notes from week 6

It just gets really, really heavy pretty quickly.

The truth sets in: this will never be fixed, it won't get better, there is no cure.

This is reality.

It is final, and it is forever.

We won't get over this.

We will learn to live through it, and into it, to experience it as it is, to bear it, and to walk each other home through this suffering.

Together is best, that much is clear.

The burden is lighter when we are together with it.

I'm thankful today for family and friends who are willing to walk with us.

I'm especially grateful to have Kevin and Michelle's presence with us daily. I don't know, honestly, what I would do without them here.

Kevin is the son of our hearts and Michelle is a light and a joy.

Gifts that Libby left with us to help us bear the pain.

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For the next couple of weeks, Andy and I will be on a long-planned trip to Slovenia and Croatia, while Kevin and Michelle are supported by family and friends here.

As you know, Andy and I love to travel, but this time I'm not quite sure what to expect.

Usually our trips are a time for me to completely disconnect from responsibility and just receive.

I know that beauty and peace and rest for our souls do continue to exist in this world, alongside the sorrow and suffering.

I'm hoping that this trip is a little taste of that for us.

An act of hope, that our new normal won't be entirely dark and heavy.

(If you want to follow along, we'll be posting at More to Explore Travel on Instagram and Facebook.)

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authoritarian religion and why in the world I'm writing about this right now

Then Jesus came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. As was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath. And when He stood up to read, the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. Unrolling it, He found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on Me,

because He has anointed Me

to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent Me to proclaim deliverance to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to release the oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then He rolled up the scroll, returned it to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on Him, and He began by saying, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

All spoke well of Him and marveled at the gracious words that came from His lips. “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” they asked.

Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to Me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! Do here in Your hometown what we have heard that You did in Capernaum.’”

Then He added, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown. But I tell you truthfully that there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and great famine swept over all the land. yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to the widow of Zarephath in Sidon. And there were many lepersg in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet. Yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

On hearing this, all the people in the synagogue were enraged. They got up, drove Him out of the town, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw Him over the cliff. But Jesus passed through the crowd and went on His way.

Luke 4:16-30

This is how much authoritarian religion hates freedom.

This is how much authoritarian religion hates inclusion.

The first time Jesus spoke about it in the synagogue, they tried to kill him.

Let's not be surprised, then, when authoritarian religion today hates our freedom and our inclusion just as much.

One of the arguments I quickly hear after a post like my previous one is this: "But Jesus did talk about sin!"

Yes, and look at what kind of sin he talked about: the sins of the powerful against the weak, the marginalized, the suffering, the poor.

The sin of placing burdens on the backs of others that the powerful themselves are not willing to bear.

I'll say it again: until authoritarian religion is willing to hold its priests and preachers and presidents to the same standards as it requires of the suffering, authoritarian religion needs to sit down and shut up.

Sell all its goods and give the money away to the poor.

Sit in the dust and mourn for a thousand years, then call us back and we can talk.

Don't worry: I know people would like to throw me off a cliff for that, and I know I'm in good company.

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My son Matt told me that he's shocked that I'm writing so much right now.

Honestly, I am too. 

It made me wonder: why am I writing about authoritarian religion while grieving the death of my daughter?

I think it's as simple as this:

I am so endless grateful to be well and truly out of the clutches of authoritarian religion at this time in my life.

I cannot imagine bearing this grief while hauling the horrible ball and chain of authoritarian religion along with me.

I had to do that earlier in life, and it made everything so much worse.

The heresy of "sinners in the hands of an angry God," the fear of hell, the anxiety of never being able to do enough or be enough to satisfy the perfection required of me--all of that made my life a living hell until I slowly, slowly, slowly course-corrected to Love.

I bless every bit of the broken road that prepared me to walk thorugh this terrible, present pain without fear, knowing for sure that Love wins.

I had just come to a place of great peace and freedom, last fall, after many years of hard, hard spiritual and emotional work.

And thank God, thank God, thank God that I had.

That's why I write these particular words at this time for you, my friend.

You need to know that you are loved and safe and chosen.

You don't need to drag the lies of authoritarian religion with you any further down your road.

You've been set free for freedom, and never again to be a slave to anything.

Love has us all safe, abundant, and free.

We know this for sure.

Let us walk in that light while it is day, and let it light our darkness when the darkness comes.

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authoritarian religion and "sin"

Why does authoritarian religion thunder on so much about "sin" when "sin" doesn't count for the people at the top?

Why doesn't "sin" count if you're a priest molesting children?

Why doesn't "sin" count if you're the pastor of an evangelical mega-brand?

Why doesn't "sin" count if you're the President everyone was required to vote for if you were a true Christian?

Why does "sin" only count if it's women, and you want to block them from standing with authority in a pulpit? 

Why does "sin" only count if it's the LGBTQ community, and you don't want to bake them a cake?

Why does "sin" only count when it's children, and you're wanting to control and manipulate their religious outcomes?

 Antelope Canyon, Navajo Nation. (photo: my cell phone in the hands of an expert guide)

Antelope Canyon, Navajo Nation. (photo: my cell phone in the hands of an expert guide)

I have been puzzling over these questions for the past couple of years. 

If sin counted the same for everybody, then:

  • a priest molesting children would be defrocked immediately
  • a pastor sexually abusing women would be fired immediately
  • a president committing crimes would not be supported by Christians

And yet, here we are.

And here is the inescapable conclusion: sin doesn't count the same for everybody in an authoritarian system.

If you're at the top, sin doesn't count for you at all.

IN AN AUTHORITARIAN SYSTEM, SIN ONLY COUNTS AS A TOOL TO OPPRESS OTHER PEOPLE.

When you want to oppress women and make them feel like they're too unworthy to speak with authority, then "sin" is your best tool.

When you want to create a scapegoat of the LGBTQ community and make them feel too ashamed to participate in life, then "sin" is your best tool.

When you want to control children into remaining in your religious system and make them so terrified of hell that they'll never ask the obvious questions, then "sin" is your best tool.

And when you yourself are caught in "sin," well, just hold a forgiveness mass, tell people that they need to be gracious to sinners (which magically applies only to straight white male leaders, never to women, children, or the LGBTQ community), say that we're all sinners, it's all fake news and a witch hunt, and voila, you're still in charge and everybody else still feels so ashamed of their "sin" that they'll still let you be in charge, you naked emperor striding along in the sunshine.

Here's the thing we need to realize, friends.

Jesus came speaking BLESSING.

The first big chunk of red words, known as the Sermon on the Mount, is about BLESSING.

Go read it if you don't believe me: Matthew chapter 5 and following. 

If "sin" were the thing God really wanted to talk to us about, why did Jesus come saying "blessed" instead of "damned to hell?"

I think Jesus spoke blessing because blessing is the language of Love rather than condemnation, and Love is the path to healing and wholeness.

When we stop believing that we are cursed by original sin and instead listen to what Jesus said about original blessing, that lights a powerful engine within us.

We don't need sin and shame to drive us to God, as I was taught in that fear-based system.

We simply open ourselves to the reality of our Belovedness, the image-bearing Light and Love, the Blessedness that is already our deepest and whole-est Truth.

And then we're free to live as we really are, not as some "authority" tells us we are.

Why does authoritarian religion react with such fear and hatred to Belovedness and Blessing and Light and Love?

Well, I think it's because authoritarianism does not want our freedom.

Authoritarianism wants our oppression, our enslavement, to its power.

We have been set free for this kind of freedom: to live and move and have our being in this kind of Love, and authoritarianism just can't stand the thought of us living in that kind of peace, where we don't need to bow to the emperor, to the Pharisee, to the law-giver in order to have our fullest Life.

When we no longer live in fear of sin and shame, the powers of hell (so cleverly disguised as angels of light) lose their power.

And we walk free.

Free of sin.

Free of shame.

Free to live in Love.

And authoritarian religion despises that completely.

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one month

It's one month today.

Oddly enough, I feel okay today.

A couple of days ago, it was agonizing.

Yesterday was hard.

Today is okay.

I'm learning to be grateful for the okay times.

It's weird to feel okay in the middle of this, but I'm recognizing that when I feel okay, that's the time to rest.

The agony and the hard will come back.

It's good to rest and be grateful for that rest when I feel okay.

[Edited to add: at the end of a day of feeling okay, I curled up into a fetal ball and wailed the kind of gut-wrenching sobs I had never experienced before this month.]

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This morning, Andy and I went out for an early-morning pajama-walk with Michelle.

Her joy, her wonder, her delight in the world is a great light to us now.

She reminds us that life will be more than okay.

It will be full of beauty and joy.

In fact, it already is.

Always.

We believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.

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We played this song at Libby's memorial:

"It's gonna be alright,

turn around and let back in the light,

And joy will come like a birdy in the morning sun

and all will be made well,

once again."

This is our hope: Love and light, with us, always.

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some things we could do to make it better

We've been asked for interviews in the media, and it's caused me to consider what exactly I do want to say for public consumption.

In the wake of Libby's death, we all desperately want to understand, to create a coherent narrative, because this makes us feel safe. And we want this terrible tragedy never to happen to another person.

Yesterday, I saw the news on social media of another woman who had died. "She contracted an infection that she couldn't fight off," her friend stated.

And so often, it's as simple and as terrible as that: our bodies are fragile, and we contract illnesses that we can't fight off.

At the same time, we can acknowledge that the stressors in our world often make things worse instead of better for those who are sick and suffering, and when we as a community recognize this, we can take responsibility for ourselves and work to make amends.

If my friend's friend had contracted that infection from raw sewage running down her street, then we ought to get together and fix that problem.

That's what Love does: it cares about the distress of others and works to alleviate that suffering.

At least, reformation is what Enneagram One Love does; and you know me, that's the kind of Love I've got.

I ran across this quote from Sue Monk Kidd that resonates:

"There's a gap somehow between empathy and activism. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of 'soulforce' — something that emanates from a deep truth inside of us and empowers us to act. Once you identify your inner genius, you will be able to take action, whether it's writing a check or digging a well."

This is my soul-force, this is who I am, this is what I've got: Reformation-Love, and so this is the list I make.

I share my list here in hopes that my ideas might indeed make a difference for someone else.

Making a difference for someone else helps make meaning out of a tragedy I will never fully comprehend.

So here is my list, tendrils of hope growing out into the universe.

May it create shelter and blessing for someone.

May meaning come from my grief.

 Peace Maze, Castlewellan, Northern Ireland (photo by me and my cell phone)

Peace Maze, Castlewellan, Northern Ireland (photo by me and my cell phone)

As I look back over the last few years, I can identify a number of things that added greatly to Libby's stress.

Because I love Libby, here's my to-do list for the future.

  • Clean up the earth that Michelle is going to inherit

Libby was greatly distressed by climate change, by waste, by environmental destruction. We all reduced meat in our diets and thrift-shopped and bought smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles. Yes, watching multiple 6-foot-plus Bruners emerge from a Honda Fit does remind you of a clown car sketch, but that puppy gets 30+ mpg in the city. Plus even I can park it downtown.

Eat less meat. Use metal straws. Thrift shop. Drive a more fuel-efficient car.

Things I'm going to keep doing.

  • Promote parental leave for new parents

Libby loved her job and she wanted to work, but the truth is, she needed more time at home before going back to work, and she did not need that time to be full of stress about finances.

Lesotho, Papua New Guinea and the United States of America are the only countries on earth that do not offer parental leave.

Papua New Guinea at least has fabulous rain forests and beaches and snorkeling, I can testify. I've heard Lesotho is beautiful, too. And we have Utah. So all is not lost.

But dude.

Paid parental leave.

Now.

  • Get mental health care out of our jails and into our health care system

Here in Dallas county, Lou Sterret Jail is the largest provider of mental health "services" in our county.

Texas persistently ranks among the lowest states in mental health spending per capita.

I'm a therapist. I've worked with folks who have chronic mental illness in Dallas. One of my clients told me that she knew she wasn't doing well, and she couldn't get the help she needed, so she went next door, threw a brick through her neighbor's window and screamed until the police came. At least in Lou Sterret she'd be safe.

Can someone please explain to me how this is a humane and decent way to treat people with mental illness?

Because this does not look like Love to me, and I'm going to keep shouting about it until it changes.

  • Vote in universal health care for every person in our nation

This is one of the richest countries on earth.

No one should be going without basic health care.

No one should be weighing whether they can afford to visit their doctor, given the symptoms they're experiencing.

They should just be able to get the health care they need without the added stress of worrying about how to pay for it.

The fact that we do not have universal health care in the United States of America is simply immoral and can be traced directly to the nightmare of a government that's bought and paid for by corporations, rather than serving its citizens as it should.

I will be voting for candidates who are dedicated to universal health care.

  • Fully and equally fund our schools

Why did my daughter have to spend her modest teacher's salary on things like classroom decorations, books, and math manipulatives?

Why are some school districts less funded than others? Umm, like the brown ones mostly?

How can any of that possibly be right or fair?

Once again, it's beyond me, people.

I will be voting for candidates who care about our children more than their own pocketbooks.

  • Work for sensible gun laws

Libby was a teacher. School shootings are a horrible reality. Their existence causes intense distress to teachers and children every day. They must stop. 

We cannot love a weapon more than human life.

And we cannot throw our hands up as though nothing can be done.

Every other nation gets it done.

We can, too.

  • Keep marching until all really means ALL

Every person is worthy of love and inclusion, regardless of ability, skin color, race, religion, national origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, or any category that creates othering.

Libby saw the Divine Light in every single person.

We must strive to do the same, until every person is safe, beloved, and treated with dignity and respect in our communities.

Instead of fearing differences, we need to value differences as opportunities to learn from each other, to create space for growth and change and new life.

Love, not fear.

***

I doubt that's the end of my list, but it's a start, anyway.

Right now, I don't have the energy to do anything but tell you about this, but trust me: it's coming.

Anger is part of grief, and I'll be channeling my anger into fuel for activism. If you thought I marched a lot before, well.

We can't seriously believe that the bloated billionaires and bureaucrats in our state and national capitols have the answer to life.

Whatever their answer is, I don't want it.

Ever.

No handbag, no private plane, no real estate empire, no political clout is worth that kind of moral decay.

It's up to us to show them the way, including the path to the nearest exit as necessary.

Enough with making life about money and power and the accumulation of stuff that's all going to fall to dust anyway.

It is time to prioritize our care for each other,

and for this earth that is home to us all.

Perhaps your list will be different from mine, and that's okay. In fact, I hope that your list will be different. I can't think of everything or do everything (or much of anything right now, to be honest).

When we all identify our own inner genius, our particular soulforce, and let it free, beautiful things happen in the world.

And God knows, the world needs our collective, free, and beautiful genius right now.

What will your list include?

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notes on grief #1

I have no idea what this blog will look like over the months to come, but I suspect that I will have many notes on grief.

Today is note #1.

 Sunset with angel wings above our house

Sunset with angel wings above our house

  • Observation 1

My grief is extremely physical. 

The first few days my entire body was in agony. When I woke in the night, I was in such physical pain I could barely move. As I woke, I would get a jolt of adrenaline through my system like a million tiny arrows, as if my body was firing warning shots, telling me that nothing is okay.

I did yoga and that helped. I got a massage and that helped.

After a few days, the grief seemed to gather into specific parts of my body. My fingers and toes were functional again, but my lower back and hips sank into agony.

I am still doing yoga, breathing, and getting massages. Cold packs, hot packs, Epsom salt baths.

These all help for a while, until the grief finds a new place to show up in my body.

  • Observation 2

It doesn't seem real.

And then it's horribly real.

And then it doesn't seem real again.

  • Observation 3

Making things beautiful helps. Creating beauty is an act of hope.

Rearranging the flower arrangements as they fade has been a good little exercise in letting go. I put the faded flowers into our fire pit, and saved out the bits that will dry nicely.

I chalked in a meditation circle on the concrete pad behind our garage and walked it every day the first week. Then rain washed it away, and today we painted it in place.

  • Observation 4

Love helps.

All the love that comes to us in cards and flowers and visits and dinners (even the dinner that the Uber Eats driver stole).

Of course it doesn't replace the love that went out of our lives with Libby's loss, but love does help.

It's probably the best help, and I suspect that everything else that helps is just tapping into Love.

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So, here we are.

Kevin and Michelle are moving in with us, and that brings us joy.

Three years ago, we turned our upstairs into a rental suite and had just updated it to rent out with AirBnB. It's a studio suite with a little kitchenette. Not large, but airy and looks out over the treetops to the lake in the park next door. 

Michelle will have Libby's old room, still the same beautiful blue that Libby picked out in high school, that happens to coordinate perfectly with the colors she chose for Michelle's nursery.

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It's been a week today since Libby's memorial service.  There's a YouTube channel with both her memorial service and a short video Kevin's brother, Daniel, made about her life. 

I wanted to share with you all the brief bio that I wrote, and that Andy and I read aloud at the service. 

She was such a light.

So full of love.

We will always, always miss her. 

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Elizabeth Michelle Davis was born September 8, 1989, at Charlton Methodist Hospital in Dallas, received as a gift from God by her proud parents.

She joyfully welcomed three brothers into her life over the next few years: Matthew, Michael and Jacob. She loved to play with them, especially dressing them up as the sisters she hoped to have.

In 1993, we moved to the Solomon Islands where Libby and her brothers were raised by the village of Tawatana, on the island of Makira. Of special importance to Libby were her nearest neighbors, Hida and Irene, whose daughter Maki was Libby’s dearest friend in Tawatana. Libby and her brothers spent their days cooking over open fires, playing on the beach, swimming, and avoiding school as much as possible.

When we lived in the capital city of Honiara, she reveled in spending time with the sisters she found in the missionary community: Claire and Corrie; Kathryn; Laura, Rebecca, Emily and Hannah and many more. She made friends with the neighborhood kids, who loved to ride the zipline down the yard and drop into the little above-ground pool in the Bruner’s yard. Sleep overs and play dates and visits to the beach marked the passage of those childhood years.

When we were back in the States, we stayed in Tennessee near Kay’s family. Of course Libby made many friends there with whom she stayed in contact throughout the years.

In 2003, our family came to Dallas. Friends of Libby’s attended Tyler Street United Methodist Church, and invited Libby and her brothers to youth group events. While we searched for a church home in Dallas, Libby and Matt finally made it clear that Tyler Street was the only place they wanted to be. The entire family was loved well within these walls, and here Libby met two more heart-sisters, Mary Anne and Mary Katherine. Her heart-sister from the Solomons, Kathryn, came home to this church as well. Each of the girls is an only daughter in a family of boys, so they formed their own sisterhood of the heart and stuck together.

The years of 2005-2007 found our family in the highlands of Papua New Guinea in another missionary community, where all of the children and their parents were welcomed into the homes and hearts of many friends. Libby found more sisters there: Katherine, Bethany, and Lenise, to name just a few.

In 2007, our family moved back to Texas for good. Libby was entering her senior year in high school and quickly renewed her sisterhood with her Tyler Street girls, who could often be found all sleeping together in Libby’s single bed on weekends. Kathryn recently confessed that they used to “rebel” by sneaking out of the house and running to the park next door and back again.

Libby also made friends that year with an exchange student from Turkey, Ayca (Aicha). After high school graduation, Libby and her friend Brianna spent a month traveling in Europe, and Libby always said that the highlight of the trip was the days that she spent with Ayca and her family in Bodrum, Turkey.

At Libby’s high school graduation party, a certain young man entered the Bruner household for the very first time: the love of her life, Kevin Michael Davis. Kevin quickly passed the brother-test with flying colors. Kevin pronounced our family “quirky,” and everyone agreed it was a match made in heaven.

While Libby was on her Europe trip, Kevin missed her so much that he decided he must propose without delay.

We gave our blessing, and when Libby arrived home, Kevin proposed at a little restaurant in Oak Cliff, using a song he composed and sang for her. He gave her a beautiful and unique pearl-and-diamond engagement ring, perfectly suited to the one-of-a-kind girl he loved so much.

Their wedding took place in this lovely sanctuary on January 1, 2011, in an evening ceremony that included candle-lighting and worship music provided by Kevin’s childhood friends.

Libby graduated with high honors from the University of North Texas in Denton and enthusiastically embarked on a teaching career where she made many dear friends.

In her teaching career among special education students, she consistently shared God’s love with them through her life.

The light and love in her deeply impacted those whom the rest of us might easily overlook. Libby saw the image of God in every person she met.

In 2014, Libby suffered a serious illness which brought together a team of loving family and friends to care for her. Kevin’s mother Jeannie became especially dear to Libby during her illness and was a trusted source of strength and comfort until the moment of Libby’s passing.

In early 2016, Libby and Kevin were ecstatic to learn that they were expecting their precious Michelle Rae. This beautiful light came into the world on November 5, 2016, bringing indescribable joy to Libby, Kevin, the entire family, and all their friends.

After a short maternity leave, Libby returned to teaching her beloved students while Kevin became Michelle’s expert stay-at-home dad. 

A recent recurrence of her illness was far more serious than anyone could have imagined. She was in touch with friends, family, her therapist and her doctor, to help her battle the darkness once again.

Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world.” Those words are true of Libby. She was a light in this world, and we affirm that darkness cannot overcome light.

While her physical presence is gone from us here, her light will never die.

Our family wishes to express our deep appreciation for the outpouring of love from friends near and far, which reminds us of the truth of Libby’s light, love, and life in our time of heartbreak and grief.

 

A Poem by Libby (age 15)

I’m thankful for an interesting life

A spring day full of shining sun,

A loving home without much strife,

Laughing friends and lots of fun,

I’m thankful for clean, clear, running water.

 

I love acting in plays,

Talking to whoever will listen,

Eating chips, especially Lays,

Seeing happy tears glisten,

Swimming in the summer.

 

I want to make an impact when I go,

To not shed so many tears,

To learn how to walk slow,

To live in a house for longer than two years,

To make a good grade on this.

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authoritarianism: a few more notes and an antidote

Authoritarian systems often subscribe to the "Just World Fallacy."

The Just World Fallacy goes something like this: if you follow the rules of our system, all will go well with you.

  • If you do what authority tells you, you won't be punished and you will reap rewards.
  • If you obey your husband and give him sex when he wants, your marriage will be perfect.
  • If you follow the parenting rules of the system, your children will be perfect.
  • If you pray enough, you'll be magically saved from tragedy and disaster.
  • In general: do as we tell you, and all will be well.

The problem with the Just World Fallacy is that there is no perfection here on earth. No matter how well you obey the rules, no matter how hard you run on the gerbil wheel, shit happens here on this big ball of dirt.

  • You might do your job perfectly, and still lose it when the economy crashes.
  • You might give your husband all the sex you can, and he might still have an affair.
  • You might follow all the parenting rules and your children, thank goodness, will still turn out to have minds of their own and leave the sinking ship of the authoritarianism that raised them.
  • You could be sitting around the house one day and a tornado could hit.
 Clare Galway Friary, Ireland (photo:Andy Bruner)

Clare Galway Friary, Ireland (photo:Andy Bruner)

The Just World does not exist, except as wishful thinking and a tool for authoritarians to woo you with: "Pay your tithe here, and we'll tell you the rules that will keep you safe." 

Remember last time we talked about cognitive dissonance? That brain-melting, defensiveness-making thing that happens when you try to hold disparate ideas together in your head?

Yeah. The Just World Fallacy brings on the cognitive dissonance, bigtime.

So here's the question: what happens when the real world intrudes on the Just World Fallacy? How does the authoritarian system handle this cognitive dissonance?

Well, the authoritarian system can never admit that it's wrong. That would kill the whole game, and nobody would ever pay a tithe or vote their way or mindlessly obey, ever again.

So to explain away the fact that the emperor has no clothes, that the Just World doesn't exist and the rules are a sham, the system turns to lying and in particular some common forms of lying: victim blaming and scapegoating.

Victim blaming looks like Job's Comforter's, showing up to spew blame on the suffering:

  • "God is chastening you. When you learn what you're supposed to learn, this will stop."
  • "You should be praying more."
  • "You aren't praying in faith."
  • "You aren't praying sincerely enough."
  • "You must have sin in your life, which prevents your prayers from being answered."
  • "You didn't obey your husband/give him sex/make him enough banana pudding."
  • "You sent your kids to public school."

Scapegoating shifts the problem to something completely unrelated:

  • "Hurricane Katrina is God's judgment because of gay people."
  • "Gun violence is God's judgment because of abortion."
  • "Obama..." "But her emails..."

An authoritarian system requires a scapegoat and will include victim-blaming because the Just World Fallacy will inevitably fail, and when that happens, some usual suspects will be required. It can't be that the narrative of the system is wrong. No, never.

Here's a sad thing: some of us are so drenched in authoritarian toxicity that we're perfectly prepared to blame ourselves. Nobody else has to do it for us. We simply assume that when bad things happen, it's because we did something wrong. And then, when somebody scapegoats us, we just accept it as truth, because we've already been blaming ourselves anyway. Why wouldn't other people do the same?

Now, I wish at the end of this I could tell you that there's some way to make the Just World a reality, but I just don't think we have got that kind of control over other people, the oligarchs who've bought up the world, and/or the weather.

And this is the real issue for all of us: we all want control. Authoritarianism tells us we can have it, if only we are willing to pay its price: "Fall down and worship me," it says, "and I will give you all the kingdoms of the earth. You can have a faithful husband, obedient children, and no hurricane will darken your door, if only you follow my rules."

It's death to our ego to breathe down into our own small lives, to Love where we are, to bring justice and mercy where we can, to grieve through the ocean of sadness that is our reality some days, to welcome joy and peace wherever we find it, one mindful moment at a time, to continue to hope without guarantees.

But this is exactly what we need to counteract the amped-up egoism of authoritarianism. We don't need more ego, more power-tripping.

We will never conquer ego with ego.

We need the antithesis of self-serving ego: we need Love. 

A rich, present, true Love that embraces our neighbor as well as our self.

A Love that bandages the hurts of the world, rather than causing more pain with the relentless appetite of ego.

This is where contemplative practice comes in for me, making space inside of myself for Love, so that I've got something to give to others in need.

I'll post a video here of Richard Rohr talking about contemplative practice, if you're interested in learning about that.

Hear these first words: "Let's try to be here now, the place where everything happens, but the place that never seems like it's enough."

And that is everything that ego it not: acknowledging that we are not enough, that we do not know, that the answers are beyond us in this moment, and yet opening ourselves to the Love that might light our darkness anyway.

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authoritarianism: just some things I want to say

I have come to believe that every authoritarian system is an abusive system.

If you are not in an authoritarian system, you can agree to disagree, respect one another, and go your own way without fear of repercussion.

However, if you are not allowed to offer any critique of your spouse, your parent, your pastor, or your president for fear of holy hell raining down on your head, then you're probably in an authoritarian system that's going to turn abusive the minute you stop complying.

In fact, that threat of abuse is what keeps you compliant.

And that threat, in and of itself, is abuse.

 Barred window, Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, Czech Republic (photo: me and my cell phone)

Barred window, Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, Czech Republic (photo: me and my cell phone)

Another thing I've come to realize is this: when you’re part of an authoritarian system, participation with the dominant narrative of that system is required to remain within the system.

Even when the dominant narrative doesn't match with reality, and you know it, you still have to parrot the narrative as your ticket to remaining in the system.

If you’re in an abusive marriage, the dominant narrative might be something like:

  • He’s a great guy. He just has an anger issue.
  • He’s really sorry every time he hurts me.

If you’re in an authoritarian religious system, the dominant narrative might include:

  • The Bible clearly says X, Y, and Z. If you disagree, you are going to hell.
  • Men are always in authority. Women must always submit to men.
  • The leader is God’s representative on earth. You can’t criticize the Lord’s annointed.
  • We deal with our problems within the church. Never report anything to secular authorities.

Participating in these narrative produces cognitive dissonance, which means having thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that don't match with each other.

For example, abused women will tell me events that are clearly abusive, and then repeat elements of the narrative to me, which are clearly contrary to the events they just related.

  • “He stole all the cash I was saving for car repairs and disappeared for three days. I love him, and he really loves me.”

One of the things abused women will say to me, over and over, is that they are confused. Being confused means you're on the way to clarity, on the way to truth, on the way to facing reality--only reality is really hard, and we resist seeing what's right in front of our eyes.

Why is it so hard for us to face reality in situations like this?

Because reality is so terribly painful, and threatens everything about the life we’d hoped to have.

When you’re part of an authoritarian system, very often your entire social universe is a part of that system: family, friends, faith connections. Every single one of those individuals has to participate in the narrative of the system in order to remain.

When you stop participating in the narrative, you may lose every relationship you held dear.

This is exactly why families and faith communities employ ostracism, shunning, and excommunication as threats: THEY WORK.

Nobody wants to go through this, and so many, many, many of us will remain in toxic systems because our very survival is at stake.

Those who must remain make this choice for survival, and face incredible ongoing distress.

Those who need to leave make this choice for survival, and face incredible loss.

This threat to everything is also why people get so angry when you challenge their cognitive dissonance.

We've all tried this on social media. Somebody says something that's completely false, you respond with evidence to show the lie for what it is, and the person tells you to die and go to hell. 

Is that person just a horrible human being? Possibly.

But more likely, they are an afraid human being. Their entire world depends upon their believing the unbelievable and holding lies up as truth. When you speak the truth, that threatens their house of cards and they lash out at you.

(Don't lash back, but don't be afraid to tell the truth and let them do their own emotional work.)

Here's what I think.

We can't always control whether we start out in an authoritarian system or not. We're born into family, religious and political systems that are bigger than us. 

But when we recognize authoritarianism for what it is, that's the time to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly for ourselves, and for others being abused by those systems.

Throughout the course of our lives, we will always be required to learn and know better, to leave behind old dysfunctional ways of being and to move into healthy new ways of being.

This is the circle of life.

Those of us who leave authoritarian systems become lucky enough, as Anne Lamott says, to bear disillusion.

To face the reality of what is before us.

To rearrange everything we know about our lives.

To do the hard work of grief.

To move forward into an unknown future.

And then, someday, to find hope again.

To find community among the outcasts.

To build a new home in the wilderness, holding the light up for those coming behind us, still needing to find the way.

As the Persian poet Rumi says:

'Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder.

Help someone's soul heal. 

Walk out of your house like a shepherd.'

Not an authoritarian dictator.

A good shepherd.

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to the wife who wrote me in distress, whose email came back undeliverable

This morning I received the kind of letter I often receive, from a wife whose pastor husband lost his job for sexual indiscretion.  Several recovery attempts have been made, seemingly successful each time, with failures following. 

This wife tells me a story that wives often do: she has accessed therapy for herself, set up couples' counseling, attempted to be emotionally responsble for herself and vulnerable with him, and the pattern repeats. She wonders what she is doing wrong, and what she can do to make this marriage work again.

I wrote this reply, hit send, and the email bounced back undeliverable. Since there are no identifying details in either the story or the reply, I'm publishing this here in hopes that she finds it. And because I think it can be helpful to all the other women who are experiencing this common story.

 Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Lake Michigan (photo: Andy Bruner)

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Lake Michigan (photo: Andy Bruner)

I am so, so sorry for the pain you've been going through for so long.

Honestly, it sounds to me like you have done everything possible to make this work. I don't think the problem is in how you've responded or what you've done.

I think you've made a really important observation when you say: "Whenever we get relationally closer I feel like he becomes dissatisfied with me again."

Many, many men do not have the emotional skill set that they need to manage their own emotions, much less to be able to respond to their wives well in seasons of distress. 

In fact, I think this is exactly what the entire sexual addiction cycle is based upon: the man's inability to cope in healthy ways with his own emotions, his own pain, distress, anxiety, insecurity, etc.

Men have been taught to deny, repress, and ignore these emotions from their earliest moments on earth. We even speak to boy babies differently than girl babies. We tell them that "big boys don't cry." And then they are taught "boys will be boys"--that it's inevitable they will act out.  I talked about this at length on a FB Live session with Covenant Eyes  a few weeks ago, and it's up on YouTube now.

I suspect that you are observing reality when you sense his dissatisfaction at times of emotional vulnerability. I suspect that he does not feel comfortable with his own emotional vulnerability, and so when you are attempting to do the RIGHT THING for the relationship--being emotionally vulnerable--he does not know how to cope with this and so begins pushing you away.

This is actually what he does with his own emotions, I think: he pushes them away into dysfunctional sexual behaviors. He's simply doing to your emotions what he does with his own.

I think he may be successful at behavioral interventions (accountability etc) for a while, but unless he learns to cope with his own emotions, he will probably never be emotionally trustworthy for himself or for you, and he will continue to act out when he becomes emotionally overwhelmed.

According to the research of John Gottman, emotional trust is built on the capacity to turn toward your partner, rather than turning away or against. I've written about that here.  And here's a You Tube clip of Dr. Gottman talking about how to build emotional trust. I think you are experiencing that your husband turns away or against rather than toward.  And I think he has to learn to turn toward himself before he will be able to turn toward you.

I doubt that this is a problem that will be adequately addressed in marriage counseling, to be honest. I think he needs a really good, qualified Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) to help him mine into the deep sources of his addiction, before he would be ready to work on the relationship in a significant way.

You are not overreacting, at all. You are experiencing the reality that he is not emotionally capable with himself or with you, which means that he returns to dysfunctional coping skills. Unless he works on his own emotional intelligence, you'll be stuck with this same pattern, I think.

I don't mean that to sound hopeless or harsh, but to affirm that you're not crazy. And also to say that there is a real road to recovery, but it's not through the behavioral trust that we commonly think about.

It's this emotional trust-building that he really needs to learn, first for himself so that he can then extend it to you.

Maybe he would watch that Facebook Live with you? And then he might start to understand where the problem lies and where the healing has to be begin: with his own emotions.

Meanwhile, I would say, stay strong in your boundaries. You don't yet know if he is going to do the work that's required. Here's an article entitled "A High View of Marriage Includes Divorce" that you might find helpful to share with him as well. 

Trust yourself.

Boundaries.

You are strong and courageous.

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