“Thou shalt not protect.Said No One Ever
As I’ve been doing the work of intentionally reshaping my ministerial calling to becoming a non-anxious presence, a lot of things have been coming up for me—areas of tension that I want to surrender to the “Non-anxious Way”. For example, recently, I’ve been wondering what my life would be like if I were less protective of others. When I look back on my career as a Christian, I have been repeatedly humbled by all the things I thought I was doing right that I have come to realize only added to the ways I’ve fallen short of fully offering the grace I’ve been afforded. Upon reflection, I recognize being overprotective as one of those things.
When I think about my life, it isn’t that difficult to figure out how I developed this “sin of overprotection”. My dad left when I was 2 years old. My mother was severely depressed and my 6 month old brother was life threateningly sick. My earliest memories are of my mother crying and saying she was going to die from the heartbreak. We were housing insecure for most of my formative years. And my grandfather, who took over for my dad died when I was 4. Throw in the mix that my family was prideful and didn’t want anyone to know when we were struggling and it makes psychological sense that I became the “little man of the house”, as people used to call me, believing it was my job to protect my mom, grandmother, and little brother and eventually others with whom I feel some affinity. From those earliest days until about six weeks ago, I accepted my protector role in my relationships. All the while, I’ve been conscious that it’s not something I ever really wanted.
The analogy I’ve said to my wife, is, “It’s not that I always want to protect folks or feel like it is my job to help. It’s just that I can’t not hear people who are suffering. For example, if I hear someone cry out in Mandarin ‘Jiù wǒ yī mìng 救我一命 (Save my life!)’, I will look around to see if there are any other Mandarin speakers who heard the call to save them. If I see someone else responding, then I see it as not mine to do and will walk away. But, if I look around and no one responds, I can’t just sit there. So then I feel like it’s mine to do.”
Even though I do actually speak Mandarin, the metaphor above is about speaking the language of suffering. When I find myself in a situation with folks who have been through some crap, I basically hear their pain’s perspective and tend to respond in some way. Another part of that protection impulse is overexplaining people’s dysfunctional behavior. As some people claim, I might be making excuses for people. Because I know what it’s like to be misunderstood, I sometimes go way out of the way to try and understand other people’s behaviors even if I have to take hits from them as part of the understanding process.
Now some people would say that that at times, this is a good trait to have. And I do see the gift in it in some cases. But, I also know that these habits were largely cultivated because when I was younger and felt like I needed someone to be there for me, it felt like people were rarely there. It is a way of making meaning out of my own pain. And being a “church boy” most of my life, I was taught to turn to Jesus and God for guidance when it seemed to be lacking elsewhere. And so, to the best of my ability, I tried to live out WWJD (What would Jesus do?) But, just because I ask that question doesn’t mean I really know the answer, even if I try to make my decisions on how I relate to God and others in light of the red letters. That’s what slapped me in the face after one of my heart to hearts with the Creator.
Forgive Me For I Know Not What I Do
I talk to God all of the time. Or at least I think I do. Before I go to bed and as soon as I wake up, I start checking in with the Creator. And throughout the day, as thoughts are arising in my consciousness, I talk to God about them and ask for guidance so that I might surrender the fantasies of what I think should be in order that I might receive the intimacies of what is—God’s loving reality. I also read the Bible and other reflective works and meditate on how I would like to be treated so that I know how to treat others. That’s the core of Jesus’ Way of Life as I see it. “Do as you would be done by.” So that’s my gauge.
With that as my compass, I go about my life praying that I can keep the two great commandments at the forefront of my heart. Sometimes I’m better at it than others. I fail frequently. And then I ask for forgiveness and keep going. I don’t bother trying to pretend to God or even other folks because I figure, if God is who I’ve learned that God is and seem to experience God as, pretending is pointless anyway. So, I might as well live as fully as I can into the one relationship that isn’t self-seeking in at least some way. And that’s why I talk and talk and talk to God. But, in all of my talking to God, it is rare that I “hear” anything that I can say is a “Voice of the Divine” coming back with a clear answer. But every once in a while…
Do You Know What Your Problem Is?
Once, on a really down day, I was sitting in a chair pouring my heart out to God. I was feeling frustrated at being misunderstood. I have often found that when I am too direct, people take it in ways that do not match my intent. I think I am being helpful by saying things in ways that I think are clear and emotionally in check. But, many experience it like being pushed into a freezing pool. Over the years since I’ve come to understand that, I’ve worked like a mad scientist to figure out how to be both authentic to who I experience myself to be and to honor that how other people experience me may not always match my intent. Toward that end, I’ve read more books than people probably should and practiced conversations like I was getting paid by the word. And yet still, as I said above, some days I do better at this than others. And this was one of those other days.
The best way to say it was that I was feeling hurt by someone projecting onto me without giving me the benefit of the doubt. Even though I know that no one owes me understanding, I really felt like I needed to be understood that day as it was in relationship to the death of my father. And although I know that I can take everything I am dealing with to God through my interior altar, I basically wanted to be understood by a human on that day. And that was not happening. So, like I had done numerous times in my life, I came back to God with my tail between my legs as they say, licking my wounds and wondering why I had been so misunderstood. And that’s when I learned about the “Sin of Overprotection”.
Like I said above, I talk to God almost constantly but have rarely “heard” anything back. That is not to say that I don’t feel guided by scripture, nature, or the occasional serendipitous event. But hearing a Voice the way some people talk about? Not so much. But this day, I did. And I’ll be honest, I don’t say I “heard” the “Voice of the Divine” lightly. I know that can make me sound a little off to some readers. But, here we go anyway.
On this day, I came home from my job as a recruiter and asked my family if I could have fifteen minutes or so to decompress. They agreed. So, I went up to our bedroom and plopped into this rocking chair feeling dejected asking myself and God, “What is my problem?” “Why am I so often misunderstood?” and I immediately heard, “Your problem is that you keep trying to protect everyone.” As soon as I heard it, I felt the same feeling that I have felt every other time that this has happened–that it was as if the “Voice” came from total Silence. That’s the best way I can describe it. It was like a Genesis type of thing like, as if the Universe was formless and then out of the Void emerged the only thing in Creation, the words, “Your problem is that you keep trying to protect everyone.” It was like those words were the only true and real thing in the Universe. And then BAM! I’m sitting in the chair trying to make sense of this revelation. Which wasn’t very hard to do.
The funny thing about this revelation is that I had it about 8 years ago. But, I’m still protecting for the most part. The difference is that I have been questioning this impulse ever since I “heard” the Voice. And day by day, I’m becoming clearer when it is and isn’t for me to protect—when I’m sinning and when I’m hitting the mark. And for me, admitting that overprotecting is my personal sin is crucial to receiving guidance on what is the best response to the situations I’m called into.
Of course, like with any learning, it would be easy for me to look back on the times I’ve taken on more than was necessary because of this sin of overprotection and feel angry with myself for being an enabler of my own perceived harm. But, regret is more often than not a waste of energy. Instead, I’m choosing to be grateful for the clarity I’m coming into as result of studying non anxious presence and working with a spiritual director. Additionally, I believe in the Creator’s “Omni-redemptive” power. That is to say that I believe God can redeem anything at anytime when we surrender our experience to the God’s eye view. So, in releasing my overprotecting past to God, I have the faith that somehow God is turning my foolishness into seeds of wisdom. There’s more I can say about that. But I think it would come across better in a one on one conversation than writing. So, I’ll just leave it as my past ignorance when given over to God can be resurrected. Maybe I can get on someone’s podcast and talk about what I mean later. Or maybe I’ll start my own.
So Now What…
Confession is the first step on the road to transformation. Part of me publicly acknowledging that, for me, overprotection is a sin is to create a sense of accountability. At the time of writing this sentence, I’ve been working on this post for six weeks. Since beginning it, I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions about the nature of this sin. I’m aware that on the surface, just calling overprotecting a sin probably doesn’t make sense to most folks. It might sound like someone saying that their sin is being too unselfish. Pretty benign, right? But not really. Too much of anything is too much.
When I meditated on the extremes of overprotecting, I saw that the person who overprotects can find themselves causing more harm than one would likely imagine—from becoming a pointless martyr at minimum to someone like a warmonger at worst. Thankfully I am neither of those. But, imagine someone who over-identifies with being a protector. How easy would it be for them to overstep in situations that might not be best served by their intervention. Even in the case of our own children, when some of us parents overprotect, we actually end up harming the children we’re trying to love by preventing them from learning valuable life lessons. Some may say that’s not a sin. But when we miss our intended mark, that’s exactly what it is. In fact, “missing the mark” is literally the very definition of the word. It is an old archery term. I know it freaks people out because it brings up thoughts of judgment perpetuated by people who think they are the holders of righteousness. If you know me, you know I look for the function of terms. That’s why I chose the words “sin”.
To Be the New Me
I’ve been protecting people all of my life. And as I’ve been reflecting on my past and trying to learn from my mistakes, I’ve come to see that in some cases, I’ve even protected people who have unconsciously and consciously caused me harm. In nearly every instance, I did this because I thought that I was trying to serve the greater good. But now I am starting to question that. Is it really the greater good if my family or I end up being hurt in the process or if people who are first in line to receive grace are the last in line to offer it? What if in my misguided sense of protecting folks, I am actually being a stumbling block in their own progression. Ultimately, I don’t know the answers to these questions. All I know is that now that I am aware that what I thought was a good is not always so, I need to stop. So let’s see where that takes me.