Codependency Virtue/Vices

Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash

Today I’ve been thinking about Thanksgiving and gratitude and creating the life I want to live. This month has been hard. My Kindergartener got sick and was home from school almost a whole week. Then I crashed on my bike and sustained some injuries. Then I got sick and was in bed for several days with fever, chills, a wicked sore throat, and the usual yuck of fall illnesses. Finally, I strained my ankle at the trampoline park. With all of this I have had a resurgence of depression symptoms including some pretty intense episodes of suicidal ideation. My counselor contracted pneumonia and has not been available. Naturally I was very unhappy when family-of-origin drama began.

At the beginning of this year I did a cut off with my parents. I have avoided writing on my blog about this for a couple of reasons. First, it is extremely painful and for those who have experienced it, you understand just how painful and why I wouldn’t want to post about it. Another reason is that I’ve been afraid of the backlash I might get from well meaning family members with little to no mental health experience. I thought that perhaps if I veiled some of my expressions in poetry that I might avoid some of the latter. Unfortunately, I have still managed to garner the backlash I tried to prevent.

As I have reflected on my blog’s purpose, I realize that I have been holding back useful information from my intended readers. My intended readers are those who have some experience with mental health or at least some desire to learn more, help loved ones, and build a more nurturing environment for our minds. My intended readers are familiar with phrases like “family of origin,” “childhood trauma,” “suicidal ideation,” and “recovery journey.” My intended readers understand that the world of mental health is complicated and that it is best to withhold judgement of those who suffer and their loved ones who suffer with them. My intended readers deserve more vulnerable and direct communications than my poetry posts this year.

This is not the first cutoff I have done with my parents, but this is the longest one. I tried to resume some limited contact with my mom around mother’s day, but we are back to no contact until after the holidays. Family of origin drama is just too much for me right now. I have to be there for my children for the next six weeks.

It’s hard to cope with the reality that you experienced serious trauma as a child. It is almost unbearable when those you love who hurt you so badly deny and minimize your experience, make excuses for themselves, and then shame you for the pain. I have been accused of being ungrateful, unforgiving, and cruel. Those minimizations and accusations hurt more than the original offense. I am comforted to think that the Savior knows the pain I feel. Perhaps he alone will ever truly understand. He whose piercing gaze fell upon the leper and resisted looking away will not fail to see me in my broken state. Like them, I cry out to him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

This post is for those who, like me, who find that in their recovery journey, that they must limit contact with people they love. Love is not a purchased commodity. Those we love have not earned our love. In order for love to be real it must be freely given with no expectation of reciprocation. Sometimes we have built empathetic connections of love with people who continually hurt us and keep us from building a healthy and happy life. They sabotage our efforts, contradict our therapists, and pressure us to continue harmful behaviors. These relationships are unlikely to change unless the empathetic connection changes. Sometimes the relationship can’t continue without great harm to recovery.

Cut offs are so hard. We love the person. We want them to understand. We want them to see that they are hurting us and for it to matter to them. We want the unconditional love from them that we have been giving. Some people are just unable to give that kind of love. It’s okay to let go. Sometimes it’s important to let go. This is hard for people raised in codependency.

My family of origin has a lot of problems with codependency. I was raised to believe that I needed to be unselfish to be good. That belief system has driven me repeatedly into burnout. I am finally making some progress in rooting out those codependent virtue/vices and replacing them with healthier values.

Virtue/Vice One: I need to put others first. Selfish women don’t deserve love. I was taught that women feel fulfilled in the home taking care of their family. I was taught that good wives and mothers put their husband and children’s needs first, often go without and make sacrifices for their family. I thought that when I skipped meals, showers, personal growth opportunities, and social activities that I was being a good person. Over time, resent built up and motivation evaporated. I thought that my sacrifices would make me feel fulfilled and that my efforts would be reciprocated and rewarded. Instead it seemed that everyone became accustomed to my behavior and even felt entitled to it. The love I craved felt insufficient and it was. I wasn’t behaving virtuously, I was being codependent. I was expecting my husband and children’s love to sustain me and make up for my neglect of myself. It left everyone frustrated and resentful.

Now I understand that putting others first doesn’t make me a good person, it makes me a resentful person. I understand that I don’t have to earn love. My husband and children love me because they are empathetic and loving people. I love them because I am an empathetic and loving person. I don’t earn their love with my unselfish behavior. I model healthy self care for them and teach them to do the same. They aren’t responsible for my happiness and I am not responsible for theirs.

Codependency keeps us in unhealthy relationships for too long. It is a habit of thinking that shifts responsibility. “I am responsible for everything,” says one codependent person. “You are responsible for everything,” says the other. Because neither of those statements is true, no progress is made. Codependency is like a tug of war, two people waste time and energy pulling against one another and getting nowhere. It isn’t going to be enough to stop pulling. Its okay to put the rope down and walk away.

Virtue/Vice Two: It is unkind to distance myself from people who hurt me. Christ commanded me to love everyone which means I need to put my mental health at risk rather than set healthy boundaries. This is a classic codependent virtue/vice. Keeping toxic relationships and people in your life is not healthy. Proper self care requires you to keep yourself safe from harm. Sacrificing your safety to enable someone’s toxic behavior is not a virtue, its a codependent vice.

Virtue/Vice Three: Doing family cut-offs is cruel. Family relationships need to be preserved no matter how detrimental they are to your mental health. For many years I have kept family relationships in my life that have hurt my recovery. Some family members have repeatedly reinforced toxic narratives, minimized abusive behavior, and blamed victims. Because I believed in the sanctity of eternal families, I kept trying to change toxic family members.

The truth is, eternal families are healthy families. Each individual is accountable for their own behavior within the family system. Not every individual has equal power within the family system. The parents have the bulk of the power and the responsibility for the overall health of the system. Children within the system, even adult children, have little power to change the system. Eventually healthy adult children will outgrow an unhealthy family system. That’s not cruelty, that’s life. If you want an eternal family, you need a healthy family. If your family isn’t healthy, it won’t last anyway.

Habits of codependence are reinforced with practice. It takes two to tango in the dance of codependence and the steps are unconscious. I’ve had to surround myself with people who have healthy boundaries in order to begin to see my own codependent habits.

Unfortunately, that has restricted my circle of friends to a very small group. Churches sometimes teach codependence as a virtue. Women at church are especially proud of their codependence. It is the whited sepulchre of mental health sins. On the outside they are virtuous servants of mankind while inwardly they are seething with the sickly rot of resentment. From such stay far away!

When it comes to relationships, I’ve prioritized quality over quantity. I have also prioritized relationships I feel I have some power to influence. I’m not investing in relationships with people who are rigid, defensive, and self-righteous. The truth is, there are not a lot of mentally healthy people in this world. There are enough mentally healthy people, but you have to look for them. You might find them in unexpected places.

The holidays are a strange mix of emotions for me. Being in recovery isn’t easy, but I have enough faith to believe it will be worth it. My best to all of you who find yourselves in a complicated place this season. You aren’t alone. As I celebrate the birth of the Savior, my model of mental health and altruistic virtue, this month, I hope I can better emulate Him. I hope my words bring you light and hope and not despair.

The Axe and the Tree

Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash
The axe forgets.  Only the tree remembers.
You had an ideal childhood.
We played games
We went on vacations
We loved you
Those things are all true

But you don’t remember
Feeling your throat in your mouth 
As each smash of your hand 
Reverberated through my body.
Afraid to run.
Afraid to breathe.
Seeing stars come into my eyes
Terror mixed with shame 
Dripping down.

You don’t remember the thrill of fear 
Travelling up my spine
When I heard the door open,
And I knew you were home.
The rush to hide.
To make myself small.
You were fear personified

And I ran from you.

Like a child runs from 
A monster in the closet.

You don’t remember
That desperate need to please
To be good enough
To earn your love
Like a famished beast
It consumed joy and peace of mind
In the womb
Before it could be felt.

Or maybe you do remember
But you want to forget
The memories of your own small self
You defend the ones who hurt you.
You side with them.
They still have the power
And you are still trying to earn their love.

The axe forgets, but the tree remembers.
Can the axe remember that it was once a tree?
Long ago before it became a brittle and dead thing 
Designed to destroy its children,
It was green, and it swayed in the wind,
As it flowed through the branches.
Can the axe remember?  

Let’s write a different story. 
Let’s change the ending.
The powerful can remember
The pain of their choices
On those they forget.  
Let’s give the future fertilizer, 
And put the axe in the shed.
A timeout for a while. 

Let's dig a hole in the Earth
And in that soft soil,
We can grow some seedlings.
And they won’t fear the axe.
And they won’t remember
What they don’t have to forget.

The axe can remember 
And the tree can forget.

Bad Art

Making some bad art today,
As seems to be my artist way,
To see the ugly broken me
And learn to love the flaws I see.

There is no other way I guess,
To silence the critic in my chest,
To bring the broken to the page
And release my inner sage

I find the beauty in growing things
In perfect hope that time will bring,
The beauty that I hope to find
Reminds me that I’m blind

To beauty He wants me to see,
The ugly and the broken me.
And find my artist way,
Making some bad art today

Empty Chairs

Photo by Nathan Wright on Unsplash
Cold and hard
Silent and still
My heart raging
My throat bursting
My shoulders constricting.

“YOU DID THIS!”
The echoes reverberate
Off the empty chairs
They stand accused
With no defense

“YOU DID THIS!”
The sound blossoms
Across the generations
Like the ripples of a fetid pool
A pool they made
And I had to live in.

“YOU DID THIS!”
And there was nothing I could do
To help you
To protect myself
Powerless, alone, silent, still.

“YOU DID THIS!”
Tears stick in unfocused eyes
As blood drips down my face
At pain unfelt
At justice denied.

“YOU DID THIS!”
And I paid the price
For your mistake
The scapegoat
The sacrificial lamb
Silent submission

“YOU DID THIS!”
But I won’t become you.
They won’t atone for our sins.
I won’t curse the future
To justify the past.

“YOU DID THIS!”
And it isn’t my fault.
I can walk away
From the darkness
Into a rebirth
A new beginning

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

One of the biggest reasons I started blogging was because I wanted to learn to accept my mental health condition. I had been hiding it for so long behind a mask of normalcy that I had split myself into two people. One version of myself did her best to seem normal, embraced the values of perfection I had been conditioned to persevere toward, and tried not to get in the way of others around me. The other version of myself understood that the world around me and the value system I had been conditioned to accept was fundamentally flawed; that life was messy and hard and full of complex realities. This second version of myself kept wanting to assert herself and push the other, more compliant version, aside. These two sides of me seemed to always be in conflict. On the outside, I was a good Mormon mom who cared for her children, went to church every week, didn’t cause problems, and did what she had been taught. On the inside, I was full of doubts, fears, and building resentment.

This blog was a way for me to give voice to my hidden version of myself; the self that is broken and needs the Savior. The blog became a place I could be proud of my suffering and rejoice in the ways it leads me back to Him who is Mighty to Save. Why then have I struggled these past months to post?

My mental health recovery path has been full of difficulties, but the greatest one has been acceptance. Each time I take my medication, each time I can’t get out of bed, each time I finish another counseling session, each time I fall short, I remember my broken. It is so hard to see the beauty in it! I wish I could be whole and healthy and normal. I wish I wasn’t faced with the reality of my broken mind every day, but that is the life I’ve been given.

There is also so much beauty. I went to the STEM Academy meet the designer night last night. My second son started high school this year. He proudly led us to his various classes and introduced us to his teachers. He’s an excellent student with exceptional teachers who will help him achieve his potential. He’s taking his first AP class, so he will already start earning college credits. His older brother is in the top band as a Junior and is also college bound. My third son is thriving in his STEM Academy. My youngest loves kindergarten. In spite of my failings and flaws, my boys are growing and learning and off to a good start in life.

My second son with his chemistry teacher.

No one has a perfect life. We all struggle mentally and emotionally. Death, disappointment, illness, and accident visit everyone. It’s messy and hard and unfair and complicated; but every life is known to God. He suspends his judgment until the end of our lives. In the meantime, he asks only one thing of us; that we be honest with ourselves and others; that we confess and forsake our sins and follow the Savior. Why is that so hard for me?

Why am I so tempted to live a lie? Why am I so determined to put on a mask of conformity to please other people instead of an authentic image that pleases God? Why am I afraid to post on my blog? Why am I afraid of the judgement of those who don’t yet understand? We are broken! Not just me. We are all broken. That makes us all equals. I need not cower in shame.

Yet shame is what I feel and I can’t make the shame go away. And so I wander. I’ve left churches and temples made with hands and return to Eden; to the garden. I feel a pull to plants, animals, water, and soil right now.  The last two months have been intense.  Lots of joy, lots of sadness, lots of change.  Bombs, pandemic, deaths, injustice, man’s inhumanity to man……it takes its toll.  Every day I’m reminded that this world isn’t safe.  The world is not a safe place.

We have a butterfly garden we started four years ago.  The first year, we couldn’t keep enough milkweed in the garden!  The monarchs laid so many eggs, I could hardly keep up.  We released something like 32 monarchs that summer.  Every day we would release the butterflies to fly away to Mexico for the winter.  It was so amazing.  For the past three years, we have grown milkweed and it has had nothing but aphids.  This summer as the months passed, I thought that this year again, the monarchs would miss us.  I was wrong.

We started getting eggs the second week of August.  Lots of them.  We also found little caterpillars everywhere.  We scooped them up and put them in our crates and enclosures.  We didn’t have enough.  We bought more crates.  There were more caterpillars.  We gave some to friends.  We drove along the freeway to find milkweed growing in the wild because we were running low in the garden.  Twice a day we would clean out the cages and check on our babies.  We had over fifty!

The Monarch caterpillar lives encased in a chrysalis for fourteen days before emerging as an adult butterfly. They are motionless and still as though dead, but they are very much alive and busy reforming themselves in preparation for life as a new creature.

Once we brought in a leaf that had predatory eggs on it that we didn’t see.  A caterpillar ate the eggs and got sick.  It split open to reveal the larvae that had killed it.  Even with all our precautions, our caterpillars were not safe.  We started washing every leaf before putting it in a crate.  We felt relief every time a caterpillar would make its silk button and “J hang” because that meant one less caterpillar would be eating and pooping.  The chrysalids began piling up.  

Occasionally we would lose a caterpillar to “the black death” which is assumed to be some kind of bacterial infection.  We would remind ourselves that of all the monarch eggs that are laid each year only about five percent survive to adulthood.  Our efforts were dramatically improving the odds of success for our little friends.

The day we had our first butterfly eclose, or emerge, from chrysalis was magical.  It is a miraculous thing to behold.  The chrysalis begins to darken.  There are no signs of life, and black is usually synonymous with death.  If you look carefully, you can see the muted orange of the wings concealed behind the membrane, but even knowing this is normal, it looks eerie.  Then the chrysalis splits and the animal within unfolds.  At first it looks misshapen and wrinkled, but within ten minutes, the enormous wings flatten out and the transformation is complete.

The second day of school after dropping Austin off for Kindergarten, I took pictures and videos of these animals as they made this miraculous transformation.  I don’t believe that this experience has happened by accident.  I know that God sent the butterflies.  I know that he knew that I needed them.  He knew.  He cared.  He sent his winged messengers.  The world isn’t safe!  The caterpillars know that.  The butterflies know that.  The Afganis know that.  The marines who died in the bombing knew that.  Their families know that.  There is a 100% chance that each one of us will die.  Eventually this world will take our remains back into itself and we will decay and crumble into nothing.  That is our fate.  And yet, today we live.  Today He loves us.  Today He sent His butterflies to me.  He also sent me a dream.

I dreamed I was witnessing a wartorn group of refugees leaving their homes and traveling together in families.  But instead of people, they were monarch caterpillars.  There were large ones, presumably parents, and there were small ones that clung to the backs of the larger ones.  What did this dream mean?  I feel that the caterpillars were Afgan refugees.  The dream made them into caterpillars because to me, the monarch caterpillar is full of beauty and potential.  God sees the refugees as full of beauty and potential too.  The world won’t understand.  They will see the mess and the work of caring for them; the protection they will need and the space they will require.  God sees those things, but also the beauty that comes when his miracle transforms them.  

God works his will in large and small ways.  He sees the refugee and he knows the beggar in his need.  He never will forget his people and his hand will never be stayed.  His majesty will transform the Earth and the inhabitants will rejoice.  I will live each day and pray that I can be the person he wants me to be.  I will serve where he calls me to serve.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.

I am broken and blessed. I can live authentically and honestly, embracing the redeemed person I am, unfettered by the sins of the past. I am broken, just as those who came before we were broken, but the present brings opportunities for renewal and rebirth. Our God is a God of transformations and redemptions, so I rejoice in my broken and I rejoice that my sins have brought me to Christ who heals me; not in the way I want to be healed, but in his wisdom he leaves the scars. I rejoice in my scars and refuse to hide them. They make me His and I rejoice that I am His. Fearfully and wonderfully made.

The Joy of Thy Lord

As I’ve progressed in my faith journey/crisis, I’ve pondered on what values I want to pass onto my children.  Society is at a crisis point in values.  Is it virtuous to wear a mask, or stand for freedom and go without?  Is it virtuous to welcome refugees and desperate migrants into your nation, or to build walls to shut them out for the safety against those who would do us harm?  Conflicting messages, laws and policies are shouted from leaders.  “Defund the police!” “Build the Wall!” “Don’t tread on me!”  This is a confusing time to live as an adult, let alone as a child. I have my work cut out for me in raising my children with a coherent value system. 

As I’ve tried to orient myself and discover my core values, there are a few things I’ve learned.  First, the value of a joyful life.  I’ve lived poor and I’ve lived with money.  I’ve lived in bad weather, and in good weather.  I’ve lived in sickness and in health.  I haven’t lived in joy very often.

I remember in my childhood, my Grandma Henrie’s apartment complex had a swimming pool.  I looked forward to our visits to see her each year mostly because I got to go swimming.  I would cling to an inflatable tube and spin in circles for hours.  That exhilaration was something I looked forward to through all the months of snow and ice in Idaho.  Now as an adult, I have a community swimming pool nearly in my backyard.  It is so close, we can walk to it in less than five minutes.  Yet for the four years I have had access to it, I have hardly ever used it.  When I would take the kids swimming, I would usually stay in the shade on the side of the pool and watch them joyfully splash and play.  Maybe I thought joyful living was supposed to be for kids.

I got an Apple Watch for my birthday this year, and one of the features it has is the ability to track swimming for exercise.  This changed things for me.  By the middle of the summer, I was going to the pool with the kids every day.  I would swim laps while they played and I would get my exercise in.  It was a little boring after a while, but it was refreshing and it was good for the kids.  Austin would cling to my back as I plowed through the water.  I taught him the strokes I was doing and he picked them up.  It was beautiful to see him relax and learn to move in the water with confidence.  Later, I watched a synchronized swimming routine in the Tokyo olympics.  I read about artistic swimming.  I watched videos on how to do a few moves.  I ordered a swim cap and some nose plugs on Amazon.  

I went from swimming laps in the pool for exercise, to doing somersaults, handstands, and all kinds of acrobatics in the water.  It was fun!  I remembered what it felt like to be a child and rejoice in the ability to move joyfully.  I stretched and swam and spun in circles.  I felt alive in a way that I hadn’t felt for years.  I felt awake after years of sleepy depression.  It has been almost a month since I rediscovered the joy of swimming.  I’ve been doing it every day.  After my morning swim, I feel energized, and clear headed.  I feel a rush of ideas about other joyful things I could do to fill up my days.  Planting a new flower, making some delicious food, planning lunch with a friend, or doing some art; these ideas prance through my joyful mind and the anxieties of the pandemic and Afganistan crisis fade into the distance for a while.  No matter how stressful the circumstances of my life are, a few moments of joyful, purposeful living can make those burdens easier to bear.  

This is me after my joyful swim this morning.

The value of joyful living is one I want to pass to my children.  Rather than pack their schedules with classes, chores, and activities and then nag them all the time to practice and work harder, I want to instill in them the need for regular joyful living.  I want them to find the thing that makes them feel alive.  They don’t need to do it for a living or even become good at it.  It isn’t the task or activity itself that matters, it’s how you feel when you do it.  God said that men are that they might have joy.  When we live joyfully, we fulfill our highest purpose.  When we deny ourselves of joyful living, we deprive ourselves of a core need.  

Another value I want to pass on to my children is the value of kindness.  We live in a world full of people.  There are millions of us interacting with one another on the roads, in the stores, and online.  We are witnesses to thousands of deaths, births, sicknesses, failures and triumphs every day.  It is easy to begin to believe that people are not valuable and that our lives have little meaning.  Each act of kindness renews our faith that there is worth in the human soul.  When our act of kindness blesses another person, we make an impact on the world.  We matter.  Even if the person we are kind to is most insignificant and the kind act imperceptibly small, it makes the world better.  

The third value is introspection.  It is so easy to see sin and folly without.  It is much more difficult to see it within.  Introspection is the often uncomfortable scrutinizing of our own selves.  We get to see our flaws with razor precision when we introspect.  When we are familiar with our own soul, its strengths and flaws, its twists and turns, its folds and flaps, we are less vulnerable to flattery, less desperate for affirmation, and more realistic with our expectations.  This leads us to the final virtue.  Compassion.

Anyone who has done much introspection knows that compassion is the only remedy to the pain of self knowledge.  To see yourself accurately, you have to reckon with the painful reality of your own sins and fallen nature.  If you have children, this pain is compounded with the knowledge that you have passed these things on to your posterity where they will likely repeat themselves in an eternal dance of despair through the following generations.  Compassion is the ability to love fallen things; to see beauty in broken.  Our children, our parents, our family, our friends; we are all broken and fallen things.  We cut one another with our broken parts.  We bleed because we are alive and we dare to love one another in spite of the risks.  Compassionate eyes can look at this messy scene and see the beauty in it.  We can love the participants without judgement and without shame; knowing that we are all in need of redemption.  Somehow, all these things will work together for the benefit of all of us.  

These four values are the core values I want to pass on to my children.  I hope that I can teach them through example the benefits of living this way.  I wrote a short parable I am planning to share with them tonight at dinner.  Hopefully this will help instill in them the values I want them to learn.  

The Joy of Thy Lord

“The baby is crying again!” he said with disgust.  “What’s wrong with it now?”

“He just wants a little snuggle,” his mother said softly as she picked up the squalling child.  “See, now he’s feeling better.”

Later, at play, “Mom, I stubbed my toe!” he screamed in pain.  

“Here, let me kiss it better.  Do you need some ice?” his mother replied.

“No, I’m a tough kid,” he said, rubbing the tears from his eyes.  Somehow the kiss always made it feel a little better.

Later at school the child saw a boy teased and rejected, chased away from the others.  “What’s wrong with him?” he thought.  He remembered his mother and thought, maybe he just needs some love.  And he invited him to play with him and his friends.  The playground was a kinder place.

Many years later the boy sat trying to do his schoolwork as his younger siblings played loudly behind him.  “Can’t you make them stop!” he roared to his mother.  

“No, I can’t, and if I could I wouldn’t.  It’s frustrating when you’re trying to concentrate, isn’t it?  Try to be patient.  They are young.  They will learn to be quiet just as you have learned.  Some things cannot be rushed,” she replied.

He went to a quiet place to finish his work.  He thought angrily of how easily the other students seemed to complete their assignments.  Why could he not learn this faster!  Then he remembered his mother and he thought, “Be patient with yourself.  You will learn it, just as they have learned it.  Some things can’t be rushed.”  He took a deep breath and started again.  The bedroom was a kinder place.

Years later the boy came home to visit from college.  He ate a full meal and packed up food for his small apartment pantry.  “Thanks Mom!  I’ve been SO hungry.  I wish I could cook as good as you can!” he thought of the macaroni and cheese he had been eating for a week.  

“It takes time to learn to provide for yourself.  You will learn.  There is always food waiting for you here until you do,” she said as she kissed him goodbye.  

On the way home he saw a weather beaten man with a cardboard sign that said, “Hungry.  Please help me.”  He thought of his mother and wondered why this old man hadn’t learned to provide for himself.  Sometimes these things can take time, he reasoned.  He took some bread he had taken from his mother’s kitchen and gave it to the man.  The neighborhood was a kinder place.

And so the boy became a man and he learned patience and love.  He gave to those in need and he waited patiently as the Lord worked his miracles in the life of each person.  And he knew God.  And the world was a kinder place when he left it.

“Well done, thou good and faithful servant.  Thou hast been faithful over a few things.  I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.” Matthew 25:21

What I Need

Parenting is a marathon.  It feels great while you’re doing it, it pushes you to the mental and physical brink, and there is a let down when you stop.  Of course, I’ve never run a marathon, but that’s what I imagine it’s like.  This morning I got ready to send my son to summer camp for a week.  As his car drove away, Pepper and I walked into an empty house.  The remains of last night’s chicken nuggets and butterfly shrimp littered the kitchen counter.  Baskets of laundry seemed to me to sit pondering in the silence; wondering where their owners had disappeared to.  

My mind has been ruminating endlessly the past few weeks.  Wesley is constantly on the computer playing Minecraft and the computer is my preferred writing place.  Rather than fighting him for the computer, I’ve taken the path of least resistance.  Instead of siphoning off my thoughts Dumbledore style, they are crammed in my head screaming for release.  Now he’s gone and I have a few hours to myself, I’ll see what comes out.

This morning in my quiet room with only sweet Pepper there to receive my love and nurturing, I sat on my bed and looked at her gorgeous soft, shiny coat.  It’s black, but I’ve learned from drawing it that there are places that are white and light grey.  That’s what makes it look shiny.  Things are always more complicated than they seem.  The human brain, always aching for simplicity, wants to see Pepper’s fur as a single color.  It is black.  It isn’t midnight, moon grey, scintillating silver, or morning fog.  That’s too complicated.  Black and tan.  She’s a chihuahua mix.  But she isn’t.  She’s a mutt with bloodlines that are uniquely hers; an angel crafted through time and given by God to me to comfort me in my blackest midnight. But it isn’t just black.  Life is like that.  It isn’t black and white.

So many colors in her fur! So many more than just black and tan. Still, it’s simpler to say she is just that.

But I understand that if I had lived a different life, I wouldn’t see the complexity either.  And I would relish the simplicity.  Nature is always yearning for simplicity, stasis, harmony, balance.  Rivers take the smoothest and easiest path.  The brain craves rest.  Thinking takes energy.  Seeing is work.  And yet I think.  And yet, I see.

And for that I will never rest.  I will run the marathon.  So today I paused in my frenzy of thought and prayed.  It has been a long time.  Sometimes it’s easier to feel the guilt and push it away than actually do the thing that will put the guilt to rest for good.  Praying felt good.  God reminded me that I’m not such a bad person as my brain likes to tell me I am.  

My brain likes to insist that my good intentions pave my road to hell.  Every glass of milk I give my child is half empty, not half full.  My efforts are never enough.  It is like the God in my head is a version of my teenaged son with a gift for ferreting out my every flaw and hypocritical act. The real God sees me different.  And in that quiet moment, I remember that He isn’t the demanding perfectionist my brain likes to think He is.  My heart poured out to Him all my shortcomings and failings and He calmed that storm with a simple thought.  “Do you think I need your efforts, my child?  Don’t you remember that I am the one with the loaves and the fishes?  I am everything you need.”  

But I need a functional government and a church community.  I need assurances that my children are going to grow up to be competent adults.  I need money in my bank account and friends to affirm me.  I need.  I need.  I need. I need to understand it all right now!!

But I don’t need.  I don’t need anything but Him.  He leads my soul to the still water.  He soothes the wounds the world has given me; the wounds I give myself.  And He heals me.  And I remember what I forgot.  He is everything I need.

And yet we understand Him so imperfectly.  We imagine Him to be a simplistic version of our own creation.  We remake his image like a child with a crude crayon on brown recycled paper.  We hold it up as the true God of Israel and then the sheep stray.  We forget that He is not our toy soldier. He is not our mascot to be remade at our convenience.  The human mind could study Him for a lifetime and never unlock His secrets. He is not of this world and no human mind can comprehend Him.  

How Great is Our God?  How Great is Our God?  How Great, How Great is Our God?!?  Tongue cannot tell, nor heart can frame.  Yet we rise from the dust of our creation.  We reach for Him and He reaches down to us.  For a moment, He opens my eyes to see; I am more than this world.  I was born for a better world.  My heart is comforted in my uncomfortable; I will never fit here because I belong with Him.  He and I know that and it is enough.

Photo by Calvin Craig on Unsplash

Finding My Voice in a Faith Crisis

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

Last night I couldn’t sleep and I started reading old blog posts.  I realized that it has been a couple of months since I posted.  I’ve written a lot in my journals, but haven’t felt able to post anything.  Honestly, the faith crisis I’ve been going through over the last six months has been brutal on my self-esteem.  I didn’t realize how much of my faith in myself came from my church membership.  The card I was carrying in my wallet that told me I was a good member of my church meant more to me than I realized until that was gone.  Now I have to stand before my Savior without any of that and somehow believe that he still loves me; that I still have work to do for him just not in the way I thought.  

So I’ve been tepidly attending a protestant church of some kind called Lakeside Church of Christ.  It’s the church that runs the preschool that my sons attended.  One of the weeks I attended I looked around at the congregation.  The gathered people looked so different from the ward I used to attend.  They weren’t just unfamiliar, they were different.  There is a look to Mormons.  That look isn’t at Lakeside.  I felt the spirit whisper to me, “They are my people too.”  I knew that it was true.  I haven’t wanted to look outside of my tribe to find his people.  I was too busy serving my kids and my ward and looking within the church to take the time to see that there are his people everywhere.  My neighbors.  My son’s classmates.  The server at the restaurant.  They are looking for his love.  They are known by him, but not by me.  My eyes have been opened.

It isn’t that I want to start preaching the Book of Mormon to them.  I have no desire to make anyone into a Mormon.  I want to listen to their stories.  I want to learn from them.  I want to see them the way my Savior sees them.  My Lord knows there is a time to listen and a time to talk; a time for questions and a time for answers.  I feel so humbled.  I came to Texas thinking I knew so much.  Now I feel full of questions.  

As for my blog, I’ve been afraid.  I’m worried I’m going to say something that will hurt someone or influence someone to leave the church or to judge me for leaving.  I’ve been distracted by the need to please everyone who reads my words.  Me posting again is me accepting that you are responsible for what you do with my words.  This is me remembering that God knows you.  He will guide you on your path just as he is guiding me.  This is me finding my faith again.

The growth I have experienced in the past six months has astounded me.  The pain of loss has been torturous.  It has been not just in my mind but in my body.  In my neck and left shoulder; in my hips and legs, in my head most of all.  The struggle to manage the responsibilities of my home and family while enduring constant pain has been intense.  I had an injection in my neck, but it didn’t help.  Thankfully, my orthopedic pain specialist prescribed me some medication that is helping me.  I also started going to the gym again which has reduced my anxiety and helped my self esteem.  Better times are ahead.  

I started a new book called The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He was a pastor in the Lutheran church and an early vocal opponent of Adolf Hitler in Germany.  He was arrested by the Gestapo and killed by order of Himmler only days before the concentration camp he was imprisoned in was freed.  This book is part of his journey of discipleship in which he became conscious of his own heroic path to become a martyr for Christ; a testimony to what Christ would have done in Nazi Germany during the rise of Hitler.  He was a brave and honorable German whose faith and sacrifice inspires me.  During a dark time when Germany lost it’s soul to darkness, there were people like Bonhoeffer that stood firmly for humanity and truth.  Germany and the German people are no longer in the grips of a madman thirsting for the blood of the Jewish people.  They have taken their place in the world as an example of humanitarian aid during the refugee crisis.  Somehow, I feel certain that were it not for those brave few who kept their integrity, Germany would not be the place it is today.  I know the days ahead will be dark.  As my nation becomes more radicalized and demagogues lie and inspire violence, who knows what the future will bring?

One thing that is certain to me, we are headed down a dark path and there doesn’t appear to be any course correction coming any time soon.  Anyone who refuses to be drawn into a tribe right now is going to be left exposed to the persecution of those who belong.  I am ready to take on that role.  The testimony of my Savior, his courage, his teachings, his love will be my only creed.  I will have faith that it will be enough.  His tribe is the only tribe I want to belong to. 

There isn’t only darkness.  There is also an increasing awareness of human suffering.  The subject of mental health is on the cover of magazines as I stand in the checkout at the grocery store, it is the topic of discussions at church, it is on everyone’s mind in a way I have never seen before.  I feel like standing up and saying, “I was talking about mental health BEFORE it was cool!!”  I spent a few hours watching the documentary The Me You Can’t See that was put together by Harry the Duke of Sussex and Oprah Winfrey, the queen of daytime TV.  It was excellent.  I wish so many people didn’t have to suffer and die before we got to this place, but I’m glad we are here.  If the pandemic leads us to better understand our own minds and what we need to be happy, that can only lead to a more mentally healthy society.  

I hope all of you are surviving the end of the pandemic.  I hope and pray that outbreaks around the world will begin to fade and that everyone who needs treatment, both mental and physical,  can get it soon.  The suffering of so many for so long is hard to comprehend.  I’m sure that more people are hurting than even what we know, and what we know is overwhelming.   

It is hard to get a sense of where we are post pandemic, but I have a feeling that the secularization of our society is only going to accelerate.  As mental health takes the stage of our consciousness, we will likely see the influence of social science swell.  This trend was already happening, but will likely accelerate.  This secularization will accelerate the diminishing influence of the church as new social norms are established around social science.  There will be a focus on childhood trauma and perhaps an even more intense pressure on parents to be perfect.  This will result in lower birth rates as people avoid parenthood and the increase in social judgement.  More young people will choose not to have children.  Social services to children will take priority, largely in the federal government as the Democratic Party holds increasing power in the federal government.

Radicalization of the Christian church in response to their increasingly diminishing influence will continue as we have seen with the rise of Donald Trump and other populist leaders.  This radicalization and preoccupation with political influence will accelerate the loss of credibility with the rising generation who will see frantic and fearful defenders of the church with increasing disgust.  

The questions we must ask ourselves are: what are the consequences of the centralization of political power into a single political party in the United States?  The government is the most likely vehicle by which social justice priorities will find expression.  How will society change when government becomes the primary source of moral and spiritual guidance?  What form will religious worship take now that it is no longer a conscious practice?  Because religion has evolved with mankind for thousands of years, is it possible for us to supplant it with modern studies, statistics, and scientific analysis that spans only a century?  If religion is to remain an influence in society, what ways does it need to change?  How can it prove its worth to a generation of young people who find it antiquated and irrelevant?

These are not easy questions to answer.  I wish I were more certain about the future or more able to influence it.  I feel like a cork floating down a stream.  I hear the coming waterfall, but I’m powerless to fight the current.  Trust in the Savior and faith that he hasn’t abandoned humanity is my only hope.  

During a faith crisis, it’s hard to know what I even believe anymore.  Sometimes I feel pretty cynical.  Most of the time I understand that everything that is happening has a plan and a purpose even if I don’t see what it is right now.  

The Natural Man and the Three Parts of Me

Photo by David Matos on Unsplash

Mosiah 3:19 For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be forever and ever.  

Period.  For some reason the rest of the scripture didn’t seem to matter much.  The enemy must be annihilated, obliterated, and completely destroyed.  Right?  Isn’t that what you do with enemies?  The enemy of God must be completely and utterly defeated.  That was what I believed until my life came apart.  Now I see that there is a comma at the end of that phrase “forever and ever.”  There is a comma, and the words after it contradict my original interpretation.

In counseling, college classes, and personal reading, I’ve learned that very smart people have theorized about the natural man in social science.  There is the theory of the Id, the ego, and the superego that Sigmund Freud used to explain the conflict between conscious and subconscious impulses.  If I think of the natural man as split into these three parts, a lot of things make sense.  The id is the base instinct of man.  Think Tarzan.  No civilization, no manners, no concept of anything other than the drive for food and maybe for sex.  When I first learned the theory, I thought the Id was the natural man.  He is only a part.  He’s a rather pathetic character wholly ill equipped to survive in a social system.  Much more problematic is the superego.

The superego at first glance seems to be a much better character than his Id brother.  He wants to achieve.  The superego doesn’t want to sleep, eat, or do anything that might interrupt his drive for excellence.  To the superego, second place is the first loser.  To the superego, the drive for power is paramount.  The superego isn’t content with a hot fudge sundae, he wants to own the shop.  He doesn’t have time or patience for the Id who is an embarrassment to him.

The ego, much maligned in colloquial terms, is a more likeable character than his counterparts.  He is the pragmatist.  He is the one who tells the superego to chill out when he insists that he can run five miles in the morning, work all day, take classes in the evening, and then stay up all night studying.  The ego tells the Id that eating that second box of Oreos is a bad idea.  The ego has a tough job; somewhat like the exhausted mom wrangling two brothers determined to fight.  (Yes, I speak from experience here.)

Most of the child rearing in a society is consumed with subverting the Id.  The job of a caregiver is to provide the child with a superego and later with an ego.  Sometimes, as was the case in my childhood, the superego was encouraged and enlarged and the Id was shamed and banished.  The ego I formed was somewhat like a parent who shows blatant favoritism toward one of her children over the others.  The superego was the favorite and the Id was the red-headed stepchild.

So what is wrong with that situation?  Why shouldn’t a parent want their child to achieve?  Why shouldn’t that drive for perfection be encouraged?  Doesn’t that drive lead to success and happiness?  I think the facts speak for themselves when it comes to my life.    

An unrestrained superego leads to resentment, stress, and chronic health problems.  If someone has an unrestrained Id, society will step in.  Schools, jails, and social punishment will likely correct such a problem.  What about an unrestrained superego?  You will be hard pressed to find a teacher who criticises a student for trying too hard, caring too much, or being too conscientious.  Unfortunately, an unrestrained superego leads to misery with no apparent cause.  A superego driven person can achieve incredible things, have a beautiful life with everything anyone could ask for, and it will never be enough.  There will always be someone with more or some greater achievement to reach.  The unrestrained superego is never satisfied and endlessly full of entitlement.  When failure comes, as it always does, the superego cannot process it.  The rage of an out of control superego is incandescent.  He will take out his rage on whomever he deems responsible for the failure.  If he can find no one, or it is considered unacceptable to blame another, the ego and the id will take the blunt of his fury.

“I could have won the state championship if it hadn’t been for that idiot on my team who missed the final shot!”  “I could have gotten an A in that class if I had stayed up every night all night like I wanted to!  Why am I so lazy?”  “I could have been the CEO of this company if I had just tried harder!  What the heck is wrong with me?”  These are all the rantings of the bloated superego, convinced of his own omniscience and consumed with the belief that all things are within his personal control.

There are two problems with the super ego and the reasons why I believe him to be the more problematic part of the natural man rather than the humble and much abused Id.  First, the super ego has a warped sense of what perfection is.  Second, the super ego doesn’t want or think he needs a Savior.

First, the super ego has a warped sense of what perfection is that is based mostly on the  values adopted in childhood in the family of origin.  If his parents praised and idolized a pop star, the super ego will value pop music.  Even if the child is a genius at the piano, the superego may forever wish he had a different set of talents that had enabled him to sing with weird hair and strobe lights in front of a crowd of stoned fans.  If a child is raised in a family that shames nerds who love science and school, he may refuse to develop his intellectual gifts thanks to a warped superego who believes such gifts are worthless.  The superego believes that his perception of perfection is reality, but it isn’t.  It is the vain ambition of man, blind and doomed to fall into the ditch.  Rather than reflect on the values instilled in him in childhood, rather than question the validity of his own assumptions and perception, the super ego steams ahead into the folly of his own immature and unrealistic expectations into the failure he so desperately wants to avoid.

Second, the super ego has no need for or desire to have a Savior.  He cringes at the thought of God’s first born son.  Why wasn’t he the favored one?  He wants to prove that he can achieve just as well as that humble son of God who gave his life for us.  “It isn’t so hard to live a sinless life!” he reasons.  When he does sin, as he inevitably will, he can justify his behavior and insist that next time, he won’t fail.  And he does fail.  Again.  Whether or not he will humble himself depends on how robust his super ego is.  How adept is he at rationalization, at blaming others, at shaming the other parts of himself?  How resistant is he to self reflection?  How long before he realizes that he isn’t in control?  That he doesn’t have all the answers?  That he needs help?

That is when I finally come to the other half of the natural man scripture.  …unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

It isn’t the Id, the Ego, or the Superego that saves us.  They are the warring parts within us that need to learn to love one another and live in peace.  The superego needs to see the Id as worthy of love and compassion.  The Id needs to let go of the resentment he has stored up.  The ego, the most mature and sensible of the trio, must make the choice to learn, reflect, humble himself, and adopt a more realistic view of himself and the measure of his creation.  He must entice, not force the compliance of his other parts.  He must allow the spirit to enlighten the mind and enlarge the experience.  Only then can the natural man become a friend to God.

So what can I take away from this?  As a parent?  As someone who is learning to love herself?  As a person who wants to become more like the Savior?  As a parent, I can see my sons as having three parts to their natural men.  The key to effective parenting isn’t to drive my children to achievement, but to help those boys create harmony and cooperation between their three parts.  I will model self reflection and personal growth and change.  I can confess my sins before my children and share my gratitude for a Savior who shows me a better way.  When my superego screams at me that, “When there’s no pain, there’s no gain,” I can pat him on the head and eat an Oreo.  I can also recognize that I have ego needs.  Sometimes I need to post that humble brag on Facebook.  Sometimes I need to celebrate my achievements and give myself a pat on the back for the extra effort I made.  In the end, if I am going to be saved, it will be all of me.  All three parts.