The Promise of Shared Brokenness

shutterstock_158680922I get a lot of emails from people who’ve read Sober Mercies, which means so much to me. But I keep noticing how one particular line from the book keeps coming up. Last week, after three people in a row quoted the same sentence, I went back to read it in context (italicized below):

 “The particular brand of love and loyalty that seemed to flow so easily here [in recovery meetings] wasn’t like anything I’d ever experienced, inside or outside of church.

 But how could this be? How could a bunch of addicts and alcoholics manage to succeed at creating the kind of intimate fellowship so many of my Christian groups had tried to achieve and failed?

 Many months would pass before I understood that people bond more deeply over shared brokenness than they do over shared beliefs.”

Aha! Clearly, a lot of you have shared my experience—felt a lack of community in a church setting or been surprised by the depth of community in another kind of group. I think my conclusion resonated because it hints at the reason why. After lots of thought, here’s a more developed theory:

  • When folks gather around a system of shared beliefs, the price of acceptance in the group is usually agreement, which means the greatest value—stated or not—is being right. Unfortunately, this often creates an atmosphere of fear and performance, which in turn invites conformity.
  • But when people gather around a shared need for healing, the price of acceptance in the group is usually vulnerability, which means the greatest value—stated or not—is being real. This tends to foster an atmosphere of safety and participation, which in turn invites community.

I’m not saying recovery or support groups are good and church groups are bad. But I do think the latter could learn something from the former about how to create safe places where intimate community can happen.

Of course, we all face the same challenge on how to foster authentic connection. As much as our souls crave it, our ego fears it. For most of us, it’s fairly easy to share intellectual head space with someone: We know this, we think that. Not much risk there.

But inviting that person into our heart space where we may feel broken in places takes courage, sometimes even desperation.

Last week, a recently widowed friend of mine came to stay in our guest room for a week. As much as she was tempted to isolate at home, she had the bravery to finally admit she needs to be around people right now, and let them into her grief.

And here’s the beautiful part. Dave and I needed this, too. Since all our kids are long gone, her presence in our home felt like such a gift. Having her join us for dinner or watching TV—she in her pajamas—gave us a dose of that family feeling we keenly miss.

On this Good Friday, I find myself thinking about the crucifixion in the context of connection. How the Old Testament Law failed to bring mankind close enough to God. How God sent his Son to die—beaten and broken on the cross—so He could make his home in our very soul.

Maybe God understood that we bond more deeply over shared brokenness than we do over shared beliefs—not just with each other, but with him, too.

 

I hope you have a wonderful Easter weekend. I’d love to hear what Easter means to you.

 

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My Hat in My Hands

Art by Bird Brain Studio, click to visit on Etsy

Art by Bird Brain Studio, click to visit on Etsy

On Monday I ran a post about how mercy should trump judgment when it comes to addicts and alcoholics.Naturally, that same afternoon, I found myself sitting in judgment of a good friend, relishing unkind thoughts about how she’s handling a situation that’s none of my business.

Oh the irony! But the sad truth is, I do this all the time. I’m not sure a day goes by when I don’t indict someone for what seems to me like a poor choice, a backward belief, or a self-created crisis.

Have I always been so arrogant, petty, and heartless? I’m afraid so. But hopefully what has changed is my willingness to admit it. Typically, when I catch myself in the act of judging someone, my first temptation is to scold myself: Who do you think you are?! How dare you judge her! Shame on you!

But you know what? That doesn’t really help, because my ego is never going to feel sorry or try to reform. It just snickers at me and then stores away the negative energy for later use. And guess what? The only thing my ego enjoys more than bashing others is bashing me.

The good news in all of this is we are not our egos, and we are also not our thoughts. I’m convinced our true self is made in God’s image, can’t be diminished by anything we do or say, and only knows how to love.

So these days, when I notice my false-self/ego is gleefully banging its gavel again, I’m learning to do two things. First, I try to practice self-kindness; I look for a way to give myself a truer version of what my ego wants to take away from someone else.

Second, I look for the mercy angle—a shift in perspective that helps me arrive at compassion. I ask questions like: What would it feel like to live in this woman’s skin? What kind of emotional wounds might be driving her? How am I just like her?

The apostle Paul wrote, “Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love.”

I think making allowances—giving others and myself plenty of room and space in which to fall short or screw up—is a great definition of mercy. It’s not at all the same as making excuses. You’re not rationalizing away someone’s responsibility; you’re trying to understand what brought her to this place.

Of course, deciding not to judge someone is a lot harder when the person clearly deserves it; when we’re not just annoyed or critical, this person actually hurt us. In this case, mercy is more than a decision not to judge, it’s a gateway to the more difficult task of forgiveness. But never is mercy more precious than now; and should we succeed, it can have a powerful ripple effect.

I experienced this first hand when I took my 9th Step in recovery. As I went about making amends to people I’d hurt, I noticed how the act of humbly going to people, my hat in my hands, asking for forgiveness suddenly made the idea of forgiving people who have hurt me seem remarkably reasonable.

I should hold my hat in my hands more often.

 

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When Mercy Trumps Judgment

Art by Angelina Rusin, click image to visit her on Etsy

Art by Angelina Rusin, click image to visit her on Etsy

In early May, I’m speaking at an annual fundraiser for a large women’s center in Texas. Their mission is to provide housing and services to homeless and addicted women who are trying to rebuild their lives.

As I plan what to say, I realize I’ll be speaking to a rare kind of audience: People glad to show up where they know they’ll be asked to give money to help addicts and alcoholics.

Typically, you see, we’re not a group that easily evokes sympathy. Our cause doesn’t tug at the heart—or purse—strings the same way child hunger or breast cancer does.

And I get why. To the casual observer, addiction looks more like selfishness at full throttle than a progressive disease. We addicts tend to be stubborn, manipulative, and in many cases, criminal. Some of us are known for squandering what help we do receive.

No wonder we evoke disdain or distancing more quickly than generosity. Why would anyone want to throw good money after the likes of us?

Actually, I can think of several good reasons. More than two-thirds of American families are touched by addiction. It plays an enormous role in poverty, unemployment, crime, child abuse, and accidental death. The collateral damage is just huge.

On the positive side, many of us do recover. An estimated 20 million people today are enjoying long-term recovery.

Yet, despite these numbers, we don’t seem to have the collective will as a society to galvanize around this issue. It’s as if the stigma attached to addiction extends even to our willingness to invest in recovery. And I don’t see that changing until our compassion for the addict outweighs our aversion.

One of the biggest obstacles to such a shift is the erroneous belief that addiction is mainly a moral issue. Even though addiction is classified as a disease, many good people, including many Christians, can’t get past the idea that addicts choose their sickness.

I get this. And it’s true that addiction usually begins with bad choices and risky behaviors. But trust me, no one sets out to become addicted. We set out to escape pain or feel better, unable—until it’s too late—to conceive of a force so great it could hijack our brain and steamroll our will power.

And who among us hasn’t felt desperate to change the way we feel? Who of us can be certain we wouldn’t have become addicts ourselves had we been born in another place or time?

My plea for empathy raises another important point. Like a lot of folks, I used to assume that addicts were perfectly happy getting high or wasted or what have you. I had no idea they actually suffered.

When I spiraled into my own alcoholism, I learned the awful truth. Few people are more miserable than an addict who desperately wants to quit, but can’t find a way to stop. Unless you’ve been there, it’s hard to imagine what this kind of powerlessness feels like.

It feels like being stuck in a nightmare where you open your mouth to scream, but nothing comes out.

It feels like watching in disbelief as you begin to betray your conscience and your values, even as you pray to do the right thing.

It feels like knowing you’re hurting the people you love the most—and knowing you’ll do it again tomorrow.

It feels like losing your job, your driver’s license, your home, your family and marriage—and still not being able to quit.

It feels like coming to believe you must have been born for nothing, since that is what you are accomplishing with your life.

Imagine feeling all of that, and I bet you’ll agree that addiction isn’t something any sane person wants. And maybe it’s time to let mercy trump judgment.

 

P.S. Another post that helps bring balance to this issue is this one. That’s No Excuse.

P.S.S. Several of you are asking where I’m speaking. I’m at the Downtown Women’s Center in Amarillo, TX May 6. Here’s a link. (Tickets can be bought online in a couple days).

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Will it Be a Good Day?

shutterstock_178261493I woke up this morning and wondered if it would be a good day. Meaning, I wondered if things would go my way, if I would be able to accomplish all the tasks on my list without too many obstacles or annoying interruptions.

And then I realized today would be exactly as good as I allow it to be. It will be as easy as my own acceptance of what already is. It will be as kind to me as my ability to stay awake and see kindness. It will go my way to the precise extent that I give up on it going any particular way at all.

So why do I do this? Always imagine that the outside world and what happens or doesn’t, what is said or not said, what gets done or is left undone, should determine the state of my heart?

Why not rather humble myself and begin with nothing in the way of expectations and judgments about how this day unfolds?

Why not rather let go of the idea that this is wonderful and that is awful and surrender instead to the truth that every single hour contains exactly what it should and everything I need to be content already resides in my soul.

I think that’s my new plan for the day.

This Ache Until Easter

Art by Loretta Saladino, click to visit her on Etsy

Art by Loretta Saladino, click to visit her on Etsy

Every spring, it happens the same way.

As Dave and I walk our dog Edmund around the block in the morning, we spot the signs and pause. The bulbs are coming up. The white crocus that looked to be barely budding yesterday is in full bloom today.

Sometimes, when spring comes early like this, it makes me feel a little panicked. I worry that it will snow, and all this hope will be cut short, will prove premature. I want to ask the fat robin in my yard, “Are you sure? Is it safe?”

A few days ago, for no good reason, a friend brought me some unopened daffodils. They looked like nothing, plain and green. I cut the stems and put them in water in a pretty copper pitcher on the island in my kitchen.

I knew what would happen. But that didn’t lessen the shock the next morning when I stumbled downstairs half-asleep and intent on nothing but coffee and—Bam! Yellow glory. So bold and bright it took my breath.

Spring came early in 2007, too.

But first, there was the winter of 2006. In November, Dave and I moved from Oregon to Colorado Springs. Moving always sucks, I knew. But I didn’t know that the following six months would be the darkest of my life.

That winter, my alcoholism took me to new lows. I drank to blackout almost every night. Often, I jotted notes while drinking so that in the morning, they could help me pretend to Dave that I remembered some of what I’d done or said the previous evening.

Near the end, during March of 2007, I woke up in the guest room a lot. I would have no memory of how I got there. Obviously, my husband and I must have had another “dumb drunk Heather fight,” as Dave had come to call them.

I would stumble into the bathroom and look at myself in the mirror, at my puffy face, swollen eyes, my smashed hair, and my heart would fill with hate. Until the end I held onto the hope that I could hate myself into changing.

Now, every year as April nears, I ache. Some mornings, I can’t decide if my heart hurts—or if I’m mistaking stabs of joy for pain. I feel like I could cry over the blue of the sky. I feel fragile, tenuous, whip-lashed by hope.

These are anniversary feelings, I know. Deep in my soul, I’m remembering a collision that happened seven years ago. On April 4, 2007, the darkest days of my life smashed head-on into my brightest.

Like the daffodils in my kitchen.

Like spring come early.

This was the day I first walked into a treatment center to get help for my alcoholism. But I almost didn’t make it into the building. For a long time, I sat in my car in the parking lot having panic attacks.

Maybe that’s why I feel this funny ache in my chest every spring when the anniversary of that day draws near. It’s scary to remember how close I came to turning back—to losing my marriage and maybe my life, to missing the miracle.

When you lay death and life right next to each other like that, the way spring does, you see it more clearly: how violent God’s love is, how risky his timing, and how close on the heels of despair hope starts rising.

And always this ache until Easter.

 

 

*If this post seems familiar, you’ve been with me a while. It first ran in March of 2012. This weekend, I was feeling the ache again… and so I’m reprising it. 

 

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