Why it’s neither kind nor helpful to respond to PTSD sufferers with “grow up” | Trauma Tuesday

Recently I watched a video which I don’t care to identify or link to, because I don’t want to to carelessly indulge, even in the slightest way, a possible attention glutton. Besides, this really isn’t about that particular person; it’s about an attitude he shares with far too many other people.

But before I get to that, let me offer my thoughts and understanding of what it means to be “triggered”. I may step on a few toes here, and I want to make it clear that I am speaking for myself and not for all survivors.

For those unfamiliar with PTSD, or needing a quick review, here is a fairly concise explanation. When those of us who suffer with PTSD talk about being “triggered”, we tend to mean that something brought on an episode of emotional and physical PTSD symptoms. In other words, we were forced to relive our trauma. Maybe it was “just” that our emotions, heart rate, endocrine glands, and nervous systems reacted as if the trauma were happening again, right at that very minute. Maybe we dissociated. Maybe we had a flashback, during which our bodies and minds were convinced the trauma was happening again. Maybe all this was followed by night after night of terrorizing nightmares, and days of anxiety, during which we constantly felt as if about to jump out of our own skin, until we were utterly exhausted and spent.

What we experience can be far, far worse than I am describing.

If you have ever undergone something truly horrific, devastating, life threatening, or terrifying — torture, a violent assault, a particularly frightening accident, or something similar — you no doubt remember how you didn’t just “get over it” the instant things stopped. Even if you didn’t end up with PTSD, you felt shaken and distressed for quite some time. When those of us with PTSD are triggered, we don’t suddenly feel back to normal once we realize, “Haha, it wasn’t a real threat after all, and my nightmarish assault wasn’t happening all over again! Silly me!” (No, I don’t think it’s silly to be triggered. Nor is it a sign of weakness or fragility, despite what some may think.) It can take us a while to recover, and for our bodies, instincts, thoughts, emotions, hormones, digestive systems, cardio-vascular systems, brain chemistry, and nerves to catch up with present reality.

Now I realize that not everyone uses the word “triggered” in that way. Some non-survivors have co-opted it for their own use. However, when they say they are “triggered”, they mean that they are reminded of something sad or painful. A smell of perfume may prompt someone to feel grief over the loss of their beloved grandmother, or even to remember her death quite vividly, but that is part of almost everyone’s life in our world. Remembering and being upset over bad memories is a far cry from feeling like you have been pulled back into and forced to relive the most traumatizing, dehumanizing, terrifying experiences of your life. When those of us with PTSD are triggered, it’s as if our trauma is happening all over again. Past and present collide.

At the risk of offending survivors who disagree with me, I think the word may have been misused and overused by some of us. But, whether I am right about that or not, the thing we need to remember is that we are all at different places in our healing journey, and we all have different triggers. So we should be careful not to judge or belittle other survivors for being triggered “more easily” or by different things. (And, yes, mere words can be triggering.)

To make things more complicated, what might be triggering one time may not be triggering another time. It’s the seemingly unpredictable nature of PTSD that made many of us feel like we were teetering on the edge of “going crazy” until we were finally diagnosed  and given tools to help cope with the aftermath of our trauma.

Many of us in various survivor communities become fiercely protective of one another, not because we view each other as fragile, but because we place such a high priority on healing. Part of that process is learning self-care, and “trigger warnings” are a way of helping each other with that. My friends and I don’t avoid using the word “rape” or talking frankly and even graphically amongst ourselves, often to a far greater degree than we can with most non-survivors. However, if we are heading into potentially difficult territory, we will caution each other along the lines of, “Make sure you are in a good place, and be prepared, before you read this…before you watch this movie…before you go to this place…before you listen to what I am about to say…” In other words, we’ve got each other’s backs.

My healing journey has involved a lot of hard, painful work on my part. I was blessed with a wonderful therapist who shares my faith, some amazing survivors I call my “tribe”, and some truly remarkable people who have loved, encouraged and taught me along the way. Some of those people have done so in person, and others through books, art, music, sermons, and the online world. Most of all, it has been the grace of God and His love as my Heavenly Father that has brought me to where I am today. I am thankful that things that used to trigger me no longer do. In fact, it’s been quite some time since I’ve had any noticeable symptoms of PTSD, depression or anxiety. Even the recurring nightmares are gone, as are the flashbacks. I’m able to go places, do things, and minister in ways that would have been unthinkable as recently as two years ago. (I’m hoping my symptoms are gone forever but recognize that may not be the case.)

I didn’t suddenly “grow up”. It was a long, hard road to get here, and the people who dismissively urged me to “get over it” were not only unhelpful and unkind — I believe that the enemy of my soul tried to use them as roadblocks to my healing. After all, the Bible says that Satan came to kill, steal, and destroy. He hates having his damage undone. He hates redemption and reconciliation. He hates God.

Does that mean I think that anyone who fails at loving survivors is someone who hates God? No. However, as I used to tell my kids, when we don’t treat others with love and compassion, it’s as if we are playing on the wrong team in this battle of good versus evil.

In my more idealistic days, I used to think that if I could just explain this sort of stuff, people would treat trauma survivors with more compassion. I saw the main problem as a lack of knowledge. Perhaps I’m becoming cynical, but I’m realizing that more and more people simply do not care — and that includes some of the very people who should be setting the examples for compassion, gentleness, and kindness. Sadly, not everyone wants to love as Jesus does…or maybe they just don’t want to love us that way.

That brings me back to the video that inspired this post. In it, a man mimics and ridicules those who say, “That’s triggering”, and responds with a dismissive smirk, “Well, grow up.” I fully recognize that there are people who, while they are right to value freedom of speech, mistakenly think it should be best expressed and protected by saying anything they want, no matter how cruel or offensive, and refusing to be held accountable or to apologize. I know all too well that there are people who mock the very idea of compassion and who accuse anyone encouraging kindness and gentleness as being overwrought and overcome with emotions. I know that there are men who will grow irate if anyone objects to their “jokes” about rape, and that there are people who seem to make a sport of threatening, intimidating, mocking, and harassing sexual trauma survivors. I know that there are also people who aren’t malicious, but are simply lacking in empathy. I know that there are some people who mean well, but are unfortunately clueless and oblivious.

To be clear: I’m not arguing that we should legislate away free speech or legally mandate trigger warnings. To put it another way, as much as I might feel like outlawing shock jocks and blasphemers, I’m not sure I’d like to live in a society (at least not here on earth) where they are outlawed. At the same time, of all the things I’m willing to advocate for, being an insulting jerk without being called out for it is certainly not one of them.

And, I’d like to add, if you are going to insist on being an insensitive clod, please confine yourself to a line of work where that is an asset and not a liability. In other words, stay out of the helping professions and out of any sort of ministry where people might actually think you are supposed to represent Jesus. (Perhaps, if you are that fond of and prone to offensive speech, consider becoming a shock jock. Then my friends and I will know not to listen to you.)

It seems that I can’t bring myself to end this post without including my two favorite stories about PTSD.

The first one was told to me by a Viet Nam vet. After a tour of duty, he was taking an afternoon nap at his grandparents’ house when something triggered a flashback, during which he ran outside and shot up the backyard. His grandfather had been watching the whole scene from his easy chair. I suppose some would think that the grandfather should have, at the very least, urged, “grow up!” But he was himself a combat veteran, having fought in World War 2, and he understood what used to be called “shell shock”. Very calmly he asked, “Well? Did you get ’em?”

“That’s why I loved my grandfather so much,” this tough former Marine told me years later, his eyes shining with tears. “He understood. I shot the heck out of his nice backyard and he never said a word about it…just sat with me and calmed me down.”

My second favorite story is one I read in a book somewhere, and it also involved a Viet Nam vet. He was at the dry cleaner’s when a car backfired out front. Next thing he knew, he was face down on the floor. To his surprise, so was the young woman who had been waiting on him. Rather sheepishly, he said, “Saigon,” followed by the year he had been there. She nodded and replied, “Beirut,” followed by the year she had left. They both got up, brushed off their clothes, and tried to go on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. (And, by the way, I’m fairly certain neither of them urged the other to “grow up”.)

Maybe it’s because I have a weird sense of humor, but both stories crack me up…at the same time that I find them sweet and endearing. Those of us with PTSD, whether our symptoms are in the past or not, want what most people want — compassion and understanding. We are glad when those things are extended to other trauma survivors, and disheartened when such human kindness is withheld.

There was a time, some years back, when I felt compelled to explain to someone why I had an overreactive startle reflex, why I was hyper-vigilant in certain settings, why I acted “wacky” sometimes, and why I had a weird set of “quirks”. I offered this explanation: “You know how some people who fight in wars get PTSD? Well, I fought in a different war, a private one, and I lost.” I didn’t want pity, or to be treated with kid gloves. What I hoped for was understanding: I’m not this way on purpose. It’s a boatload of fear and pain that caused this. If I could be any other way, trust me, I would. 

It’s always a risk when we disclose the trauma in our past. We don’t always know what to expect. Sometimes we get a dismissive, “well, grow up!” — or far worse. Sometimes we get shrugs. Sometimes we get awkward silence. Sometimes we get a “me too”. And sometimes we get someone who views us as their neighbor and loves us, as much as humanly possible, the way Jesus taught.

That last type of person? They are the ones who God can use to “bind up the broken-hearted” and to “comfort those who mourn”. They are the ones who do what the Church should be doing. They are the ones who help us heal.

And they are the ones who would never dismiss a PTSD sufferer with, “Well, grow up.”

Difficult to watch, difficult to face

I recognize that this abortion a difficult, difficult subject…a polarizing one…and a deeply personal one. But I can’t turn the other way and — no matter what your beliefs on the subject — I hope you can’t either.

That’s why I hope, if you haven’t watched this particular video already, that you watch the video I am embedding below.

Yes, I know that the Center for Medical Progress has come under fire from those who disagree with how they have edited the videos they are releasing about Planned Parenthood. But this latest one…is there really a context in which what is depicted and described could be seen as a good thing? Is there a context in which this is something that we as Americans should not even feel the slightest twinge of guilt or unease about? Is this really something we should all support?

If you are pro-choice and you were in the place of the Procurement Technician on the video, would your compassion for women seeking abortions and your desire not to thwart medical research make you react differently? Would you be less willing to walk away from her job? Would you be more comfortable with cutting open the face of a fetus whose heart you had just seen beating — all in the name of medical science, of course? Would you think it all right to be pulling the brains out of babies that might possibly still be alive?

I will be honest. I cannot imagine any context whatsoever that would make what I saw and heard in this video any less hideous or disturbing.

Holly O’Donnell admitted that she started crying when holding the fetus she describes on the video. She said, no matter what benefits there might come from the role she played in procuring the brain from this unborn baby, “I don’t want to be that person”.

Can we honestly say she is wrong, misguided, too sensitive, too sentimental, too squeamish? Is she not advanced enough in her thinking? Are we to conclude that she is anti-woman and anti-science?

Or could the practices these videos are exposing possibly be wrong and barbaric? Are we willing to admit that Planned Parenthood might not be the paragon of virtue, compassion, and morality so many believe this organization to be? Could our culture have gone too far in embracing any and all abortions? Could our medical ethics be flawed? Could it be time for us to face the truth of what we are allowing ourselves to become as a people — no matter how uncomfortable and disturbing that truth might be?

Over the years, I have read and heard many eloquent defenses of the pro-choice position. It is not my intention to turn the his blog post into argument or debate about whether to not abortion should be legal. However, I cannot help but wonder — does being pro-choice require one to embrace everything that is in the above video, and to defend even the most barbaric practices surrounding abortion? Are there no limits to the pro-choice position? Are there no abortions that are morally wrong?

I might as well admit it: I am pro-life. There was a time when, as a rape trauma survivor, I was unsure about whether or not abortion in the case of rape or incest was morally defensible. My position has become more firm as I’ve listened to the stories of those who have been conceived by rape and incest, as well as those who have conceived children under the same conditions. We extinguish the wrong life, in my opinion, when we abort the innocent child resulting from sexual trauma. While I know that nothing can undo the unspeakably damaging and painful trauma of rape or incest, I cannot dismiss the compelling stories of girls and women who view their children as redemptive…even life-saving…after the worst trauma of their lives.

Mine is not a popular position, to say the least. I have been reluctant to state it publicly, not wanting to offend people I care for and respect, some of whom who view the pro-life position as hateful, ignorant, backwards, intolerant, and anti-woman. To be honest, I fear being painted with that same brush by speaking up.

A dear friend of mine, who travels the world over on missions of mercy and compassion –because she has one of the biggest, most loving hearts of anyone I’ve ever met — insists that it is her love for women that has caused her to be even more strongly anti-abortion. Women from vastly different cultures and religious backgrounds have opened up to her when she requests, without a hint of coercion or condemnation, “Tell me about your abortion.” She has heard the stories most of us never hear, because — even if we ask — our agendas and opinions tend to get in the way of our compassion. (I’ve told her my deepest darkest secrets, so I know how gently she receives women’s experiences and truths, receiving them as a sacred trust.) She used to be pro-life because of the babies. Now it is the women, the mothers, who have convinced her even more. She wants to spare women from having to live out the abortion experiences, and their aftermaths, that she keeps hearing about, over and over and over again…

I should not read Christian blogs about marriage

Note to my children: this blog post is about sex which, obviously, I know nothing about. After all, parents don’t do such things, and you were all conceived through the sharing of toothbrushes, which is gross enough to think about. So you can stop reading now.

Note to everyone else: that was a joke.

And now back to my actual post…

I should not read Christian blogs about marriage.

Especially the Protestant ones about sex.

At least not many of the ones that I unfortunately seem to keep encountering — specifically the ones telling me over and over again that I’m all wrong and need to change. My personality is wrong. My thoughts are wrong. My feelings are wrong. My desires are wrong. And I am sinning. Big time. Merely by being me.

Supposedly, if my husband says otherwise, he’s just being nice. Or cowardly. Or he’s lying. Because what he really wants is for me to be his porn star. That’s what all men want, but are too afraid to admit it to their sinfully inhibited wives, who have all sorts of wrong, immature, selfish hang-ups. If he doesn’t want me to be his porn star (perhaps possible if he has spent all his life locked in a room with no access to the outside world and thus has no idea what a porn star is) he does want me to be his fantasy lover. He wants me to blow his mind regularly. So the Christian sex blogs claim.

It’s all about the performance.

If I don’t enjoy sex on those terms, supposedly there is something wrong with me. And I’m in sin. Because God commands us to enjoy sex frequently, and He commands wives to be naked and unashamed, and He commands us to be sexually adventurous, and He commands us to do with wild abandon whatever it is that the blog author manages to conjure up out of Song of Solomon. Despite the sex bloggers’ enthusiasm for finding sex tips in that book of the Bible, I don’t recall it having anything to do with pretending you’re an actress engaging in humiliating and degrading — even violent — sex acts outside of the context of marriage with an actor in a movie that strangers on the internet watch while masturbating…but maybe I didn’t read it carefully enough the last time. Oh, and the “command” to be “naked and unashamed”? I guess I missed the part where God told Eve she was wrong to be ashamed and she didn’t need to wear clothes around Adam. (I don’t remember God saying, “I’m only making you this garment of animal skins for you to wear in the future, when there are other human beings around besides Adam. Because, since you are supposed to be naked and unashamed around him, you won’t be needing clothes for quite some time!”)

If a Christian woman says she wants her husband to act like a romantically suave and debonair movie star, completely out of character with his true nature and personality, people jump all over her for reading too many romance novels, tell her to repent and grow up, insist she adapt herself to her husband’s “love language”, and rebuke her for not appreciating and accepting her husband for who he is. As well they should. After all, if that sort of husband was so important to her, she should have held out for him, and not married the man she did.

And then the same people tell her to act like a prostituted woman providing masturbatory fodder in front of a camera, thus encouraging her husband to treat her in a way devoid of love, affection and respect — because actresses in porn receive nothing of the sort — all so that she can become his fantasy lover and blow his mind in bed. Now. Or she is sinning.

No matter what life is like outside the bedroom, what sort of personality the wife has, what ailments she might suffer from, what sexual trauma may lurk in her past, the worst thing she can possibly do to her husband and to her marriage is to be herself in the bedroom — unless, by nature, she doesn’t have a shy bone in her body, is incapable of embarrassment or humiliation, possesses no sense of boundaries or human dignity, has no desires of her own, needs neither love nor relationship, enjoys being the target of selfishness and disrespect, can put on a show of boundless enthusiasm and exuberance, is brimming with confidence, thinks she is hot and sexy, and is capable of acting like a born performer who loves to show off her body. If she’s not all that, she needs to repent. Now. Even if she is, that’s not enough, because she needs to be constantly eager for sex, skilled at every technique her husband desires, and creative in bed. (No, not procreative! Those little sex-conceived pests tempt us to lose our focus on sex, to use tiredness as an excuse for not being eager sex-performers, and to think our bodies may not be quite as sexy hot as they used to be — and that might interfere with our husband’s enjoyment of sex. Plus, we might worry about silly, inconsequential things like what the children are supposed to do while we keep having all this constant, mind-blowing, uninhibited sex. Because marriage is apparently mostly about sex, which is why I used the word so many times in this parenthetical remark.)

And somehow she is supposed to become this porn star almost immediately upon marriage, abruptly transforming herself from completely inexperienced and innocent young virgin to expertly skilled sex performer. If she is on the other end of the age spectrum, the sex bloggers have even less patience with her and less sympathy — if that is even possible — for the realities of her life.

Oh, the blogs may talk about intimacy (usually as a codeword for sex) and they may give lip service to things like communication and making love, but what they emphasize is that sex is about pleasure. In fact, it’s really all about orgasms, lots and lots of orgasms. As Christian wives, we should be giving and having them regularly, with great frequency and variety — because God invented sex.

He also invented fruit, but no one seems to be urging us to behave unrealistically while eating it. No one is telling us it is our duty to become exuberantly wild about plums, insisting that there is a special and uninhibited grape-eating demeanor that we need to adopt, preaching that we need to gorge ourselves on apples fixed 100 different ways whether we like them or not, or trying to make us feel guilty for not being over-the-top enthusiastic about our husbands’ fruit preferences.

OK, I might be exaggerating, but only a bit. And not every Christian sex blog places such demands on wives, but far too many do — and I’ve read enough to make me want to scream:

Inhibited women of the world, unite!!
(Quietly, in the privacy of your own homes. Don’t worry, no one is watching.)

I’m so sick of this bashing of shy, inhibited women, and this ridiculous notion that we need a personality transplant during sex. In fact, I’m weary of introvert-bashing and shy-bashing in general, but that’s a bigger rant.

Plus, I’m tired of the ridiculous advice uninhibited women give us to help us overcome our “hang-ups”, which usually boils down to attempting to have sex in the most anxiety-producing, nerve-wracking, and embarrassing way possible for people with inhibitions. If you feel self-conscious about your body, the sex bloggers insist that you should allow your husband to undress you with all the lights on, so that he cannot help but scrutinize your every flaw up close. Supposedly that will make you less inhibited! (It might very well make some trauma victims dissociate, but the sex bloggers have very little patience with us. We need to get therapy and get over ourselves ASAP. So do shy women. I don’t know what wives are supposed to do if their husbands would rather not have to confront the sight of their wives’ very un-porn-star-like, scarred and aging bodies up close under bright lights.)

The real problem goes much deeper and can’t be solved by certain wives getting personality transplants while shedding their inhibitions and senses of identity. It can’t be solved by certain husbands repenting of their longing for sexual experiences with the fantasy sex partners they wish their wives were, and instead learning to desire making love to their real-life wives. The problem goes even deeper than the shocking fact that most men — even in the church — get their sex education from porn, training themselves to desire, find erotic, and derive sexual pleasure from the filmed prostitution, abuse, and humiliation of women. The problem is much more serious than disappointment, unrealistic expectations, or even sinful desires.

The problem is that our theology of marriage and sex is extremely lacking, and falls so very, very short. You can’t baptize our porn-ified culture’s view of sex by slapping a “for married people only” sign on it and preaching sermons. Thinking you’ve gone the extra mile by carelessly throwing a few Bible verses around only makes things worse, not better.

No doubt at least a few readers will assume I’m some tight-lipped prude who is anti-pleasure. Whether I am or not is hardly the point, and such an assumption would only underscore what is really at issue: our view of sex is way too small. This amazing thing God designed is a grand mystery and, like all of His creation, it has His fingerprints all over it. Sin may dim our eyes to its beauty; it may even make sex appear so tawdry and ugly that we are incapable of seeing any evidence of God’s handiwork. But I believe there are profound truths in God’s plan, and I believe that there is no other act besides sex that has the potential to connect a married couple in such a deeply intimate way — physically, mentally, and spiritually. (I also believe the opposite is true: there is no other act besides sex that has the potential to divide and harm the marriage relationship in as deeply a wounding, destructive way.) The Biblical euphemism for making love — describing a husband as “knowing” his wife — is only rich with meaning when we discover that sex itself can be indescribably rich with meaning.

Sex is not a performance. It is about far more than pleasure. It is about intimacy, unity and life….and even more. It is a profound, beautiful mystery. Or at least it should be. And the true intimacy and oneness of sex is only possible if we cease to play a role, cease to put on a performance — and cease to demand that our spouses do so. Until we are willing to be our authentic selves with all the vulnerability and humanity that entails — and until we learn to fully love and fully embrace our spouse’s very real and authentic selves — we are incapable of true intimacy and unity. That is because true intimacy requires giving up our unrealistic expectations and fantasies. It requires creating a safe place, a haven, in which we and our spouses can receive encouragement to become more of who we truly are — not less — a safe place in which there is never a need to take on a role or to perform.

Within such a magnificent view of sex, there is no room for pretending to be a porn star, because that would only degrade sex and miss the point entirely. But there is room — there is in fact a grand and welcome invitation — for ordinary, shy, even supposedly inhibited, people like me.  What should be more important to those who claim to be Christians is that there is plenty of room for Jesus…and for holiness.

Holiness? Coming into agreement with God’s standards for purity? Yes, I know. Holiness and sex don’t seem to go together much these days, do they? (Holiness and porn certainly don’t, and never will.) But if we are uncomfortable with the idea of linking holiness and sex, it is probably because our ideas of both are terribly, terribly flawed.

And, in that case, we probably shouldn’t be writing supposedly Christian marriage blogs. At the very least, we should stop trying to baptize porn culture, stop trying to pretend that is what sex is supposed to be about, and stop trying to claim our misguided ideas are Christian.

Updated to add:

Whether you are are a man or a women, before defending or justifying your use of porn (as in, “It was only a few times”, “I didn’t watch any of the bad stuff”, “It was harmless”, “I think it helped my marriage”, “The stuff I watched was really loving and respectful to women”, “Don’t be such a prude”, “You Christians all hate sex”, or whatever) read this report from a researcher who is not a Christian.

Nature, nurture, or both: what makes me a “real woman”?

I was born a girl. And except for some long ago summer days at the age of 11, when my too-short haircut and my play clothes of blue jean cut offs and a white t-shirt made me appear confusingly gender-ambiguous, I have always presented as female.

As a teenager and fledgling woman, I often felt inadequate. Even now, as a supposedly fully matured woman, I sometimes struggle. I’ve never been especially girly. I lack many of the talents, skills, and interests associated with femininity in our culture. According to what many teach regarding “Biblical womanhood”, I fail miserably. I’m not domestic enough. I’m not sweet enough, soft-spoken enough, gentle enough, or submissive enough. Instead of finding fulfillment among the pots and pans, I’d rather be teaching kids to hit and kick each other in the dojo. Instead of urging girls, “Stay sweet”, I’m more often heard urging them to “Be fierce!” Instead of going into raptures of delight over cleaning products, make-up, cute shoes, or whatever it is we women are supposed to get all giddy with excitement over, I’m far more likely to get excited about my favorite hike, a good cup of coffee, some techno-toy, or sensible shoes. (Although I do own a few cute pairs for when I want to clean up, put on a dress, and look semi-presentable.)

I didn’t fit in as a girl. I often don’t fit in now.

But I’m a real woman.

Only I’m not. Because, after all, “real women have curves”, and I’ve always been sorely lacking in the curves department…well, except for the more recent “curves” of added fat in all the wrong places.

Then again, there’s my trump card. The fact that I’ve had six kids should grant me entry without question into the ranks of “real women”.

Except that men can supposedly give birth. Or at least women who decide to have partial sex reassignment surgery so that they can live as men, claim they are men, but still get pregnant and have babies. So now, someone recently informed me rather heatedly, giving birth is not just a “woman thing”. Men can do it too. So there.

So what makes me a woman?

I think genetics and biology are not meaningless. Yes, I know that “Biology is not destiny!” was a rallying cry in the 1960’s. I don’t believe that our biology, as women, should be viewed as a limitation, prison or trap, any more than the same should be true for a man. I would never tell any man that he is good for little else besides sex and fathering babies, and therefore he should not trouble his handsome little head over important things, nor should he do anything dangerous, given how delicate and vulnerable his reproductive organs are. The truth is that, as both men and women, humans are far more than our reproductive systems. But those very systems are an important part of us, whether they function properly or not, whether we delight in them or not, whether they cause us grief or pleasure.

I was born a girl. My parents raised me as a girl who would grow up to be a woman. I went to school and took part in communities where I was treated as were girls in my day and time — for good and for bad. My experiences shaped me.

Even the common, shared experiences of childhood were not exactly the same for me as for my brothers. For instance, when teachers would say, “Boys will be boys!” to a classroom full of children, it meant something entirely different for us girls than it did for the boys. We were being told we were being overly-sensitive tattle-tales and needed to stop; the boys were being given permission to go right on doing whatever it was that had upset us so much. Sometimes it felt like we were being raised in parallel universes.

Puberty was, to vastly understate the obvious, very different for me than for my brothers.

I could go on and on… Nature and nurture, my biology and my life experiences, have molded me, shaped me, formed me, given me identity. I am a woman. I am more than a collection of body parts, more than a shape, more than my appearance, more than my sexuality, more than my talents or lack thereof, more than a social construct.

It cost me to become a woman. I have literally bled. The transition from girlhood to womanhood was not easy for me, not physically, not emotionally, not spiritually, not mentally. There were times when I feared I would not arrive, whole and happy, on the other side. Not every girl’s adolescence is so tortured or troubled, nor do boys sail into manhood without a worry or problem. However, the worst pains of my teen years were suffered because I was a girl.

There was not one experience that made me a woman. It was not my first menses, nor did a sex act “turn me into a woman”. It wasn’t even when I had my first baby. Being a woman is the sum total of my mind, body, memories, and experiences. I’ve spent my entire life being female, and it’s the only life I know.

At the same time that I love being a woman — it has been the source of some of my deepest joys — I can also enjoy, perhaps a little too much, ignoring or overturning what I regard as silly cultural stereotypes and expectations. I may not measure up to your idea of a “real woman”, but I’ve put in the time and I’ve definitely earned the stripes, even if I don’t look as decorative or act as demurely/sexily as you think I should.

Putting on a dress and high heels doesn’t make me more of a woman. Neither does cooking a delicious meal, or keeping silent in a church meeting, or crying at sappy movies. I don’t become less of a woman when I’m in my sweat-soaked gi, pounding the heavy bag with all I’ve got. Adding or subtracting body parts would not make me any more or less a woman than I already am. Womanhood is not something you wear, something you put on and off, some set of actions you do or don’t do. Womanhood is who you are, all of it.

I was born a girl, with female chromosomes and body parts. I grew up as a girl. I was taught how to be a girl…and how not to be a girl. I’ve lived as a woman all my adult life. It is the sum total of my existence and the very essence — inside and out — of who I am. You don’t get much more real than that.

I refuse to trivialize womanhood, refuse to reduce it down to outward appearance, refuse to suggest that it is a commodity than can be bought or sold, refuse to believe that surgery can make or undo it. I’ve had friends and loved ones who have lost breasts, uterus, and ovaries to cancer — but they were still very much women, no matter what our culture might say.

Womanhood is worth celebrating. Worth honoring. Worth valuing. Worth respecting.

Even if I just started laughing over my sudden urge to start belting out, “I am woman, hear me roar!”

Preaching to the choir: lovers of self

But wait — that’s a good thing, right? We’re supposed to love ourselves so that we can love others, right?

That doesn’t seem to be what the Bible says, at least not in the passage I read this morning.

I’ll be honest: I don’t think God intends for us to hate ourselves or to think we belong on the rubbish heap of life as rejects, devoid of anything worthwhile, and unfit for human company. After all, that would be an affront to Him as Creator. I’ll also be honest enough to admit that I have been guilty of saying, in essence, that God made some sort of horrible mistake when He formed me in my mother’s womb, because I was convinced that I was obviously and terribly flawed. God, in His mercy, has exposed that as a lie, and has brought me much healing.

We are image-bearers of God, whether we believe in Him or not. Some of us allow Him to shine through us better than others. But we all have value. We just need to remember that He has far, far more value. He is God, and we are not.

Over the years, I have tried to improve my self-esteem and self-image, but all the self-help books and inspirational talks in the world didn’t fix the gaping wound inside me. It was a deeper realization — a revelation — of the love of God, as my Creator and my Father, that brought the healing I so desperately needed. I am learning to stop using my own measuring stick to evaluate myself, or the measuring sticks of others, and instead to find my meaning and self-worth in my relationship with God.

At the same time, I keep praying desperately that God would keep me from self-love. Love is meant to be other-focused, to be giving and sacrificial, not self-focused. I know this flies in the face of what our culture teaches us, and even in the face of what I have believed in the past. Self-love all too easily becomes narcissism, which is already far too rampant in our society. The Bible acknowledges that we love ourselves and urges us to love our neighbor in the same way — even when I was in the depth of self-loathing, I still managed to put myself first, look out for myself, do things out of selfish motives, and give with strings attached. While I don’t want to believe in lies about how God made me, I also don’t want to think of myself more highly than I should. I want to esteem others more than I do myself. But, most of all, I want to love God far, far more than I do.

A passage of Scripture from 2 Timothy has been on my mind lately. It’s one I cringe at reading. I fight the urge to point fingers at other people. Although I want these words to penetrate my heart, I have to admit that I struggle and resist. I want God to show me where I have fallen short, where I have failed Him. The truth is not pretty.

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. [2 Timothy 3:1-5]

The entire list seems to flow from “lovers of self”. We do these things, think these things, and are these things because we love ourselves far more than we should. Some of these things, in our culture, are things we no longer bat an eye at because they have become so mainstream. Who doesn’t love money? Isn’t a certain amount of pride a good thing? It isn’t arrogance if it’s true! It’s not really abuse if she was asking for it! Oh, come on, all kids disobey their parents — we need to worry about the ones that are too obedient! Why should I be grateful for something when I deserve better? Holy — that’s such an old-fashioned word and so stifling and legalistic! I could go on and on.

But let’s point the finger back at me. Let me read off this list, in my quiet prayer time, and ask God to show me if any of these apply to me. Let me ask with an open mind and heart, willing to listen even if the answers pain me.

I want to be a lover of God. I want to love Him more than I do myself, more than I love money, more than I love pleasure. I don’t want faux godliness, the kind that denies its power. I want the real deal. I want to be part of the Kingdom of God, not someone those of the Kingdom would do well to avoid. I can’t do this on my own strength.

We live in difficult times. May God have mercy.