“You only internalize values by butting up against external values for a while.”  –Richard Rohr, Falling Upward.

The external values, the ones we absorb, adopt, and accept often without question during childhood, are the essential components that make up our container. They are the rules, traditions, group norms and symbols, loyalties, and memberships that help define us early in life. Yet, these are precisely the things we must bump up against, challenge, and often reject in order to begin making some decisions about who we want to be as an adult.

I am a slow learner, and I butted up against some of these external values for decades before I recognized the need to rethink them. Here is one example of what that process looked (and continues to look) for me.

I grew up believing that my parents were all-wise and always had my best interests in mind. They were indeed good people and conscientious parents. But when my dad decided that God had called him to another church in another town, and the family would be moving, I was pissed. I was pissed at them and at God who seemed to be behind the whole thing. That kind of uprooting the family happened at two significant times in my growing up, and both times I was confused, angry, and scared. I told them none of this, because I assumed they knew what they were doing and that I did not have the right to question them or God.

As I butted up against my naïve assumptions about my parents, I began developing a fuller understanding of them as people. They were not all-wise. They were making their best guess about parenting and career choices. They were making it up as they went, just like everyone else. They were concerned about my best interests, but my best interests fell several notches down the list of priorities for such decisions. They did not have a direct line to God any more than I did. They too screwed up and had to make something of their screw-ups just like everyone else. They were indeed good, wise, conscientious, and caring people. They weren’t perfect.

As I butted up against my childhood notions of God, similar discoveries took place. I first of all had to recognize that God was not punishing me because this bad thing was happening. I began to question the whole idea of “God’s will,” the phrase my parents used to justify their choice. I spent hours as a child praying intently that I would discover God’s will, assuming that if I made the wrong choice, my life would be miserable from that point on. What a small and picky god I prayed to! I no longer believe that “God’s will” is any one thing. Any god worthy of my praise or even my attention, had to be much bigger, inclusive, flexible, and joyful than the one I prayed to as a child. I had been angry at a simplistic caricature of god.

And then there are the feelings. I was confused, angry, and scared without any good way to express those feelings. Moving from a childhood expression of our feelings and impulses to an adult one is essential, and it requires some painful “butting against” to accomplish that. That’s the stuff of a separate post.

I could write many pages about butting up against my childhood notions of my parents and of God. They were the two structures that held my life together. Challenging the most basic structures of your life is a frightening and essential process of moving from container to content.