Hope is not a self-help word | Learning to be with Fear and Anger on the ground

A little over a decade ago, I was standing angrily in a Christian evangelical worship service in southern California. My body was rigid, hot and on edge. I was fuming about evangelical culture, of which my family was a part. I didn’t hate Christianity, in fact, I wanted to be a pastor. The Christian story was central to my life and identity, so much so that I wanted to commit to participating in and leading communities centered around it. But at the time, there was nothing unclear about American evangelicalism’s opinion about my sense of my own vocation—women couldn’t do that job. So I was angry.

I’d felt this many times before in my teenage years; my family can call to mind holidays based on what I was upset about that year. I usually ended up crying-yelling and crafting an accusatory argument to clarify the absurdity of what was going on. I’m sure I said “SERIOUSLY?” a lot. I was loud about what was wrong in the world, but I was quietly hoping someone would have compassion on how painful it must’ve been for me to not have my experiences listened to and cherished. At the heart of it, I wanted to be seen, and this was most true with my dad. My dad and I share a love for a lot of the same things (athletics, food, language, theology) and had spent a lot of my childhood very close. But he had imbibed that no-women-in-leadership message, such that when I’d called home during my junior year of college him to tell him I wanted to be a pastor, without skipping a beat he said, “Annie, you know I don’t believe women can be pastors.” So, there I was, standing next to him, fuming so that I wouldn’t be flooded with hurt, physically unable to sing along, and glad the room was dimly lit because I’ve never been good at hiding what I feel. Then a quick thought flashed through my mind: I could put my hand on my dad’s shoulder as an act of forgiveness and apology. And as soon as I heard it, I was compelled by the invitation. When I say “compelled,” I mean that it became a full bodied, question—what if?—which bore the weight of the moments before and the possibilities after. So now, along with my anger, I was feeling compelled to reach out to my dad, and now also feeling sick to my stomach. I wanted to be saved from these feelings. What if this went wrong and he thought I was apologising for being who I was instead of for the distance I was creating? And what if he didn’t ever take accountability? Why isn’t this easier? Using the vision of hindsight, the best way I can describe how it felt to be me in that moment is a difficult combination of vulnerable and powerful. And I didn’t want to be either one. I didn’t want to lay down arms in the fight for my identity—the fight was how I defended my sense of selfhood! My worth! My ability to be seen for who I really am! But, I loved my dad, I missed my dad, and I really wanted to find a way to be in a relationship with him again, to speak about what was really going on. I wanted to believe in and practice the power of forgiveness that my tradition spoke so much about. But I also didn’t want to be the initiator. “He is the adult”, I told myself. I wanted him to come to me on his metaphorical hands and knees, aware of the hurt he has caused. All of these thoughts and feelings were concentrated in my body in a matter of 5 seconds. In the midst of the inner turmoil, my hand, surely steadied by the God of such invitations, made its way to my Dad’s shoulder. I let it sit there awkwardly. I was now committed to this radically hopeful gesture, already embarrassed to have let down my “F*** you” attitude. Pretty immediately, my dad began to weep. My hand was rising and falling with his shoulders, and he turned, through tears, whispering to be heard over the loud worship music, and asked me and my Mom to come with him. We found a quiet space, where through his tears he told us that he had heard God speak to him, audibly. Something he’d never experienced before. When I’d put my hand on his shoulder he’d heard, “Let her go. I parent her now because she listens to my voice.” This was shocking to hear, generally, and then particularly shocking coming out of my dad’s mouth. I was relieved. And humbled. And in awe. I felt like a child, but now I wanted to feel like a child because I felt like I could trust my Parent (God, that is). I’ve told you this very intimate story for a reason, which does, in fact, have to do with the enneagram. In this historical event, my understanding of who I was and how I could hope to relate to my dad changed. My understanding of who God was changed. My shared history with my dad changed. Knowledge of my pattern brought me to the end of myself. And at the end of the fight for my identity, I wasn’t alone—I was seen and loved. And for me, a woman who deeply identifies with the Type 4 pattern, this is important to know. At the beginning of the story, and for the many years before, I was stuck in a very particular pattern of relating which was born from a very real need. In a very patterned way, I worked to prove I had special and unique things to say, I expressed desperately my abstracted suffering and then hid so that people would come and find me, I put up walls with my family with secret hopes they’d miss my contribution. I was doing what I knew how to do to get what I thought I wanted. But, having done the same things for so long to keep myself from dealing directly with my vulnerability and need of loving relationship, whilst obsessing over how it was eluding me, this pattern needed to be transformed. It wasn’t working, and it wasn’t going to. I was so blind to how this system of defense was operating in my life. And when I was called out of this pattern in a very concrete way, it was terrifying. Because even though it wasn’t working, I was so convinced that my image of myself as separate and different was going to somehow get me the love I wanted. In letting go of it, I needed to receive something new in its place. I just didn’t know what it would be. And this is true in our enneagram work: , there's not a risk-less path out of our patterns, because the patterns are what we falsely think make us secure, even when they don't. Or they do make us secure, when what we really need is to risk invitation. So to risk listening for those invitations that might come as direct answers to questions that lay at the center of our being, that is the good, hard, patient, hopeful and transformative work. And kids seem to be so much better at it than adults (but I digress). There are three immediate dangers I see in telling this story about my experience with my dad:

  1. The Danger of Particularity. This is not the kind of story that can simply be applied to another life. I knew and believed my dad loved me, confused though I thought he was and hurt as I was, I felt enough safety to extend a reconciliatory hand. Maybe you have relationships like this where you know what might be a meaningful and properly vulnerable gesture towards reconciliation. But, on the other hand, maybe your situation is much scarier and you are way more at risk. Maybe the invitation is to leave and find some distance and clarity. We must all work from where we are, with our own patterns in our own situations with our own needs. Listen for your resonance, and even your frustration with the story. How is your story similar? How is it different?

  2. The Danger of Snapshot. The story with my dad isn’t over. And while this story was immensely revealing for us, there were and are many ways we are learning to love one another, unravelling defences and taking. This experience wasn’t a one-time-quick-fix. But, our lives are made of series of moments, and so one moment can be incredibly important in a larger story. We can’t make it into too much and we can’t discount the importance of a snapshot. There is work before and after.

  3. The Danger of Hope. When we relate with hope to our story, it means that there is some good that we haven’t seen yet. The challenge with hope is that is must stay firmly rooted in the situation and we cannot control the future--we act with a plausible as if. It could be easy to dissociate and have a kind of free floating and fantasy hope, but then we don’t usually do the work. Grounded hope requires hard work, and that slog doesn’t always have the payoff that we would want. Sometimes it is better, and we see healing happen, and we are drawn further into a good reality. But, sometimes the things we hope for do not happen in our time frame and we have to mourn, to cry out in anger. Or we become afraid again. This is human hoping. It is dangerous, but it is worth doing. It is always better to hope and to cry out than to accept a reality that doesn’t tell us the truth about love, security or worth.

So, I tell you this today because wherever you are at on your journey, I want to speak to you with grounded hope. (Also, and in case you are wondering, my dad has a-okayed the use of this story. Thanks Dad!) You have more agency than you think you do, and also less. You can’t prove your worth, you can’t coerce love, and you can’t construct security. But, you are worthy, you are beloved, you are secure. And you can know and experience that in your body. Your agency begins is exactly where automatic patterns to prove, coerce, or construct start to take over. You can become aware of those patterns that keep you from the truth about who you are. And when you become aware of how those patterns are shutting you down from receiving what they are intended to protect, that’s where the work continues. This is not a transcendent self-help adventure where you’ll be promised only progress and good feelings. But, it does mean a new way, a more hopeful way, a way of living grounded in reality and responding to it with honesty, and sometimes courage. This reality will turn out to be much better than the ones we may have inherited or invested in. But it will certainly have challenges we'd rather avoid by buying back into our fantasies about who we are and what the world is like. That will always be a temptation, especially if you are a person who has a lot of power in your context. But, it's a temptation worth resisting so that we can listen for invitations to encounter the Really Real love, worth and security we all so desperately need.

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