by Anne Smith
I am passionate about the truth. When someone I know has been hurt by lies, I quickly become angry—and I am not quick to feel my anger in most cases. But lies, misunderstanding, misinformation and the like all make me restless. It’s just a quirk of my personality, whatever the stakes may be. That’s what used to make me a good proofreader back when I did that work professionally, and it’s part of what makes me the priest I am now.
My passion for truth can easily translate into a passion for getting things just right. Sometimes the stakes are extremely low, and my concern for exactitude is simply annoying. I know that, though I can’t always help myself. But sometimes the stakes are quite high, are even a matter of life and death.
I’ve sat with many a person whose hope has been quenched by things they were told were the truth. Things like—
God doesn’t love you
You have no worth
You will never be good enough
You are not okay
No one could possibly love you
You are terrible
You are nothing
These are some of the many lessons some us have carried around with us—there are many more, of course. And we believe them because they are lessons taught to us by authority figures and caregivers and people who were supposed to have our best interests at heart. They don’t have to have been literally articulated, though sadly in plenty of cases they are. It’s easy enough to learn these lessons by implication, even when they aren’t what’s meant.
I think that is because from the beginning we as people are trying to understand who we are, and who we are is a story. It’s a story that says This is who I am, and this is how I know. It’s a story that ends up being the reason why we act and interact the way we do. We don’t have to think about it; we don’t have to be able to articulate it. It’s just part of our self-understanding.
If you suffer from depression, you might recognize the items on my list—you are not okay, you are nothing—as things a depressed mind whispers into your train of thought. Listen to this story long enough, and your self-understanding can be reduced to those ideas (lies)—you will never be good enough, no one could ever love you. Listen to this story long enough, and it will rub the life out of you. Even a person who knows people love her, people care about her, can believe these whispers.
Which is why it is so important to me to name these lessons as lies: things we believe about ourselves that are not true; ideas whose power to define us must be snatched back, taken away, never given back. We give so much power to lies. Our stories of ourselves are so influenced by them.
And yet I know tenacious these lies can be. So here’s a kind of “speaking truth to power”: we rewrite our stories. We rewrite the narratives we carry with us about who we are and how we know it. We fight back in our own heads and our own lives. We talk back to the lies. Which is, as I like to say, a hard row to hoe.
I lived for a long time with the belief that I was terrible, nothing, unlovable. Sometimes that narrative of self-understanding played pretty loudly, and drowned out other ideas. Sometimes it was quieter, and I could believe I would be okay, and that I was loved (and I was, and am). I’ve gotten pretty good at noticing when it creeps back in to my thinking; I’ve gotten pretty good at hearing it underneath other people’s pain and depression. And at every turn, the process of claiming the truth instead of the lie is difficult and necessary work. One of my troubles is the distance between my ability to intellectually accept an idea and my relatively poor ability to feel it to be true. The kind of deep knowing that informs my self-understanding is hard to come by, and so the truth has to be spoken into me over, and over, and over. It’s easy for me to experience being not-loved; I’ve gotten good at that. But experiencing love at a level that informs my story of myself—that’s much harder.
I have found the Episcopal Church to be a very good proving ground for the truth. This is a church that, in my experience, simultaneously recognizes the danger and the necessity of passionate belief in the truth. It is a church that insists on acknowledging our human fallibility—we so often get things wrong, and our understanding will never be perfect—but also insists that God does in fact love us. The church’s unfailing insistence that God loves, that God is love, has opened a space for me where I can begin, even if tentatively, to claim that story as my own story. It’s a space where I can know a God whose love never fails. It’s a space where I can be passionate about the truth of God’s love, even as I only slowly shift my self-understanding to reflect it. Gradually, more and more—I hope—I am getting it right.
The Rev. Anne Largent Smith is priest-in-charge at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Elk Grove/Sacramento in California, for which she is deeply grateful.