God in Pretty Boxes

Photo credit: Liz West

A post….in which… I am processing, meandering, and maybe not making a lick of sense. Here it is anyway.

Suffering is GRACE.

This sounds absurd…even more so as I type it out. And you’re probably thinking, Julie, that’s messed up. How can you say that horrible things happening to people is grace?

Well, first of all, I’m not the first person to say it. Maharaj-ji, Ram Dass’s guru, said it 50+ years ago in India, for one. And if someone can live in India and see the extremes of poverty and desperation that exist in places there and still say that suffering is grace, there must be some validity to it.

But…I don’t think suffering as grace is the end goal. I think suffering is the vehicle that moves us to greater freedom, greater love, and greater awareness of what matters…and because of that, it’s grace.

It sucks though. If I had been consulted in the beginning of all things….if there was a beginning to all things…I would have tried to pick a way to avoid pain and suffering to be the path creation must walk to awaken. That being said, I wasn’t consulted, so the best I can do is work with what appears to be the process and trust that there is a far greater intelligence out there that is wiser and can see the vaster picture of how everything is interconnected and everything belongs.

While I don’t necessarily like it, I agree with Maharaj-ji that suffering is grace. Because I have felt it in my own life and I’ve seen it in others’ lives. Granted, on the grand spectrum of suffering, I probably fall on the “lesser” side, but suffering is suffering, and trauma is trauma. It doesn’t matter what your external life looks like for you to be rocked to the core by things that happen to you, or PEOPLE that happen to you. It seems pretty clear to me that suffering is the trigger for transformation. If we didn’t face hard things….things that absolutely undo us….then we wouldn’t be so motivated to question the status quo, or search beyond ourselves, or be willing to do the necessary shadow work to get to a better, healthier place.

I don’t seek out suffering, though, for sure. And at some point, as Byron Katie teaches, I think that suffering (not pain or bad things, but chronic struggle can enshroud those things) is optional.

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Not all that long ago, a major part of my life blew up in my face. And it has wrecked me.

I saw this blowing up coming for quite a while, I knew that it was going to happen, and I knew it was going to hurt, but the exact moment and context in which it happened….I didn’t see that coming. I was blindsided.

It’s been one of the worst things I’ve experienced in my entire life, and in some ways, it brought me to the end of myself. I literally did not know what to do for a while, moment by moment. It has manifested itself as weeks of not depression, but something better described as sheer desolation….a feeling of a heavy weight sitting on me that I can’t rid myself of. A feeling of walking around with the wind chronically knocked out of me. A feeling of wishing I could get in the shower and scrub away my insides and all the uncomfortable feelings and pain that I don’t’ know what to do with. And with it that feeling of a raw, oozing wound where your skin has been ripped away. Because this big blowing up didn’t just unveil the dysfunction covering a short time frame of my life….it ripped wide open a big, deep, tunneled wound that has been with me since I was very little….a wound that I never knew was as extensive as it is. THE wound that has been influencing the trajectory of my life.

It was that kind of ripping open a wound where you can’t just shove the skeleton in the closet and ignore it anymore. (I know I’m mixing metaphors here, can’t help it. Work with me.) It was the big wound ripping where you either have to face it and recognize that you need to get some serious healing and make some big changes in how you operate in life, or…..the less favorable option….you go into absolute denial about it all and keep operating as normal, trying to pretend like that ‘thing” isn’t there and isn’t bleeding all over the place.

For a long while, and still part of the time, this does not feel like grace. It feels like deep, soul suffering. The kind where all your hurts and insecurities from your entire life just bubble up to the surface and you can’t escape them, and you feel completely betrayed and alone and lost all at once, and you really just want to tell absolutely everyone who ever hurt you to go fuck themselves.

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Life is messy. And hard.

When I was a kid, I hoped and believed if I just stayed the course, did everything the “right” way, stayed out of trouble, and tried to give my best to the people around me, I would get to adulthood where everything would suddenly make sense. It was kind of a disappointment, then, when I finally reached adulthood and realized that grown ups had their shit together far less frequently than I had imagined. Being the perfect Christian girl until my mid twenties only served me up to a point, as well.

The kind of religion I was handed for most of my life was the “God in pretty boxes” type. I was never really introduced to a solid theology of suffering. OK…well, in youth group and summer church camp we had graphic details about the suffering of Jesus on the cross thrust into our faces that shamed us into running down the aisles to apologize as quickly as possible and beg forgiveness for torturing someone before we were ever born. I can still recall all the times people have felt the need to describe in graphic detail what the experience of being whipped by a cat o nine tails and nailed to a cross is like, and exactly how death would come about. (Can we say spiritual abuse, trauma, and horrible manipulation to try to get people to ‘come’ to Jesus?) The memory of altar calls after viewing of the Passion of the Christ make me want to vomit. That is a twisted way of introducing people to Jesus.

Sorry, sidetracked there for a second by things that still really piss me off. Where I was going with this is that we learned about the suffering of Jesus, but we were never given a solid theology for how to allow suffering and pain to transform each of us individually. The lessons were mostly about 1)just pray more, 2)figure out where you’re sinning in your life because that is probably the root of your suffering, and 3) hang on tight because once you get to the sweet by and by all of the stuff that happens on earth will suddenly be irrelevant and you’ll feel better.

I do not like ‘hang on until Jesus comes back” theologies. This is God in a pretty box that is minimizing, propagates abuse, and is disempowering to people….implying that they should just wait for a rescuer instead of realizing the divinity and resources within, allowing themselves to be transformed, and creating change right here and now and instead of just assuming this life is a wash and there’s no hope in bothering to try for better.

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I’ve been doing ALL the things I know of to put myself back together…in a new way. Now that I know how big this life wound is, I don’t want to keep living with it. I’ve turned to my trusted spiritual teachers, my close friends and kindred spirits who have walked the difficult paths before and know the way, meditation, tapping, psychotherapy, improving my diet (OK, except there’s a little too much wine involved), exercising, sleeping, etc…all the things that I know to do to heal. I’ve found myself lately turning to the late teacher Ram Dass. His book Walking Each Other Home, which he wrote with Mirabai Bush, is one of my favorite books of all time. Now, this week, I just finished listening to his autobiography called Being Ram Dass. I was reminded of his saying about “Fierce grace”. Fierce grace is the grace that comes with it’s companion of pain, to teach you and radically transform you. It doesn’t come wrapped in a pretty box or a pill that is easy to swallow.

The reason I feel desolated (barren or laid waste) and not depressed, is that somehow I can see that this blowing up of my life is fierce grace. I didn’t choose it, it hurts like unbelievable hell….but, it has revealed the big thing in me that has held me back my entire life. This pain is showing me the path forward. And in a really bizarre way, as I look a the timeline of what has happened, and the “uncanny coincidences,” and the knowledge that I’ve finally hit the motherlode of my broken places., and even though I’m miserable, I feel strangely loved. Like God said, it’s time Julie. You’ve done some good work up until now. You’ve done years of therapy, you’ve asked the hard questions, you’ve looked inside. Now it’s time to go all the way.

Another example of how God does not come in a pretty box. They make you feel like shit and yet abundantly seen and cared for all at the same time. How’s that for a weird theology.

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Working in infection prevention, I read about surgical site infections all the time. For one of my graduate classes, I did clinical hours in the wound care clinic of my hospital with my mentor and friend, our resident infectious disease doctor. The interesting thing about wound healing, is sometimes you have to injure to heal. You’ll find an area of tissue that looks suspicious, and you cut away the superficial layers to find necrotic, dying tissues underneath. So, you cut out the dead tissue. Wounds can get stuck in the first stage of healing and never improve, and so you have to cut away more, and even cause additional bleeding, to encourage new, healthy cell growth.

Debriding wounds is often painful. But it’s necessary for long term healing.

I feel this way with my life. God has been peeling back the layers, one by one, slowly, slowly…as I’ve been able to handle it…to show me the dead places, the places that had been damaged. And then, it seems, they decided it was time to just rip the last of it away.

It is time for me to bleed, so that I can heal. Paradox.

This is not a safe God. Or a tame God. It is the not the neatly wrapped God that is so often presented to the world, with the message “If you just accept Jesus, and pray more, everything will be fine and you’ll experience God’s blessings.”

Maybe this is the epitome of a loving God, though. A God that is not content to let me keep groveling along in the same hurtful life dynamics over and over and over.. A God that would rather see me experience excruciating misery for a short while so that I can get the real healing and security that I’ve always wanted.

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When I was little, growing up in church, so much was about appearances. We had to look like we had it all together when we showed up on Sunday morning. I used to hate Sunday mornings, because so often we did NOT have it together as a family. But once we hit the church pew, you’d never know otherwise. It was such an ego trip…trying to appear as though as good Christians we were trucking along just fine and not struggling with our humanity or doubts or temptations.

The God in a pretty box that was handed to me so often when I was growing up is that you get to God by doing it right. I think this is bullshit. You get to God by doing it wrong. Also , Richard Rohr says that, so expert witness there.

You get to God by being wrecked, and coming to the end of yourself, and knowing that there’s not a damn thing you can do to earn their approval or love. But, you have to dig away at all of those wounds, too, to cut away the beliefs and lies and misperceptions that haven’t served you.

The funny thing about pain is that sometimes it (the bad pain, not the pain that comes with healing) becomes familiar, and so you learn to stay with it, because the places and people that don’t cause you pain feel unfamiliar, and “other”, and therefore uncomfortable. I used to wonder why women in abusive relationships kept going back again and again instead of kicking that guy’s ass to the curb. I get it now….if abuse and being treated badly is all you know, and you believe you don’t deserve better or that you won’t be able to make it on you own, you settle for that abuse. It is familiar and comfortable, even if it is painful. I’ve got my own familiar places….the ones that feel like home because that’s what I’ve always known, how I’ve always been treated by certain people in my life….but those places are death. Just because something feels familiar and comfortable doesn’t mean that it’s safe, or loving, or good. And sometimes it take the fierce grace of ripping open a wound to help move you out of your ambivalence.

Sometimes the horrible, unfamiliar pain…is the healing kind.

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The thing about healing from trauma and emotional pain and abuse in your life is that at some point, you have to make a conscious choice to move forward. I know from experience that it is easy to spend years in therapy recalling every bad memory of every bad thing that happened to you, and every person who was behind it. But, this can only get you so far. I think if you’re not careful, and you insist on ruminating on these memories, or trying to conjure up every single bad memory you had for labeling purposes, it is too easy to self-identify as a victim. It feels good to the ego when you bring up another horrifying memory to your therapist and they sympathize with you and say how unfair that situation was. It’s a necessary thing for a while, especially as you are trying to figure out your core beliefs about yourself and identify your childhood wounds. But after a while, those memories are just memories, and hashing through each one and assigning blame, again and again, leaves you stuck.

One therapist I have seen in the past told me about a client she had (no privacy or patient identifier violations occurred) that had horrible PTSD from being in a house fire as a child. As they worked through her traumatic memories, sometimes the patient would go so deep into her PTSD that she would crawl behind and underneath the couch, completely reliving the horrible scenes from that fire. Apparently during one session, the client stayed behind the couch for an entire hour. My therapist told me about telling the patient that it was OK to go to that place for a while….to relive what had happened and try to feel safe in the midst of it, but she couldn’t stay there forever. At some point, she had to come out from behind the couch.

This is how I feel. The hurting part of me wants to cower and hide and not face the scary, painful things that have happened to me. I don’t want to look at the abuse. I don’t want to have to question my negative beliefs about myself. You have to pull things up to the light to do that, you have to cut away at tissue to bring bleeding and more healing….and that hurts.

But then I think about this idea of God or divinity or Source, or whatever the heck it is that I can’t seem to stop believing in. I remember many times as a child and teenager, praying fervently to my understanding of God at the time, to never let me pull away or stray. I would ask God to please help me stay close and pursue them no matter what happened in my life.

And while my theology and world views have dramatically changed, I cannot deny that there is this God-Being-Energy-whatever-you-want-to-call-it that has been with me relentlessly, who has shown up in the places that I least expected it. It has never been a God in a pretty box. Usually they show up with super painful circumstances in tow, and alot of hard lessons to learn. But I can say with certainty that they have honored my childhood request…they have always been there, and they have always offered me grace after grace….as undeserved and as fierce as it may be.

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