One difficulty we face in being able to embrace the other and hear their story, particularly those we encounter as different (let alone those who we experience as adversary or enemy), is the way in which such a calling invites us to come face to face with our own vulnerabilities.
Each of us have vulnerabilities, areas where we lack strength, knowledge or wisdom. We each have places in our hearts that are tender, points of fears and heartache. Early on we learn to shield ourselves from those things that impinge on our deeply vulnerable hearts, learning as children that to be vulnerable is to be wrong or broken.
In her beautiful work The Intimacy Factor, counselor and author Pia Melody fleshes out how an inability to embrace our own vulnerabilities as a part of the gift of our own lives prevents us from fully embracing others around us.
“If no parent is perfect, neither is any child: to emerge healthy from childhood is an act of recovery .. from keenly felt inadequacy and pain…. [as we] regain knowledge of our inherent worth; [and] learn to accommodate to our perfect imperfection.
“The remembrance of our perfectly imperfect humanity is the bedrock on which the spirituality of recovery rests. Human beings have their limitations, but these limitations are not faults; they simply are part of the given truth about humans. If we learn to despise ourselves for being limited humans, we lose contact with the prime spiritual truth of our reality: that we are not perfect and that it is all right.
“There is an authentic self. We are born with it. Under the influence of immature parenting, we lose contact with it. As children warped into shape by immature parenting, we get shamed about who we are. The shame gets bound to our experience of self. When we are ‘ourselves’, we will have a shame attack, and in that attack we feel worthless. Spontaneity is frightening for us; it triggers shame attacks, bringing us back to our feeling of worthlessness. We wall in and shut down. Over the years, we become cautious in what we say and do. We lose contact with our authentic self. Rediscovery of the authentic self is what recovery is about …
“There are five essential attributes of the authentic child that center around inherent worth. The attributes of childhood authenticity, connected to inherent worth like the spokes of a wheel, are vulnerability, nascent reason, dependence, appropriate immaturity, and exuberant energy. The mature, self-esteeming parent guides the child to the proper expression and development of each one of these attributes of the authentic child… “
In her book, Melody fleshes out how each of these are aspects of who we are that too often we are taught to squelch, losing touch with our authentic selves.
Her discussion makes it sound like this learning to be ashamed of, frightened by, or distanced from who we are in our heart of hearts as our authentic selves comes only from the way in which imperfect parenting shapes us. Yet I think this may put too much pressure on parents’ role in shaping who we are.
In actual fact, our whole culture teaches us shame about the fact that each of us our born imperfect, with a mix of vulnerabilities and strengths.
As bel hooks argues in her book The Will to Change, even the most liberated parent who attempts in the home to raise their children apart from patriarchal stereotypes that can harm them can find those children being socialized through school, friendships, and the media into a shame for those parts of who they are that do not fit society’s ideal of the “perfect man” or “perfect woman”.
She describes the way in which this damages boys specifically:
“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.
“Learning to wear a mask (that word already embedded in the term “masculinity”) is the first lesson in patriarchal masculinity that a boy learns. He learns that his core feelings cannot be expressed if they do not conform to the acceptable behaviors sexism defines as male. Asked to give up the true self in order to realize the patriarchal ideal, boys learn self-betrayal early and are rewarded for these acts of soul murder.”
“To create loving men, we must love males. Loving maleness is different from praising and rewarding males for living up to sexist-defined notions of male identity. Caring about men because of what they do for us is not the same as loving males for simply being. When we love maleness, we extend our love whether males are performing or not. Performance is different from simply being. In patriarchal culture males are not allowed simply to be who they are and to glory in their unique identity. Their value is always determined by what they do. In an anti-patriarchal culture males do not have to prove their value and worth. They know from birth that simply being gives them value, the right to be cherished and loved.”
What hooks describes occurring for men and boys happens in its own way with women and girls, and even more so for those who don’t fit into our strict gender norms. (For a look at this process at work in transgender and gender fluid people, I would recommend a look at biographies such as Jenny Boylan’s description of growing up as a transgender woman in She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, and On Being’s interview with a Jewish transgender woman at http://www.onbeing.org/program/gender-and-the-syntax-of-being-joy-ladin-on-identity-and-transition/5646 ). In his classic book Stranger at the Gate, Rev. Mel White explored the experience of just such a struggle to fully come to embrace his own deepest self as a Christian man who also was gay.
Regardless of what makes you unique, this struggle is one we all have to face.
This inner disconnect with our deepest selves is a part of what makes embracing the other and their stories difficult for us. For this authentic self we are taught to disconnect from is also a part of us where we can deeply connect with the living Christ. After all, it is a part of what Psalm 139 tells us is the part of us fearfully and wonderfully made shaped by the cosmic Christ in the secret place.
Not being able to embrace our deepest selves as good and beautiful makes it hard to embrace that deep place of vulnerability in others as good, which is often the very place in which we will find the presence of Christ in them. In embracing it in ourselves and others we are freed to look with love and compassion upon the most different and at times objectionable of others, even those we experience as adversaries.
The connection between this embrace of one’s own inner vulnerabilities and embracing those who are different and those who have harmed us is illustrated well by Henri Nouwen’s telling of a part of the life of the Dalai Lama.
“I know of few people,” Nouwen writes in Life in the Spirit, “who have seen as much suffering as the Dalai Lama. As the spiritual and political leader of Tibet he was driven from his own country and witnessed the systematic killing, torture, oppression, and expulsion, of his people. Still, I know of few people who radiate so much peace and joy.
“The Dalai Lama’s generous and disarming laughter is free from any hatred or bitterness toward the Chinese who ravaged his land and murdered his people. He says, ‘They too are human beings who struggle to find happiness and deserve our compassion.’
“How is it possible that a man who has been subjection to such persecution is not filled with anger and a desire for revenge? When asked that question, the Dalai Lama explains how, in his meditation, he allows all the suffering of his people and their oppressors to enter into the depth of his heart and there be transformed into compassion.
“What a spiritual challenge! While anxiously wonder how to help the people in Bosnia, South Africa, Guatemala, and, yes, Tibet … the Dalai Lama calls me to gather the suffering of the people of this world in the center of my being and to become there the raw material for my compassionate love.
“Isn’t that, too, the way of Jesus? Shortly before his death and resurrection, Jesus said, ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all people to myself’ (John 12:32). Jesus took upon himself the suffering of all people and made it into a gift of compassion to his Father. That, indeed, is the way for us to follow”.
Is not this inner work a part of our baptismal calling?
All the Gospels suggest that at Jesus’ baptism, a light from above shines forth, the Holy Spirit hovering over Jesus like a mother dove enfolding her newly hatched chick under her loving wings, and God says some form of the following – “This is my Child. The One whom I love. The One in whom I am well-pleased”.
God speaks this over Jesus before his temptation in the wilderness, his ministry, his healing miracles, or his death. Before Jesus as a man has earned anything. It is a statement of his intrinsic worth.
When we are baptized, whether as an infant or at our choice later in life, these words become our own, our promise from God. Before we have done anything right or wrong, besides actions of love and kindness or acts of harm or wrong, simply for who we are as God’s children, God already looks at us in our perfect imperfection as Jesus looked at Jesus.
There is not a one of us to whom God does not turn God’s shining gaze, over whom the Spirit does not enfold Her embracing mothering wings, whispering our names saying “This One. This One here is my Child. This One is the one whom I love. This one is the one in whom I am well-pleased. Because this one is my very own”.
Embracing this sense of belovedness is the starting place in Christian spirituality to being able to accept our place in this world as perfectly imperfect creatures, deeply vulnerable and deeply capable of amazing things in our lives and worlds. Embracing both our vulernability and belovedness – a belovedness not despite our vulnerability but in part because of it – is the staring place on the journey of learning like Jesus and the Dalai Lama to embrace those different from ourselves and even those who oppress us.
How have you navigated this journey? I would love to hear your story.
In the meantime, let us take the call. Even though the road be long and rocky, let us embark on it together.
Your progressive redneck preacher,