Friday, July 17, 2009

The Sweetest Words

It’s not hard for me to feel guilty about something all the time.

I feel guilty about not being a better daughter.

I feel guilty about not being a better mother.

I feel guilty about not being a better wife...

friend,

neighbor,

correspondent,

philanthropist,

recycler,

exerciser,

housekeeper,

human being.

To paraphrase Brennan Manning: “I can feel bad about feeling good....I feel guilty about not feeling guilty enough!”

I’d say that it’s the curse of the Southern Woman, passed down through the generations like a prized antique, but I’ve learned that we don’t own exclusive rights. Just watch an old Woody Allen movie.

Subconsciously, a lot of us labor under a heavy load of existential guilt for not being perfect people...for not measuring up to some impossibly high external standard. No matter how hard we try, we never seem to be able to rack up enough points on the Great Scorecard In the Sky. Our best just isn’t good enough.

The seductive inner whisperers taunt us with lengthy accounts of our inadequacies. Behind the confident put-together exterior, an ashamed child hides in the dark corner of the mind. Eve’s lurking in there, too, still trying, unsuccessfully, to cover herself with a fig leaf.

Guilt.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about everybody. I’m sure there are lots of people who are spiritually and emotionally healthier. Still others don’t feel guilty enough... like sociopaths, for example. A sense of guilt isn’t always a bad thing. There are times when we may even need to let ourselves wallow in it for a while.

There’s a huge difference between false guilt and true guilt. As human beings, each of us is deeply, truly guilty at one time or another, because we are all flawed. None of us is perfect, “no, not even one.” (Me least of all. The only reason why St. Paul was able to refer to himself as “the chief of sinners” is because I wasn’t born yet.) Sometimes we have to allow ourselves to experience fully the sharp stab of conviction which leads to acknowledgement and change. That type of guilt is good and necessary. In our society, the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction of our Puritan forebears that the far greater danger lies in rationalizing and glossing over our wrongdoing (or even wrongthinking), rather than repenting of it.

“Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance?”(Rom. 2:4) Without true repentance, there can be no restoration of broken relationship.

Nothing is more damaging than that.

But let’s get back to good old neurotic guilt. Of that genre, none is more lethal than the proverbial Mother’s Guilt. Whatever it is, it’s always the Mother’s fault: “Oh, if only I’d made little Johnny join Cub Scouts, maybe he wouldn’t be in San Quentin now”...“If only I’d let Susie get braces, maybe she wouldn’t have become a pole dancer”...“If I hadn’t taken his pacifier away too soon, maybe Junior wouldn’t be in rehab ”...“Should’ve breast-fed”...“Shouldn’t have breast-fed so long”...“Why didn’t I make her marry a doctor????”.... “Should have forced them to take piano!”..."Why’d I make her clean her plate every night?”...“Why oh why oh why did I make him wear that monogrammed john-john to his 6th birthday party???”

Just in case we’re not already hard enough on ourselves, our children make sure that we know it’s all our fault if they turn out warped. “NOBODY else’s Mother makes them do that!!!!!” “EVERYBODY else on the whole planet gets to do XYZ.” And my personal favorite: “My friends all think you’re crazy!!!”

Kidding aside, I think that most of us wonder at one time or another whether we couldn’t have been better role models of the type of virtues we’d like for our children to exhibit. We ask ourselves how often our unspoken message was, “Do as I say, not as I do!” When our children grow up to reflect those characteristics we like least in ourselves, there’s a tendency to place the blame exclusively on our faulty parenting skills, rather than on simple DNA. Could a trait like innate stubbornness be a matter of chromosomes? Impatience? Shyness? Melancholia? Hyperactivity? Addiction? Lefthandedness?

Nature or Nurture?

I’ll never forget the story about the woman who went to her preacher to ask advice about her prodigal son. “I tried my best, I really did,” she whimpered. “I taught him manners and morals. I read him the Bible every night, made him go to church every time the doors were open. I went to every ball game, every school play, every everything! I gave him all I could...everything I had. But he still rebelled and ran off. Now he’s on drugs and doing God knows what with God knows whom. Please tell me, Pastor, what did I do wrong???” The preacher looked her straight in the eye, but not without compassion. “Who was God’s first child?” he queried. “Adam?” “Un-hunh. How’d he turn out?” A pause.

“What did God do wrong?” the pastor asked her. “How’d He screw up?”

***************

Classic “Mother’s Guilt” takes on a whole new dimension when there’s a sick child involved.

Indescribable.

Not long before Katherine’s AVM rupture, a child we know was diagnosed with cancer. When I asked a mutual friend how the mother was doing, she told me something I found shocking at the time. She said the mother felt as if it were her fault in some way. The actual words were, “She thinks it’s because of her sin.”

Now this mother is not, to my knowledge, some big world-class sinner. (Not even close to my category.) She is a sweet, gentle, caring soul. A wonderful, conscientious mother.

But it is tempting to feel that you are being punished in some way when your child gets sick. And when some of us examine our lives, we see plenty that might deserve punishment. Remember, everything’s always the mother’s fault. A couple of remarks I received seemed to reinforce this idea in my head. People can say the strangest things at the strangest times. But the seed was planted.

After Katherine’s initial crisis (life or death?) had passed, I had time to get on the internet and try to learn a little about this monstrosity that almost killed her. I had never heard of an “AVM” before. Actually, I didn’t even really understand the effects of a brain bleed.

On the National Institutes of Health site, I read that “Brain AVMs occur in less than 1% of the population. They are more common in males than females.” Wow, how’d we win those odds? Then, the killer: “Arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) are defects of the circulatory system that are generally believed to arise during embryonic or fetal development or soon after birth.”

There’s a whole truckload of potential in-your-face guilt just in that one sentence. The “WHAT-DID-I-DO-WRONG” question reverberates with hideous, fresh meaning in this scenario.

Did I take too many aspirin or drink too much wine before I knew I was pregnant??? Did I sniff some toxic fumes...inhale second-hand smoke...get too close to the gas pump??? Did I think negative thoughts that were transmitted to the little baby bud in utero??? Did I work out too hard? Not take enough vitamins? Eat something I shouldn’t have eaten? Did I throw up too much? Not gain enough weight? Maybe that was some kind of terrible virus instead of morning (i.e. “All Day”) sickness. Did I pass along something damaging through my breast milk? WHAT DID I DO WRONG?????

IS THIS SOMEHOW BECAUSE OF MY SIN?

I have a vague memory of the first time poisonous thoughts like those started churning around in my head like squirrels in a cage. I think I was walking back to the hotel from the hospital...a frequent time for reflection in those days. I guess God got sick of listening to all that garbage. Suddenly, a version of this story bolted into my brain:

“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
"Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” (John 9:1-3)


***************

Sometimes I wish I had a magic wand that I could wave over all of my children and instantaneously fix everything that’s wrong with them. But the fight and the victory are ultimately more enriching for them, and more glorifying to God, than the quick-fix of my imagination. Recently, I learned that you have to tear muscle down in order to build it up. The falling down and the getting back up again...the failures and the little triumphs...these are what build spiritual muscle. The thought occurred to me that sometimes our own strength must be torn down in order for us to be able to accept and embrace His far greater strength. So...maybe even our worst parenting failures are like barbells that God can use to get our children in shape. When we try to make everything easy for them...lift everything for them...we prevent their progress. Our need to think of ourselves as ‘perfect parents’ may even impede “the work of God from being displayed in their lives.”

I have to continuously remind myself that I’m just a temporary guardian, anyway.

They’re His forever.

***************

Okay, here’s one last thing I’ve felt a little guilty about: I never clarified the whole Romans 8 thing.

This is what really happened. For a number of reasons, I decided to home school my middle daughter in the 8th grade. She may not have learned a darn thing, but, to this day, we both consider it to have been a successful endeavor. One of the subjects was “Bible.” I was gleeful about having this opportunity to pour some Word into her head. She had to listen to me, because I was the teacher and I got to grade her! After rambling around for a while, I decided we both needed to develop some mental and spiritual discipline through memorization. The book of Romans has always been very special to me, because it was during the study of that book that I finally GOT IT...the light bulb switched on. So it was a natural choice for our study.

Using flash cards, we memorized a verse at a time. We started with the last third, beginning with my favorite verse: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Then we tackled the second third. (“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”) We never made it to the first...school was out for summer before we got to it.

Katherine was jealous that her sister knew something she didn’t...or maybe it was just that she thought the whole thing was a good idea. For whatever reason, Katherine memorized the latter part of Romans, too. After the AVM rupture, the story got out that we could all recite the entire chapter by heart. Thus was the “Romans 8 Movement” begun in Katherine’s honor, started by J.T. and Syd, some dear friends who are wonderful musicians.

I’ve always felt a wee bit guilty that I never explained that we can’t recite the WHOLE chapter. I’ve thought about all those sweet people, slaving away to remember it all.

But I don’t feel guilty about it anymore. They have received a wonderful gift.

The very first verse of that chapter contains the sweetest words I’ve ever heard. These are the words that come to comfort whenever those sickening little guilt goblins try to haunt me now:

"THERE IS THEREFORE NOW NO CONDEMNATION..."

However we condemn ourselves...whatever lies we believe...whatever baggage we carry around like it’s vintage Louis Vuitton...

There is no condemnation.

God does not condemn us.

Our guilt has already been paid for.


May these words echo through our minds until they reverberate down into our very souls...


no condemnation...

NO condemnation....

NO CONDEMNATION.



Whom the Son sets free is free indeed.


Alleluia.

***************

“When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" "No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared." (John 8:9-11)

“I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?

Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins.” (Romans 7:21-8:3 NLT)


***************

A couple of notes:

*After 90-something blog posts, this is the first time I've felt led to do anything like this: I'd like to encourage you to forward the post to someone who might need to hear it...maybe someone who doesn't know us from Adam, and has never visited the sites before. I can't shake the impression that I need to ask that favor this time.

*Thank you so much, Laurel and Angie, for trying to help this old technophobe! I played around with it forever....can't even remember now what finally did the trick. (I need a computer class!) But the difficulty in posting just reinforced the idea that I needed to make the above request.

*If you haven't already done so, please visit J.T. and Syd's "Romans 8 Movement" site. They are fantastic musicians and wonderful, faithful friends. The site is:

www.romans8movement.com


7 comments:

Lyndsey Williams said...

I forward your blogs all the time to family and friends... you need not ask. Thanks for the words.

LittleHoya said...

oh, just wonderful. I think I am going to pass this along to my mother--for various reasons, she needs to hear this. I think I needed to hear this too. Lately, as my husband and I have begun to talk about starting our family, I've had moments of complete panic wondering 'how do we make sure we don't mess our child up?' Your anecdote about God and Adam was right on point. All we can do is love our children and try our best, and God certainly does not plan to use them to punish us for our own sins.

Erika said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anna said...

thank you so much for sharing your heart! posted a link on my blog!

Erika said...

Kim, thank you for this post. It really hit home for me. One year ago, I gave birth to identical twin daughters who were both stillborn due to a very rare condition called Twin to Twin Transfusion Syndrome. It's unpreventable, and in my case, was too aggressive to be treated...yet, I still have guilt about it. What did I do to cause it? Was it negative thoughts? Was it my worry? Was it that I ate too much of the wrong thing, or not enough? A year later, I still struggle with this guilt, even though everyone tells me there is nothing I could have done to make this happen- anymore so than I could have split the embryo of my baby into identical twins (my girls were "spontaneous" or "natural" twins). But still, a mother's guilt...

Thanks for your post today. I am not sure how the death of my two girls was so that "the work of God could be displayed in their lives." Obviously, I am still grappling with what it means when a child dies, and how to use that experience to live a better life and glorify God. Some days are harder than others...,today is one of those days.

Love reading your blog...you give me so many things to think about!

Angie said...

Good morning Kim!

Thank you so much for the words from your heart. They minister to me, touching the depths of my pain in grief while also leaving me in tears through laughter! Laughter is such a sweet reprieve from grief, and yet somehow, is also a part of it...

You are an amazing person, and like Katherine, so full of life! I appreciate the effort you make to share your heart with us. I hate so much what you are going through, and yet you turn around and bless our hearts, and I am also grateful for that!

I took you up on spreading the word about your post. I probably would have done so sooner, but I wasn't sure you wanted the whole world to climb into your heart and life (like you have so graciously allowed us to)!

I would love for you to join me on Twitter.com - that has been an amazing way for me to share my blog with folks who otherwise would have never known I exist but who may need to hear the very words I express from the depths of my heart as well as how God meets me in those depths.

Here are the "tweets" I've left on Twitter regarding your post:

For those of us who struggle with “guilt” – whether “true-guilt” or “false-guilt” – there is a cure! http://bit.ly/tuzuw

“Mother’s Guilt” - If anything goes wrong for my child, it must be my fault… -What is the cure? http://bit.ly/tuzuw

Note:
Http://bitly.com
is a website to go to when you need to shorten your lengthy blog-post site. Instead of tweeting

http://katherineawolf.blogspot.com/2009/07/its-not-hard-for-me-to-feel-guilty.html

which would take up 83 of the 140-character/space limit of Twitter entries, I can use

http://bit.ly/tuzuw

to take readers to the same place, but use only 19 spaces! Also, bitly measures how many hits that shortened post address gets on Twitter - yesterday, your post got 18 hits on the combination of those tweets! Today, just two minutes ago, I tweeted your post again, and have already gotten 4 hits on it! Fun, Fun!

Isn't Social Media fun? Thanks for bearing with my obsessive-compulsive need to share the nitty-gritty details with you! LOL But it's fun sharing creative ways to reach people you might never have met before!

May God bless you, Kim!

Angie

Kathy Wiggins said...

Kim,
This article was VERY meaningful to me. Again, you have described exactly how I feel! When the guilt goonies try to taunt me (as they have especially lately), I will remember this blog. Thanks again, dear one.