September 27th 2013
When you invited me to participate in your "Isaiah" blog I immediate thought of several words: expectations, vulnerability and surrender. I re-read some of your blogs and realized "expectations" had already been addressed. Perhaps all of this has already been said but maybe my thoughts will prompt something else. Over the last two days and the events that have occurred in y life, 'surrender' is resonating loud and clear. When we are pregnant, we surrender our bodies to the life growing inside. We lose control of all manner of things: body functions, emotions, expectations. Once the baby arrives, we surrender even more: time with friends, spouse, self. THe funny thing is, we preach to our kids to have balance in their lives, to take care of themselves, but we don't usually set the example. Surrender is not a bad thing, however. FOr the 2nd time in my life I have to surrender to my body's desire to harbor cancer. I'm surrendering to the processes in place to get rid of that cancer and allowing a whole slew of people to take over my body on my behalf. I am surrendering to what is. That doesn't mean I"m giving in, giving up, quitting. I'm allowing what is, to be. All the things that I have surrendered to in life, have resulted in new and wonderful experiences. WHile surrendering, I had to become a little vulnerable too (also not a bad thing). How do we guide, support, encourage our children to be vulnerable sometimes and to surrender to what is without it seeming weak, but actually quite courageous and strong? THank you for asking me to participate in your Isaiah project. I wish you all the best and love you much.
Emily Joye McGaughy-Reynolds
I'm going to answer this question <How do we guide, support, encourage our children to be vulnerable sometimes and to surrender to what is without it seeming weak, but actually quite courageous and strong?> quite directly and get into the complexities of surrender and vulnerability--which are about power & powerlessness--in greater detail.
We guide support and encourage our children to be vulnerable by being vulnerable parents from a place of strength. We also do this by surrounding them with other families, adult leaders and communities that value and positively reinforce vulnerability. Most importantly, when they are vulnerable from a place of strength, we shower them with praise. And if we witness others shaming them for being vulnerable, we find a baseball bat. Just kidding. :-)
Now to surrender & vulnerability...
About four years ago I had a minor outpatient procedure that included being injected with an epidural in the lumbar region of my back. I'd been living with chronic back pain for over 6 months after injuring my spine in a kick boxing injury. When I say "chronic pain" I mean I couldn't walk at a normal pace and eventually couldn't walk at all, couldn't sit without assistance, took pain killers around the clock, and my body was constantly contorted because I favored leaning to the left as a way of keeping pressure off my 3 herneated discs on the right. Giving birth pales in comparison to the pain of that injury and the months I went untreated after the injury. After coming in for yet another morpheine shot after being told I had a muscle injury, a doctor finally thought it a good idea to schedule me for an MRI. I'll never forget the day I got an informed diagnosis. A young, gorgeous, male physician specializing in spine injuries walked into the room, pulled out my X-Ray, said some things about degenerative arthritis and disc misplacement on the spine. He pointed to the black spider webbing on the right side of my lower back and compared it to the white waves on the left. I cried. I disassociated. And then my mom asked the question: "how long will she be in pain like this?"
He looked at the floor and responded: "Well she'll have good days and bad days."
My mom isn't one to mess around when it comes her daughter's health. So she persisted. "Like for the rest of her life?"
He held quiet for a while. Then looked right at me and said "yeah, for the rest of her life."
Something inside of me snapped back to the present. I said something along these lines: "Doc, I'm 28 years old and every day I'm in excruciating pain and drugged out of my mind. I can't go on living like this. So tell me why, given what you just said, I shouldn't go home and kill myself today."
Sandra, what he said next changed my life and my orientation toward healing more than anything I've read in the Bible, more than any sermon I've ever heard, more than any lesson I've learned on the street or from any book.
"Make your core strong."
That's what he said. Make your core strong.
For the next 30 minutes he talked about how traditionally pain management had been conceived of in terms of targeting and relieving the source of pain, in this case my spine, but that in recent research and medical movements, there'd been a shift toward targeting and strengthening the complimentary part(s) of the body, in this case my stomach. He was fully aware that strengthening my stomach in my current state was impossible. I couldn't even sit, never-mind doing a set of sit ups or series of plank holds. So in order to approach core strengthening, they'd have to give me an injection that would enable my mobility to return.
Back to the beginning of the story.
There I was, naked from the waist down, splayed out on a medical table, head down, bare ass in the air, surrounded by a team of 4 medical professionals, one who held a video x-ray camera, one who held a light on the target mark for injection, one who held a needle and one who cleansed and wiped my lower right back for the sake of sanitation and preparation. Because I hadn't had the shot yet, I was in excruciating pain. I could see my spine on a t.v. in front of me, and eventually watched the needle descend into/onto it. But more than anything, all I could feel/think about was how powerless I felt. My naked body in their sight. My broken painful body in their hands. True possibility: a minor miss of the mark and i'm paralyzed for life. Horrible possibility: a big miss and I die. Worst possibility: nothing works and I live in this constant pain forever. Did I mention that my bare ass was in the air? I literally hated absolutely everything about that moment. Too exposed. To vulnerable. Too much surrender. And yet, I felt I had no other choice, nowhere else to be, no one else to turn to if I wanted to live.
The injection worked. It was a miracle. I was pain free and totally mobile within 48 hours. Then I got busy strengthening my stomach. I worked out like I'd never worked out before. Planks, scissors, crunches, sit ups, hullahoops, side bends, supermans. You name a stomach exercise--I've done it. And you know what? That worked too. Eventually the epidural wore off and because my core was strong, my back no longer "carried" everything, which meant there was significantly less pressure on those discs. That gave them the room and space to (mostly) return to their normal spaces, and boom, my pain went from 8/9 everyday to a 1/2/3 or 0 on any given day. The treatment worked. Strengthening my core worked.
Very similar dynamics in birth. Much like you've described in your prompt. There is a bodily take-over of sorts. And the contractions build in intensity and painfulness. To the point where "i'd rather die than continue living in this pain" is a serious thought. During the contraction phase it's all about surrendering. Letting the Source have its way with you. Positioning yourself so that you are most effective in allowing that power to use you according to its plans. But then the pushing phase comes and it's different. Your effort becomes paramount, becomes the catalyst, becomes the channel through which the Source finishes its work. At that point it's not surrender; it's effort, all the effort you've got. (I wrote about this, a bit, already to Nikki Rinckey and Jes Kast-Keat) Both phases take you to the limit. One, surrender, takes you to the limit of what you can endure. Two, effort, takes you to the limit of what you're capable of doing.
Isn't this some kind of microcosm of life? What's done to us from the outside? What we do to the world from inside? Constant combination of these two things in all of our actions, interactions, reactions and patterns?
What I have learned, specifically, from the surrender phases of these two bodily processes is how little I trust the outside world. How little I trust God. And most importantly, how much that lack of trust harms me (and others by extension of me). I felt visceral hatred toward those 4 medical techs because they had power over me. I felt significant rage during the contraction phase of labor that I blamed "on the world" because it rendered me more and more powerless as time went on. Something about feeling totally subject to outside power that terrifies and threatens, which for me, in specific, brings out anger, rage, blame, outward hostility and aggression. I think other folks might respond with becoming small, scared, withered up, defeated and resigned. Totally depends on personality. But what seems potentially similar across personality differences is that humans don't respond well to power being wielded over them in ways they cannot control, especially if they are already in pain. I think it pushes back on our much of our biological, social and cultural conditioning. I think we are inherently protective of our vulnerability. Which we should be. Sometimes.
But not all the time.
Sometimes moving deeper into our vulnerability, sitting in it, allowing it to overwhelm us, is the key to the Kingdom. I feel this was the case in Gethsemane for Jesus.
Feels totally counter intuitive, doesn't it? To be uncomfortable. To be destabilized. To become pliant. To become entirely subject to power/s that can annihilate you or render you unrecognizable (even to yourself). Feels totally counter intuitive vis-a-vis the ideological glorification of pulling one's self up by the boot straps we hear in our American myths, vis-a-vis patriarchy, white supremacy and ableism's emphasis on exerting power and control at all costs as a way of maintaining a "solid and secure" self, vis-a-vis capitalism's certainty that we are only as good as our labor/working agency. It also feels totally counterintuitive to practice intentional vulnerability if you've got subtle or hostile carryover of post-traumatic stress from being (unsuccessfully) vulnerable and punished in the past.
How often though, have you, have I, have we, has the world, come face to face with what's true, with what is sheer gift, with what is God, when we've done the counter-intuitive thing? You'll never hear me say that intuition isn't worth listening to. Just the opposite. I think cultural conditioning has led many of us to think what's pragmatic or "normal" or comfortable is what's intuitive. In truth I think our intuition is actually what's underneath those things, what's buried in what feels "counter intuitive." I'm talking here about what's spiritual truth, what's ultimately (as in Tillich's notion of the Ultimate) worth it but often hard and risky and full of consequences for the ego/privilege/status-quo.
There's a difference between being sensitive and being vulnerable. There's a difference between revealing who we are and being vulnerable. There's a difference between being exposed and being vulnerable. Vulnerability has its own energy, it's own strength and attendant nakedness, but I do believe the ultimate test of whether something is true vulnerability (or not) has to do with what comes in the aftermath, what comes when and only when we truly surrender. If, when we are entirely surrendered, there is spiritual gold, new revelation, and a renewed knowledge of and capacity to hold both power and powerlessness, their dance, their life and death and life-after-life dance, and we are moved in that dance to embrace and embody and revere all of life more fully, then surely we've been had by the best vulnerability has to offer.
Sandra as you face this next round of cancer, this next phase of your spiritual/teaching/mothering/loving life, my prayer is that you are "had" by the best of vulnerability. That is my prayer for Isaiah's birth process too. And I look forward to the day when we are face to face, across couches, in early morning rays of southern California sun light that splash off superman coffee mugs and reflect your beauty back to my eyes. There we will tell our stories about beating cancer (again) and giving birth (again). And there we will take each other in. Power from the outside. Power on the inside. Creature exchange. Incarnate commerce. The luxury of friendship, on going, for years and tears and trials and tests and tragedies and turnings and victories and new values and manifestations of what's sacred, authentic, and enduring. Love eternal. Love with us through it all. Aren't we lucky?