Thursday, March 19, 2009

Spiritual Crises: Trying to Make Sense of God

Hello Friends:

Religion and spirituality have been on my mind a lot lately. In truth, they often are. For whatever reason I'm a spiritual person. My being trained as a research scientist does not conflict with this at all - but that's the subject of another post. (Or an entire book. And you know I think I'll put that one on the list of "books I really gotta write one of these days.") Instead, what I wanted to focus on here is the idea of spiritual crises and their relationship to anxiety and trauma.

I've been doing a lot of reading into PTSD recently, since (as I've mentioned in previous posts) the PTSD appears to be the core motivator or prime mover, so to speak, of my disordered psyche. I was very surprised to see that in the lists of responses to trauma "spiritual crisis or loss of faith" is in almost every one of them. I don't know why this is a surprise to me. After all, going to the therapist is usually another lesson in "No duh." (Did you know there is now research supporting the fact that people with three or more co-morbid anxiety/depression disorders are less able to remain functional at jobs and in work environments than those with fewer or no disorders? Did we really need a peer-reviewed paper to tell us this?) And yet, I still get taken by surprise by the obvious. If life sucks for you, then you generally don't have a great relationship with the Almighty.

For some people, their religious crisis stems from the reality of suffering. After a major traumatic event, people often think "How could God have let this happen to me?" and "How can a good God allow these sorts of horrible things?" Through their trauma these people are confronted with a brutal reality that is so at odds with their previous world view that they cannot find a new working middle ground. Their faith is seriously compromised or abandoned as a result.

I don't happen to wonder about suffering in the world, and this may be part of the difference between PTSD sufferers (from a single event) or Complex PTSD (multiple events or extended duration events). I've been subjected to trauma from birth, so it never occurred to me that the world was a nice place. My ideas of religion grew up in the context of a scary world. My crisis didn't come about from a sudden bad event, but instead from years and years of traumatic pressure slowly changing my point of view.

Although I can point to the triggering moment that I chose to stop praying, and thus sort of ended up with me and God no longer on speaking terms. I read a book where the author was saying that the accident that made her a quadrapelegic was actually God's answer to a prayer. She prayed that He would bring her closer to Him, and the next week she was paralyzed from the neck down. This was (and is) about the most horrible thing I'd ever read. It crystalized my lack of trust in God - apparently if you prayed for things, he would give them to you, but in a nasty 'Monkey's Paw' sort of way. Better not to pray at all, and then at least you know the bad stuff comes from random chance.

"There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread." - Mahatma Gandhi

I have always loved this quote, even when I was on 'good terms' with God. Surely, I felt, God is compassionate and giving, and knows that starving people don't need sermons, they need FOOD. But then being squished through the eye of the needle that is Fundamental Christianity, my views on God became torqued. I saw God as scary, judgmental, angry, unapproachable, requiring perfect prayer, constant sacrifice, and incessant vigilance lest I fall away and be tossed into the fire. This, by the way, is also an excellent description of how I felt about my parents, who provided many of the traumatic experiences that continue to haunt me. If you cannot get unconditional love from your parents, you certainly don't imagine you can get it from God. God, like my parents, became someone whom I thought it better to avoid.

But this sort of pisses me off. I don't want my innate interests and desires for a more spiritual life to be another casualty of my abusive upbringing. So many things have already been broken by a past that was not my fault - I don't want to ditch the whole idea of spirituality as a reaction to something else. I need to find out if it is right for me, and how, and to do that I need to find ways to separate myself from images of the divine as a parent. I don't have a good model for a parent so I'm not going to want a deity that is one. What I want are influences that allow me to fully grow into myself as a person.

Which brought me back to the quote from Gandhi, and a way to begin to think of God, the Goddess, the Divine, Wisdom, Warm Fuzzy Life Feelies or Whatever as that which nourishes me. God can't come to me as a controlling, child-sacrificing slave-master, but God can come to me as bread. Or, in fact, as the love I get from my husband, the acceptance I get from my sister, the joy I get from watching the cardinals outside return in the spring. You know, good stuff like that.

Bread, of course, is already fraught with religious significance and imagery, not the least of which is the 'body of Christ' from Christian mass/communion. Not wanting to bog myself down too much there, instead of a picture of a communion wafer I chose a pic of challah bread. One of the many benefits of having married a Jew is the introduction to Jewish food (which includes great stuff like matzo ball soup, and some less great stuff like gefilte fish). If you haven't had Challah, it is amazing stuff; soft and stretchy on the inside, rich and dense, but yielding, with a crisp, thin crust. It makes the best French Toast on the planet, too.

Another benefit of a Jewish husband is that his operating system comes pre-loaded with the idea that is it a good thing to treat one's religious beliefs with the same intellectual honesty used anywhere else in life. The tradition of Jewish scholars arguing Torah in the Yeshiva lives on in conscious and unconscious ways. So I, WASP woman that I am, get the encouragement and the room to step back and consider what God really is to me.

Challah seems like a great place to start with that.

Your Hostess With Neuroses

Image is Challah by A. Ross from Flickr via Creative Commons.


Andy said...

Certainly interesting to consider the relationship between trauma and religiosity. Some people become more religious as a result of trauma, I wonder if it drives people to one extreme or the other?

The Blue Morpho said...

Hey Andy - Very interesting question. I took a look at some papers in on-line trauma and psychology journals and found an increasing interest in the connection between trauma and religion in the last ten years. Psychologists have (apparently) always known that the way to deal with past traumatic events is to talk about them, recast them in the present context, and construct new meaning around them. It is the creation of 'meaning' around life events that builds up a person's world view. The paper's I looked at suggested that trauma forces survivors to re-examine spiritual 'truths' and re-evaluate them in a new context. Adaptive coping behavior can include becoming more religious, changing religions, abandoning religion entirely, or something in between. What matters in the long term mental health of the survivor is that they have reconstructed their traumatic event in a way that creates a meaning that is believable for them, and that allows them to grow past it and heal.

The Blue Morpho said...

Hey Andy - I'll add, then, that the author I talked about constructed a very adaptive meaning for herself around her traumatic accident. She chose to believe it was an act of God meant to make her life better. It's just that such an idea is exactly opposite of what is an adaptive idea for me. Such an idea makes me want to run and hide under the bed. I need to do something else - hence eating more challah.

The Tenacious Writer said...

I know that book you're referring to. I read it when I was a young teen and it really made me scared to ask for anything from god. I agree it is a terrifying way to contextualize a traumatic experience.

If god can appear as bread, why not birds singing or a husband's love or any other experience of love or joy?

The Tenacious Writer said...

Please tell Stress Cat it's just a little headache.

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