Why order is necessary: Breaking down the three boxes

I sat down at my keyboard today and wondered, Is it ok to write about writing? Do people want to read that? Which is a silly question because I have five readers, and obviously you are the five I can’t chase away no matter what I write about. We’re stuck together for life, and I’m very ok with it. But then I considered the layers beneath that seemingly innocent duo of questions and peeked at a familiar theme. What is expected of me? Am I upholding those expectations? That’s the voice of codependency and trauma. What are the rules and how do I follow them perfectly? Those questions tell me instead of writing about writing, it’s time to break down some boxes, starting with order.

I learned about the concept of three boxes from Richard Rohr, a formative voice for me over the last several years. He breaks the universal faith journey into three boxes: order > disorder > reorder.

In the interest of brevity–and because you can read more at the linked article–let’s call the first box the box of immaturity. It holds the foundational tenets which we are taught from the moment we draw breath. Whether or not we are talking about church or religion, we begin with certain rules, ways of explaining how the world works. This is a good thing. In fact, it’s a necessary process enabling us to grow in an emotionally stable environment. One of our most basic needs is security. Foundational rules keep us safe and provide order: the stove is hot; the street is not safe; God loves us; the sun will rise every morning.

These rules create order and provide the framework for reality. Without them, the world is a Salvadore Dali painting, skewed, unstable and unpredictable.

All of us rely on rules daily. But most of us don’t follow them blindly once we gain maturity. For instance, the rule we used to follow about going into the street. It is true streets can be dangerous. But when I take my morning run, I frequently run in the street if the sidewalk is bad because all streets are not dangerous all the time for all people. The principle is true even if the practice isn’t always true.

When I run in the street, I leave the box of order and venture into disorder (the time I went in the street and was nearly wiped out) and eventually reorder (carefully assessing traffic patterns before assuming street safety).

Religion can be a very first box oriented endeavor. We make rules because we want to know and understand God, which is good. A god who is too big or too mysterious to understand is a force of power with which we can never connect. Knowing and understanding are key to a relationship, therefore God makes Himself knowable and comprehensible because He desires relationship. However, there are parts of His being which are not immediately knowable and even those which are essentially unknowable due to the limits of human understanding.

We use these revealed truths as cornerstones on which we build our theology. God is good. God created the universe. Jesus is real. Jesus died to restore humanity. We can be like God, and He desires this for us. He helps form us in His image. These beliefs matter. They create order in our chaotic reality.

The problem is sometimes we see the rules as immovable constructs for all time rather than starting point for a long conversation. Yes, the stove is hot and may burn us. However, the stove also allows us to create an endless variety of food, which may lead to conversation, laughter, togetherness and community. What is true about the stove is not ALL that is true about the stove. It’s a starting point, but there is more to the conversation.

The same is true of our religious beliefs:

God created the universe, but the is more to the conversation.
Jesus died to restore us, but there is more to the conversation.
We can be like God, but there so much more to the conversation.

And honestly, sometimes the more to the conversation is scary. Sometimes, the stove burns your house down; the street proves deadly. Sometimes theology goes horribly, maniacally wrong.

At this point we face a sort of crisis, is it easier to continue the conversation, or do we revert to the basic tenets and never deviate? Do we conform to the rules and reject anyone who does not or cannot conform to them, calling them a heretic and casting them away from us for our own safety? Do we even dare question if the original rule might not be a true rule to begin with?

Now we’re in uncharted territory. It’s not safe, not secure, not popular, and definitely not easy. Which is why so many of us never leave the safety of the rules. If a thing is always true, we always know what to expect. We always know the outcome. We never have to worry about consequences. So we live this way for years. Some of us live this way forever. It isn’t inherently wrong to live our entire lives in the box of order, but it’s an extremely exclusive way to live. If a set of rules is true, then every other set of rules must be wrong. There can be only one set of true rules.

The box of order is safe, but it breeds superiority, contempt and disassociation. At its extreme it is completely anti-community. There can only be us and them, and we are always completely right.

Order is necessary, but there is more to the conversation.

**I didn’t start this as a series, but it has rapidly become one. Stay tuned for further installments.

Internal rebellion: Fighting against learned helplessness

I struggle with a sense of learned helplessness, a condition where a person gives up trying to affect change during difficult circumstances or toxic relationships. When I believe nothing I do will make any difference, I give up. In fact, I sometimes believe anything I do will only result in more pain, so I try to disappear entirely.

Several years ago I had an emotionally and spiritually abusive relationship with an authority figure. Obviously, it didn’t start that way. The changes were subtle, and because I was not familiar with the psychology of control, I didn’t read the signs.  The relationship lasted for years, but the power play escalated slowly. When I finally deviated too far from the desired behavior and could not be controlled, the retribution was immediate and devastating.

Unfortunately when dealing with trauma, we are often our own worst enemies. I allowed the counsel of others and my own, critically injured, self-esteem to tell me I was responsible for my pain. My choices bore the sole responsibility for damage inflicted on myself and my family. I became the enemy. For years I allowed other’s perceptions control over how I acted and how I responded rather than trusting myself.

Even though the abusive relationship ended the day of my ‘punishment,’ the influence of the relationship did not. Shrapnel embedded in a person’s body can take years to work its way to the surface.  So too, emotional shrapnel, while not visible, continues to cause pain and damage as it works through the soul. My response to trauma was to do whatever was necessary to ensure no one was ever unhappy with me. I used to have a dog who had been so abused he practically begged every person he met to not kick him.  He and I have a lot in common.

Even though I have experienced a great deal of healing, I still struggle with falling into self-destructive behavior patterns. The abusive relationship is long past, but shadows and echoes linger, sometimes, in current relationships. When this happens I want to cringe and beg or disappear.  I still experience learned helplessness in situations where it seems I can do nothing right, and I still deeply fear retribution because of my failure to please.

On Wednesday, I wrote about being self-aware that I’m circling dangerously close to depression. Learned helplessness is one of the fastest rides down that road. These next one hundred days of writing— now 96 – are my way of pushing back.  There are circumstances in my life which I cannot resolve. But each day I can summon the courage to write, no matter what others may think.  I can reframe the narrative which tells me I should disappear. By taking back control of my voice, I’ll spit in the eye of the messenger who tells me I don’t measure up to an impossible standard.

This is my story. This is my song. No one gets to silence it, not even me.