Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Screaming at God

I was a freshman in college. Like all freshmen, I took the battery of interest and personality tests that they gave us and signed up for a time to review the results with the college counselor, Linda L. I do not remember a lot about the results but I do remember one thing: I was in the 99th percentile on independence. I remember Linda giving me a quizzical look, gingerly raising the question of whether there might be problems at home that I was so eager for independence. I denied it, with complete honesty. My conscious mind told me that I had a fine family and we all loved each other. I was just ready to move into the next stage of my life.

In my undergraduate college experience, I was studying social work and criminal justice which required a significant number of psychology classes. I remember reading Freud and all of his ideas about the "unconscious" and the repressed emotions that he taught were the underpinnings of neurosis. I remember not believing it. I believed much of what I studied but an unconscious? No way. Shortly after I graduated from college though I had an experience that triggered something that years later made me revise my thinking.

The details of the experience are not important (sorry to leave you hanging). But what was important was that I started having anxiety. And interestingly, the word "unconscious" itself started to trigger little ripples of anxiety in me. Eventually I got myself into therapy and it was then (years in) that I discovered it. The anger. The rage. A rage that made me want to pound my fists to the floor and scream, "I hate you!" Much of the time, my screams were silent, fully screamed but without my vocal cords since I had neighbors living downstairs. But the screams unleashed something that, years ago as a college freshman, I had no idea existed.

There was, in my case, no forgotten trauma revealed. And my parents really are fine people. So where had all of this rage come from? Looking back, I think much of it came from a simple misunderstanding made as a young child. With my solid Catholic upbringing, I learned to examine my conscience, to identify my sins, confess them and receive forgiveness. I still remember sitting in the church one Saturday afternoon with a prayer book that was to help me with this process. I was leafing through it and saw reference to "the seven deadly sins". I did not know what a deadly sin was - but I knew it couldn't be good. I wasn't too worried at that point in my life about such things as sloth, gluttony or lust. But one that particularly caught my eye was "anger". This one really worried me at the time because, quite naturally, I felt angry from time to time. If this was a deadly sin, my child-mind reasoned, I had to get rid of it, stop it. A deadly sin would cut me off from God, the worst thing imaginable to my pious little mind.

So my life proceeded, with my ongoing struggle to not feel angry - and definitely to not express it. If I felt anger, I would add that to the list of offenses that I told the priest. It would feel good to be told I was forgiven but it hardly seemed to take any time at all for me to again feel angry. It was years later before anyone told me that anger was not a sin - in fact, that no emotions are sins. They are just emotions. But by that time, I had taken a lot of angers, many of them minor, and stuffed them in my mental closet. Because I seldom expressed them, some that could have been cleared up with a bit of discussion, instead festered in there without my knowledge. When the "I hate you" burst forth in my silent screams as an adult, I could no longer deny an unconscious. My anger had been so carefully hidden that, for years, I hadn't even known that it existed.

This is, of course, just a bit of my story, different I'm sure from yours. However, I learned (and am still learning) profound things from it. Besides learning that I have an unconscious, that I can be angry and that stuffing anger inside can make me anxious, I have also learned that sometimes we need to scream. Sometimes we need to spew forth the most ugly and painful feelings in order to be free of them.

While probably few people grow up with my terror of the deadly sin, I think many grow up believing that it is not safe to express anger or rage. Sometimes it may feel unsafe because of an overtly abusive parent who will surely give a beating for something like that. Sometimes it may not feel safe because a parent might withdraw their love, refusing to speak for days or weeks on end. Sometimes it may feel unacceptable simply because there is a culture that teaches that one must not be angry with or even question one's mother or father - or one's God.

Many courageous souls come to me, sharing their pain. One of the saddest things I hear (and I hear it often) is when someone tells me that they hate themselves. Sometimes people even say they loathe themselves. Often people who feel this (and maybe you're one of them) feel that they cannot be forgiven by God and/or they cannot forgive themselves. If I ask them if someone they love did or experienced the same thing they did, without fail they tell me they would forgive that person. But with themselves, it is different. One of the things that is so particularly sad about this is that the people who tell me this are not terrible people; most often they are the "walking wounded", those who experienced or witnessed the unthinkable when they were but innocent children.

Other courageous souls come to me too, sharing other pains. Tragedies - deaths, suicides, murders of loved ones. Unrelenting pain from illness or injury. Diseases that rob the mind or body of the simple joy of being productive. And many, many more sorrows. The question so often is: why? What did I do to deserve this?

As I reflect upon all of this, with the backdrop of my own story, I realize anew that our relationship with God, if we are to have one, cannot always be what many of us were taught. We cannot always approach God with praise. We cannot always tell Him we love him. We cannot always come to Him thanking Him for His goodness and mercy. At least not at first.

Sometimes we need to scream at Him.

Sometimes we need to scream, "WHY?"

Or we need to scream, "Where were you when...?"

Or, "Why didn't you stop that?"

For a relationship with God to be honest, we cannot hide these feelings from Him. When we try, we find ourselves anxious, depressed - even hating ourselves. And even more, we don't allow Him to get close to us. Close enough for us to feel Him holding us in our pain. Close enough to hear Him whispering to us that we are loved, no matter how angry, hurt, sinful or lost we are. Close enough to know He meant it when He said He would rather die Himself than leave us in our suffering...

Come, walk with me down the path to healing - to redemption. It may seem like a lonely, scary, treacherous path. What kind of God could accept someone like me who has so much rage within? Surely no one else has come at God screaming. But then I hear the voices, the laments through the centuries - and I know that I am not alone - that we are not alone...

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:2) (Matthew 27:46) (Mark 15:34)

(While researching for this post, I came across a small fact: of the 150 Psalms in the Bible, over 50 of them are considered "Laments", prayers for coming out of pain. Indeed, we are not alone. If you are not ready for a full-throated scream at God, consider reading one of these Psalms. Read it slowly out loud so that you can hear your voice saying the words...)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Always we begin again...

I had been contemplating what I might write today as the New Year begins and only the vaguest of notions came to mind. I hoped and prayed that the Grace might come, as I know that without it all of my efforts are in vain. My mind felt a bit muddled and my head began to ache, likely from staring too long at my computer screen. So I decided to take a little walk, to clear my mind, though the weather was hardly inviting. "Perhaps I will find some beauty", I thought to myself doubtfully. I stuck my camera in my pocket, just in case.

I put on my winter coat and gloves since the temperature had been dropping. I stepped out and felt the icy pricks of rain upon my face. The sky was full of threatening clouds and the sun so well hidden that the whole world seemed gray. The wind gusted about me. Out of habit, I walked toward the overpass where a number of freeways pass each other in layers. Fire engines wailed, one after another, as I began my quest. The sidewalk too was gray in my monochromatic world, except where bits of litter and decaying leaves added splotches of white and brown. Perhaps today there is no beauty, I thought. It could happen.

As we begin a new year, we encounter an opportunity to look at our lives from a slightly different perspective. New Year's Day is, of course, just another day and we would know no difference without our calendars announcing the change. Sometimes the changing year causes us to look back, perhaps thankful for blessings that came our way in the last 12 months. However, there are those among us for whom looking back is only a reminder that 2011 was the worst year of their lives. Yet either way, there is something about a new year that both frightens and gives hope.

If all I see from my soul's window is sunless gray in endless expanse, I may indeed feel afraid. Can I make it through another year? Do I even want to try, if I can see nothing but more of the same up ahead?

Yet for some sufferers, the hanging of a new calendar brings a sense of relief, a sense of closure to last year's difficulties, offering the possibility that this year will be different. I don't see beauty now because it is winter. But spring and summer will come again... yet so will winter...

Today while walking I allowed myself to see and experience (admittedly for a short time since my skin began to itch and burn from the cold).

I didn't see any blue skies or sun breaking through clouds.

No blossoms or beautiful foliage.

No insects, no wildlife, not even a squirrel.

But I will show you one glimpse of beauty I found in our nearly dormant world.

A dead weed, growing behind a fence, bobbing back and forth in the wind.

And how is this beautiful?

It is beautiful because it is carrying its seed.

It is holding onto its promise of a tomorrow, a life cycle that continues even in the face of outward death.

It carries a new life that we cannot yet see. For from where we are now, we can only see the "deadness" of the plant, the grayness of the world. We can only feel that howling wind and stinging winter rain. But life is hiding inside those seeds - and it is beautiful.

Not long ago, I heard some interesting hypotheses from neuroscience about why negative thoughts are so prevalent in us humans. Why do we seem to remember and focus on the dreadful rather than the beautiful? It seems that we do this to protect ourselves. As a species, we would never survive if we forgot the dangers in our environment - but we could get by if we forgot the beauties. And the more dangers we have experienced, the more watchful and focused our psyches become to negative possibility. So focused, in fact, that we can walk through the world and not see or even remember the very thing we most need to nourish our souls. Little benefit if our species survives but our souls are starved for hope and meaning.

The gift of a "new year" is that it reminds us that we can always begin again. Of course, we do not need to wait until January to allow change into our lives. My life (and yours) is an ongoing journey through many seasons and terrains. There are times of beauty and times of barrenness. There are moments of breaking daylight and moments of chilling darkness. But in each of these, if we are open, if we remember, there is an invitation to be transformed by the Holy.

We will, of course, forget. We will forget the invitation and the promise that lies within it. Yet, as St. Benedict wrote, "Always we begin again." Each day - each moment - each breath - a new opporunity to open ourselves to the Gift.

Join me in remembering the beauty, in this short video offered as my gift to you for the New Year: