“This is Us” and Unraveling the Past
Over the last few months, I have been watching This is Us, a television show, which follows the lives of three adult siblings and introduces various vignettes from their childhood in each episode. The topics addressed and situations depicted range from hilarious to poignant, to difficult to watch as well as everything in between. Almost every week, I find myself tearing up as some element of the plot unfolds.
Several weeks ago as I watched an episode, it occurred to me that the reason I am so moved is because I see the characters as people who have a story. Present pain or joy or the need for self-discovery are all based upon earlier formation. So, rather than seeing a character as obstinate, I view them as wounded. Rather than seeing a character as odd, I view them as adorably quirky. Each adult has a story filled with love and pain and mystery. And, I am reminded that I have a story that has shaped me. As Kate, the sister who goes to a weight loss camp, confronts the pain of losing her father, I was struck deeply by the pain of loss. It occurred to me that so much of our adult lives is about the journey of finding healing from the hurts or exploits of growing up.
As we navigate our childhoods and adolescent years, we develop patterns and habits that we believe will do two things: protect us from pain and increase pleasure. These protective mechanisms can range from careers we choose to ways of relating sexually to the world around us. Our protective walls may be permeable to an extent but there are still walls designed to keep out pain and let in pleasure.
The first part of our lives is about building a container for our lives … a safe place where pain and pleasure are dealt with according to the plan. The problem is that our protective measures really only protective us from love and from experiencing a depth of relationship with God. At some point, we realize that we are in a box that is more stifling than protective. We see that our lives have served to protect us from the only thing that really matters … love.
So, then, the second half of life is about allowing those walls to fall. The second half of life is more descriptive of a process than strict chronological markers. Nonetheless, the western phenomenon of a “mid-life crisis” finds its location in the realization that our protective walls have not allowed for the telling of the whole story of our lives. Crisis can open to tragic choices or it can open to opportunity … an opportunity to let the walls fall down and open to the wide-open spaces of God’s grace. Letting the walls fall down takes courage. Opening to love requires first receiving love.
It has often been said that you can’t put God in a box, but the reality is that Jesus comes and gets in our boxes with us. He meets us where we are when we put our faith in Him to be our Savior. The promise of salvation after this earthly life is a gracious gift but the gift is not only for life after death but for life before death. Once inserted into our lives, Jesus sits us with us like a Trojan horse behind the walls of a fortified city. He begins to say things like, “sell all that you have and follow me” (Luke 18:22) or If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) When we are firmly devoted to our walls, we are able to explain away such encouragements from Jesus and contextualize them in our strategies for protecting from pain and increasing pleasure.
However, when we start to see that the protective walls aren’t really furthering our plan, we begin to truly open our hearts to the message of Jesus. We see that our lives do indeed “consist in more than the abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15) We grasp that we were made for more than this world can ever offer. It is then that the opportunity exists.
For many of us, we smell the opportunity wafting through our soul and we ignore it. Perhaps we believe for a moment that we can still give this self-protective game a go of it. Or, perhaps we are just too afraid at the current time. The good news is that Jesus stays put simply whispers over and over that we can drop the walls and open to life.
Here’s the dangerous part that dropping the walls requires … the walls only go down as we unravel the story that put them up in the first place. For many, this is where we stop. “No,” we say, “I don’t want to revisit that. Can’t I just move on?” We know the answer but might reject admitting it to ourselves.
Jesus offers redemption but we have to go and find all the pieces of our story that need to be redeemed. Jesus is not a magician who magically passes a wand over our lives and erases our memories. No, He is instead a man of sublime miraculous power. Instead of wishing things away, He takes the real stories of our lives and heals the actual story as we give him one piece at a time, as we let Him have each part. This is frequently a process of stops and starts but He never seems to be in a hurry. He patiently waits and gently whispers again and again, “you can trust Me. I love you and will never leave you.”
In his book, Invitation to Love, Thomas Keating writes:
“Our personal histories are computerized, so to speak, in the biocomputers of our brains and nervous systems. Our memory banks have on file everything that occurred from the womb to the present, especially memories with strong emotional charges. In the first years of life … already these computers are developing emotional programs for happiness – happiness at this stage meaning the prompt fulfillment of our instinctual needs. By the time we come to the age of reason and develop full-reflective self-consciousness around the age of twelve or thirteen, we have in place fully developed emotional programs for happiness based on the emotional judgments of a the child.”
What if the pain we seek to avoid and the afflictive emotions we experiences were invitations to be received rather than annoyances to be avoided? What if the unravelling of our stories began with sitting with Jesus in those places, allowing Him to hold each part and gently piece things together again.
Let me suggest four invitations that allow us to unravelling our past:
- The Invitation to Notice
As we simply learn to notice what we are feeling, we can begin to face the realities of our internal lives.
“As we try to understand the process of change, we must realize that deep change comes about less because of what we try to do and how hard we try to do it, and more because of our willingness to face the realities of our own internal life. Personal integrity, a commitment to never pretend about anything, is prerequisite for change from the inside out.” Larry Crabb
“As we begin the difficult work of confronting our own unconscious motivations, our emotions can be our best allies. The emotions faithfully respond to what our value system is – not what we would like for it to be, or what we think it is. Our emotions are perfect recorders of what is happening inside; hence they are the key to finding out what our emotional programs for happiness really are.” Thomas Keating
As we begin to notice, we ask the Lord to show us what the emotions are meant to reveal.
- The Invitation to Release
As we acknowledge those emotional programs for happiness, we are then invited to release them … to let them die. Jesus graciously shows us, as we prayerfully listen, how to let each wall fall down. It might be through self-denial or it might be through finding your voice in a relationship.
- The Invitation to Trust
As we begin to release, we can experience feeling naked. The old walls were, if nothing else, home. They were comfortable and known. What is coming is unknown so there is an invitation to trust. In the Garden of Eden, the temptation was to know. Eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was viewed as knowing … power (make one wise), pleasure (good for food), and position (delight to the eyes). Eating from everything else was trusting God which meant living with mystery. Most reject mystery and “unknowing” but it is the essence of recovering the life we were meant to live.
- The Invitation to Rest
Finally, we are invited to rest. We get to rest in the truth of who we are in Christ, made in the image of God. The image of God is relational trust, love, and submission. God is love because is Trinity. When we rest in love, we no longer have to seek for anything outside of ourselves. We can become the mountain that sits quietly and majestically. Storms may pass, but we are not the weather, we are the mountain.