December 19, 2013 / Praxis
Barbara Brown Taylor discusses the revelatory power of the body and the challenges of practicing embodied faith in a twenty-first-century context.
November 18, 2013
Last summer, my friend Jeffrey, his two boys, and my friend Joshua left the city for a relaxing weekend of camping in the Cascade Mountains outside of Seattle. Their time in the woods was largely uneventful—short hikes, campfires, s’mores, sleeping bags, and beer refrigerated by brisk mountain streams for the adults. On their drive back, however, another driver poorly timed the light at an intersection and collided into my friends. Minutes later, flashing lights and loud sirens surrounded the wreckage. Joshua spent the greater part of the evening in the hospital and was later sent home in an iconic white neck brace. Jeffrey and his two boys escaped uninjured, but their bodies remained anxious and on edge.
When the boys were home and safe with their parents, they began doing something a bit unexpected; they re-created the scene of the accident. Their living room morphed into a state highway that would soon bear witness to the collision earlier that day. One of the boys determined that his body was to become the family car, and he designated his brother as the other car. The boys started against the eastern and southern walls of the living room, respectively, and then sprinted west and north until their bodies T-boned and dramatically fell to the carpet roadway below. Seconds later, they transformed their little frames into a police car and an ambulance. They blared their sirens and circled the room until the police boy transfigured into the injured body of Joshua. Joshua was treated at the scene and escorted via ambulance to the local hospital that doubles as a kitchen during regular home hours. According to their father, this scene was repeated several times that week until the accident seemed to no longer trouble the brothers.
Upon hearing this story, I was captivated by its metaphor. How did the boys instinctively (and through good parenting) know that the road to healing involved remembrance and repetition? As a psychotherapist and pastor I have learned that people do not want to remember the traumas and betrayals that have marked their life. When people talk about a difficult experience or a challenging season of life, they tend to do so from 10,000 feet above their vulnerability, often with a dogmatic story of redemption to follow. Others opt for innocuous statements like “I can’t change the past,” “I had to move on,” or “I forgave him,” as if Jesus’ command to forgive seventy-times-seven times could be carried out just one time. The more I witnessed these dynamics and heard these phrases in my counseling office, the more I saw my clients living in a paradox. They claimed to have moved on from their pasts, but much to their surprise, the past was a central figure directing the activities and decisions that their bodies engaged in, from their sexual behavior to their professional careers.
The last Tuesday of every month I lecture on sexual addiction at the City of Seattle’s john school, a required program for men who have been arrested for soliciting an undercover officer posing as a prostitute. Inevitably, there is one john in the group who blames his high testosterone or libido for his behavior, claiming that no matter what efforts he has taken to mitigate his body’s desire, the body will always win. But is it only testosterone that drives a man to risk everything he has in order to gratify an eroticized sense of entitlement over another human being?
Four out of every five men who I counsel for sexual addition through the john school have a history of sexual abuse. The neurochemicals of abuse are a toxic cocktail of cortisol, a stress hormone; dopamine, a complex neurotransmitter (messenger) that plays a role in pleasure, reward, motivation, and attention; and oxytocin, a hormone that is activated when we experience touch and/or social closeness with others. The combination of these chemicals results in a petri dish of madness and shame—how else are children or adolescents to metabolize the experiences of stress, attention, violation, pleasure, and touch at the hands of their abusers? Patrick Carnes, one of the foremost experts in sexual addiction, argues that the re-creation of trauma is the biggest sexual hit of all. In other words, if we have experienced trauma, our bodies will often seek out or re-create contexts later in life where the neurochemicals of our original traumas can be reproduced.1
If you think of a john, cruising up and down your city’s prostitution strip or backpage.com, you might have eyes to see his entitlement, sexism, or loneliness, but the Trojan horse is in his body’s remixing of that original trauma recipe. Cortisol can be released at the possibility of being arrested or acquiring a sexually transmitted infection, at the news of being fired, or at the prospect of divorce; dopamine is present throughout sex; and oxytocin bonds many of these men to the sex workers they solicit. Women are degraded as men repetitively chase the neurochemicals of their formative traumas, all under the disguise of words like horny, machismo, and need. The beauty of women is purchased and demeaned as men attempt to violently and naively overcome the vulnerable scenes of their earliest tragedies.
Repeating destructive behavior does not only occur in illicit ways. The thoughts we have while getting dressed or looking in the mirror, the predictable conflicts that arise in our relationships, and especially the way we eat our food are all daily occasions to repeat harmful patterns. In graduate school, I lived with a housemate who worked the closing shift at our local Starbucks. That housemate had one particular right and privilege bequeathed to him: free day-old pastries. A few evenings a week, our kitchen counter became a stadium of blueberry and pumpkin scones, old-fashioned and chocolate donuts, cinnamon rolls, molasses cookies, and the most seductive siren of all, apple fritters. On evenings that I would get home late to a quiet house, I could hear the baked goods whisper at me. They would instruct me to put them in the microwave for sixteen seconds, and when they knew I had gone through a particularly difficult day, I was encouraged to lavishly drizzle white chocolate sauce on top.
The next morning I would wake, and unsurprisingly, I would despise myself. This carbohydrate liturgy of consumption and regret went on a few nights a week for over a decade. Addictions are often perceived as a destructive way to bring comfort or release to our bodies, but the greater issue I see is in their ability to influence us to hate ourselves through ongoing self-judgment. A fried mass of sugar meant that I would hold myself in contempt the following day. If my belly folded over my jeans, I would blush, and when my face was red, I would cower away from others and slip into isolation. My body would then compel me to hunker down in the back corner of a coffee shop and study there until it was late enough for my roommates to be in bed, late enough for another private date with my pastries when I arrived back at home.
If my carbohydrate episodes were a television show, there would be a flashback to my thirteen-year-old self, an obese eighth grader in the suburbs of Washington, DC, belly bulging over discount department store jeans, about to fail algebra, child of a pastor, and whose bus-stop nickname was Doughnut. I was, as my bus-stop peers would say, too fat even to play football. They would laugh as they grabbed my belly and I would echo their contempt in the evenings, eating sweet dough and shaking my stomach like a doormat.
All these years later, what am I to do with the stories of my body, the bodies of my friends, and the bodies of my clients? What am I to say about our intrinsic desires to re-create the scenes of our defining traumas? It seems inevitable that we will repeat our trauma, either unconsciously as addicts—we are all addicts; it’s just that alcohol, drugs, and sex are the most visible forms—or playfully as children. The power that each of us have within us is to make a decision to turn toward the pain or to turn away. We have good reasons for choosing to turn away, but I believe that turning toward our pain is the way to healing.
The most enjoyable story I read last year came from an interview with Alex Cassagrande, the cameraman of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. Cassagrande was asked what in the world he is supposed to do when a great white shark is swimming right at him. He answers that you must do something counterintuitive; you swim right at the shark with the camera. This action seems to trigger a defense mechanism in the shark. “Now they’re like, ‘Wait a second, everything in the ocean swims away from me.’ The reality is that if you don’t act like prey, they won’t treat you like prey.”
Cassagrande’s statement has a lot to teach us about shame. The experience of shame is the biggest predator in our life, and attempting to outmaneuver our great white memories comes naturally to most of us. We do this through downplaying their significance, embracing theologies that make amnesia virtuous or forgiveness easy, or slipping into addictive behaviors where we punish our bodies a thousand times over for the cruelty others have committed against us.
But healing means that we cannot forget because we have chosen to swim toward the shame and into the sorrow. The more we continue to swim in the direction of shame, the more we get a sense that our current struggles have brilliantly and tragically been used as smoke screens to hide the presence of more damaging and painful experiences of shame. This is why so many men and women who enter therapy for struggles with sexual addiction or sexual anorexia end up addressing their own sexual abuse as children. And this is precisely why it is so costly and challenging to live a life of honesty—we never quite know what stories lie buried beneath our current problems.
The cost of turning toward our bodies is that they expose us to all sorts of scenes and struggles that we would rather avoid. This sense of evasion is not something to condemn, but it points to the contrast of what we were intended to see when we look at our bodies: delight and glory. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul instructs the people of Corinth to glorify God with their bodies. This informs us that our bodies are for the Lord, and even more astoundingly, the Lord is for our bodies. If the God of the universe desires us to experience glory within our bodies, what are we to do with the reality that the majority of moments in our lifetime we will experience our bodies as anything but glorious or beautiful?
Puberty, acne, bulimia, addiction, infidelity, anorexia, cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s all attack our bodies and seize the opportunity to serve as narrator of our life. This reality led St. Francis to refer to his body as “Brother Ass.” C. S. Lewis reflects on Francis’s observation, saying that “Ass is exquisitely right because no one in his senses can either revere or hate a donkey. It is a useful, sturdy, lazy, obstinate, patient, lovable, and infuriating beast; deserving now the stick and now a carrot; both pathetically and absurdly beautiful. So the body. There’s no living with it till we recognize that one of its functions in our lives is to play the part of buffoon.”2 To live with our bodies is to recognize that buffoonery and shame will be our constant companions. The words buffoon and glory are not contradictory; the error consists when we will only tolerate one.
In my kitchen this past year, my wife and I have begun talking back to our food and speaking to our bodies like adolescent donkeys. Our bodies are loved and we are letting them re-create our childhood eating scenes but in a way that holds the promise of an ever-growing playfulness. We made no-bake cookies the other night. If you have not had them, they are delicious and nutritious, particularly the way we craft them. We sat over a bowl of batter and could not stop ourselves from eating more and more. I paused my carbohydrate episode, stooped low to address the cookie batter, and said, “I want to consume all of you but it would not be wise to do so all in one sitting. This is not a rejection. I am sorry if it hurts. I will be back for you tomorrow night—xoxo.”
This sense of playfulness and generative re-creation is what I have learned from Jeffrey’s children who healed their memory of the scary accident. The boys were able to do what is counterintuitive in the aftermath of trauma and pain: to remember their trouble. This action echoes something Yahweh instructs the people of Israel to do when poisonous snakes threaten their civilization in the unpredictable wilderness. The Israelites are homeless and they are receiving air-dropped rations of food. Terrified of dying and detesting their narrow choices in food and housing, the Israelites begin to do what comes naturally—they speak against Moses and God for delivering them into this mess. God’s response is to escalate the direness of their situation. The Lord sends poisonous snakes to bite the people of Israel. Corpses of poisoned bodies pile up, and once again the people are distraught. In their horror and helplessness, they recognize that their complaining and slanderous speech about their leaders may have led to their current state of affairs. Moses hears Israel’s concern and remorse and petitions God to heal the people.
God’s remedy is simple and almost comical: he has them fashion a bronze snake, plop it on a pole, and have the poisoned Israelites look at it. The story is fairly translucent in its allegory: Israel must look at the very thing that is killing them. The Gospel of John picks up on this story in John 3 and re-creates the story, but this time, it is Jesus who gets placed on a torture stick, and people must look at him in order to be saved.
Just before his death, Jesus broke bread and poured wine as a symbol of his upcoming crucifixion, and his disciples were instructed to repeat this meal as often as they gathered together. We continue this tradition thousands of years later as we eat and drink the Lord’s Supper, and when we do so, we are asked to remember not only the stories that are killing us but also the One who has the capacity to save us from destruction. We will find our nourishment and healing in the body of Christ when we allow our stories of hunger and harm to accompany us to the table. Eating this meal re-presents our identity, not as prey to shame but as beloved children of God, a God who is the predator to evil itself. Our stories, therefore, are not things to be ashamed of but opportunities to dine with others as we remember who we are, pay tribute to where we have been, and anticipate the day when the jaws of death and shame will be swallowed for eternity.
1. Carnes, Sexual Anorexia: Overcoming Sexual Self-Hatred (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 1997), 12.
2. Lewis, The Four Loves Hatred (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1960), 101.
Jay Stringer is a licensed mental health counselor and ordained minister. Stringer holds an MDiv and a master of counseling psychology from The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. He is a psychotherapist and a lecturer on sexual addiction for the City of Seattle’s john school, a program designed for men who have been arrested for soliciting women in prostitution. In addition, Jay is a pastoral leader and cofounder of Awake Church and a Senior Fellow at the Allender Center. He is married to Heather Stringer, who is a therapist and artist. They have two children, a toddler and a newborn: Amos and Iona.