Filling the Void

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Though the spirit and the flesh are one, we don’t always attend to them equally.  I certainly don’t.  I have a long-standing joke that the part of me that gets a great workout all the time is the spirit.  Humbleness, patience, courage, resilience, reflection, prayer, community, solitude – ministry is a serious workout.   If my body worked out like my spirit does, I  would look like J-Lo.

While I take better care of my body than I sometimes have, this is always going to be what progressives like to call a ‘growing edge’ for me. Still, while it’s not one of my strengths, it’s better than it used to be, because for while it was pretty bad, and I didn’t even care that it was pretty bad.  It was just part of how life went for me, when I was on and off bulimic for over 10 years.

It’s a strange thing to contemplate, how many ways there are to choose to hurt yourself, and how often we do choose to hurt ourselves.  Because we’re tired of being good or being careful or being predictable, or because we’re angry and ready to act out and show it, even if it will cost us: ‘whatever’.  Because we’re hurting and we just can’t stand it any more.  To punish ourselves because we are unhappy with how we look or how we are or how we feel – because we’ve been taught to be unhappy or ashamed about how we look or how we are or how we feel.

There is both shame and seduction in addiction – even though in recent years in this country, counter-movements have arisen to affirm people as we are – gay or large or trans or skinny or dark or light, booksmart or artistic, every combination of ways that we are.  But still, we all know that living is painful, sometimes because of a painful reality no one can change, too often because someone chooses to diminish another in order to puff up themselves – we know people make that ugly choice every day. At our worst we make that ugly choice, sometimes because we’re lashing out in response to our own pain.  We all know the pain of living.  Being hurt by rejection or condemnation.  Being afraid for ourselves or our loved ones or our world.  Losing those we love.  We know what it is to feel a void inside ourselves – something missing, something lonely or anxious or wrong that we may not even be able to name any better than that – maybe no name really names it – but we feel it.  We know what it is to be so assailed by the world that we have to have something to protect us from the pain and vulnerability living involves.

This is behind the torment in a song like Alessia Cara’s “Scars to Your Beautiful”:

“She has dreams to be an envy, so she’s starving, you know covergirls eat nothing.  She says ‘beauty is pain, and there’s beauty in everything, what’s a little bit of hunger? I could go a little while longer.’ She fades away.  She don’t see her perfect, she don’t understand she’s worth it, or that beauty goes deeper than the surface.  So to all the girls that’s hurting, let me be your mirror, help you see a little bit clearer, the light that shines within.  And you don’t have to change a thing, the world could change its heart….”

There are so many ways to hurt yourself when we choose to do it, – and when we choose to do it, the perverse relief of it, even the release of it, this is what brings us back to it again and again.  The seduction of that effect, the easing of pain, the self-medication, the escape, the secret stairway we return to again and again, until it becomes no longer an escape but a prison, a way of life, and especially now in these days of heroin and fentanyl, a way of death.

While some ways of hurting ourselves may look very different on the outside, they have a strange resonance.  Having never cut myself, I can imagine what it might be like, feeling the relief, the release, that cutters describe, because I remember that feeling from the many years that I was actively bulimic. I struggled with bulimia from when I was 13 into my 20’s.  At its worst, I would throw up – or try to – every single thing that went into my mouth because eating anything at all felt like I had ingested poison. I would panic, desperate, and all I could think about what getting it back out of me, out of my body, immediately.  Whenever I ate, or didn’t, I was thinking of my body and how horrible it was.  Whenever I looked in the mirror, went to a restaurant, passed a reflecting store window, got dressed, got undressed, I thought of it.  I remember how overwhelming it was to try to fight this.  How could I fight the insidious and humiliating feelings and behaviors that go along with an eating disorder?  Once, in high school, trying to exorcise my demons, I wrote a short story about bulimia and let it be published, with my name on it, in the school literary magazine.  I hoped that once I had made it public, it would cease to be my secret hell, and in no longer being secret, would be neutralized, change from a vital thing to a shadow, detach from me, and fade into the distance of time past.  Needless to say, this didn’t happen.

Throughout those years I was bulimic I was usually not thin, but I actually also wasn’t fat. My weight’s gone up and down my whole life – I’m currently in an ‘up’ phase that I work on nowadays with diet and exercise – but I look back at pictures from those earlier days, and I still feel amazed to see a girl much much slimmer than I am now, a girl who had a few pounds to lose but didn’t look bad at all, and a girl who in fact sometimes was quite slim.  My distorted perception was not unusual.  Hilde Bruch, a leader in the field of eating disorders, wrote about a girl with anorexia nervosa who literally couldn’t see a difference between photos of herself at 15 years and a healthy weight, and at 17 years, with her weight down to 70 pounds.  The girl said “I feel inwardly that I am larger than that – no matter what I tell myself.  Even…when I was at my lowest, 67 lbs., I felt I was very large.” A lot of people who suffer in this way are aware of their skewed perspective but this awareness can actually contribute to their feeling helpless, pathetic and fundamentally off-balance around food, weight, body-appearance and selfhood generally.

This sermon isn’t just about bulimia, or even eating disorders in general.  It’s about disorders and addictions that take many forms, a hidden pain and shame to those who struggle with them, frightening and confounding to loved ones who only encounter it second or third hand.

There’s been a lot of research into what causes people to react to life and food or alcohol or drugs this way; there are a lot of theories, but no one really knows yet.  It could be mothers, fathers, siblings, peer pressure, advertising, puberty, societal structures and pressures, genetics ….  Some researchers think it’s caused by combinations of those factors.  There’s some evidence of a psycho-biological connection. There is a strong correlation between the trauma of being physically, sexually or emotionally abused, and people developing one of  these disorders, also a correlation between such abuse and cutting and some other addictive behaviors, but such abuse is not always part of an addicted person’s history.

And there are cultural dimensions to different addictions and how they manifest.  Studies have found that when it comes to eating disorders, anorexia doesn’t exist in countries where there is still danger of widespread starvation or famine….  In other words, self-starvation is observed only under long-term conditions of adequate or abundant food supply.   The connection between food and life for people in such countries is very different than it is for most of us here.  There they eat to live.  Here, insulated from the worst of the world’s suffering, we may live to eat, or live to starve, or drink, or seek to disengage from life altogether.

There are no absolute, fail-safe cures for eating disorders, or for any self-destructive addiction.  There are 12-step and other recovery programs, retreat and treatment centers, counseling in may forms.  Some of these work some of the time.  But in many ways addiction is still mysterious and despite being a mystery rooted in the body, there is a spiritual aspect that is too often overlooked.

Unitarian Universalist minister Marilyn Sewell has written, in an introduction to the book she edited, Cries of the Spirit,:  “We in this country spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to control our bodies.  Objectified, surveyed, judged, our flesh is seen as an instrument, a means to various and sundry ends.”  Think about that: the body as a means, somehow separate, rather than part of us, discontinuous with the soul or psyche rather than one self.  This breakdown, this separation of body and soul, is certainly present for people struggling with eating disorders, their minds obsessed with a body they cannot honor.  But I think it exists pervasively in the world of addictions.  There is a foundational disconnect that happens deep within, damage inflicted by a person or a teaching or a society, that can drive right to our hearts, right to our souls, and make us riven, splitting us from ourselves, our minds from our bodies, our goodness from our worth, so that we can become gluttons for our doom in countless ways.

Now I am not trying to say that this is how every person, struggling or dealing with addiction feels or experiences.  Humankind is far too diverse for any absolutes.  But I am saying that I know I have felt it, that many I have spoken with about their addictions have felt this disconnect, this severing that goes along with a kind of emptiness.

A lot of people with eating disorders say that at some point they stopped being able to tell if they were hungry, that hunger had little to do with when or why they did or didn’t eat.   They ate to fill a different kind of emptiness.  One woman who worked with Dr. Bruch said “she was afraid that the hostility of others and their angry words would rattle around inside her and keep on wounding her. By stuffing herself with food she would cover her sore inside, like with a poultice, and she would not feel the hurt so much.”  Others speak of eating to stuff down the pain of living, or eating to fill a void they feel inside themselves, or to buffer themselves against the world.  Change out eating for drinking, or shooting up, or cutting – the model often still, terribly, holds.

Religions have been both a curse and a blessing in all this.  Too often, religions have contributed to the splitting, has lifted up the soul at the expense of the body.  Have told us that it’s only when we ignore, or condemn or mortify, the body, that we achieve goodness or sacredness.  But also, religions have taught us to value the body and hold it as sacred, to celebrate the body and to use the body for celebration.

I think part of the reason that 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and others have some of the strongest records of success with addiction is because all 12-step programs incorporate spirituality into their model.   At their best, spirituality – and the communal form, organized religion – are all about responding both the sublime and the grievous in life in integrated ways, giving both the body and the soul ways to walk through what lifts us highest or slams us hardest.  At their best, theology, traditions and rituals offer supportive ways to respond, body and soul together, to the experiences and challenges of living, of birth, and emerging sexuality, of maturing, of encountering nature in all its forms, of encountering other human beings in relationship to self, of offering or experiencing blessing, of aging, and of dying.

And while addictions are honest responses to pain, they are responses that require a cancelling out of self, spirit and life.  Imperfection and suffering are part of being human for every one of us, but they are not the whole of being human for any one of us.  And the importance or beauty or power of our lives will never be determined by the ways we suffer but by the ways we heal.  Healing, so often the knitting together not only of flesh, but also of spirit, not just a recovery, but a reconciliation: in order for life to be lived and not just endured.

Part of our healing has to allow grace, unearned, unforceable grace, its place.  Grace that helps us be strong in a moment when we are usually weak.  Grace that puts a person, a mentor, a sponsor, a friend, a family member right where we need them when we need them most.  Grace that allows us to speak truth instead of lies.  Grace that allows us to hear truth – including that we are beautiful, and worthy, full of value, always with a life we may shape, a recovery that can be ours, another way to contend with what hurts us.

This is what I had to learn to finally be done with bulimia.  It took me a long time to come to terms with being worthy, with being loveable, with what in fact, my religion had been teaching me my whole life yet which nonetheless felt almost always only like a principle – which is after all what we call it – a principle – rather than a reality.  A principle is something abstract, something lofty, something we try to live up to, a principle can exist even when it is actually only a rebuke to the reality on the ground.  So yes, I knew our first principle, ‘the inherent worth and dignity of every human being,’ but for so long I never for a moment associated it with myself.  In which case what use is it?  You know that old saying, you can’t love another person if you can’t love yourself?  This was not like that.  At least not for me.  I saw a lot of people I respected, even revered, who seemed full of inherent worth and dignity, beauty and preciousness, to me.  I just couldn’t see it enough in myself, and if I did, it was in the spirit, not the flesh.

So from the path I have walked and what I have learned, and what I am still learning, let me be your mirror, help you see a little bit clearer, the light that shines within. I have said before, the great thing about this ginormous pulpit is it offers great sightlines,  I can see you all from here, and I know many of you now, when I tell you the spirit and the flesh are one, and beautiful, in all their forms. You are beautiful in all your forms, each and every one of you.  Against all the ugly, diminishing, marketing, classist, racist, ageist, sexist, and sexualized messages society and corporations and tyrants send us every minute of every day, we have a faith, and a faith community, that declares an entirely different gospel – one that says beauty is in and upon you, and inherent worth and dignity, that you are full of power and goodness, that you need no product or court ruling to make you a worthy person or friend, sister, brother, sibling, parent, lover, partner or spouse.  Even if your soul is suffering, even if you hurt or lonely or desperate or exhausted or angry or afraid or cranky, your scars that mark your healing, your challenges that balance your gifts, you: your skin, your hips, your shoulders, your belly, your feet, your skin with acne or age spots, your hot bald head, your beautiful eyes that need glasses, your hair that doesn’t look the way you want it to, you from your possibly painted toes to your possibly dyed hair, are beautiful.

Whole-heartedly, from my flawed self to yours, from my soul to yours, this is part of our promise that we must affirm again and again. We are here to nourish and cherish and encourage each other, in all the sizes and shapes and colors and ages and heritages we hold, towards all the goodness and wisdom we can possibly achieve, that we can only achieve together.  This is why we can be open to sharing our struggles and pain with each other, believing in the power of the love and care in this faith community to hold us and help us.  Because we are each sacred and spirit-infused even as we are human and fallible.

Imperfection is part of our existence and it is okay.  Let us not punish ourselves or our spirits for it, especially not in this day and age when our spirits are already punished.  Let us not anesthetize our spirits with food or alcohol or drugs or work or even prizes and awards.  There is nothing that cannot be faced, overcome, accepted or healed.  Make room for grace, so that when it comes, you are open.  Get out in nature, even now when it is cold and hard, see all that lives even in the cold and hardness of the season.  Notice when nature speaks to you of endurance, cycles, new life and the possibilities that come with change.  Move your body, spend time doing what brings you joy, or with people that love you, the real you.  Face the questions or memories that haunt you and let others help you face them.  Seek answers and honor them when you find them.  Require respect, and offer it back.  Lean on others when you need to, without shame or arrogance. These are tools for living, not just for surviving but for thriving.

If the spirit suffers, so will the body.  If the body rejoices, so will the spirit.  They share fatigue, exhilaration, depression, surprise, love.  The flesh is not unholy, the flesh is not even just a vessel for the holy;  the flesh is holy as the soul is holy as the self is holy as you are holy. Let your embodied life show all the power and goodness that are inherently yours, yours to care for, and yours to share.  Amen.