The Enneagram: The basics of personality

I’ve taken tons of personality tests in my life. I’m an INFP on the Myers-Briggs personality test. I’ve taken the DISC test, though I don’t remember what my letters were. I’m pretty sure I’m a “Blue” on one of the personality tests I’ve taken. I’ve even been sorted into Hufflepuff, and I don’t read, watch, or even like Harry Potter (controversial opinion, I know, but I digress). All of this to say, I don’t remember most of the personality tests I’ve taken. Myers-Briggs has been the most helpful for me, but I don’t even remember what the four letters of my type stand for half the time, much less what those four letters mean for my type and personality.

It was about a year ago that I was first introduced to the Enneagram of Personality by the Liturgists Podcast. Without knowing anything about it, I listened to Michael Gungor and Science Mike go into detail with two guest hosts on the nine personality types of the Enneagram, very confused as to what was going on and being described. After listening to the podcast and doing some research of my own, I discovered a lot of interesting things about the Enneagram, some of its history and how it’s benefitted people’s lives. So I decided to figure out my personality type.

And it changed everything for me.

Like I’m prone to do when I write blogs, let me make something clear here: I’m not an expert. I don’t particularly care to do a ton of research into things I don’t particularly care to know everything about. My personality typing will help explain why that is. I will give some very basic explanation of what the Enneagram of Personality is and how it functions, but I would strongly encourage you to do some of your own research on its history and look into the typing of yourself, your friends, and family in your own time. I’m serious when I say that the benefits are well worth it.

What it is

The Enneagram Institute website calls the Enneagram “a modern synthesis of ancient wisdom traditions.” The Enneagram is a personality typing method based not purely in analytic or scientific research, but based on observations of humanity, of real people. The Enneagram holds a belief that people are two parts: Essence and ego, the essence being a person’s ideal, true self, and the ego being the subjective personality that develops throughout life and its trials. The Enneagram is a tool to help people identify their essence and their ego and the difference between them, so that they can identify factors and stressors in their lives preventing them from reaching their true selves.

The Enneagram is divided into nine individual personality types. Here are some incredibly basic snapshot descriptions of the nine types, taken from the Enneagram Institute website (which I will link to below):

1 The Reformer – The Rational, Idealistic Type: Principled, Purposeful, Self-Controlled, and Perfectionistic

2 The Helper – The Caring, Interpersonal Type: Demonstrative, Generous, People-Pleasing, and Possessive

3 The Achiever – The Success-Oriented, Pragmatic Type: Adaptive, Excelling, Drive, and Image-Conscious

4 The Individualist – The Sensitive, Withdrawn Type: Expressive, Dramatic, Self-Absorbed, and Temperamental

5 The Investigator – The Intense, Cerebral Type: Perceptive, Innovative, Secretive, and Isolated

6 The Loyalist – The Committed, Security-Oriented Type: Engaging, Responsible, Anxious, and Suspicious

7 The Enthusiast – The Busy, Fun-Loving Type: Spontaneous, Versatile, Distractible, and Scattered

8 The Challenger – The Powerful, Dominating Type: Self-Confident, Decisive, Willful, and Confrontational

9 The Peacemaker – The Easygoing, Self-Effacing Type: Receptive, Reassuring, Agreeable, and Complacent

How it works

What is unique about the Enneagram is that it also involves sub-types, personality types on the spectrum that people operate as in times of stress and in times of health. So, for instance, I am a 4 on the Enneagram, which tends to be a more withdrawn but artistic and expressive type.

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When I am mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy, I act more like a 1, the Reformer. So, in health, I use my creative passions and pursuits in a way that functions in such a way as to improve the environments I’m in and act in more of a leadership role. On the other end of the spectrum, I function more as a 2 – the Helper – in stress. When I am not mentally, emotionally, or spiritually healthy in one way or another, I function in such a way as to assist other people in their pursuits. 2’s can go out of their way to help people in such a way as to make themselves feel needed, which is often how I operate in times of stress, focusing more on supporting others’ pursuits than using and pursuing my own artistic, creative endeavors. Not that these are necessarily bad things in and of themselves, but they are deviations from the way I would normally operate when I am in a healthy place. Each type has a “home base” type as I tend to call it, with two sub-types that a person tends toward in times of health or stress. Each of these nine types can also have “wings.” These wings are slight deviations from the normal type, either to the left or the right on the scale. So, for instance, as a 4, I am able to have either a 3 or a 5 wing, based on subtle intricacies in my personality. I don’t have a strong leaning toward either of these types, so I’m a “normal” 4.

So those are the basics of personality typing. But that’s not all there is to the Enneagram. From this point is where the real benefits of the Enneagram come into play. Each of the nine types has very detailed descriptions, and each has both a basic fear and a basic desire that motivates its actions in life, as well as key motivations to pursue this basic desire. When I have reached moments of conflict or gone through trials in my life, I’ve read through my type description and found a precise, and oftentimes exact explanation of why I’ve felt depressed, stressed, or anxious, and it has been followed up with things that I can do to help get myself out of my head and into action to help myself reach a healthy headspace again. For instance, my basic fear as a four is that I have no identity or personal significance. The most stressful, trying times in my life have been when I feel I have no purpose or that my life is without its own individual meaning. Simply recognizing this feeling has helped me more than you realize, and I’ve been able to take steps to combat these feelings of worthlessness that have crippled me in the past. Each type description contains this information, and can be incredibly beneficial in times of stress.

Each of the nine types also has a comparison chart for compatibility with each of the other nine types, and clearly defines any problem spots or reasons for conflict with other types. I’m in an interesting position where I am surrounded by 2’s in my life: My fiancé, my best friend, my mother, along with a few others. 2’s and 4’s can, if they are not able to sort through their differences, find each other too emotionally needy to really function in a healthy way. Knowing this has helped me navigate my relationships in such a way as to pursue forward motion rather than stagnating in unresolved emotional turmoil, and I’m happy to say that my relationships have only benefitted from knowing my Enneagram type and how I interact with others. Oftentimes if I meet someone new, I’ll ask them if they know their Enneagram type so that I can know how to interact with them better, but also so that they can reap the benefits from knowing their type for themselves.

All of this to say, I really can’t completely put into words how beneficial the Enneagram has been for me in my life and in the lives of many people around me. There are so many personality tests out there, but this is the one that has benefitted me more than anything else. It has, quite frankly, changed my life in multiple ways.

Finding your Enneagram personality type

So how can you find your own type? Well, since it isn’t as well-known and since it is incredibly detailed, there aren’t a bunch of free tests out there that you can take. However, there are a couple of options, though you will have to pay some money for them.

enneagraminstitute.com has the RHETI test that you can take on their website. This is a 144-question test that will rank your best-matched types and send you a detailed description for your top 3, all in one PDF sent to your email so you can save it. This is also the website I use for all of my Enneagram needs. The test on this website costs $12 to take: https://tests.enneagraminstitute.com/test/1/code

There is also an app on the Apple App Store that has a full Enneagram test. This one doesn’t create a PDF for you or anything, so I’d recommend taking a screenshot and then looking up the descriptions of each of your types on enneagraminstitute.com. This app is $7, and you can use it as much as you want. So you can have your friends take the test, too! Find it here: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/enneagram-personality-full-test/id365310605?mt=8

There are some “free Enneagram tests” out there, but I haven’t found any that I would recommend. I took three of them at one point in time and got a different type for each of them, only one of which I think was my actual typing. I really cannot stress the benefits of finding your Enneagram personality type. It’s played an incredibly important role in my life over the past year or so, and I know that you, your friends, and your family can benefit from it as well.

Resources

All of the information I used in this post was taken from this website in one place or another. I’d encourage you to explore this website and find your own type and description, as well as the types of others in your life: enneagraminstitute.com

The podcast that first introduced me to the Enneagram can be found here: http://www.theliturgists.com/podcast/2016/8/23/the-enneagram-episode-37 It’s a great resource for descriptions of all nine types, as well!

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Short Story: Diplomacy Check

Arthur did one final check through his supplies. Potions, throwing axes, spell scrolls, the amulet his father gave him as a boy. Everything a warrior needed. He glanced around at the rest of his party. Dreyfus, his childhood friend from their time in Brandwell, read through his spellbook just to make sure he wouldn’t forget anything at his disposal. Unlikely, considering he had been planning this attack for months and knew it backwards and forwards. Ameria, more commonly called Amy, swept her hair behind pointed ears as she sharpened the dagger she had stolen from the orc warchief of Carmarthen. If you listened closely, you could still hear the screams of the souls trapped inside.

The three of them had been through countless adventures together. They had made their way through the Dread Marshes by sheer force of will, the spirits inhabiting that forbidden place hindering their every step. They had trekked deep into The Expanse and been taken captive by sand raiders all to retrieve a ring sealed with the royal family’s crest. They had led the charge against the dark elf king of Nair, who had made a pact with the orcs in the north and planned to take the kingdom of Listeria for himself. The trio had many fond memories of past adventures, each more daring than the last.

But this one was different. Amy rubbed her finger against the blade of her dagger to check its sharpness, then glanced around at her two companions. She asked, “Where is that little halfling nuisance?”

The doorbell rang. Right on cue. Mason looked up from behind his dungeon master’s screen at Arty. “Jason?” he asked.

Arty smiled. “Jason.” Mason grinned and shook his head, then returned to the notes he had written up for the battle at hand. Arty pushed his chair back from the card table, leaving Richard to flip through his Player’s Handbook to find all of the effects of Dreyfus’s spells. Amy pulled out the first compendium of The Walking Dead comic. She’d been using every spare moment she had to get through that book, and she was getting really close to the end.

Arty made his way up the stairs to the main floor of his house, ribbons and medals from spelling bees, science fairs, and math competitions hanging on the wall of the stairwell. He never particularly cared about them, but even less so nowadays than he had before. He made his way through the foyer with its high ceilings to the front door. “Hey, buddy,” Jason shouted as Arty opened the door. Jason practically burst through the entrance as soon as it was open a crack, wearing all black as he usually did. “Hey, Jason.”

“So I’ve been listening to Metallica’s new album. It’s been pretty true to form, all things considered, but luckily Hetfield is getting his voice back after all these years.”

Arty nodded and gave his typical responses. “Oh yeah? Sweet. Dude, that’s awesome.” He didn’t think about music very much. He liked music, and he liked listening to music, but thinking about music too much reminded him of multiple piano recitals with an empty chair next to his mother. They made their way down the stairs while Jason continued to ramble on about Metallica, finally concluding with a “Hey, guys” once they reached the basement. Everyone greeted him back. Amy rolled her eyes. Arty and Jason situated themselves around the table. “What did I miss?” Jason asked.

Dreyfus looked up from his spellbook to where Clovis, a halfling bard, had suddenly appeared sitting on a rock not ten feet from him. “What did you miss?” Ameria asked. “Where have you been? And how did you get here?”

Clovis laughed as he tuned his lyre string. “A bard arrives precisely when he means to.”

“That’s wizards, stupid.”

“What?” Jason wrapped up the headphones of his iPhone.

Amy sighed from across the table, obviously annoyed. “That’s a quote from Gandalf the Gray. ‘A wizard arrives precisely when he means to.’ Have you even seen The Lord of the Rings?”

Mason cleared his throat and peered at Amy from behind his screen. “Y’know, I’d say he’s playing his character pretty well.”

“Yeah, Amy! I’m role-playing!”

“Can we get back to the game, please?” Richard didn’t talk out of character too often, but whenever he did it was to get these two to shut up. Arty sat back and watched this all unfold. He always found it interesting how closely his friends’ characters matched their own personalities. Mason interjected, “Thank you, Richard. Anyway…”

Dreyfus stepped between Clovis and Ameria. “Can we get back to the issue at hand, please?” Ameria stomped off with a huff as Clovis waved her off with a sly grin. Arthur thought back on the past few days. They had met Clovis less than a week prior when he was performing in the town square of Caerleon, telling tales of fortune long lost from a deceased dwarven race. Rumors of hundreds of years’ worth of treasure is enough to lure in any adventurer. Clovis just needed other people to do the heavy lifting for him.

So here they were. Arthur breathed deeply. He knew the plan. They all knew the plan. But he was still nervous. Death is always possible when facing a dragon. He looked to Dreyfus. “Ready?”

Dreyfus tucked his spellbook under his arm and turned to Arthur with a grin. “Always.”

The four of them gathered their belongings and set forth into the cave on the side of the volcano. Nothing particularly eventful happened as they walked in silence from the mouth of the cave to the expanse further in. The only sounds were the echoes of their own footsteps and the quiet plucking of lyre strings as Clovis warmed up his fingers.

Each of them was preoccupied with their own thoughts of what could be lying beyond in the darkness, and of what they would do with the treasure once they found it. Arthur would buy a house near the ocean for his wife and daughter, who he had left behind in Brandwell. The other three would likely go their separate ways, pursuing their own lives of luxury and ease. That is, if they survived.

The air grew warmer with each step they took deeper into the volcano, and the cave lit up with flashes of fire coming from further within. Arthur moved to the front of the group with Ameria – bow drawn – close behind, while Dreyfus and Clovis fell a bit further back. As the opening to the dragon’s lair drew closer, Clovis played a quick tune for all of them, filling them with strength and courage. After what seemed like hours, Arthur finally set foot into the dragon’s quarters. He scanned the darkness of the massive cave, looking for where it could be.

Suddenly Ameria shouted, “Look out,” firing an arrow into the black. A spout of flame shot out from the darkness, burning over Arthur’s head. Dreyfus muttered a quick arcane word and light filled the cave. A massive red dragon lurched toward them from the other end of the massive cavern. “Here we go.” Arthur drew his battleaxe and charged forward just as the door opened at the top of the stairs.

Arty turned from the table to look back at the stairs to the main floor and saw his father’s shoes coming down the stairs. The game froze as Mason stopped narrating the events of combat. Amy pulled out her cell phone and pretended to start texting. She wouldn’t be able to read during this. Richard cleaned his glasses on his robotics team t-shirt and started reading over his spells again. Jason put in his headphones and started blasting Metallica again. They all knew what was coming. They couldn’t roll initiative for this encounter. Arty would have to go this one alone.

Mr. Williams came down the stairs and looked over the table in disappointment. “Again?”

“Mom said they could come here tonight, sir,” Arty said, staring at the floor.

Mr. Williams, arms crossed, looked around at Arty’s friends. “Do you have all your homework done?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What time are they going home?” Mr. Williams glared at Mason. Mason stared right back.

“We’ll be done by 10, sir.”

“Make it 9:30.”

“But, Dad–” Arty tried to protest, but Mr. Williams just pointed at him with that look in his eyes: That look of disappointment mixed with frustration that parents give when a video game’s next save point is the priority over homework. Arty muttered a “Yes, sir,” as Mr. Williams climbed back up the stairs, leaving the door open a crack.

Jason whispered, “Dude, screw that guy.” Amy kicked him under the table.

Arty slumped in his chair. He looked down at his character sheet. Arthur Stormbearer. He’d come up with the name himself. Same with his backstory. Stormbearer wasn’t his given name, but it was the name the people of Brandwell had come to call him after he and Dreyfus managed to drive back an air elemental and water elemental that had been terrorizing their small town with their fighting. The elementals’ combat caused a storm around the town, and the two of them drove the elementals away and brought safety back to their village; thus, he was given the name “Stormbearer.”

Arty looked through the other pages of his character and found the portrait he had drawn of Arthur. A warrior with clearly defined muscles, a chiseled jaw, and eyes that pierced through any evil that was unfortunate enough to step in his path. He’d put so much time into this drawing. More than he put into most of his drawings. He remembered his favorite drawing. He had drawn a picture of a dragon in art class that he brought home to his mother. She loved it. She put it up on the refrigerator, where all masterpieces go, for the world to see. But it wasn’t long after Mr. Williams got home from work that it was torn off the fridge and ripped to shreds. Arty was sent to his room amidst shouts about “encouraging worthless pursuits” and something about “stems.” He shut himself in his room that night with his sketchbook as his parents’ voices echoed off the high ceilings of the foyer. His portrait that night, of a man setting foot on a foreign planet for the first time, was still stuffed in a shoebox tucked underneath his bed all these years later. Every now and then he would pull it out and take it all in again.

That fight was his favorite drawing.

“You okay, Arty?” Mason asked. He hated seeing Arty like this. Like the first day he’d met him, sitting alone at a table at lunch. “What are you drawing?” he’d asked.

“Oh, nothing,” Arty said while frantically stuffing his sketchbook in his backpack.

“Really? It looked pretty cool. Looked like a knight.”

“I mean, it isn’t anything special, really.”

“I don’t know, man, I can’t draw to save my life, so anything is better than what I can do. Can I take a look?” Arty looked around at the rest of the cafeteria before slowly retrieving his sketchbook from his backpack and sliding it across the table. “Dang, man. This is pretty good. Where’d you get the inspiration for this?”

“Well…” Arty talked for the next eight and a half minutes about this knight he’d been drawing. He went into detail on this knight’s past, his home, his family, his relationship with the king. The kid sitting across the table from him in that moment was a completely different person from the kid he’d approached a few minutes earlier. That was the Arty Williams that Mason knew.

Arty shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. We have a dragon to slay.” Mason forced a smile and rolled a 20-sided die.

Arthur drew his battleaxe and charged forward just as the dragon swept its claws at him. He cleaved its hand out of the way as a magic missile shot past him and hit the dragon square in the face. Clovis, still near the entrance to the cave played his lyre furiously, imbuing them all with strength as Ameria slashed the dragon from the sides.

Like clockwork, the four of them tore the dragon apart piece-by-piece, each person knowing exactly their role. Arthur, the barbarian, took much of the brunt force of the dragon as Amy, the assassin, carved her way through the beast’s scales from the sides. Meanwhile Dreyfus, calling out strategies for the rest of his team, did what he could to chip away at the dragon’s defenses from a distance while occasionally healing his comrades. And Clovis, singing songs of heroes of old, smiled as he thought of the places he’d be able to perform after telling this story.

This continued for several minutes. Dice were rolled, potions were used, and the four friends discussed and strategized, gradually bringing down the dragon’s health. Between dice rolls Mason looked at the door at the top of the stairs.

The dragon weakened. Dreyfus shouted from behind, “Arthur, now’s your chance! Go for the killing blow!” Arthur, battered and bruised, swept in once more and swung his mighty axe at the dragon’s head with all of his strength.

Mason rolled a d20. Everyone held their breath. Mason smiled.

The dragon’s head landed on the cave floor, its body lying ten feet away. Arthur, Ameria, Dreyfus, and Clovis, took a moment to catch their breath. Arty, Amy, Richard, and Jason celebrated with high fives and shouts of joy. A foot stomped on the floor upstairs and the four of them sat down again, still quietly celebrating their victory.

After healing themselves, the four adventurers made their way to the back of the cave where two massive doors awaited them. Arthur placed a hand on one, marveling at the architecture. Dwarven make, nearly as high as a giant, with the complete family tree of a race of dwarves long dead. He looked at Dreyfus. “Ready?”

Dreyfus grinned. “Always.” The two of them pushed open the doors. What they saw was beyond what they could have imagined. Mountains of gold in all shapes and sizes: Coins, jewelry, statues, goblets. Weapons and armor of the highest quality, though much of it wouldn’t fit them due to its size. Each piece an artifact of the finest dwarven craftsmanship. The four of them would be able to have whatever they desired with this wealth. But in this moment, they didn’t even notice the gold, the weapons, the armor. The four of them stopped still as they looked at the back of the hall where a man, in all black, sat on a solid gold throne.

Mason stopped talking. Silence filled the room. Several seconds went past. Amy couldn’t take it any more. “Who is it?” Mason looked down at the table for a moment. Then he looked at the door at the top of the stairs. Then he looked directly at Arty across the table from him.

“My son,” the old man said.

Amy, Richard, and Jason, all turned their attention from Mason to Arty. Arty sat in silence for a moment.

Arthur, the barbarian, uncharacteristically hesitant, took a step forward. “Father?”

“Yes, my son,” the old man said. “I knew that one day you would come for me.” Arthur walked toward the throne as his father continued. “All those years, I prepared you. Prepared you to be a warrior as well as a scholar. Prepared you to be a king. I came and prepared this wealth for you.”

Arthur stood directly in front of the throne. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. But this was most definitely his father. Hands, formerly prepared for battle, now weathered from a lack of use. Eyes, once filled with a passion and desire for power and riches, now sunken back and empty. Lifeless. The crown on his head, the crown of former King Lysandre, who was murdered by his father decades ago.

He recognized the man who had worked him nearly to death every day when he was just a boy. The man who kept him up late at night studying just to wake him up early the next morning to train again. The sword in the morning, the pen at night, until one day he suddenly disappeared, leaving his family and becoming king of Listeria overnight through betrayal.

“Now look at you. A barbarian, associating yourselves with thieves and wizards. Disgusting.” Arthur’s father spat on the floor. “But there is hope for you yet,” he said with an outstretched hand. “Take my throne. Become what you’re meant to be, my son.”

Memories flashed through Arthur’s mind. Cold water dumped on him to wake him up. Late nights spent writing when he could barely keep his eyes open. Crayon drawings torn off the fridge and thrown in the trash.

Richard, Amy, and Jason watched as Arty closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

“Father,” Arthur said, “Since I was a boy, I’ve wanted to go on adventures. I’ve wanted to see the world. And now I have.” He glanced back toward his friends, standing in silence at the main door to the hall. “And I’ve made some incredible friends along the way.”

He looked back to his father: old, dying, trapped. “Can’t you see what’s happened? Can’t you see the curse this treasure’s laid on you?” Arthur yanked his father’s amulet from around his neck. He ran his fingers over the engraving, For you, my son, and tossed it in his father’s lap. “I don’t want it. Any of it.” Several gold coins clattered on the ground as Ameria slapped them out of Clovis’s thieving hands. Arthur didn’t even notice the sound. “I refuse to follow in your footsteps if this is what is waiting for me.” He turned and made his way towards the doors where his friends waited for him. Clovis snuck a gold necklace, lined with rubies, into his pocket. No one noticed. They walked through the giant stone doors. Arthur turned back one more time. “Good-bye, Father.” And he sealed the king with his riches in his chambers, the doors never to be opened again.

Arty exhaled as Richard clapped him on the shoulder with a smile.

Jason laughed. “You guys are idiots. At least I still got something out of this.” Amy kicked him.

Mason looked knowingly toward the main floor as Mr. Williams, sitting at the top of the stairs, removed his glasses to wipe his eyes.

Confessions of a closet romantic

I hate romantic comedies. Like, really can’t stand them. “Blasphemy!” many of you will say. Cool. Awesome. I really don’t care. Go somewhere else if you want.

This subject kind of came up in a conversation last night, and I started thinking about why I hate them so much. There are a few reasons I don’t like romantic comedies. First off, every single one is just a variation of the same storyline. It’s always about Ryan Reynolds and anywhere between 1-3 women figuring out they’re in love. Generalization? Maybe. Fairly accurate? Yeah, I’d say so. (Seriously, Ryan Reynolds has been in a LOT of rom-coms.) But every romantic comedy has the same storyline, which I absolutely can’t stand. I like original stories. Plus all of the “comedy” in rom-coms is generally just taking advantage of obscenely awkward situations. I can’t sit through an episode of the Office without reverting to the fetal position due to the awkwardness. I don’t like it. Can’t do it. Uh-uh.

So that’s the first reason. Here’s the second reason I don’t like romantic comedies: The way things work out in those movies is absolute crap. I hate movies that are set in the “real world,” where everything works out absolutely perfect and after the guy’s car breaks down, his bicycle spontaneously combusts, and he accidentally starts World War 3, he still manages to get to the airport just before the woman he’s realized he loves gets on the plane to go pursue her dream of becoming a doctor in a third-world country. Then he says three magic words: “I love you.” Which, following the train of logic to its obvious conclusion, leads to the two of them getting married, having kids, and living happily ever after without ever having a single fight ever for the rest of their lives.

I get it, it’s for the sake of romance, and all of this guy’s efforts are to prove to the audience watching how much he cares. But here’s an interesting thought: What if the romance in these rom-coms — and romance movies, for that matter — is actually complete BS to begin with?

As I’ve kind of mentioned before, I am the physical incarnation of Charlie Brown. Like Charlie Brown became flesh and it’s me. I’m quite cynical, I’ll be perfectly honest. I’m very blunt and to the point, and my BS tolerance sits at a hot zero. Needless to say, I don’t get invited to parties much; I’m just wayyyy too much fun. But I feel like romance, as we seem to picture it today, is absolute garbage. It’s like social media: You see all of the best parts of it, with none of the bad. Everything you witness is absolutely perfect, even though shortly after the wedding at the end of the movie the newlyweds have a fight about who’s going to cut the roast chicken for dinner and never realized how difficult having to do life with another person like this was going to be. The relationships I have with my friends are more difficult than the relationships in romantic comedies. And I don’t have any sort of romantic pursuits with any of these people, which is where things start getting super difficult as you try to figure out how you operate together.

Romance has become this grand, incredibly emotional thing that only happens in movies. Young people say “I want a guy/girl like x,” and throw #relationshipgoals on couples that don’t exist in reality. These couples are more often than not just shells of human beings, with all of the good parts and none of the real ones.

Now, oddly enough, here’s where I have a confession to make: Deep down, I’m honestly a total romantic. I’m a complete sap, quite frankly. But I’m so opposed to what everyone considers romantic nowadays that it seems like I’m absolutely opposed to it completely. That’s really not the case at all. But the most romantic things that I’ve seen haven’t been in movies. In fact, they haven’t even been from newlyweds or people who are just dating.

More often than not, the most romantic things that I’ve ever seen are from people who are already married. And have been for a long time. For me, romance is the soldier overseas who surprises his wife on a trip home. Romance is the creative ways that a woman tells her husband she’s pregnant. Romance is the old couple holding hands sitting across from each other in the corner of a diner. Romance is the cup of coffee that a woman wakes up early to make for her husband every morning before he goes to work so he has one less thing to do in the morning. Romance is the husband who takes his kids out for breakfast early in the morning on a weekend so his wife can sleep in. And, from time to time, it’s the unique proposal after a dating relationship that’s been tried and true.

Am I some sort of expert on romance? Absolutely not, there’s tons of evidence to go against that. I’m clearly not one of the trolls from Frozen. I’ve never even been in a relationship before, what do I know?

Here’s what I know: Every now and then stories like this show up in my newsfeed on Facebook. Stories about real people. And I read or watch every. Single. One. These are the kinds of stories that nourish my soul, that give me hope for humanity and make me realize the lengths people are willing to go to for this crazy thing called love. These are small testimonies of people who have gone through the ringer — together — and are still willing to go the extra mile to prove to their partner that they care about them. When I see these, I smile, shed a man-tear or two, and then I go about my day a little better, a little more hopeful. Just because I’ve seen a glimpse of real, authentic love between two people.

So back to the whole #relationshipgoals thing that I mentioned earlier. Every now and then, very rarely, I feel like there are couples in fiction that really capture authentic human interaction and romance. Honestly, I have my own little Hollywood couple that I look up to as well, but I’m assuming that people wouldn’t even consider them in most cases. My #relationshipgoals couple is Rob and Laura Petrie from the Dick Van Dyke Show.

dick_van_dyke_petrie_family_1963

If you haven’t watched the Dick Van Dyke Show (you should), Rob and Laura Petrie, along with their son Ritchie, have a lot of interesting experiences. The show follows them through all seasons of life, some good days, some bad days. More bad days than good days, honestly. But Rob and Laura, in spite of everything, always make sure that they resolve whatever conflict they’re facing. There are multiple episodes where they fight with each other, but they always work together to make sure they’re on the same page again. There aren’t many fictional Hollywood couples that do that (or “real” Hollywood couples for that matter). They do all of this because they love each other. They couldn’t imagine life without the other after all these years. That kind of love, the kind that refuses to fall asleep without making sure that they’re okay first, is what I consider romantic.

So yeah, I hate romantic comedies. Why? Because I want to see real, genuine human interaction. I want to see the reality of what happens when two people are in love, not the social media-ready counterfeit. I want to see what happens when two people get kicked in the gut by life and decide to walk it out together. If there’s a rom-com out there that captures that sort of essence of humanity and the reality of human relationships, feel free to let me know. But it’ll probably still be horrifically awkward, so I probably still won’t watch it, just being real.

The Gray Area: A plea for a higher level of discourse

The world we live in — and especially the US — has become very polarized. I believe that this polarization has existed for a long time, but I feel that in the past couple decades the polarization has increased due to the development of an hypersensitivity, where everyone becomes easily offended by anything that they don’t agree with. This disagreement with a group or individual results in an inability to co-exist, where each side sticks solely to their views and refuses to sway from their own opinions, and, because of this dedication, refuses to come to any sort of mutual consensus to agree to disagree with opposing voices. I feel that this upcoming election is the perfect of example of this problem. There are two hyper-polarized ends of the spectrum, with very little in between, and people are taking sides, sometimes simply to make sure the person they don’t agree with doesn’t end up being elected.

But this election has also created a very interesting phenomenon. A growing number of people don’t buy into either end of the spectrum, realizing that both sides have distinct problems. A growing number of people are realizing that not everything is black and white, that there isn’t simply a right or wrong answer to everything.

In other words, there’s a growing number of people who believe that there is a gray area on many issues.

And I feel this group of people is growing.

As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, about a year ago I left a spiritually abusive church environment. This church approached everything — every issue — as black and white. When I left this church, I ended up swinging to the opposite end of the spectrum of everything that they believed, as some sort of revolt or rebellion against them. This only lasted a short while before I realized that the end of the spectrum opposite theirs also had its fundamental flaws. So then I was caught in an interesting dilemma: Which was correct? The conservative, white evangelicalism that I was basically raised with and had become further indoctrinated with through spiritual abuse? Or the more progressive Christianity that is opposed to “organized religion”?

Before long, I realized that my conscience wouldn’t let me commit fully to either camp. Each end had its merits, but they also had certain things that I didn’t agree with; things that Jesus isn’t about. Things that exclude people from the kingdom of heaven and completely demonize certain people or behaviors.

It was then that I realized there had to be an in between. Or, in other words, a gray area.

Now, there are some things that I believe are black and white. I’m a Christian, and I believe in salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. There are certain fundamental, foundational biblical principles that I do not and will not sway on. True conviction on select issues is life-giving. When you have something at the end of the day that you can plant your feet on know that nothing will move it, it makes it easier to sleep at night. There’s a reason Jesus is called the “cornerstone of our faith.”

There are some other not necessarily biblical issues that are black and white for me, as well. Art is important. Racism is wrong. Life is valuable. And everything is better with bacon.

But there are some issues that I’ve lived in the gray area on for a long time. For example, creation. I believe that God created the universe. But within that reality, there are a lot of variables. There are people who believe in the literal interpretation of Scripture, that God creating the universe and everything in it in seven literal days. There’s also a growing number of people who are in essence “Christian evolutionists,” who believe that God used evolution as a means to create life and — ultimately — man. People are very polarized and divided on this issue. Denominations of Christianity have divided because of the debate of creation, families have been torn apart by it.

Here’s my stance: I don’t really care.

At the end of the day, whether the earth was made in seven days or over the course of billions of years does not change the fact that I believe God made it. And it also doesn’t change the fact that, before the beginning of time, God planned a great work in advance to send his own Son to live a perfect life as a human being and be executed by his own people so that we could be reconciled with him. So I don’t really care about the details of how the earth was made. It could be billions of years old, it could be thousands of years old. Besides, I won’t know for sure how it all happened until I get to ask God face-to-face, anyway. So why bother worrying so much about it now? (I have an interesting quirk in that I don’t really need an answer for everything. There are a lot of things that I’m willing to take at face value. It has its negative aspects, but it also has its benefits. Some people need an answer for everything, and will pursue an answer until the find one. I don’t need an answer for everything. So I end up being content a lot sooner. But then I don’t always have proof or evidence for what I’ve come to accept, which is where the occasional negative part comes into play. But I digress.)

I know that not everyone will settle with remaining in the gray area on most issues. In fact, I’m sure most people will still believe that things are pretty black and white. They will continue to have strong opinions and beliefs and they will continue to hold to them. And let me make this clear: That’s not a bad thing. Again, having strong opinions on things can be a good thing. When having strong opinions becomes dangerous is when people refuse to engage in conflict with opposing voices. The hypersensitivity that has developed in recent years, along with the development of social media, has caused people to simply react to things. When something or someone offends an individual, that individual will often just go off on whatever or whoever offended them. This causes a huge problem, because it results in hyper polarization, as all parties involved disengage from the other, and start throwing insults and slander around about the other group. Groups demonize any and all opposing groups, and opposing groups respond in turn. So everyone ends up just being angry and no one listens to anything any more.

I’m not asking for people to let go of their convictions and beliefs. What I’m asking for is conversation. There is something to be said for listening to both sides of the story. Rather than sticking to your guns and shooting down every word of an opposing argument, there’s a lot of merit to approaching the situation at hand with empathy, and trying to look at it from the other person’s perspective. At the very least, you will be able to gain an insight into how this person is approaching the argument, rather than just sticking to your own argument and refusing to allow anyone else to have an opinion or a voice.

I’m not asking people to give up their convictions. This is a plea for a higher level of discourse.

Everything has become a shouting match rather than an actual debate. Discussion will at least enable people to approach opposition with empathy rather than anger. And, once the dust has settled, it’s entirely possible an agreement hasn’t been reached. And that’s okay. Part of being human is realizing people are different than you and that they won’t always agree with you. That doesn’t mean you can’t associate with that person. In fact, I’d highly recommend having friends with opinions different from your own. If you only interact with people who agree with you on everything, you won’t grow as a person. Conflict fosters growth.

As Mike McHargue has said, human beings are a social species, and refusing to interact with people simply based on different beliefs is not the way we should approach life. It’s only through discussion and engaging in conflict that we’ll be able to grow and progress.

I believe that letting go of issues as being purely black and white can be very beneficial. Nowadays, I sit in the gray area on most controversial issues. I do my best to listen to both sides of most arguments so that I can come to an informed decision. But oftentimes I can’t side completely with either side. Because oftentimes each side has important points that, contrary to popular belief, don’t conflict with each other, but can actually exist together. And each side also generally has points that don’t make sense. Or are just ridiculous. And so I choose to sit in the gray area. And if I disagree with people on these issues, that’s absolutely fine. I’ll still love them anyway.

We need to stop causing division and just accept the fact that people won’t always agree with us. It’s not our responsibility to change their minds. And it isn’t their responsibility to change ours. If anything, it’s our responsibility to engage with conflict, have intelligent, logical conversation and debate, and not cause division because of petty disagreement. If people were more accepting of the reality that not everything is black and white, and that disagreement shouldn’t result in shattered community, I do honestly believe that the world would be a better place. Rather than focusing on the areas where you disagree with people, find the things you agree on. And come together with creative ways to focus on the good things and bring about peace and change.

 

Write Something Good: A plea for quality art

In the past month or so, I’ve had two separate and drastically different movie-going experiences. The first, I went to see Suicide Squad the second week it was out. The second, I went and saw Kubo and the Two Strings with some friends of mine.

Now, let me make one thing abundantly clear. I am a DC fanboy through and through. I grew up watching Batman and Superman and I’ve read DC comics for as long as I can remember. I can go on and on about how much I love Batman, and the reasons why Nightwing is my favorite superhero, and why I have a polarizing love/hate relationship with Superman. I love the DC universe and everything about it, and I’m super stoked that DC Rebirth has been doing so well.

But the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is a trash fire. I won’t go into everything, because I could literally talk for hours about the travesty that Zack Snyder has created (I’m very opinionated if you haven’t noticed), but let’s just say that I’ve been burned by two DC movies this year: Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad. The two movies suffer from different problems (BvS has too many to count), but one of the biggest things Suicide Squad suffered from was poor writing.

This poor writing manifested itself in a few ways. Namely confusing or non-existent character motivation and development, sloppy, awkward dialogue, and mischaracterization of characters who have very rich backgrounds that have been developed over 30+ years. The movie also suffers from producers getting too involved in the director’s vision, but that’s a different issue. I think that the actors (Margot Robbie in particular) did a pretty good job considering what they were given. But the plot was really convoluted and ultimately really didn’t make sense. I did enjoy the movie at certain points, but it was ultimately really disappointing due to garbage writing.

Kubo, however, was a different story. Kubo was made by the same studio that made Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. Kubo is one of the best movies I’ve seen in theaters in the past few years. Kubo is beautifully animated, and has one of the most archetypal “hero’s journey” stories that I have ever seen. It follows the hero’s journey beat-for-beat, while creating compelling examples of the meaning of family, the importance of storytelling, and the pain of loss. The story, while fairly predictable, is beautifully written, the characters are authentic and well-developed within the short run time of the film, and I was still pondering the movie’s thought-provoking themes hours after I’d left the theater.

Now. Here are some numbers for you.

Suicide Squad released on August 6 in the US, and was made with a budget of $175 million. As of today, it’s made $640 million in the box office. It has a 27% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 67% user rating.

Kubo and the Two Strings released on August 19 in the US, and was made with a budget of $60 million. As of today, it’s made $30.5 million in the box office. It has a 97% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an 88% user rating.

There are definitely some things that factor into this. Kubo appeals primarily to families with children, while Suicide Squad appeals to a significantly wider audience, especially millennials, who are currently the largest living generation in the US.* Suicide Squad is also the third movie within the DCEU, and was preceded by Man of Steel and BvS, so the anticipation was high (and much of the advertising for this movie was driven by the Joker, who ended up being in the movie for about 10 minutes). Many people thought this could be DC’s chance to get back in the game for movies after Marvel’s success…And they suuuuuper blew it.

All this to say, I have problems with this reality. And questions.

Why do bad movies make so much money?

Why do good movies, even if they’re children’s movies, sometimes hardly make any money?

Why do people keep pumping money into movies that are bad? And do the people making these movies seriously not know the movie’s bad before they release it?

Why do people spend so much time and energy perpetuating bad storytelling, while good storytelling gets left by the wayside?

As always, I’m not an expert in this area. I don’t claim to be. I might end up making claims and saying things that don’t make sense in the “real world.” And this is kind of a rant that I’m just word vomiting onto a page and then posting. I’m completely open to comments and discussion. But this is incredibly frustrating.

Much of this is based around advertising. Suicide Squad had a pretty good advertising campaign, and many early trailers got me excited for the movie. Our culture is also really into the interconnected movie universe thing right now. Which, as much as I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, they’ve created something unique that has cursed much of the rest of modern cinema. Everyone tries to create movies that connect to something else, and it all ends up being ridiculously complicated. Oftentimes they don’t even tell a full story within a single movie, as the movie is basically being used to set up a sequel. When people are focused on the property they’re setting up, the writing of the current story suffers. People also are really focused on trying to write these intricate, complex stories with some sort of twist ending, and then they end up not recognizing the numerous gaping plotholes and faulty character motivations they’ve created. So many movies are created to make money, rather than to create art that can be appreciated for its intrinsic value. Nowadays many movies don’t have much intrinsic value. Superhero movies, as much as I love them, are starting to become a disease.

And here’s my point here.

Write. Something. Good.

Please.

So much of modern cinema is about pandering to the culture in order to make the money that they put into the movie back and set up the next movie they have planned. But I would venture to say that many of these movies that have come out in recent years will be completely forgotten in around twenty years. The most well-remembered, culturally relevant and impactful movies that end up having a lasting impact are often the most well-written. They have authentic, realistic characters and an interesting story that doesn’t obviously contradict itself. And, and this is one of the most important elements to me, they say something. And they say something compelling. That’s why I love Kubo so much. It’s a beautiful movie with interesting characters, a simple, easy-to-follow story, and it conveyed several important, compelling messages.

Let me make something else clear: I’m not opposed to complex stories. One of my favorite stories I’ve ever encountered is the Zero Escape series of video games, which (in my opinion) is one of the most convoluted, confusing stories ever written. Over the course of three games, it takes the time to explain to you all of the different confusing aspects and how they all interconnect to make one story. But what I love about it is that it also has interesting, well-developed characters, and has a fascinating commentary on the importance of decision making, questions reality, plays off probability and chance, and asks questions about the Many-Worlds Theory. I’ve spent hours playing these games, and many more hours thinking about all of the different questions and arguments it poses.

Please stop making art that panders to the culture and then fails to say anything at all. Or just stop writing garbage. There’s something to be said for a simple hero’s journey that doesn’t confuse your audience and has a clear message. Not everything has to be a big spectacle. In this culture we live in, it’s unfortunately possible that your art may not be successful if it’s not a big spectacle. But if it’s inherently bad, it definitely won’t be. Please, just write something good.

 

*http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/25/millennials-overtake-baby-boomers/

Spiritual Abuse: My experience and recovery

On October 30th of last year, I attended a social event with my church on campus at CU. It was an incredibly fun evening, as it was our Halloween celebration, so everyone from the church was there and everyone was dressed up in their costumes. That evening, I spent time with some of the closest friends I’ve ever had in my lifetime, people that I’ve done life with and who I’ve had countless fun experiences and incredible conversations with. And as I left the party that night, I left knowing that I would most likely never see most of the people in that room ever again.

Simply because I was leaving the church.

Let’s rewind two years, to the beginning of my freshman year of college.

In August of 2013, I was setting foot on CU’s campus for the first time as a student, attending band camp for marching band as all first-year instrumental Music Education majors are required to do. At the time, I was interning at my then-current church, an internship that would end shortly after the start of the next year. I was looking for a new community of Christians, specifically people my age, to get connected and grow in community with. It was in these first few weeks during band camp and the early weeks of school that I met Sarah. I still firmly believe that Sarah is the closest and dearest friend that I have ever had. In my first few weeks on campus, Sarah and I spent a considerable amount of time together, discussing our interests, our lives and histories, and some of the finer points of faith. She invited me to come visit her church sometime, which wasn’t really possible at the time because of my internship.

During my first semester, I visited a few different campus ministries and got connected with one of the campus evangelists from Sarah’s church after hanging out with people at the events they hosted on Friday nights. He and I would meet and discuss the Bible and different Bible studies that his church made once a week. I didn’t always understand or agree with some of the things in these Bible studies when I first read them, but he was usually able to reference certain scriptures that would make me accept them. Once the second semester started, my internship ended and I was able to visit Sarah’s church. This church was filled with young people, people my age who were passionate about Jesus and sold out for Him.

And that was exactly what I was looking for.

Early on, I had my hesitations with this church because I had concerns with some of their odd exclusivity; There were certain things that made them seem like some sort of weird club, namely their special Saturday meetings that only members of the church were allowed to go to. But, as they continually referenced different scriptures to justify their reasonings for what they do, my defenses were gradually broken down and I eventually decided to become a member of their church.

During my 15-or-so month stint at this church, I made some of the closest friends I’ve ever had, and I felt for one of the first times in my life that I truly belonged. I also was gradually enlightened to all of the things that I was doing horribly wrong in my life and needed to change, was taught how to submit to and obey authority, was encouraged to practically sever all ties with my family, was taught legalism as some sort of misunderstood grace, and gradually lost who I was; My personality, my humanity, my calling, my agency.

What I endured during that time was a year and a half of spiritual abuse.

There were multiple instances during this time that my mom approached me and asked me to consider leaving; Each time I said no. Until, through miraculous circumstances, people who I’ve never met who live in Arizona got in contact with my mother and knew about my situation and certain situations happening behind the scenes at the church I had come to call home. I had had multiple instances of doubt and considered leaving the church multiple times during my time there, but the people on staff always convinced me otherwise, that Satan or demons or the fear of man or whatever were trying to make me leave. But this intervention from people several states away whom I’ve never met before was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I determined that October 30th, 2015 was the last event I would attend with this church, and that I’d never go to that church on Sunday ever again.

I left campus that night and haven’t seen or heard from most those people since.

Unfortunately, I knew it was coming.

On November 2nd (or perhaps a day or two after, I’m not entirely sure when anymore), I sat down with Sarah to break the news to her, that I was leaving. She knew what this meant as well. She was my closest friend, even in spite of the church intervening in our friendship, telling her on more than one occasion that she basically couldn’t be friends with me any more because we were getting too close (in one instance, we literally didn’t speak for two or three months because of this). But the fact that I was leaving meant that, most likely, we would never see each other again. Though at the time we both reached a conclusion that neither of us wanted that, I believe that deep down we both knew that would be the case. I reached out to my other close circle of friends as well and notified them that I’d be leaving. At the time, they were very accepting, and said that they still wanted to keep in contact with me, that I was still welcome to come over and hang out with them, that they didn’t want me to be completely cut out of their lives. Less than a week later, they changed their minds, deciding to cut all ties. The worst part was that I still had stuff at their house that I needed to get back. When I went to their house to retrieve it, they simply sat in the other room, continuing their conversation, denying my presence and existence for about half an hour as I separated out two sets of a card game that we had mixed together. Those were the most painful thirty minutes of my life.

I left their house that night and haven’t seen any of them since.

Sarah and I still had classes together for the rest of the semester and things were still civil and, honestly, completely normal, as if nothing had happened, until the end of finals. The last day I saw Sarah that year, I didn’t say good-bye. I knew it would be too difficult. The only time I’ve seen Sarah since that day was when I helped one of her roommates, one of my fellow excommunicatees who left shortly before I did, move out. There were few words exchanged and you could feel the tension in the room.

I left her house that day and haven’t seen or heard from her since.

Though I did recently send her a message just giving an update on how I’m doing since I left. Which I don’t believe she’s read and hasn’t responded to. Not that I expect her to.

This church I became a member of thrives off exclusivity. They don’t associate with other churches besides their sister churches, and when people leave on terms they don’t agree with, they cut all ties, leaving the person isolated and alone. I, along with so many other people, made friends at school within that church and nowhere else. So when people want to leave, they have no one and nowhere else to go. This can cause people not to leave in the first place, though if they do they often don’t know what to do after that.

This is what spiritual abuse looks like.

Spiritual abuse isn’t talked about much in most circles, though it’s a common thread through many different churches and denominations. It’s also a main reason people decide to leave their faith and hate the church. There are actually several books and articles on the subject if you know what to look for. In their book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen define spiritual abuse, saying that

Spiritual abuse can occur when a leader uses his or her spiritual position to control or dominate another person. It often involves overriding the feelings and opinions of another, without regard to what will result in the other person’s state of living, emotions or spiritual well-being.”

Spiritual abuse involves taking people and turning them into obedient, subservient shells of human beings in the name of Christ. This involves different levels of severity of leaders using these people for personal gain. In some situations, the pastor, or whoever may be in charge, may even use church finances for their own luxury, spending it on cars, houses, vacations, among many other things. In my own experience, there didn’t seem to be as much abuse for personal gain as in other scenarios, but there was a very clear hierarchical pyramid scheme in my environment. A pyramid scheme that was based entirely around submission to authority, the main authority being held by a single person.

Mary Demuth, a Christian writer and blogger who also does speaking tours around the world, identified ten main aspects of spiritually abusive ministries that I’ve abridged:

Spiritually abusive ministries…

  1. Have a distorted view of respect.
  2. Demand allegiance as proof of the follower’s allegiance to Christ.
  3. Use exclusive language.
  4. Create a culture of fear and shame.
  5. Often have a charismatic leader at the helm who starts off well, but slips into arrogance, protectionism, and pride.
  6. Cultivate a dependence on one leader or leaders for spiritual information.
  7. Demand servanthood from their followers, but live prestigious, privileged lives.
  8. Buffer [themselves] from criticism by placing people around themselves whose only allegiance is to the leader.
  9. Hold to outward performance but rejects authentic spirituality.
  10. Use exclusivity for allegiance.*

These ten aspects of spiritually abusive environments are a good measure and indicator when trying to recognize these environments. My church exhibited all ten of these to some degree. The control exhibited over followers or members can also delve into the realms of financial, emotional, relational, and, obviously, spiritual control. They will tell you what to feel, who to be friends with, what to believe, when and how much to give financially to the church. They will gradually break you down piece by piece, picking apart your personality until you’re whittled down to fit the mold they believe to be Christ-like living. In my situation specifically, control was forced onto children within the church. In this church, all children are literally beaten into submission, justifying physical abuse with scriptures like Proverbs 22:15, which says “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of discipline will remove it far from him.” So the rod of discipline is used as the solution to all instances of a child acting out at whatever age. More spankings are encouraged for children who have mental handicaps. I didn’t really know about any of this until after I left, unfortunately.

This control has an incredibly powerful detrimental effect on people, and it can even be multiplied when people leave or attempt to leave these environments. Mike McHargue, commonly known as Science Mike, was asked how he would define spiritual abuse, and what happens to the brain when one experiences it. This was his response:

“I think when we hold our ideas and agreement on ideas as a test for fellowship in our life, that borders on spiritual abuse: ‘What you believe is more important than what you do.’ If people are doing harmful behaviors, confront them in love. But if people just believe things and we start to ostracize them and push them out of communities, it creates this state in the brain of escalated stress hormones, of reduced pre-frontal activity, because we’re a social species…Our only hope as a species is to stick together. And so we have an existential angst about rejection when we kick people out of churches or use the connection people feel, the good sense of connection religious communities offer, as a way to marshall people, and control them. Spiritual abuse and religious PTSD are inevitable results.”**

My own personal friendship and fellowship was based on agreement with the ideas of the church. When I decided I didn’t agree any more, they decided that they could not, and would not, associate with me any more. Their reasoning is that I would be a detriment to them; That I would corrupt their way of thinking and the unity (or mindless subservience) that they had established. When I left this church, I didn’t know what to do. I had lost my closest friends over night. I didn’t quite spiral into depression, but I was about two steps away from the edge of that cliff. I’m fortunate enough to have friends and family who live here and love and care for me dearly, but some of my friends who left that church and some people who are still there, having moved to Colorado from out of state, don’t have those faith communities to fall back on.

When I left this church, I had to re-learn so many things: Who I was, what I believed, what grace was and how it operated in my life. I also had to rewire my brain to block out the exclusive judgmentalism that the church had developed deep inside me. I’m still working through some of these things. All this to say, leaving wasn’t easy. It hurt. And I’m still recovering from the after-effects. Science Mike described his experience leaving his church when defining spiritual abuse:

“…When I left my Southern Baptist church, I went to pieces and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to go to therapy for weeks. And weeks, and weeks. And that leaving the church where my oldest daughter was baptized, and that I got married at the altar, hurt a lot more than when my parents got divorced. That leaving that church was a death in my life.”

Suffering from spiritual abuse is painful. But leaving the environment is just as painful, if not more so. And the fear of dealing with that pain, the fear of going through what people may have seen some of their closest friends go through, can cause people to remain in it, to continue submitting to the authorities that have worked so hard to break them and control them.

But even with the pain involved, if you happen to be in a spiritually abusive environment, my one exhortation is this: Leave. Get out as soon as possible. Staying in that environment is only toxic, and even though the church will try to convince you otherwise, you won’t grow in your faith. I firmly believe that faith grows through questioning it and God giving you the answers. When that pathway for growth is restricted by spiritual leaders, growth is practically impossible. So you need to leave. And, speaking from experience, it will hurt. A lot.

But there is hope. If you have suffered or are suffering from spiritual abuse, there is hope. When Science Mike was asked to define spiritual abuse, he was also asked how people can recover from spiritual abuse. He boils it down into a three-step process that I believe covers all of the bases. I’ll reflect on my own experiences with these steps here, too.

Step 1: Grieve.

Don’t try to be tough about it. Don’t try to avoid it. When we experience pain, oftentimes we try to turn away from it or leave it behind. My exhortation would be to face it head on. Press into it. Trying to put it in a box in the closet doesn’t change the fact that it’s there; If you don’t deal with it and allow yourself time to grieve (and honestly wallow in misery for a little bit), healing won’t come as easy, if it comes at all. If you’re not familiar with them, there are five stages of loss and grief: Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. And sometimes all of them happen at the same time. Journaling, praying, and talking with people you trust through these phases are really good options to help you get through it. The best therapy I’ve had was talking through my experiences and pain with my friend Seth, who went through experiences similar to my own not long ago. Over six months later, I’m still working through my own grief. It takes time. It doesn’t happen overnight. For some people, actual therapy may be a really good option. It will still take time. But have hope that things will get better.

Step 2: Re-engage with the Church.

This step will happen at different times for different people. Some people need to jump into a new church right away, some people need to take some time away from church to sort through their own issues with the capital-C Church during their phases of grieving. But, ultimately, you need to re-engage with the Church. Not the same church you went to before, obviously, but a different one. When it comes to finding the “right church,” I thoroughly appreciate Science Mike’s approach:

“One, your faith community must affirm, accept, and celebrate exactly who you are today. In all your beauty and all your warts. Your church has to love it. But your church must also challenge you to become who God is making you…It’s really just a two-prong formula: Accepts you as you are, helps you grow to who God is making you.”

That’s really the key. Find a community of believers who accept you as you are today. You’ll have questions. You’ll likely be angry and confused. Find people who are okay with that. And, more importantly, are more than willing help you on your quest to find answers. For me, due to the fortunate situation I was in, I was able to find a church that does exactly that. It’s a church filled with people who really, authentically love Jesus (even the people on staff, which is honestly surprising in most mainstream churches today), who engage with their community, who pursue issues of social justice, and who love like Jesus. One of my church’s vision statements is that “We believe it’s okay not to be okay.” But my church also believes it’s not okay to stay that way. And that “We don’t go it alone.”*** Find a community of believers who accept you as you are today and help you grow into the person you were created to be. It may take some time, but it’s so worth it.

Step 3: Recognize the way your experience can and will transform the way that you love other people.

In our world today, it can often seem like the church does more harm than good. We live in a country full of spiritually abused people. They may not have a name for it, but so many people have been affected by spiritual abuse. Those of us who have gone through it and lived to tell the tale have an opportunity to touch the lives and hearts of those who may be in the thick of it, or who may be in the middle of their own stages of grief. We have an opportunity to be a light in the darkness they’ve found themselves in. So many people today have been hurt by the Church. So have we. The difference is that we can turn it around and speak into other peoples’ lives from it. I firmly believe in the promise of Romans 8:28, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” I believe that my experience at this church will be used for good. My experience at this church awakened me to what I believe to be my own mission field in my own ministry in the future. While I can’t say I’ve particularly enjoyed the experience, I wouldn’t trade where I’m at with God now because of it for anything. My heart’s been broken for people who have been hurt by the church, either by its action or its inaction. And there’s a desire in my heart to help people in those situations that wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t gone through my own experience with spiritual abuse.

At the end of the day, the main issue with spiritually abusive communities is that they aren’t representative of Jesus and who He is and what He stands for. Jesus is about service and surrender. Spiritually abusive churches teach service that benefits those higher up in their pyramid scheme. Jesus taught love and acceptance. Spiritually abusive churches teach judgment and exclusivity. Jesus taught that we are saved by grace through faith. Spiritually abusive churches teach that you need to fit the Christ-like mold they’ve designed, and not fitting into it means you are not aligned with Christ. Jesus pursues us even on days when we are angry with Him, when we don’t know where He is or if He even exists. Spiritually abusive churches cut ties as soon as you decide you don’t agree with them any more.

I’m still dealing with my own grief and recovery from leaving this church. I’m still harboring bitterness and anger and resentment toward them in my heart. But, when it comes down to it, I still love each and every one of them. And I pray that my friends — that Sarah — will realize the lies they’re being told, and that they’ll wake up to the reality of who Jesus really is and what He truly stands for. I hope that I’ll have the opportunity to reconnect with them again in this lifetime. But if not, I’ll wait until I see them on the other side.

As my final thought, I figured I’d share one final anecdote from a friend of mine. My friend Seth who I mentioned before has a specific story about leaving his church that has basically become my own mission statement when it comes to spiritual abuse. When he and his wife were leaving their church, his wife was still on staff at the time and decided to go into the church’s database to remove the two of them from the church membership archives. When she went to change their status, there were three check boxes that members could be categorized in: Dead, Missing, or Heretic. Only three options. Because simply deciding this toxic environment wasn’t one you belonged in any more isn’t an option. She checked the box for “Heretic” and left.

I’m a heretic.

But at the end of day, I’d rather be a heretic who loves and pursues Jesus with everything that I have than a lifeless shell of a human being that’s been forced into the mold deemed acceptable.

So if you’re in a spiritually abusive environment, please, come join me and countless others here in the body of Christ who would love nothing more than to meet you where you’re at and help you become who you’re meant to be.

Be a heretic.

 

P.S. — If you are currently in a spiritually abusive environment, I really do believe you need to get out as soon as possible. What I would recommend is connecting with someone outside of your church; It could be your family, a local campus ministry, or the pastor of another church, and get help leaving. Find people to fall back on. And then once you’re out, don’t turn back. Move forward. When I left my church, the biggest thing for me was re-learning the reality of grace. The best thing I’ve found for that is the book Proof: Finding Freedom Through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace, by Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones. When it comes to dealing with the pain and the grief that comes with leaving, take time to press into it. I would recommend going to therapy to work through some of the more deeper-rooted issues you may not be able to recognize right away, but talking through your pain with trusted friends can be incredibly therapeutic as well.

 

P.P.S. — If you aren’t in a spiritually abusive environment but know someone who is, please, try to help them. They will most likely be resistant, and their church will most likely try to convince them not to leave, but trying is better than leaving them to suffer without doing anything. As someone who is able to see things from the other side, please, do what you can to help them, before it’s too late.

 

*For more details and information from this article, read it here: http://www.marydemuth.com/spiritual-abuse-10-ways-to-spot-it/

**I reference this several times throughout this blog. To hear Mike McHargue’s full answer, listen here, starting around 11:28. http://mikemchargue.com/asksciencemike/2016/4/10/episode-64-ask-science-mike-live-in-ventura-ca

***Taken from Northern Hills’s “Our Story” page: http://nhills.org/our-story-2/