Thursday, August 21, 2014
The Language of Love
I am not an expert on language or how language is learned. I do know I learned to speak English when I was very young though I don’t remember learning English. I just found myself able to speak.
I’ve heard it said we learn a lot before we learn a language. We sense and feel from our earliest moments of life, even prenatally. We gain impressions of the world and how the world is; whether it is safe, or scary, fun or difficult, interesting or troublesome. Love is an important part of our early days. Feeling loved and feeling safe allows us to explore and learn.
A reporter in the town where I grew up investigated my father, Fred W. Phelps, Sr. and in the process he spoke with some adults who knew my father around the time I was born. They told this reporter that my father had slapped me with his open hand, and cuffed me with the back of his hand because I was squirming during the church service. I was nine months old. These adults spoke to my father about this but he was unwilling to listen. As I ponder this now from the vantage point of being both an adult and a father myself, this practice on my father’s part seems both cruel and having no useful purpose in a child’s life. But at the time as an infant of course I had no filter or mechanism to help me understand how to view my father’s actions.
My first memory was around the age of five. I have no memories I am able to call to mind prior to this. This first memory was of my father beating me because I was scared and crying; because I could not find my mother. As I ponder this from an adult vantage point I realize I was being beaten for having and expressing the normal emotions of a child. Sadly my first memory was not of happy cooing sounds on the part of a parent, or an interaction with a sibling playing, or a time in a crib looking at a mobile, or playing in the dirt in the backyard building things. My first memory was of being beaten by my father. Studies done since I was a small child speak to the issue of changes in the brain that happen due to abuse while growing up.
“Babies' brains grow and develop as they interact with their environment and learn how to function within it. When babies' cries bring food or comfort, they are strengthening the neuronal pathways that help them learn how to get their needs met, both physically and emotionally. But babies who do not get responses to their cries, and babies whose cries are met with abuse, learn different lessons. The neuronal pathways that are developed and strengthened under negative conditions prepare children to cope in that negative environment, and their ability to respond to nurturing and kindness may be impaired (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). “
“Babies and children who suffer abuse may also experience trauma that is unrelated to direct physical damage. Exposure to domestic violence, disaster, or other traumatic events can have long-lasting effects. An enormous body of research now exists that provides evidence for the long-term damage of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse on babies and children. We know that children who experience the stress of abuse will focus their brains' resources on survival and responding to threats in their environment. This chronic stimulation of the brain's fear response means that the regions of the brain involved in this response are frequently activated (Perry, 2001a). Other regions of the brain, such as those involved in complex thought and abstract cognition, are less frequently activated, and the child becomes less competent at processing this type of information.
“One of the ways early maltreatment experiences may alter a child's ability to interact positively with others is by altering brain neurochemical balance. Research on children who suffered early emotional abuse or severe deprivation indicates that such maltreatment may permanently alter the brain's ability to use serotonin, which helps produce feelings of well-being and emotional stability (Healy, 2004).
“Altered brain development in children who have been maltreated may be the result of their brains adapting to their negative environment. If a child lives in a threatening, chaotic world, the child's brain may be hyper-alert for danger because survival may depend on it. But if this environment persists, and the child's brain is focused on developing and strengthening its strategies for survival, other strategies may not develop as fully. The result may be a child who has difficulty functioning when presented with a world of kindness, nurturing, and stimulation.”
As I have looked back over my childhood development and into my 20s and even 30s I believe this article speaks precisely to some of the stages of late adolescent and early adult milestones I struggled with.
For years I thought the way my father was behaving as a parent was normal. Because our family did not interact with other families and I was not allowed to have normal friendships as other children do, I didn’t initially have a basis for comparison. I simply learned to live with what my father was doing in our family by beating his children for a variety of our childish infractions, throwing violent rages, beating my mother and breaking and throwing things. As I got older, and began to notice behaviors of normally functioning families around me I began to question my father’s behavior, and eventually I mustered the courage to get away from him.
My father was the preacher of his own church and he taught me what I know about God, most of which I found out later was not true. Because young children are easily able to believe their parent is a lot like God, when I discovered that my dad was not able to love me or be kind or nurturing to me it was very easy for me to believe the same, and even worse, about God.
You might imagine it is hard to change your beliefs about God when they are forged in the midst of violence and terror, before you have even learned to speak a language. While this is true let me assure you it is by no means impossible to see powerful, life giving change as you begin to heal. The healing I have experienced has completely changed my understanding of God and of people and I now live with a freedom and a peace I would never have dreamed in my early years.
As the Lord was working in my heart, I began to realize some important things about how a father should and should not behave. Coming up with this list about a good father took about four years of therapy that the Lord was right at the center of. It may look like a simple list, but each item on it was forged through a process of tearing down lies in my mind and heart and replacing those lies with life giving truth. The process was often extremely painful but at each step of the way a small part of the burden was lifted from my heart. And each step I took, with the Lord right there with me, was critical to my being the man I am today who is filled with strength and peace.
A good father:
-does not attempt to psychologically “break” his children
-does seek to build up and nourish the hearts and minds of his children
-does not exploit his children’s weaknesses
-does understand the weaknesses of his children
-does draw his children closer to himself to support and love them when they feel vulnerable
-does not react with jealousy in response to his wife’s love for their children
-does teach his children how to love themselves
-does love his children unconditionally
-does protect his children
-does seek to build courage into his children’s hearts
-does demonstrate God’s love by the way he loves his children
-does show patience toward his children as they grow and learn
-does encourage and foster learning and growth in his children
-does not behave selfishly
-does not crush the spirits of his children
-does not mock the normal human needs of his children
-does not violently rage at his children
-does not brutally beat his children’s mother (his wife)
-does lavish love and affection upon his children
-does not savagely beat his children with oak mattock handles, fists, knees to their mid sections, and does not twist their arms behind their backs and spit in their faces
-does not treat his children hatefully
-does not abuse his children emotionally
-does not treat his children harshly
-does not scream and curse at his children
-does not leave his children to themselves 99.9 percent of the time
-does not use his children to provide for his own financial needs
-does not forbid his children to have friends
-does not use his children to provide for his own emotional needs
-does not act cruelly toward his children
-does not continually judge and condemn his children
-does not try to remake himself in his children
-does not try to live his own life through his children
-does not slap his children across the face for crying when they are tiny infants
-does not confine (imprison) and starve his children
-does not become his children’s primary fear in life
-does not refuse his children involvement in social and sports activities
-does not expose his children to the dangers of the outside world for his own profit
-does demonstrate love for his children by spending time with them
-does delight in his children
-does share daily in the lives of his children
-does not teach his children to hate all the people of the world
-does not teach his children to be cruel and mean and nasty and judgmental
-does not tell his children that all of his hatefulness and cruelty and harshness . . . is love
That last item on the list is one that really gets to me. My father intentionally tried to misinterpret language itself to us by calling what he was doing love. There is a verse in the Old Testament that says “Woe to them who call evil good and good evil; who put darkness for light and light for darkness.” Isaiah 5:20. That verse encapsulates what my father did in my life. He told me things that were evil, the things he was doing, were good. And they were most assuredly not! He took even the word love itself, and what should have been my understanding of its beautiful connotations and blessings, and twisted it in the heart of his little boy. The language he taught me was not the language of love at all, but the language of hate.
When there has been a serious level of thought control used by perpetrators of violence on children, the process of healing requires a whole lot of unlearning the bad before you can ever go on to the next step of learning the good. I had to learn what love is NOT in order to finally learn what true love is. I did this by intentionally facing the feelings that were deep in the core of my soul; which were forged deep within me from the earliest hours of my life; the hate and harshness and cruelty and meanness of my father.
During therapy I allowed myself to feel my own broken heart; all the emotional poison and evil that were lodged in my heart. And I cried until I thought I would never stop crying. In doing so, under loving, professional supervision, love began to finally enter my heart. It wasn’t a flood initially but started out as a trickle. But day by day, moment by moment, I began to reconnect with my own heart and was able to see it open up; to myself, to others, and ultimately to God. That process blessed me then and blesses me every day. Being able to give and to receive and FEEL love is an amazing gift!
O Lord my God, I cried out to You, and You healed me. Psalm 30:2
You may have stories about the way you were harmed by perpetrators when you were young. Things that scarred you deeply and still impact the way you see life every day. If you have never told your story, or still need to tell it to begin to release the pain and the poison, please consider me someone who would like to listen.
You can privately message me.
Each step we take in the process of recovery, hard as it may seem, is one step closer to wholeness and healing. My heart goes with you in your journey.