The Great Divide, part 2

Most of God’s work in my life involves how I perceive and respond to present issues.  When that perception and response has been automatic for a long while, He traces it back to its inception.  Foundational issues are laid down in the earliest periods of our formation.  They are engrained in our personality, our ability to understand and respond to the world around us, and our ability to function as an individual.  The foundational fault line within me that God is addressing presently was laid down when I was about six years of age.  My parents were young and very broken when I came along rather unexpectedly.  This situation was compounded by the mental illness that consumed my mother so early in her life.  This dysfunction within us was not the fault of one person but the result of a broken world.  There is no blame to lay except perhaps at the feet of the author of confusion: he who comes to steal, kill and destroy.  My mother has given me complete license to use any and all of our story in public and private communication.  Once she even shared a speaking platform with me to bring hope to those who struggle with mental illness and those affected by it.  It has been through my process of healing that my mother has actually found much of her own, and particularly her ability to forgive herself for the unspeakable acts that lay between us.  It is never my desire to disrespect her or hurt her.  My continued healing is a gift to her, as well as to me.

When my mother’s mental illness descended, I was smothered with this message:  that who I am was unlovable, unacceptable, and that my existence caused her illness. I internalized the messages of unworthiness and sheer contempt because they were drilled into me through devastating words, actions and attitudes day after day after day.  The conclusion I came to was this: IF I appeased and served my mother’s mental illness, IF I raised my sister properly and assumed direct responsibility for her progress, IF I helped our family function by assuming adults’ responsibilities, IF I obeyed every person in authority and IF I always did my best THEN I might be considered a good girl.  I was schooled in the discipline of DOING, of becoming a good person by what I did, not who I was.  I had no idea how to be anyone different (which is, of course, utterly impossible) but I concluded I could become someone different if I could act differently; I could become acceptable if I could just do the right things.  More than anything, I wanted to be a good girl.  So how to define good?  Others had to tell me what they expected of me so that I could be that and do that; and in their own ways, they did. When I surrendered to becoming a different person by doing, I became bound to the needs of those around me.  Instead of remaining unified within myself, both perceiving my own needs and having the right to make those needs known, I had to perceive the needs and desires of others, anticipate them almost, and then do what I could to be acceptable.  The abuse that accompanied these messages completed the severing.  There was the Tammy inside myself and the Tammy that people could access.  I had no power to prevent my external experience with people but I was inwardly resolved that they would not touch the “real” me, the inner-me.  I could be forced to do what I did not want, but they could not touch who I was inside (or so I told myself).  I can even remember the exact moment when I looked at the ceiling in a moment of abuse and thought:  I am not in this body anymore.  My body is not me. 

So I was divorced from my own needs, from the ability to have those needs met, from my personal rights to become a unique individual and from my identity as one of God’s precious creations. What was most tragically severed in this horrific compromise, this cruel covenant, was my ability to take love into my being and own it myself – to possess it.  I could not possess love as long as I was possessed by other people.  A slave can never feel loved by those they serve.  I needed someone to actually SEE ME, not look through me or beyond me, but SEE ME.  I needed to be assured that my needs were as intrinsic, significant and worthy as the needs of those I served.  I needed to be loved and to be treasured.  But a tremendous sacrifice was demanded of me:  surrender my own needs to meet the needs of my family.

The Great Divide between who I am and what I do has followed me throughout my years. I have been transparent in both; there is no hiddenness.  Ironically, I think other people could see who I am far better than I have been able to see who I am.  But there has been a powerful, protective wall within me that has kept my relationship with people touching the outward-Tammy, the what-I-do-part, while protecting the who-I-am-part.  There has been a sharp defensiveness in me throughout my years:  you could criticize what I do but only God could define who I am.  Yet tragically, any criticism (real or perceived) went right into the who-I-am-part but any praise, admiration or love was relegated to the realm of what-I-do.  I could not escape the pain of criticism but neither could I really feel the comfort of approval.   Over my adult years I have been increasingly able to extricate myself from others’ needs and desires.  These boundaries have taken a long while to understand and implement and I am still obviously learning this.  It can be especially hard in ministry when we are made so aware of need, are gifted and charged with serving needs, but then have to discern which needs to serve and which needs we should not.  I am still learning this.  The well of human need is vast and I have been teetering on the edge of being drowned by it.  While I try not to be directed by the poll of public opinion, I also try not to play to the applause of the crowd.  I have tried with great conviction to remain true only to what my God asks me to do, despite the fact that two heavy weights were pulling on me:  fear of criticism and the intoxication of approval. 

You can be praised and admired for what you do.  But what you do is always bound to the expectations and opinions of those for whom you do it; it can never be the pathway for nourishing love.  You cannot be loved for what you do; you can only be loved for who you are. The intrinsic value of the human soul is that we are precious regardless of what we do or don’t do.  We are the product of our Creator’s desire and that alone give us unimaginable worth.  As such, we cannot truly be nourished by love except through the gateway of our being, of who we are.  In a restored being, what you do will freely flow from who you are; they will not be divided or divorced.

So how is God bridging the Great Divide?  That is the next thing I will write about, and the leg of the journey about which I am most excited.  This understanding is still unfolding, but it is already working to bring these scattered pieces back into harmony, re-attaching and re-energizing the two parts of my being into one seamless unit:  who I am and what I do, not just with my God, but with the people around me.

 

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About Tammy Feil

Happily married to Terry Feil since 1994, mother of two boys. My husband, Terry, is Pastor of Families and Students at Riverbluff Church in North Charleston, SC.
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