As some of you may know, I’ve been participating in a photography project called “What Does Mental Illness Look Like to You?” For people struggling with acute or chronic mental illness, it can be a supremely difficult task to describe the experience or somehow convey the many shades and nuances to others. Even to other people who have shared experiences with mental illness, it can be hard to finding understanding or places of safety from which to grow.
In discussion with some close friends, we delved into the reality that, with or without the presence of mental illness, many of our values and beliefs are highly abstract. We speak the words with multitudes of assumptions that the rest of the world will understand precisely what we’re meaning.
We speak the words with entire lifetimes of experiences that have shaped those words. Intuition is expected, but more than that:
We expect everyone will intuit our abstract concepts in the same ways that we do. Only not everyone perceives and understands the world in the same way. We all have had incredibly different experiences that are then shaped by those perceptions and understandings.
Our very frameworks are different from one another.
So when we say words like “love”… “patience”… “wait”… “trust”… “breathe”… what pops into my core (if anything pops at all) is likely to be quite different than yours. Yet when I enter into periods of darkness, or when you do, we tell one another to “trust”… to “love”… to be “patient”… to “wait”… or to “breathe”.
Unless we have an intimate understanding of how the Other Person will respond, how are these responses helpful or honouring? How do they even begin to express empathy or presence?
In my experiences, they don’t.
So out of these discussions of seeing a glaring need to make the abstract concrete, I set out to begin an off-shoot of the initial photo project. I set out to make visible and tangible those airy-fairy concepts that can be so hard to grasp, and thus so difficult to accept as helpful when hard times come.
I’ve begun with “trust”.
More than a few people told me in the past few months to “just trust”, and my frustration level with this little platitude was so high I didn’t know what to do with they overflowing angst. The response intended to be helpful was causing more anxiety than the grief that triggered the darkness in the first place. So it seemed like a natural starting place.
I needed to begin with how I’ve seen trust in the past. And I knew this portion of the process would be dark. This part of the story would be disturbing. But for the dark and disturbing perceptions from the past to be looked at outside of myself, I would have to bring it out of the closet. I would be all too easy to visualize how I want trust to look now, and not be honest about how trust has looked to me in the past.
I grabbed my camera and walked my usual route around the southern tip of Lac La Biche, down Nashim Drive, across Mission Road, and back up Tarrabain Drive. Lots of barbed wire fences around residential and industrial lands; lots of spring run-off — water flowing over ice; lots of potential to release a story.
Many of the churches I attended were based either deeply or loosely in Calvinism. TULIP was taught in varied shades:
Total Depravity (also known as Total Inability and Original Sin)
Limited Atonement (also known as Particular Atonement)
Perseverance of the Saints (also known as Once Saved Always Saved)
While I don’t want this post to digress into a debate over the finer points of Calvinism, suffice it to say that I took the first point — Total Depravity — literally (like many other teachings). God despised me because of my sinfulness. I was so disgusting that the only way God could bear to look at me was through Jesus Christ’s work on the cross (penal substitutionary atonement theory; again, another post for another day but this belief system is really more a design of St.Augustine rather than a good biblical exegesis).
I did not choose to be born.
I did not choose to be born sinful.
I did not choose for God to hate my sinfulness.
And yet I was destined for eternal conscious torment unless I turned my life over to Jesus Christ. How was I to learn to love myself when the very foundations of my beliefs systems taught me on so many levels that I was worthless… unlovable… UNTRUSTWORTHY.
Where did the untrustworthy come from?
Really, after much searching, from one single verse. Jeremiah 17:9 reads:
“The heart is more deceitful than all else
And is desperately sick [“wicked” in the KJV];
Who can understand it?”
Instead of being read contextually as God venting anger towards the tribe of Judah (time and place), the verse has been applied to all people for all times. We cannot trust ourselves because not only will it lead to self-destruction, but it is an affront to God. It supposedly shows that we are somehow trying to attain salvation by ourselves, neatly excluding God. After all, Lucifer tried to be better than God, and look what happened to him.
I tried to capture in the picture so many colliding stories: a) the sincere belief in total depravity and the danger of trusting the self, b) the damage those teachings were doing to my entire person for years and years, and c) some representation of the self-harm I engaged in because I was so sure that even if Jesus died for me, I was still a shameful, dirty creature.
When a good friend of mine — a more progressive friend (not liking the label, but I need to set the tone here) — asked me about six years ago what it would like for me to trust myself, I nearly clocked her.
“Whaddya mean ‘trust myself’! How selfish and against God can you be?”
She smiled and shrugged. “It was only a question,” she answered “I just wanted to know what it would look like for you.”
At the time it looked like doctrinal heresy. But the seed had been planted. I couldn’t go on listening to people who told me how desperately God loved me, but at the same time proclaimed how evil and depraved we were as a species. It was like talking out of two sides of the mouth. And the conflicting messages were digging deeper into my skin.
As I composed the shots on this particular photo shoot, I became acutely aware of something else: I am deeply afraid of trusting myself. Or any self. I’ve never really learned how. Whether because of bible college or a struggle with connecting the abstract and the concrete (or both), I realized that I was afraid to even try to trust myself.
I don’t have the authority.
I don’t have the maturity.
My sense of self is wrong.
On the other hand, people who claim that their guts are never wrong, I believe, are sweetly ignorant. While I’m coming to learn that listening to ourselves can be a powerful way to connect to each other and God, I still know we are all imperfect. To me, that still includes how and who we trust. We’ll sense something, go with it, and have disastrous outcomes.
Now, if those outcomes affect us and us alone, we take the consequences and move on. Where I have the problem is when people declare that their guts are never wrong, but then make choices that negatively affect other people.
So in my fear of learning to trust myself, I’ve been given a gift in looking at the ways other people trust themselves. Some exemplify a humility in their self-trust that I would like to emulate. Others, as I mentioned above, simply believe that they are never wrong because the human spirit will never lead them astray.
To me, that’s as extreme as saying that God is the only one we can trust. Both are dangerous ends of a dodgy spectrum.
All that to say: it was a good, albeit frightening thing to begin with how I perceived trust to look for so many years. I’m still in this first phase of looking at it from all angles, taking mindful notes of how I feel when I see certain images, reliving certain memories/teachings/doctrines (who said these things, in what context, and why), and connecting the refusal to trust myself with the many whys and hows.
The next step is not necessarily how I want trust to look, but rather how I saw what trusting God looked like. For all the damage TULIP did, there were some astounding images of what it looked like to trust God. So while I never felt I could or should trust myself, I knew I could trust God. Did God really look like the Big Bad Angry Greek god who hated my sinfulness? Even as a child? Was I aware of the discrepancies even back then?
Photo shoot Stage #2. Coming to The Reluctant Mystic near you.