Christian Language Trigger Warning: I wrote this from an openly religious perspective targeting a Christian audience, for it is how I make sense of the experiences and find meaning and hope despite the hardships they created.
This narrative is known ad nauseum to those closest to me as
The Saga of Marcy and the Pennies
I was four years old when I can remember my first conscious moments of having a conversation, what I believe was my first memory of words themselves in context of a continuity of events. This experience taught me several, serious foundational moral lessons, some sound and some terribly flawed. Even then, I think that I understood on some level that those lessons were wrong because they taught me shame, anxiety, and futility in a very pure form at such a young age.
As a post-Great Depression child, my grandfather desired to instill in me the habit and benefit of saving money, and he inspired me to collect pennies. In an annual tradition that continued through the rest of my childhood, in his visit just before Labor Day, we would take the pennies to the local amusement park and I would “reward myself” for my diligence by paying for my own tickets. But what became a cause for celebration of the love I shared with my grandfather also became a foundational lesson of maladaptive thinking that I would struggle with for decades. (And when I least expect it, I still find surviving weeds from those old thought seeds of the heart.)
While learning the new, important ritual of counting and wrapping pennies on a late summer afternoon, a little girl who was nearly my own age came by for a short visit. I joyfully told her how excited I was about this process and of my promised reward. That evening, when it came time to collect the pennies I’d saved all year for the grand event, I couldn’t find them anywhere. Everyone was angry.
I learned what I would now call pure panic, and it had a frantic quality. I learned helplessness, confusion, and sadness that day, and I recall them well. I was reprimanded verbally, lectured about the diligence of saving again, and about how to be careful with things, especially money. I learned how it felt to be bathed in shame. I don’t even recall if we went to the amusement park or not. But I remember the events that followed.
Thought Seeds of Shame
I assume that within a day or so, the mother of the neighbor who had visited me that day that I’d counted my pennies and placed them neatly in the red paper rolls called my mother. She’d found her daughter with rolls of pennies, and the child confessed that she’d stolen them from me.
You might think that I experienced vindication. No.
What followed revealed the rules my mother believed about the world, what Chris Thurman wrote about in his book, The Lies We Believe
. My mother believed that when you exhibit good behavior, you will always encounter good circumstances. The flip side of this belief is also true to my mother, so bad circumstances can be assumed to result from bad behavior. These are different corollaries of the fallacious idea that “Life is fair: no exceptions.”
It also revealed something about my mother’s level of personal worth and likely how she was esteemed by her own parents. It revealed her own heart, so she poured the contents of it into mine, emptying that which she thought was best to give to me: her shame.
I was lectured and painfully shamed verbally, and I would wear those wounds for so long – and I still bear those scars in my heart. It was explained to me that people don’t do bad things unless they are provoked, and the only conclusion that could be believed was that I had ‘provoked’ this other child to jealousy by my bad actions. I was charged with the moral crimes of pride and bragging. My mother defended the other child, and upon me, she bestowed the blame that belonged the thief. I was punished for lying about what I had done – and more so when I protested and claimed innocence. I hadn’t provoked her. I was happy like any child would be.
My sense of confusion was so great, and I felt what I would now call terror, worse than anything I believe I’ve experienced since, because of the intensity of the embarrassment and other emotions my mother expressed. And I was completely helpless. I vividly remember feeling emotions that I would now describe in my adult language as a fear of impending annihilation. I thought of these events in school when I learned that respiratory patients in distress often express feelings of ‘impending doom.’
The next time I visited that neighbor’s home, the girl who’d stolen from me whipped out more rolls of pennies and laughed, taunting me that she’d managed to hide a portion of them from her mother. I didn’t know what to do, so I went home to tell my mother, and I have no memory of what happened to the rest of the pennies. After grasping that image of the dark red paper rolls in a pile on the hardwood floor under her bed, the details become quite fuzzy. What I remember thereafter blurs into the terrifying numbness of feeling overwhelmed.
Then it Got Worse
Rather than understanding these new events as evidence of the greed and jealousy of another young child who could often be quite cruel to me, my mother interpreted them as sure proof that I was quite corrupt, on so many levels.
I was again punished and shamed harshly to the point that I felt like I would disintegrate and wished that I would. This, folks, is my first dynamic memory of speaking with people and using words in conversations. I learned that I was damned and evil, regardless of what I did, and speaking the truth on my own behalf resulted in even greater punishment.
I leaned that I was responsible for other people’s behavior, without question, and in any given situation, I was the probable cause of a bad outcome. I learned that questions and self-advocacy were verboten, and though the truth was always demanded of me, I learned that there were times when speaking the truth resulted in an even greater punishment and shame. I learned that I had to please people, too, and I learned that this was usually a futile pursuit. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but I would live to learn that bad, fallacious ideas had hard consequences. I learned how to be self-deprecating and had a duty to brave the process well.
The sad thing of it is that my nature is honestly generous, and I would have shared those pennies with that neighbor if she’d asked for them. I would have loved to have taken her with us to the park if she’d wanted to come with us to celebrate my year long act of diligence.
Consider that in terms of how to think about myself and how the world works, this chain of events laid the foundation of my baseline level of what was ‘normal.’
Healing (that continues)
When I started to peel the many layers of emotions away with a therapist I’d sought for treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as an adult, I realized that these early lessons touched every part of my life in pervasive and harmful ways. These malignant beliefs had actually limited my ability to cope well with the trauma that followed – a different trauma for which I sought counseling. I healed through a process of identifying the negative, false beliefs that under-girded the feelings that made havoc of my life. At the core of many other traumas and beliefs, I traced most of them back to these first lessons of spoken and unspoken lies. Those malicious seed-ideas sprouted into much emotional pain and anxiety that I carried through most of my adult life. Reflecting on this today, I cannot help but consider the lessons we teach young children when we engage their religious questions. I also think of the impact that this can have on how those children will approach God, faith and religious life in their adulthood.
My therapist, my witness and ally, walked with me through the heartache as we chased down every one of the beliefs that I’d developed through this experience. A part of me had so internalized these horrible beliefs so deeply into my heart that I never really fully let myself experience the pain of them. The feelings of annihilation were a function of that numbing that set in when more and more of my alleged failures continued to unfold. I’d never learned to master them, and I’d run from them through behaviors and distraction. And though I avoided them, they remained ever-present in my heart as vivid, real memories, as though they were ongoing. My therapist sat with me as I went through the process of chasing down every monster, desensitizing to each one until I could kiss each of them on the nose
So often she would remind me that I was no longer four, and we imagined what I would do if I could intervene in those memories as an adult who had stepped in to help my child self. We used imagery to face down the fear in those situations. I gave to myself the gifts of honor and trust that my mother didn’t have to give me (because no one had given them to her when she desperately needed them).
I went back into those memories, declared the truth, and acted on my own behalf to stand beside that frantic, helpless, confused, ashamed little girl to declare her deliverance. And then I rescued her by moving out of those memories and delivering my child heart from the bondage of the past. The principle and technique works because there is a part of the mind that doesn’t distinguish between reality and fantasy, and by injecting true beliefs into the revisited memories, the feelings of helplessness become a past event instead of an ongoing process of intrusion..
This process became a new and creative way by which I stirred up the gift of God within the deepest recesses of my own scandalous heart. And I found that in that process of revisiting that memory, I called upon Jesus to stand with me, too, setting at liberty that bruised little child. He just appeared there to me, standing beside my mother and me in my mind’s eye, bringing healing and compassion to the both of us. From that image flowed my own compassion for myself but also profound empathy and forgiveness for my mother.
Lessons and Challenges of the Scandal
Many people flock to high demand religion like patriarchy because it boldly promises to provide people with help to transcend pain and difficulty. For many, it provides a means of power which they use to ward off their own ill feelings. We all feel the limitations of our humanity and should then have reason to better understand our dependency on God’s precious grace. But some of us go through the motions, spouting doctrine while forgetting matters of the heart. Christians who lack the abundance of God’s love and trust in Him pour their own lack into the very people who look to them for direction, hope, and comfort. They can only share with others that which they have in the abundance their hearts themselves. Many only share shame, fear, and condemnation, all in Jesus’ name. In their purity of doctrine, their hearts wax cold and icy, and they lose their First Love if they ever indeed possessed Him.
The challenges that follow require bold and radical realism, painstaking honesty, and faith. We have to be about the hard work of chasing down those monsters to make them our friends – maybe even God’s gifts to us. Often, we have to call upon God Himself to enter the deepest, darkest places in our hearts to ransom us from the past. We only need bid Him to take us there. This, my friends, is where real spiritual warfare takes place. And if we cannot manage to do it alone, we can enlist allies like my counselor to walk through them beside us.
And another challenge remains still. When we are faced with the scandals of our own hearts, and when fear and discomfort greet us, what will we do? Will we yield honestly to the God who is greater than our hearts, or will we resist Him all the more?
Will we require those around us to bear the discomfort that we don’t want to feel by deflecting it through shame and blame onto others? Will we even give it to little ones to carry? Will they languish in shame for decades thereafter? What will you say to the five year old budding Berean Rachels
in your Sunday School class when they ask the hard questions? Will you make them a receptacle for your own shame for having no pat answer to give them? Or will your heart be full of love for them, seeing discernment growing as their hearts learn how to think? What will you model for them? I hope that through your own actions that you teach them just how to go about kissing monsters on the nose.