Unwanted Reality

5/24/2023   by Matt Lewellyn

We love to have victories to write about. We want those times that the deal was closed, the money was made, the addiction was broken, the lost soul was saved, the anxiety or depression resolved... And at least in America, we have a fascination with putting people on pedestals, just because they found one weird trick to fix the common bugaboo.

But life often does not give us that victory. Thing is, that doesn't necessarily mean you're doing it wrong. There is an inner process to every struggle we experience - one in which we should try to become closer to the heart of Jesus. When you're in the struggle, though, the very thought of trying to become close to the heart of Jesus adds a new depth to the struggle, because we so often just fail at that.

There is supreme value in writing about the unresolved struggle - that's one of the core tenets of this whole "fog life" idea. We write from within the tempest, because here is where the clash is most clear. If we step out of the fog, what was in it becomes a nebulous gray mass. Inside, we can better see the paths, swirling mists, and pitfalls.

Let's be honest with ourselves: parenting is one of those categories where victory is difficult to define, much less obtain. We're always in process there, aren't we? If we "win" the baby/toddler stage, our kids may hit another stage of development that we didn't anticipate. If we even get them through to adulthood, that's no guarantee they'll make good, godly choices throughout their lives.

If you are accustomed to traversing a foggy depth in your inner experience, you've probably built some coping mechanisms into your daily routine. We live with our own patterns all our lives. If we are able to learn from them, we can set some things in order to head off the patterns we want to avoid.

Our coping is initially of a more rigid nature - flexibility feels risky, and we're trying to establish a more neutral neural baseline. The rigidity helps our brains to begin adjusting, as we bring some new input to our patterns. We're trying to rewire some of those brain pathways.

Unfortunately, life doesn't wait for our process to finish before we're tested. The day comes that you discover that one of your children is also in that fog. You start to hear all kinds of acronyms to describe the consistent patterns of behavior. Being functional is a struggle, feeling less-than comes quite naturally. And those practiced coping mechanisms just aren't there.

Our own experience of the fog intersects with our child's, and we get to help guide them through an inner world of experience we often barely know ourselves. Thing is, their patterns may not be at all similar to ours. And our ways of coping may not help them.

Sometimes the way our children act out their inner experience can throw us for a loop. If the behavior is extreme enough, we have to parent more creatively. That is, we have to come up with a well-reasoned approach to consistently manage that behavior, so that the child both knows it is unacceptable and is not permanently harmed by it.

Extreme behavior is, well, extreme. The older the child is, the more extreme that behavior is, by definition. It takes a major toll on both the child and the parent. Not just when it's happening, either - there is a tightness we parents feel when our brains and bodies have learned that our child can just kick off for any reason. When we don't know what the next trigger will be, no matter how small. No matter how well the rest of the day has gone... No matter how nice we have been.

We are the adults in the situation, so we have to handle our own emotions in the moment and steel ourselves to what is happening. That's hard. It takes a lot of energy. Having a settled process to manage the situation is one thing, and at a certain level, following the process is easy. But it's never easy to get screamed at and accused of all manner of atrocious and outlandish things.

We have a core instinct to try to resolve a child's distress. In this broken world, that means a child's behavior can split the parent between instinct, empathy, and rational forward-looking process. Managing that split and trying to maintain a wholistic perspective while the child drives the wedge in the cracks? That consumes mental real-estate - and something has to give. It can be harder to focus at work. It can become impossible to do extra projects around the house. Or it can make the very idea of getting out of bed in the morning unappealing.

We want our lives to show an upward trajectory. We want our trials to project toward solutions and resolutions. We like to see improvement in our struggles. Every time the moaning and screaming start, it feels like abject failure. And that is what projects forward - the knowledge that we don't know how long it will take to get better. Or if it will get better. Or if it will get better, then relapse again in the future.

Now all of this will sound like blaming the child. But this reflection isn't about the child - it's about parenting (and living, surviving) through these things. The feeling of failure stirs up all kinds of shame-filled memories. The nature of inner experience is that one thing feels like another, so our brains start pulling threads together and tying them off.

And when we sit on it for a while, and let some of the dust settle, one question remains: God, if you called me to parent, to foster, to adopt, why won't you show me how to win this thing?

My mind, soul, and body viscerally refuse to accept this reality. Which is to say, I will probably always experience these events as traumatic. Our systems were not designed to handle constant stress. So when it goes on for month after month, of course longer-term effects begin to surface in our health and mental wellness. We do our best to handle those symptoms, but the root cause is clear and unresolved.

So we spend more energy managing the effects of the events that sap our energy. And at long last, the dissonance between these events and what I experience everywhere else crushes any sense of equilibrium.

For instance, I go to church and see the worship team so happy about how Jesus will be for us and heal sin, anxiety, and depression. They have an entire congregation moving with them, experiencing something. But my psyche loops back in itself to juxtapose both moments upon each other. On the one hand, this celebration of God. On the other, me sitting in the kitchen, holding the child who was kicking, screaming, punching, scratching, raving, and stomping.

The dissonance is more vast than I can contain. I can allow that I'm not experiencing awareness of God's presence in those moments. Strange as it sounds, that knowledge feels like a loss, particularly after the adrenaline goes away. There is always an afterward, one where our experience writes the story from our own perspective.

We may not be kind to ourselves in that afterward. If we've been in battle mode to get through the volcanic eruption of behavior, we're burnt. The energy is no longer there. So, when our minds let down a bit from the experience, the inner critics we've held at bay come flooding back in, making accusations of their own. "You could have handled this better!" "What happened here is your fault!" "Are you sure everything you said was consistent?" "Jesus said that thing about millstones, man!"

None of those inner voices are being fair to what we've experienced and how we're trying to survive the moment. But they are there nonetheless, and they are loud.

So I can rise to the moment when the screaming starts. Follow the process, do the timeouts, do what is necessary. Maybe following the process is a victory in itself. But there is always an afterward, and in the afterward lie the monsters of the id. One battle supplants the other, and the war continues on.

"We do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." - Hebrews 4:15-16



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