In which I stumble into the world of Adverse Childhood Experiences
Just started to read (actually listen to) a fascinating book whose big idea is that there sometimes can be a single cause at the root of a person’s multiple, recurring illnesses and other problems.
This root cause? Childhood trauma. Childhood trauma can cause grownup health problems. When an ingénue like me stumbles into something like this I then quickly discover that what was for me previously unknown territory contains a landscape’s-worth of books, research, controversy, refinements, criticism, and its own three-letter-acronym (ACE or adverse childhood experiences).
ACE is fascinating. What fascinates me just at the moment is how childhood traumas link with those passages in the gospels when people gathered around Jesus and he healed them all. If he healed the sicknesses the people were presenting with, many of them would have been back next week. But if Christ somehow dug out the root, which was something lodged in the psyche, buried there through one or more childhood traumas, and bearing fruit in adulthood as stroke or heart desease or ‘fibromyalgia’, or anxiety and depression, then those patients of his might truly have been healed.
Hillary Clinton is fond of quoting an African proverb: ‘If you want to go fast, travel alone. If you want to go far, travel together.’
I read an example today of the human species collectively going far. ‘Between 1968 and 2017, the world’s population increased by 113 percent from 3.55 billion to 7.55 billion. Over the same time period, the average global food supply per person per day rose from 2,334 calories to 2,962 – a 27 percent increase.’ 1.
So the population doubled, but the food supply more than matched it. Back in 1968 educated voices were looking at likely population increases and saying things like ‘The battle to feed all of humanity is over … hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.’2 Today obesity is a bigger cause of death than the diseases of hunger.
Somewhere in all of this, perhaps, is a lesson that when we have far to go as a species, or a community — think global warming for example– it is OK to have prophetic types warning us of dire consquences, perhaps, but we have to travel together.
I’ve just returned from four days of investigations at a hospital, trying to see if I’m a candidate for a heart transplant. I also talked to other patients on my hospital corridor, who have walked farther down the trail of suffering and patience than I have ever ventured. This is the second time I’ve gone through this exercise and I have come home with my head rather full, and the introvert’s need to sit at home for a long time and think about it all.
Somewhere in all that, I asked the question, What am I for?
Trying to answer that doesn’t involve me attempting to respond objectively and rigorously, even if I had the equipment or the courage, which I don’t. Instead, that question is a prompt to motivations and perhaps to temperament or psychological health. Another way of framing the same question is something like how do I feel about going on living? Or how much do I want to continue to exist and contribute?
There’s an answer to this around the idea of knowing and glorifying Christ, and that is my answer too, there is no meaning outside of him, but within that general answer there must be specific route-maps for each person. The tug of love, pulling us to go on living for someone else’s sake or some others’ sake is certainly a huge component of the vector.
I find another part though. I want to make beautiful things. In my world, this has to mean writing, and it has to mean writing something that someone reads, five minutes from now, or five weeks, or even five centuries, and that person’s thoughts and mine connect over all that distance, and the thing that has lit me up lights them up too.
I wonder if this isn’t the impulse behind all art, both the tawdry and the epic, and perhaps lots else too. Make something beautiful. Add to the stock of our herd’s insights, creativity, beauty and overall wealth. I’ve often envied a musician’s ability to dream up a melody that previously didn’t exist but that the whole world comes to know and indeed may even continue to know until the end of time. Think Hey Jude or Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s poem in his Ninth Symphony. Using words to combine thoughts in attractive forms is a micro-scale enterprise compared with that, and I do not say I am good at it, but it is what I have.
The Christian hope for history is the fulfilment of all things and one of the pictures is the New Jerusalem, the city of God, the fulfilled human community, lit up by the light of God’s face. A feature of the New Jerusalem is that its gates are always open. Nothing evil or mean or superficial is allowed in but what does flow in is the wealth of the nations, the baking and the architecture and the engineering and the melodies and the elegant theories and the eloquent art. The patiently and lovingly constructed treasures, dusted as they are – as they must be- with sprinkles of divine pleasure. What am I for? A piece of that.
Paul’s letters in the New Testament often contain instructions about family life and these cause a lot of trouble:
‘Wives, submit to your husbands’ is probably the most contentious. Here is the Christian faith at its most patriarchal apparently, digging in on the side of oppressing women.
Recently I wondered about this. Paul was writing, I think, to a society where the power imbalance and the justice imbalance were already ingrained. Men commanding, oppressing, even beating women was the norm, a society where a lot of couples were at war, an oppressive male, a scheming female.
When Paul wrote that wives should cheerfully submit to their husbands, it would completely disorient things.
So, in reverse, would a man acting kindly and considerately towards his wife.
Paul’s directions, in other words, were of a piece with the stuff Jesus was saying about praying for your enemies, blessing those who curse, turning the other cheek, carrying a load the second mile when you’ve been press-ganged to do the first. It was about upending oppression by radical, cheerful, irritating meekness.
It builds a new world and sets new norms. Radically meek women and tender men topple structures of pride and shame spouses into mutual decency. I think you have to add, though, there’s a context of normalcy here. I don’t think this applies in the abnormal and even criminal context of domestic abuse or coercive behaviour. People facing that stuff should get out and get safe and take their children with them. Paul’s teaching is about re-setting a societal norm, not licensing abuse. Still.
Over the past decade, the contribution that the Church of England makes to society through its social action has increased, reflecting an increase in the demand and expectation for it. At the same time, church attendance in the country has continued to decline; by most key metrics, attendance at Church of England services fell by between 15% and 20% from 2009-2019. This is the paradox facing the Church of England in 2020: the national church of a nation which is increasingly reliant on its social action and yet less and less spiritually connected to it
So begins a report from the Theos thinktank about ‘growth, social action and discipleship in the Church of England’, beautifully written by researcher Hannah Rich and published in November 2020.
Theos are like a box of frogs, not because they are mad, but because they force you to look at them by their high-quality bounciness. By being what they are and doing what they do they stir us all up. This is a good thing.
The report notes that some social action is transactional: People line up, and you dole out some good or service.
But other social good is relational. For example the church intentionally works with others in the community to make a foodbank (or whatever) happen. People work alongside the church. And sometimes for these people their involvement becomes a way in to more churchy things. Their steps in helping become steps in Christian discipleship. Perhaps they never expected this. But through their service they inch their way towards a new sort of life that fits together for them much better than their old one. They open a door on a whole new world for themselves, a world of forgiveness and healing and light. Working with the broken, they are mended themselves or at least the mending starts. In giving, they receive. Who’d’ve thought?
When this all starts working, different aspects of what churches are supposed to do and be (caring for the poor, helping people know the King, learning to serve the King; and worship) combust together, each fuelling the other, as the church simply seeks to be itself, true to its own light, within the community: its intentional presence, its lowly service, is its power. Those handing out Sainsbury’s bogroll and fairly traded instant coffee find the risen Jesus standing next to them.
This is so fascinating, in itself, but also because it is happening now in communities all around us. In churches that might view themselves as rather dim, flickering lights. This is the season we are in. And the flickering, it turns out, is the mark of a living flame. And it’s always good to know the rustle of God’s cloak as he passes by.