Sunday, August 23, 2015

Tamar's Tears

One of the things I love about the Bible is that it does not shy away from telling stories that reflect the whole spectrum of the human condition. The accounts of two women named "Tamar" provide an interesting framework for understanding some of the insanity we see in our culture today--both inside and outside of organized religion.

We encounter the first Tamar in Genesis 38 where we are told that she was the daughter-in-law of Judah, one of Jacob's sons.  Tamar's husband died, and as was customary in that patriarchal society, she was given to her brother-in-law as his wife.  Women in that day had no right to own property so depended upon their husband or sons to provide financial security.  The only option for a woman to earn a living outside of marriage was to work as a prostitute.

Tamar's brother-in-law opted to enjoy her body for his own sexual gratification but refused to impregnate her.  When he also died, Judah promised marriage to his youngest son but Judah did not keep his promise.  Tamar, facing certain disgrace and destitution, posed as a prostitute and was impregnated by her father-in-law.  When Judah was told that Tamar was pregnant, he ordered that she be burned to death but quickly backed down when she provided evidence that he was the father of her unborn twins.

The second Tamar was King David's daughter and she was raped by her stepbrother.  Dr. Steven Tracy in Mending the Soul:  Understanding and Healing Abuse has identified a number of primary characteristics of abusive families or systems (i.e. churches, organizations, etc.) that are revealed in this troubling Biblical account.  They include:
  • The needs of individual family members are highly expendable.
  • Reality is very difficult to discern.
  • The victim is made responsible for solving needs they didn't create and could never legitimately satisfy.
  • The family's shiny exterior belies a dark inner reality.
  • Vulnerable family members are not protected because no one really wants to know the truth.
  • Abusers use force to get their sordid way.
  • There is no straightforward healthy communication, and many of the verbal messages are contradictory and confusing.
  • The victim's response is futile.
  • Power is used to exploit.
  • Abusive families are emotionally unstable.
  • The victims are shamed, blamed, and demeaned.
  • Members are isolated and lack intimacy.
  • A strict code of silence is enacted.
  • Abusive families deny and distort proper healthy emotions.
  • The wrong ones are protected.
One doesn't have to search very long to see these characteristics glaringly present in so may of the troubling revelations of molestation, abuse and infidelity in today's headlines.  Three immediately comes to mind:

  1. Josh Duggar's outing as a serial adulterer, porn addict and child molester, while posing as a model for religious piety and purity.
  2. Bill Cosby's legacy of drugging and raping women for decades, while posing as a role model for family values and morality.
  3. Judicial decisions that favor the rights of the perpetrator over those of the victim. 
Behind these tragic headlines are victims, who like the two Tamar's, cry bitter tears that are never seen, acknowledged or valued.  Men are still privileged over women and children and are often seen as mere objects to satisfy the needs of the men in their lives.  Men who struggle with sexual compulsions and addictions are either hailed as "real men" or shamed into silence and secrecy.  And neither the victim or the perpetrator is offered qualified help that will begin to heal the pain and disease.  Everyone suffers in such a system.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Inside Out: My Islands

I do not normally enjoy animated films but made an exception and recently went to see Pixar's Inside Out with my husband and daughter.  What an amazing film that creatively illustrates the interaction of emotions, personality and memories in the brain of an 11 year old girl who has experienced significant loss.  The main characters of the movie are Riley's emotions:  joy, fear, disgust, anger and sadness.  Additionally, islands represent the different aspects of Riley's personality--those values that define her as a person.  The islands are powered by core memories, which are memories assigned greater importance to Riley and thus stored in "Headquarters," a humorous pun for a movie focused on the inner workings of the human brain!

My husband and I were discussing the movie yesterday and trying to name our own islands.  It was an interesting endeavor that provoked deep conversation.  It provided an opportunity for me to process yet again the ways that loss and betrayal have impacted my personality and core memories and thus inform my emotions at any given moment or in any given situation.  I think we too frequently underestimate the impact of loss and betrayal on our psyche and overestimate our ability to quickly heal from devastation.  It is a process and it takes time, patience and a commitment to allowing the pain to bring about personal transformation and growth.

So what are my islands?  What are those core values that now define me as an individual?  And how have they been impacted by the experiences of the past few years?

My Faith is definitely a core value that continues to be a central defining aspect of my personality.  But my faith is not the same as it was pre-disaster.  My faith is not in organized religion because the organized church has let me down in significant ways and actually conditioned me to accept unacceptable behavior.  My faith is in a God who loves--extravagantly and without condition and my goal is to continue to learn to live loved every day.  There is a huge gulf between my head and my heart when it comes to knowing that I am loved and it is a gulf that I continue to work on shortening.

Authenticity, integrity and trust are character assets that I value both in how I interact with others and what I expect from those within my intimate circles.  I am a recovering people-pleaser, addicted to the approval of those I interact with.  A people-pleaser strives to determine what it is that is expected from them in order to gain approval and then they contort themselves so as to meet those expectations.  Authenticity, integrity and a true sense of self are sacrificed on the altar of the perceived expectations of significant others.

The islands of faith and authenticity are connected in that if I am truly living as one dearly loved by God, I will be less concerned with people pleasing and more secure in my intrinsic value as a human being.  I will live a more authentic life in that more and more I will allow my true self to be seen and my false self to fall away.

Healthy relationships forged by meaningful connections with those in my world are another organizing aspect of my personality.  I was tempted to call this island "Family" because certainly family is incredibly important to me, particularly post-disaster.  But the term "family" does not adequately describe the breadth of relationships that I currently enjoy.  "Family" denotes a familial connection, either by birth or marriage, but often those connections are not healthy so we create families of choice rather than birth.  Healthy connections are marked by mutual respect, love, acceptance, authenticity, integrity and trust.  Healthy connections are boundaried connections.

And the islands of faith, authenticity and healthy relationships are connected in that if I live as one dearly loved and strive to allow my true self to be seen, I will seek out other like-minded individuals for meaningful connection.  I will focus my attention on those healthy relationships because I will believe that I am worthy of connection; relationships that do not meet the health-bar will disappear from my life.

Service to God and others is the fourth island/core value of my personality.  Last night my husband and I entertained in our home for the first time since our marriage.  A couple from our church is experiencing a particularly painful family situation and it was a joy to just offer them the gift of hospitality, a wonderful meal and meaningful conversation.

The importance of this island's connections to the preceding three cannot be overstated.  If my service is an attempt to gain recognition, acceptance or approval, then it is not offered authentically.  If, however, my service is offered because I am living as one dearly loved who is worthy of connection, it can be a powerful gift to a hurting world.

Play is my final island and is probably the most challenging one for me.  I have always been the responsible first-born and organized my life around work and commitments.  My grandmother used to say that I was taking care of babies when I was barely out of diapers myself.  And she was right.  Learning to play--to allow that little girl inside to come out and frolic in the sunshine or rain is not easy for me.  But I am learning the value of laughter, and am rediscovering the joy of play and am determined to make it a more regular part of my life.  Having a partner who is a big kid at heart helps significantly.

And once more, the connection between the islands is important.  It is only as I live loved, strive for authenticity within healthy connections, offer my true self in service to God and others that I am free to learn how to play.

These are my core values--the islands that capture the essence of my personality and provide the framework for how I now live.  Had I written this article before my life exploded, I would probably have had a few of the same core values but they would have been expressed in a very different voice.  I am still learning the value of loss and my perceptive husband suggested that it may be another of my islands.  I'll have to think about that for a bit but for now see it as a gift--not one that we eagerly want to open but a gift nevertheless.  It offers us an opportunity that rarely comes in any other form and if we embrace it and let it unfold in our life, rather than suppress, deny or numb it, it will transfor us.  We will change and the change will be a definite improvement.

What are your islands?  What values form the bedrock of your personality or how you organize your life?  I challenge you to begin to know yourself from the inside out!