“Any person suffering from any level of despair has failed to form a narrative that effectively connects the present with the past and the future.”
Andrew D. Lester, Hope in Pastoral Care and Counseling, p. 36
I hadn’t seen Dave in about five to six months. He first came to our Tuesday night group after discovering it online and contacting me. In group he unearthed some painful emotional stuff regarding his family of origin and then he took a hiatus. Dave needed some time just to work, get his financial life in order, and find his footing in a busy and competitive city. I would send him emails on occasion to check in and he would respond.
As friends on Facebook I would see Dave’s posts. They were usually cheery, as most Facebook posts are, with him at music festivals and the like. Recently, however, he posted a picture with a caption suggesting something tragic had happened to one of his family members. I immediately messaged him to let him know that if he needed a safe place to discuss the situation, I was available. He took me up on the offer but only after he had returned from his hometown where he helped deal with the situation.
When I met with him he admitted that it had been a very tumultuous past few weeks but that he had supportive people in his life and he was managing, if barely. He admitted that work had become difficult and being in the office each day felt like an eternity. He wondered aloud how he was going to make sense of his life now that circumstances within his family had changed so dramatically. This was not the way the story was supposed to turn out.
I wish I could share more details regarding Dave’s circumstances. It is a heartrending tale made all the more empathic by the hero of the story – a kindhearted, courageous young man who faces life’s challenges with determination and zeal. But, in the end, this is Dave’s story to tell, not mine. I must relinquish ultimate authorship to him.
As Dave spoke, I got a hunch that he was stuck in his grief not only because he had, or could accept, few alternatives for how this story was to turn out but also, and perhaps most importantly, he was hoping that many of the things that had happened to him and his family in his life hadn’t happened. In essence, he wished that the central and most formative conflict of his very being didn’t exist.
To be fair, how could Dave possibly contemplate something so arcane? When your world is collapsing around you it’s very difficult to think theoretically, let alone objectively. Dave was in it, and the fight, flight, or freeze portion of his brain had overridden the reasoning portion of his brain. All Dave could feel was the loss of someone essential to him. Without that person, could life continue? How?
The fact remained: the reason Dave was experiencing such utter despair was because there was no possible conclusion to his conflict. There was no possible conclusion to this narrative. The anticipated ending to this family tale simply could not occur now. If all aspirations were hung on a triumphant ending, then Dave was left hopeless.
Dave and I talked some about the subtle reality that human begins are meaning makers. We all must make meaning out of our lives or else we become disoriented. Who am I? What community do I belong to? When will I have accomplished my greatest achievement? Where will that be? Why will I have achieved it? How can I be remembered when I am gone? It is no wonder that stories have been so important and powerful throughout civilization. Stories do more for us than entertain. It is through stories that we work to construct our own stories. When we read of Joseph’s captivity in Egypt, for instance, we are enthralled because we may feel captive in our own lives. How did Joseph manage his captivity? What was the end result? Can his result be ours too?
One may be able to sense, then, why some people may become angry with God and even abandon his or her faith life. If the Biblical narrative is that “God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28), and after loving God no fruit materializes or worse, something unsuspecting and tragic occurs, one can easily become disoriented…and embittered. This was not the way the story was supposed to turn out.
I wonder if that is some of what was going through Dave’s head. Not only was his current family situation not the way the story was supposed to turn out, but it was especially not the way the story was supposed to turn out in light of his faith in Christ. There was supposed to be redemption. Prayers were supposed to be answered. They weren’t, at least not in the way Dave had hoped.
Dave was locked. His story was locked. How could he unlock it all and live again?
There certainly is the option of Dave beginning to re-author his life, like I discussed. If we construct meaning out of our lives quite similar to a story with a beginning, middle, and an imagined end, then there is always the option of playing with the meaning we have given past events, seeing our current situation differently in light of that, and then constructing a future end to our story that makes more sense and also provides us with hope.
But what Dave was going through demonstrated a much deeper challenge in regard to providing meaning. Sure, Dave would benefit from looking at past events through a new lens and then charting a new course based on that understanding, but none of this will ever be possible if Dave doesn’t accept the core conflict of his life. If one wishes that his or her central conflict – the very essence of who you are as a human being – doesn’t exist, then the conflict will remain open, unresolved, and nagging.
Imagine watching Good Will Hunting where the main character, Will Hunting, never faces his childhood abuse, never accepts it as part of his story, and never gives it meaning. There are movies like this. Taxi Driver comes to mind. The ending to that movie is certainly less inspiring.
How many of us live our lives this way? Something happened to us that is too shameful, too difficult to face. Or we did something of which we are not proud, going against not only what we believe but also what the society around us believes. We bury it, but it doesn’t remain buried. It quietly eats away at us. In pretty much every movie we watch, it is those characters who can accept their inner conflict that find freedom and peace. It is those who continue to deny it who ruin themselves…or others.
As I explored all of this with Dave, it dawned on me that he was a storyteller and that nothing we were discussing was too far afield or abstract. In fact, a few months back I had watched a short film he had written, directed, and edited. It was a professional production, very well conceived, acted, and shot. This proved the perfect ground on which to examine Dave’s current situation.
We delved into this and an interesting thing occurred. The very story Dave had created a few years back mirrored his current situation in ways only his unconscious could have dreamed up. Again, I wish I could describe the contents of this film (this is Dave’s story to tell, not mine). Suffice it to say, the core conflict of Dave’s story was similar to what Dave was going through now. The reason why his characters were so locked in their bitterness, coldness, and regret was because of their inability to accept a significant loss to their family as a part of themselves instead of something they could neatly tuck away, deny, and move past…or something that could have a nice neat resolution.
I’ve seen this in many people I have known and in my own life. We struggle because we think that healing comes once we have somehow jumped over our core conflict, when we can leave it behind us, when we can be at an event or dinner party and “be like everyone else” – without a problem, without a struggle. The struggle is gone, evaporated, irrelevant.
Many things we have gone through in life cannot be erased, however. That doesn’t mean that whatever we have gone through, whatever has happened to us, needs to define us. Quite the opposite. What causes what we have been through to define us is when we deny it. In doing so we spend our emotional energy keeping it at bay, ignoring its place in our experience. But if what we have experienced becomes a part of us, then we can work with it. We can allow it to become a meaningful part of the fabric of our lives. We can construct a more meaningful story for ourselves than trying to borrow someone else’s story as our own and live that.
I speculate that much of this is a product of shame. Our core conflict is our core conflict because it houses that which we cannot bare to look at within ourselves. If we accept our core conflict, we must accept our shame, and maybe even begin to deal with it. Unlike guilt, which is an emotional byproduct of having done something wrong, shame is an emotional byproduct of actually being something wrong. Who wants to look at his core conflict if it means he has to look at that which makes him feel ashamed?
It’s no wonder, then, why we become obsessed with certain movies, TV shows, books, or even famous people’s lives. Think about it. What stories captivate you? What stories can’t you get out of your head? What stories hit you in the gut? Often these stories are not just “good,” they contain the essence of your core conflict. They are you, you just aren’t aware of it.
A friend of mine, an Orthodox Jewish man, told me of a movie he had watched not long ago that has been haunting him ever since. It is the story of a Jewish man who left his oppressive Orthodox community for another life in Brazil. Years later, as he walks with his black Brazilian girlfriend through the streets of a small Brazilian town, he chances upon a small Orthodox synagogue. He immediately bangs on its door to be let in but is denied. His girlfriend doesn’t understand what he is doing but lost and desperate to retain a familiar place in a foreign land the main character extracts from his bag his Tefillin (Jewish ceremonial garb) and begins to worship, alone, in the street, tears streaming down his face.
My friend left his own Jewish community in New York three years ago because it had been both physically and emotionally abusive to him since he was a child. He left to be free but in being free he was faced with the enduring conflict of always being caught between the one community that could understand him – to which he couldn’t return – and a life of endless wandering.
In discussing this movie my friend could suddenly see how much he had denied his own core conflict, how much he has denied that which makes him him in an frantic effort to feel “normal,” to be like others, and to be happy. Ironically, this denial led him to a decade or more of alcohol, drug, and sex addiction. I noted to my friend how tremendously sad and self-effacing it is that we can have so much compassion for characters in stories as they wend their way through their core conflicts but we can have such little regard and honor for the conflict within our own lives. This is obviously piquant for my Jewish friend but even more so for Dave considering the fact that he unwittingly wrote, directed, and edited an entire film revolving around what he would soon have to face within himself two or three years later.
I live in a land of storytellers. Whether actors, editors, writers, or TV and film executives, four-fifths of the people with whom I work are somehow directly engaged in the creation of stories. So many of these storytellers have become blocked in their creative work. I’ve been there too. I have wondered what is the cause of this, especially considering the reality that all of us – young, old, happy, sad, painter or president – are storytellers. We are all engaged in story making twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
My personal belief on why we suffer creative blocks is because we are afraid of plumbing the depths of our own core conflict, truly understanding it, and translating it in a way that connects with other people. It is when we are trying to guess what and whom we are supposed to be in order to earn other people’s approval that not only our creative work suffers, but also our personal life (see Matt. 5:13-16). We are who we are and it is our “ugliness,” our core conflict, that makes us interesting, mostly because others share in our “ugliness,” we just don’t realize it until it is shared.
The movie to which my Jewish friend referred did not provide him with possible conclusions to his core conflict or ways in which he could bring meaning to his own story. What it did do, however, was start the dialogue. My friend was able to recall other Orthodox Jewish men and women back in New York who had made similar journeys out of their communities but instead of letting the experience destroy them, they had created organizations, new communities of equally displaced men and women, who could share in the same struggle and could feel inclusion without shame. This reminds me of Alcohol Anonymous meetings, support groups of all flavors including Al-Anon, and, if we are ever lucky enough to find it, churches that are about the wonder and mystery of life instead of the absolute “truths” of existence.
The reality we are faced with as human beings is that we were created to have consciousness and memory, two of the main ingredients of meaning making and story. Yet at the same time we have these ingredients we are powerless over what the ultimate story of our lives will be. We simply cannot control our fates. This point between our own control in making meaning and the forces of the unknown is where God lives. It is our ability to tolerate ambiguity that determines the fullness of our lives; it is our ability to tolerate ambiguity that ultimately determines the richness of our faith.
Ambiguity is difficult. I know this from experience. I hate ambiguity. Most of us hate ambiguity as ambiguity produces anxiety. When we don’t know where the story of our lives is going we get anxious. We have three options in this moment. We can artificially obliterate the anxiety through drugs, alcohol, or compulsive sex. We can rewrite the anticipated conclusion of our life story in such a way that minimizes the anxiety by lowering our standards and hopes. Or we can keep our standards and hopes high and learn to develop ways in which we can sit in the ambiguity and anxiety without falling apart. Church can help nurture this last option for us, or at least it should.
Dave has improved considerably in the past few months. Part of this is a product of therapy but a lot of it is a product of Dave digging deeper into community where he has been brave enough to start sharing his story. And not just sharing it, but honoring his conflict by stating openly what it is and working hard to construct new meaning despite it. No easy task, but if we do our fifty per cent of the work God, the Unknown, the Lover of Our Souls, will do the other fifty per cent. There will be a conclusion, it just may not look like what we expect. Usually it’s better.
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“‘Honor Your Conflict‘ is republished with permission of Faith & Sex Center.”