The false intimacy of collusion and liberation of the story.
When is revelation a form of intimacy, when is disclosure oversharing, and when is a personal story designed to enrol the listener into an us-versus-them dynamic? Such collusion may feel like intimacy but it really creates codependent hubs of shared worldviews and victimizations.
My Danish friend Lisbeth once told me about how she confronted that dreaded job interview question, Where do you see yourself in five years? She equivocated on how much to reveal. Sensing her unease, the poor interviewer added for clarity: Yes, please tell us your story. Lisbeth was tired of bullshit and replied: “I’ve spent the last 10 years trying to get away from my story.” She didn’t want to preconfigure the future with the past. Five years? That’s a dream within a dream. Lisbeth has never fit any cookie-cutter shape. She didn’t get the job.
Like Lisbeth, I have spent many years trying to get away from my story. It got lumped into the category of ego indulgence. We both grew up hearing many stories from alcoholic parents – heroically self-sacrificing stories meant to evoke pity – that tainted the very idea of intimate sharing. I sequestered away my story because, I feared, it was toxic. But shame spreads in the untended places of isolation. We cannot integrate much less transcend any aspect of our history without daring to re-inhabit the ghettos and enclaves of forgotten memory. As Thomas Merton wrote: “We cannot surrender what we never possessed.”
The bind I got myself into while writing the many articles on this website was to distance myself from my story so thoroughly that I failed to notice the unmet shame leaching through my words and ideas, if not directly then through my subtle withholding; the resilient membrane of self-protection inherited from childhood.
When I started high school, I would leave the school grounds at every break and walk around the surrounding neighborhood until I heard the bell again. At that point I could no longer socialize; my voice was lost and my words stuck. When I did speak, those unloosed words seemed to come from an inaccessibly deep place, past waves of receding mental boundaries. I was so dissociated that they didn’t feel like mine at all, just a strange echo. I spent a lot of that time wishing I was not me, that I was someone or something else and could look at that awkward boy, from the outside, as a foreign object. I could never manage the complete break, however. Shame kept me bound to my body. When I would hear an ascending chorus of laughter in the classroom while I was nailed to the spot, the heat rising into my face told me I was still here.
I took as many days off school as I could without being discovered. On winter days, I walked through many different neighborhoods, leaving aimless footprints across the frost-covered parklands. The sun was pale and my toes numb. To this day, wood-smoke evokes the sense-memory of those wandering days and a sadness that cannot articulated – it simply lingers and there’s something about its lingering, the way it takes over an entire landscape and imbues everything with a longing cut off from its source, that both promotes hope and simultaneously defeats it.
As I walked, I wondered what happened behind all the closed doors of the houses I passed. I knew from experience not to trust manicured veneers. An ordered appearance, I suspected, was a cover-up for latent chaos. It was here I first understood how the sexual abuse of children never takes place in isolation. Victims are not chosen at random, and predators have a preternatural sense for the defenceless child. How I knew this exactly I cannot tell you, other than through the fearful irony that in seeking safety, I had let myself be exposed. On those walks, I saw strange men lurking in odd places. I became attuned to a hidden sub-strata of humanity. For fleeting moments I shapeshifted as a matter of protection, and I saw through the eyes of these fringe-dwellers: they were always looking for the angle, the opportunity, the shadow and the cover.
My response was to become even more skilled at blending into the background. And the instinct to isolate became reflexive and urgent. Liberating a pattern, especially one rooted in survival, involves redeeming the perspective and experience of the lost child. Here’s what they don’t tell you in the awakening brochure. Though, like charting the seven stages of grief, we can point to process and effect, how it all plays out reflects the early drama of conditioning itself – not some predetermined map.
I have resisted seeing God at the centre of my life, simply because it looked more like abandonment than ennoblement. Those footprints in the frost certainly did not seem, even in sentimental retrospect, like God carrying me. Yet through two decades of my own alcohol abuse, there were times where the only rational explanation for my survival was divine intervention. Parallel worlds and timelines intersected and spliced in those moments of danger; and the downward pull to phantasmal darkness, multiple roads to perdition, showed me that hell was real and there were endless iterations. Yet I was lifted up and out from the sucking abyss.
As a child, I became an acute observer of human behaviour, sensitive to approaching fronts of mood and feeling before they arrived. As an adult, I became an acute observer of the fracturing created by sensitivity and trauma, and the impulse of awakening to bring all those pieces into coherence. I have spent a lifetime on the outside looking in; too afraid or not willing to come in from the cold. But to be clear: the best critiques of embedded systems come from outsiders. If we are alienated from the dominant system, we have no investment in sustaining its illusions. Yet the outsider must also become the insider – the fractured and dissociated relationship to self healed – in order to live in the ever-present moment. In order to offer anything to the world.
For me, liberating a pattern means choosing to love the lost boy over and again, as distress rises, over and again, with the same violent unpredictability of the childhood home. But this love is not some idealized self-love, another performance marker. If I were to wait for perfect self-love, I would only abandon that boy once again. It’s love as enough. It’s a willingness to see, respect, honor, attend and protect. This enough love opens the door to holy love, and that changes everything.
Saul of Tarsus once wrote: “Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.” (Galatians 2:19-20). The story got me so far. It offered a narrative outline, a set of inchoate rules and boundaries, but no denouement. It is only by liberating my story that I can die to any fixed plot-line and release my insistence on an ending. As each layer is peeled away, revealing an underlying innocence, I feel the presence of another love that was always there, that was a container for every season of grief. How can I put this? I feel God inside my skin. This is not a grand radiance or illumination, a samadhi state or the gates of heaven being flung open. It is terribly, deeply intimate because it’s none of those things. This holy love changes my orientation, infuses enough love with perfect love, and it defies categorization.
Every broken part of me is made sacred by this love, not because that’s what love does: reaching out to the shunned, the exiled and the ugly. It’s more radical than that. Those broken parts allow love to be sown deeper and deeper, into the root and fabric of this ‘fallen’ world. When my story is redeemed, it is not my story any longer, but one that I have animated to dignify all stories, all perspectives, as the inscrutable movement of the holy. Not “there but for the Grace of God I go …” but “there with the Grace of God I go”, to redeem every sadness, enlighten every shadow, trace the scar tissue of every wound, and pay homage to the unfathomable pain and beauty of being human.