You Are What You Eat.

Mom is going away…not all at once.  The cogs and flywheels of her brain, that used to dependably whir, producing countless conversations, and so much more, have rusted now.  The 88 year-old form of Barb is here, but the animating force of that clever, affable mind is leaving her bit-by-bit.  Yet, somehow, a remnant of her signature humor remains.  Here and there, for a blessed moment, something will jar the rust loose.  A cog will momentarily slip into action.  Her capacity to deliver a crisp, clever quip returns, like an encore at the close of a concert, or the last treasured sip of a chocolate shake.  But in the next moment,  her Rube Goldberg brain seizes up again.  The subsequent conversation that would normally commence, just after the shared laugh, never arrives.  Inexorably, mom is going away…just not all at once.

Research from my profession tells me that, even equipped with a reasonably healthy brain, memories are fluid…bendable.  From my vantage point at the autumn of life, early spring-time memories cannot be trusted in all their details.  Nevertheless, this much is certain, in my earliest memory-movies, mom is the leading lady.

One of my earliest remembered episodes took place in a shared bedroom with Bob and Mike (Child #5, and #6 of seven).  Southern and eastern windows provided soft afternoon light for a dappled and drowsy four-year-old to drift into a compulsory nap.  In that land between the worlds, I found myself holding up a hand in front of my eyes.  First, I noticed how an index finger obeyed my will as I engaged it in a series of phalangeal calisthenics.  Next, I conducted the same exercises in concert with the whole team of fingers.  I recall marveling at the capacity of solo and synchronous finger movements.  I recalled that if I cut any one of these fingers, they bled.  Had I known Shakespeare I might have exclaimed, “What a marvelous work is man!  How noble…in form and moving!” (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2).  It occurred to me that I must really be loved by God to be created in such an intricate and awesome way!

Looking back on this story, I can detect the internalized presence of mom.  I am confident that the prerequisite for the possibility of this encounter came from her abiding presence inside of me.  Shortly before this episode, I recall her telling me that “God will love you, even if you don’t love God back!”  “No way!” I objected.  “So even if somebody hated God, God would love them back?”  I incredulously queried.  “That’s right!” my first spiritual director assured me.  She continued, “God loves you from the top of your head down to the bottom of your toes!”  (I am picturing the sweep of her hands, like a benediction, tracing the pathway of her words).  This same mom taught me that “all of God’s creatures” were to be respected and loved because “God loves them like he loves you.”  Besides setting me up for my subsequent naptime mystical experience, that last spiritual lesson also caused me to regard Mike Bouie as our neighborhood’s official Nazi when I saw him using his magnifying glass to fry ants.  But more important to my spiritual formation than even her words, was the way mom backed them up with the way she truly, madly, and deeply loved her children…including me.

This Sunday, Catholics from all over the world will celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi.  They will contemplate a foundational aspect of their spiritual tradition:  the practice and sacrament of Communion.  During my grad school studies, it frequently struck me that developmental psychology, especially Object Relations Psychology, felt like the study of communion.  I had always known that human beings are social creatures, but what I discovered was that there is a way in which human beings consume one another in their formation of a self.  From the earliest moments, the building blocks of our personality are sourced by psychologically “taking in” the significant people in our lives.  When a child has “good enough” relationships with significant caregivers, psychologists refer to this blessed state as “secure attachment.”   A securely attached child confidentally approaches social relationships, can soothe her heart down, and even performs better in primary school academics.  Sometimes what a baby, toddler, pre-school, or primary school child consumes in personality formation is helpful in development, sometimes not so helpful. 

In the category of not-so-helpful would have been the recurring experience of mom’s Germanic temper that would ignite when one of her three youngest would violate “The First Commandment”:  “Thou Shalt Not Interrupt Mom’s Nap-time Soap-Opera.”  Somehow, the woman who knit the concept of wholistic, unconditional love into me, was the same mom who scared me so much that I was too terrified to leave my bedroom to use the toilet.  In my fear, I would relieve myself in a corner of the room to avoid her wrath, which inevitably led to a quantum leap of wrath down the road!  It wasn’t the spanking that hurt so much as the klieg lights of her rage that invited a sibling audience into the shame of my developmental difficulty.    

Check it out.  This was not an abusive parent.  This was an incredibly loving mother who: would take us to the beach, sit through music lessons, make hot chocolate for soccer games, take us to the library in the morning, and read those library books to us every afternoon before naptime.  This same mother of six, then seven kids was human.  She could get worn down, and totally strike out in dealing with her son’s toileting needs.    

And this is the playground where psychotherapists meet up with counselees.  Last week in the space of this blog, we examined the terrain of the inner critic that is composed of an amalgam of the hostile, or humiliating things that have been taken in over the years.  Here’s the kicker.  Sometimes those humiliating introjects come from our communion with people who really love us, but nonetheless engaged in empathetic failures that were injurious to our sense of self. 

The inner journey eventually takes us deeper than cognitive psychotherapy, psychological skill sets, and self-help books.  Eventually, tracking down the sources of our inner-critic is a necessary step in our developmental growth.  This is not only true for people with abusive parents, it is also true for people with outstanding parents who are still capable of failures that don’t benefit their child’s sense of self.  I still shudder when my adult son reminds me of how I conducted exposure therapy on him when he was afraid of the basement!  Oy!   

Like the work I do with so many of my clients, my own inner work has little to do with the parent who lives in the current time zone.  Even if she had a functioning brain, it would do me little good to sort out my old material with her.  My ongoing work is with the mom and the dad that continue to live inside of me, even in the autumn of my life.  The work isn’t to find a psychological or spiritual scalpel to remove the painful internalizations that still cause pain.  It is to learn to work with those internalizations, first with realization, then with grief, and finally, with acceptance born of understanding, and eventually…love.     

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