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Beyond the Life of the Beloved

[I have been thinking about the subject of this post for quite some time.  I’ve tried to sit down and write it more than once but am having difficulty expressing myself in this regard.  In fact, it has been sitting near completion in my Drafts file for over a month.
The only way I can think of communicating this thought is through the telling of a story, parts of which I’ve already written here, so I apologize for the repetition and I apologize for the length of time it may take me to get to the point.  This is the story of how I have moved beyond the life of the beloved.]
In my life, I have gone through roughly three major stages of self-identification.  The first stage spanned from my early childhood until my late teens.  The second stage spanned from my late teens until my late twenties.  I am currently in the third stage.
Stage One: Fear, Guilt, and Shame
When I was young, I was deeply impacted by the bourgeois, conservative morality of North American Evangelicalism and the (concomitant) presence of violence, or the threat of violence, within my family home.  I lived in constant fear — fear of not being good enough, fear of not being “man enough”, fear of being punished for things I knew I had done wrong, and fear of being punished for reasons I did not understand.  When I was around twelve years of age, the doctor thought I might actually be developing stomach ulcers from laying awake at night and worrying about the next day.  The only way I could still my mind was bouncing my head of the pillow and counting (1, *bounce*, 2, *bounce*, three, *bounce*, up over one thousand… although I learned to turn my head every one hundred bounces so that my neck didn’t lock up).
In such an environment, it is difficult to develop any strong sense of identity or self-worth.  It was, to be blunt, traumatic.  Now, the thing about trauma is that it profoundly disorients us — it shatters our understanding of the world (what was safe is no longer safe, what we believed no longer makes sense, and so on).  However, when one is born into a traumatic situation, then one has not had the opportunity to develop an understanding of the world or a sense of what to believe or not believe and so the world appears to be inherently tumultuous, chaotic, nonsensical, and dangerous.
Growing up in this world, I came to believe that I was a bad person.  If I was abused, I was to blame.  If things didn’t go well, it was because I had done something wrong.  All of this culminated, then, in the events that occurred when I was seventeen when my father kicking me out of my family home (“You’ve got an hour, get your stuff and go.”  “Should I phone?”  “No, get out of my life.”).
The hardest thing about that experience was seeing my mother — a gentle and loving person who, alas, allowed my father to abuse her and his family because of her understanding of her role as a “Christian woman” — sobbing submissively as I packed and left.  I thought I was the son who broke his mother’s heart.  I thought it was my fault for getting kicked out.  I thought I was a piece of shit and sometimes, at night, I would walk around looking for guys who wanted to start trouble because I thought I deserved to get shit-kicked.
Stage Two: The Life of the Beloved
However, shortly after being kicked out, I had an experience that completely changed my life, my understanding of myself, of God, and of others, and this experience has actually dictated the course of my life from that point onwards.  To make a long story short, I had what could be could be called a “mystical religious experience” (a “road to Damascus” sort of “Event”) that functioned as a major trauma for me.  However, this trauma was a good one — the trauma of unexpected beauty, joy, wonder and love invaded my life and completely changed the world in which I found myself.  Instead of viewing myself as a a source of shame, I now believed myself to be source of delight, instead of feeling worthless, I felt valuable, instead of being an outcast, I felt beloved.  To me, this was the experience of new life rising out of the context of death.  It felt like new creation, resurrection, that sort of thing.
This, then, marked everything about my life from that point on.  I wanted to throw myself into loving and being loved.  I wanted others to know this abundant life.  I wanted others to know their own overwhelming goodness and breath-taking beauty.
I did this because it simply made sense to pursue this trajectory.  After coming to know myself as beloved — despite everything, and at my lowest point (to date) — this was simply how I saw others.  I suppose this was the realization of what Christian theologians refer to as “grace.”  I did not believe that I had earned my experience or done something to merit the title “beloved.”  Rather, it came to me as a gift.
However, the experience of this “grace” wasn’t quite in accord with many theological formulations related to it.  Having come to know myself in this way, notions of being “sinners” or “wretches deserving of hell and damnation” no longer made sense to me as I thought about myself or others.  Rather, having experienced this gift, I came to believe that I was beloved simply because I was.  Thus, I came to view others not as sinners in need of grace or as depraved folks in need of salvation, but as people who already were good, beautiful and lovely, simply because they were people.  The experience of grace made the status of the beloved an ontological category for me (and, I should note, having a son now has only confirmed this way of thinking to me — we are born good, beautiful, lovely, and pure — albeit vulnerable — and we only later learn to break ourselves and others).
Thus, I began to love exuberantly.  And I began to see the transforming power of love in the lives of others.  I saw a close friend discover new life after having undergone some unspeakably violent traumas.  I saw two other friends overcome the most severe crack addictions I have ever encountered.  I saw people who were consigned to death on the streets — by even the most admirable social workers — come into new life as they also came to know themselves as beloved.  That was a wonderful time in my life.
Stage Three: The Lives of Others
However, over the last few years, another major shift has occurred.  I find it difficult to articulate this well, so you’ll have to bear with me.  Basically, I have moved from being centred in an awareness of myself as beloved to being centred in an awareness of the lives of others — specifically, the suffering and dying of those who are marginalized and godforsaken, both in my own city and around the world.  As a result of this shift in focus, it has mattered less and less to me how I identify myself “in and of myself.”  Therefore, although I would still consider myself to be beloved, the point is that I don’t really care about myself all that much anymore.  My happiness or sense of peace, no longer hinges upon me but hinges upon the experience of others.
Indeed, the experience of the form of grace I described above, leads naturally to a focus upon others.  Grace being both a gift and a simple recognition of who we are, is something that is fundamentally outwardly focused.  The God of grace is a God that is not absorbed in herself, but is defined by a reaching out or drawing near to others.  Thus, to live in grace is to have one’s life oriented in the same way.
The catch is this: there are many who are longing to encounter this experience of themselves as beloved but who never have this desire satisfied.  I have known so many longing to love and and be loved, but others death-dealing powers have dominated their lives instead.  Those who have cried out to God but who only received silence in return.  Those who have sought love from others, only to be rejected.  Those who have tried to make good but whose identities were far too shattered by abuse and violence to be able to recover.  Those for whom the love I and others have tried to offer has not been enough.
Reflecting upon this in light of my own experiences, it is difficult to understand how this can be the case.  Grace does not always rupture the fabric of our world.  Love is not always enough.  Time runs out.  Other things are stronger.  Often, the nightmares win.  For me, the great mystery of my life is why I would have this experience and why others would not (after all, it’s not as though merit or effort on my part produced the experience).  Thus, the trauma that shatters me is not one that I experience directly in and of myself.  Rather, I am increasingly shattered by the traumas encountered by others.  I feel godforsakenness because, fuck, we’re all in this together and for any of us to be godforsaken means that we all are.  I am reminded of a famous quotation from Eugene V. Debs:

years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

The only thing to add to that is this: as long as there are those who are abandoned by God, I am forsaken.
Therefore, while knowing myself as beloved became a crucial element in my journey, it is not the end-point that I once thought it was.  Instead, I now believe that it is but one stage along the way.  Knowing myself as beloved has, for me, been that which has given me an understanding of myself that now permits me to move beyond myself.  I am content in myself now.  My conscience is not tortured.  Although I know the deeds I have committed and continue to commit, I am not particularly concerned about  them, good or bad.  At least, I am not concerned about them in relation to myself.  I am, however, very concerned about these deeds in relation to others.  Simply stated: I have found life.  Now, what matters, is sharing life with others, especially those who have had it taken away from them.  I’m not what matters.
Perhaps I am having trouble articulating this and am repeating myself because this is a relatively new stage for me.  I’m not sure what will follow (good or bad or, more probably, both in different ways).  However, I am very curious to see how things go.  I am happy to move beyond the life of the beloved.  Happy to move into the lives of others.  Although, again, the language of happiness is deceptive here.  A better way to express that may be to say I have made my peace with sharing the godforsakenness of others — even though I cannot make my peace with the godforsakenness of others.  For others, I will cry out to God.  For myself, I am content.

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  1. I’m so grateful it finally made it out of the drafts folder… and there is a parable of the entire piece in that image: giving the incomplete gift of what you have written for others, rather than hanging on in the hope of perfection for yourself. Thanks.

    • Thanks, Josh. The only reason this entry probably ended up getting posted was because you mentioned that you were looking forward to reading it.

  2. Well written Dan, besides your insistence to explain you were having trouble explaining yourself, its an excellent exposition of your journey. It is good to see how you come from thinking that establishing your identity as the end goal to focusing on others until your own identity is no longer in focus. Reminds me of old C.S. Lewis books I read as a teenager and I never really could understand what he was talking about, I think it was in Mere Christianity, forgetting about yourself seems impossible especially trying to forget about yourself, but rather, focusing on others more and mor eventually leads to that kind of humility, not seeking that kind of humility.
    Thanks for sharing Dan.

    • Thanks, Nathan. Although I’m not sure about the humility language. Claiming to be at peace with myself and even in some ways to have transcended myself sounds incredibly obnoxious to my ears!

  3. I feel like I will need to read this a few more times. Still sinking in. Really appreciate your post. I hope you continue to share about your journey. I hope you experience some grace from people who disagree with you (or are struggling with similar things but resistant to admit/see that). And I hope to grow, in focusing on others, more than myself. Thanks for blogging… but thanks more for living, so others may know they are beloved.

  4. Thank-you very much for that account. I am curious if there was a Nouwen-like figure that helped you articulate or usher in this phase (I tend to find those two processes highly overlapping if not synonymous at times).

  5. Dan,
    What a wonderful account of your spiritual evolution. Very inspiring. My own reaction to the fact that so many people find themselves, in your words, abandoned by God is to abandon belief in God. Let me put this very bluntly: If we truly do care for others in a manner that Jesus implores us to, how can we not but be moved to doubt God’s existence? And given this doubt isn’t it self-centered to continue to reap the rewards of belief in God while others continue to suffer?
    A truly other-focused life should make the problem of evil that much more compelling for us; and the problem of evil surely must move us toward doubt about the existence of God. My suspicion is that the only thing that can then lead us back toward faith in God would be a desire to experience His love and grace (or at least what we believe to be His grace) for ourselves. But this is precisely the kind of self-focused motive that, in abandoning a self-centered perspective, we are trying to move away from.
    So, I think that the kind of movement toward caring about the lives of others must lead to abandoning belief in God.

  6. Hi Jason,
    Thanks for your comment. I certainly have no problem seeing how “caring about the lives of others” might “lead to abandoning belief in God” but in my case (and for some others as well) it does not necessarily do so.
    For me, this has nothing to do with continuing to “reap the rewards of belief” and everything to do with trying to be honest about what I have and have not experienced in life. For me, to espouse disbelief would be to deny that which I have experienced. In my case, faith is premised upon what I have taken to be encounters with God. Therefore, despite all the difficult issues associated with suffering, love, and faith, I cannot simply abandon belief. I can no more disbelieve in the existence of God (despite all the problems associated with God) than I can disbelieve in the existence of my wife (despite all the problems associated with her!).
    However, for others who have not had such apocalyptic “Events” in their lives, I fully understand the move away from faith in God as their way of living honestly.

  7. Dan,
    I was also curious how this shift affected your engagement with intellectual and academic pursuits. I find myself in the midst of tensions where I cannot shake feeling ‘called’ and/or ‘gifted’ in some aspect of that domain nor can I shake the feeling that the task as I engage in it remains substantially selfish serving only others on a similarly misguided pursuit. I decided simply to embrace the tension that there might be some generative (redemptive?) space within. I also find that in reading others I myself encounter redemptive forms which gives me hope that I might at least echo such things. Again, I am simply curious if you have any present thoughts on the matter.


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