Trauma, Suffering, and the Community

On the Mere Orthodoxy blog Patrick Stefan has written an appreciative critique of an article recently written on trauma and Reformed evangelicalism by Paul Maxwell. I want to weigh in with a question for Patrick. But before I get to this, I need to give a quick fly over of the discussion.

First, Paul’s piece was a reflection on his experience within evangelicalism and particularly at Westminster (Philadelphia). Paul was connecting a general observation about the culture of Reformed evangelicalism—its divisiveness and in-group vs. out-group dynamics—with the tendency of the traumatized to re-create trauma. He writes, “abused boys can be attracted to militant contexts that recreate their own emotional abuse.”

Not only is this re-creation a recipe for perpetuating abuse, but it is also a pretty terrible context for working through trauma. He writes, “But currently, and I say this in spite of all the books that have been written for ‘survivors’ and ‘healing’ by evangelicals, there is no place for corporate or public healing of trauma in evangelicalism . . . I simply don’t believe there is space for a traumatized person to be their full selves in this community.”

Patrick Stefan builds on Paul’s article by telling his own very moving story of trauma. He suggests his narrative has two stories: “there’s the well-rehearsed one that demonstrates my theological acumen and ability to find truth, then there’s the back-story of a boy in an unsteady world looking for some semblance of certainty.” He gives his own account of Reformed evangelicalism highlighting the doctrine of the fall, the nature of trauma within this doctrine, and biblical examples of coming to terms with suffering.

While generally building on Paul’s article, he thinks “Maxwell has painted Reformed Evangelicalism with too broad a brush.” I wish Patrick had said more about this. Frankly, I am not sure he’s even talked about Paul’s most significant complaint, not about Reformed theology (Paul’s dissertation is on this), but the culture of the community.

It strikes me that Patrick has actually unwittingly contributed to Paul’s point by talking about the two narratives of his life. This leads to my question for Patrick: What kept you from telling your story to your church community? He says, “Behind the closed doors of my home I struggled with anger, hyper-vigilance, and sleeplessness, though I put on a good face in public.” This is precisely the point the Paul was making.

What struck me most about this piece—knowing Paul pretty well—is that it signaled a break with a sort of protective pretense. The fact is, this is remarkably courageous for a person in Paul’s position (Who wants to hire “damaged goods”?). The fact is our church communities do have informal in-groups and out-groups, those who are qualified for “leadership” and those who are not. There are the sufferers and the helpers. Emotional stability is a sign of spiritual maturity, and vice versa–circumstances notwithstanding.

I want to suggest that the reason that the community does so poor a job of supporting sufferers and the reason why Patrick was hesitant to show his suffering is precisely because we still tend to assume that negative emotion is a direct and simple manifestation of sin. Negative emotion, especially statements of anger, regularly disqualify people from being “in.” This creates a devastating catch-22 where people want to communicate strongly and risk rejection for doing so.

Many thanks to both Patrick and Paul for their vulnerability. I applaud them both for their courage. But perhaps, we could bring about a community where courage isn’t necessary for sharing suffering?

 

Advertisements

The Forbearing Community

The challenge of any community is that we all have ways of being that cause tremendous pain to others. Our own assumptions of what is due to us or just our unconscious drives for love, affirmation, and satisfaction can make life unbearable to others. We sin both by demanding what others cannot give and by not giving what we never even thought of giving. Yet the real pain caused by our inattention and habitual desire is serious. This is why the only real community that can exist is a Christian community. A real community must be sustained by forbearing the pain caused by others. We must be able to say, “This pain I charge not to them, because God has not. In fact, God has not charged to me the pain I am causing them, but has become the great bearer of pain, making forgiveness possible. And since human forgiveness and forbearance is always responsive to God’s forgiving, my forbearing this pain is simply doing less than what God has done for me in Jesus.”

Jean Vanier on Ladder Climbing and Communion

I have read these two pages in Jean Vanier’s book From Brokenness to Community at least four times. Basically, the scenario for picking it again has always been the same. I ask myself a question something like this. What is wrong with me that I seem not to have what it takes to form meaningful relationships? The answer, as I read it, is that I’m hard-hearted, that I’m a ladder climber, not a ladder descender. I have everything to offer others, but that everything is an emptying of myself in love for them, that is, to be Christlike.

Jean Vanier:

“When I was in the navy, I was taught to give order to others. That came quite naturally to me! All my life I had been taught to climb the ladder, to seek promotion, to compete, to be the best, to win prizes. This is what society teaches us. In doing so, we lose community and communion. It was not natural or easy for me to live in communion with people, just to be with them. How much more difficult it was for me to be in communion with people who could hardly speak or had little to speak about.

“Communion did not come easily to me. I had to change and to change quite radically. When you have been taught from an early age to be first, to win, and then suddenly you sense that you are being called by Jesus go down the ladder and to share your life with those who have little culture, who are poor and marginalized, a real struggle breaks out within oneself. As I began living with people like Raphael and Philip, I began to see all the hardness of my heart. It is painful to discover the hardness in one’s own heart. Raphael and the others were crying out simply for friendship and I did not quite know how to respond because of the other forces within me, pulling me to go up the ladder. But over the years, the people I live with in L’Arche have been teaching and healing me.

“They have been teaching me that behind the need for me to win, there are my own fears and anguish, the fear of being devalued or pushed aside, the fear of opening up my heart and of being vulnerable or of feeling helpless in front of others in pain; there is the pain and brokenness of my own heart.

2015-04-05 01.02.19 pm“I discovered something which I had never confronted before, that there were immense forces of darkness and hatred in my own heart. At particular moments of fatigue or stress, I saw forces of hate rising up inside me, and the capacity to hurt someone who was weak and was provoking me. That, I think, was what caused me the most pain: to discover who I really am, and to realize that maybe I did not want to know what I really was! And then I had to decide whether I would just continue to pretend that I was okay and throw myself into hyperactivity, project where I could forget all the garbage and prove to others how good I was. Elitism is the sickness of us all. That is at the heart of apartheid and every form of racism. The important thing is to become conscious of those forces in us and to work at being liberated from them and to discover that the worst enemy is inside our own hearts not outside!”

Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community, 18-19.

Refusing Transience, Lessons from Mr. Peggotty

IMG_6175It is probably true that no one knows the value of strong relational ties like those who have experienced them and lost them. And perhaps, I have to some extent. But for me, a more familiar sense is the persistent and gentle ache of not having something essential.

To be clear, the fact that I do not have strong relational ties is my own fault as much as anyone’s. It was not until just within the last few years that I even began to consider the possibility that relationships might be or even ought to be permanent. I didn’t even consider that I might know a person for the rest of my life.

The more urgent force of ambition has driven these sorts of considerations far from view. Ambition is why my wife and I moved to Dallas in 2009. And it is why we moved to Toledo in 2011. And it is why we moved to Wisconsin in 2013. That’s three moves in five years. And my wife, how grateful I am for her, has mastered the pain and strengthened her resolve and moved at my side, firmly believing that the sacrifice is worth it.

But the growing realization that we are not living as we ought has been wearing for these five years, wearing the luster off ambition’s shine. There are moments when I would trade it simply to be in my place, to know, and to be known. It has just occurred to me that refusing transience is a possible moral choice. When it comes to refusing transience, it’s hard to find a better exemplar than Mr. Peggotty of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield.

Dickens is wonderfully clear about the sort of home that Emily was abandoning when she leaves her uncle. The David Copperfield remarks about his youthful impression of the boat/house, “If it had been Aladdin’s palace, roc’s egg and all, I suppose I could not have been more charmed with the romantic idea of living in it.” (18) But it is not merely the house that draws him, but also the warmth and obvious affection which exists between this motley group of survivors. Each had lost and depended on each other in their bereavement. While surely, Mr. Peggotty had sacrificed almost entirely his own personal freedom for these dependents, it is as natural to him as breathing. He loves with almost complete lack of self regard as if these people are simply extensions of his person.

So when Emily pens the fateful letter telling of her betrayal, of the rending of these relational bonds, the reader has fully understood what is lost. Emily herself captures it well: “’When you, who love me so much better than I ever have deserved, even when my mind was innocent, see this, I shall be far away. … When I leave my dear home—my dear home— oh, my dear home!— in the morning, … it will be never to come back, unless he brings me back a lady.” (260)

I as a first time reader was prepared for tears, for the grief due this sort of event. So it was with some surprise I read: “Mr. Peggotty uttered no cry, and shed no tear, and moved no more, until he seemed to wake again, all at once, and pulled down his rough coat from its peg in a corner.” (261) When asked where he was going, Mr. Peggoty’s answer is eloquent in its concision, “I’m a going to seek my niece. I’m a going to seek my Em’ly.” (261)

Mr. Peggotty refuses transience. His character affects me as much as it does because he does what I would never have dreamed to do. He further gives up his freedom in devoting himself entirely to a singular pursuit. When Ham asks “Where?” Mr. Peggotty returns, “Anywhere! I’m a going to seek my niece through the wureld. I’m a going to find my poor niece in her shame, and bring her back. No one stop me! I tell you I’m a going to seek my niece!”

Mr. Peggotty’s refusal to allow his Em’ly to step out of his life yields a long and arduous pursuit. He travels far and wide looking for answers about her whereabouts. He keeps the candle burning in his home on the chance she might return. He sends his forgiveness through those who might give word of it to her. And at last his search finds and restores the child he has lost.

It’s a prodigal story, but not the one about the lost son, but the one about the lost sheep. Mr. Peggotty is the good shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine for his one dear lamb.

In a time when relationships can be broken by implied slights or glances laden with meaning or simply from boredom, Mr. Peggotty’s example prods us to remember that it is possible to refuse transience, and more, it is necessary for the cultivation and expression of Christian love.

Bonhoeffer, On Community

“On innumerable occasions a whole Christian community has been shattered because it has lived on the basis of a wishful image. Certainly serious Christians who are put in a community for the first time will often bring with them a very definite image of what Christian community life should be, and they will be anxious to realize it. But God‟s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams. A great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves, is bound to overwhelm us as surely as God desires to lead us to an understanding of genuine Christian community. By sheer grace God will not permit us to live in a dream world even for a few weeks and to abandon ourselves to those blissful experiences and exalted moods that sweep over us like a wave of rapture. For God is not a God of emotionalism, but the God of truth. Only that community which enters into the experience of the great disillusionment with all its unpleasant and evil appearances begins to be what it should be in God‟s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this moment of disillusionment comes over the individual and the community, the better for both. However, a community that cannot bear and cannot survive such disillusionment, clinging instead to its idealized image, when that should be done away with, loses at the same time the promise of a durable Christian community. Sooner or later it is bound to collapse. Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.‟

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 34-36.

Communal Breakdown

The following is a strong start to a book I have been looking forward to reading for some time:

“This breakdown could have been avoided. But then, few breakdowns in community are inevitable. In this case, some folks made poor decisions. Other people responded poorly to the poor decisions. More decisions, more responses, more trouble. Words were exchanged, positions hardened, sides drawn up. Rumors flew, and even when folks knew they were rumors, they repeated them until it was very difficult to discern wheat had ‘really’ happened.

People were angry and hurt; some conversations stopped, and new alliances were formed. Only certain people knew about key meetings. A lot of energy was expended in determining motives, justifying decisions, and anticipating ‘the opposition’s’ next move. Regular activities continued, but the life was drained out of them; everything seemed hollow. Small acts and casual comments were freighted with huge symbolic meaning. Everyone felt undervalued and betrayed by someone; a number of people threatened to leave. The meltdown had taken on a life of its own.

Friends questioned one another’s commitments; grumbling and weariness became highly contagious. Disagreements took strange turns; old differences and hurts came to the surface and played into the present trouble in unpredictable ways. Some people ducked, determined to weather the storm without being drawn into it. Others ‘defected in place’ — showing up when the occasion required it, but emotionally and relationally absent or detached. A few seemed to add fuel to the fire, reporting the latest outrageous development and speculating on what might happen next. Still others tried to keep conversations going and looked for resolution, but were often battered or sidetracked in the process. Several years later, members of the community continue to live with the wounds, even as they move forward.

Is this a description of the a church? A school? An intentional community? A parachurch organization? An extended family?”

Living into Community, by Christine Pohl

If this sounds familiar, perhaps you should order a copy.

Attenuated Attention: Relationships

“We have all been at a party and noticed new acquaintances scanning the room, looking for someone more interesting to converse with. Steven Levy says that we now live in ‘a never-ending cocktail party where you’re always looking over your virtual shoulder for a better conversation partner.’ We cannot build deep and lasting relationships if we turn away from others the moment they become boring, irritating, or challenging. Neither cocktail party practices nor television-viewing habits are helpful for growing in friendship, intimacy, and love.” (Boers, Living Into Focus, 88.)

There are many facets to the problem of attenuated attention; yet, especially within Christian circles this one manifests itself powerfully and dreadfully. The truth is as Arthur Boers says, real relationships that provide crucial sustenance and provoke personal growth occur not too far after most people give up on them. What makes a person a good friend is not that the person is interesting. The most satisfying relationships I’ve had have also been the most difficult; but they are the ones where the difficulty was born patiently and persevered.