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Songs of Love and Fear

When I was seven years old, I had the same unspeakably terrifying dream, every night for a very long time. It went on for something like three months. Some mornings, my mom would say that she’d found me the night before, wandering through the house, eyes wide open but glazed over, and that I had been moaning and weeping in complete and total horror, yet still fast asleep at the same time. I still remember the dream I would have. Every night it was the exact same scenario…the experience was precisely identical, yet as though I were experiencing it for the very first time.

This whole thing remained so fresh in my mind that I couldn’t even really talk about it for well over a decade. That incredible fear…would all come rushing back into my mind, and it would absolutely overwhelm me, when I tried to recall and discuss what all had happened.

The actual content of this recurring dream was somewhat too nebulous to really describe, as dreams often are, but it went something like this:

The order of the natural world (and the very fabric of the universe itself, and the collective destiny of all who dwelt therein) had been regulated by some type of great…machine…or something. I had somehow caused this machine to break down, through some type of negligence or misconduct (the particulars of which failure I was never informed of, only that it had come to pass.) This mistake had earned me some type of unimaginable damnation, and it was from this damnation that I fled…God, how I fled…through shapeless dreamscapes, with types and shadows of unspeakable fear washing over, like being caught in an undertow, with great, impossibly powerful waves pulling me under again and again.

The idea of what would happen to me once I was caught gnawed away at me from within. I ran and ran forever. The agony of that dread was unspeakable. And the pandemonium inside me as I tumbled desperately away from whatever entity it was that pursued…It was a living death I can’t truly explain, even if maybe only because I am honestly still so shaken whenever I try to remember it, having experienced it in the way that I did. The immediacy of that sense of having been fully and finally abandoned by God, and by all of mankind, and by anything else that could possibly be…it was an absolute death of the soul I was feeling. It was a specific certainty that any effort which could ever again be put forth towards my redemption would be truly without hope of success.

Then there was the time distortion. You see, every night, when I had this dream, it would go on as though for literal months. This sense of incredibly elongated passage of time seemed absolutely and utterly real. Every morning when I woke, I was again legitimately shocked to discover that the whole experience had only been a dream, and that it had only lasted one night. To me, it had been quite completely real, it had all really happened, and it had lasted weeks, and months, and I would have sworn on God it had even seemed like years, at times.

I have found, though, that trying to give a panoptic description of these things is very much impossible. It had essentially been an imagined version of the experience of actual damnation of the soul itself that I was somehow experiencing firsthand, and this is something which cannot really be seen or said unless it is experienced. The pain is too much.

I think now that this experience must have quite effectively galvanized what I suspect was the already existing trauma of taking everything much too seriously at a far too early age. Fear seemed to dominate everything for me after that. It flowed under and through, behind and before all that I experienced. My life became based on it. I began to do and say things, not from a place of genuine self expression, but because I feared what would happen otherwise, and I learned to do all just about everything I did specifically just to to avoid that fear.

I suspect the development of these symptoms did not stem from the experience of that recurring nightmare alone. I suspect that all of it — including the nightmare — were symptoms of unhealthy conditions present in my environment during those crucial stages of early development. I’ve touched on these before, and don’t want to rehash them again now. Instead, I want to illustrate contrast between this overall state of mental unrest, and the peace and comfort that wrapped itself around me when I opened my heart and mind to the Gospel…and then I want to introduce an additional illustration of contrast between that serenity and the absolute horror of the toxic faith I got seduced into, in my young adulthood, and the near-constant state of panic which that experienced transformed my life into.

On second thought, that sounds like a big job. It’s going to require another post.

I changed my mind, I’m going to just do it now.

The basic concepts of Christian faith had lost their feasibility to me by the time I was about fifteen or so, as often happens with young people when they begin to compare the Biblical narrative to the majority of the information that finds its way in front of our eyes, these days. It wasn’t a stern warning that changed my mind, but a long series of graceful overtures, made over the course of several months, during which I was invited to attend a nondescript, independent Christian church. The principles of faith in Christ were delineated to me there with a kindness uncharacteristic of much of the Christianity I’d experienced elsewhere in life. I was a broken kid, and I was curious, and open. I decided to give it a shot one Sunday morning, and made my way down to the altar to pray with the pastors.

The shift in my consciousness was immediate, and pronounced, but it was not a sudden conversion from nihilistic abandon to theological certainty. Rather, it was a sudden awakening to an idea which I am still working on coming up with a way to express. The Greek word agape encapsulates this idea, and Saint Paul once wrote a general description of what agape is, but his words have been repeated so much that, although they are very good, I see a definite benefit to coming up with new language. At any rate, I awoke to the idea that God was interested in me as an individual, and that He had directly expressed this interest to me in a personal way, and that it was something like what I’d always longed for, in every basic desire I’d ever had.

My sense of finding Him then was like a personal study in this ecstatic born-again experience that we tell new churchgoers about; some glad promise, delivered only when they are yet curious unbelievers seeking answers about faith, and then once they have learned trust, and have opened their hearts to us, we quickly and quietly switch things around by surprise, so as to convey the idea that God, after all, is actually very angry, unconditional love notwithstanding, and that being intensely aware of this anger is the actual defining mark of a Christian, and that unless they lay aside from their spiritual priorities these convictions about God’s tenderness and mercy, and begin to replace them with ideas about justice and wrath, then they are basically refusing to progress in their faith. Maybe this doesn’t actually happen to a lot of people, though. Maybe it happening to me, a little bit later in the story, was actually an unusual thing, an anomaly of sorts, and not something common or relatable at all. Whatever the case, it is what happened to me.

But it didn’t happen all at once. It was through prolonged exposure to a culture of panic that I gradually came to see those original ideas about the love of God as having been naive and misguided, and came slowly to believe — to really believe — that God must ultimately reject my soul, at the end of the road. When that final day came, I grew to understand, I would be weighed in the balance and found wanting. Not passionate enough. Not consistent enough. Not enough time spent seeking the Kingdom, too much time wasted on idle comforts.

My spiritual experience ended up being a real-life fulfillment of that nightmare I’d had, all those several years ago, and it was from this that I eventually fled into the soul-killing respite of alcohol. “Then I was drunk for many years; then I died.” These words, attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald, although they ended up being coincidentally accurate of his own experience, did not quite end up describing mine, though they could have. The near-uncontrollable drinking went on for years, but it stopped.

Since then, the struggle has mainly been with feeling disqualified because of those failures, and others which began to occur in earnest, during that season of life. Having been trained for so long to view the stubborn, the indulgent, and the shrinker-back as anathema, and as utterly reprobate, it indescribably hard for me now to unring the bell, so-to-speak, of having been made to think thus about myself, but investing myself in a determined recovery from that state has been my aspiration, and it is the topic of this web log, so…I guess I’m trapped in the “to be continued” fade sequence, for now.