Raised in an evangelical, Protestant Christian tradition, I was repeatedly told that “God is love.” God is love. While much of my Christian experience was difficult and even abusive, I have always interpreted this teaching—while sometimes confusing to me, and other times, fueling my spiritual inquiry—as a positive thing. When learning to shed the abusive contexts in my life, I did so encouraged by those who knew that love and god/dess shouldn’t be abusive. When challenging and responding to abusive paradigms within Christianity through my dissertation writing process, I reflected on how leaving an abusive cycle can feel like a hiccup from love, a frozen breathlessness and confusion on how to access love in new ways; but I also had to conclude that love hadn’t really been absent, even if hard to find.
God/dess is love—even when the dominating power celebrated within a particular religion, family or society distorts access to god/dess-loving. Yet, this issue with access, the trained approach to receiving love that is taught in an abusive context, is a habit that I have had to continually and consciously shed. I catch myself falling into patterns of get-love-through-control or get-love-through-performance behaviors. I try to be someone or something to ensure my access to what I perceive as love, sometimes finding it hard to accept that I am loveable without performance, role-playing or being someone that somebody else wants me to be. The more I experience mutual loving—or as Carter Heyward puts it, “godding” –the less I fall into this trap of performance; and the more I realize that my “performing” who I think others want me to be actually hinders my most loving relationships. However, while living outside of the abusive context has become easier in my life, sometimes I panic. Sometimes I hold on too tightly, afraid of the reality of loving without (the illusion of) control.
I had heard horror stories about moving in with your lover, so when I first moved in with my now husband, I was pleasantly surprised by how fun it was and how much everyday joy living with this man gave me. Yet, I also found myself dealing with the irrational fear of his death. When he left for work in the morning, I worried that this would be the last time I ever saw him. If he came home late or hadn’t called, I imagined the worst. While I acknowledge that some concern for, preponderance of, or even, in certain times, preoccupation with death is normal, this constant anxiety was something more.
When I was a child, I used to panic when I couldn’t find my parents. I was convinced, in my elementary school understanding of sin, grace and the end of the world, that I wasn’t good enough. So, if my parents were “missing” (aka, I couldn’t find them when I wanted to) that meant that Jesus had come back. Which is to say that I imagined that the rapture had come, and Jesus took my parents or my siblings, but not me. I was terrified that Jesus would take everyone else, and I would be all alone because I didn’t believe in or love God enough. This fear was so strong, that I found myself sporadically paralyzed with this fear for many years. Of course, I did not share this fear with anyone at the time. I was too ashamed to admit that I thought that God would take my loved ones from me in the fulfillment of an ultimate plan that rewarded the faithful and punished the doubting, selfish, not good enough wretches like myself.
My fear of losing my lover was like that of losing my parents—some part of me did not, and sometimes still does not, expect that I can keep the love that I have. If I can’t “do anything” to ensure that love, if I just have to be, then sometimes I panic.
It took me a long time to let go of the constant anxiety I felt after first moving in with my lover. I think I gradually realized that, while it is true that a person may die at any time, he also wasn’t going anywhere. Sure, our loving relationship demands that I am responsible for my part of the mutuality—but I am not responsible for all of it. Mutuality is not something that one person controls; such control defeats the purpose of mutuality. Learning this every day helps me to continue to live outside of the abusive context, though sometimes, I still struggle. So, it was not surprising to me, that since I have been pregnant, I have also struggled with the fear of losing those I love.
I know, I know. All the pregnancy books say that fears and anxiety are common during pregnancy; so maybe the resurfacing of these feelings is “normal.” But over the past seven months, I have sometimes found myself obsessed with the idea that my child won’t make it, despite healthy check-ups, despite my rather unchallenged pregnancy. I had been trying to ignore these feelings or distract myself from them, writing them off as “normal,” a product of hormones, or simply, a growing parental understanding worry that I did not have before. And it seems likely that these factors do influence my anxiety. Yet, I am simultaneously aware that a part of me has also been more sensitive to my own childhood, anticipating my daughter’s childhood.
Two weeks ago, tired and achy, I went for a pre-natal massage—a gift from a dear friend who knew I needed it. While I have been giving myself more time and working to accept my changing body, and its changing needs, this is probably the first time I have felt really pampered during my pregnancy. The masseuse was also an energy healer, and she did amazing work. I left her office with restored movement and absent of aches and pains that I didn’t know I could do anything about—after all, I had been told that all of this discomfort was “normal” during pregnancy. Most meaningfully, about ¾ of the way through this massage, the message popped into my head: “Just love her for as long as you can,” accompanied by a peace that had evaded my anxious mind for months.
“Love her for as long as you can.” Love without control. Love with acceptance. A simple idea—but one that reminded me of the Buddhist idea of non-attachment, the humanness of our limitation, and the futility of my struggle against my own lack of control. It reminded me that non-abusive love should not hold so tightly that is crushes and destroys. I cannot control my husband’s or my daughter’s future; and trying to do so, I find myself missing out on living the life I have with them now.
I am not going to lie and say that I don’t still struggle with holding on too tightly; nor have my anxieties disappeared. I sometimes still find myself wallowing in fearful thoughts and worry. However, I have also been repeating to myself, “love as long as you can,” a message of god/dess-love that I needed to hear, and a mantra reminding me that I have, of late, neglected to take care of me, spiritually and otherwise. Couter-abusive work is an ongoing process in my life—and a necessarily conscious one; it is all too easy to slip into patterns that demean and destroy. Yet, contrary to what I sometimes believe: I am actually more likely to slip when I hold on too tight.
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the Women’s Studies in Religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.