Why reflection after activation is so vital
We can't skip our dark nights.
Dear fellow sojourner, writer, and deconstructing one,
It’s funny how tightly the threads of life weave together, seemingly unrelated until they overlap and entwine, revealing how they create a bigger picture.
This week three such threads appeared in my life:
My manuscript feedback came from my editor
Josh Harris, a big name in evangelical circles and purity culture, who has very publicly denounced his faith, announced a free reference guide and a paid course on how those deconstructing their faith journeys could change the narrative and reframe their story
Several “deconstruction celebrities” raised Cain, declaring, gatekeeping, decrying, and ultimately triggering old wounds from fundamentalist life with black and white thinking, vitriol, and passion. Their “you’re not allowed here” declarations felt old and familiar to me. Cancel culture is a part of evangelical life and begins when one person decides another person doesn’t belong. It was alarming to see it happening in the deconstruction world.
At first, I thought these three things were unrelated. What could my editor’s notes and writing craft recommendations possibly have to do with angry social justice warriors pissed off at Josh Harris? But my memoir is about religious trauma and fundamentalist violence. Josh Harris’s early work in purity culture is part of my story. And I’m engaged on social media in the deconstruction world, eager to connect with fellow sojourners who can uniquely relate to what it’s like on a journey to the true self. The pieces of this tapestry, like we humans ourselves, are all connected.
If you’d like some background: (as I’ve experienced it)
The barometric pressure in the deconstruction world has been building for a long time, as various personalities rose, monetization entered the picture, and egos grew. It’s easy to decide what accounts to follow, which ones resonate, which ones don’t––and there’s no shortage of them either. There’s a different flavor on every major social media platform and a huge swell of underground community as Patreon groups, Discord, and paid support groups formed. It’s cool to see “something for everyone” but the speed of growth is often disorienting.
The vital and diverse community around faith journeys and church abuse survival is a beautiful thing to be a part of, and I especially love it because when I was in fundamentalism, the pastors and Sunday School lady-gatekeepers always warned it would be lonely on the outside. It hasn’t been. But the deconstruction world on social media is a nebulous collection of traumatized folks, and we bring our baggage with us to conflict and tender situations. It helps to remember this when stuff comes up.
An undercurrent of tension began to rise. Personalities that seemed desperate to be loudest. An edgy competition, as if the stage is limited and only a few fit. Then, a litany of “should’s,” as the loudest began to say who should and who should not be allowed on this metaphorical stage, as if elected to speak for everyone. You know how you can smell greed? I caught the scent in more than one angry rant.
And then, the threat entered, subtle at first: unless you think like I think, you’re out and I will block you and call you out and cancel you. Most of the time the comments filled with ego-stroking minion worship and trembling agreement. Cancel culture is terrifying.
But this process we’re undertaking isn’t a corporate experience; it’s a deeply personal and individual solo hike to the soul. Who is to say what is helpful or not?
When I come across something “not for me,” I’ve learned to move on. Maybe what they offer really speaks to someone else and it isn’t my business. (Which is why I won’t weigh in on whether or not Josh’s course was good or bad. It’s for some, not for others. I trust people can decide that for themselves.)
As the deconstruction “community” grew, so did a vibe that “everyone’s an expert.” Even the evangelical church has weighed in, with guides and rules for deconstruction, so sojourners and questioners can explore but still land firmly within Christianity. Lay people are forming followings, going on paid tours, selling merch and offering courses.
It’s the Wild Wild West with cotton candy, corndogs, and questy-quote cards. There are really young people going through their first differentiation journeys away from their parent’s beliefs, alongside folks who’ve embodied belief systems for their entire adult lives, untangling their complicity and traumatic experiences.
Who gets to decide who offers a resource and who needs to sit down? It seems like that’s a point of contention in the deconstruction world now, and I’m surprised. I thought one of the reasons a person chose to step away from high-control groups was so they could decide this on their own.
The piled up pressure didn’t break until last week, when Josh Harris announced his free reference guide, organized by topic for anyone looking for deconstruction resources. He listed the big personalities, diverse voices, and trained professionals. Then, shit hit the fan. Josh didn’t create this pressure but his announcement sure helped it explode.
Save the Cat’s beat sheet
My memoir is the story of how I got in and out of fundamentalism, narrowly escaping with my life, after suffering the fleshed-out teachings in the evangelical church and conservative Christian world. Deciding to write it has proven to be one of the most healing choices I could make for myself. This is largely because memoir isn’t the story of what happened to you––it’s the story of how it formed and changed you. Memoir readers want to know what you thought and felt about what happened. That’s the part they’ll relate to, because even if they haven’t lived your exact experience, they’ll have felt similar responses to what they’ve gone through in their own lives.
In another tapestry-like parallel, that’s also the definition of trauma. It’s not just what happened to you. It’s how your nervous system interpreted and stored what happened to you.
When my editor’s feedback came through, one of the places I most need to revise is in my scene construction, paying attention to clear beats, cause and effect, and narrative arc. She recommended several craft books as references but the one I grabbed first was Save the Cat, an old friend and what I use for screenplays. It’s perfect for beats and sequence.
There are 15 critical beats Blake Snyder (and the Hero’s Journey) says are part of every successful story. I’d never thought of applying them to memoir before, because real life doesn’t unfold like a film script or a novel. But it turns out these beats work as wonderfully in memoir as they do any other genre.
Journeys have common milestones.
And so I re-saturated myself in how journeys work and the necessary steps we take towards transformation, change and freedom. I noticed how in-process and incomplete journeys remain hot, emotional, and storm-tossed. There’s little gravity, little maturity. Trauma responses and black and white reactivity reign. I saw it in my work on the book and parallel in the people around me online.
If the “All is Lost” beat is what happened, the “Dark Night of the Soul” response was where the hard work lay. It wasn’t enough to identify the harmful event, like the news. In order to break through to the other side, there’s a response to resolve, and it’s why trauma resolution and recovery is so damned important.
Who decides for us all?
Looking back, it seems the first match struck when Josh left one of the loudest voices off his referral guide. She declared her fomo loudly on Twitter and whoosh! The fans went wild.
I wish I could say I’ve seen cases of true abuse get so much vigor and attention, but I can’t. This perceived threat spread like prairie wildfire during drought. Clearly, trauma had been activated.
The accusation that as a white male (he’s half Japanese), and as a former pastor (Sovereign Grace, a hotbed of abuse), and as the author of an extremely influential book on purity (he’s since retracted, unpublished, and apologized), he shouldn’t be at the table, on stage, offering courses, involved with survivors, or using his voice. This argument quickly surpassed any issue with his referral guide and course, both of which he took down, and again, offered a complete and humble apology.
These survivors are mid-trauma response and their unresolved pain is evident. Watching the comments fly on Twitter and Instagram brought waves of compassion, revulsion, and… fear.
Is this what the mob does when someone makes a mistake? Even out of the church? What happened to supporting our fellows? Freely deciding for ourselves what we believe and don’t? Who appointed these leaders? What makes them think they get to gate-keep and control?
I’ve learned when I feel fear to ask why. Who? Who is generating the fear? Who stands to gain from the silence? Those leading the charge to cyber-bully and annihilate were loud and clear, gaslighting and adjusting the details, calling the sequence and even the course itself what it was not, claiming “confusion” when confronted.
Like I did with my manuscript of deeply traumatic experiences, I stepped back. “Look objectively,” I said. “What’s missing? Why don’t I see evidence of transformation here?”
Hurt people hurt people
I heard a defense of some of the worst behavior and it went like this: They’ve been through abuse. That’s why they’re abusive.
I can apply that to every single abusive situation I’ve experienced in my lifetime. The abusers have been abused. The bullies were once bullied. Christian counsellors used it to help me stay with an abusive spouse, so that I could compassionately work to fix him. I’ve bled to understand where a bully is coming from, and frankly, I’m tired of that excuse.
I hang out with abuse survivors. We’ve all been through heinous things and not everyone abuses or tries to control others. It’s possible to extend kindness, grace, forgiveness, and space. The deconstruction arena is a world of parallel-yet-individual journeys. It shouldn’t even need “leaders,” “gurus” or “celebs,” especially unhealed, toxic ones. There’s a call for a boundary there.
The old way: “should” and “how-tos” and “if you don’t agree with us, you’re wrong and out of here,” is fundamentalism. That’s church-outside-of-church and more of what we came from. What I want to live, write, and embody is transformation.
What’s the key?
Trauma resolution. Following the hero’s journey and hitting the beats. It’s true in all three threads I encountered this week. The mature survivors I know, who have gravitas, nuance, gray-areas, and can hold space aren’t creating from a trauma-response. They’ve worked though the dark hours of response, seeing what came up for them, examining with self-awareness what they felt, and now lend their experience, strength and hope to fellows along the way. That’s the difference.
The journey is a process. True of manuscripts, narratives, writing, unpacking, and healing. And we’re all where we are. But I’m learning to welcome the darkness, or at least accept the hours spent in shadow are essential to my growth and transformation.
Dark Nights of the Soul, by Thomas Moore. This was the first book of my deconstruction, read during a deep depression after I told a Christian counsellor the truth of the abuse and he downplayed and dismissed my claims. It was a wound upon wounds. This book took my darkness and validated it, allowing my sadness, questions, and wander. And I can’t tell you how healing it was to finally feel seen and validated.
I especially loved what he said about fundamentalism (without telling the reader it was fundamentalism:)
“When people approve only of major tonalities, they become simplistic, not only in their thinking but in their very being. Conflicts that threaten peace stem from raw, naive, and unintelligent prejudices and reactions. Passions routinely break out in violence. It takes a complex view of yourself and your fellow human to hold back on hatred and fears. A mature person is complicated and has complex ideas and values. The minor tonalities of a dark night adds significant and valuable complexity to your personality and way of life.”
(edited and aff link)
Thank you for journeying with me
I’m learning that when something happens, to look around for what’s related. My mom said “good things come in threes.” I’ve heard that said of disasters too. Even poison ivy has a famous rhyme for “leaves of three.” The bible says a cord of three isn’t easily broken. All I know for sure is that I’m grateful to have fellows along the way––wiser writers, guides, friends, companions––even challengers. We’re all just walking each other home.