Sacred Spiritual Growth

What’s the Lesson In This For Me?

Throughout human history, many people have tried to make sense of why negative events occur in our lives. One idea that is sometimes proffered and with which I take issue is that we should “learn a lesson” from these kind of experiences and that they will invariably serve as a source of strength for us. On this #SacredSpiritualGrowth Saturday, I’ll elaborate on our ability and cause to seek insight through difficult trials. I do think there is some truth to the concept that we can learn and growth through, rather than despite, minor unpleasant life events.

To me, experiences that rise to the level of trauma are not necessarily or inherently good for us nor do they always make us stronger. I would give back much of what happened to me in my childhood in a heartbeat; I don’t think I’m a better person because of it. If you’d made sense of your own trauma in a different way, I completely support you in this as I think there are multiple valid perspectives we can hold towards suffering.

Traumatic Experiences

Traumatic experiences are those events that threaten our life or our sense of safety in a major way. They may leave us feeling betrayed, broken, lost and without hope. They shake the core of how we see the world and our sense of right and wrong. Life may seem unfair and unjust as a result, and we may feel alienated from “other people” who we perceive to wear rose-colored glasses in their assessment of how life tends to go.

These kinds of experiences can lead to a sense of spiritual growth; in fact, there is an entire body of research on “post-traumatic growth.” One moderating factor in enhancing development after trauma is social support. In other words, my take is that people are most able to grow after a tragedy when they feel supported by others during and after the trauma. For example, if a natural disaster strikes and causes issues with housing and employment, people may gain strength in their faith if lots of people are there to assist them and to lend aid during recovery.

Where trauma is especially likely to cut a ragged wound is when we go through it alone, and when we experience others as turning against, not towards us, as we try to recover from it. The individual who is rejected from every possible place of refuge, and whose life begins a downward spiral after a natural disaster is less likely to emerge from it, at least for a long time, with a sense of a deeper spiritual connection. On some level, I think the Divine becomes conflated with other people for most of us, so that to the extent that we feel distant from people, we are likely to experience a breach between ourselves and the Divine.

Everyday Obstacles

I think there are minor inconveniences and everyday types of problems that come our way through fate that we can use as a catalyst for spiritual growth. There is no clear dividing line between traumatic experiences and everyday obstacles. What one person finds minor may be a major trigger for another individual. I am not concerned with deciding for others the types of life experiences that fall into this category of “growth fodder.”  Discern for yourself the bumps along the way that you can use to make meaning and to draw out the character traits you seek to display.

I believe life unfolding in a way that runs counter to our plans invites us to contemplate certain questions. These include:

  • What do I really need in my life, and what just takes up space? What builds me spiritually?
  • What are my priorities for finding meaning in my life when my goals are thwarted? Do they align with my actions?
  • To what extent do I turn to Divinity and/or to my spiritual home when I am overwhelmed?
  • To what extent do I allow others to connect with me and offer spiritual balm to the raw and vulnerable places in me which negative situations provoke?
  • What are the spiritual rituals and practices that are particularly nourishing to me during difficult moments? To what extent do I follow through on them when they are really needed?

Signs of Spiritual Growth

How do we know if the lessons we are learning from everyday obstacles are spurring spiritual growth? I’ve listed a few signs below. They are not prescriptive or definitive! I found myself feeling like I was coming up short on every single one of them. I urge you to give yourself permission to view even a very small step in the direction they suggest as a sign you are reaching another layer of the spiritual dimension.

  • The first reaction to a negative minor setback is less and less to simply react. We are able to more fully engage the “deep thinking” part of our brain and/or to respond with a wider range of emotions than we used to be able to access. This emotional maturity is intertwined with spiritual growth in my view as it is a necessary first step before we evolve to a place of having our natural response be spiritually-centered.
  • We can more fully stay on track with our spiritual focus even when things aren’t going our way. We continue our daily rituals and meditation. We engage in deep conversations with others.
  • We are more able to own our own role in situations that occur to us. For example, if I act in a hostile, abrupt manner towards others, and then do not get the help I need from them, they are not simply incompetent. I’ve increased their inability to help me by treating them rudely. This place of personal responsibility can then empower us to make more viable choices as to how we handle moments of challenge.
  • We increase our ability to display the values and beliefs to which we ascribe in terms of how we face obstacles. For instance, if we believe being in nature provides an opportunity to connect with the Divine, we seek outdoor spaces as a respite during difficult situations.
  • We expand our focus to include giving attention to the things for which we are grateful and to the hopes to which we hold fast, even when other areas of our life are experiences in suffering.

In examining these concepts, I’ve written only in reference to the impact of external events on us. We are also buffeted by the winds of our internal thoughts and feelings. I suspect there may be a similar division in regards to inner experiences. As someone who struggles with the symptoms of multiple mental disorders, I find these akin to traumatic experiences in that the best I can currently do with them spiritually is to accept them. Some individuals encapsulate their mental health conditions as a part of their identity and see themselves as incomplete without them. As for me, I do not think they have improved who I am and I’m not pleased to have them in my life.

At the same time, the inner shifts in mood and thought that we all experience, such as a fleeting bad mood or a temporary anxious thought, can perhaps lead us to deepen our spiritual walk as we dig in to what it means to be human. We can sit with the negative moment and examine what it has to offer us. I would not want to be perfectly happy and stress-free all the time, because I think life would lose nuance and color in a mono-state.

As I mentioned several times, I have but one perspective on the idea of life teaching us lessons, and I hope to start a conversation about what your view on this is. I am very interested in seeing how the division I’ve made squares with your experience of your spiritual journey, and the extent to which the signs of spiritual growth I’ve shared fit how things have gone for you. Perhaps together we can hone in on some tried-and-true ideas for those moments when things don’t go our way.

Embodied Heart

Small Treasures, Discarded

I’ve decided to call the posts I share that relate more to my personal experiences #EmbodiedHeart to represent the goal I have in processing and relating them to others. These posts will contain aspects of my trauma story and could perhaps be triggering, although I do not intend to share a lot of specific abuse memories. I hope to hear from you if what I’ve written connects for you.

I had one special box as a child. It had held a honeycomb a relative had harvested from his beehive. The lid was clear plastic but the box was study. It contained all of my miniature treasures. I was fascinated with dollhouses when I was younger, and always longed for a grand Victorian model made of real wood. That didn’t happen, but I went about gathering tiny items, some of which would have fit right into a dollhouse. A blue and white ceramic pot. A clay bead my father told me may have come from a Native American settlement. Fragments of a pocket-watch into which rubies were embedded. No one ever showed any curiosity or interest in my collection, but it meant enough to me I’d originally settle on becoming an archeologist when I was grown. I loved the idea of digging in the dirt and finding buried treasure.

I left my family abruptly in my 20’s. The memories of abuse fully surfaced weeks after I made my final visit and cut off communication. All my childhood mementoes, including most of my photos, yearbooks and journals, were suddenly inaccessible. It’s hard to remember yourself without anything from your childhood.

Yesterday I was walking my dog. A few young neighbor girls love him, and came running up to greet us. One of them announced she had some drawings for him. My heart ached when she handed them over to me. It ached because it’s rare for me to receive gifts like this. It ached because of her lack of shame. I would never had dared to think someone else would have wanted my drawings as a child; my mother schooled me early and often in the burden I inevitability caused to everyone around me. It ached because, without my history of abuse, I’m certain I would have become a mother, one who would have delighted in having her children create all sorts of art for her.

The box I’d had when I was younger kept arising and arising in my mind after this. I couldn’t understand why, other than that it had something to do with childhood curiosity. Then the memory snapped into focus. The box was missing before I cut off contact. I’d last stayed with my family earlier in the year before I left, and had searched high and low for it. It was nowhere to be found. Out of all my possessions, in my mother’s “organization” efforts, that one item had disappeared. I starting remembering objects that mysteriously vanished as a child, such as a drawing a friend had made for me. How she somehow found a hate note I’d written her, folded up, and hidden in a cupboard in my bedroom. All the small treasures, discarded.

I will be spending some money and time to make myself decorated tins for each full moon, 13 in total. I will include tiny mementoes I collect during the month in each of them, and will use each for a ritual. A part of me feels utterly pathetic for doing so, and my mind rings with taunts of pretending. Pretending to have happy times filled with little surprises. But, a stronger and perhaps wiser part of me says “fuck it.” I’ve lost my childhood; my childhood was loss, but something in me needs a tangible symbol I’m reclaiming every moment and every piece of experience and existence I can (and miniaturizing it if at all possible!).

Goddessing Self Care

Honoring Limitations

Today would typically be my next post for #GoddessingSelfCare Sunday. Unfortunately, my workload and health issues have piled up to the point where I feel like my day-to-day is a never-ending series of obligations. As a result, I need to slow myself down and respect my own limits. I want to carve out more time to dig into my spiritual practice so that what I write come as much from a place of authenticity as possible. I will still be blogging, but I am now planning to post about once a week, with additional posts as I am able. Looking forward to our continued conversations!

Embodied Heart

The Mother of Mirrors and the Ungrateful Child

I’m interrupting my normal themed posts in order to share a part of my personal journey as it relates to mental health and being a trauma survivor. This particular post does not have a focus on spirituality, but I will be seeking out themes to which I can make a connection. I would welcome any comments about how what I shared impacted you or if you find yourself relating to any of my experiences.

“Yes,” he said, “I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”

― G.K. Chesterton, The Innocence of Father Brown

My mother remains a mystery to me. I lived with her from birth into young adulthood, but I never glimpsed behind the mask of mirrors she projected. She kept everyone at a particular distance; close enough to control but not so close that any vulnerability or genuine emotion was expressed. She would let me sit next to her and then unexpectedly shove me away.

She hid her true self under a mask of a loving, caring parent, when in fact she alternated in private between terrorizing, smothering and manipulating her charges. As soon as the phone was hung up or the car door shut or the last guest left, her polite, demure demeanor instantly transformed into an enraged, overburdened and abandoned character. And even this was a mask for whatever deep shame and revulsion drove her psyche, tossed aside for another version as soon as it suited her. She would scream and cry for days during her cycle, and, when asked what was making her depressed, would respond by saying “What do you mean? I’m always happy.” Every time I thought I saw her, she shifted and another mirror appeared.

What (not who) was I to this woman? I think I was an extension of her that she despised but needed, or maybe despised because she needed. She desired to possess me. I was to be her servant, happy that she allowed me to exist to ease her suffering. But of course I could never get it quite right and could never win her affection. She didn’t just fail to love me; she actively hated me. Had I stayed at home into adulthood and done nothing with my life aside from making a meager financial contribution and orienting myself towards pleasing her, she would not have made any effort to push me towards adult maturity. One of my greatest emotional burdens is that I’ve seen some of my siblings come close to this destiny after I rejected it. I was the oldest so the task fell to me initially; when I finally said “no more,” she simply adjusted her aim and found another target.

I’ve hesitated many times to share my experiences for fear of being called ungrateful and being judged for my estrangement from my family. Something settled anew in me when I decided to own it. I am ungrateful. Ungrateful for being sexually, emotionally and verbally abused. Ungrateful for being mocked and ridiculed every time I expressed an opinion. Ungrateful for being treated like an object or as an appendage. Ungrateful for the breadcrumbs of attention I was thrown, for which I was expected to grovel.

I want to wear my inner strengths that she labeled ungratefulness, entitlement and selfishness as a mantle; I would not be a fully functioning or even a marginally functioning adult without them. For wherever I am over-confident or proud in my everyday life, I offer myself grace and succor. To the parts of myself that are filled with shame and self-doubt, I extend hospitality and shout a message of “You are important!” “I see you!” “You have a right to exist!” to quiet the inner critic who wishes them gone.

I cobbled together a person from the fragments of my shattered mind. The embarrassment I’ve felt for my Frankenstein creation is being steadily replaced by an abiding sense of astonishment that the stitches are so well placed and the parts amble in a coordinated fashion. She broke me apart, seeking my soul, but I hid it away and now the rest of me—my mind, my body and my heart—have also been reclaimed as my own.

A major task of adulthood is making sense of our childhood, integrating the disappointments of our parents with their strengths in order that we may form our identity, develop close relationships and caretake the next generation. I cannot do this very well with my mother. I do see how hard she worked and I value the perseverance she instilled in me. I wish to feel sadness towards her limitations without being consumed with guilt, but she blamed me ceaselessly for her suffering without considering any of her own flaws. I wish to forgive her, but she never acknowledged that she did anything wrong towards me. I wish to connect to her, but she always kept me at a distance. I wish to focus on the silly, joyful, carefree times, but she didn’t allow herself to indulge in them with me.

So the best I can manage is acceptance. I accept that I’ve never really known who my mother is, that she’s existed in a kaleidoscope of interchangeable facades, and that she has been incapable of loving or even of seeing me as a person. I wish I could experience a genuine moment of humanity from her once in my life, but I accept that I will instead treasure every single one of these moments I’ve co-created with those who do love and care for me.