Reflections (NYC 1997)

One of my jobs in my career as a paralegal took me to MTV Networks in Manhattan. I was so star-struck about living and working in New York City that I quit a perfectly good job in Scranton, PA to accept a position that didn’t pay enough to make my budget work in a bigger market. I didn’t care at the time. I just wanted to work in the City. It was something I’d dreamed of since I first set foot on the sidewalks of Times Square. The energy. The possibilities. Positively intoxicating!

I was eating lunch at the restaurant in the Paramount Hotel one afternoon, observing people around me, wondering what they did, who they were. Wishing at times I was something more than I was. I felt my life was nothing compared to theirs. My table was on the balcony. The walls were lined with mirrors. I was sucked in by the many reflections, and a poem came to me. I’d like to share it with you.

REFLECTIONS

Blue candles flickering,
Giant mirrors reflecting
Straight backed chairs holding
Straight necked gurus;
Life is seeming to bounce itself
Between me and them.
Money trickling down the isle,
Bypassing the middle, recycling,
Redistributed back to them,
Never making it to the likes of me.

When God’s Not There

When God’s not there

Everything is impossible,
Well, everything good and right and fair, that is;
Wrong is the common denominator,
The glue of things, holding it all together;

Not much good, for sure,
Just hateful, painful thoughts and actions
That are likely to promote more of what’s wrong,
Certainly, wrong is self-promoting;

Wrong loves its own company,
That whole misery loving company thing,
You know how that saying goes,
Horrible news, terrible consequences of
Something someone warned us about;

Like as if its discovery would
Turn one’s stomach, make one lose one’s lunch,
But even good intentions were simply
Railroads heading into nowhere;

Hard and black, damp and lonely,
Demons celebrating in the dark,
Turning somersaults when God is absent,
Latching on to the innocent, the tremulous,
Partying on the coattails of my formal wear.

They succeed at their rivalries when God’s not there.

©2015 Steven Barto

Separation and Emotional Scars

Severe separations in early life leave emotional scars on the brain because they assault the essential human connection, which is the mother-child bond that teaches us that we are lovable. The mother-child bond also teaches us how to love. We cannot be whole human beings — indeed, we may find it hard to be human — without the sustenance of this first attachment. And yet it has been argued that the need for others is not a primary instinct, that love is simply a wonderful side effect. The classic Freudian view is that babies find, in the feeding experience, relief from hunger and other oral fixations and that, in repeated encounters of sucking and sipping and sweet satiation, they begin to equate satisfaction with human contact. In the early months of life a meal is a meal and gratification is gratification.

I believe, however, that the need for human connection is paramount to our existence. We are social beings. We do not do well in isolation for a number of reasons. The basic need for human relationships is the perpetuation of the species. It is also obvious that many tasks are easier with another person helping you. It is in the best interest of humanity that we interact, aid, share, communicate, encourage, evaluate, promote, judge, advise and show support between each other. Of course, no man is an island. So what is the cost of separation?

It is generally agreed that by six to eight months most babies have formed a specific mother attachment. It is then that we all, for the first time, fall in love. And whether or not that love is linked to a fundamental need for human attachment, it possesses an intensity that will make us vulnerable to the loss — or even the threat of loss — of a loved one. And if a reliable early attachment is vitally important to healthy development, the cost of breaking that crucial bond — in other words, the cost of separation — may be high. The cost of separation is high when a too-young child is left too long alone, or is passed from foster home to foster home, or is placed in a nursery by a mother who says she’ll come back. Even worse is the separation a baby feels when he or she is dropped off at a “safe haven” at a fire station or ER and never sees mommy again. The cost of separation is high even in caring family situations when a divorce, a hospital stay, a geographical or emotional pulling away, fragments a child’s connection with his mother.

Now of course there will be separations in early childhood. And they may indeed produce distress and pain. But most normal separations, within the context of a stable, caring relationship, aren’t likely to leave us with scars on the brain. And yes, working mothers and babies can establish a loving, trusting bond. This is accomplished hundreds of thousands of times over day after day in America. But when separation imperils that early attachment, it is difficult to build confidence, to build trust, to acquire the conviction that throughout the course of our life we will find others to meet our needs. And when our first connections are unreliable or broken or impaired, we may transfer that experience, and our responses to that experience, onto what we expect from our children, our friends, our marriage partner, even our business partner.

Expecting to be abandoned, we hang on for dear life. We say things like Don’t leave me. Without you I am nothing. If you aren’t around, I have no reason to live. Expecting to be betrayed, we seize on every flaw and lapse. We make comments like See, I might have known I couldn’t trust you.

Expecting to be refused, we make excessive aggressive demands, furious in advance that they will not be met. Expecting to be disappointed, we make certain that, sooner or later, we are in fact disappointed. Fearful of separation, we establish anxious and angry attachments. And frequently, we bring to fruition those things which we feared. Driving away those we love by our clinging dependency or our needy rage. Fearful of separation, we repeat without remembering our history, imposing upon current circumstances our previous habits and behaviors.

I am not suggesting that we consciously remember experiences from early childhood loss by summoning up a picture of us sitting alone somewhere in a crib with mother nowhere to be found. What stays with us instead is what it surely must have felt like to be powerless and needy and alone. Forty years later, a door slams shut, and a woman is swept with waves of primitive terror. That anxiety is her “memory” of loss. Loss gives rise to anxiety when the loss is either impending or thought to be temporary. Anxiety contains a kernel of hope. But when loss appears to be permanent, anxiety (that is, protest) gives way to depression and despair, and we may not only feel lonely and sad but responsible for the bad thing that happened. We may feel helpless and unlovable and hopeless

I’ve read about studies that show how early childhood losses make us sensitive to losses we encounter later on. And so, in mid-life, our responses to a death in the family, a divorce, the loss of a job, may be a severe depression —  the response of that helpless and hopeless and angry child.

Anxiety is painful. Depression is painful. I’ve been there. Panic attacks that cause nausea, chest pain, dizziness, ringing in the ears, severe shakes. Depression that causes horrible stomach pains and neck and low back pain. Perhaps it is safer not to experience loss. And while we indeed may be powerless to prevent a death or divorce — or our mother leaving us — we can develop strategies that defend us against the pain of separation. Emotional detachment is one such defense. We cannot lose someone we care for if we don’t care. The child who wants his mother, and whose mother again and again and again isn’t there, may learn that loving and needing hurt too much. And he may, in his future relationships, ask and give little, invest almost nothing at all, and become detached — like a rock — because “a rock,” as a song from the sixties tells us, feels no pain. And an island never cries.

Another defense against loss may be a compulsive need to take care of other people. Instead of aching, we help those who ache. And through our kind ministrations, we both alleviate our old sense of helplessness and identify with those we care for so well. A third defense is a premature autonomy. We claim independence far too soon. We learn at an early age not to let our survival depend on the help or love of anyone. We dress the helpless child in the brittle armor of the self-reliant adult.

These losses we have been looking at — these premature separations of early childhood — may skew our expectations and our responses, may skew our subsequent dealings with the necessary losses of our life. All of our loss experiences hark back to Original Loss, the loss of that ultimate mother-child connection. For before we begin to encounter the inevitable separations of everyday life, we live in a state of oneness with our mother. Think of this: there is no connection, no bliss, quite like that of the umbilical cord. Losing that connection is the first in a series of devastating losses. When newborn babies are not fed regularly when they are hungry, this is another devastating loss. Their psyche is actually damaged. It’s not just a loss of nutrition; it’s a loss of a primitive bond between baby and mommy. If this continues, the child develops problems on a number of levels. Disappointment becomes a familiar cloud hovering over the child’s life. Fear is also injected into his existence. And, again, there is a failure to satisfy the basic instinct of needing to eat. He feels rejected and abandoned and helpless. Hunger actually causes a newborn baby pain that he or she cannot understand. It simply hurts to be starving.

What is interesting is all of us live, at some unconscious level, as if we had been rendered incomplete by our upbringing. Though the rupture of primary unity is a necessary loss, it remains an incurable wound which afflicts the destiny of the whole human race. And speaking to us through the dreams that we dream and the tales that we create, images of reunion persist and persist, and persist — and bracket our life. So again, severe separations in early life leave emotional scars on the brain because they assault the essential human connection. When that essential connection is damaged or, in worse cases, cut off, it puts us at a complete disadvantage when dealing with others in our young adult and adult life. We are social beings, and furtherance of the human race must by necessity count on our having learned how to bond, to trust, to believe, to contribute, and to care about the outcome of our interpersonal relationships. How can we love others and show empathy and compassion if we never bonded appropriately as a child?

Jesus Christ is the True Higher Power

I get a daily thought in my email every day regarding Alcoholics Anonymous. I wanted to share today’s with you because I find this thought to be dangerous.

A Beginning
My friend suggested what then seemed to be a novel idea. He said, “Why don’t you choose your own conception of God?” That statement hit me hard. It melted away the icy intellectual mountain in whose shadow I had lived and shivered many years. I stood in the sunlight at last. It was only a matter of being willing to believe in a Power greater than myself. Nothing more was required of me to make my beginning.
Alcoholics Anonymous, page 12

I think this thought is dangerous for a couple of reasons. On the one hand, I know that no human power can relieve us of our alcoholism, but on the other hand we’re told that there is one who has all power, that one is GOD, may you find him now. I know in my heart that the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous meant the God of Abraham, the Father of Jesus Christ, our Savior, our Redeemer. I believe it is He who relieves our compulsion and squashes our physical cravings and delivers us from the bondage of addiction and helps us to become neutral when it comes to alcohol. It is He who renews our mind and our spirit, and takes away our character defects if we ask. It is He that heals our drug and alcohol battered body. It is he that forgives our offenses (our sins) and provides the river of living water. It is not a tree, or a door knob, or the AA group, or a dog, or a universal spirit, or the wind, or fire, or mother earth, or Buddha, or Mohammed, or the spirit of Bill W. It is not our own concept of God. There is only one God. He’s contained entirely within the Holy Bible. He is all sovereign and all powerful and all caring and all knowing. He wants us to live life sober and abundantly. For me, being told I can “invent’ my own God does not encourage me or make me feel good in my spirit. I would most likely invent a God that is far less powerful and judging than the God of Abraham. I run the risk of creating in my mind a God who is all loving, and I’ll tend to let out God’s wrath, His hatred of sin, His disdain for false prophets and Pharisees, and self-righteous worshipers.

But this God is a jealous God. He does not want us to seek a solution to our difficulties on our own, or to use some written formula or steps or rules of behavior. He doesn’t want us trying to behave ourselves into heaven, or even out of drunkenness. We cannot find our own solution to the sin problem. We have a sin nature. We walk often in the flesh, where we cater to our instincts, our wants, our desires, our cravings. Left to our own devices, we lie, cheat and manipulate. Sometimes we even steal. We justify or rationalize our behaviors. We don’t even consider whether we’re doing something wrong. And if we examine our behaviors outside of the scope of the Law of Moses and the commandment of Jesus to operate from a platform of love, we totally miss the point. We can’t get into heaven by obeying a bunch of rules, and we can’t beat our cravings for alcohol without intervention from the Lord Jesus Christ.

How It Works has it right: No human power can relieve our alcoholism. With this in mind, how can we successfully make “the rooms” of AA our higher power? Yes, there is strength in numbers. Two minds are better than one. 12-Step interventions work. We can talk to a struggling alcoholic and share our experience, strength and hope. Picking up the phone and calling someone on your phone list can help you derail your intention to drink at that particular moment. But people do not possess the power necessary to relieve your alcoholism. If the only way you deal with cravings is to call and talk about them when they occur, then you’re not going to grow strong in your ability to stop experiencing cravings in the first place. If you call on fellow members of AA only, and you don’t get into a relationship with Almighty God, you will always be troubled with cravings. You see, there has to be a change within us. A change that renews our mind and alters the way we think of alcohol, period. This change comes from the Lord Jesus. The Big Book promises us that if we work the Steps, rely on God, and thoroughly follow the treatment plan, it is rare that a person fails in his effort to get and stay sober.

So when I see people going to meetings day after day, airing their dirty laundry, their complaints, their heartaches, and seemingly struggling with a compulsive thought to drink, I think they are missing something. We’re promised we can come to a position of neutrality regarding booze. We will be able to be around it without wanting to drink it. We can go wherever we need to go, with good reason, and feel safe even if alcohol is present. Yes, it is often suggested that we take a sober friend along, and this does help us be accountable for our behavior at the event. But if I am on good spiritual ground when I come across a drinking opportunity, the Big Book tells me I will not pick up a drink. A good part of what helps me resist any temptation is my prayer to God to keep me away from a drink or drug today. To be in touch with God enough that my behavior will be that which God wants. Here’s the thing: the more we walk in the will of God, the easier it gets to do so. It’s like exercising our spiritual “muscles.”

I am not picking on Alcoholics Anonymous. I will say, however, that just going to meetings and reading the Steps as part of opening up the meeting will not give you any power to resist the temptation to drink. Saying the Lord’s Prayer, paying particular attention to the line that “yours is the kingdom and the POWER…” will not automatically infuse you with the power over the drink. How It Works tells us “There is one who has all power, that one is God, may you find him now.” That line hints that we have to seek God. He’s there, and He will reach out to us as we reach out to him. I truly know of no successful breakaway from alcoholism while using a door knob, a tree, a rock, the sun, mother earth, Thor the thunder god, universal consciousness, the rooms of AA, the cosmos, Buddha, Mohammed, or any other source as a higher power. However, I know of numerous alcoholics that have put down the drink one day at a time through seeking God Almighty. Moreover, Jesus Christ died for my sins and iniquities, my bondage, my illnesses. He was tortured, whipped, spat upon, mocked, and murdered for my sake. By His stripes I am healed. I am set free from the bondage of addiction. And that is what makes me able to be free from alcohol one day at a time.

I attend AA meetings. I don’t always share, and I sometimes chair the meeting. When we say the Lord’s Prayer, I substitute “Jesus” for “God.” I often pray silently that God would move among the meeting, tugging at people’s hearts to share what they need in order to get healthy, that newcomers would have a light bulb go on over their head. I pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit. For insight that will edify and benefit others in the meeting. That God would keep the meeting safe and on track. That no one leaves before the miracle happens. I thank God for keeping me sober another twenty-four hours. That he puts the right words in my mouth when I share. The only thing I don’t do is preach about Jesus, and frankly that makes me feel guilty. I know Christ came to set the captives free. So I save that conversation for one-on-one after the meeting or on the phone. May God bless the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.

A Christmas Tree in Vermont

When I was in third grade, my family moved to Springfield, Vermont. I was too young (as yet) to live on my own, so despite the fact that I would miss my friends I decided I better go with them. Ha, ha!  We were there for about a year, covering all of the seasons. My favorite was Christmastime. We got a lot of snow in Vermont, and the sledding was unbelievable. We leased a house at the foot of a mountain. There was a wide gate at the back of the yard which opened to a trail up the mountain. Dad would open the gate, and my brother and I would sled ride down the hill and into the back yard. We’d be outside for hours, seemingly immune to the cold. Mom would wave from the kitchen window.

Dad decided it would be nice to hike up the side of the mountain and pick out a Christmas tree and cut it down. Off we headed, up the hill, dad carrying a tree saw. It took some time to find an appropriate tree. Perfect size, perfect shape. The tree he found was a whopper. I was only a third-grader, so it looked huge to me. Dad cut the tree down, and we dragged it back down the side of the mountain and into the back yard. We traipsed inside and threw our coats on the floor of the mud room, kicked off our boots, and headed to the kitchen where mom had hot chocolate waiting on the stove. You know, the good stuff made with milk and Hershey’s syrup.

I picked up an anthology of poems at the library today titled Commonwealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania. We are blessed in Pennsylvania with a number of wordsmiths, poets, novelists, essayists, dramatists, biographers, children’s authors and short story writers. The collection is edited by Marjorie Maddox of Williamsport and Jerry Wemple of Bloomsburg. One poem caught my eye and reminded me of the day we cut down the Christmas tree in Vermont. I wanted to share that poem with you now. It’s by Len Roberts.

Climbing the Three Hills in Search of the Perfect Christmas Tree

Just seven nights from
the darkest night of the year, my son
and I climb
the three hills behind
the white
house, his flashlight
leaping
from hemlock to fir,
to white
pine and blue spruce
and back
again, Up up higher
he runs,
shadow among larger
shadows
in the below-zero,
constellated
half-mooned sky, his
voice
so distant at times
I think
it is the wind, a rustle
of tall
grass, the squeak of my
boots
on new snow, his silence
making
me shout, Where are you?,
his floating
back, Why are you so slow?,
a good
question I asked myself to
the beat
of my forty-eight-year-old
heart,
so many answers rushing up
that
I have to stop and command
them back,
snow devils whirling
before
me, behind me, on all
sides,
names that gleam and
black
out like ancient specks
of moon-
light, that old track
I step
onto like an escalator
rising
to the ridge where the
best
trees grow and I know
I will find my son.

The End (A Poem)

THE END

Tomorrow is but an empty container
Of items listed on his agenda.
Tasks yet undertaken.
A piece of flesh, a slice of life,
Three, four, five times over.
Looking way beyond the ledge.
Horizons capped, limits reached.
A man’s image twice complete.
You ask me how I know he’s been here.
Just look up into yesterday’s sunset
And you will see the unfinished product.
A bunch, a bushel,
Measured for you.
Can you (will you)
See the end?

© 1998 Steven Barto

Suffering Without Sinning

I am reading Jesus on Trial: A Lawyer Affirms the Truth About the Gospel, by David Limbaugh. He made a comment in the book that I’d like to share with you. He wrote, “We must not use our suffering as an excuse to sin, but as an opportunity to grow spiritually.” Not only is it a chance for us to mature, I believe we need also recognize that our suffering can be an opportunity for others to learn from our circumstances. We, in no way, should find occasion to sin because we are suffering. We cannot rebel, or argue with God, or hate or resent others. We cannot look to relieve our suffering through our own selfish acts.

Pain often reveals God’s purpose for us. God never wastes a hurt! If you’ve gone through a hurt, he wants you to help other people going through that same hurt. He wants you to share it. God can use the problems in your life to give you a ministry to others. In fact, the very thing you’re most ashamed of in your life and resent the most could become your greatest ministry in helping other people. Who can better help somebody going through a bankruptcy than somebody who went through a bankruptcy? Who can better help somebody struggling with an addiction than somebody who’s struggled with an addiction? Who can better help parents of a special needs child than parents who raised a special needs child? Who can better help somebody who’s lost a child than somebody who lost a child? The very thing you hate the most in your life is what God wants to use for good in your life.

The Bible says in 2 Corinthians 1, verses 4 and 6, “God comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation! For when we ourselves are comforted, we will certainly comfort you. Then you can patiently endure the same things” (NLT). This is called redemptive suffering. Redemptive suffering is when you go through a problem or a pain for the benefit of others. This is what Jesus did. When Jesus died on the cross, he didn’t deserve to die. He went through that pain for our benefit so that we can be saved and go to Heaven. So that we can live a life free from bondage and disease.

There are many different causes for the problems, pains, and suffering in our lives. Sometimes the stuff that happens to us we bring on ourselves. When we make stupid decisions, then it causes pain in our lives. If we go out and overspend and buy things we can’t afford and assume we can make the payments in the future, and then go deeply in debt and lose our house, we can’t say, “God, why did you let me lose my house?” We can’t blame God for our bad choices. But in some of our problems, we’re innocent. We’ve been hurt by the pain, stupidity, and sins of other people. And some of the pain in our lives is for redemptive suffering. God often allows us to go through a problem so that we can then help others.

We are exhorted to “put on Christ” and to imitate Him, our High Priest and our Teacher, so that we might partake of His divine nature. In order to redeem us, our Lord took on flesh and gave all to the Father. In order to be Christ-like, we, too, must take up our cross, accept suffering, and strive to offer Him all. It says in Luke 14:27, “And whosoever doth not carry his cross and come after Me cannot be my disciple.” 2 Cor. 4:8 tells us that in all things we suffer tribulation but are not distressed. Philippians 3:8-11 says, “Furthermore, I count all things to be but loss for the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ, my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things and count them but as dung, that I may gain Christ. And may be found in Him, not having my justice, which is of the law, but that which is of the faith of Christ Jesus, which is of God: justice in faith. That I may know Him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings: being made conformable to His death, If by any means I may attain to the resurrection which is from the dead.”

Think of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, under so much stress and agony that He literally sweated blood. Think of Him being hounded and mocked by people who should have fallen to their knees and kissed His feet, adoring Him and begging Him for mercy. Think of the Creator of the sun, moon, and stars with a crown of thorns thrust onto His head, being spat upon, beaten, and nailed to a Cross. God Himself suffered in His human nature, so why should we be spared? Thing is, we need to have a right attitude about our suffering. We need to realize that uncomfortable things will happen to us in this life, but this helps us to help others.

Many of us think we suffer because of our circumstances. We believe that if our circumstances would change, we’d be able to act right. But God wants us to become so mature and stable that we act right even when none of our circumstances are good. There are different levels of faith, and most of the time we want to use our faith to get rid of a problem. But sometimes God’s plan is for us to exercise a higher level of faith that will carry us through life’s challenges. This requires even greater faith than being delivered from a situation.

As Christians, we may also face trials and suffer simply because we live in a world full of sin. But Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in Me you may have [perfect] peace and confidence. In the world you have tribulation and trials and distress and frustration; but be of good cheer [take courage; be confident, certain, undaunted]! For I have overcome the world. [I have deprived it of power to harm you and have conquered it for you]” (John 16:33, Amp) What a promise! Understanding the reason for our suffering and having the assurance of the final glory we’ll share should make it a little easier to enjoy our lives even during the times of sharing in suffering.

God uses trials in the believer’s life for several reasons. They purify us (See Malachi 3:3-4, 1 Peter 1:6-9. Psa. 66:10) by making us rely more on God and His grace. James tells us trials increase our patience (See James 1:3,4,12) and God uses them to glorify Himself. (See 1 Peter 4:12-16). Paul sums it up well when he states, “my strength [in trusting and drawing closer to God] is made perfect in weakness.” (See Gal. 12:9). The non-believer suffers in despair. (See Gal. 6:7-8). He has no hope and no assurance that he will be delivered out of his trials by God.

Because God sees the end from the beginning, He knows where we’re weak and where we need refining. Suffering is like a refiner’s fire. It burns away all the impurities, leaving only that which is profitable. We will be rewarded for our sufferings. (See Matt. 5:10-12) In them we can comfort others who are going through the same difficulties. Remember, Jesus suffered more than any man, but to the greater glory. In His sufferings, he made the way for us to be reconciled to God. If in our sufferings we can lead others to Christ, then we should suffer joyfully. Remember, “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (See Rom. 8:18) This is so much better than sinning because of our suffering. Only when we earnestly look forward to the glories of the Kingdom of God can we view our own sufferings in proper perspective.