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