Monday, December 19, 2022

Examination of Conscience: Innocence

    I've been writing a lot lately about sin, examination of conscience, confession, and how important it all is for psychological and spiritual growth. Today I want to say something about a very different aspect of self-examination, which is discerning when we have not been wrong. The truth is that victims of certain kinds of traumas -- especially any form of child abuse or neglect (physical, emotional, or spiritual), sexual trauma, or intimate partner violence -- are likely to carry a load of guilt and shame that doesn't belong to us. Rightly, it belongs to the perpetrator of the abuse. We may understand that rationally, and shame may co-exist with rage. But still, we carry it, and it can be crippling.

    The thing is, the mind is very ingenious about shielding us from immediate pain, and very stupid about balancing that against lasting pain. When we are hurt by someone in a position of power over us, our minds naturally go reaching for some way to make it stop. We want to believe it is our fault, because that would mean that we have the power to make it go away. If we could just figure it out. If we could just do everything right, we could keep the bad things from happening. If I get straight As, or make the varsity team, Dad will pay attention to me. If I never cry or complain about anything, Mom won't get drunk. If I wear baggy clothes and no makeup, I won't get groped. If I keep my head down and my mouth shut, the kids won't bully me.

    It doesn't work. We cannot control other people's behavior. Especially we couldn't when we were just children. But it seems that powerlessness is even scarier than failure, guilt and low self-esteem, so we go there. And we get stuck there, even long after we are no longer at the mercy of the bad guys. We get stuck in that fight or flight, freeze or fawn response, and we keep playing it out as adults, in situations where all we really have to do is say "no," push firmly back, or walk away. 

    Why do we get stuck? Because even years later, the emotions triggered by the trauma are too intense to face head-on. If we could do that, if we could look straight at it, we could see that it's not actually anything like the present. We could see that what happened in the past is not OK, we don't have to expect it in the present, we have options. We can be our own, wiser authority figures, and establish boundaries which we are not willing to cross, or to let others cross. We might still get hurt, and some of our choices might still be hard ones. In fact, none of us is entirely autonomous or perfectly safe, and some of us are far more vulnerable than others. But still, as adults, we do have power that we lacked as children -- if only we claim it.

    But claiming our power and freeing ourselves from the trauma of the past requires that scary, painful step of facing the trauma. We have to look at it. We have to feel it. We have to remember the stories of our lives -- which hurts -- and then we get to reinterpret them based on our grown-up understanding and autonomy. Doing this hurts ... but so does not doing it. Unhealed trauma hurts forever, but it's a hurt we're used to, we know how to cope with it. Healing trauma hurts like hell, for a while. Maybe even for a few years, while we peel away one layer after another, like the layers of an onion. And you know how onions make you cry....

    Sometimes we resist excavating our past trauma because we believe in the virtue of forgiveness. We think that naming and blaming is antithetical to forgiveness. But, my friends, that is a fallacy. True forgiveness, the kind of forgiveness that sets both parties free, has to mean forgiving what was actually done. Forgiveness is not brushing it off, minimizing it, excusing it, pretending it's not that bad. That is to true forgiveness as hero-worship, or infatuation with someone's public image, is to true unconditional love.  

    What I want to say is that discerning where we are not guilty is also an essential part of a thorough examination of conscience, the kind that actually carries us forward to healing and growth. Guilt and, especially, shame hold us back, whether we have earned them for ourselves or acquired them by the twisted path of trauma. What is important, always, is to understand what's really going on within us. 

    And after all that, a caution: being the grown-up now, having the power to shield yourself from further trauma, also means exercising care toward yourself. Trauma is not healed by excavating it with a bulldozer. Bashing into it headfirst might be re-traumatizing. It doesn't get better overnight. Take it slowly. Find someone to support you through it, if possible. Pray and/or meditate. Remember to involve your body, your senses, and don't believe everything you think. Remember, your mind will try to protect you by telling you lies. Exercise, walk in nature, create artwork, listen to music, hug a friend or a pet. Don't rush. 

    Don't rush it -- but know that on the other side of trauma healing there is life, more abundant. There is peace, and freedom, and energy, and self-confidence, and hope for the future, and healthy relationships. There is another side. The only way to it is through it. God bless you and keep you on your journey.

>>>>> PEACE <<<<< 

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