Sand Traps and John Milton

This is what the past few weeks have felt like.

Imagine me clawing my way up out of a particularly deep pit of sand, spitting grains of grit every which way. *ptuey, ptue ptuey!*

Blech. It’s been a hard, intense last couple of weeks in Real Life World. My mom was back in the hospital a bit (but is doing much better now!); potty-training is in full-swing (almost there!!); married life continues to demand a lot of focus and effort in order to grow and thrive (and plenty more difficult conversations–that being said, though, they are getting easier!!); my own internal demons continue to nip away at me; I’m singing in the choir for a local orchestral production of Verdi’s Requiem, which we perform this Friday; I’m trying to get my poetry workshop in order for June and continuing to teach Latin; family has been in town for visits; we’re getting back to house projects that we’ve let languish for weeks; we’ve started to hunt about seriously for our next house; and I continue with volunteering commitments for She’s Somebody’s Daughter and our church’s meal ministry. And we FINALLY got some beautiful days of spring weather, so the boys and I have spent a lot of time outside lately.

All that being said, my online life has waned dramatically.

Which, arguably, isn’t a bad thing, given the priorities that I’ve cut back on it for. But I’m still discouraged that I haven’t kept up very well with most of you reading this, or your blogs. There are a lot of wonderful people out there that I want to continue to build ties with, and it’s just sad that the nature of reality stands in the way of my ideals of perfect connection with everyone I encounter, online or in person.

So I hope you know I’m thinking of you, reading what I can as time permits, and praying for you as the occasion arises.

I have all these ideas that I want to blog about, too–but encouraging my 4-year-old’s newfound interest in FINALLY trying to write numbers (not letters–he’s still opposed to that–but he can and WILL happily make number shapes now, after I’ve suggested he try to write ANYTHING here and there for a year!), practicing how to share my emotional state honestly and openly with my husband without being combative, and getting my house into a lesser state of disarray–efforts like these are more important to me in this moment.

There have been very hard-won victories of patience, self-awareness, and persistence in the face of low-reward outcomes… outcomes that, in the grand scheme of things, really are remarkably important. They just feel rather like a let-down when they arrive because the amount of work to achieve them feels disproportionate to me somehow. But there my high expectations lead me astray again.


 

Ever tried to peel one of these--with a vegetable peeler? Bad idea.

Today, for example, has been an endless exercise in releasing expectations and their accompanying fears. It feels just like skinning an overripe avocado with a vegetable peeler–wholly unnatural. Who would do that?!

It’s so much easier to believe my broken ways of feeling and relating really aren’t a problem–they’re just part of what makes me different. It’s hard for me to think of them as wrong or anything like the source of destruction and heartache under the surface of my awareness.

But that describes so much of how we relate, mistakenly, to life: if we haven’t thought of something ourselves, it solicits every ounce of our skepticism.

Just because I don’t naturally, easily, readily think of my hyper-vigilance and senseless anxiety as anything but normal, healthy, and good doesn’t mean they ARE those things.

It means I take bad things for granted–bad things I could otherwise ditch.


 

Emotions exist in our brains. That doesn't make them more or less real than any other part of our existence.

Now, one conscious rejection of broken thought patterns does nothing–and, let me be clear, *NOTHING*–to re-write the neural pathways that solidified them to begin with. Not in that moment, not perceptibly. My subconscious can, and often does, draw me right back again to the nameless, reasonless worry that my consciousness formally rejected ten seconds before.

Christians will call this influence Satan’s work, or the work of my sin nature, and that I simply need to reject it repeatedly, firmly, or else distract myself with something else. Portions of this approach may be effective in some situations; but taken all by itself, I think this understanding is outright wrong and harmful. Spiritual warfare/moral mastery simply isn’t all there is to it.

Regardless of what prompts them–the devil, the sin nature, the Spirit of God, or any number of ethically neutral experiences and awarenesses–emotions are biological phenomena. Neural pathways house the electrical impulses that we experience as emotional sensation, which manifests itself in our bodies (if you not so sure, go talk to Dr. Laura Markham). I believe I heard this first in grade school; as a good fundamentalist cadet, I rejected the claim wholesale because it didn’t jive with my concept of emotions as a wholly spiritual ballgame–something completely disconnected from physical reality.

I believed this because I was taught that emotions are *always* something I could have control of, regardless of my physical OR mental state (which I also oddly thought of as mostly disconnected from physical reality since my childhood also taught me that intelligence was something you could attain through sheer obedience and diligence, which are moral character traits). Why? Because emotions had moral values assigned to them–they could be good, or they could be evil–and if they carried moral weight, and I was expected to live in a completely morally upright way, then it must be possible to control my emotions in such a way as to only cultivate “good” emotions and to clear out “evil” emotions. To avoid experiencing the evil ones at all was, in fact, the ideal impressed upon me.

I don’t think it’s just me. My wide experience of evangelical Christianity in general tells me that we, as a culture, have no concept of emotions as biology. It seems to be a completely foreign notion to us. And yet it is broadly documented and demonstrable in every moment your breath quickens at the sight of a loved one; every occasion in which you clench your jaw or squeeze your fists; every episode in which the skin on your face and between your shoulder blades tightens because you are trying so hard NOT to let the “wrong” emotion show and certainly never at any awkward or perceivably inappropriate time because goodness knows Christians MUST NOT let emotions control them–and so instead they spill out over your body in ways you don’t realize and you begin hunching, cowering, craning your neck and suffering mysterious pains and aches and stomach upset…

Because by squelching your emotions instead of studying, understanding, and effectively expressing them, you have indeed let them control you–physically and pronouncedly, though never intentionally.

How’s that goin’ for ya, GM?


 

Comfort *requires* physical touch.

As you might expect, the whole experience has been severely debilitating for decades. Just endlessly “rejecting” Satan or the sin nature hasn’t helped a whit in the long-term.

What has helped, though, has been allowing myself to feel ALL my emotions–even the irrational, deeply unsettling ones–understanding what is behind them, and resolving the source of those fears, worries, and frustrations with truths grounded in trustworthy experience of goodness, love, and security. Falling back on that absolute truth that Jesus loves me *in all my sin and in all my mistakes* as evidenced by the countless kindnesses he blesses me with each day (sunlight/rain/children/shoes/gas in the car/fattening foods I don’t need but love/cats/hugs/birdsong/video games/laughter/the smell of garlic cooking/hyacinths/blogs/paintings/poetry/Latin/computers/shelter/listening ears/my mother/the smell of my baby’s hair/the softness of my bedsheets/my husband’s smile/ETC.) does a lot to physically demonstrate to my physical body that I am loved. I. Am. LOVED.

And all the tensions and nervousness and nightmares created by countless memories of being unloved and unwanted and rejected and neglected: they are not relevant to the present moment in which I physically experience the love of God. And I can let them go.

They are no longer as real as the present time of goodness and love which He has set before me.

Then, when the neural pathways/Satan try to pull me back into detrimental, habitual thought patterns, I *can* say with good reason, “Nope. I know exactly why there is no reason to go there. I’ll tell you all about it.” I allow the sponge in my skull to soak up all the reassurance and resolution available for the fears that triggered my fight/flight response in the past, the button for which my subconscious and the devil take turns prodding.

And–after many repeated iterations of this practice–the devil will leave me alone for a time, and my neural networks gradually make some headway on rewiring themselves into healthy, positive patterns of emotional thought.

It. Takes. Time. And the right approach.


 

five to ten seconds: the eternal perspective you need in a moment

The hardest part is feeling desperate for the good effects to take place immediately, or else to feel guilt over not doing it the “right way,” as I was taught. I.e., setting mental fire to those unwanted emotions and ignoring their existence–until they burst out violently and damage everything.

(I think Satan cleverly takes advantage of me there, especially.)

And this is where the patience the last several weeks have demanded of me comes in particularly handy. Patiently addressing the difficult emotions and complicated baggage that keeps dragging me (or others) down, in detail, without shortcuts. Patiently accepting whatever steps forward we make, however small. Patiently resting in God’s expectations for us–which are so, so much lower than mine.

Without this patience no real progress is made.

Without this patience, I run ragged, desperately searching for a peace that I could only find while holding still.

My favorite psalm came to me once again this morning:

Lord, my heart is not haughty,
Nor my eyes lofty.
Neither do I concern myself with great matters,
Nor with things too profound for me.

Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul,

Like a weaned child with his mother;
Like a weaned child is my soul within me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord

From this time forth and forever.

(Psalm 131, NKJV)

 

And I am reminded, as well, of this sonnet by John Milton (Sonnet 19):

When I consider how my light is spent,
   Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
   And that one Talent which is death to hide
   Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
   My true account, lest he returning chide;
   “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
   I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
   Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
   Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
   And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
   They also serve who only stand and wait.”

 

“They also serve who only stand and wait.”

This blog may have to stand and wait for a little while yet… but I hope you see why I’m finding it worthwhile.

Love to all.

–GM

 

2 thoughts on “Sand Traps and John Milton

  1. I agree with you – both in that you have selected the right priorities and in that not all emotional battles are works of Satan. (And I’m a Christian 😊) there are physical conditions that strongly affect the emotions and the mind and they are not a joke, nor can they simply be “rejected” as you put it. Hang in there! And keep on keeping the main things your priorities! 💗

    Liked by 1 person

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