July 13, 2018 (Tallahassee):
Yesterday I watched YouTube videos about emotional abuse and realized how abused I’ve been and how abusive I’ve been. Truly, messed up people mess up people. The topic of narcissism especially hit home: a narcissistic person is someone who mortally craves – and develops sophisticated means of acquiring – the approval, affection, and admiration of others – NOT because they love themselves (as commonly thought) but because they are incapable of loving themselves. They are typically deeply ashamed of themselves, may despise themselves, or worse, not know themselves much at all.
In the depressive inner atmosphere of a self-loathing person, the positive attention of others acts as a powerful antidote. When such a person discovers one or more assets they have to employ, they will do so in order to acquire the neurochemical ‘supply’ they need in order to feel good about themselves. In my case, I focused on being attractive, using charm and flattery, appeasement and agreeableness. I used my academic prowess and superior grades. I used my humor and wittiness. I constantly crafted my appearance and approach so as to be an irresistibly likeable person. These strategies served to stave off the onset of shame and self-hatred that were too often prone to arise.
And they worked up till the time we moved to Dallas for school. Dallas Theological Seminary was the first place in my life where I encountered widespread apathy toward me as an individual. Most people didn’t seem to notice me or care about me. They didn’t need me. My presence was irrelevant to them. This sense of not being known, wanted, seen, loved, acknowledged, etc. was a huge shock. When the ‘community’ of students and teachers didn’t ‘love’ me, it meant God didn’t love me either – since I had up till then experienced God’s love in a loving communal context. And since narcissistic self-‘love’ is built on and supported by the superficial ‘love’ of others – and by extension, God’s love as well – all three pillars of love collapsed simultaneously: communal love, divine love, and narcissistic self-love.
How had I become so vulnerable to such a spectacular self-implosion?
A partial answer can be found in the nature of my religious upbringing. Religions reflect the psychologies of their founders, and these psychologies in turn replicate themselves in faithful adherents over time. The influence goes both ways of course: when a religious worldview is downloaded and installed in a person or group of people, their psychologies alter the program as well. So religion and religionists symbiotically co-create and co-evolve through time. This process can be clearly seen, for example, in the many thousands of denominations and sects that classify themselves as ‘Christian’.
In the version of Christianity I was imprinted with, self-, communal, and divine images were carefully created and curated though a program of chronic gaslighting, that is, the invalidation, condemnation, and occasional punishment of individual thoughts and feelings that went against biblical teachings and cultural norms. As children we were conditioned to doubt and dismiss feelings and thoughts that challenged the prevailing views upheld in our families and churches. Though well-intentioned, much of this conditioning actually amounted to a covert campaign of emotional, psychological, psychosexual, and sometimes physical abuse. Much of this abuse was based on biblical readings and their theological interpretations. For instance, we were taught from an early age that because of our inherited sinful nature, we were innately wrong beings worthy of eternal torment in hell. And yet, because God loves us so much (despite having created us deserving of hell), he sent Christ to save us from our pitiful condition. So although we are automatically pathetic worms by virtue of being born human, we get to be redeemed by the same god who made us this way. Yippee! First we get beat down and beat up, then we are offered a community and a savior on condition that we maintain our essential abuse-worthiness and spiritual codependency on Christ. This puts us in a real bind: if we leave the community or deny the savior, we will go to hell…the hell of experiencing our own self-hatred, self-loneliness, and self-horror. Who’s up for that?
This campaign of control and forced conformity is so insidiously effective because it contains much truth, only truth subtly twisted to prevent people from realizing the power and potential of their full selfhood. The truth that this campaign contains is that we do need a savior: our traumatized egoic selves need to be saved from their craving, grasping, and rigid ways of being in the world and in relationships. The perversion of this truth is that our salvation will come from an other, from elsewhere, be it a church, a book, a person, even the person of Jesus Christ. Our savior is not a man who lived two thousand years ago. Rather, our savior is our own higher, divine self that is the same divine selfhood apparently realized by Jesus during his lifetime. “I and the Father are one” is the true statement we can all consciously make. “I (Terrill) and the Father (Source of All) are one and the same.”
At early points in our lives, we get fleeting, haunting glimpses of our deepest, most intimate, most vulnerable, most precious, rare, and unique selves – the full spectrum. Before we know it, the totality of our spiritual being cuts cut up and carved into categories of good and evil, light and shadow, virtue and sin. Every culture does this and does it differently. The religious culture I was raised in celebrated human attributes like honesty, kindness, self-sacrifice, respect, dignity, holiness, sanctity, and spirituality. And it shunned other expressions of humanness such as anger, aggression, emotionality, curiosity, lust, sensuality, eroticism, self-defense, self-promotion, and self-sovereignty. In order to survive, a child in such a situation is forced to split his or her psyche in two, taking great care to enhance the attributes that will guarantee love and suppress the attributes that will risk losing it.
As long as this persists into adulthood, instead of ever getting ‘naked’, taking off pretension, having an honest, judgement-free look at the full range of our humanness, whenever we are confronted with an attribute we suppressed long ago, we will shrink back in horror, ask Jesus and others for forgiveness, and continue to deploy a suite of pathological defense mechanisms to deny and forget any sign of all those parts of our true selves we have buried under layers and layers of psychic obscurity. Instead of knowing ourselves, accepting ourselves, loving ourselves, celebrating ourselves, being and guiding ourselves, we end up hiding ourselves, denying ourselves, abandoning ourselves, betraying ourselves, forgetting ourselves, repressing ourselves, and abusing ourselves. And in the angst we feel gnawing away over this lack of integrity, we desperately cling to our tribe and our savior who medicate the unending existential pain. We make Christ and comrade responsible for our salvation, which keeps us forever dependent as spiritual children.
In the religion I grew up in, we whitewashed our bodies, hearts, and minds. We loved each other, yes, but only in proportion to the lovability portrayed in the image of pseudo-perfection projected as a mirror for us and God and others to see. We loved the whitewashed and airbrushed image of Jesus, of ourselves, and of others. The only way we could keep up that status quo was by taking pains to not know the full humanity Jesus of Nazareth, not know the full humanity of each other, and not countenance our own full humanity. This precarious social contract required all members of the group to agree on the standards of the whitewashing process. No one could dare fail to keep up the appearances, for if any unsavory truth were seen through the facade, it would threaten the integrity of the entire collective delusion.