Thursday, January 15, 2009

W@H: On Wounds

It's seven o'clock in the morning I'm riding the overnight train I got ten tons of luggage But I left it behind when I came I look at my watch Says September seventeenth We're riding far Someplace that I've never been And I'm waving through the window as we go Somebody says, "Well, hey, what are you waving at?" But what do I have to lose? Somebody might wave back --The Waterboys, "Somebody Might Wave Back We come now to the most baffling aspect of Wild at Heart. At least, it's the most baffling aspect now that I look at it with fresh eyes. If we take Eldredge's accounts of his time raising three rambunctious boys in the book at face value, one thing constantly comes through. He's a good father. Really, a damn good father. Obviously he'd be presenting himself in a light to bring that out, but at no point does he fall back on the convention of someone trying to prove something they don't believe to be true. He doesn't say, "Ha, I'm a good father." He tells stories of himself and his sons that are rich and varied and told with a tenderness that says, "This guy gets it." Someday if I have sons of my own I would hope to have half the adventures and experiences with them that Eldredge relates from his times with his sons. And yet, while Eldredge seems to be an excellent father, while he speaks of the importance of fathers in a boy's life, he seems to think that fatherhood is ultimately a failed venture. He appreciates the position, but doesn't have much good to say about fathers in general.
Every boy, in his journey to become a man, takes an arrow in the center of his heart, in the place of his strength. Because the wound is rarely discussed and even more rarely healed, every man carries a wound. And the wound is most often given by his father. --John Eldredge, Wild at Heart (60)
As is customary in the book, Eldredge then follows this with lessons drawn out of context from the Bible and anecdotes about men he knows who suffer from various father-related problems. He then gets to the crux of the problem as he sees it.
Every man carries a wound. I have never met a man without one. No matter how good your life may have seemed to you, you live in a broken world full of broken people. Your mother and father, no matter how wonderful, couldn't have been perfect...And every wound, no matter whether it's assaultive [sic?] or passive, delivers with it a message. The message feels final and true, absolutely true, because it is delivered with such force. Our reaction to it shapes our personality in very significant ways. From that flows the false self. Most of the men you meet are living out a false self, a pose, which is directly related to this wound. --John Eldredge, Wild at Heart (72), emphasis his
He then goes on to explain how he got his own wound from an absent father and that it caused him to become a heartless, driven man aiming for success at all costs. It is impossible to properly understand Wild at Heart without understanding the sophistry at the core of this explanation of the nature of the Father Wound. It's also helpful to see how he begs the question in order to understand the power of the argument to people who buy in to the core set of claims. This is the basic progression: Man falls > man has child > man wounds child > child becomes man > start over. This, meanwhile, is one of those things that's hard to argue against. It's not because he's right, but it's because everything he says uses words that are correct but out of context. Most everyone would agree that their parents weren't perfect. Most, further, would agree that even the best parents make mistakes. Finally, I doubt anyone would disagree that the way parents raise (or don't raise) their children has an effect on how those children age and, in turn, raise their own children. We tend to, for better or worse, become our parents. (As an aside, this would be a good time to plug Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed. I'm still not entirely sure what it's about and I haven't gotten too far in to it yet, but the book basically starts with the death of the main character's most formative influence and he spends a lot of time reflecting on the various people who raised him and how they made him what he is and which things he'd rather not have become.) There's a causal breakdown in Eldredge's formulation, however. I've already gone over the three inherent problems of the Christian self-help genre and that's a good start for the evaluation, but we need to go a step further. Fortunately, in the process of disparaging his earthly father, Eldredge tells us exactly where to look.
Even after God's dramatic rescue of me at the age of ninteen, when I became a Christian, the wound remained. --John Eldredge, Wild at Heart (72)
This sentence can be broken in to three distinct parts, helpfully delimited by commas. If you're having a problem parsing this sentence, might I suggest you look in to those splits? The second part simply does not follow from the first, unless Eldredge happens to have slipped overboard in a storm, been drowning in an angry sea, and it was god's day as the ready five helicopter pilot for the nearest Coast Guard facility. Once again we hit that snag that's all too common in Wild at Heart. The Christian walk is given this air of danger and adventure that I -- as a participant of roughly two decades -- can say it doesn't really deserve. But Eldredge, you see, was grievously wounded by his father, only to be dramatically rescued by his Heavenly Father and set on the proper path towards Biblical adventure and excitement. He brings poor, abused Robert Bly in to support his statement, too. However, this is one of the places where Eldredge borrows from Bly and they are basically in agreement of effect and cause if not interpretation. I'll have to leave the Bly/Freud/myth and Eldredge/Bible comparisons for the next entry, however, as it deserves a greater deal of reflection than I'm willing to give right now and it represents the strongest point of disagreement I have with both writers. Instead, we need to set a baseline on the nature of wounds in the real world before we can really approach Eldredge or Bly. There's an episode of The Simpsons where we find out why Ned Flanders bottles up all of his anger. His parents, you see, were beatniks who weren't in to discipline and he was a little terror ("You've gotta help us, doc. We've tried nothin' and we're all out of ideas!"). So a psychologist spanked him for a year straight and Flanders began bottling up everything he felt and only letting it out as a string of gibberish until the point where he snapped and told off all of Springfield. He then checked himself in to therapy and finally said he blamed his parents ("Lousy beatniks."), at which time he was declared healed. To the people out there who have seen that episode, I'll bet you didn't know you were acutally seeing that it was a deep theological discussion of the Christian masculinity movement. Mostly because it wasn't. It is, however, perfectly illustrative of Eldredge's theology of Christian masculinity. Now, it seems to me that any time you can use something that's basically straight-up satire to offer a serious illustration of your own views, you're doing something wrong. I mean, this isn't quite the same thing as reading Swift's "A Modest Proposal" and saying, "Finally, somebody gets it!" while tying on a bib, but the principle holds. It's quick, cheap, and convenient to say, "I'm this way, it's my parents' fault. Screw 'em." Moreover, figuring out who to blame in a situation like this isn't really all that helpful. Eldredge makes several assumptions that he has no business making. First, he assumes that there is one perfect place where we can be wounded. Second, he assumes that there is always a wound delivered to that place. Third, he assumes that the wound can be dealt effectively exactly once and there is then no need for follow-up. This is a causality issue. It also offers a teleological explanation (read the annotation, at least the first part where David Morgan-Mar explains how science as we know it starts from questioning basic assumptions about the universe) of the human psyche. This, again, makes perfect sense in the question begging cycle of a divine plan and all men being at the center of their particular universe. But for people who need real help and real solutions to problems, it's dangerously pedantic. I met a girl not so long ago (and all of my regulars groan. Not another navel-gazing Geds story 'bout a girl). It was a few months after the end of another relationship. It was the first time I'd genuinely met someone I liked since the end of said previous relationship. But after the initial rush of introductions gave way to having to make conversation, I decided she was uninteresting and resolved to go find someone else who would remain interesting. I chalked her up as a Golden-Haired Woman and assumed it would be left at that. Then one day I was talking to her for the first time in a long while and realized, "Holy shit, she's really cool." Being me, I asked the simple question, "What changed?" This led to a powerful revelation. I have a fundamentally flawed approach to women and the whole, um, guy-girl thing. In broad strokes, it works like this: I meet someone new. I instantly become self-conscious and worried that I'm being too creepy and too forward and try to catch every possible nuance of spoken and body language in order to determine if she's interested or not. So whenever I'm talking to the person in question I'm tight. I'm not having any fun, I'm not getting anywhere and in the end I decide that she's not as interesting as I'd hoped, so I should go find someone else. There's also the crazy girls corollary. One of the things I've wondered is how I manage to end up with so many crazy girls. I've realized that, at least as it applies to me, crazy = needy. You don't have to worry with a needy person, they're going to basically put me at ease right off the bat because they're going to be the ones trying desperately to make and keep the connection. So I end up on that part of the spectrum basically because it's easier, all the while wondering why the hell nothing works out. So you take a perfectly cool, not needy girl who might actually be interested in me. Chances are she's going to think, "What the hell was I thinking?" shortly after any conversation begins. Then I'm going to pull my disappearing act while blaming her for it. And at no point is happiness achieved for anyone involved. This is a problem. Do I know when or where it started? No. Moreover, I really, really don't care. I mean, I've traced the problem back to the earliest point I can discern and I found that deeply helpful, but as an exercise in pattern recognition, not blame-laying. Besides, what good would it do to discover that the roots of my inability to actually start a satisfying, stable, long-term relationship came when I was eight years old and my dad didn't take me out for ice cream? And, really, that might as well be what the problem came from. We can blame our parents for any number of things. Hereditary diseases, for instance. But there's also the patterns like children of alcoholics becoming alcoholics (or raging teetotalers) or children of abuse becoming abusers. But for the majority of people, there's nothing horrible that their parents did to them and to pretend otherwise is to imagine that the altar-call response at that tent revival when you were nineteen was a "dramatic rescue" from god. It's a fantasy. And it's a dangerous, unhealthy fantasy at that. No one gets anywhere focusing on origin and blame-laying. We can't find happiness putting on sackcloth and sitting in the ashes of the mistakes of the past. Not only that, but we risk carrying that blame forward and placing it where it doesn't belong. Say I had asked that girl out. Say she had said yes and one date turned in to two, then a relationship. There's a good chance I would have dropped all of my baggage from past relationships or missed chances on her. She doesn't deserve that. The only way I know to get rid of that problem is to lose the baggage. If you're leaving something behind it doesn't really matter where it came from in the first place.

9 comments:

PersonalFailure said...

Once again we hit that snag that's all too common in Wild at Heart. The Christian walk is given this air of danger and adventure that I -- as a participant of roughly two decades -- can say it doesn't really deserve.

It's like people who use violent analogies to discuss entirely nonviolent events (usually at work): "we really dodged the bullet on that one!" I sometimes feel like responding with video game inspired analogies, "He almost chainsawed me with that brief, but I fragtagged him first!" wtf?

PersonalFailure said...

i wish i could tell you how i moved forward, free of my own mommy/daddy baggage, but i don't remember. i think it helped to remember that each person i meet is one discrete person, not the aggregate of all men/mothers/christians/guitarists i have ever met. that way, i didn't dump my resentments from other men/mothers/christians/guitarists on them.

i do want to sincerely apologize to anyone i dated between the ages of 15 and 25. that was totally not your fault.

hapax said...

If you're leaving something behind it doesn't really matter where it came from in the first place.

Which is as graceful and cogent a summation of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin as I've ever heard.

Too many people take that doctrine and obsess about "What was the sin? When did it happen? Whose fault was it really?" and wander about burdened and oppressed and guilty, examining all of their multitudinous failings for the *core flaw*, the place where they really let God and the team down...

When the whole point of the doctrine was to be liberating. "Hey! You don't have to worry about the fact that you're not perfect! I'm not perfect, nobody's perfect, nobody's ever been perfect, just deal with it. Because you know what? We don't have to worry about that anymore -- we can just get on with our lives and start doing the best we can!"

(sorry about all the exclamation points. I tend to get all punctuation happy on this topic)

But honestly, I'm glad I never read this book. I'm starting to get the impression that the author views women as a total alien species, created solely as a useful appliance for men to work out their issues with...

hapax said...

If you're leaving something behind it doesn't really matter where it came from in the first place.

Which is as graceful and cogent a summation of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin as I've ever heard.

Too many people take that doctrine and obsess about "What was the sin? When did it happen? Whose fault was it really?" and wander about burdened and oppressed and guilty, examining all of their multitudinous failings for the *core flaw*, the place where they really let God and the team down...

When the whole point of the doctrine was to be liberating. "Hey! You don't have to worry about the fact that you're not perfect! I'm not perfect, nobody's perfect, nobody's ever been perfect, just deal with it. Because you know what? We don't have to worry about that anymore -- we can just get on with our lives and start doing the best we can!"

(sorry about all the exclamation points. I tend to get all punctuation happy on this topic)

But honestly, I'm glad I never read this book. I'm starting to get the impression that the author views women as a total alien species, created solely as a useful appliance for men to work out their issues with...

jessa said...

For Project Serve trips we had to write "testimonies," I'm sure you remember this. Invariably the responses to mine went along these lines, "You were an athiest, you explored pagan religions, and you are depressed! I wish my testimony was so interesting." My, silent, response generally went along these lines, "What are you smoking? Your life was easy! Clearly I got the short end of this metaphorical stick!"

If the Christian life is not exciting and dangerous, than people who have been taught to believe that it should be will think they are doing it wrong and/or make crap up. My Project Serve comrades took the former route, it sounds as though John Eldredge took the latter.

Wait! But isn't integrity one of those virtues we should aspire to, biblically? Hmmm... and that might exclude lying to oneself...?

Well, now I'm just getting bitter.

Geds said...

Ah, testimonies. I was a master testimony writer, although I doubt that would come as a surprise.

I apparently took approach three, which was always, "I've been a Christian since I was five and nobody cares about that, so here's some stuff I've been going through and learning recently." Really, in retrospect it wasn't a bad way to do it. I didn't have to pretend it was exciting or act like it was this static existence. But I was always uncomfortable with the idea that apparently my testimonial was supposed to be the thing that I used to save souls. I mean, it's my story, why should I have to make anyone else modify their behavior because of what I've learned?

hapax:

To be fair, I'm pretty sure I view women as a totally alien species. But that's more because I admit that I have no idea what's going on in a woman's head the vast majority of the time and I'm pretty sure that if they explained it in anything but the barest details, my brain would explode.

And, really, if you take that whole Genesis account of woman created because Adam was alone and needed a "help-mate," it's not even a stretch to decide you're looking at a useful appliance...

PF:

Speaking as someone you most assuredly did not date between 15 and 25, we forgive you.

I'm trying to come up with a follow-up to that. I got nothin'.

the woeful budgie said...

If you're leaving something behind it doesn't really matter where it came from in the first place.

Nothing to offer here but applause.

Also, I was over at my dad's house yesterday and noticed he's reading Wild At Heart (which perplexes me, seeing as he's not very RTC, but whatever. Someone probably recommended it to him.) So I picked it up, began thumbing through, and...and DAMN. Let me just say I'm impressed with your ability to go through this so cool-headedly. I think I got as far as being compared to a field of delicate wildflowers that's unable to give a man a '57 Chevy (what kind of tortured metaphor is that, anyway?) that I was reduced to sputtering incoherence.

Geds said...

...Yeah...

I ran in to that one last night. It has struck me repeatedly this time around just how horribly written the book is. I keep wanting to pull the full Fred and start critiquing it, but I realize that I never read the book for entertainment in the first place.

It's fascinating, too, comparing Wild at Heart to Iron John. Bly is so much better at coming up with metaphors that it's not funny. It's probably because he's a poet. However, I'm noticing that he's just as bad at putting them across as Eldredge, just in a different way.

Anonymous said...

the only useful part about figuring out where the baggage came from is the ability to say to myself, "This is not your mother doing [[whatever]]; this is your sweetheart - it does not mean the same thing!"

--syfr