Managing Triggers

Have you heard the word “trigger” used in the context of surviving abuse?  I was first exposed to this term about 10 years ago.  My abuse happened 40 years ago, so I lived with triggers for 30 years without understanding, or even having a name for them.

A trigger is anything that sets you off emotionally and activates memories of your trauma…triggered, we revert to the feelings and behaviors we had in the traumatizing situation ~Healing from trauma: A survivor’s guide understanding your symptoms and reclaiming your life.  As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I have experienced many triggers.  I still do.  My abuser was my family pastor, so many of my triggers happen in church.

I used to think that if I did enough psychological work, if I tried hard enough, or if I just put enough distance between me and the abuse, that the triggers would die out…disappear.  I have come to realize that it is impossible to live an authentic life and also live completely without triggers.  Instead, I have started fo using on how to manage them.  For anyone else wanting to take this approach, I have listed a few ideas below that have worked for me.

Get To Know Your Triggers

I started to notice a few of my most common triggers were things that remind me of the church of my youth.  I attended a very traditional church, with a large sanctuary, red carpet, choir lofts and stained glass windows.  I now worship in a non-traditional setting,which feels much more comfortable to me.  My current church meeting in a school and has guest musicians, and a progressive theology.  But today, (which is what prompted me to think of writing this post), we were visited by a traditional choir, singing familiar hymns.  During the first hymn, the music evoked a memory of standing in church, signing and feeling so invisible.  Here were all my friends and family,signing joyfully, completely unaware that the monster standing behind the pulpit had raped me in the choir room just days beforehand. The memory triggered the same soup of feelings I had as a teenager in my home church.

Other common triggers for me at church are walking into an unfamiliar church, walking around non-sanctuary spaces in churches, red carpet and stained glass windows.  Some of these are very beautiful things, that I don’t necessarily was to live without (and sometimes can’t avoid) so I have examined them to find out what particular memories or feelings they evoke and now have responses I can say to myself when they trigger.  This has been enormously helpful to me in managing what happens during a trigger.

Make Ongoing – Not Final – Decisions About How To Care For Yourself During a Trigger

When I was triggered this morning, I considered leaving the service.  Sometimes this is the best decision for my well-being and I have done it.  Leaving immediately is one of the choices I have decided is perfectly acceptable.   So is waiting 5 minutes and deciding again.  So is stepping out in the hallway for a moment.  So is closing my eyes and taking deep breaths to get through it.  I decided to wait five minutes and decide again this morning.  During those five minutes, I checked out of the service mentally, and into myself.  I honored the feeling I was having as well as how I felt 40 years ago.  And, I decided to write this blog.  🙂  When I checked back into the service, I found something to celebrate.  Communion was served by all women in the church.  I decided to stay, but remained open to a different choice if things changed.

It turned out that the sermon today was about how powerful memories are and although it was not his focus, the pastor acknowledged that memories can evoke traumatic and overwhelming feelings.  It was soothing to my trigger to hear someone acknowledge that.  I’m glad I stayed.

A Million Stories

Six days ago, Kelly Oxford, a nationally known author and public figure tweeted the story of the first time she was sexually assaulted and invited others to do the same. Kelly was 12 years old when a man on a city bus grabbed her between the legs and smiled at her. Since last week, she has received over a million tweets of similar stories from women. At times, more than 50 per minute.

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“Groped, penetrated, rubbed against, masturbated on, stalked, raped and forcibly kissed…” wrote NPR on Tuesday. This is the reality nearly every woman experiences – not just once, but time and time over in her lifetime. Thank God, it has become a national conversation. Because honestly, even women don’t talk about it between themselves. We had given up hope that it would ever change and had accepted that being assaulted repeatedly was our lot in life. Society didn’t even consider it sexual assault ( which, by the way is defined by the justice department as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient.”) At least now, with all the talk, there is hope for change.

Change depends, however, on where men take it from here.

One story told of a girl who took the metro to school starting at 12. She quickly learned not to get on any train that was either completely empty or completely full. If it was empty, and a man got on at the next stop, he would invariably expose himself to her. If it were completely full, she would arrive at school with semen on her backside from being masturbated on.

A million similar stories were told. Sometimes more than 50 per minute.

I remember the first time for me. I was also twelve. The middle school I attended had a long and boring lunch line, but it was made more enjoyable by joking around with the two bus drivers who delivered the meals from the high school, where they were made, to our school. I looked forward to talking to them each day as they stood in the kitchen and we all inched by in a line. Then, one day I left school early on a pass for a dentist appointment. The school seemed empty. Teachers and students were in class and administrators were in their offices. As I walked down the hall, I ran into one of the lunch drivers, and he walked me out. As we came to the airlock doors, he held one open for me. But as I passed through, so did he. He pressed against me and kissed me on the mouth. I wasn’t even sure it really happened. I just kept walking. The next day, I told the school counselor and he said he would speak to the principal about it. Later, he reported, “I told him I thought there had been an incident of the driver kissing a girl at our school. I didn’t give him your name. He said, ‘well I can only think of one person that could be – Jennifer Carmer – she flirts with them all the time.’” Yah, 12 year old me was flirting with 60 year old men.

Age 18 – I was a freshman in college, working as a front desk clerk at a large hotel. One day, the owner of the hotel came downstairs to the front desk, leaned over the desk and started staring at me. After 15-20 seconds of his silent gaze, I became very uncomfortable and said, “Ted, is there something I can do for you?” “Honey, there’s a LOT you could do for me, you’d better rephrase that question”. Thank God the phone rang. When I finished with the call, he had disappeared.

Age 22, I went out to supper with a group of co-workers at my first “real” job. We loosened up and started laughing with each other. The co-worker sitting next to me laughed at a joke I told and as he did he put his hand on my thigh. He left it there as he told me a joke of his own. I told my boyfriend about it when I got home, and he asked me why I didn’t tell the guy to take his hand off me, and I said, I didn’t actually realize I could. I thought I would get in trouble or at least cause a scene if I did.

Age 54 – just a few months ago, I had a conversation with a friend who has been in human resources for over 20 years. I asked her what her take on tattoos in the workplace was and her response shocked me. She said, we generally don’t recommend them because a tattoo on a woman can be sexually stimulating to some men. I said, “well that’s his problem if he gets stimulated by a tattoo,” to which she replied, “yes, but as we all know, it can easily become her problem too.”

A million women tweeted similar stories this week. Sometimes more than 50 per minute.

My son came to me this summer and said he was confused and conflicted. A man he worked with had been accused of raping a young woman at a college party. She had too much to drink and went upstairs to lie down. He was accused of following her and raping her while she was unconscious. My son didn’t know what to believe because he thought he knew this man and didn’t understand how it could be true that anyone – let alone his acquaintance – could do such a thing. I told him that unfortunately, some men look upon an incapacitated or vulnerable female the way the rest of us look at a $20 bill found in an empty parking lot.

A million stories. Sometimes more than 50 per minute.

Rape culture will not end from us talking to our daughters. Rape culture will end when we start talking to our sons. The ball is in your court men. It’s time for good men to speak out. It’s time for parents to talk to their sons about sexual assault.

In Remembrance of Tim

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My uncle has died. Tim Lawrence, date of birth June 5, 1968; date of death January 8, 2016. Length of life: much, much too short.

This post will be honest, potentially shocking, and I hope, not harmful to any survivors who will read it. It may be triggering, as all posts on this blog have the potential to be.

Writing about someone’s death is always difficult. I have not known what to say about Tim. And there are things I know I am not supposed to say. Things confided to me by him that shattered my heart when I learned them. He knew about my blog, and he said that he wanted to read it, but it was just too hard.

“One of the horrifying things I discovered as I grew more and more comfortable sharing my history was that an unfortunately large number of people also had similar experiences. It is a brotherhood and sisterhood that no one wants to belong to but which has an uncountable number of members.” Callen Harty, Empty Playground: A Survivor’s Story.

Then this morning, in my Instagram feed, this amazing painting showed up. I immediately liked the painting, but then I read the caption. The caption said, “Ladies and gentlemen: My new friend Tim. This one is mine and named Tim in honor of a friend gone from this earth too soon.” (Quote and painting used with permission.)

Tim Painting

I knew it was time to write about Tim. The painting was done by my friend, Stacey Oldfield. I have known Stacey for as long as I can remember. When we were little, there was almost an alarming resemblance between us. Tim lived in my grandparents’ house two doors down from my house and Stacey lived across the street from my grandparents. So, she too, probably has known my uncle for as long as she can remember.

When I was first born, apparently, we did not live down the street from my grandparents. Tim used to love to tell the story of being able to ride his bike to my parents’ house to see me after I was born He was so proud of that. He was proud that he got to see me, his first niece, and he was proud of the independence he had riding his bike all that way. It was probably no more than 10 blocks, but it was a big deal for him in many ways.

Tim grew up in a house filled with pain. It was a house of smoke and mirrors. What people on the outside saw was either a trick or something disproportionate to the reality hidden behind the front door.

And that is exactly what the ringleaders, my father and grandparents, wanted people to see. Everyone in those two houses were conditioned to be quiet, to hide pain, and to make everything look like it was okay. I do not know for certain that my grandparents were child molesters. I do know that they encouraged silence and always stood with my father.

All of the kids raised between those two houses are talented. We are smart, we are funny, we are creative, and we can keep secrets. We were a child molester’s dream.

Until we were unable to keep the secrets anymore. Then we became the child molester’s nightmare.

Tim suffered from depression, anxiety, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, and unresolved trauma. And yet, he always tried so hard to be positive. He tried to let the people he loved know that he loved them. He wasn’t perfect, but he was kind and thoughtful, even if he sometimes lacked follow through.

He struggled so hard to overcome the messages of worthlessness he received from far too many people. I don’t know the kind of things my father might have said to him in person, but I know what my father said behind Tim’s back. Since my father didn’t shy away from telling people what he thought of them, I can only begin to imagine the types of hurtful, horrible things my father said to Tim’s face.

Tim tried to outlive the pain and shame that were laid at his feet. Those things never belonged to him, but were put on him by someone else. He couldn’t shake the terror, the fear, the desperation of trying to keep someone else’s secret.

And he wasn’t alone in that, but the isolation was too much. It is hard to name our darkest shame because we fear no one will believe us. We struggle to name the unthinkable, and all the while, we’re struggling against the voices in our head that tell us we’re just a piece of shit no one cares about and won’t listen to anyway. It is an astronomically hard battle.

And some of us never win it.

Tim fought as hard as he could to overcome all that held him back, but it was too much for him. I hope in death he is released from the hell he lived through on earth. I hope he is calm and at peace. Even more than that, though, I hope he is free.

If You Want To Go Far, Go Together

I am concerned about our world. More so than normal. It feels like everyone is living in fear. We have a constant stream in the news of shootings, attacks, rapes of 3 year old children in church bathrooms (wtf?), terrorism, domestic violence killings, victim blaming, racist slurs, poor bashing, woman bashing, man bashing. You name it in the fear category, we’ve got it.

And fear is this tricky thing. It doesn’t unite people. It divides them. It gnaws at our psyches. It makes us look at each person we see and wonder, “Is he a terrorist?” “Is he a rapist”? “Is she going to steal my money in a Ponzi scheme?”

Fear makes us feel powerless. It strikes a chord of anger in us we can’t quite dismiss. Anger is one of those emotions that women especially have been taught to swallow. It isn’t thought to be ladylike to be angry. Anger is often an explosive, unpredictable emotion. And quite honestly, it scares me.

So here we sit at the intersection of fear and anger. We are scared of each other. We are scared of ourselves. We are scared if we say anything, it will be misinterpreted as being against all the voices clamoring to be heard. We are scared if we don’t say anything, it will be taken as acceptance.

I believe all voices, even the ones I disagree with, have a place. If we aren’t allowed to voice even our most crazy ideas, how can we learn that maybe we are thinking incorrectly? In that same vane, though, if one voice or group of voices continually silences another, how can we learn from the voices we are silencing?

Survivors of sexual abuse and rape have worked long and hard to find their voice. Many of us never find it, or find it in only ways we can hear. If we are able to find our voices, we struggle to feel heard. We struggle with the fear of being told never to tell. We struggle with the anger of struggling to find the voice and whether or not we are worthy to speak. Sometimes, we have found the courage to tell before. Sometimes, we are heard, but far too often, we are shut down.

I know rape survivors are not alone in this struggle. I also know that there are survivors of many varieties and some people, unfortunately, survive many things. People survive oppression, poverty, violence, abuse, physical and mental illness. We survive natural disasters, economic disasters, emotional disasters. We survive. It’s what we do. And yes, far too many people don’t, or they hold onto unhealthy patterns they learned to survive and then use those methods to hurt other people.

It takes time and endurance to find your voice. It takes courage. I commend everything you’ve done to find your voice. I want you to lift it up and share your story.

And as you lift up your voice, I ask a favor. Please remember others are struggling to find their voices as well. Once we learn how to shout, it is easy to not hear the voice next to us that is still a squeak. Please listen for the still soft voices, or those that are yet unvocalized.

There is an African Proverb I’ve seen going around. It states, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Please consider going far.

Go far, go together

There is much fear and anger in our world. It is scary. Together, though, I believe we can shine a light in the darkness. I hope you believe it, too.

To end the post, I ask you to remember Old Turtle. If you don’t know Old Turtle, this would be an excellent time to learn about her. Old Turtle lived in a lot of turmoil. She didn’t say much as the people and creatures around her tried to define what god meant to them. She stayed quiet until the defining became arguing. When all the voices became so loud they could no longer hear each other, she said, “Please, STOP!” Once Old Turtle had everyone’s attention, she reminded them that the god they sought to define was all they each described and more. A description of god could not be encompassed by one voice. “And after a long, lonesome and scary time… the people listened, and began to hear…”

There are a lot of clamoring voices now. It’s pretty scary. It’s pretty lonesome. I hope it won’t be long for us to get back to listening, hearing, speaking, crying, healing, and smiling as we work together to tell our stories and heal.

The Man Who Raped Me Has Died

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“He’s dead.”

I had been waiting to hear those words for many years.  I knew that as soon as those words were true, the world would be a safer place.

I was raped as a teenager by a man my family and I trusted…our pastor.   I was not the only person raped by him.  There were many of us, but only two of us came forward and accused him.  We were not successful in convicting him, neither one of us.  In fact, some of our friends came to his defense.  But I know what happened to me, and she knows what happened to her, and we know what happened to each other.

When she called me and told me, “he’s dead,” we breathed a sigh together.  “He can’t hurt anyone else.”  When you are raped by a Master Abuser, sometimes that’s all the justice you have – a sigh of relief with a fellow survivor.

I shared the news later that day with a small circle of close friends and fellow survivors of sexual abuse, and the responses I received were comforting.  I needed to let others hear me say that I celebrate his absence from the planet, and let it be okay.  One friend wrote back, “Oh Jennifer. I am still waiting. I can’t imagine how it feels. It makes me beyond distraught to know the man who raped me over 2 year’s time is still in the community in which I live. I know I was not the only one he abused. Big hugs to you and thank you for sharing”  Another replied, “I remember that feeling when my uncle died, and I look forward to the day my father dies, as the world will become safer that day, too. If you’re happy, that’s great. If you feel sad, that’s OK. If you feel a lot of different things, that’s OK. But the world is a better place, and you’re an amazing person. Both of those are worth celebrating.”

Afterward, it made me think how great it would be if there were somthing more – a sanctuary, a forum, maybe even a spiritual service for survivors to grieve honestly and openly when an abuser dies.  A place where survivors can say the truth – that they are relieved as well as saddened that only death could stop him.  I feel blessed that I have surrounded myself with people who can listen to these hard truths.  I feel honored that I can be those ears for their truths too.

I have done some public speaking about both my experience living and growing up one-handed as well as my experience as a survivor of sexual abuse.  The former is a much more popular topic.  I get asked to repeat the one-handed stories far more often than the survivor stories.  One subject is always considered uplifting and inspirational.  The other is often received as dwelling in the past, or too depressing/upsetting.  The truth is, speaking about surviving sexual abuse is not speaking about the past.  It’s speaking about your entire life.  Because every day after, we are surviving…even the day our rapist dies.

Does Sharing Your Story Really Matter Revisited

After three months of living with her story out in the public, Pam sent us this and asked us to post it. In case you’ve ever wondered if sharing your story mattered, we’d like to assure that it does.

It matters because you matter.

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Does Sharing Your Story Really Matter?

I am so glad that Jackie wrote “Does Sharing Your Story Really Matter?”

It’s been three months since I shared my story. When I wrote it, I was only writing it to journal thoughts that I didn’t want to bottle up. I shared it with a friend – we share writings back and forth. I remember him saying “this needs a broader readership.” I thought, “are you kidding me?” My second thought, shortly after though was about how many people have suffered this abuse and who still live in their silence and completely undeserved shame. It almost ended up on a well-read blog that deals with lots of important topics. I’m glad now, that it didn’t end up there. The reason it didn’t end up there is because I also sent it to Jackie for “Learninghope.” It belongs on learninghope.org. How Jackie and I know each other and became friends is a pretty amazing story in itself. That’s perhaps a story for another time.

In the first 10 days, Jackie updated me with the number of times my story had been read and shared. I was floored. As a former Wisconsin resident, my visual comparison was having Lambeau Field full of people listening to me. To Me. Since the story has come out, many people have shared their own stories with me – strangers and people I know. No more silence for us.

The story was also picked up by several organizations that are well known for helping survivors and educating people about abuse. My national church denomination (ELCA) picked up the story, edited it for length and republished it for their print and online publications. http://elca.org/Living-Lutheran/Stories/2015/08/150819-On-forgiveness-and-sex-abuse Our national denominational education for pastors about issues of abuse and boundaries will be including my story as part of their training events.

In giving permission for publication in “THE LUTHERAN,” I was given the choice by the editor whether to publish anonymously or to use my name. That was sort of a heart-stopping decision, and yet, I knew what I needed to do. The story needed to be grounded in a real person with a real name. In the weeks between making the decision to allow my full name, and the publication date of “THE LUTHERAN” I knew I needed to prepare some family members for this to be in print and nationally distributed. There were people that I didn’t want to feel guilty about not protecting me. This was a very tense time for me to say the least. I worried about crank calls and worried what would happen if my abuser found out. I had no idea what to expect. But I am in a well-supported time and place in my life, so I started contacting a few family members.

What I discovered is that among my childhood circle of family and extended family, I was by no means the only victim. I was surrounded by other children who were also being abused – by a variety of abusers. But we never talked to each other because of our shame, or because of threats. None of us knew what the others were going through. At least one of the people I didn’t want to feel guilty for not protecting me, was abusing another little girl. To think about that makes me feel ill. I think about all those little kids feeling like they were the only one in the world going through something so literally unspeakable.

Does Sharing Your Story Really Matter? I’ve learned some very basic things about this question in these three months.

· The most basic thing is that the answer is a resounding “yes!” Tell your story and keep telling your story until you believe that you are worthy of genuine love. You were not at fault.

· The people I was trying to protect by not telling my story all those years – did not need to be protected. I did. The other children did.

· A very important thing I learned was, even though the number of people who have read my story is staggering to me, the most significant sharing has happened among my family and close friends who found their real voice because I used mine. In connecting with other survivors who are also in strong, healthy adult relationships, we celebrate our strength together and vow to break the cycle of silence, shame and abuse. We won’t participate in poisonous relationship anymore. You don’t need thousands of people to know your story. Your story matters because you matter.

· Remember the statistics. Learning hope has specific stats posted. I tend to generalize and think if there are 8-10 people in a room, there are probably several survivors. It’s an epidemic that no one has wanted to talk about. What the telling of my story accomplished was to get a whole lot of people to read and talk about “the elephant in the living room”.

· I told so I could heal. My story ended up helping others. So can yours.

What I Learned from JC Browne

image Last week, my best friend passed away.  We knew each other for about nine years.  We played golf together, drank wine together, traveled together, and spent countless hours chatting about life.  I know that he felt he benefitted from knowing me.  He saw the very best in me.  And, in the nine years I knew him, he had the most profound impact on me that anyone ever has.  What follows is a very long tribute to his influence in my life.  These are the lessons I learned from JC Browne:

1. Stop trying to be normal.  I was born one-handed, and I spent most of my life angry about that.  Angry at how I was treated, angry that I couldn’t just blend in, angry at people making a big deal about it.  At times, my anger served me well, and was justified.  Angry was not all I was, but it was always there.  Most people who knew would not have known I harbored this anger.  When JC and I developed a close friendship, I felt comfortable expressing it to him, and he listened and he heard.  One day, he asked me why I wore a prosthesis.  I replied, “so that I don’t have to be seen as handicapped.”  He replied, “that’s interesting, because I’ve played golf with you when you were not wearing it, and I have seen how able-bodied you are, how you hold things in your arm, and how natural you look…and I have seen you at work when you were wearing your prosthesis and how unnaturally you move and how handicapped you are.”  Six months later, after processing what he said, I took off my prosthesis and have not worn it since.  March 23rd, 2009.  I was 47.

That was only half the battle.  He helped me with the other half too.  Once I stopped wearing the prosthesis, the comments started coming in again – the ones about how incredible it was that I could do things one-handed.  I heard these compliments as patronizing.  “Why can’t people just appreciate me for who I am?” I said angrily to JC one day. “Why do they always have to point out my disability?”  JC had finally heard enough.  “You just don’t get it do you??  You’re never going to be normal.  Stop trying to be normal.  You’re going to have to settle for extraordinary!”  It took almost 50 years for me to see that no one was putting me down.  I was putting me down.  They were trying to tell me that I could do things well with one hand, that they struggled to do with two.  Thanks to JC, I will live the rest of my life settling for extraordinary.
2. Seek justice. When I told JC that I had been sexually abused by my own pastor when I was a teenager, and that the church had done nothing to the perpetrator, nothing to protect future victims, and next to nothing to acknowledge the report I had made several years earlier, he had a different reaction than anyone else. He did not think I needed additional counseling, or a support group, or forgiveness, or sympathy. He thought I needed justice, and he was willing to walk with me down the path required to get it. He cheered me on as I brought a second complaint, he connected me with a female bishop in the church, whom he knew would not file my letter away again, and he connected me with an expert in clergy sexual abuse. Today, my abuser still enjoys a full retirement pension, and has never been convicted, but through my hard work and JC’s support, I have found a measure of justice. One of the connections JC initiated for me led to me finding and befriending a fellow survivor of my abuser, and learning that my failed first attempt to report him had become a priceless source of strength for her when she bought charges against him later. I have since become a CASA volunteer as another way of advocating for children in the Injustice system, and Jackie and I have founded LearningHope.org, a resource for survivors of sexual abuse. It only took a spark.

3. Understanding manipulation as abuse.  I have an undergraduate minor in psychology, I have read dozens of self-help books, I’ve benefitted immensely from therapy, but I continued to define manipulative behaviors in my ex-husband as “personality traits”.  Society taught me to do this.  We use words like “he’s a jerk,” or “what’s her problem.”  It’s not cool in many settings to name manipulation what it is – abuse.  I, like many people, think of emotional abuse as aggressive, hurtful statements, or blatant control.

I had been divorced more than six months, when JC, his wife Mary, and I were eating out in Branson, MO.  It was a restaurant I recommended for their great BBQ and I had been there several times.  As we were perusing the menu, JC and Mary asked “how are the ribs here.”  I replied I didn’t know because I had never had ribs.  “You’ve never had ribs?!?” they said in unison.  “But you love BBQ.  Why have you never had ribs?”  “Because George was morally opposed to them.  He thought they were bad for you and a waste of money,” I answered.  JC would not let that go unchallenged.  Through a series of gentle, but persistent questions, he allowed me to hear myself say that if I had ever wanted to order ribs, George would not have told me I couldn’t order them, but his ensuing behavior and comments would have made the choice not worth the pain.  “It’s the same thing as not letting you,” JC and Mary helped me see.  I never made excuses for manipulation again.  And I began to understand that emotional abuse should be defined by what it accomplishes, not how it is accomplished.

4. It’s possible to completely understand and yet completely disagree with another paradigm.

One of JC’s most interesting careers was an intake officer at a boys camp in northern California.  It was his job to assess within a few hours what emotional/cognitive level a new boy at the camp was functioning at and how best to serve him.  He was taught and utilized an assessment model that focused on the subject’s ability to perceive both good and bad in a situation at the same time.  Those predicted to be the most successful, were the ones who could see the gray areas of a situation and could understand opinions and ideas that were different than their own.  JC was so impressed by this that he honed his own skill at seeing things from other people’s perspectives.  He helped me move from seeing people I encountered at work, socially, and in family as either completely “good” or “bad.”  Now, whenever I feel myself objectifying others in my life, and the inherent frustration from doing so, I know I am slipping back into black and white thinking and I work to see both sides.  JC would be proud.

I never mastered the art of understanding someone’s opinion that is completely contrary to my own, though.  I will miss JC’s explanations without judgement.

5. “I’m sorry” can be sincere without accepting blame.  Before I met JC, my paradigm said apologizing was synonymous with taking blame for someone else’s pain.  It was part of my two-dimensional, black or white thinking.  Over the 9 years I knew JC, we discussed many painful things openly.  From time to time, he would say something that I was not ready to hear; and at the time, I perceived it as mean, or hurtful.  Whenever, I would express to him that I felt hurt from what he said, he would say, “I’m sorry,” and I assumed he was admitting he was wrong.  One day, I was telling him how another person had hurt me and he replied, “I’m sorry,” which struck me as really odd because he wasn’t to blame for any of it.  “I know,” he said, “but I am still sorry you are hurting and you needed to hear it.”  He went on to explain, “I apologize a lot without deciding who is to blame.  It doesn’t matter who is to blame.  It matters that you’re hurting.”  Words feel inadequate to explain how powerful that revelation was – to see that I had the blessing of a friend who didn’t care who was right or wrong, who could offer a sincere apology simply to lessen my load, without diminishing himself.

6. The best test of theology is the third-world test.  At one point in my theological journey, I was really into the Law of Attraction.  It’s a theology that says the universe is a cosmic vending machine, that conspires to provide you with whatever you ask for.  Expect pain and betrayal and the universe gives you pain and betrayal.  Expect wealth and happiness and the universe conspires to bring it to you.  I proudly shared my new-found “Answer” with JC during one of our coffee chats.  He said he thought that kind of theology had some good points, but he didn’t think it could pass his third-world theology check.  I had never heard of such a thing.  It’s very simple, if a theology is universal, it should not only make sense in our privileged, first-world lives, it should also hold hope and meaning for someone starving on the other side of the globe.  He said he couldn’t quite see telling someone born into a life of famine, that they should just expect food and clean water and the universe would provide, or that they were starving in the first place because their people had not attracted food and water.  It was my first introduction to Social Justice theology – a theology that does pass the third-world test, one that helps me see that I am privileged, not persecuted.

JC was the most well-versed Biblical scholar I ever met.  He knew EVERY story in the Bible, and he knew them in a way I had not  been exposed to before – that of Progressive Christianity.  He, along with Mary Browne and Doyle Burbank-Williams introduced me to so many new Biblical concepts that made sense to me, that my Christianity was transformed.

Last year, JC officiated the wedding ceremony for Dave and me.  On JC’s 73rd birthday, earlier this year, I called him — not only to wish him a happy birthday, but to tell him that I could not have been the person I am today if I had not met him.  I’m a better person because I knew him.  Rest in peace my dear, dear friend.  Rest in peace.

Honoring our Differences

On September 18th, I am participating in a charitable fundraiser, by speaking about my experiences growing up with one hand.  Since many of our friends at Learninghope.org live too far away to attend, I am sharing the content of my speech here.  It’s a humorous and inspiring look at the way we treat people who are different than ourselves and what it’s like to be on the other side of the question, “what happened to your…?”  It’s entitled “The Question.”

Imagine for a moment what it would feel like to be asked a question by someone you just met. Excuse me sir, if you don’t mind me asking…”what happened to your nose?” I hope this isn’t too personal, ma’am, but “what happened to your hair?” Whoa! You over there! “What exactly happened to your ear?”

Now imagine how it would feel if nearly everyone you met asked you that same question all your life. That is my story. I was born one handed. That’s right. I am the one-handed version of awesome! Not only did it seem that I was asked a million times, “what happened to your arm?” I didn’t have an answer.  Nothing happened to my arm.  It’s just my arm.

A lot of your self image is shaped by the way the world receives you. I was born and raised in a small, rural community in Iowa, and it seemed to me that everybody I met thought there was something wrong with me and the most important thing was finding out why. It definitely affected my self image.

Usually, about this time in conversation, several of you in the audience are starting to kick yourself, thinking of all the times you have asked someone you met The Question…what happened to you? So, let me help you sort this out. You can’t change the fact that you are naturally curious, or that other people have asked the same question. You can, however, be sensitive to the feelings of the other person.

For example: realize that you may be asking the person to recall a very painful time in his/her life. Consider if this is a convenient time to ask. Don’t be like the lady in the restaurant who noticed me across the dining room as I was putting a winter coat on my toddler (not an easy task with two hands) and hollered at me “Hey you, come here a minute. I want to ask you a question.” What?  Are you doing research or something lady?? 

And finally, ask yourself if you are asking The Question as part of getting to know the person better, or just opportunistically. As I was preparing this speech a few weeks ago, a woman in the Chicago airport was kind enough to give me material for today. Not more than 10 seconds into starting a conversation with me at the gate, she said, “I can’t help noticing, so if you don’t mind me asking, what happened to your arm?” I politely told her “I was born this way.” and then imagined adding. “I can’t help but notice your wedding ring, so if you don’t mind me asking, did you have sex with your husband before getting married or wait until your wedding day?” Is it starting to make sense now?

My senior year of high school, I started thinking about going to college. In addition to choosing a college and thinking about what I wanted to study, I started thinking about The Question again. I realized that within a few months, I would be traveling to a new community, and meeting hundreds of new people and I knew I would be asked The Question hundreds of times over. So, I decided to have fun with it.

I made a pact with myself that anytime I was asked The Question at college, I would answer it the same way…”I used to wrestle alligators.” I had the most fun EVER with this story. Except, I wasn’t prepared for the people who believed me.

So, I had to quickly develop a follow up line… Jennifer, what happened to your arm? “I used to wrestle alligators.” Wow, really? Yah, my record is 19 and one. 

Besides being entertaining, growing up one-handed has given me other gifts in the form of questions. Because I have had to find my own way to do things all my life, I have a different approach to life.

First of all, I never question that it can be done or that I can do it. Secondly, I always question whether the conventional way is the best way. And I’m not talking just about physical tasks. I’m the one at the board meeting that thinks outside of the box because I’ve been doing it my whole life.

Living life one-handed has taught me some valuable lessons.

  • It’s okay to wonder…but you don’t always have to ask.
  • If you feel you need to ask, consider the other person’s feelings.
  • And, if you take the time to get to know a person, what did or didn’t happen to them will be revealed. If you’re not interested in getting to know them as a fellow soul, you’re not entitled to know.

So, as I close, I want to leave you with a final Question…How has the last 5 minutes changed your perspective, and how will you treat people differently from now on? Now, that’s a question we all should ask!

Trust IS Hard

It will probably come as no big surprise that I have trust issues. I don’t think it’s only because I was sexually abused by my father, though I’m sure that didn’t help.

The world makes it hard to trust. People act like our friend, then are beyond cruel to us behind our backs. We are supposed to trust our own families, but you have heard as many stories as I have about untrustworthy family members. We are supposed to be able to trust the leaders of our countries and our states. They repeatedly show they are not to be trusted. Pension funds have been bankrupt by people who are supposed to manage them. People who raise money for needy children steal from their own charities.

In the same vein as the post about people mistaking kindness for weakness, if you are trusting, you can become the perfect victim. The creeps of the world look for people who trust and they prey on them like hyenas on a dying animal. It makes it hard to trust.

Trust is an elusive thing much akin to hope. Most of us are born with it. It is natural. It is normal. It is healthy.

We are told to be trusting and to be weary. How can you have it both ways? I don’t really have any idea how anyone is supposed to do that. I also don’t know how anyone can live without trust, even just a little.

It is one of the both/and conundrums of life. Trust cautiously. Love cautiously. Hope cautiously. No wonder everyone is confused and afraid to trust.

The daily struggle is exhausting. People are overwhelmed. Their hearts tell them to do one thing. Their experience tells them to do something else. Society tells everyone to do something entirely different.

This is hard, especially for anyone who has ever been hurt. I’d say that’s just about everyone.

The best I can say is keep trying. When it’s too hard, take a break, cry, call a friend, treat yourself to a special meal out or go to a movie. Give your heart and your soul a little rest. Take a breath and keep going.

When you find someone to trust, not everything will be perfect all the time. Everyone is a person and people have been damaged by life, just like you. There are times, such as abusive relationships, when trust cannot usually be repaired, but in many relationships, people can work it out and learn to trust each other again, especially if both are truly sorry for their actions and both are willing to try again to be better to each other.

Trust is hard. Life is hard. You deserve to be able to trust. I’m sorry for everyone who ever hurt you and made you thing trust wasn’t real or that you couldn’t find someone worthy of trust. I can’t fix it, but I know you are worth it. You are worth the struggle to get through and try to trust again.  Work on it  and I think you will feel less anxious. I think you may feel more joy. I think, as hard as it is, you may feel more like you.

How has someone worked to regain your trust after they hurt you? How did you sustain yourself through the process?

(This song is actually about Truth. Sometimes in order to trust, we must find someone who can hear our truth. And I did a search for the wrong word, but liked the song anyway. 🙂 )