A friend from college has offered me a spot as a writer for his website on topics about which I am passionate, enjoy writing, and would even be paid to engage. So why do I leave his messages on “read” and not just sit down and write?
In my educational journey to become a therapist, I found it common in analytic theory to talk about how prior experiences of the client are the “cause” of the client’s pathologies, problematic tendencies, or destructive inner lives. I never really liked that thought, particularly as a budding therapist, because I did not think we could ever truly know the “missing link” my client had unearthed was the “correct” one. This didn’t seem like helpful therapy. And so, I was struck by a theorist’s (Yalom’s) proposal that it does not really matter to the therapist whether you can track down the origin experience that “caused” the problem for the client. Instead, the aim of the therapist is to see how prior experience functions for the client in their current life. It will reveal its work in what it’s like to sit across from the client. Nonverbally, how does the client’s prior experience enter the relationship with you? As the therapist, you can pay attention to what behavior it excuses, how/when the client becomes that previous character again, and with whom. Furthermore, you can pay attention to the role you as the therapist take on in the origin story that is always being re-enacted by the client and yourself (maybe seductive mom, scary older brother, or the part of herself the client abhors).
Anyway, a couple years ago, as I was in the process of figuring out where I fell on the religious spectrum in relation to the faith of my youth and what to do about it, I began to notice how much I cared about staying connected to the God I’d known. In many ways, I was working really hard to relate my more recent findings, spiritual movements, and way of living to the God that had been a constant in my life. I even used that as a point of connection and meaning — that I had changed and my God had not, so I could connect my current experience to God.
However, as I learned to stay closer to the more unpleasant feelings of life (anger, anxiety, unease, and grief), I began to notice and wonder about the fact that I brought everything back to this figure, that I worked really hard to bring everything into alignment and meaningful relation to God and how this was a somewhat hidden and deeply anxious energy that presented itself as “working out my faith with fear and trembling.” I would scour sacred texts for points of entry, anything that would point to me or the way I thought. I found far-fetched (though perhaps well-argued) meaning in the text supporting the work I was already doing outside of religion in social justice efforts, getting rid of internalized misogyny and white supremacy, among other personal and societal ills. However, as I continued that work, I started to wonder why on Earth I cared so much and thought so much about working out the theological problems my early faith presented, still anxious as hell to preserve my marriage to the figure that reigned over it.
As I realized this (and happened to be starting work with my therapist), I began to wonder what the function of my faith was, and is, in my current situation. I paid attention to when I felt that anxiety in any area of my daily life and, BAM, there it was. Whenever I felt uneasy relating to someone (most often in authority, or at least social dominance in service of misogyny), an anxiety overcame me, caused by my desire to relate to the God I had known in the past. I noticed this especially in conflict with my family. I felt a strong urge to order my beliefs and even experiences into alignment with theirs (often by significant and bizarre mental stretches) so that we could continue being in our relationships. However, in reality, to be honest with how much I had changed would have most likely meant the death of those relationships.
As healthy relationships have become more and more common in my life, I’ve felt myself drifting from the anxiety or interest in comparing/aligning myself to God and preserving a relation between us. I’ve found life has more color, and I feel the ground beneath me. Disassociating is now a less common experience in relation to God, religion, family, and friends. As the function of my religious faith took the flavor of my own, authentic, anxiety-ridden relational style, I’ve found myself turning to other questions, thoughts, and work that aren’t about proving the relevance of a presence that has been irrelevant, and often hurtful, to myself.
Sometimes I miss a personal God, like I miss my mother in the that that sometimes I want to experience having a nurturing one. But with the knowledge that going to those actual figures, once so central to my life’s orientation, would be driven by this anxiety where I am the one doing the work to keep the love alive, I feel in a bind. Working with the concept of God and the reality of my parents is often discouraging work , even if it’s in service to more hopeful goals like how finding ways a relationship to God can support responsible and joyous living, or how a relationship with my parents could be non-toxic.
So I think about God, and write about divinity, but the relationship to its figure is not one I can bless yet, and so the work is slow, laborious and often bitter.