When the Past Hurts


I was sitting in therapy once and found something in my soul I never knew was there. It was as if I was taking a guest on a tour of my home and noticed a door in the hallway I'd never seen before–it was that unexpected. It was a door that I wouldn't be able to open for weeks.

It wasn't that long ago. I was still a part of the Baptist church, but I'd become a black sheep for talking about marriage equality and evolution. It felt like getting divorced–one of the most painful things I'd ever endured. So, I started going to see a therapist once a week.

We were talking about my childhood–my therapist insisted on it. Therapists are always getting you to talk about parts of your life you don't want to talk about. The funny thing is I could talk about what happened when I was a kid, and I could explain what other kids had done to me when I was bullied so much. It didn't bother me, and I told my therapist that I was over all that.

But then she asked me how I felt when those things happened to me. She asked me how I felt when kids would throw softballs at me, or push me over when we were running laps.

I don't want to sound melodramatic, but it was that moment that I saw the unexpected door for the first time. And when I touched the doorknob, it scalded me. It was if that once unseen door was the Gates of Hell itself, and evil emanated from it–an oppressive, terrifying radiation that is not seen, but felt.

I couldn't tell my therapist how I felt. Even thinking about it made my heart pound like a bass drum, while filling me with some awful terror. It confused and disoriented me.

I mean, here I was in a safe place and I was terrified just because a kind, smart woman asked me how I felt about something that happened decades ago. It split my consciousness for a few seconds–part of me was afraid, and part of me was wearing a lab coat, studying that fear.

That was a rough day. I was shaken for the rest of the afternoon, uncomfortable in my own thoughts. Just as uneasy as I'd be at home with a mysterious door to Hell, a few feet from my favorite couch.

Week after week, my therapist would keep guiding me toward that door. I told her why I wasn't able to cry, about how I'd learned to make myself not cry via biofeedback so well that it was automatic these days. I'd become a person who could sob once, before I'd reflexively relax my core muscles and slow my breathing.

And then, one week, my friend Bradley asked me what I would tell the 7 year old me if he was sitting across from me, and the door opened.

A river of grief came out. Grief is a briny river for sure, but somehow it leaves you feeling clean.

After that, I could cry in therapy. We had to talk about some of my childhood feelings over and over. I still felt panicky and afraid when we'd move through what it was like to be a fat, ginger kid who loved computers and science.

The craziest thing was that the more I opened that door, the less it scared me. And each time, the flow of grief was a little smaller, until at last it was just another door.

Don't get me wrong, that's not the part of my soul where I want to watch TV or have a party. But, I don't mind going in there anymore, especially if I can grab a story that will help someone else face their own grief over past trauma, loss, or hurt.

Here's the thing: when you bury the pain of the past it can warp you. On the one hand, my bullies gave me a gift. I have a profound sense of independence and I'm not too worried about the approval of a crowd. On the other hand, I have an acute fear or rejection, and intense doubt when people tell me they like me.

By suppressing all those feelings of rejection from my childhood, I set the stage from some pretty toxic behaviors later in life. It's where I get my love of being in front of crowds, entertaining them, but also controlling the interaction. It also lead me to seek acceptance and validation in some unhealthy romantic relationships.

I was able to drop a lot of those behaviors and live a healthier life when I finally forgive the people who'd hurt me as a child. They were children, after all. The first step in redeeming the wounds of our past is forgiving the ones who wounded us. It's the only way forward.

But it's just the beginning of the healing process. After forgiveness comes grief. You have to mourn the loss that came from that wound. Western people have a profound talent for avoiding grief, and Americans are exceptional at it even by the standards of the West.

This is all rooted in our brains, of course. When you recall events and people from the past, different parts of your brain light up. For traumatic memories, your amygdala will get hyped up just as powerfully as if am imminent, physical threat was present. The power of the human brain in recreating the past means our painful memories have exquisite power.

Why wouldn't you bury something like that? Who would chose to wander into such pain? It's awful.

Awful, but essential. Because every time you recall a memory, your brain changes that memory a little bit. That's how conditioning works. Pavlov's insights apply to people just as much as dogs. I salivate when the microwave dings. It's positive reinforcement. But if someone hit me with a rock every time the microwave did it's thing, I'd probably break into a sweat every time someone reached for a frozen dinner. That's why grief and therapy work so well.

When we recall the painful past in as safe environment, we weaken that memories association with the parts of our brain that drive fear and anger. We rewire our brains to take the punch out of those wounds, and finally allow them to heal.

I think that's why people who've been hurt have to return to their stories over and over. They have an instinctive drive to share once they feel safe. As long as that doesn't become an obsession, it's healthy.

I've found that forgiveness and grief are helpful in living a whole, healthy life.

I'd love to hear your insights about coping with past traumas in the comments below.

photo credit: via photopin (license)

My website is a safe place for people whose beliefs about God are changing. Many are recovering from spiritual abuse or trauma. Please remain civil and kind in the comments section at all times.

New Copernicans Episode 1: Copernicus

Human faith and culture are changing faster than ever before. This accelerating landscape is driven by a mix of sociological, technological, and economic factors. But what are they? What do they mean to us? And, what might the future look like as a result?

I was lucky enough to be part of a 20 part short film series to explore, explain, and create conversation around these ideas via a production by the Windrider Forum and the John Templeton Foundation.

It was a blast just to hang out with these folks. The fact that this series is extremely well done and insightful is icing on the cake. I hope you guys enjoy the series–I'll share each new episode on my blog.

My website is a safe place for people whose beliefs about God are changing. Many are recovering from spiritual abuse or trauma. Please remain civil and kind in the comments section at all times.

The Restrained Pedophile

My email box has become a wild place, full of new, exotic creatures. This influx of new email organisms comes courtesy of my podcast, Ask Science Mike. People send me all sorts of questions, and in doing so bare their inner life to a stranger. My show is about facilitating an open, honest conversation about science, faith, and life with thousands of other people.

A lot of these questions are very similar to one another. I get over one hundred questions a week about masturbation, for example. The similarity of many questions is not monotonous. Quite the contrary–I find it comforting that some many of us share the same secret fears and Things We Want To Ask But Are Afraid.

Among the herds of similar questions though, rarer sights can be found. The Unique Questions are often startling, and one of my favorite things about the show. There is no better gift you can offer someone who loves to teach than a brand new question.

I take great joy in turning information that took me months to research into a 5 minutes answer. I take even greater joy in offering solidarity to people who think they are alone. This comes at a cost. Sometimes the questions are dark in a way I'm not prepared for.

One such question floored me on this week's show. The return email address was fake–a truly anonymous message. It read:

Hi Mike,

I was sexual abused by multiple family members during childhood. This has caused a lot of problems in my life, but one is worse than the others. I am attracted to children. I have never molested a child, but I have sometimes searched the Internet for images of children. I am always filled with disgust when I do this, and I hate myself for what I am.

I know you’ll tell me I should get help, but how can I do that? If anyone knew this, I wouldn’t be able to keep a job, or have friends. I am so scared. Most of the time I want to die, and I have considered suicide.

What can I do?

There is a hysteria around pedophilia, and I am no exception to it. There are questions I get nervous about answering on the program, and no episodes are more nerve wracking for me than my "After Dark" shows. On the first, we talked about marijuana from a Christian perspective, the science of monogamy, and that crowd favorite–masturbation.

I was already planning to cover a question about polyamory on this episode. Polyamory is a pretty inflammatory subject, even among progressive thinkers. But polyamory is a product of consenting adults. Pedophilia is a predatory act on the most innocent among us.

My first instinct was to delete the email, and I almost did. But then I remembered a story I read a few months ago about a teenage who was sexually attracted to children but had never acted on it.  I remembered that the young man (and it is most often men) wanted help, wanted to change, before he did anything, but he couldn't find it.

You see, we have a blindspot in our view on pedophilia. We don't know what to do with people who are attracted to children, but have never acted on it. We don't know how to help those who know they need help, and are responsible enough to avoid acting on their impulses.

For someone who accepts the mantle "Science Mike," I had a hard time finding good science on pedophilia. Research is sparse, and contradictory on possible root causes. Online resources about possible treatment all echo one theme: seek help. But anyone who seeks help for treatment of pedophilia from a mental health worker may run into mandatory reporting laws.

They can be reported, not for doing anything, but for having the potential to do something. They could end up attached to a crime they didn't commit.

I asked my Twitter followers if anyone knew of options for people who struggle with sexual attraction towards children. My followers are a helpful, knowledgeable bunch, but in this case, all I got was references to a fascinating episode of The American Life.

But one reader in particular sent me a note that inspired me to write this blog.

Hey, Science Mike. My name's Stefan. I tweeted to you earlier about the idea "crowdsourcing" help for the man who keeps his attraction to children in check. Something really got to me about that segment. It wasn't merely the horrifying scenario of the afflicted man. It was rather the obvious pain in your voice at receiving the question and not feeling like you could help that particular individual. It hurt hearing you talk about it, because I hadn't heard that note of hopelessness in your voice before; as if it echoed the pain of him being abandoned to his nightmare by everyone in his life; possibly coupled with the guilt over the involuntary disdain for someone with his described predilections.

I think everyone who listened to that segment could feel the same thing.

It strikes me how deeply christian the themes of this particular dilemma are. It parallels the whole drive to want to be able to lend "grace to the tarnished"; it mirrors the example of Jesus healing the lepers - i.e. the deeply unfortunate, and universally reviled and shunned.

Apart from praying for the individual, I suspect that taking the opportunity to show this person that there are potentially thousands of compassionate listeners of your podcast that are deeply concerned with his wellbeing; and in fact that there are a lot of people that admire his struggle, and specifically the nobility of his restraint, could in and of itself be a salve to this wounded individual. If there ever was a salient description of hell; that man is definitely experiencing it.

Think of what it would mean to a person like that, (and probably thousands with similar stories), to know that not only is he being prayed for, but that he, in a quite real and christian sense, is LOVED. Imagine the fortitude it must take to withstand this undeniable darkness that was essentially put into him: Leprosy of the Soul, or the closest non-supernatural equivalent of "demonic possession".

Just imagine how much a person like that, especially if he's nominally christian, would experience the knowledge that he actually can be loved. That his struggle isn't just a shameful one, but one that many people could actually find in their hearts to ADMIRE him for. There is True Grace in that. There is healing power in grace; it is a bulwark, a buoy.

There is truly a ministry in this; in following the example of Christ, granting grace to the leper, the "unclean". There is beauty and light to be wrested from even such horrible, unfathomable circumstances as this. It is christian in the deepest possible sense.

And, if this in the end turns out to be some kind of dishonest troll, it doesn't actually matter. These people exist. Their souls are wracked with pain. There are probably hundreds, if not thousands of people like this; pedophiles that somehow keep true evil, true darkness, in check. And they do it alone, all the time living with the nightmare, and the deep, deep shame, and intimate knowledge and conviction that they are Unclean; that they are "spiritual lepers" that no one even wants to see, much less help, and to an even lesser extent, love.

They can be anonymous. But they don't have to be "alone".

He doesn't have to be alone.


/Stefan (@Qirronis)

In an average month, my blog is read by 10 times as many people than follow me on Twitter. So, I'm asking you, yes you, to help. If you know of any support groups or treatment options for people who wrestle with demons the rest of us can only image to leave it in a comment below this post. Likewise, if you can offer a word of encouragement or grace to those people who are attracted to children, but resist that attraction because they understand the consequences of such actions, please do so.

This isn't a hypothetical exercise. Real people struggling with this will read this post. Any help you can provide may not only help someone, but in doing so may protect a child, too.

My website is a safe place for people whose beliefs about God are changing. Many are recovering from spiritual abuse or trauma. Please remain civil and kind in the comments section at all times.

As You Love Yourself

I've got this incredibly talented friend. She writes music, and sings like an angel. She paints, and has really flawless taste. She's kind, compassionate, and thoughtful. She's breathtakingly beautiful. She's incredibly gifted. And she has very little sense of self worth.

How can this be?

This is a pattern I've seen in so many quality people. It's as if their eyes are blind to what makes them special. They often struggle with low self-esteem, and are genuinely incredulous when people say kind things about them or their work.

I know successful business people who feel like frauds and best selling authors who only believe the tweets that mock their ideas. I know musicians who question their talents, but believe their harshest critics–even though they sell enough records to make a living.

How can this be?

What do you think about yourself? Do you like you? Would you want to be your friend if you were someone else? What do you think about your body? How do you feel when you see pictures or videos of yourself? Or when you hear a recording of your voice?

How do you feel when you stand before a mirror, naked and exposed?

I think most people don't like themselves very much, and as a result are unkind to themselves in a way they would never be to another person. I hear this voice anytime someone expresses disgust at a photograph of their own face, or revulsion at the sound of their voice. I've noticed people use the word "hate" most often toward themselves.

This self-hate comes from a couple of wells, both deep and powerful.

The first is shame from the past. Every time we shared some part of our personality or creativity as a child and were ignored, rebuffed, or rejected it left a mark. When a parent didn't pay attention, or a class mate mocked, our brains store that experience as trauma.

We developed as a social species, and our brains spend considerable energy constantly estimating our social standing. We want to present our best self to others so we have the best possible social standing. This helps us secure a place in our community (we once called them tribes) and secure the best possible mate (our DNA really wants to link up with another set of DNA to replicate).

The second is fear of pride. Religions tend to link shame with sin–it's a powerful way to create an emotional response. Religions also tend to minimize ego, often for good reason, but this can go too far. We can become terrified of being prideful to the point that we obsessively check our motives, and preemptively pull the sprouts of self-worth from our hearts. We value humility.

But humility isn't thinking less of yourself. Humility is thinking of yourself less. Ironically, constantly worrying about pride is anything but humble–it's an obsession with self.

Here's the deal: some of you was a gift, a set of propensities and predispositions that emerged from the unique genetic and epigenetic information that created a template for you, as well as the environment that shaped you. But the you that looks back in a mirror is also the product of thousands of choices you made, like what to eat, or how to respond to the telemarketer that got you up from dinner.

You are in a constant state of reinvention, an unstable equilibrium between nature and nurture. Your template plus your choices creates all kinds of advantages and disadvantages. Maybe you are tall, but shy. Or very short with an incredible singing voice. Whatever you are, you have amazing strengths and weaknesses. And both are vital parts of who you are.

Our shame makes us pretend we don't have weaknesses, to ourselves and to others. Pretending you don't have weaknesses leads to arrogance and false bravado.

Our quest for humility makes us pretend we don't have strengths–to be ashamed of what we do well. Pretending you don't have strengths leads to low self-worth, and doesn't actually help us be humble.

Here's how this works in practice: I'm a great public speaker–I can dazzle a crowd with words. I write well. I'm a good husband and father. I'm an empathetic, affectionate friend. I work hard. I am a man with many strengths.

I'm really absent minded and forgetful–I lock myself out of my house all the time and I can go months without remembering to call friends I care about. I've got a flabby belly. When I'm tired or excited, I mumble or mess up the tenses of words. I have absolutely no ability to resist hot pizza. I am a man with many weaknesses.

Some reading my strengths may be shocked at my bravado to admit those things, but that's their own shame talking. I'm grateful for my strengths, but I know they aren't something I made. But, I have worked hard to grow and develop those strengths over my life. Saying those things doesn't make my chest swell, or make me feel superior to anyone else. They are just parts of me.

Others will read my weaknesses and think I don't like myself–that I'm ashamed, but again, that's their shame talking. My weaknesses are also things that I didn't create, and in some cases I've nurtured them just as much as my strengths. They are just as much a part of me as my strengths, and in some cases they are even a result of my strengths.

I'm absented minded because I have a phenomenal gift for mental focus. I forget the keys because I'm contemplating the implications of modern Cosmology on our ideas about God and how that can help other people. Part of why I'm an interesting speaker is the unique, quirky pattern of my speech.

You see, embracing both your strengths and weaknesses leads to health, grace, and humility. I am self aware, but I don't think about myself nearly as much as I did when I was obsessed with humility. I am who I am, and I can change who I am over time.

This awareness and acceptance is key. It is the beginning of the abundant life Jesus spoke about and the renewed mind Paul wrote about.

You are strong, and you are weak. Both are beautiful. Accept it. Love yourself.

You'll never be able to truly love your neighbor until you do.

My website is a safe place for people whose beliefs about God are changing. Many are recovering from spiritual abuse or trauma. Please remain civil and kind in the comments section at all times.

Book Review - Searching for Sunday


The Church is dying, and you know that because every pulpit, Christian blog, skeptic's website, and news media in America delivers that message like a skipping record. The church is tearing itself apart over the authority of science, patterns of abuse, and the "gay issue." Mention any of these issues on Facebook, and dozens of people will be happy to tell you what "Jesus really meant," or why "religion is harmful and headed for extinction."

Rachel Held Evans dives head first into these waters in her latest book, Searching for Sunday. I should mention that this is no unbiased review–I'm both a fan of Rachel's work and fond of her as a human being. This is a vital book: a vision for a church that rises to face this era, and it's by far the most powerful writing that Rachel has done. That's saying something, as Rachel's skill with prose is something I envy almost every day.

Rachel's voice is often associated with two very different streams in the world of Christianity: Evangelical and Progressive. For many Evangelicals, Rachel is often a thorn in their side, a voice shouting over the fray that undercuts some uncomfortable issues. For this same reason, she's a rally point for Progressives. Rachel gives a lot of disenfranchised people hope.

And yet, I've seen scores of my conservative, evangelical friends express interest in Searching for Sunday. That attention is well deserved because Searching for Sunday is a beautifully written, much needed work for a Church in the middle of Civil War. It's a reminder of what following Jesus together can look like. It's a thoughtful examination of how an entire generation of people longs for Jesus, but have trouble with His Church.

Centered around seven sacraments, Searching for Sunday tells stories from different traditions within Christianity, along with Rachel's journey from her Evangelical roots, to a small church plant, and finally an embrace of the mainline Church. Most encouraging is the way Rachel incorporates the presence of all these movements into her faith.

Don't expect to find the tenets of the One True Christianity here. Instead, you'll find the story of a large, half-dysfunctional family made up of Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Orthodox, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, Emergents, and I-Just-Can't-Do-This-Anymore people who are all obsessed with Jesus Christ. I mean that literally, Rachel describes the church as a family living in a house together, and it's a beautiful metaphor for how denominations are a gift as much as a curse.

I used my camera phone to take note of the passages I wanted to highlight when I wrote a review of Searching for Sunday. I took over 40 pictures, mainly when I found myself laughing or weeping. I'm a big hearted guy, but that's an uncommon level of emotional engagement even for me.

Chapter 10, What We Have Done, is stunning in its power as it describes both the ancient and modern atrocities of our faith, as well as the saints who stood for justice and peace.

That's because Rachel never casts anyone as the hero or the villain. She spends plenty of time mourning with those who mourn, but she doesn't point the finger at anyone. Rachel highlights our shared brokenness and our shared hope. She talks about doubt, and the infuriating ways that Christians "help" the doubting.

In one story, Rachel is teaching at a youth retreat, while unsure what she believes. At the climax of the event, she's asked to be one of the communion servers. Rachel writes this about the experience:

“As I stood at the front of the rustic camp meeting room, holding a loaf of bread in one hand and tearing off a piece at a time with the other, hundreds of people approached, one at a time, with their hands held out, ready to receive.

'This is Christ's body, broken for you,' I said.

I said it over and over again, to each person who came to the table–to the back-row boys who avoided my gaze, to the girls whose mascara rivered down their cheeks, to the kids who giggle in line with their friends, to the ones who came all alone.

This is Christ's body, broken for you.

Rachel goes on to describe the transformative experience of serving communion for the broken from a place of brokenness and the insights she gained from the experience. So often we search for answers to life's most difficult questions in ideas and beliefs, but the Gospel only takes on life in flesh and blood. When our questions turn into actions that meaning is found, and Rachel illustrates that beautifully in Searching for Sunday.

So what of a dying church, tearing itself apart? This was the most powerful message of Searching for Sunday. Empires fear death, but the Church is in the resurrection business. Christianity has died over and over throughout history, and each time it's been resurrected with a new voice and a new body that speaks to a new time.

Perhaps it's time to stop lamenting this death, and instead become a part of new life. As Rachel says in a chapter titled Easter Doubt, “And sometimes, just showing up, burial spice in hand, is all it takes to witness a miracle.”

Searching for Sunday will be available everywhere on April 14, but you can preorder it now.

My website is a safe place for people whose beliefs about God are changing. Many are recovering from spiritual abuse or trauma. Please remain civil and kind in the comments section at all times.