Who Am I?

I Can Only Imagine

Posted: March 17th, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Comments Off on I Can Only Imagine

Content warning: Discussion of abuse

I was spending time in a bookstore recently. Bookstores and libraries have been my personal havens my entire life. I wander through sections and stop to read parts of books. I loved it when many started serving coffee as well. I saw a display of different books of poetry and one with a jellyfish on the cover caught my eye. I picked it up and looked through it randomly. The page on when I stopped had the following.

Let’s be frank — there are times it feels the whole world is falling apart. You cannot compare your pain to others’ so why respond with “Someone else has it worse?”

Pain is immeasurable when it’s felt because in that moment it feels like the worst pain on earth.

The book of poetry and prose is Pillow Thoughts by Courtney Peppernell. The back of it says, “Make a cup of tea and let yourself feel.”

My whole life, I’ve found my words in books. It doesn’t surprise me when I do; it’s what I expect. I took the book, got a cup of coffee, shared my initial deep reaction online, and read a bit more. I had decided I was buying the book as soon as I saw that page, but I sat and read and let myself feel, something I rarely do.

That pillow thought captures the soul of an idea I’ve tried to express myself.

The worst abuse you have experienced is precisely that — the worst.

I keep repeating that for two reasons. I know when people hear some of the details of my life, there are those who use it to minimize their own experience because “theirs¬†wasn’t that bad.”¬†I’ve heard some people in my personal life say it out loud, but I’m deeply familiar with the tendency because I do it myself. I point to the stories that are different from mine in some way and I label those “worse” to minimize and dismiss my own experience. Even though many of us seem to do it, that narrative is a false one. Trauma is trauma. There is no scale on which it can be weighed or measured. And abused children, in particular, have lived lives shaped in no small part by trauma.

I want to keep that idea clearly in mind as I discuss some aspects of my reaction to the biographical film, I Can Only Imagine, about the early life of Bart Millard, the lead singer of MercyMe. MercyMe is one of my wife’s favorite bands and we learned about the movie at a recent sold-out concert for which I found tickets. I watched for and bought tickets to an early release of the movie. Personally, I remember the deep chord their first hit song, toward which the movie of the same title builds, struck with me. The movie reveals some of the emotions behind the song that likely made it resonate with me. Obviously many other people had a similar reaction to it at the time. I enjoy their music, but I enjoy all sorts of music if done well. I wouldn’t call them a favorite of mine, but I had fun at the concert despite the crowds and bright lights in my face at various points. I draw a great deal of joy in life by facilitating and participating in things that bring happiness to the people I love.

A book I’m working through in therapy, The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., describes the particular challenge trauma victims experience creating a narrative that places their trauma in some sort of context and, most importantly, in the past. Trauma victims in general, and abused children in particular, tend to be overtaken by memories, by experiences, by reactions, and even when the memories are distanced or repressed, their brains and bodies retain them. The experience of trauma is always present. In a sense, it’s a part of the air we live and breathe. It forms and shapes the world in which we move.

This movie shows us the narrative Bart has built for his trauma. As such it is deeply personal and very brave. I want to honor that truth. I don’t know that I have a good narrative myself, though I’m working on it. I can see how I’ve worked on different ones my whole life, but most have melted over time in the forge of my experience. I keep trying to build new ones and I have maintained enough of a narrative that I’ve been able to function and live. But it’s been a struggle my whole life and is no less a struggle today. I am genuinely happy for every abused child who has found a path through that darkness. I say that without caveat or reservation.

I also could not do what Bart’s done and share that narrative with the world. People may believe that I’m open online, in groups, or one on one, but I’m not really. Everything I share is heavily edited, shaped, and carefully managed. I just happen to have had the sort of life from which I can tell small, edited pieces and it sounds worse or more dramatic than most people expect. And so the things I say are often heard as the raw, unvarnished truth, even though that’s not the case. And it’s not only that I don’t share everything with others, even the people closest to me. I keep a lot of it from myself as well, tucked carefully away, and only experience it when life forces me into a place that impinges on it and brings it back. I can share specific things at certain times and in particular contexts, but even the thought of trying to place my story on a screen or in a book for everyone or even any one person to see terrifies me.

If you were an abused child, this movie will almost certainly be hard to watch. It includes many scenes of physical and emotional abuse. The movie also shows how those experiences constantly replay in Bart’s head as a teen and young adult and how events cause those memories to overtake and overwhelm him at times. It shows at least a few of the ways his experiences played out in self-destructive behavior and actions that hurt people who loved him and whom he loved. I watched the movie within a sense of unreality or hyper-reality. I don’t really have words to describe the experience, but it’s the same mental and physical sensation I experience in times of crisis or when something pushes me toward those places I normally keep hidden and put away. I started shoving my emotions away and severing my always unreliable connections to them. I suppose the technical term is dissociation. I found myself wiping away tears with no idea what was causing them at seemingly random points in the movie.

I cannot comment on the technical merits of the film. As an actor and writer (though neither professionally), I usually have thoughts and reactions on both with any performance. I can’t do that with this movie. Even though none of the details of Bart’s story were at all similar to my life, the visceral experience thrust me into my own world of pain. I can’t comment on whether or not it was a good film. I can’t critique the individual performances. I don’t know how strong the writing was. I can only say that from my reaction, I believe the movie did a pretty credible job portraying the experience and effect of childhood abuse and abandonment. It took me a few moments to reach a point where I could speak after it ended. Fortunately, we saw a couple we knew as we were leaving the theater and my wife chatted a lot with them while I smiled and nodded most of the way back to the car. By then, I had begun to gather myself and could use my words again, at least a little.

The basic narrative of the film is a straightforward one. The actor portraying Bart even verbalizes it near the end. Bart’s father was a monster who came to know Jesus late in life and was transformed into the Dad for whom the child had always longed.

That narrative itself is reductionist, but it tends to be the only sort of narrative white evangelical Christianity allows. And that truth lies at the heart of my personal reaction to the movie. The only reason Bart’s story can be told in an evangelical film and embraced by an evangelical audience is that it happens to fall within the bounds that evangelical Christianity attempts to place on human experience. I don’t dispute the truth of Bart’s experience. I applaud his bravery and honesty. And I am genuinely happy that he found a narrative, that he has healed and is healing, and that his father finally found some measure of peace before the end of his story.

But much, and I would even venture to say most human experience, especially for those of us who have lived lives shaped by trauma and abuse, falls outside the narrow confines of the evangelical narrative. I want to emphasize that those stories do not fall outside the boundaries of the larger Christian narrative. Anyone who has explored my blog might understand some of the reasons I continue to call myself a Christian. I draw incredible hope, in particular, from the Incarnation, from a God of love, which can only be expressed in united community, joining their nature with ours. Evangelicalism is, in that broader context, a truncated and stunted expression of Christianity.

It’s not always, or even usually, those “non-Christians” who do monstrous things and shape themselves into monsters. The monsters, especially in our culture, are often Christian. And no, they aren’t “fake” Christians. They aren’t only publicly recognized. They are often privately zealous and many truly help some people tremendously even as they destroy others. Human beings are complicated in that way. The dividing line between monster and saint runs through every single heart every single day of our lives. I’m glad that at the end of his life, facing terminal cancer, Bart’s father was able to finally become the man and the father he had likely always longed to be. Most people never change that dramatically or can’t sustain the change. We should treasure the stories of those who do. But we value those stories precisely because they are the exception and not the rule.

I’m glad Bart found his narrative, experienced redemption with his father, and was able to share his story with us. I’m frustrated that his story is the only sort of story evangelical Christianity allows.