and do something to physically decorate in celebration of the holiday. The tree needed to be plastic, since one of the friends in question has a tree allergy. That somehow made a tree all the more necessary. I needed a holiday win in the middle of reckoning with the chaos and fragmentation, which I have committed to engaging as much as possible and working with, rather than sweeping it under the rug so that it tyrrannizes the space.
I visited six stores to find a plastic tree that fit my living room and my budget. I wasn’t fucking around. As I put the tree up I considered the irony of this engagement with an icon that my past self would have disavowed as a phallic symbol of Nordic paganism. Even if it is, I figured, God doesn’t hate penises the way those of us with religious shame often do. In fact I believe s/he loves them, so what the hell, welcome the phallus and Odin’s balls into the living room. What this tree means to me is that this is my home, it is adorned brightly and warmly, and maybe, just maybe, even our pagan symbols can be brought in and reoriented towards worship of the God-man, Jesus, who came not to erase our wildness or our past trauma, but to enter into it and redeem every last scrap and crack of it.
I recently revisited the story in the Gospel of John, chapter nine, in which Jesus heals a man born blind. This time the emotional tone of the entire episode impacted me deeply. Here’s what I’ve come up with thus far as I’ve pondered the story:
First, the disciples asked Jesus a question that revealed something of their basic etiology of illness. They found a man who had been blind from birth, and their question came with an assumption: Who sinned? Him or his parents? Someone is suffering…where’s the direct sin correlation?
Jesus replied with a revision of their worldview. He answered not with a dismissal of suffering or an accusation, but with authority over the problem. He healed the man. This caused problems for everyone.
For the man born blind, this assumption of sin=illness dominated his life. He was not only differently abled, but he paid a social cost for it as one who bears shame on behalf of the community. And as one who bears cost, it was probably easy to come into agreement with the lie that his blindness was a result of his own (or his family’s) shame. At least this way he had an explanation for why he suffered.
For the disciples, I can imagine the last person they wanted to be on a day-to-day basis was the misfortunate blind man. To deal with their own discomfort with the blind man’s suffering, and to avoid awareness of their own precarious position in the universe, the illness=sin paradigm offered them the illusion of power over their fragile existence. If they only kept themselves from sin, they might avoid becoming like this blind man.
This leads to another group that Jesus wildly disrupted. The Pharisees who witness this event seemed inordinately offended by what should be a beautifully celebrated restoration of a man’s sight and his place in community. They just wouldn’t hear of it. Whenever someone is that disproportionately angry, it tells me an area of deep shame has been triggered.
Jesus’ healing of the man born blind angered the religious leaders because it dangerously upset the narrative that kept them in power. Just as Jesus’ challenged the sin-suffering correlation of the man’s blindness by healing him, in the same stroke he dismantled the meritocracy myth that the Pharisees used to deny their own sin or shame and displace it onto others. The man born-blind-now-healed represented an existential threat as one who was previously disenfranchised by their religious power structures and now restored to community contrary to their system. And they made him pay for it with their slander and further disavowal of him.
At the end of the day, Jesus ruins everything. He invited the man born blind to give up a narrative of shame in exchange for one of grief, uncertainty, and love. He invited the disciples to identify with and see as human someone they previously marginalized because of their own fear and shame. And the Pharisees are offered the invitation to set aside their narcissism and power to become like the God they claim to serve—humble and self-sacrificing on behalf of the powerless (spoiler: not many of them take him up on the offer).
I sometimes find myself like the man born blind, looking for an answer as convenient as “whose fault is it?” when I experience suffering. In my own struggle with anxiety, depression, and PTSD, there are times I experience near-crippling loneliness, and physiologically the effects of anxiety and depression mimic a kind of intra-psychic blindness; the world actually looks less colorful to me when I’m highly anxious or going through a dark time. Sometimes I’m like the disciples, when I watch someone else suffering and I can’t be present to their experience because of my own fear and shame. This is part of my privilege as a white person in America. This privilege also makes me a shade closer to the religious leaders of the time.
The question of suffering may be intellectualized (which is its own defense mechanism) as “Why?” But on the deeply embodied level, it is really a question of expiation. Someone has to pay for this suffering. I usually try to make that happen on my own. In some contexts I project that shame and guilt onto others. This makes Jesus’ words and actions all the more brilliant. In the narrative, he validated the man’s experience and he healed him. We read later in the passion narrative that he also took the role of the ultimate scapegoat. That’s hella authority. Guess that authority gives him the license to be the one who catastrophically ruins our shame-based narratives and shepherds us into new ways of life.
I am now in my third year as a graduate student at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. These past several years have been a season of deep work. In addition to becoming a healer, as someone who reckons with C-PTSD (complex trauma), depression, and anxiety, I have needed much of my own healing. My therapeutic journey has been a bit of a mashup between Jules Verne 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Tolkien’s description of the Mines of Moria—in deep dark places, I have encountered so much unexpected, wild life and beauty; and also some Balrogs.
What has saved me, honestly, is the presence of Jesus; some wild, strange artists who have become dear friends; and the parts of myself that have the capacity to create and speak in places where, because of trauma, I have no words. It’s become necessary for me to slow down my academic learning, and intentionally give space for embodied forms of expression, namely visual art and poetry, and lots of long walks in the woods and along Seattle’s many beaches.
I have come to realize that my vocational training as a therapist is integrally woven with my identity as an artist. Writing in particular is developing as a form of beauty-creating, truth-telling, and warfare. Creative modalities are essential to my philosophy of therapy and healing. Creativity is a marker of psychological health, and the mediums of art and writing allow people access and integrate parts of their emotional experience that they may not yet be able to consciously experience or symbolize in plain language. The nature of trauma is to divide the self and keep stories hidden in the dark, laden with shame. Art (writing, dance, music) allows stories to be brought into the light, grieved, and redemptively reclaimed for the beauty and glory of God.
As an emerging writer, I use the Patreon platform to invite others to support my work and development. This allows me to share my work with those who journey with me, and also helps pragmatically to defray the costs of grad school, rent in Seattle, and my own therapy.
As people who have known me and supported me in the past, I would love to invite you to continue support of the work I do. My Patreon site is set up in tiers, which allows folks giving options. Patrons also receive access to my written work, which ranges from poetry to short prose pieces.
You can access my Patreon page at this link: http://www.patreon.com/genlev
Feel free to share that link with friends who are also lovers of poetry and champions of beauty against the forces of darkness.
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