God’s Persistent Love

I am busier than a one-armed paper hanger.

If you actually remember what that phrase refers to (hello…wallpaper?) you realize that I am basically saying that I have more tasks than I actually have ability  and strength.

Why do I do this to myself?

This is a topic that I’ve addressed before, since, well…I am who I am, and I don’t seem to be able to do much about who I am, and what I am is perpetually busy.  If I have free time, I find a way to fill it with something to do that is usually task oriented.

John Wesley would probably have nice things to say about how busy I am, only because John was the guy who would instruct the ministers he was about ordain, saying:

Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary.  Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.

I appear to have taken Mr. Wesley very, very seriously.

Despite my affection for John Wesley, I often ask myself why it is that I always overschedule myself. I wondered if there was something that I was covering up with busyness, something I was trying to obscure from myself or avoid processing. But nothing has ever reared its ugly head, not in periods of silence or enforced rest (ahhhh, sickness and surgery) or in periods of self-evaluation.  At the risk of sounding boring, I have failed to find anything ugly and scandalous enough to hide.

I have wondered a few times if my issue is with silence, but that doesn’t pan out either. I rather like silence because it allows me some time to explore the thoughts that I am often too busy to fully entertain. Silence gives me extra time for emotion and expression and for things like writing.

Hello there, reader! I don’t know if you realize this, but my relationship with you is entirely born from the joy of silence.  I made space for words, and suddenly there you were!

Occasionally I wonder if I just don’t like TV enough to sit and watch it for very long.  I enjoy watching TV and movies, but I always find myself doing something else while the TV is on, alternating between actually listening to the news or whatever crime show I’m watching, and some sort of craft, book, or task that I feel needs to be done. My husband will tell you that I am terrible about watching movies. If my husband wants me to see a movie, he has to take me to the movie theater because there is nothing else to do at the movie theater except watch the movie and eat popcorn.

So exactly what is my issue? (Trust me, there are many people who have contemplated this question across the ages: my parents, my husband, both my daughters, anyone who has ever worked with me, anyone who has ever been my boss…none of them has ever come up with a satisfactory answer. I am, apparently, a conundrum.)

Earlier today, as I was rushing through several undone tasks from earlier in the week, I came across a friend’s “talk” for the Walk to Emmaus, something I had promised to read and critique. As I read her talk, I came across a line that resonated with me a great deal:

“Achieving security is a lifelong process.  It is achieved through perseverance & the hard work of remaining open to God’s persistent love.”

That phrase…”the hard work of remaining open to God’s persistent love” touched me deeply.

One of the things that keeps me so busy is the desire to have a positive impact on those around me. I “do” so that others might experience God’s love, God’s provision for them, God’s desire for their wholeness and healing, and God’s presence in their lives.  My job, as a minister, is to bring Christ to the people who I encounter on a daily basis.  Bringing Jesus wherever I go is a busy thing, since everybody needs a little more Jesus than they are currently getting, and there are plenty of people who need way more Jesus than they are currently getting…and that requires someone who loves Jesus, someone with flesh on, to bring Jesus in the form of service and friendship.

Let me tell you, there is way more need for Jesus than I’m able to meet, and I run out of energy, compassion, and kindness long before the need for Jesus is exhausted.

You can see where this is going. I get busier and busier, trying to satisfy the needs of the world, finding myself falling short day after day. It gets discouraging and it can leave me feeling like I am not a very good vessel for Jesus because I can’t seem to hold enough Jesus to get the job done effectively.

This is where the phrase “the hard work of remaining open to God’s persistent love” hits me the hardest.

You see, I want to give myself demerits for all the work that goes undone, the comforting cards I fail to send, the people I fail to visit, the tasks I cannot complete…so when God tries to overwhelm me with his love, I am too absorbed in self-criticism to notice.

What would happen if we admitted that self-criticism is largely ineffective in changing us for the better, while it is also our most efficient way of blocking God’s unrelenting love from reaching us? What would happen if we admitted that we indulge our self-criticism, because it is easier to pick ourselves apart than to allow ourselves to accept love that we know we do not deserve in amounts greater than we can conceive of because it highlights just how frail, small, and ineffective we are?

The truth is that God’s love is so intense and so huge that it scares us.

We keep thinking that God’s love is like human love, and that one day God will realize that we aren’t worthy of His devotion, adoration, and overwhelming love for us.  We keep waiting for God to ‘dump’ us, in so many words. We are afraid to accept is that God is head over heels in love with us despite all our frailties and failures and stupidity and stubbornness. God’s love is not stymied by our refusal to believe in its breadth and depth, God’s love is not diminished by our sinfulness or our failure to acknowledge His greatness.

God’s love is absolute, and as humans, we have trouble believing in absolutes.

So we get busy, thinking we need to earn what is already ours.

We self-criticize, trying to become worthy of something that was granted to us at our birth and that will never be rescinded.

We cling to the idea of ‘good enough’ because it freaks us out that nothing we can do will change God’s opinion of us.  It freaks us out to realize that God thinks that we are…

Magnificent. Beautiful. Captivating. Inspiring. Precious. Deserving. Lovable.

It is beyond comprehension to believe that God thinks we are worthy of salvation.

Listen…there is nothing wrong with trying to have a meaningful life, or wanting to make sure that you serve others, or desiring to leave an impact on this world.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to bring Jesus to a hurting world.

Just remember that there is nothing that you can do to increase your value in the eyes of your Maker.  He decided that you were utterly precious before He even formed you in your mother’s womb, and nothing you can do or not do can separate you from His unending love.

All that is left to you is “to do the hard work of remaining open to God’s persistent love.”

Go ahead…stop everything that you are doing and take a moment to let yourself feel the flood of love and grace that are yours in Christ Jesus.

It’s enough to knock you out of your chair, so be prepared to hang on. And be prepared to cry, because nothing can prepare you the way that His grace will make you feel or the way that His love will make you whole.

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Sing Along With Me

Last week, as I was leaving a family dinner at my parent’s house, my Dad hugged me and said quickly “We need to talk.”  He sounded concerned, and so I decided to take him out for coffee later that week so that we could have some privacy.  My Dad is retired and has dementia, so he is home with my Mom 99% of the time; because he can no longer drive, his life has become limited to the things he can do with my mother.  I figured that my Mom could use some time alone, and my Dad could use an excuse to get out of the house, so we set a date to go out for coffee.

By the time I could get to my parent’s house to pick up my father, he had already had two cups of coffee and really didn’t feel like having more caffeine, so instead we opted for a late lunch.  I gave him several options, but his dementia kept interfering with the conversation.  After about three rounds of asking him to pick what kind of food he wanted for lunch, I finally blurted out  “Tacos or salad?” and he quickly replied “Are you crazy? Tacos!”  I’m still learning how to effectively communicate through the fog of his dementia.

While we were still on the way to our lunch, I asked him what he wanted to talk about, and he opened by saying “You probably don’t want to hear this.”  My standard response to anyone who says such a thing to me is “It doesn’t matter what I want to hear, if what you’re saying needs to be said.”

I should have kept my mouth shut.

For the next 10 minutes, I had to fight to overcome the urge to put my fingers in my ears and loudly sing “LA LA LA LA LA LA LA!”

What is it with older parents who suddenly start revealing deeply personal things to their children?  For several years now I have thought perhaps my parents were just unusually candid, but recently a colleague told me that her father has been making similarly shocking (and occasionally unwelcome) revelations to her.

It must be one of the provisions of joining AARP: Once you get over 65, you must overshare with your adult children.

The funny thing is that until recently, I thought that my parent’s habit of oversharing was simply an extension of their honesty with me when I was a teenager. My parents never hid the truth from me about their own teenage mistakes, challenges, and outright failures; my parents believed that I could learn from their life lessons without having to repeat them myself.  Even back then, before I realized how rare it was to receive such a gift of honesty from my parents, I greatly appreciated their candidness.  Please understand, I was not one of those saintly teenagers who never gives their parent’s any problems.  The truth is that I was an obnoxious teenager (especially during my freshman year of college) and I know that I tested the limits of their patience many, many times. Despite that, I valued my relationship with my parents and respected them. Hearing stories about their struggles with self-esteem, or the social cost of refusing to go out drinking with their friends, or the ways they were singled out as nerds because they valued learning…it made it easier for me to believe that high school only seemed like it would last forever. It made it easier for me to believe that one day I would find my group and discover that I was perfectly normal.  The idea that I would one day ‘fit in’ was balm to my incredibly nerdy, chubby, over-achieving, academically-focused self.

Let’s not discuss the fact that I am still nerdy, chubby, and a notorious over-achiever; the only reason I’m not currently academically focused is because I’m not in school anymore. I have, however, found my people and feel like I am relatively normal.  The fact that I found a husband who is almost exactly like me…except for the chubby part…has made a huge difference as well.

Back to my parents.

So there I was, in the car with my Dad, listening to him say things that in all actuality I did not want to hear. Let’s just say that his sharing was intensely personal.  All I could do was listen, because I didn’t have any good advice for him; I’ve never experienced anything like what he’s experiencing right now.  I’m 53 years old and in relatively good health. My father is 76 and he has vascular dementia; the stroke that brought this on happened eight years ago.  He has been slowly losing himself ever since, and the loss gets greater and faster every day.  That’s what dementia does: it steals your “Self.” You think you know who you used to be and who you are now, but what you think you know keeps shifting and changing and getting lost in the haze that fills your memory.  Dementia steals your ability to observe yourself and your performance; it keeps you from honestly admitting to all that you cannot do and from understanding how your deficit impacts those around you.  Consequently, my father cannot drive anymore and he blames my mother for that even though he failed to pass a driving evaluation designed to evaluate people with dementia. My father cannot travel anymore because he becomes disoriented and afraid in unfamiliar places, but he swears that he and my mom don’t travel because she doesn’t want to go anywhere. He doesn’t remember his own behaviors towards my mother over the last few years (or months, actually) and so he can’t understand why she reacts to him the way she does when he raises his voice.  Dementia has stolen the life my father imagined that he and my mother would have after he retired, and now dementia is even stealing his past.  During our lunch together I was stunned to discovered that my father is forgetting key details of his parent’s lives, which tells me how advanced his dementia has become. Any attempts on my part to jog his memory and try to remind him of the history that I remember (especially the things that have occurred in his family since I became an adult) only serve to frustrate and anger him.

I sat in the car, listening to all my Dad had to say, feeling helpless to relieve his emotional distress and helpless to stop things from getting even worse.

Just as we got to the restaurant my father turned to me and said “I know that I shouldn’t tell you these things, but I feel safe telling them to you.”  He could barely look at me.

So I looked at him and said “Daddy, you tell me anything you want to tell me. You get no judgment from me, no matter what.  I’ll always be here to listen to you.”

This is all my father has to give me now.  He can give me his truth, no matter how twisted and ill-remembered it is.  He can’t help me fix things around the house anymore because he can’t follow instructions.  He can’t give me good advice because he can’t keep his own wisdom from getting twisted up with vague memories and everything comes out wrong.  There is so much that he can’t do for me, and so many, many things that I cannot really do for him either.  But neither of us needs the other to do anything, really.

Maybe all that is left for us to do is to listen.

My Dad can tell me things that he knows I don’t want to hear because he knows that I am safe, and that word means more to me than I can tell you.  My Daddy trusts me, and that is the greatest gift he could possibly give me.

My prayer today is that God grant us each someone safe to share our truth with, and that God make us a safe space for someone who needs to say the words they know that no one wants to hear.

Amen.

The Full Catastrophe

It’s family disaster week.

Actually, there is nothing “family disaster” in what I’m about to say; in fact, what I’m about to say probably reflects the same family life most people have in their fifties. Some days are good, some days are bad, some days are both good and bad, and some days feel like Murphy moved into your house, took over your bank account, and decided that he personally has a vendetta against you.

I hate that Murphy guy.

This will serve as your one and only trigger warning: if you are already overloaded with family drama, I’ll see you next week. Otherwise feel free to read on.

So…the mom brag moment!

My oldest daughter called me and told me that wonderful things are happening at her job. Since she hasn’t told the world yet I won’t give you details, but let’s just say that the money is getting significantly better, she’s about to become very happy with her job and her commute, and she hasn’t felt this valuable to a company in a really long time.

It was so surprising that she was a little stunned and overwhelmed, but I’m here to tell you that she totally and absolutely deserves all of it.  Yes I’m her mom but dang that girl is bright and capable!

To put the icing on that cupcake, she told me that her partner (who is a professional photographer who does mostly BMX races) has been marketing himself a great deal in San Francisco because she travels there twice a month for work…so why not fly there together, you know? Well, after showing his work around town he got hired for a 3 day commercial shoot for a major fashion designer!!  Seriously, when I heard this I squealed out loud and he’s not even my kid.  Again…they haven’t told everyone yet and so I am keeping some details under my hat, but OMG a major (MAJOR) fashion designer!

After our phone call was over I was so excited that I danced all around my house as I got ready for my Zumba class, where I danced rather exuberantly and with great joy.  I had to let the energy out somewhere!

It has been a good couple of weeks for my girls. My youngest passed her certification exam and now is a certified Pharmacy Tech (hello, big raise!) and my son-in-law got a great job at an airport with benefits and everything.  Considering that he is thinking of going into aircraft maintenance, this is a good job to have.

Some days are good. Some weeks are good.

And then…

I have written previous posts about the challenges of aging and how important it is admit and accept that you are going to require someone else to take care of you. I have written about the importance of working through the emotions of becoming more and more disabled before you come to that point, and understanding that aging doesn’t have to be about loss.

Yeah, my parents don’t read this blog.

My dad is 76 years old and has dementia; my mom is 70 years old and chronically ill.  Both of them are slowly losing their ability to be independent, although neither of them wants to admit it.

My dad is unwilling to admit that his dementia has reduced him to the point where he cannot live independently and needs a caregiver. My mom has been filling the caregiver role for eight years, with increasingly less and less physical ability to do so, and more and more emotional and mental stress related to my dad’s decline.

I feel like we are at the breaking point.

I talk to my dad and he unloads about his frustration and overwhelming confusion in combination with his anger with my mom.  You see, he still believes that he is capable of independence, and he keeps trying to live his life the way that he used to. He thinks that it’s my mom’s anxiety that causes her to stop him from doing maintenance around the house or driving. Sadly, my dad’s dementia has made it impossible for him to evaluate his own functioning, or lack of it. And he does keep trying to function, despite the fact that the results are consistently bad.  Over and over he’ll try to “be of use” and do the things he used to do around the house, but since he no longer remembers details or how things function he ends up breaking or destroying clothes, appliances, fixtures, you name it. He has lost or destroyed so many things that my mom is at her wits end, so she tries to stop him or she ends up criticizing him because he is doing it wrong and refusing to receive instructions on how to do it right. This causes him to become belligerent and angry and then he becomes aggressive and things just keep escalating until there is a huge confrontation.

That’s when I get frantic, emotional phone calls from my mom telling me just how bad it is, how agitated and aggressive my father is becoming, how exhausted and overwhelmed she is…and I gather resources and try to offer help to her…which she refuses most of the time.  Recently she revealed to me just how aggressive my father becomes when he gets agitated, and the last time I was at their home she had me take pictures of the bruises. It broke my heart to think that my father has become that guy and that my mother feels trapped in the situation.

Disaster.

Believe me, I have tried all sorts of things, and I have gathered all sorts of resources including an elder law attorney. Nothing is getting either of them to realize how explosive this situation is becoming.

I was up until almost 2am last night running it over and over in my mind, furious with both of them for the choices they have made and are making. I have a huge list of fears, with each one more terrifying than the other until the final one involves such a horrible occurrence that I would lose both my parents at once: one to death, and the other to the criminal justice system.

All morning I have been trying to interject more logic and less fear and anger into the discourse in my head, and I have realized that no matter how much I want to, I cannot make their choices for them. As much as I love and want to protect them, every attempt to help them make a decision that would admit that they need help because of their increasing debility seems to create a backlash of resistance and petulance out of my dad, which only serves to increase my mother’s anger with him.  I don’t want my desire to “fix things” to become the reason they end up in the next screaming, violent confrontation.

I fear that the best course of action is to sit back and let their choices drive what comes next and hope that none of my fears comes true. But I’m telling you, I’m going to get a hold of that elder law attorney and get papers that would allow me to file for conservatorship and get them filled out in advance. I’m also going to ask her for a referral to an attorney that deals with criminal charges against compromised adults. I can’t save them from themselves, but I can arm myself with information, prepared paperwork, and referrals.

And then I am going to sit back, close my eyes and meditate on raises, promotions, new jobs, photo shoots, and the incredible joy I feel when I think of what amazing women my daughters have become and what amazing men they have chosen as their partners.

In the movie Zorba the Greek, one of the characters gets asked if he is married and he says “I have a wife, children, house, everything…the full catastrophe.”

Life is a catastrophe, indeed. A wonderful, excruciatingly painful and beautiful catastrophe. I would complain, but then I think of Jesus’ life and all that He went through and I realize that even my Savior lived the full catastrophe, even if he never had a house and may not have had a wife and children.  It turns out that this is the nature of incarnate life, and I don’t know that I would honestly want it to be any other way.

 

Our Privilege Is Showing

I have a client who has been dealing with chronic pain and spinal issues ever since I started working with her over two years ago. Approximately 7 months ago, she went in for an injection to reduce inflammation and pain in her cervical spine (the medical description of what they did is beyond most of us, so I’m going to skip that.)

To make a long story short, things didn’t go well. Somehow, they injured a nerve during the injection, and my client noticed immediately that she was unable to use her right hand; by that evening my client was in the ICU receiving huge amounts of medications to elevate her blood pressure so that they could maintain blood flow in her spinal column.  She lived through the ordeal, but was left with excruciating pain in her left arm and very little function in her left hand.  The muscles in her hand are wasting, she can’t move her fingers very much and cannot use the hand for anything more than a paperweight. She can’t tie her own shoes, pull up and button her own pants, or pick up anything that requires two hands. She struggles with simple things like showering and getting dressed, and it’s almost impossible to do the things that would allow her to take care of her family.  Worst of all is the constant searing pain in her left arm that increases any time she puts any pressure on her left hand. Physical therapy is so agonizingly painful that she cannot eat before she goes to therapy or she vomits.

Sounds awful doesn’t it? Aren’t you glad it isn’t you? Me too.  Sadly instead of giving her a place to share her emotions and honestly talk about her agony and suffering, friends, family, and even her doctors all say the same thing to her:

“Aren’t you glad it isn’t your right arm?”

Well…yes, she is grateful that she is still able to sign a check, or write a note to another person. She is grateful that her dominant arm wasn’t impacted.

But how is that statement supposed to be comforting to her?  Imagine what it would be like if I lit your left arm on fire and it had to stay on fire for the remainder of today, just today…not 7 months of agony, like my client.  Would you welcome people saying “Aren’t you glad it isn’t your right arm?”

I’ll bet not. I’ll bet you’d want to scream “Make it stop! Make the pain stop!  I can’t take anymore!”

But no one is going to make it stop for my client. Barrows Neurological can’t make it stop. The malpractice suit isn’t going to make it stop. Pain medication barely touches it because it’s nerve pain. Nothing…nothing…NOTHING is going to make it stop.

Aren’t you glad it isn’t your right arm?

People say things like that for a number of reasons. First, they cannot feel just how much pain she’s in. Second, they don’t understand that this may be permanent and even progressive. Third, they don’t realize how much they use both hands when they need to get things done.

But the biggest reason that people say this is because they don’t want to have to acknowledge my client’s immense suffering. The idea that life can randomly, arbitrarily deal out such horrific suffering is more than most people can bear, and so they push the idea away with bland platitudes and stupid statements that demand the suffering person “see the bright side of things”. You know, because, happy and all that!

You see it in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in some of the statements on social media.

People asking why Joel Osteen didn’t open up his church to provide refuge. “If he had just opened his church…”

People stating that the people in Houston should have evacuated. “If they had just gotten out of Houston…”

People criticizing the unwise actions of those who tried to drive out of Houston after the flooding was severe. “If they had just listened to the news they would have known…”

Isn’t it easy to armchair quarterback someone else’s tragedy?  Isn’t it so clear what they should have done, how they failed to respond correctly?  Don’t you feel righteous and correct and so much more…informed and wise…than those people who should have just ….

Yeah. Once again, we’d rather turn a blind eye to the random, arbitrary suffering of others than to face the truth: no matter how hard you try to do life correctly, horrible things will happen that will almost destroy you and there will be no good reason for the destruction.

And that’s what I mean when I say Our Privilege Is Showing.

When we sit in our dry, climate controlled homes, relaxing in our comfy chair, criticizing the failures of those who are suffering because of natural disasters, we are exercising the privilege of safety to erase the suffering of the endangered and the refugees.

When we demand that sick, suffering individuals look at the bright side of their illness (Aren’t you glad it isn’t your right arm?) we are exercising the privilege of wellness to erase the suffering of the sick and disabled.

When we refuse to acknowledge the hidden disabilities of those whose chronic illnesses are not immediately visible we are exercising the privilege of wellness to punish those who refuse to be openly and visibly disabled and refusing to believe their claims of disability because they don’t meet our ‘criteria’…even though even though the government and the medical field has established clear criteria for disability.

Anytime you ease your own discomfort with someone else’s situation by dismissing their suffering or their struggle you use your privilege to make that person invisible.

Well…I’ve got news for you.

God’s children are never invisible to God. God sees all of His children: the well, the sick, the wealthy, the poor, the adequately housed, the homeless…all of them. And He sees you when you decide not to see suffering, sorrow, loss, disaster, disability, homelessness, poverty, discrimination, and inequality.

Never forget, God is watching. What will He see you doing?

Our privilege is showing.  Aren’t you glad it’s not your right arm??

Epic Fail Birthday

This has been one of those weeks when I feel like an epic failure.

Not that everything has gone wrong this week. Far from it; in fact, many good things have happened this week. What has me feeling like an epic failure is that something went wrong with one of my clients—like wrong—and she quit therapy abruptly, which usually causes me to seriously question if I am burnt out, if I am in need of a tune-up of my skills, or if I am just slowly losing my mojo as a therapeutic person.

Obviously, I cannot share any specifics of what happened, since I want to (and legally need to) respect my client’s privacy. Let it suffice to say that we had a major parting of the ways over a religious issue; my client is very conservative and is an activist in this area, and I am a committed progressive that does not believe that my morals should ever dictate what other people are allowed to do. We have laws to dictate behavior; after that, my morals should stop with me.

I have to admit that I view this person as an extremist. I say that because she holds an ethical viewpoint that labels anyone who disagrees with this viewpoint as immoral and of lower personal character.  I also view her as an extremist because she spouts “statistics” and “facts” without really examining if those statistics and facts meet the test of simple logic, which means her belief is unexamined and also unchallengeable.  After all, how do you challenge someone’s viewpoint once they have chosen to simply accept whatever data they are fed by their ‘leader’ without any critical thinking?

This is where I got into trouble with her.  She was sharing her views and statistics, and I lost my ability to smile and remain silent.  And of course, that loss is why I feel like an epic failure right now. I’m not okay with losing my patience with someone and arguing against their opinion. I’m not supposed to speak sternly to a client, ever. I’m not okay when I act like this whether it happens with clients or just with people in general. Sadly, I find myself behaving like this often enough for me to be embarrassed to admit to it.

It’s my birthday today, and I keep hoping that my increasing age will grant me greater amounts of patience, compassion, silence (oh how I could use some ability to remain silent!), and wisdom.  While I often get really nice presents for my birthday, God has not yet chosen to shower me with the gifts of patience, silence, and wisdom.  I don’t know that I actually need to be more compassionate that I am, but I often think that I would be better at tolerating extremist viewpoints or just generally stupid behaviors and viewpoints if I was more compassionate.

Then again, maybe if I didn’t give a damn that would help too.

But I digress.

I keep waiting to grow up, to become more of all the things I thought I would become with age. It isn’t happening, at least not the way I want it to.  I won’t deny that age has granted me a number of characteristics that I didn’t possess at 22. I told my oldest daughter not long ago that the greatest gift of aging is that you calm the hell down. Actually, I think I said it more colorfully than that. Nonetheless, I have calmed down a great deal since my 20s. I have also become a bit more comfortable with having others tell me that I have screwed up. Sometime in my 30s I decided that being wrong isn’t as horrible as we like to make it out to be.  Discovering you are wrong is embarrassing and it hurts your pride a little, but only just a little, as long as you don’t act like you’re being accused of a capital crime and start defending yourself as if your life was on the line. The truth is that being wrong represents an opportunity to learn from someone, to thank them for their honest feedback, and to prove yourself to be a responsible and accountable adult. Oh yeah…and you get to be certain, at least for a moment, that you are now just a little ‘righter’ than you were a minute ago. Nice, huh?

Growing older has also granted me the wisdom of realizing that things are never as great or as bad as they seem, and that I need to step back and let things unfold, instead of going straight into freak-out mode. I used to freak-out over the slightest little thing that didn’t go well…now I moan a little and grump a bit, and then get on with dealing with whatever it was that just happened. I suppose that this could come under the heading of ‘Calm the hell down’ but it also contains a great big piece of ‘Look for the good to show up, because God always sneaks in a little good into everything’. God has a funny habit of blessing me even in the midst of the ickier parts of life, which has led me to start looking for the hidden blessings in just about everything.

You know, considering just how much aging has blessed me with already, I guess that it’s reasonable to hope that sometime in the next 30 years, God will sneak a little patience, silence, and wisdom into this hard head of mine. Maybe He’ll drop a little more compassion into my heart just for fun as well.  In fact, perhaps this particular epic failure will contain the seeds of great things…a few more hidden blessings from God.

So for my birthday, it appears that God has gifted me with hope that I’m still growing up and growing wise, and that is a very nice present indeed. Well played, God.  Well played.

The Sharpest Sword and the Uncontrollable Arm

This week I met with a female client whose husband is incredibly self-focused and verbally abusive to her and their two sons.

I have been listening to her struggle with her anger and frustration with her husband for months now. At first, she wanted to know what she was doing wrong, thinking that she was the problem. Then she began to wonder if she was perceiving him and his behavior incorrectly, or if she was judging him too harshly. She repeatedly blamed herself for her inability to stop her husband’s behavior from impacting her sons, swearing that if she didn’t become upset when her husband was being verbally abusive she would somehow be able to stop him from verbally abusing their boys.  Then she started asking if there were techniques to help her ‘deal’ with his constant anger and demeaning words.

Lately, though, she has been asking me if he is doing this on purpose or if this is simply how God made him.  She calls her husband a narcissist (and I agree with her) and she wants to know if his narcissism is a choice that he is making or if he can’t live any other way—in other words, was he born like this and if so, does this mean that it’s not his fault that he behaves poorly?

That is a difficult question to answer.

You might wonder how we even know for sure that he is a narcissist. Well, his behavior speaks volumes, but it always helps to rely on greater knowledge.  The Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (version 5) helps me in my practice quite a bit, and it provides a list of diagnostic criteria.  Mayo Clinic provides a simplified version for the public here.

While all that is very useful knowledge, diagnosing my client’s husband won’t change anything for my client.  Also, because he’s not the one seeking counseling, any conjecturing we might do about what causes his behavior is only that: conjecture. It neither gives us a path to helping the situation nor does it give my client any real tactics for dealing with her abusive, self-focused husband.

So back to the question at hand:  what if he can’t help it? What if this is just how God made him? Isn’t it wrong to be angry at him for things he has no control over?

I have a couple of thoughts on that.

First, I don’t know that I believe that God created a narcissist. I can, however, accept that the perfect spirit that God created happens to exist inside a fleshy body that developed incorrectly, growing a brain that lacks empathy and expects total obedience to every demand and whim. Lots of us live with bodies that don’t quite function correctly.  Lots of us suffer with brain injuries after strokes or with dementia or with mental illness…and I don’t believe that God enjoys watching us struggle with our broken flesh.  I also don’t believe that God creates broken flesh.  I do, however, believe that God created a perfect spirit to reside in that flesh, and that God forgives us for the failings that our broken flesh causes.  And yes…that means that God forgives this man for being abusive, even though God didn’t create him to an abusive husband and father.

Having said all that, I offered my client an allegory:

What if her husband was born with a right arm that suddenly would strike out and punch? What if her husband had no control over the violence that his right arm would suddenly commit?  Imagine him, sitting there in a movie theater, enjoying the show when he suddenly his right arm threw a punch, striking the man next to him in the face.  “Oh, I’m so sorry sir! I didn’t mean to punch you like that. It’s just that my arm…I can’t control it. It just does that. I’ve been like that since birth. I’m so sorry.”  A few moments later, his right arm strikes out again, punching the gentleman next to him a second time.  And then a third punch. And a fourth.

How long do you think this could go on before my client’s husband would be forced to leave the movie theater? How long before someone said “If you can’t control your arm, then at least be responsible enough to sit where you can’t punch anyone!”

In other words, if you are an adult** you are responsible for the impact of your behaviors on others even when you “can’t control yourself.” Just because you “can’t control yourself” doesn’t mean that you are unaware of the impact of your behavior on others. You do not have the right to expect others to ignore the impact of your behavior on them simply because you can’t help yourself. You do not have the right to expect accommodation at the expense of the well-being of others.  You do not have the right to expect a consequence free life because of your twisted flesh.

Not sure about that?  Ask yourself…do you think that God leaned in to his sons when they were born and said “I made your Daddy in such a way that he’ll always be abusive and hateful. Too bad for you! He can’t help it so you just have to deal with it! It’s not his fault, so it’s your burden FOREVER!”

I don’t believe God is like that. I believe that God forgives us for the failures of our flesh, but I also believe that God desires for us to realize our responsibility to protect and respect others.

The saddest part?

My client looked at me and said “I know this is sick and wrong, but I wish that he’d hit me. Then I’d have no excuse to stay. I could leave him.”

My heart breaks.

All I can do is pray that she hears God whispering “Leave him. Don’t worry…I’ll take care of him. Please…for your sake, for the sake of your boys…leave him before he destroys you.”

Pray with me, please. There are way too many women and men staying in abusive relationships, worried that God will somehow judge them for leaving a relationship where the bruises aren’t physical and obvious.

As a woman who believes in a Christ who suffered a great deal before he died, trust me…words bruise and inflict wounds far greater than you can imagine. That’s why the Romans, who had already beaten Jesus bloody and were about to execute him, hung the words “King of the Jews” above his cross. They knew that whips and torture weren’t enough…they needed words to finish the destruction.

Through God’s grace alone, those who sought to kill Jesus won the battle but lost the war. Let us pray that all those who seek to destroy with words lose in the long run…and please God, sooner rather than later.

From my words to God’s ears!

** Adult in terms of mental development as well as chronological age. One of my colleagues has a son who is in his 30s and has the mental development of a 4 year-old child. In my opinion, his disability makes it so that he should never have to be fully responsible for the impact of his behaviors on others.

In the beginning was the Word…

The last few weeks I have been working with a woman who is struggling with chronic and complex PTSD.

To put that in laymen’s terms, my client experienced a boatload of trauma, starting when she was just a child and ending only recently when she kicked out her latest abusive partner.  The litany of abuse is unbelievably long, including emotional, physical, and sexual abuse when she was a child, abandonment by her parents, and domestic violence with her romantic partners as an adult.

You might imagine that it is difficult listening to someone graphically describe the violence they have lived through, and you would be right. Sometimes I get a little sick to my stomach because the violence is so extreme; it stuns me to realize just how much violence can be done to a human being without killing them.  It’s even worse when the violence happened to my client when they were a child because of how helpless they were to escape their abuser and how reliant they were on their abuser for their daily needs.

And of course, my clients cry when they talk about the abuse. They weep, hug themselves, and rock back and forth, trying to comfort the invisible child within that just cannot stop screaming in anguish.

For all the pain that the violence causes, the violence is far easier to fix than the verbal abuse. Punches, kicks, and belts will never have anything on the spoken word when it comes to inflicting damage.

I know that you’ve heard that stupid childhood meme “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me!”

What a load of crap!!

As a therapist I have tools to tear away the memories of physical and sexual violence; I have special techniques that help the brain reprocess and ‘de-fang’ disturbing and painful memories of violence and terror.  Don’t get me wrong: it’s not like I have a magic wand that I wave at my client that makes the bad memories fade away.  On the other hand, the methods currently used for treating trauma are effective and there are enough different methods to be able to find at least one that works well for the client’s specific needs.  If we work hard and the client is brave, we can usually eliminate most, if not all, of the symptoms of PTSD and free them the abuse of their past.

What is much harder is freeing them from the voices inside their head that repeat demeaning, hateful words that were spoken by their abuser in anger and disdain.  I cannot silence the demanding father that could never be pleased, no matter how high the grade or how many goals you made once he takes up residence in my client’s mind. I cannot pry off the negative label when my client’s mother labeled her a whore when she finally told her mom about the years of sexual abuse by her stepfather.  I cannot stop the horrifying, negative, self-abusive messages that play in my client’s head as their mind repeats endlessly the abusive words spoken to them every time they made a mistake or angered their parents. I cannot re-establish my client’s confidence after years of being told by their partner that they are the entire reason the marriage is miserable, and that they perceive everything incorrectly and do everything wrong.

Why am I telling you this?

Because we carry deadly weapons in our mouths: weapons that we can quickly deploy that produce deadly results without leaving any bodies behind as evidence.

Words are weapons, and our weapons are far more fatal than we like to realize.

It is so easy to succumb to irritation and strike out at our children or our spouse or our coworkers. It is so easy to blame our constant, low-lying agitation on the demands of our jobs and daily life. And it is so easy to forgive ourselves for the many ‘minor’ moments when we let our tone and our message get sharp and jagged, when we say a host of the wrong words. It is so much easier to ask forgiveness for our ‘momentary’ lapse of kindness than to actually try to control our tongue.

Have you ever tried to control your tongue?

It didn’t work for me either.

It won’t ever work.

It doesn’t work because it isn’t our tongue that we need to control.  It’s our mind. Our tongue has no will of its own. It can only repeat the words that play silently in our minds, waiting for our anger to give them greater purchase so they can be spoken out loud.

And why? Why would we house weapons in our minds, letting them silently fill our heads with words that can only do damage?

It’s because my clients aren’t the only ones who have been tortured with venomous words.

It’s you, too. It’s me.  I’m afraid that no one escapes unscathed.

Every single one of us, in some way, have been stabbed and beaten and shot with words that tore us apart.  Maybe our parents spoke them, or maybe it was a schoolyard bully. For some of us it was our partner that spoke the words that ripped us apart. The problem is that the damage never stops with us. As long as we let these wounds remain unhealed, they bleed sick, self-punishing thoughts that wound us even more until finally the words demand release and they turn their venom outward, begging to pour out of our mouth so they can go on damaging other people.

So now what? What do we do?

First, if you find your mind full of self-critical thoughts that tear up your self-esteem, it is important that you seek counseling. I know it sounds like your own voice in your own head saying those things, but those words didn’t come from you, and they don’t belong in your head. More importantly, if words are weapons, essentially you are beating and abusing and terrorizing yourself…and if you did that to anyone else you’d be arrested!  Believe it or not, you can spit those words out of your mind and never have to hear them again. If the counselor you find doesn’t help you, get a hold of me and I’ll share a few techniques that will help you evict the cruel inner critic in your mind.  Remember, those hateful words in your head have a habit of leaking out of your mouth and attacking others. If you want to tame your tongue, tame your inner critic.  Trust me, it works much better than you think. Also, it’s much nicer living inside your head when there isn’t any voice in there destroying your self-esteem and your confidence. Az-plc.com

Second, remember that your words have great power: power to wound, power to bind, power to heal, and power to set free. Lest you think this is a bunch of new age hokum, let me remind you that John 1 begins with the sentence In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  If everything that exists began with the Word and if the Word is God, then our words, spoken by someone who is made in the image of God, are no small thing!  God spoke the entire universe into existence; likewise when we speak we create. Do our words create love? Do they create wounds? Do they seek to carry God’s grace, or do they convey judgement and condemnation?

What you live inside your head becomes the reality you create around you. Please…let your life (and that of those you love) become a garden of life and love, not a pit of despair.

Have a blessed week! I’m on hiatus for the next week, and when I come back I hope to have all sorts of tales of new adventures.

Blessings!