Dissociative Society Disorder

I was raised in a very conservative Christian family. I still believe in what Jesus taught, which I suppose still makes me a Christian, although the “conservative” part was permanently revoked when I got myself a tattoo for my 45th birthday. These days, however, I’m finding myself more and more reluctant to admit to being one. It pains me to be associated with what Christianity seems to have come to represent. There is such a huge conflict between what Jesus taught and how so many people who call themselves Christians actually live their lives that I find myself wanting to make up a new label to live under. Maybe it’s time for a revival of the term “Jesus People.” As I recall, there weren’t any special rules for being a Jesus People; they pretty much let anybody in. Probably even people with tattoos. This total lack of discrimination cost them a lot of respect, and perhaps even led to their downfall as an organized religion. But it did line up pretty well with one of the concepts I find lacking in far too many Christian circles these days: Grace.

homelessNYweb by sokisoy, on FlickrGrace means you don’t have to be deserving. You can screw up, break the rules, fall flat on your face, wear plaid, shoot, you can even get tattoos, and still be okay. Jesus was big on grace. So much so that to make sure we really got the point that he was eliminating all the religious rules and rituals and replacing them with grace, he voluntarily took the death penalty, to prevent any possibility of our having to be held accountable for anything. He piled up all the nitpicky rules and requirements that had ever been created, and satisfied them all forever with one final payment in full. Then he replaced all those rules with a “new commandment” that he said would be how people would know who his real followers were. The new commandment was “love one another as I have loved you.”

He didn’t leave any room for doubt as to what that meant, either. Jesus loved by serving. He spent the majority of his time on health care, actually. He healed sick people, mostly people who didn’t even deserve it. He also purposely sought out and befriended society’s outcasts; adulterers, crooked tax collectors, prostitutes, even the despised Samaritans (the ancient Jewish equivalent of illegal aliens). Incidentally, he didn’t do those things for people because they believed in him. Mostly people believed in him because he treated them like they actually mattered.

Any kid who’s ever been to Sunday School can tell you this stuff. It’s no secret how Jesus loved people; it’s in all the Bible stories. He did it by giving everything he had to give, with no strings attached. Who did he love? Everybody, of course. But most pointedly, he loved the people society said didn’t deserve it. The less than. The people who had made stupid choices and screwed up their lives, or had the misfortune of being born to the wrong families, or had chosen unsavory occupations. In fact, he seemed to go out of his way to love those who least deserved it, those who were the most unlovable. And then he gave his life. In that act he demonstrated the ultimate extent of the new commandment he had given. He didn’t say “love one another as long as they deserve it but after you’ve made sure you can take care of yourself first and only if it’s not too hard for you.” He said “Love one another as I have loved you.” And he got down on his knees and washed smelly feet. He healed the sick, regardless of who they were, where they were from, or how they had lived their lives. He served, and loved, and held nothing in reserve; not even his own life.

That’s a hard act to follow. Some people are just downright hard to love. Some people totally don’t deserve to have anybody love them. Some people don’t even want to be loved. Maybe that’s why he made such a point of seeking out exactly those sorts of people to love, to underscore his intent, to make it crystal clear just what he meant when he exhorted his followers to do the same.

It’s real easy to talk about loving people, but it’s quite another thing to do it. So Christians have done what humans do when they are faced with a problem they can’t resolve, and taken refuge in a natural coping skill. We compartmentalize.

Compartmentalization is when we put things into different boxes in our brains. We can choose the boundaries of each box, and choose what sort of reality and expectations apply within those boundaries. Dividing things up like that simplifies things. Taken to extremes, it’s a coping skill that can become pathological. Children faced with a reality too terrifying to handle can sometimes compartmentalize themselves to such an extent that they create an entirely different persona in each box, each of them with their own subset of reality. This allows them to switch between personas based on which one’s reality and personality is best equipped to handle a given situation. It’s called dissociative identity disorder, otherwise known as “split personality.” It’s a protective strategy, and one we all use to some extent, just usually not to that extreme.

I find that Christians tend to build themselves a Sunday compartment. Since unlovable people don’t tend to show up at church on Sundays, they don’t have to exist in this box. Instead, we can just imagine all those people out there in the world who we’re supposed to love. They’re nameless, faceless people, preferably in far away places. It’s easy to imagine that we love them; we’re sure we would, if we knew them. Because in our imaginations they aren’t smelly or funny-looking or dishonest or undeserving. We can paint them as lovable in our imaginations, and then imagine ourselves loving them, and then to demonstrate our love, give money to someone closer to where they are, to use in serving them. It makes us feel benevolent and kind, and even Christ-like, and takes care of the whole “love one another” thing.

For the rest of the week, we move over into our day-to-day compartment, the one we’ve constructed for living in the real world. Since we’ve met the “love one another” requirement over there in the Sunday box, we don’t really have to worry about it too much in this box, other than to take credit for having accomplished it. In this compartment, real-world logic and values apply (you know, stuff Jesus didn’t have to deal with). The filthy ill-dressed man on the corner with a cardboard sign goes in this box. Unlike those imaginary people in faraway places, he’s not easy to love. For one thing, he smells bad. And what’s he doing on the corner asking for money instead of trying to get a job, like any responsible person would? Who does he think he is, asking for a free ride, and why should I give him money I’ve worked hard to earn, money I need to support myself and my own family? He needs to grow a backbone and work for it, like I have. In the day-to-day box, it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and only the strong survive. It’s really too bad for those who can’t make it; it’s not that I don’t feel bad for them, but you know, that’s just how life is. I’ve got to make sure I can provide for me and mine; I can’t afford to jeopardize my family‘s security for people who can’t even pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Being in a health care profession has opened my eyes to a lot of things I was able to conveniently overlook before. Working in psych means the reality I’m trying to come to terms with is one of the bleakest and harshest of all. I can’t paint appealing mental pictures of imaginary people to imagine myself loving, make a gesture of generosity to demonstrate that love, and then go back to my comfortable life and forget they exist for the rest of the week. I work on Sundays now, so I can’t even successfully keep the boundaries distinct between my Sunday compartment and my day-to-day compartment. The easy-to-love imaginary people have all faded and gone kind of fuzzy around the edges, overshadowed by the hard-to-love real people who have crowded in. This has forced me to face what love, the way Jesus practiced it, really means. It’s hard. I’m not even sure it’s entirely humanly possible. But that word “commandment” really just doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room.

I guess I’ve made some progress. I know this because of the current health care debate. I see what my fellow Christians are saying, and am shocked and appalled that people who claim a spiritual belief system predicated on loving and serving their fellow man could be so openly heartless and uncaring. Especially since some of the ones saying the things that sound so harsh and calloused are people I love and respect. It’s jarring, and to tell you the truth, it’s got me wanting to build a whole new set of compartments to hide myself away in.

I am ashamed. I am ashamed that we’ve forgotten the truth. I am ashamed that we who have been so blessed can be so arrogant as to think, somehow, that it’s because we actually deserve to have better lives than those around us who are suffering. And I am ashamed because I remember when I have hidden inside my own Sunday box, selectively applying my beliefs to the world only where it wasn’t too painful and difficult, and turning a blind eye on the rest.

I recently read Matthew 25, for like the bazillionth time, and was stunned to realize that in all those previous times of reading it, I had never fully comprehended what it actually says. I guess that’s because the Sunday box tends to also serve as the Bible-reading box. With the walls of my Sunday box all falling apart the way they are now, some of the stuff Jesus said in the sermon he preached in that chapter has suddenly taken on new depths of meaning. His words show just how seriously he meant that command to love one another, and he describes quite plainly how we will end up being judged by whether we took it to heart:

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed…For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me…I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:41-45, NIV)

Take a look. The single criterion that will ultimately determine whether we have accomplished what is expected of us as Christians is whether or not we have loved our fellow humans as Jesus loved us. Failure to do so seems to be the one thing that can finally render someone unlovable, too. “You who are cursed” is pretty harsh, from someone who can love even the most miserable of screwups. I find that pretty sobering.

John 14:6 is worth a look, too. That’s where Jesus said (KJV), “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man cometh unto the father but by me.” I was always taught that what Jesus meant there was that the only way to God was by believing in Jesus. But you know, believing’s easy. If that’s all he wanted, he could have just done a few miracles for a few deserving folk, and left out all the hard stuff like washing feet and loving publicans and sinners and Samaritans. Especially in light of how badly those things hurt his reputation with the religious folks. Shoot, if he’d have worked a little harder to keep his reputation clean, the priests and rabbis might even have accepted him as the Messiah.

But back to my point: I’m thinking now that Jesus expected a little more of us than just believing in his existence. He wanted us to strive to become what he represented — the embodiment of love, the servant of mankind. That’s why he went on, a few verses later, to specify that believing wasn’t the whole ballgame: “He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also…” That word “shall” indicates a requirement, not a suggestion. Ask any lawyer.

People are sick and dying. Not just people conveniently off in some far-away land we’ll never see. They’re dying right here, in our own country. In our own cities and towns. And we’re letting them, while we quibble heartlessly over just who deserves to be taken care of when they’re sick, and who, by golly, is NOT going to help pay for it. I am stunned at the shallowness of it all.

I was sick…and you did not look after me…
…I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.

What Would Jesus Do?

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12 Responses to Dissociative Society Disorder

  1. Robin says:

    Beautifully written and well said. I would make just one point: Jesus did not say to let “Caesar” take care of everyone. “WE” are to do that. All of us. Voluntarily. With warm regards….

  2. Kim says:

    I do believe you have put into words how I feel about the current health care situation and my own personal religious beliefs.

    I have tattoos too and I don’t fit in with the religion I was raised or the Christian Conservative lifestyle I grew up in.

    Very good post, thanks for sharing.

  3. Excellent post: well written, articulate, and most importantly expresses my own ideas. Thanks for taking the time to write it. I hope it reaches more than an audience of people who already agree with you.

  4. Peggikaye says:

    Very good post. While some may see it as ‘controversial’ (as you said on Twitter) no one *should*!
    I have been appalled at my family members reacting in such a judgemental attitude toward one of their own ..all in the name of Jesus! How that must break his heart.

    The young one that was the target of their judgement didn’t even do something as (supposedly) drastic as a tattoo …she simply decided, at the age of 22 to have a boyfriend and hold hands with him. (GASP! can you imagine? …growl)
    So, then my family thought it was ok to throw such judgemental words as ‘slut’ ‘whore’ … all based on Romans chapter 1. I guess they’ve never stepped out of their judgemental box long enough to read Romans 2:1

    I supported my niece …which has earned me the label in the family as ‘evil’. (yes, that is true. My 7 year old niece has been told that her Aunty Peggi is ‘evil’)

    People really really need to read the life of Jesus and find that while he loved …he unquestioningly loved … relentlessly loved … eternally loved …he did judge some.

    The religious know it alls …the judgemental leaders and the prideful ‘righteous’ ..those who put themselves above others because their practice of faith was so impecable. He blasted them (oh ye generation of vipers …quite the statement!)

    I, too, find myself hesitating, at times, using the term Christian …it’s come to mean judgemental and prideful.
    It is supposed to mean Christlike.

    ok, taken up enough of your blog space. Great post!

  5. Felicity says:

    Splendid post.

    I was just thinking yesterday that I don’t understand why so many professed Christians assume all people’s misfortunes are divine punishment, deserved. Jesus sure didn’t deserve what happened to him. Seems relevant, somehow.

  6. purplesque says:

    Wonderful post. As a non-Christian, I can vouch for the fact that the same unfortunate malady has spread among most of the world’s ‘other’ religions, including the one I belong to.

  7. Annie says:

    I’m a Christian, and older lady, and I agree wholeheartedly with your premise about how Christians must live. I attend a wonderful church that doesn’t have the hypocritical culture you describe, but instead presses us to work for the Kingdom. I have spent hours with very young believers with tatoos, dreadlocks, piercings, and slang that has to be translated, who are incredible Christ-followers, filled with love and insight.

    I am also trained in economics, and I also have dealt with a very sick child. The health care plans being floated by Congress will not work. They are impractical. Free markets actually work, and if we actually moved closer to insurance market reform, there’d be more affordable health care, not less. People like my son, who need far more care than the average kid, along with the old and chronically ill, will be the ones who lose out with the proposed plans. Plus, we are strapping on an insupportable debt, with this and other legislation this year, that horrifies me when I think about my children’s futures.

    Why would I favor a health care plan that doesn’t work? What if it sounds kind and is actually cruel? What if the plan is cleverly packaged, but junk inside the box? What if I know enough about markets to know that it promulgates far more suffering instead of less?

    What is the political ambition that wants to pass ANYTHING is at the expense of passing something useful? Why would I want to be a pawn in some rich, powerful politician’s game when all the proposed legislation exempts Congress itself from the proposed health plans.

    Yes, we are our brothers’ keepers, but do read about the Jamestown settlement and how the people starved until told that they had to work for their own food and couldn’t live off the others. Or read about Paul telling the congregation that if someone wouldn’t work, they were not to eat. We live in a practical world. Let’s reason together and do things that make practical sense.

  8. GreyStork says:

    I should read your blog more often. :)

    I’m not an expert on Jesus, to put it mildly, but I do think you can (and need to) boil it all down to ‘attitude and intent.’ People are imperfect, and ideals are named as such because they are usually not achievable. What matters, I think, is whether someone harbors a true and honest desire to realize the ideal, even with the knowledge that it may never be achieved. Refusing to make an attempt, however, would obviously land you in the ‘you who are cursed’ category. I do believe that those who want and attempt to change society into a more benevolent entity for its less fortunate members display this ‘attitude and intent’, even if they don’t wash smelly feet.

    That said, it is indeed curious that those who seek to infuse ‘Christian values’ into society are more concerned with imposing rules about what and who is acceptable and worthy of societal benefits than ensuring that those benefits are available to everyone without discrimination. I guess those who are so afraid of ‘socialist values’ never stopped to think that they might actually be Christian values as well. Socialism is first and foremost about caring for those who are unable to care for themselves. Let that sink in for a second. Yes, you got it, Jesus was a socialist.

    So, what would Jesus do?

  9. Cathy says:

    I am a Christian and I love the word Christian..not because of what others might have done in that name because they were either evil or ignorant, but because it means One of Christ, and One In Christ. I am not Christ, but if I yield my vessel/ me/ to Jesus Christ and He fills me with His Spirit…The very Spirit you were expressing…of Love and Grace and Mercy…Then I am His Follower…which means His Disciple…or Disciplined by the Life and Love of Jesus Christ! I am His and He is mine. I grew up in a very poor area of town, and I saw many sad things, and many wonderful things by some wonderful people that were just struggling day today to raise a family and work as best they could, or survive as best they could. I’ve also lived in nice neighborhoods where the inside of the houses were evil and empty or void of all love and compassion and mercy and grace. It is not the outside of a man or woman that makes them a failure or successful, but it is the inside of their heart that makes them worthless or of great value. I’ve seem some that would appear to be beyond ‘repair’ or worthless, and they were simply hurting from whatever they had suffered from. Isn’t this also part of the story of the Good Samaritan. He did not stop and ask if that poor fellow was worthy of receiving his help. No, he simply saw a need, and picked him up and paid for his care. This reminds me of Mother Teresa who said, she picked up only one person…ONE PERSON AT A TIME. Then when you add up all those One Persons, they made a whole lot of suffering and thankful people. I think everyone should be required to learn about Mother Teresa. She picked up and cared for those poorest of all the poor. They had lice, and worms and were sometimes eaten away by rats. Did they need to lay there and die without knowing and receiving LOVE and compassion and mercy and grace? NO! They also were people that NEEDED JESUS! We are to be JESUS to this dying and hurting world. In the Name Of ONE OF CHRIST’s FOLLOWERS let us LOVE ONE ANOTHER as JESUS LOVES US!!!

  10. Wow, my new twitter friend! This is an awesome truth. I too, grew up in a fundamentally strict Christian home, and even married a minister in a very strict denomination. We have since changed our “box” and are not housed in the tiny compartments made by those before us. There is something about finding freedom. You know, the Bible said, we would know the truth, and the truth would make us free. I think most are still bound by law, and are not experiencing the freedom and grace that God intended. Thanks for this post! Joyce

  11. Beana says:

    Since you are now a psych nurse, I’m wondering about your thoughts on mental health and the church. I’m a new graduate nurse working in the operating room, but secretly longing to be a psych nurse. I volunteer with a local MHA. The assistant director and I were discussing how mental health is treated in the Black church. My experience has been those suffering from mental health disorders are told they are suffering from a lack of faith (pray harder)… The assistant director said that she’s actually had patients who have been told that their disorder is of the devil; that their meds are of the devil and to stop taking them!

    Do you have any experience with this?

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