Thursday, November 19, 2009

My "Rooster Crow"

I never know what the trigger might be...but for some reason, they have been going off for the past several weeks. I think it started when I was walking through a local Fred Meyer store recently and noticed a young teenage couple furtively eying the condom display. It was readily apparent that they weren't married and too young to be engaged in sexual activities. Anxiety was written all over them as they would look around to see if anyone might be watching them. For many, the scene might have brought a smile at their attempt to be discreet. For others, perhaps a knowing nod, recalling a similar instance from their own past. For me, it brought an instant rush of guilt and a feeling of "being dirty."

The following week at group, much of our discussion was with a man who was sentenced for a crime similar to mine. The therapist was probing to try to help the man discover why he was on-line looking at the type of pictures that sent him to prison for a year. It was apparent that the man was struggling to explore to the depth necessary to find the answer to that difficult question. But it also caused me to reflect once again on my own path to destruction. Again, the word "guilt" immediately came to my mind.

It continues to amaze me (although I don't know why because I know that everything is in God's control) how God wants to talk to me...and how He does. We are reading a book called "Wild Goose Chase", by Mark Batterson in our men's group right now. The chapter this week dealt with (you guessed it) the "cage of guilt". It was an extremely difficult chapter for me and just reinforced that Someone upstairs is telling me that there are some things that I need to deal with.

As I read the chapter and completed the questions, I came to have a greater understanding of the impact of guilt in my life. The first question asked "what is the 'rooster crow' (a reference to Peter's denial of Christ) that sets off guilty feelings inside of you?" It only took a moment to realize that it was "sex". That's not to say that I don't have great feelings of guilt for my actions that led to my causing great pain and grief to the people that meant the most to me in my life. Or feelings of guilt for the impact I may have had on the lives of countless boys that I would chat with on-line. Or the feelings of guilt for contributing to an industry that destroys so many lives.

What I realized is that for my entire life, anything related to sex instantly brings feelings of guilt and shame. Even as a married man, I was unable to have comfortable conversations with my wife about our sex life or what was pleasing to me...or even pleasurable to her. Sex was dirty...period. I was unable (or unwilling) to initiate sexual intimacy most of the time and left it up to her to somehow extend an invitation. In reflection, none of that seems normal to me.

I've spent some time looking backward...not always a good thing because I don't want to live there (as none of us should), but sometimes necessary to gain understanding and healing. What I see when i reflect is an early childhood filled with abuse that led to a premature sexualization, inappropriate sexual activity at an early age, an unhealthy exposure and attraction to pornography, and a confused sexual identity. All of this coupled with a moral compass that told me everything was wrong. And if it was wrong, then I couldn't talk to anyone about it without being condemned or judged, so the best option was to hide it all in a secret place...a closet.

And so, I did. But the problem with secrets is that even though no one else may know them, you can't escape them if they are your own. You can suppress them (or at least try) as I did for more than 40 years. And you can lie about them (to yourself and others) as I did for more than 40 years. But you can't make them disappear. There is only one way to get rid of a secret that haunts you...that is make it an "unsecret", to share it. And nine years ago, I discovered a medium to do just that.

I had no intention of going into a chat room that night...and certainly no cognitive intention of finding a teenage boy who was gay. But it happened and when it did, I discovered that there were countless other individuals who had similar experiences or feelings/desires or sense of confusion. And...none of them made me feel guilty about what I had been hiding in my closet. It (the chats) was a comfortable place to be. IN fact, it became the place that I wanted to be more than anyplace else. For what may have been the first time in my life, I didn't feel so alone...or so dirty. And so, I would find every opportunity to get on-line and chat. It became a driving force in my life to the exclusion of my marriage and my wife. I found myself wanting relationship with my "chat friends" more than with my own family. And because they were all "cyber relationships", there wasn't the same kind of fear that I felt about losing the "real people" in my life. I could share things without being afraid that the person on the other keyboard would hate me...or even worse, leave me. And even though there was a sense of guilt for being there and chatting with boys, it was a different kind of guilt that I thought I was handling.

I've discovered that I'm not alone. I'm not the only man on this planet that has secrets from his past that haunt him. I'm not the only man on the planet that carries guilt that isn't his to bear. I'm not the only man on the planet that has allowed his past to drastically alter his present...and his future. There are countless men who are in the same place I was nine years ago...searching for something to relieve the pain and confusion. Sadly, too many will either continue to bury and carry guilt by themselves or turn to destructive ways to take it all away.

In reality, the solution is so simple! And actually, albeit in the wrong context, what I was doing nine years ago was on the right track. All any of us need to do is be honest and share. We have to be willing to open the door to that closet and start searching for the things that we started hiding in there years ago. And like most closets that are old and cluttered, it may take time to discover them all. But what we will find are memories that we didn't even know existed. Shame that wasn't ours to bear. Tears that should have been shed instead of being held captive. Guilt that can finally be acquitted. The key is to do it in a healthy, safe and legal way instead of the way I did it.

My journey now is to continue to look into the closet. I know there are experiences that I haven't completely dealt with...perhaps some that I haven't even discovered. Guilt and self-condemnation that haunts me when I'm confronted with the right trigger. But my reflection has helped to bring some clarity to a question that needed to be answered. Why? Why was it so comfortable for me to be in "that" place when I was allowing it to destroy my life? Knowing the answer will help prevent me from going back.

Photo from Flickr

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Crossing the Line from "Memory" to "Imagination"

Today is someone's birthday...well actually, I'm sure that there are literally millions who will use this day to mark the celebration of their birth. But today is a day to celebrate the life of someone who has a very special place in my life. Someone, who through the miraculous grace of God, that I have grown to know and love in a deep and meaningful way over these past several years.

It amazes me at times how some of our greatest treasures are right in front of us but we fail to see them. As I sit here and reflect as I write this (brushing back the tears while the music of "Coldplay" plays in the background), I recognize the brevity and frailty that is this thing that we call life. A friend asked me at breakfast the other morning how I was doing. And as is my usual casual response, I said "everything is good, thanks for asking." But this friend is a bit deeper than that. He challenged me and forced me to think about how things are "really going?"

It didn't take long for the reality of my circumstances to well up inside me. I shared with him that I find myself in a position these days of having all of the material blessings (and more) that I need. Actually, they are overflowing. I'm able to receive the joy that one feels when they can give away more to others than they spend on themselves. But the adage that "money can't buy happiness" is proven out in my life. There is an emptiness in my life that "stuff" can't fill.

And so, I had to share with my friend the lonliness that I oft times feel. The loss of deep and intimate relationship in my life is often times a heavy weight that can't be filled with "stuff" that we can purchase. And that is why I celebrate this day with my sister.

She has done something for me that most people would never be willing to do...for me or for anyone else. Through a slow (and I'm sure painful at times) process, she has slowly revealed her life to me and invited me into relationship. And through her words (written and spoken), I've come to know her in ways that few people ever get to know someone else. And one of the gifts in that is that I have the opportunity to share who she really is with others...including my own family.

Several weeks ago as I visited with my brother and his new wife, for the first time I think he finally started to "get it" about my sister and her writing. We were talking about an incident in her life when she first entered what she discovered later was a cult. Like many of us, she was at a point in her life where she was lost and searching for something with meaning. As a means to separate my sister from her past (and the evils of this world), they had her destroy some of the most meaningful "stuff" in her life. This included an extensive record collection that was in some ways priceless. It was the destruction of these records that was the initial focus of our conversation.

But I had the opportunity to share what Paul Harvey might have called "the rest of the story." Included in the "stuff" that went into the bonfire that evening were the things of her past. Her childhood diaries. Some of her early writing. Awards and recognitions from her childhood. Memorabilia that had been carefully packed and moved from place to place. No one can put a price on those things. And unlike the vinyl records, they can never be replaced. She lost the physical reminders of some of the most meaningful memories of her past.

Memory - "an organism's ability to store, retain and recall information" (Wikipedia)

As I shared that part of her story with my brother, I could see something "click" as he said, "I didn't know any of that." And it opened the door for me to share more of my sister's life with my brother. A part of her life that I never knew as it was occuring. It took him past his memories of one specific incident to see it through a different lens...the eyes that were actually there. I think that he, like I have, crossed a line that day. He moved from a "memory" to an "imagination". From a "recollection" to an "understanding.

Imagination - "the ability to form mental images, sensations and concepts, in a moment when they are perceived through sight, hearing or other senses. Imagination helps provide meaning to experience and understanding to knowledge. The basic training for imagination is the listening to storytelling" (Wikipedia)
Over the past two years, I've come to discover what is truly important in this life. It's not the "stuff" we accumulate. It's not the money we have in the bank. It's not even our acccomplishments for which we receive great acclaim. It's all about relationships. A relationship with a God who loves us beyond measure. It's the relationships that we are willing to take the time to invest in. It's the willingness to risk with those that we love. Risk sharing the truth of our lives...of revealing our pain, our failures, our demons. as I share in the celebration of my sister's birthday, I should be sending her a gift. But instead, I'm thanking her for her gift to me. The gift of love...of truth...of revelation...of her sharing...of her words. Thank you for helping me across the "line".

Happy Birthday!!

I love you!!

Photo from Flickr