398. tell me about pleasure – the sock puppet

[PREFACE]

A few years ago, I wrote a series of posts that I titled, “tell me about love,” where I tried to think through what exactly this thing called “love” actually is. However, the more I’ve come to learn about love, the more I realize that love is this huge complex, amalgam that’s made up of all sorts of component parts. And in a way, for me to write a series of posts called “tell me about love…”

I vastly underestimated the task of what I was asking.

The analogy might be like me saying, “tell me about heart surgery” when I don’t know the basics of human anatomy.

I knew what I was asking when I asked about love, but what I didn’t realize was how many of the fundamentals I was missing in even asking the question. I was, in a way, asking a question that was much more advanced than I was ready to answer. And so what I want to do is to take it a bit slower, to try and breakdown love as I have come to understand it, into more of its component parts and deal with or investigate these bits more closely in the hopes of reintegrating it into a larger whole and reclaiming and learning what this larger concept, this huge concept of love, actually is.

All that to say, I’m thinking of staring a new series of posts – a subset of “tell me about love” – and I’m going to call it: Tell me about pleasure.1

[END PREFACE]
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Tell me about pleasure. Because I don’t… I don’t know.

And this may sound strange to some people, but the question of “what brings me pleasure, what brings me joy?” It’s an empty question because I don’t know.2

And I think one of the reasons why I’m still so ill equipped to identify what brings me pleasure is because of the purity culture I was raised with in the church. In purity culture, not only was I taught to not pay attention to what brought pleasure into my life, I was also taught that pleasure was something to be avoided, something to be afraid of, something to deny, and to run from. And unfortunately, I took up that teaching wholeheartedly.

A key verse that I remember these early church leaders drilling into me was the verse about how Christ calls us to deny ourselves and to take up our cross and follow him. And the part that they definitely emphasized was the denying one’s self bit. They taught that the goal of the Christian life was to deny all of one’s self for the sake of living out the Christian life. And for them, the goal of the Christian life was simply to bring other people to Christ. So anything that got in the way of sharing the gospel3 was what needed to be denied and put away.

As an introvert, the thought of approaching people that I didn’t know (with theology I barely understood) horrified me. But that didn’t matter. Their basic message to me was,

Oh, you’re an introvert? Hey, fuck you! Don’t be an introvert. You need to deny that shit for the sake of taking up the cross and sharing the gospel with other people. Because if you don’t, then they’re going to go to hell, and that’s going to be on you, and you’re an asshole for being so selfish.”4

Their self-denial was meant to hollow me out, to rid me of any sense of self-awareness and/or agency. Basically, they were turning me into a sock puppet – an empty form that they could ram their fist up into and make me say what they wanted me to say. And the really insidious thing is that the more hollow and selfless and compliant I was, the better of a Christian I was in their eyes.

So all that to say, I was never taught to pay attention to my own desires, what brought me any kind of fulfillment or pleasure. I was only taught to listen to what they told me to do and believe and say.
Mirror

Photo by: Mandy Jouan

Fast forward to today.

I’ve long since rejected the self-denying theology I was raised with and I’m well aware of the toxic nature of what I was taught. I now have a theology that’s vasty different and I’m not afraid to voice it.5 My theology is much more meaningful to me and closely tied to who I am, and my beliefs are finally my own. It provides some structure and meaning for my life and while I’m grateful for all of that, it’s very much an intellectual endeavor.

To return to the sock puppet metaphor, it’s like I’ve been able to fill my head with new, better ideas and theology, but the rest of me – my body – is still empty. The insensitivity to and the unawareness of myself and what makes me happy, what I want, what makes me feel good – I don’t have that awareness.

And thus this new series of posts.

Tell me about pleasure.

Tell me about what feels sensual and delicious.

Tell me about how to integrate mind and body.6

Tell me how to (re)fill my empty sock puppet self with myself.
SockLight

Photo by: Diamond Geyser

[FOOTNOTES]

1 I don’t now exactly, right now, what other components of love that I’m going to be taking on, but for now, I’ll start with pleasure. And while I think desire is another characteristic that I’ll want to look into, I think the notion of pleasure comes before desire. The way I see it, we desire what brings us pleasure and so if we don’t know what brings us pleasure, we won’t know where/how to direct our desires.

2 This is a part of what’s caused so many of my relationship troubles – because it’s difficult for others to be in a relationship with me when I’m not in touch with my needs. Because what does that make me? I’m a phantom. I’m a ghost. And it’s no wonder they sometimes felt alone even when I was right there next to them.

3 Theirs was a very shallow sort of understanding of what it meant to share the gospel. Walk people through the Four Spiritual Laws and get them to pray the Sinner’s Prayer and your job was done.

4 Of course they didn’t use profanity. They used shame. And that’s unfortunate, because their shaming tactics were too subtle and subversive for my young mind to identify. So while shame was explicit, the implicit message was still a hearty, “fuck you – who you are doesn’t matter.”

5 I’m already working on posts that describe my current theology. Stay tuned!

6 And yes, there’s a kind of irony in writing a blog post about moving past thinking towards self/body awareness. But writing? Writing is pleasurable for me. I like the feel of the Mac chiclet keys under my fingers. And writing is what I know. And I don’t know where else to start.

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389. why would anyone ever want to be a Christian when we treat one another this way?

TRIGGER WARNING: homophobic speech, extreme Christian intolerance

I got added to a group on facebook (and no, I won’t link to or name it here). I was told that it was supposed to be a place where Christians could discuss difficult topics in an open, friendly manner. I introduced myself briefly then waited a day or so to watch how the group operated. It looked like what I had been told – a place where people posted questions and then others in the group responded. Nice.

And then I put up a question of my own along with my stance on the matter:

1

The initial responses came pretty quickly (see the time stamps).

2
*NOTE – I’m using pseudonyms (a la Tarantino’s Resevoir Dogs) to protect the privacy of the other commenters.
Also, click on the images to see screen grabs of the whole comment thread (caution, the image files are pretty big).



Now at this point, these are all things I’d heard before. At the end of his comment, Mr. White did say “There is no such thing as a LGBT brother and sister…” but I chose to ignore that. In my response, I tried to emphasize the importance of taking social context into account, but the others wanted to take the biblical text at face value.

And then things started getting weird.

3
(Edited for clarity. Click on image to see the full context.)



Turns out, Mr. White not only believes that there’s no such thing as an LGBT Christian, there’s also no such thing as a lefty progressive Christian. On top of that, the mere fact that I self identified as a progressive causes White to question my Christology!

In response, I wrote:

4

After a number of other interchanges where I had to defend my position, I decided it might be time to turn the tables.

5

And this is the answer I got:

6

Mr. Orange actually believes that “True Christians are not tolerant… social justice is evil, leftism is the damnation of the human race… liberalism is a mental illness that leads to deafness, blindness, eventually death.” And notice Mr. White’s high-fiving approval.

Awesome indeed.

Up until this point, I tried my best to be diplomatic and reasoned but I was running out of patience and so in return, I wrote:

7

Note the time stamp. I sent that at 3:51am, Thanksgiving morning. I went to bed dreaming of turkey and stuffing and pie.

A few hours later, I woke up to see…

8

Amid the vitriol and the random bit about Obamacare, I actually saw an opportunity to engage in dialogue over one of the foundational differences between liberal and conservative Christians – the issue of how we understand truth.

Conservatives tend to believe that truth is (1) absolute, (2) unchanging, and that (3) we can be certain about our understanding of that truth.

Me? I actually agree with the first two – I do believe that truth is absolute and unchanging.

It’s on the third point where I disagree. We, as finite human beings, can never grasp the totality of truth. Our knowledge of truth is always contextual and contingent. As Paul puts it, “we know only in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9).

The difficulty we have in discussing issues like same-sex marriage has to do with this difference in how we understand truth. Because of this, I thought it might be a good idea to move the discussion thread in that direction.

And so I asked:

9

And then this comment dropped.

10

*SIGH*

One more screen grab before I (finally) get to what I want to say about all of this.

11

(Edited for clarity. Click on image to see the full context.)



Check the time stamp: December 5th. This fb conversation went on for over a week and at this point, we’re about 200 comments deep. I’d been pretty active through it all and while there were a few (very few) encouraging moments for me (for example, Mr. Blue is someone I know personally and while he disagrees with my take on the Bible and homosexuality, he nevertheless came to my defense more on more than one occasion), overall it was pretty brutal.

I titled this post “why would anyone ever want to be a Christian when we treat one another this way?” because it’s a question I asked myself over and over again while working that fb thread.

And I think the answer has to be, “if this is how we treat one another then they shouldn’t want to be a Christian.”

And that’s a shame.

Because I believe the world is longing for a place where different people can come together with their differences and still love one another.

And the church is supposed to be just that sort of place but far too often, it’s not.

And that’s a shame.

It’ll probably take a few more posts for me to unpack my thoughts on all that went down, but I’ll close by saying this.

Jesus taught us to love our enemies. Martin Luther King Jr. expanded on this idea in a stunning sermon where he said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” and “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”

Some people criticize the liberal end of the church for being big on love but soft on sin, as if love is just some fluffy, easy, ephemeral thing.

No.

Love is costly. It’s brutal. Love is fucking hard work.

And it’s supposed to be Christians’ defining feature:

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

Let it be, Lord. Let it be.

[POSTSCRIPT]

If for some insane reason you want to read through the entire facebook comment thread, here are links to all the screen grabs:

380. Bob redux (part 2): the “blessings” of chastity

Photo by: fensterbme

Photo by: fensterbme

[PREFACE]

(Click here for part 1.)

Someone once asked the painter, Jackson Pollock how he knew when one of his paintings was done. He famously replied, “How do you know when you’re finished making love?”

Even though I was able to come to a fuller understanding of some things that had been troubling me in my previous post, I knew that there were aspects of Bob that I still needed to unpack.

To use Pollock’s metaphor, I sensed that I wasn’t done making love… to Bob.

And so I bring you…

[END PREFACE]

In my previous post about this metaphor I refer to as Bob, I was able to (finally) recognize it as “the piece of me that’s been screaming for love – God’s love as well as the love of others (more specifically, the longing for a woman to know and love, and to be known and loved by).”

But I also sensed something new – that in the years between encounters, Bob had also become about something more, something edgier, something much darker.

Luckily, this time around, it didn’t take me four years to understand what this new bit of Bob was about. This time, I knew exactly what this new bit represented.

In the past few years, I’ve written a bunch of posts about how damaging church teachings around sexuality have been in my life. But I think the scope of all that I’ve missed out on in life and love is only really hitting me now. And I’ve missed out on so very much. It makes me deeply remorseful. And it makes me furious.

Image by: Hugh D. Crawford

 

I wish I could find those former purity-centered teachers and ask them:

Did I do it right? Is this how things were supposed to turn out? I’m turning 41 soon and in all these years, I’ve been unable to sustain a relationship with a woman because of the fear and guilt and shame that you cultivated within me.

But I’m still a virgin so it’s all good right?

And that’s not the only thing I did correctly. I’ve also never gotten anyone pregnant. I’ve never had an STD. I’ve never “ruined” my “purity” by having sex outside of marriage.

If these are the blessings of chastity that you wanted for me, congratulations. Mission accomplished. Job well done.

But do you want to know what else I’ve never done? I’ve never held a woman’s hand in mine while walking down the sidewalk. I’ve never felt a woman’s lips pressed upon my own. I don’t know what it’s like to watch a movie with my arm wrapped around the shoulder of the woman next to me. I’ve never slow danced with a woman without being awkward and uptight. I’ve never gone out on more than a handful of dates before having to inexplicably flee from the relationship because of internalized shame.

I’ve. Never. Been. In. Love.

Are you happy now? Is this what you wanted? Are you proud of me? Are you proud of yourself? Did I do it right? Is this how things were supposed to be?

I’ve thought a lot about the problems purity culture has sown in my life, but in my recent crying fit, all the things I discovered about how toxic the church’s teachings have been in this area of my life moved from my head down into my heart and out to rest of my body. I felt the weight of all that I had lost, all that my life has missed out on – all of the missed opportunities for warmth, intimacy, and touch; all the beautiful, amazing women I hurt as I left them hanging, just as things were starting to get good; all the love that I never let in; all these potent, vital life experiences that I let slip by. It all hit me, all at once, in a gush of molten, bloody tears.

Photo by: Mazda Hewitt

Photo by: Mazda Hewitt

 

O, my God, my God. I have forsaken so much. I have wasted so many opportunities to love and be loved. I have sacrificed so much of my life on the altar of a false Purity idol.

And what have I received in return?

Self loathing.

See, all those relationships that I rejected? I didn’t know back then to blame the poor teachings of the church. If anything, those confusing experiences reinforced the idea that maybe the church was right – that relationships are dangerous and harmful and that I should just wait until God drops someone into my life like manna, magically falling from the sky. I didn’t blame the church and so I blamed myself. I would think, “well, that relationship didn’t work out. I must be doing something wrong – that’s what the church would tell me. Or maybe it’s me – maybe I’m just wrong.”

I thought my failure to find intimate, loving relationship was my fault. I thought either I sucked at relationships or I just plain sucked myself. I felt utterly undesirable. I had no confidence, and of course that’s unappealing, so in the few instances when I worked up the courage to ask someone out, it’s no wonder many of them said no. And then I’d feel even less desirable. Or in the even rarer cases where they said yes, we might go out for a couple dates but then my fear-and-shame trigger would go off and I’d flee. And when that would happen, I would blame myself. And then I’d feel even less desirable than before.

It was a pretty vicious cycle of despair.


“…and the book says we may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us!”

Indeed.

And I’m sorry (actually, I’m not) for this bitter, melancholy post, but this is not the end of Bob. Not yet.

There’s a dim ember of hope flickering deep beneath this near-infinite sadness and regret.

I’ll write more on this hope in a future post but for now, I leave you with these lines from The Smashing Pumpkins.

“On a distant shoreline, she waves her arms to me
As all the thought police, are closing in for sleep”

379. Bob redux (part 1)

Photo by: Alesa Dam

Photo by: Alesa Dam

 

About four years ago, I wrote a post about something (not someone) I called Bob.

Basically, I was writing about an experience I had at a contemplative church event. I won’t recap the events of the night (you can read about it here), but right near the beginning of the night, I experienced a huge crying fit. This is the kind of crying that comes from the depths, from way down deep in the psyche where the skeletons hide. I didn’t know what had prompted this crying and so I blogged about it and ended up calling this something, Bob.

A few months after that post, I put up another post where I made a rather astute observation.

…but before I can get to that, some backstory is in order.

Something shifted in me back in 2006. Prior to that year, I lived with an intense longing to be in a relationship. I used to complain about it all the time – how lonely I was and how none of the women I approached would go out with me. More than that, up until that time, praying for a girlfriend was the one consistent prayer of my life. But in 2006, something shifted. I don’t know what it was, but just like that, all that old longing for relationship was gone.

And so back in that other post, I made these speculative observations about what I thought Bob might be:

  • …it’s taken me a long time to realize this but… and this is really hard for me to admit and write here… I wonder if I’ve lost my desire for and ability to love. And I don’t just mean love in the context of romantic relationships. I mean love in all contexts. And I know that sounds like hyperbole, like I’m being overly dramatic for the sake of making my blog worth reading but in this case, I mean it just as I’m writing it. I don’t think I give or receive love very well, if at all.
  • I think that Bob is the part of me that still wants to love and be loved.
  • I wonder if, after all those years of being an unhappy single person longing for love, some subconscious part of me got tired of being lonely and frustrated and so it just amputated that part of me – lopped it off and buried it away somewhere. And maybe it thought that was that. And I didn’t think all that much about it because I was more than happy to be rid of all that old longing. But maybe it wasn’t just the romantic love part of me that got put away. Maybe love can’t be so neatly dissected. Maybe all (or most) of my ability to know/give/receive love got buried as well.

That was four years ago. I had just started grad school and I hadn’t started seeing a counselor yet. I’ve changed and learned so much since then, but all these years later, I’m only now realizing how on the money I was in that post.

See, here’s the thing.

I had another run in with Bob a few days ago – my first since that time four years ago. Out of nowhere I found myself in the midst of another random, primal, cathartic crying session. Bob was back, but things were different this time. This time I knew exactly what Bob was. Turns out, I was spot on when I wrote, “I think that Bob is the part of me that still wants to love and be loved.”

Photo by: Campbell

Sculpture: Device To Root Out Evil by Dennis Oppenheim – Photo by: Campbell

 

In the past two years, many of my posts have focused on two topics: the problems with the way the church today deals with sexuality and my evolving thoughts about God. I thought the two topics were separate but it turns out, they’re far more related than I ever could have guessed. And I never imagined they had anything to do with Bob, but they did. Turns out, they were all about unmasking Bob.

The posts about sexuality helped me to see how really bad church teachings around singleness led me to a life that feared intimacy – so much so that I self-sabotaged all of my dating relationships well before they could become anything significant, well before love entered the picture. The posts about God led me to a theology premised on the idea that the simplest and most profound way to talk about God is to say that God is love – that God (in all of God’s mystery, elusiveness, and transcendence) is primarily known and experienced through the love that we experience in our lives here on earth.

Do you see what the problem for me is? Taken in reverse order, if God is primarily known through love and if past church teachings have led me to a way of being in the world that has kept me from loving and from being loved, then it’s no wonder that a few weeks ago, I could post a poem like this on my blog:

God is dead, and yet I pray

I reach out into the void, without anticipation

and my hands come back empty

And yet I pray

And yet, I pray

Or post a tweet like this

I want to believe, but… (Mark 9:24) #vaguetweet

In short, Bob is the piece of me that’s been screaming for love – God’s love as well as the love of others (more specifically, the longing for a woman to know and love, and to be known and loved by). Whatever happened back in 2006 that relieved me of my yearning for a girlfriend, it somehow severed off, entirely, the part of me that seeks to love and to be loved. In other words, Bob represents my long lost desire for intimate, loving relationship.

coney island bird man

Photo by: Barry Yanowitz

 

Unfortunately, because of really bad theology and really bad experiences in past relationships (more on this bit in a future post), this longing somehow got shuttered away back in 2006.

But the thing about the desire for relationship is that it’s an integral part of how we humans are wired.1 So when that longing and that desire went away (probably a kind of compartmentalizing, psychic defense mechanism), it’s as if Bob got pushed underwater. Bob was robbed of oxygen and these intense crying fits were like little moments when Bob was able to claw his way to the surface and grab a tiny bit of attention and air – air that his lungs had been burning for, burning since 2006.

So what happens now – now that I finally see what this Bob thing has been about, now that I finally recognize my own need and desire to find love and to be loved?

…and here I apologize but the answer to this will have to wait for the next post.

Photo by: Eke Miedaner

Photo by: Eke Miedaner

 

1In the realm of psychology, attachment theorists tell us that humans only become healthy human beings in the context of relationships. Social scientists say the same as do many philosophers. And certainly, the resurgence of Trinitarian and the wide umbrella of relational theology reveals God as a radically relational God who is known primarily (if not exclusively) in our loving relations to fellow human beings and the rest of creation.

377. to all the girls I’ve shunned before

(Apologies to Julio Iglesias.)

So you know that line, “it’s not you, it’s me?” A lot of times, it’s used when one person wants to get out of a relationship but doesn’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings by putting any of the blame on them and so they blame themselves. More often than not, the person using this line wants out of the relationship because they’re just not digging something about the other person, but they don’t want to come right out and say it. So they put the blame on themselves.

In other words, they lie.

Now I’ve never used this line myself, but I probably should have. Because in my case, it was almost always true. I was breaking off the relationship not because of them, but because of me.

…but I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll get back to this point later in this post.

Something I’ve learned recently: relationships are what tether us to this world. Relationships are our interface between our embodied, internal world and the world that exists just outside the border of our skin. And love is this interface spread wide open.

I’ve written before about how I don’t really know/understand love and I’ve posited that the reason for this is because I’ve never let myself experience love – me loving or me being loved.

I used to think of myself as a kind of passive, porous subject in space, waiting for love to come to me, waiting for an external object to come along to which I could meld myself through love. I thought that love would just seep into me as in osmosis. I thought that love would flow out of me as in diffusion.

In other words, I used to think that love was a passive thing. But I’ve come to realize that this isn’t the case.

I’ve come to realize that love is an active process, not a passive one, both in the giving and the receiving.

More significantly, I’ve come to see that I have been actively protecting myself from both loving and from being loved… but mostly from being loved.

I’ve come to see that I’ve built myself a fortress. And that I am alone inside.
DistantFortress

Photo by: Trey Ratcliff

Now I could go on to list the numerous ways and reasons that I’ve done this to myself, but suffice it to say that growing up, I had many ways to hide my true self, and many reasons to paint a pretty picture on the walls that kept people from prying.

And let me talk about that wall for a moment. Know who taught me how to build that wall? Primarily, it was a really strict religious organization I used to attend.

I’ve written before about how their teachings really screwed up my ideas about dating and sexuality, but I’ve come to see that the damaging effects of their bad theology and pedagogy go far deeper than that.

See, here’s the thing.

In addition to the dating/sexuality thing, they taught a really strict, particularly moralistic version of Christianity. They taught a view of God where God was an all-seeing deity who was always looking for the tiniest ways that we fell short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). Of course the big things like entertaining lustful fantasy warranted God’s disgust and dismissal of us, but the same went for the little things – things like not reading the Bible everyday or not praying or swearing or listening to “bad” music or not listening to our Bible study leader (let’s call him Bill).

It’s as if God was on a hair-trigger pivot. Our job as Christians was to live in such a way that God would be pleased with us so we could keep God’s countenance turned towards us. We could only have a relationship with God when we lived righteously because that was the only time when God was pleased with us. But this hair-trigger God would immediately snap 180 degrees around any time we sinned in any way. And the back side of God radiated shame – shame that reminded us that we were weak and disgusting and not worthy of relationship with a glorious, holy God.

Our worth only came from God, but only when we lived in a way that didn’t repulse God.
The Facepalm of God

Our Bible study meetings were times when we were supposed to confess our sins, all the ways that we had let God down and fallen short of the standards set up for us. It was a really shitty, humiliating time. It was perverse, really. The people who shared the deepest, darkest secrets were, at first, lauded for their openness and honesty, but immediately after, they were lambasted with shame – the group’s and God’s.

People can only take so much humiliation, but Bill had bucket-loads to dish out. I couldn’t take it, and so I learned to hide (I learned to build walls). But confession was something that was expected of me, and so I learned presentation skills (I learned how to paint my walls). Now Bill was a skilled inquisitor – he could sniff out when we were hiding secret sins and he would go on hunting expeditions to root them out. And so I had to become better at hiding, and I learned that the best way to hide a big sin was to tuck it into a smaller sin, but to talk about that smaller sin as if it were the big one.

For example, let’s say in the week before one of these confession times, I had struggled with lust (interpret that in whatever way you choose). That was a HUGE sin that would have reaped boatloads of shame and I sure as hell didn’t want that. And so before the meeting I’d scramble to come up with something else I could share (because everybody had to share something – not sharing meant you were hiding something really big and Bill would be utterly relentless in his pursuit of whatever it was). When it came my turn to talk, I had to do one of two things. I could either say that I had a good week, one where I read my Bible and prayed and didn’t do anything wrong (in other words, I could lie outright) or I could say something like, “God’s really been convicting me lately about how little time I spend in the Word. He’s [sic] shown me that I spend too much time watching television and listening to music and basically wasting time. I need to spend less time on shallow things like that and more time reading and memorizing scripture” (which wasn’t a lie, exactly, but I knew that what Bill really would have wanted to hear was about the lust, which I had cleverly slipped inside the phrase, “wasting time”).

This kind of stuff went down all the time. There’d be the “bad” thing that I knew I should share but instead, I’d either lie or share something else. And all the while, I had to be flawlessly convincing, because if Bill sensed that I wasn’t being forthright, he’d start to probe and dig and needle and if I couldn’t continue the lie, I would finally share the thing and then have to endure the double shaming of what I confessed as well as the sin of trying to hide it.

This whole process was supposed to teach me to be a better, more honest Christian. Instead, it taught me to be a masterful liar. I learned how to mimic vulnerability, how to feign authenticity. And I got really good at it, really fast.

Now let me be clear here. I realize now that I was hiding and lying, but back then, this whole process was transparent to me. It was a subconscious defense mechanism, at work deep beneath. I wasn’t conscious of how wrong Bill’s shaming process was, I just knew that I felt like shit when it happened. And nobody likes feeling like that so my body learned to protect itself through subterfuge. Hiding and lying and putting up a front became automatic.

Muscle memory teaches a boxer’s body to protect itself from blows without having to think about it. Emotional memory does the same.

Boxer

Photo by: ElMarto

Fast forward to today.

I’m in a much better place these days, as far as theology and community goes.

But.

The analogy of the boxer is a good one. When self protection becomes a trained, unconscious, instinctual reaction, it doesn’t go away overnight or by itself. The emotional defense mechanisms I honed all those years back are still with me. In situations where I’m asked to share something of myself, without even thinking about it, the front goes up. I duck, I dodge, I lie. And I don’t consciously intend to, but I do it all behind a very convincing wall of authenticity. Remember how I had to learn to put up a front that Bill would believe – one that had to convince him that I was being real with him? I still do that. And I’m great at it. Bill made me into a world class emotional con artist.

Now here’s the thing. Remember what prompted this pattern of hiding and presentation? Bill asked me to be vulnerable, to share what was going on with me and my life, and when I did, I got my ass beat with the shame stick. And that hurt, so I learned to protect myself. See the pattern? Authenticity brings the pain of shame and so I learned to hide behind a clever mask instead.

That pattern got ingrained into me. It got metabolized into my style of relating, my way of being with other people. So now, even when my conscious brain tells me that someone is safe and that they want to get to know the real me and that they’re not going to hurt me, my subconscious brain doesn’t believe it. This part of me still cowers before the shame stick, even when it isn’t there.

Think of it this way. It’s like I go through life with a bubble around me. On the outside of this bubble is my presented self – the aspects of me that I radiate towards the world. It’s a carefully controlled, carefully crafted presentation. It looks like a real self. It acts like a real self. It’s a sophisticated surface that appears confident and smart and funny. It presents vulnerability seamlessly, preemptively. Most people see it and think, “wow, Randall’s a really with it, well put together kind of guy.”

And that’s what they see because that’s what I want them to see.

But every once in a while, someone gets up close, puts their face up to the surface and tries to peer beneath, beyond. They want to move past the defenses to the me that’s underneath. Thing is, whenever this happens, the actual, authentic me inside the bubble is cowering in terror, because in the past, when people like Bill muscled their way past the surface, I got the shit beat out of me.

Boy In The Bubble

And so to finally return to where I started this post, this dynamic goes a long way in explaining why I’m still single.

Because what is love? What is intimacy? What’s the whole process of dating about? It’s one person getting to know the person behind the presentation and doing the same towards the other.

The thing is, everyone has a surface self – the self they present to the world. When the bank teller asks, “how are you doing?” It’s the surface that replies, “I’m doing well, thanks for asking.” And we need that don’t we? Can you imagine how strange life would be if everyone was always their real, authentic selves? We’d never get anything done.

Our real selves are supposed to be reserved for our good friends and the really real self is reserved for the ones we love, the ones who love us. In a way, dating is just the process of peeling back these layers. If someone likes our surface and we like theirs, we go a bit deeper, we share more of ourselves, we open up more, and they do the same. This process continues, slowly and carefully, and if it turns out we’re really into this person and this person is really into us, we come to see that we’ve found a safe place where we can reveal more and more of our vulnerabilities – the truly sensitive parts of us that we normally hide from the world. To put it plainly, we can be naked with them and not feel shame. (And it’s no coincidence that this section can be read on a physical as well as an emotional level).

This process is supposed to feel safe and warm and freeing. It’s supposed to feel like that scene from 500 Days of Summer where Joseph Gordon-Levitt is dancing in the streets and everyone is dancing with him.

Unfortunately, for me, when I find that someone I like wants to get to know me – the me behind the bubble – the scene that plays out in my head runs more like the scene from The Shining where Jack Nicholson is battering down the door with an axe.

And so I run, just as things are starting to get good. And this doesn’t happen months into a relationship, it can happen right away, just a few dates in.

Because again, the thing about dating relationships is that they’re all about getting beneath the surface. But for me, all I know is how to present my carefully honed, well crafted surface. The me that’s inside is far too terrorized to come out and so as I begin to date someone and sense that they’re getting close, that they want to peer beneath the surface, I get triggered. In my internal world, alarm bells start going off, an all alert gets sounded, and I go into lock-down mode. In the external world, I find some lame excuse to not ever go out with this person again. And they’re always lame excuses. Because apart from the terror of my interior world, there are seldom any good reasons for me to break things off.

It’s a totally backwards, dysfunctional dynamic. I’m terrified by the very intimacy I long for and so I sabotage. I shield myself from the very person who longs to make my shields unnecessary.

And I suspect the women on the other end of this are wondering, “what’s going on? Why is he walking away just when things were starting to get intimate and fun?”

The only good thing about all of this is that I now recognize this pattern and understand where it comes from. It was rooted in awful theology which got branded into me by white hot shame. Through this process, I learned to protect myself through stealth and avoidance – strategies that were so well rehearsed, they became second nature.

For the longest time, I didn’t understand why I ran from relationships. I didn’t understand because that’s the thing about deeply ingrained defenses – they’re reflex, they’re automatic, and worst of all, they’re transparent to the person repeating them.

But now I have eyes to see.

I know that the fear I have of vulnerability/authenticity will be with me for quite a while. The urge to flee will likely always be my first instinct. I’ll probably see a person’s longing for intimacy as a threat for a very long time. But the hope is that now I’ll be able to recognize what’s happening. And beyond that, the hope is that in the recognition of it, I can make the choice to ignore the terror, the instinct to project and defend.

My guess is that things might not go so well the first few times around. I picture myself on a second or third date (yeah, can happen that quickly) with someone. I see myself at a dinner table across from someone brilliant and alluring. I picture the moment when I suspect that this person who I’m interested in might also be interested in me – that she wants to take a peek inside the bubble. In that instant, I’ll feel alarm bells go off. I’ll feel that deep, primal, familiar terror. I’ll feel my defenses going up and I’ll want to run or hide.

Red Couch Photo

Photo by: Dave Austria

So here I am, on this date that’s going well, and while on the outside I’m smiling and laughing and making witty conversation, underneath there’s a hurricane of terror screaming at me to bolt for the door.

My hope is that at this point, I’ll recognize what’s going on – that this is just an old, irrational pattern rearing its ugly head again. With this realization, I’ll excuse myself from the table and tell my date that I need to go to the restroom. I’ll walk away and cloister myself in a bathroom stall. At this point, I will not shame myself for what I’m feeling. I will not deny or dismiss what’s going on. I will breathe. I will tell myself that this person is not Bill, that she is not out to harm me, that it’s the opposite. I will tell myself that my fears are understandable. And I will tell myself that even if my fears still get the best of me and I continue to hide, even if I end up never asking this person out again, that there will be other people and other opportunities. Life goes on regardless of how this plays out. But this person is here now and perhaps worth the risk. And so I’ll tell myself to do the best that I can, to hide if I need to, but to try not to.

And then I’ll flush the (likely empty) toilet, make my way back to the table, and see what happens next.

[POSTSCRIPT]

I’ve written this post from the perspective of my dating life, but this fear and hiding plays out in many areas of my life.

I’m trying to restructure my way of being in the world. I’m beginning to understand that there are safe places where I can open up more of myself. My defenses aren’t a bad thing per se, but I don’t have to be on high alert all the time.

And so, to all the girls I’ve shunned before, I’m sorry. It wasn’t you, it really was me.

And to all the other people in my life who’ve been opening up safe spaces for me, thank you. I learning to let my guard down, but it’s not easy.

Indeed, it’s been a long December [but] there’s reason to believe, maybe this year will be better than the last.

344. reboot the bot (part 2) – a (Ru)Pauline theology of love

I’ve been writing lately (here and here) about how I’ve been reworking the way that I relate to myself and to other people. In short, I’m trying to unlearn some really bad ideas that I was raised with – ideas that have been with me for decades and are deeply ingrained and hard to unlearn. The last two posts were about one of these wrong ideas – the idea that denying myself means neglecting myself and only focusing on the needs of those around me.

Another bad idea that I learned in church while growing up is this one: “You get love by giving love.”

I don’t believe that anymore. I think it’s a really poor way to read the Golden Rule.

Wanna know who I think has a much better theology of love?
Continue reading “344. reboot the bot (part 2) – a (Ru)Pauline theology of love”

322. tell me about love (part 3)

[PREFACE]

(Part 1 here. Part 2 here.)

This has been one of the hardest posts to write in a really long time.

According to the journaling software I use to write my posts, I started it way back in January 19th. That’s almost a month ago.

It was a hard post for many reasons, but mostly because I think I’m being even more open and vulnerable than I usually am. On top of that, I’m not even sure about what I’m writing about and so being vulnerable about something I’m not sure about doesn’t make for easy writing.

But I’m glad I got it out and I’m glad I’m putting it up.

This has been a tough nut to crack but now that it’s done, I’m hoping to finally get back to posting at least one post per week.

Anyway, this is all just my (lame) excuse as to why it’s taken me so long to put anything up.

[END PREFACE]

So I’ve written before about how since the start of 2006, I’ve been content as a single person.

That was an interesting time in life for me. Prior to 2006, my one aim in life was to try and find someone to love. More specifically, someone to love who would love me back (an important distinction). I used to complain endlessly about being single to the point that my friends would politely suggest that I shut the hell up and just date someone already.

And then 2006 rolled around and all that longing went away all by itself. I mean there wasn’t any sort of grand epiphany that I had or any major life lesson that got me to change the way I felt about finding a girlfriend. Those longing feelings went away so cleanly that I didn’t even notice that they had gone until a few months had passed. I was just driving around one day and somehow noticed that I wasn’t pining for a relationship anymore.

In the months following my realization, there were two things going through my mind. First, I was wondering how long this contentment would last – I thought that I was somehow experiencing some sort of temporary reprieve from desperation and that one day the really bad, really lonely feelings would be back. Second, I wondered if there was any price to pay for this contentment. That is, I wondered if, in losing the longing that had plagued me for so long, I had lost something else at the same time.

Well two years have passed and I can say that I’m still very content with being single so I’m no longer worrying about that first bit. But the second bit? I think I’m beginning to realize that there was indeed a kind of price that I paid for this newfound contentment. And I’m beginning to think that the price may have been far higher than I ever thought it would be.

A little over a month ago I wrote about something that was eating away at me, something deep and hidden and ugly. I didn’t know what this something was so I decided to call it “Bob.” Anyway, I’m beginning to think that, in some way that is still unclear to me, Bob is a part of what it cost for me to have contentment as a single person.

And I realize I’m being obscure and vague, but it’s because the connection isn’t entirely clear to me either.

Let me see if I can write my way out of this.

There were lots of different reasons why I longed for a relationship prior to the liberation of 2006. Among them were these: I’ve always found women fascinating – the way they thought differently about the world, their soft skin, all the different ways they knew to do their hair, etc. I also longed for relationship because I wanted to know what it felt like to be loved by a woman. I wanted to be there for someone – someone who would be there for me as well. And of course I wanted to learn what I once called, “the warm, buttery language of touch.”

I had all kinds of different reasons why I wanted to be in a relationship, but I think the main one was always – to learn about how to love and how to be loved. I remember at one point, I got close to having a girlfriend. It’s a pretty long, pretty gory story (if you must know, see post 174) but suffice it to say that before it went bad, it was really good and I still (vaguely) remember how wondrously, vitally alive I felt during that time. And a big reason why I was looking for a relationship back then was to get that giddy, amazing feeling back – that feeling of loving and being loved.

And this is where I think I’ve paid a huge price for my contentment with being single.

See, it’s taken me a long time to realize this but…and this is really hard for me to admit and write here…I wonder if I’ve lost my desire for and ability to love. And I don’t just mean love in the context of romantic relationships. I mean love in all contexts. This is very difficult to write because it’s embarrassing to admit and hard to face but I think I need to go there if I’m to get through. And I know that sounds like hyperbole, like I’m being overly dramatic for the sake of making my blog worth reading but in this case, I mean it just as I’m writing it. I don’t think I give or receive love very well, if at all.

Actually, this isn’t the first time I’ve thought and written about this. Back in post 284 I wrote the following, “What if I have no idea what love is? Because . . . I don’t think I know what love is.”

Maybe I’ve lost my ability/desire to love. And maybe that’s because I don’t know what love is.

I don’t know.

But here’s what I think.

I think that Bob is the part of me that still wants to love and be loved.

Because love is at the core of what it is to be human isn’t it? But even if it isn’t, then love is certainly at the core of what it is to be a christian.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

1 John 4:7-12

See, I wonder if after all those years of being an unhappy single person longing for love, I wonder if some subconscious part of me got tired of being lonely and frustrated and so it just kind of amputated that part of me – lopped it off and buried it away somewhere. And maybe it thought that was that. And I didn’t think all that much about it because I was more than happy to be rid of all that old longing.

But maybe it wasn’t just the romantic love part of me that got put away. Maybe love can’t be so neatly dissected. Maybe all (or most) of my ability to know/give/receive love got buried as well.

But love is important, integral even. And if love is a large part of what it is to be whole, then despite the fact that I’m enjoying being single (being free of that old longing for a romantic relationship), something is very wrong in my life.

And that’s what I think Bob is about. Bob may be that submerged longing for and need for love working its way back up to the surface. And love is patient, love is kind and perhaps that’s why Bob only breaks through in moments of stillness and quiet and vulnerability.

So what now?

I don’t know.

But something needs to change because I think this not knowing how to accept, not knowing how to give, not knowing how to ask for love is affecting me in more ways than I’m aware of.

Because (and this is also very hard to admit) there are times when I wonder about God’s love for me. I mean, I know in theory that he loves me but I don’t know how to experience, how to sense, how to feel that love. And turing that around, I’m not sure how to love God.

Maybe it’s the perfect time for me to be attending Mars Hill Graduate School (I just realized that I haven’t blogged about this yet…stay tuned, I will). Maybe working towards a Masters Degree in Counseling Psychology will help me work through these issues of love.

I don’t know.

And so tell me about love. Is anything I’m saying making any kind of sense? Am I suffering from mountain-out-of-molehill-itis? Am I still missing the point about Bob?

I don’t know.