(Photo of selection of belts courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Be our light in the darkness, O Lord, and in your great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
--A Collect for Aid against Perils, page 123, Book of Common Prayer
I was on the phone with my blog friend Lisa the other night, on a totally different topic, when she referenced a sound that I am embarrassed to say, I have never forgotten.
Allow me to backtrack a moment. I am noted for generally sleeping quite soundly. But there are certain noises that can wake me up in an instant, and I am rather embarrassed about them. There are also certain "cues" people make in their body language that can suddenly break me out into a sweat.
But for a totally unrelated reason, she had referenced the sound a belt makes when, if you were ever a child whipped with a belt, you knew that sound. In fact, she blogged about it a long time ago, here, and she later told me that, sadly, it is still her most-often-read post on her blog when she looks at her site meter.
It's interesting; she remembers it as a "whoosh-and-crack"--I remember it as "a tinkle and a whoosh." I think by the time the "crack" was happening, I had already numbed out and was simply enduring the beating I was getting.
But there are times my dogs' collars tinkle in a certain way, that if I'm asleep, I sit bolt upright in bed, wide awake, or if I'm awake to begin with, and my dogs are not in plain sight, I break out in a sweat.
After I got off the phone with her, I got to recounting in my mind some other things that can, even after over 35 years of being away from that situation, still have the power to stiffen my soul.
The sound of glass suddenly breaking.
Certain kinds of yelling if I fall asleep in front of the TV.
Being around someone frustrated enough to suddenly throw an object, like a golf club or a tool, even if it is obvious they are frustrated at it and it has nothing to do with me.
The sound of a door being suddenly opened and slammed against the wall.
There are others, but those come to mind right off the bat.
Then there are the body language things.
I still feel a flash of panic when someone's face goes rigid and their jaw kind of "drops and sets."
There are certain ways people draw their hand back to do things like swat flies, or simply wave in a hand gesture, that, without thinking, I immediately draw my hands up in a fist and bring them up towards my face, to protect me.
There are others.
To this day, I do not prefer to sit with my back to a door, I do not like to sleep with a closed bedroom door, and I'd rather not to have "difficult" conversations in rooms with no windows.
Now, none of these things bother me on a regular basis, but every now and then, in certain times, in certain situations, and when I'm stressed, those things just sort of rear their ugly heads once in a while...and out of the blue, that flash of panic suddenly, unexpectedly, washes over me like a wave.
There are certain phrases people use--innocently--that can suddenly spark memories of "coded" messages. Coded messages that said, "I disapprove of you; I resent you; you are bad; I would not be so sick if you were not so bad." I literally have to unpack and decode these phrases, no matter who says them. The times I felt willing enough to share these phrases with other people, it was sometimes not helpful. Sometimes when I "told the secret," I felt I was treated like a bedwetter--"special" in a bad way, or "broken," or "not all there,"--lacking, somehow--with guarded words from then on. I hadn't wished them to stop using the words; I only wanted them to be patient and compassionate, and give me room to unpack and sort the words. It felt like they were trying to control my feelings when I hadn't even been allowed time to recognize the feelings--and I would erupt in anger, and say hurtful things simply to get them to back off of me. But then I had to live with the consequences of that.
Again, it didn't happen very often, but when it did, it was pure PTSD.
Over the years, and in recent times, particularly, I have changed how I feel about these embarrassing, sudden, and uncontrollable sounds, gestures, and words. For years, I spent countless hours analyzing them and trying to talk myself out of them. I have prayed thousands of times for them to simply "go away." I have spent thousands of dollars on professional help with this issue in times past--various forms of "desensitization"--with only modest satisfaction. But one day, a very wise person asked me, "Has it ever occurred to you that these things will never go away, and you are called to acknowledge them and take them to another place, instead? Have you ever considered embracing them and recognizing others have them too, and showing love to respond to them, instead of fear? Have you ever considered you have the power to use them to help other people heal?"
I was dumbstruck. Every successful scenario I played out in my head, regarding these feelings, involved them going away.
I took that advice to heart. Several months ago, I started doing that in little ways. One thing I did was memorize the collect above, along with some others. I realized that although it was "a peril that only lives in my head," I was still powerless to it. Anxiety has the power to paralyze us, but remembering the light of God is more powerful than anything I could muster up myself, became a great comfort. I didn't have to fix it. I could ask God to change me instead, and trust that God loves me and wants me to feel loved in return. I desire to show that love to the world. God has shown me time and time again, if I show God's love to the world, it comes back to me again and again, many times over.
I slowly became unafraid to tell about them, in safe spaces--and I also began to become more at ease with not telling them, but simply living with the knowledge that they always pass--to instead give them to God, and let God hold me in his arms while they wash over me. I discovered the less I fought back at that wave, the less of it that went up my nose and choked me.
Lisa's phone call reminded me of the journey I had taken in recent months. As we talked, we talked about how there was a place both of us had come to realize that we were not alone in the anxieties that this sound and similar sounds evoked--that, sadly, it is more common than we each wanted to believe. But that what it meant was to no longer treat them like dirty secrets. They are merely bits of yarn woven into a miraculous rug--the rug of "us," as we are right now, in this moment--and much as how the Hopis weave an intentional flaw into their rugs, we can create the same mysterious beauty in our own rugs. Would we expect someone with diabetes to keep it a secret? Of course not. But by the same token, these old cues and triggers are also, in their "un-reality," not always worth mentioning in the presence of others, in many situations. We simply need to quietly acknowledge their presence in the room, silently acquiesce our powerlessness over them to God, trust God to hold us while deal with it, and move on.
But what I have come to realize in recent months, that this knowledge of how these things affect me, and accepting that fact, makes me more mindful that the person I am talking to, the person who suddenly reacts in an unexpected and puzzling way, the person who suddenly clams up or looks nervous--could be reacting to a similar anxiety that, somehow my words, my gestures, or my tone of voice--evokes--or that there is simply something going on in the room that has nothing to do with anything I did or said, and we are just all together in the room with an elephant that I have no way to see, but the other person sees quite vividly.
In short, I feel clearer that the wise advice I was given was that I was called to simply be more compassionate of the hidden battles of others--some of them from their "ancient history"--without engaging in new battles or having a need to challenge them on it unless they care to divulge them to me. I am called to hear their stories, if they choose to tell me--and be a mirror for them to see their own beautiful reflection, flaws and all--not to be a screwdriver, poking around in it and breaking the seal on the screws of the lid that holds it in. People are called to open their own boxes of anxieties. I am called to merely show a love beyond me--the loving light of God--within the tension of it.
I am grateful to God for this wisdom. May I learn to use it to his service.