I often tell my clients, “We pick what’s familiar.” Even if we don’t like what’s familiar, we still choose it, usually unconsciously. If degrading relationships are familiar, we’ll find one. If chaos is familiar, we’ll seek out chaos (Marsha Linehan, founder of the most excellent Dialectical Behavior Therapy, coined the phrase “mysterious unrelenting crises” to describe the lives of chaos-driven people).
Freud called this familiarity-seeking the “repetition compulsion,” a phrase I think is unkind, if accurate. I’d prefer to call it the “reparation compulsion.” We re-enact because we want to repair whatever went wrong the first time. Or the first few hundred times. So when your friend starts dating an alcoholic jackass, motherfucking again… be kind to her. She’s trying to make it go right this time, in attempt to heal the pain from before. It’s easier than grieving, although far less successful.
It’s easy to see repetition compulsion in others, especially as a therapist, but I’m always shocked and humbled to find myself in the midst of it, repeating what’s familiar instead of actually working towards what I claim I want.
In my ongoing email conversation with my Token White Male Pastor Friend, in the midst of a lovely exchange about his sermons (“lovely” meaning, I told him that I had listened to one of his sermons online and hated it), I found myself unexpectedly writing:
This is where I get stuck in these kinds of conversations— what I want to ask of the Church is an implosion of the whole system. I want the pendulum to swing to the opposite direction for at least a thousand years, if not the full two. I’d like to call God and Jesus “She” (yes, Jesus too) and to have almost exclusively female leadership, with the men in the nursery—except for one or two of the really smart ones, they can preach once in a while, as long as their qualifications are always being questioned (Kidding. Kind of.) I want to do our readings out of Jack’s Silent Voices Bible, acknowledging that it’s a translation, but believing that it’s a necessary one. I don’t actually think anything less will repair the wounds that are on the souls of all women (whether they know it or not) and bring us the full gospel.
So that’s nothing new. If you’ve read this blog for more than 2 seconds, you probably know that I call God “She” and have these grandiose upending-church-patriarchy fantasies. The part that surprised me was this:
But that’s a lot to ask the Church, and it feels impossible, and most people freak out when I do ask. So instead of asking, I go to what is literally the MOST liberal church I can find in the entire nation, and I sit there angry, because it’s STILL patriarchy, it’s STILL a male God, it’s STILL only 14% of the Biblical characters that are women, and I’m expected to be grateful for the Holy Spirit occasionally being “she” (and I am, but it’s an angry and bitter kind of grateful).
I lied a little bit in there. Holy Innocents is not the MOST liberal church I can find. There’s Her Church, which is a Christian church here in town that uses exclusively feminine language in all its worship and liturgy. In other words, it’s exactly what I’ve been claiming I want. So… what’s up? Why am I not going there?
Therapists are trained to look for how a person benefits from an undesired behavior. There’s always some good reason why he keeps pursuing married women (afraid of committing, fear of being trapped and consumed like he was by his mom), or why she lives a life of utter chaos (peace and stillness leads to awareness of pain or past trauma, chaos keeps it at bay)… Or why I go to semi-traditional churches and sit in the pews angry. I suspect my anger is a way for me to stand out. My deepest, most core fear is that I’m invisible, that I blend into the landscape, that no one will see or remember me. Bitching and moaning about “Jesus-Sophia the child of our Mother-God” is a good way to be visible, even if all the gay guys at church raise their wine glass in salute to Mother God.
But there’s something else, too… something a few clients have tried to explain to me, but I didn’t quite get until now. When you finally get what you want, sometimes it’s enraging. Sometimes it’s more painful to have a little of what you desire, than to go without it completely. A starving belly grows numb after a while, but becomes demanding again after the first bite of a real meal. Getting just a little bit of what you want— whether that’s respect from a partner, or a moment of inner peace, or verbally acknowledging God’s femininity, makes you aware of your desire, the breadth and depth and raw intensity of it. And you’re like, please, let me go back to the achey numbness, it wasn’t as bad as this horrid, wrenching desire.
I don’t know how to end this post, probably because I’m not anywhere near an ending, but rather in the middle of a familiar process. My repetition (reparation) compulsion is so far from tidily wrapped up that my psyche probably looks like the living room on the day after Christmas. In the meantime, I’m so grateful to have more empathy for my friends and family and present and future clients… all of us who at some point realize that, motherFUCKER, I’m doing it again.
P.S. Recently my church switched from saying “She” to saying “Who” (“The Holy Spirit, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified”). I guess “She” was just a little too out-there, even for an Episcopalian congregation in the heart of the most liberal city in the nation. Sheesh.