Boundaries, Vulnerability, and Fight Club
In the movie Fight Club the main character suffers from insomnia. During this time he happens upon a support group for testicular cancer, and on his first visit becomes addicted. He is washed away and caught up in the cathartic moments of tears, hugs, support and encouragement. He attends support group after support group, but never goes for any real healing, but rather the emotional high of hearing stories of pain.
Authenticity. Genuine. Vulnerability.
These are buzzwords right now and they float around in many places, not least of these being in Church. I’m not pointing fingers because I use those words a lot too. They reflect a craving for a place where we can be our true selves and where, perhaps in the past, we have felt the need to put on a mask, to hide our darkness and wounds in an effort to look good.
And maybe some of this is reactionary, where the church was once a place of pretense for many people we are seeing a shift to make it a place where we don’t need to hide.
But this carries with it a trend. In these truly genuine efforts to break through a neat and tidy façade, to make the church a place where we can be vulnerable oftentimes we bypass the messy work of moving into true open-hearted living with one another. We supplement real lived moments with forcing moments of tears and hugs, thinking the latter is more sacred then the former.
It was a joke I heard growing up that you could measure how good a sermon was based on how many people were crying at the end of it. And church camp was never a success until at the end of it someone had shared their darkest secretes around a campfire. And when those sermons ended or we got off the bus coming home from church camp, we often find ourselves desperately chasing after those moments again.
Thinking that somehow those moments are a barometer of the movement of the Holy Spirit, and if we don’t meet a monthly quota of those moments then something must be wrong.
And this is not to disparage those moments, because those genuine, spirit-moved moments where strength is had to voice a story for the first time, where we sit with the tension of pain and grief with another person, to voice a burden and to seek support, those are beautiful moments, but what happens next? Yes, those moments of true openness can be beautiful, but I think sometimes we use them as a way to fake intimacy by expediting it to the pace we want. Because, we like instant gratification, the one night of cathartic tears and soul-bearing save us a lot of work. We can walk away, feel good, and go about our lives with no real helpful intimacy with the people we shared.
I don’t think we can always conflate emotional highs, or tear-filled hugs, with the Holy Spirit. Because this can become an unsafe place, an unhealthy place where the ones with the hardest stories are given the biggest platform.
And these people deserve a voice and should have a voice, but so should the person whose greatest stress of the week is a test, or a fight with a friend or an unruly toddler. And sometimes, when testimony time becomes a competition for who can make the most people cry, people’s stories are exploited for a transient moment where no healing happens and instead the story stays the same and cycles through telling after retelling.
Again, one thing I learned in my counseling background was the healing power of sharing story, of hearing other stories and responding with our own, and the beautiful healing of the words “me too.” But the right time, the right place, and the right people is essential for those moments to be helpful for the speaker and the hearer.
And in some ways, Churches, especially those who are trying to appeal to younger people, can tend toward this direction. And instead of creating a place of vulnerability, and authenticity, and healing, it becomes a place that isn’t safe, doesn’t respect boundaries, and often, unintentionally, shames those who may have stricter boundaries.
Because in places where holiness is marked by how willing you are to “break boundaries” , you will often have people going places that aren’t safe for them yet. Sharing what they aren’t ready to share but are afraid of being labeled the one who is “holding out”, the one who is keeping the group from really “knowing” each other because they are hiding a part of themselves.
There is a difference in safe, love-based boundaries and boundaries based out of fear or expectation. The former I think are sacred and healthy and God-given. We talk about being all things to all people, and that means those who hold their story a little closer, who think it’s healthier for them to share with one or two close friends and not with a whole small group.
And I speak these words as one who cries easily, who wants to hear the story of the person sitting across from her, and has struggled with hurt feelings and worry that I wasn’t a safe person when people decided that they didn’t want to share their story with me.
But one of the things I see us doing is attempting to expedite the work of the holy spirit by intentionally provoking those high emotionalized moments in the hopes that it will push people to “go deeper” with one another. As if sitting and laughing and eating with one another is not enough, or studying the Bible is not enough, as if these aren’t intimate sacred moments in their own right.
We provoke those moments on Good Friday with gratuitous descriptions of the crucifixion, again almost as if we ourselves will do the work of the Holy Spirit by provoking a response, as if Jesus and him crucified as the perfect lamb by the powers of the world is not enough on its own so we must step in on behalf of the Spirit.
We crave authenticity and genuineness, and these are good things. There is unimaginable healing that takes place in the “me to” and the “I see you”. But sometimes we want to see those moments so badly it makes us push for it to grow in the places where soil is not ready, and it saves us the hard work of getting our hands dirty in the soil, tending it, watering it, the day-to-day work that is truly necessary for a truly safe and healthy environment. An environment that allows for those moments of tears and stories around a campfire but also for those regular moments that are just as important, that come out naturally from a life that is lived walking together.