What Color Are Your Monsters’ Eyes?
“After one or the other of my parents had kissed me good night and turned off the light by my bed, there was always a moment of bliss under the tent of my sheets while my eyes adjusted to the low light coming through the window….
Once the smell of my parents had faded away along with their footsteps; once I could feel their protection dissipate as they moved away from me; once it became apparent to me that they had checked me off their list for the night and had turned their attention to other things, then all the loose darkness in that room started to collect in the closet and under the bed, pulling itself together with such magnetic malevolence that i could not keep my mind away from it.
Without the benefit of maturity or therapy, I had no way of knowing that the darkness was as much inside me as it was outside me, or that I had any power to affect its hold on me….
Since I am only five years old in this memory, there is no telling what I might have said if they had asked me what color the monsters’ eyes were, or what the witches were planning to do to me. If they had, I might have learned to become more curious about what the darkness inside me was dishing up. I might have learned to look more deeply instead of looking away….”
Learning to Walk in the Dark – Barbara Brown Taylor
Last night my Theology on Tap book group began discussing Learning to Walk in the Dark, and Barbara Brown Taylor’s take on darkness and its place within spirituality. She writes that culture, and religion in particular, has traditionally held light and darkness as a dichotomy of good and bad, rather than as a duality of two integrated and necessary parts. She talks about “full solar churches” that consider any period of doubt or personal darkness as being preciptated by a lack of faith, and those people who would encourage you to simply have a more positive attitude and more trust in God in order to step into the light.
There are days when I would give anything to share their vision of the world and their ability to navigate it safely, but my spiritual gifts do not seem to include the gift of solar spirituality. Instead, I have been given the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season.”
Taylor goes on in the first chapter to discuss amazing things that can only happen in the dark: we can see the moon and the stars, we can hear crickets and nightbirds, chickens chill out for the evening. “Go into the chicken house at night…and it is like they have had two martinis.”
So besides the overly used notion about all we can learn from times of darkness, Taylor shows that darkness itself is not inherently bad. That’s where our group’s discussion will take up next week.
But I share all that just to give some context. What I’m really interested in thinking about is the concept of looking more deeply at the “color of my monsters’ eyes” instead of looking away. And what do I have to gain by staring into those eyes?
I initially thought I’d identify the monster I live in fear of as “disappointment.” Then I thought more and wonder if disappointment is actually born of failure. Are they two separate things, or interrelated? I’m not sure. Maybe failure is only related to the ways you’ve disappointed yourself, while there are other disappointments that are more accurately pinned to things others have done to hurt you. Either way, maybe I need to do as Taylor suggests and look more deeply into my darkness at the failure and disappointment I fear so much there.
I often feel ungrateful when I ponder all the times I’ve felt like a failure or been disappointed. I know there are times when I’ve had success. I know I have talents. And I know I have been extraordinarily lucky to have so many things go right in my life.
But there is no way to discount how much pain I’ve had in my life from the failures and disappointments I’ve experienced and how much fear I have of experiencing those feelings over and over again for the rest of my life. And it seems with each disappointment, the pain has gotten worse and worse.
I felt wonderfully blessed as a child, and although I had both sexual molestation and bullying in those years that probably profoundly damaged me and my ability to love myself and relate appropriately to others, I don’t view those occurrences as my monsters. Maybe those are the hells from where my monsters emerged. I need to think more on that.
I never really felt like I’d failed at anything until I choked at the region track meet my senior year of high school and didn’t qualify for the state meet despite being rated one of the best shot putters in the state. Yeah. It was just a sport, but it was the first time I was absolutely devastated by a personal failure. I still feel bad about it to this day.
But things still went along fairly well during college. The wheels didn’t really start coming off until I went to my first year of seminary. I got there and I wasn’t smart anymore. I felt like one of the stupid people. I had no idea how to be a little fish in a big pond. I was ashamed. I started chasing an older man. I started drinking with him to prove I was cool. I finally lost my virginity to this man and then was incredibly confused that he wasn’t my boyfriend afterwards. I was crushed. RIDICULOUSLY hurt and disappointed. But the feelings were very real. I was deeply depressed for about a year. I started drinking lots to stop the hurt. My best friends asked me to move out of our apartment. I quit seminary. Fail and fail.
Things finally got better after a few years. I got married and thought the life I’d been destined to live had finally come together. I thought my husband and I would certainly live happily ever after – forever. Then I failed to get pregnant. Then I had an affair and got divorced. Then I got dumped by the man I left my husband for. Fail, fail, fail. Shame, shame, shame. Disappointment, disappointment, disappointment.
So much hurt. So much vodka. A tenuous five-year relationship that ultimately failed and cost me a lot of money. Started a new job that I thought would be exciting and open me up to valuable work experience. Disappointment. Sobriety. Started my twelve-steps. Stopped in the middle of step four.
Fairy tale date with a man I tracked down after a chance meeting at a bar. An awesome night! And another date with him the very next night. And then I didn’t hear from him again for months.
Then the best first date ever! A motorcycle ride hugging an incredible man close to my chest on a cold night. He offers me his arm as we stroll through a lonely city park and he picks me a flower. We go out five times in the next ten days. I’m feeling so excited and hopeful! And then he falls off the radar. I’m confused and sad and disappointed.
I fall for someone else who can’t make a commitment to me. My own fault. But still I’m disappointed.
And there’s the one who causes me to get my hopes up over and over to no avail. The one I feel like I’m supposed to be with. Again, my own fault for digging in my heels and being stubborn. But the pain and disappointment and sadness again and again are very real.
It seems like the last 19 years have been nothing but a string of failure and disappointment. I’ve turned into a person who isn’t afraid to quit. I’ve turned into a person who makes terrible decisions. I’ve turned into a person who can’t seem to have a viable romantic relationship. And prayer hasn’t seemed to help. My spirituality is a lunar one that has often waned to the thinnest of crescents as God seems to ignore my prayers again and again. I wonder if he is punishing me for all the ways I’ve failed Him.
If I could just stop hoping for things and wishing for things and praying for things, I could probably stop being disappointed. But for some reason I seem to be ridiculously, perhaps even ignorantly and foolishly, resilient and hopeful. Even though I’m starting to believe that the effort and the hurt that come with the quest for love aren’t worth it; a hope and need my cynicism just can’t seem to quench keeps burning deep in my heart because I want so much for the right person to love me and care for me.
I thought as I wrote this I’d come to some conclusions about why I fear failure and disappointment so. Why do they hide waiting to jump out of the shadows under my bed? I’m sure the failure is about pride. I worry too much about what others think about me. But I’m also too hard on myself. Why do I still care about how I did in a high school track meet 30 years ago? Nobody else cares. Why do I feel like such a failure for not finishing seminary? Because it makes me a quitter? Because I felt so stupid when I was there and I don’t want people to think I’m stupid? Nobody else cares.
The rest of my disappointments, except for this job, are all related to relationships. Certainly I have made some bad, bad decisions and used lots of bad judgement. But maybe the part that frustrates me so much is that I can’t control the way other people feel about me. It’s ironic how the personal failure and the disappointment intersect there at the place where I want to control how other people feel about me.
It looks like the hell my monsters spring from – no surprise – is that addict’s best friend and character flaw, control issues. Must be time to get back to a meeting. That’s another thing I seem to have quit.
So what do I have to gain by staring into those monstrous eyes I fear so much – at those monsters that have torn and raged for so long at my mind and my stomach and my heart and my soul? Maybe at this point, I just gain self-knowledge. Maybe the ability to identify past poor decision-making and behavioral patterns will help me build a suit of armor around my heart. But frankly, right now I’m not sure that looking this one in the eyes is going to help. I’ve realized that just keeping my eyes shut and pretending nothing’s hiding there feels much better than being brave.
“But maybe the part that frustrates me so much is that I can’t control the way other people feel about me. It’s ironic how the personal failure and the disappointment intersect there at the place where I want to control how other people feel about me.”
Yes. But, even more to the point, is to recognize that the other has little control over his reaction to you. We can try to cultivate openness and generosity of spirit in our relations with others. But more than that is difficult to articulate. We are not parts and pieces that can be switched out for those that seem more amenable to others’ expectations. I really sympathize.
I hadn’t thought about it like that, Thomas. Thank you.