The Mary Oliver Twist

“You do not have to be good.” Whenever I read Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese,” I’m tempted to stop after the first line. If you grew up anything like me (i.e. human), then her words (like wild geese) fly in the face of everything you were taught to believe. And if you are anything like me, then her words carry an immediate emotional power…but seem terrifyingly dangerous. Perhaps I should speak for myself. I HAVE to be good because if I’m not good, then what AM I?

When I was in first or second grade there was a spelling bee at the local mall. Trust me. It was a big deal. I’d talked about it for weeks. After all, I was the best speller in my class (of 10ish children), and I was confident I would win. So, there I was, on stage with some other kids of all different ages. I was so nervous. When it was my turn, I stepped up to the microphone, and the moderator asked me to spell “obey.” This was an easy one, but I was shaking: “uh-O-B-uh-E-Y.” And these are the words that I heard in return: “I’m sorry, but obey only has one “E.” Mother fuckers. I was out after the first round because I stuttered. And because my sister was also in the spelling bee, I had to watch the rest of it. I knew how to spell every single word.

That DEEP INJUSTICE J has haunted me for thirty years now, but only recently have I been struck by the irony of a) getting that word and b) not spelling it to the judges’ satisfaction. I grew up in a culture in which the “best” children AND adults were the ones who obeyed. And I was really, really good at it. I was really good at learning the rules, following them myself, and making sure everyone around me followed suit (because those are the rules). And that means that I was good, and that’s what mattered.

“You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.” Fuck you, Mary Oliver. Yes I do. I deserve to suffer, and there is comfort in the pain. If my knees are bleeding, then I must be doing something right. Feeling good is dangerous. It’s the sinful things that feel good, things I have to stay away from. I need to deprive myself, flog myself, remove myself, and live a life of asceticism. And this is Mary Oliver’s response: “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Are you kidding me? What kind of fucked up ideology/theology/philosophy is this that eschews masochism and encourages authenticity, wholeness, or God forbid, pleasure? For those of us whose image of God is vengeful, capricious, and unable to tolerate our questions, confusion, and doubt, giving up our self-deprecating, self-defeating self-righteousness is akin to removing battle armor in a warzone. We are certain our “soft animal” would be blown to bits.

So we live in fear that we will be found less than, inadequate, or wanting. We have so long deprived ourselves of our own wants that we do not recognize our own desire. This is not goodness. This is madness. Life is not a zero-sum game. We do not have to lose for others to win. We do not have to suffer so that others can survive. There is a place for sacrifice. It can be noble, brave, and selfless. But most of us aren’t giving up our lives for others. We refuse to embrace our own lives because we are afraid to live. We are afraid that, like Oliver (Twist, not Mary), we will be ridiculed and punished for asking for more.

Walk Better

I had my patella tendon repaired almost a year ago. I feel fortunate that this was my first serious injury and surgery. I’ve still never broken a bone. But apparently, being really out of shape, not stretching or warming up in any way, and taunting a child is not the best way to begin an athletic endeavor at 37. One of the other ultimate players brings his kids out to play pick up, and one of them was giving me a hard time about being old. My last words to him before I destroyed my knee: “I guess being old doesn’t make me slow. I’ll tell you what: If I get hurt, then you can take my place.” Fifteen minutes later, I was on the sideline with ice on my knee, watching him play. After the game, his family loaded me in their van, took me to Urgent Care, waited for me while I had x-rays, took me home, and came over two weeks later to bring me dinner and play board games.

I had been in physical therapy twice before. I had back problems in high school, and in Divinity School I pulled/tore most of the muscles around my rotator cuff playing ultimate. But this was different. My youngest brother told me the night before I started to try not to hate my physical therapist. I didn’t understand what he meant…until the next day. I walked in and sat on the table, and Tom told me to take off my brace. I couldn’t do it by myself, and I told him so. So he helped me. I was so afraid. I felt helpless with my leg in his arms. But I didn’t hate him until he started bending my leg. Over the next couple of months, Tom and Taylor gradually bent my leg further and further, cutting through scar tissue and exposing me to the worst physical pain of my life.

I’d gotten used to crutches and my immobilizer, so I still walked with a limp around the physical therapy office/gym. Tom’s words to me were simple: “Walk better.” So I did. It was like I needed to be reminded that I was healing, that I was capable of more. I’m also really glad he didn’t say, “Walk right.”

In shame-inducing cultures (in my case Christian fundamentalism), “better” isn’t usually an option unless it’s followed by “than (someone else).” As a child I was taught that I was deeply and hopelessly sinful, incapable of being or doing anything good. My inherent wickedness had separated me from God, and the only solution was to accept someone else’s righteousness as my own. This was often illustrated in the “bridge diagram,” a depiction of a great chasm between God and me, a cross serving as the bridge between us. God is holy, and holiness is incompatible with wickedness. Because of my sin God could not even look at me except through the blood sacrifice of his son.

We were all guilty by association. There’s a story in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) about a man who reaches out to steady the Ark of the Covenant to prevent it from hitting the ground. God immediately struck him dead because he’d broken divine law. Trying to explain this story, one of my youth leaders in high school stated that the problem was that this man thought he was better than the dirt. Seemed totally plausible to me. I certainly believed I was less than dirt.

For most of my adolescence I was obsessed with my own wickedness. My thoughts became a battlefield on which the only path to victory was through constant vigilance. I had to protect my mind from evil thoughts by filling it with good ones. I remember sitting in a classroom in 8th grade saying to myself over and over, “I love God. I love God. I love God.” It wouldn’t take Freud to analyze the meaning of once “accidentally” saying instead, “I hate God.” The only god I knew was incapable of tolerating, much less, loving me as I was. I was confused. I was scared. And I felt hopelessly unworthy of anything good.

Imagine if my orthopedist had minimized my injury or berated me for needing surgery or if my physical therapist had told me on my first day to take off my immobilizer and run around the room. Since my leg only bent 35 degrees when I first started seeing him, that would have been a problem. Instead, he gave me the simplest instruction, and then helped me when I couldn’t help myself. But that’s how I imagined God, with endless demands and intolerant of anything short of perfection.

So many of my patients bear the familiar markings of shame. No one, except one doctor with whom I worked, made fun of me for being on crutches or limping around my workplace after my knee surgery. Nor did my physical therapists or my orthopedic surgeon expect a miraculous or instantaneous recovery. But we set unrealistic psychological expectations for others, and we’re awfully hard on ourselves when it comes to emotional recovery. Just walking better isn’t good enough. And so we attempt the impossible in lieu of mastering the attainable, further frustrating ourselves and everyone around us with our miserable failings. If anything short of perfection is unacceptable, then it is foolish to believe anything we do or are could ever be good enough.

I know some reading this story will say that’s the whole point of grace. We need salvation because we can’t be good enough on our own; we need God’s goodness instead. But I wonder how the equation would change if we didn’t begin with the assumption of our own depravity. I wonder how we would see ourselves if God didn’t start out on the other side of the chasm.

I still remember my first shower after my injury. I remember walking gingerly toward the bathroom, immobilizer off, naked, terrified that the slightest misstep would set back my recovery. I saw myself in the mirror, taking baby steps, looked at my own face, and just started crying. I was a child, toddling, exploring, wondering if I would be ok. And as I let the hot water rain over my body, my eyes tried to keep up. I cried because I’d been so ashamed of every imperfect step. I cried because the water felt so good. It was enough. And so was I.

Lent-ills

Easter has always been my least favorite Sunday to go to church. I’m sure that as a child my distaste was mostly due to the custom of dressing up more than usual. I resisted any efforts my family made in that department. I once wore my California Raisins t-shirt for a week and was quite miffed at having to change. That was last year. Just kidding. Maybe. But it’s not the dressing up that gets to me anymore. It’s the fact that most of the Easter services I’ve attended in the past few decades have felt like high school pep rallies.

I liked high school pep rallies. What wasn’t to like? We all got pumped up to cheer on the football team for the inevitable win that night. My high school’s football team didn’t lose my junior or senior year. I didn’t play on it, so I can’t take much credit, but I did paint my face a few times, and my senior year I even made a joyful noise with a bass drum as part of our drumline.

The principal of my elementary school (the years I wasn’t homeschooled) told us we should be as excited about Jesus as we were about our favorite sports teams. Granted, the bar was set pretty low. It was the ‘80s in Georgia. We didn’t exactly have to fight the crowd at Braves games. But even that was a tough measure for me to reach, and my apparent apathy was especially poignant during Easter services.

All these people around me seemed genuinely moved by “Up from the Grave He Arose.” And why wouldn’t they be? We were singing about the resurrection of Jesus, the triumph of life over death, and the key to our salvation. My elementary school principal was right. This was a big deal. But I just couldn’t get into it. So, I did what any good, Christian boy would do. I faked it. God forbid the people around me have any sense that I wasn’t rejoicing in the central event in Christian theology!

I was pretty paranoid that someone would find out. My entire identity was predicated on being the best Christian anyone knew, and, other than the fear someone would find me out, I was completely emotionless on Easter Sunday. For years, as I sat in various church pews, hoping resurrection jubilation was contagious, I wondered why. It occurred to me that the simplest explanation was that I didn’t believe in it. I didn’t believe Jesus actually rose from the dead. I put that thought out of my mind as best I could, going so far as to proselytize to others, hoping concern for their salvation would take my mind off my own. It didn’t help. I was terrified.

I’m beginning my fourth year of my longest continuous therapy, and something powerful is happening. I’m becoming increasingly aware of how angry I have been and the exhausting work my mind has done to keep it under the surface. I have not been explosive. I have not lashed out at people. Instead, I’ve just been tired. I’ve learned to shut down to keep any “negative” feelings away because I’ve been so afraid of what might come out. So, I’ve just been numb. It’s been impossible for me to engage fully in any meaningful work or relationship because it’s felt too dangerous to be fully present. I have been that full of rage.

So, back to Easter Sunday after Easter Sunday, sitting in church, singing words I want to believe to songs I don’t care about, wondering why I can’t feel anything….and I think I finally get it.

My father died when I was 9 years old. As is normal in any loss, at first it didn’t seem permanent. I expected my dad to come back, and my young mind invented all kinds of elaborate fantasies around his return. It’s been nearly 29 years now, and he still hasn’t come back. I still don’t know exactly what I felt when he died or in the years soon after. What I suspect is that I was incredibly angry. I now know that rage is a natural response to both helplessness and loss, and those two words pretty much sum up what I tried so hard not to feel back then.

Our religious culture taught me to eschew “negative” emotions. It further taught me that emotions are wholly unreliable. What we have is The Truth. It’s in black and white and sometimes in red. Those words are what we can know, what we can trust. They are what we BELIEVE. And those words say that on the third day Jesus rose again. Good for fucking Jesus. My father sure didn’t.

After all these years, I’ve come to believe that celebrating the power of God in the resurrection of the dead without being able to verbalize my own grief about my father’s death was torturing my mind. If God was so powerful…? If death was impotent…? I was SO angry. But I wasn’t allowed to be angry, so I just shut down. I just sat there, cold and lonely, while the people around me cheered for a team I wasn’t sure I wanted to be on anymore.

Am I ok?

“We don’t see things as they are. We see them as we are.”—Talmud

In the spring of 1995 I attended Youth Legislature through the Tennessee YMCA. We had moved to Franklin, TN the fall before, and I was a sophomore in a new school. As part of the conference, we attended lectures on “hot topics” in Tennessee politics. With some of my classmates, I attended one on gay and lesbian rights. The presenter, a lawyer who identified as lesbian, talked about some of the current legal issues around sexual orientation. At the end of 45 minutes, she began to take questions. I’ll never forget one of those questions because I asked it: “What do you do with the fact that God hates homosexuality?” The presenter responded, “I don’t think God does, but if you’d like to talk more, I invite you to come speak with me at the end of the hour.”

I took her up on her offer. I don’t know what I was expecting—horns, books about devil worship, 666 tattooed on her wrist, etc.—but what I got was ten minutes of grace from a kind woman who had recently been informed (I’m sure not for the first time) from the ignorant asshole standing in front of her that people with her sexual orientation are shunned by God. She gave me her business card, and told me to call her if I ever wanted to talk more. I did…eight years later.

But that’s another story. This one ends with me going up to watch some proceedings in the senate balcony, sitting by one of the junior students at my school, and telling her about the lecture. She said, “I know! Isn’t that just gross?” I’m not sure how I responded. I was shocked. Were people around me anti-gay because they were prejudiced? I assumed we were all on the same page. We weren’t personally offended. We were just proclaiming God’s Truth to the world. But the “Truth” we identified wasn’t handed down from the heavens, leather-bound and inked in black and red. It was fought over by men whose vision and understanding were limited by their cultures, their prejudices, and their agendas.

Sometimes I still wonder why I felt the need to stand up and ask that question. Outwardly, of course, I was “defending the faith.” But now I think about what my life was like at that point. I was obsessed with thoughts of heaven and hell, who was going and who wasn’t, including me. I thought I was evil, and I’ll write about that in another post. But I think the central question of my life was a very basic one: am I okay? To the extent that I could proselytize and criticize others, I could work to keep my own demons at bay, but at my core, I doubted very seriously that I was lovable or acceptable to God or anyone else.

The church of my childhood employed the Bible to create very distinct lines between us and them. Of course, growing up I’d been part of the former group, but I could feel myself changing and doubting the beliefs of my childhood. I was miserable. And no one knew because I knew that doubt, confusion, anger, depression, etc. are not “of God.” So, I suffered in silence while projecting my anxiety onto everyone else. I wasn’t asking how the speaker dealt with God’s rejection of her; I was asking how I could deal with God’s rejection of me. I don’t know what she knew about me in that moment. But what she offered me was something maybe no one else could have. I needed to know that God was bigger than my prejudice because at that time I was incapable of believing that God could love me.

A sort of introduction

“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” “Think before you speak.” These are admonitions most of us have heard more than once in our lives. There’s even a biblical precedent: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person” (Matthew 15:11, ESB). There’s a much larger point beyond “watch your mouth” to Jesus’ words, and I’m grateful for that verse for helping me move beyond my “shellfish crisis,” but mostly they served as another prohibition against speaking freely.

The premise for this blog is that ideas and ways of being meant to be life giving can have the opposite effect, especially if those ideas are so rigid and constraining that they stunt healthy emotional development by insisting on inauthentic representation of the self. We all need structure, and limits provide safety for people of all ages. Children, especially, need to be able to push against boundaries in order to orient themselves and move forward in the world. But we can go so far as to dismiss human uniqueness which is as messy as it is beautiful.

I think it’s important to say something about the blog’s title. I’m pretty sure the most obvious meaning doesn’t need clarification beyond that it serves to reject the rigid constraints of verbal piety. Secondly, the title is meant to set the stage for discussion introduced in the second paragraph: dogma, ideology, and theology can be at least destructive as instructive. But in the spirit of redeeming “what comes out” of us, the title is more of a triple than a double entendre. As humans, we produce what we are. And we are complicated. Rejecting the shadow side of our natures is like dismissing our need to defecate. So, this blog is also meant to alleviate spiritual and emotional constipation.

In my professional work as a therapist, I am never surprised to discover myriad complications and suffering induced by our attempts to make ourselves “clean” by rejecting our parts. Too many of us have been told implicitly or explicitly that this or that side of us is not welcome. In my personal life I have been gratified by the graciousness of those willing to put their shadow side on display. Rather than diminishing their beauty, their wholeness radiates invitation to participate authentically in a more abundant life. Their honesty is contagious. And I hope ours is too. We will speak openly about our own experiences in and the disastrous effects of a toxic system of being. And we welcome your own holy shit.