I’ve been thinking a lot lately about fear, and how it can hold us in really terrible places. I’ve lived most of my life in some level of fear – not usually severe, but enough to keep me from adventures until I was well into my 30s. I’m sure part of it is innate personality, and part of it is being raised in America, which is largely founded on fear, but a big part of it stems from the Conservative/Evangelical American Christian Church which raised me in a climate of fear and shame.
Now before you go getting all up in arms, be assured that at the time, I loved growing up in church. In my traditional Christian years there were many things that were beneficial and good for me. Somehow, in spite of the overemphasis on personal holiness, I did learn to look out for others. I was captured by the concept of transformation – the idea that healing, change, and forgiveness were always available and can change the world. Also, I was nurtured by the rhythms of the liturgical year and holy celebrations. I felt grounded in a long history of faith and forbearers. I had a good sense of call and a passion that lent energy to my work and to my living. At times I even had euphoric experiences of the presence of the Divine, which I will never forget. And sometimes I felt so happy to be celebrating with a community, so sure that I had a place to belong, that I thought my heart would be split from the joy of it.
But even in the midst of all those things, the emotional memory I carry with me most –at least at this stage of my life—is the pervasive feeling of shame I carried throughout my religious life, and the accompanying fear of doing something shame-full that came with it. Right now, when I think back on my life in the church, this feeling of shame and fear is a filmy substance stretched tight across my heart –an emotional thumbprint of angst and self-disappointment. My chest tightens and my throat constricts with anxiety. It is very visceral, very real, and it does not good to just close my eyes and hope it goes away.
I’ve been thinking about this personal reality for years now–literally for years—trying to assess how it came about; trying to imagine if there was or is any way of being in church without this experience. I don’t know the answer to that yet, but what continues to astonish me is that I lived in it for so long. I’m not a young woman. It’s not like I’m 20 years old and leaving my parent’s church for the first time to find out there are other things out there. I’m nearly 40 years old, and I’ve spent a good twenty of those years studying theology, working in various religious institutions, and writing about spirituality. But it’s only in the past—what—year? 18 months?—that I have really said goodbye to the institution that has caused so much damage. (It’s only recently I’ve been able to walk back in there from time to time without feeling like they were “pulling me back in”.) I’m a pretty strong person. I don’t naturally tend to tow the line. So what kept me in there so long?
Shah Afshar at Shawshanked Redemption has some thoughts on the matter. In his post Whatever Happened To Honor: Part II, Shah writes about Martin Seligman’s theory of “Learned Helplessness”, a phenomenon that occurs when one is in a situation which continually causes them pain. In Shah’s words, what Seligman found was
Subjected to repeated punishment, animals and humans come to believe they have no control over what happens to them, whether they actually do or not. In Seligman’s original experiment, dogs given repeated electrical shocks would prostrate themselves and whine, even when escaping the abuse lay within their power. [Emphasis mine]
Shah goes on to detail what kinds of behaviors cause Learned Helplessness, and why they allow the institution to continue to function in its status quo. The thing that most captured me about the Seligman’s experiment was this:
It was noted that the only way to get the helpless dog out of its cage was to send in another dog that had never been shocked. With the gate left open, upon receiving the first jolt of electricity, the new dog would bolt out of the cage and by doing so, it would teach the helpless dog to get out as well.
Now, as a writer I’m aware that in the literary tradition, using any metaphor relating ‘human’ to ‘dog’ is not an especially good one. But if we can get around our metaphorical habit for a minute and not associate being dog-like to being something negative, then I’d like to say this:
I’d like to start being a new dog—specifically the one that comes to the scared dog in the cage. Now, I’ve been shocked. Plenty of times I’ve been shocked. And sadly, because I was a church leader and a pastor, I’m pretty sure I’ve shocked others. (This is one of my deepest regrets.) But lately, I’ve been feeling a little bit healed up from the shocks, and I think, maybe, I have enough energy to run in and out of the cage.
That’s what I hope my blog (and maybe someday my book) can do. This is what I hope my writing can be: the redemptive action of dashing in and out of the cage, of demonstrating with energy and eagerness that there is a way out. Maybe even a way out that doesn’t require us to give up our spirituality, or our faith—maybe we can even hold on to Jesus, if we want to. Who knows? It’s possible.
When I wrote about this in my latest manuscript proposal (especially request by a publisher, who, sadly was never heard from again), I put it this way:
My main intent is to provide a map for the journey towards a new expression of faith. When we move into previously unexplored territory we sail into places where the sea charts read, “Here there be monsters.” But the monsters we fear do not exist. A bit of illumination along the unknown edges can reveal that there are no vicious creatures lying in wait, but only new, wide open places to explore.
I have been sailing these seas for a while now, and have begun to discern a pattern in these currents. There is a process to this faith re-formation, and it is possible to retain and rebuild one’s faith in the midst of this sea change. People should know the experience they are having is not a random and isolated event. There are stages in this journey that can help them find their way. Furthermore, there are traveling companions, and tools to help readers reconnect with the God in a way that is true to their spiritual core.
Unlike the early adaptors who traveled before them, the current generation of postmodern seekers does not need to feel alone and lost in foreign seas. Those of us who have already sailed these waters can be good with-mates. Help is at hand.
I think that’s true. I think it can happen, you and I holding hands and moving out and forward and into a newly imagined future. I believe we can do it. Don’t you?