The metaphor I use most often in therapy is the one about parts of self around a dinner table. My friend who taught this to me says it’s a boardroom table, but I decided people should dine, rather than negotiate, with their fragmented self.
The set-up goes something like this: “Imagine all these parts of your self are eating dinner together around a table. Who is dominating the conversation? Who is left out? Who is stifling whom, and how is the stifled part reacting? How can we hear more from the parts that are silent, unwelcome, or afraid to join in?”
It’s hokey, as is a lot of therapy, but it works. Suffering is usually related to silencing, and people know pretty quickly what “parts” they’ve spent their lives trying to shut up. It sounds simple, but it’s very difficult to dine with your own voice of regret, or anger, or the young child who doesn’t understand what’s happening but wants to be loved. We all favor some parts over others. The parts-of-self dinner table is rarely a place of love and acceptance.
Lately I’ve been encountering one of my own parts that has been quiet for a while. Last week, I tried to explain to my therapist my complicated history with Church. I was telling him about my conversion at age 19, but I was trying to do it without using any words like “conversion” or even “Jesus,” because, you know, that language is way too Evangelical. And I am NOT an Evangelical.
“So, you grew up going to church intermittently, and when you were 19, you made… like a personal commitment? Is that right?” he asked.
I cringed. I cringed reflexively, without even meaning to.
When I started this journey— Therapy, Authenticity, Feminism, or whatever you want to call it— I found it hard at first to articulate the extent of my rage. I feared being bad, unloved, rejected, mocked. The easy fallback (especially in my church communities) was to talk about Jesus.
Now, a decade later, I’m pretty fluent in the language of anger, self, differentiation. But I’m finding it hard, embarrassing even, to articulate the part that I used to speak of so freely… My love of Jesus, the sense of peace and sometimes comfort, and the thrill. Oh yes, the thrill of God, the quasi-erotic tingle that the very idea of incarnation elicits. No one told me Christianity would be thrilling, but it was, and is.
“Did I say the wrong thing?” my therapist asked, seeing my cringe.
His question broke my heart. “No, that’s the right thing, I just hate it,” I confessed. “But I also hate that I hate it.”
I have a very young woman at my table… 19 or 20. She is (and always will be) enthusiastically Evangelical, although she prefers to call herself a “Jesus Follower,” thinking that this is a unique and scandalous title (not yet realizing the marketing conglomerate that is college Christian fellowships). She yearns to belong, so badly that she’s willing to ignore the squirmy rage inside of her. She wants to remind all the rowdy women at dinner that they, too, will be birthed again (and again, and again, and again). But she fears their confidence and directness. She worries what the powerful, articulate, feminist 30-year-old across the table (working through her 3rd glass of wine) will say if she speaks up. She’s used to scoffing and mockery, and tries to avoid it where possible.
This morning, as I was working on the rough draft of this post, a couple of my friends had a brief twitter exchange about some of the more obnoxious habits of college-based ministries: Namely, offering “free” showings of movies followed by “discussions,” and “Investigative Bible Studies” (groups formed by Christians to invite not-yet-believers into conversation). I joined in, disclosing that I converted because of an Investigative Bible Study that Jack led when we were 19.
Before this week, I would have been unlikely to admit that without making a joke about it. I found Jesus there, in that patriarchal, homophobic, agenda-laden Investigative Bible Study. I completely un-ironically found Jesus….The Jesus who takes no bullshit, who is brilliant but doesn’t humor intellectuals, who invites Narcissists to love their own small-ness and Borderlines to seek stability within himself. I was so stunned that I talked about that Jesus non-stop for a few years, until I found the language of feminist theology that helped me articulate the other side of my experience as a Christian woman.
I hadn’t noticed the way my 19-year-old self was shrinking at the table until I found myself cringing in therapy. “I’m embarrassed by her,” I realized, stunned. “I might even be in danger of hating her.”
So I am taking drastic measures this week to love that young woman, and to even speak in her language sometimes (though it no longer fits my whole self). I’m still cringing as I try on old phrases like “I love Jesus,” and “God is Good,” but I think a part of me is healing as I do. At least, I think that 19-year-old is enjoying the show.
What about you? How’s your dinner party going? What parts of you need your love?