Introduction: Fifteen Years Down the Hatch

I am saddened that my tongue cannot live up to my heart.

—St. Augustine
Gregory Spencer Part 1 of 4

My parents did a lot of things right. They taught me that I could not take credit for my circumstances—for my social class or color of skin or any particular God-given talent. They reminded me that “being funny,” no matter how good the joke, did not justify “being mean.” In his workshop, my dad showed me how to use power tools without slicing off my fingers (though one time I managed to push my thumb into the band saw). And my mom made me feel great by laughing at my high school escapades, one involving a stolen stop sign, pole and all. Though my parents didn’t say it, I knew they loved me.

But my parents also got drunk every night for fifteen years.

Increasingly, from my early adolescence through my early marriage, most of my parents’ off-the-job moments involved a beer or some bourbon in their hands. After living through years of glassy-eyed stupors, I couldn’t stand to be with them. Every moment in their chemically altered presence ate at me. If I made the mistake of coming home, and my mom saw me tiptoeing into the house with a buddy, she threw her arms around my friend and slurred how happy she was to see him. This did not go over well.

Our household was a mess. Moldy food reeked in the fridge or on the stove. While the TV blared at my parents in the den, the three of us kids fought through our meals alone in the kitchen.

“You are such an idiot.”

“You are an idiot plus ten.”

“Shut up. I should scream until Dad comes in.”

“As if he’d care.”

One Christmas Eve, my mom drank until she passed out on the living room floor. My dad staggered from wall to couch. Disgusted, I stormed out and, sobbing, drove slowly around a friend’s house until the mom saw my pleading face and let me in—just as they were opening their presents.

***

For years, when I talked about this period in my life, I said that though I knew my parents “deep down” loved me, they abandoned me through their drinking. They made life at home miserable and lonely. For the most part, I was on my own for money, advice, and finding whatever recognition I could. They did not coach me about college or check in about my life. They just weren’t “there” as parents for my siblings and me. What did exist at home was often painful. So, the painful truth was that they abandoned me.

Yet, slowly, over about twenty years, without denying the suffering I experienced, I began to talk about my parents in different terms. I reframed the situation. After dwelling in the knowledge of forgiveness, after coming more to terms with my own anger and sadness, I could eventually say that they were broken people who needed healing. Though the alcoholism was monstrous, they weren’t monsters. They were ordinary people who had made poor choices as they coped with the stresses of work, marriage, and children. My dad had seen terrible things in World War II. My mom did not know how to work through conflict. These circumstances didn’t excuse their bad behavior—but I realized that I have my bad behavior too, behavior that I consistently view through the lens of God’s grace. We are all wounded souls.

I had framed my story one way and then I reframed it another way. Was the first summary a lie and the second the truth? No, both ways of naming my experience were part of the whole. But until I could articulate the second version—I could not seem to live out its meaning. The first frame emphasized my victim status, what had been done to me. The second one underscored my parents’ wounded condition, something we shared. I began to see that we frame our story—we tell it with certain words that get us to see it in particular ways—and then our story frames us.

Whichever way I labeled my experience, I lived in the story I told. As a language-user, I’m bound to all the audacious capacities and frustrating limits of words. We label, we name, we frame all of our experiences, past, present, and future. We give words to our inner and outer worlds. In doing so, we construct a kind of home we carry with us.

“Carrying a home” might conjure up images of turtles lugging around their shells, their homes. But perhaps you could imagine not a turtle-shell-on-our-backs kind of home but a regular house we carry, an extension of our bodies that has walls and doors and windows. The idea is that we live in the “homes” we’ve made with our words, so we see only whatever the word-windows allow us to see. And that’s what we usually do: we look out from inside the frame, through the pane. I once saw my parents from inside the frame of “reckless deserters,” but now I see my parents’ brokenness because I am viewing them through the window of the word “broken.”

We are used to looking out through the windows to the world outside. This book refocuses our attention to the windows themselves, to the words we use. Sometimes we notice that the words we use need to be cleaned up or replaced. We realize that last night wasn’t “awesome”; it was “pretty ordinary.” Sometimes our “houses” need to be remodeled. A significant disappointment such as a death or a divorce might shake our faith to its very foundation. A surprising joy such as a pregnancy or a hike in a rain forest might awaken belief in a Creator.

I believe we all need to reframe our stories, at least parts of them, in order to heal, to discard lies, to move from partial truths to richer, fuller explanations, to see our lives as God sees them.

This kind of review is the purpose of Reframing the Soul: to walk through our houses and take a good long look at how they have been made—to examine how our word choice has influenced us and then to decide if we want to make any changes. Do we want to wash some windows, move some pictures around, or do some full-scale remodeling? To some degree, we are architects of our own houses. We decide which frames to use, where to put our windows, what words through which we’ll see our lives. There’s an art to our word choice. And that art can lead to the transformation of our faith.

A key question along the way is: When we frame our lives, what’s in the picture? Am I a failure or a work in progress? Is life a bowl of cherries or a rotten heap of stinky fruit? Is life a mystery story, a treacherous hike along cliffs, a dance choreographed by a loving God—or all of the above? How we speak—how we frame things—matters. We tend to think that life comes to us just the way it is, but life comes to us, not entirely but significantly, through the way we see it—and we see it as we label it in words.

The reframing of my parents’ behavior dramatically transformed my life. For my sake and theirs, I needed to see that my parents were not just parents but persons who, like all human beings, struggle and fail and need help. Until I could articulate these words, until I could imagine my parents more sympathetically because of these words, I struggled to change my relationship with them. Until I changed my habits of speech and spoke of my parents as potential recipients of forgiveness, I was not able to fully forgive them. And once I did forgive them, I began to connect with them more meaningfully and to look honestly at my own bitterness and lack of compassion.

As long as the main story line was their cause of my pain, my anger endlessly cycled through the same arguments and evidence against them. I was stuck in one vision of things, and getting unstuck took years. Among other habits and choices, I needed to stop talking about my suffering in the same blame-oriented way, to stop—as we all tend to do—looping through the same defensive story in my head. I needed to reframe. As I did so, I saw (more than I wanted to believe at the time) that the house I lived in was one I had built with accusing, self-protective words. I told myself over and over that I deserved pity, that my mom was an embarrassment, that my dad cared only for himself. The house that I framed with my words was a dirt-floored shack with thin walls, a rotten foundation, and holes in the roof.

I also moved toward reframing by listening to others’ forgiveness stories. Rhonda talked about forgiving her adulterous husband. Virginia forgave God for her son’s debilitating disease. New terms, new phrases gave me a richer, more nuanced view. I had never considered that my parents felt trapped in their behavior. Although they didn’t speak about what they felt, I could see that my mom laughed to cover her insecurities—and drinking helped her laugh. My dad wanted the social status of the cool crowd, the cocktail-consuming Rat Pack of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. “Everyone handed you a drink after work,” he said years later. “That’s just the way it was.” He couldn’t seem to muster the strength to resist.

Reframing helped my empathy.

All day long, all of us are framing and reframing our lives. We talk about the memory of our adorable but sexist grandpa. We label ourselves as movie critics or introverts or justice-lovers. We say that the future is full of doom and despair—or stocked with opportunities and adventure. Most of us sort out life well enough to keep moving along.

Then something happens—a car accident, a promotion, a cancer scare, an offer of marriage, a terrorist threat, a retirement party—and our world gets turned inside out. Our sense of order bursts with joy or unravels. Our words seem inadequate. They don’t say enough or they say too much.

When these kinds of events happen, if we slow down long enough to examine our speech, we may see cracks in our frames and begin to search for ways to reframe. One disruption might lead a person to say, “I thought I trusted God for the future, but my anxiety about my children is so faithless.” The way we describe reality matters because, as simple as it sounds, we cannot see through a window unless the window is there. We are stuck in the houses that our words construct. What if my windows are small and barred and leave me in a prison of prejudice? What if I realize that I can make my windows larger—to see more and appreciate the landscape before me? Specific language choices give us access to specific realities.

***

These possibilities raise questions. What happens when we change our habits of language? What work is involved in reframing? How hard is that work? What influences our framing and reframing? Does reframing mean that we just “make up” the truth or reality we want to live in? How can that be? Are some labels better than others? What do our names for things reveal about our basic, life-directing beliefs, about our desires for the good life? When we notice certain words that we consistently use, can we reframe and change the picture? What is the difference between mindless reframing and wise reframing?

These are the kinds of issues I address in this book—and I do so in part by telling dozens of reframing stories, based on extensive interviews with people whose “disruptions” range from a mother discovering her next baby will have Down syndrome to a student becoming physically paralyzed while doing a flip on a lawn. Though our disruptions might be as minor as yet more traffic on the freeway, we all work on how to tell our story.

To frame is to put a language boundary around our experience. It is to name what happens in particular ways, to say how we see the world, and to see the world how we say it is. Framing includes telling our personal story, the story of our times, the stories of the ways things are and should be. What do I say about being a good father or a bad son? How do I talk about the car my neighbor has or the prospect of declining health? We do our best to frame truthfully, faithfully, and lovingly—because we know the damage caused by interpreting the world falsely, cynically, and destructively.

But the goal is not to frame everything positively. This book is not about spinning things toward cheerful words. To recast from “I despise life” into “Let’s just be happy” is little more than simplistic propagandizing. Are we supposed to put a smiling face on terrorism or suicide or pandemics? Are we meant to “look on the sunnier side”—even when both sides are in a hurricane? As linguist George Lakoff puts it, spin and propaganda are used to “make the embarrassing occurrence sound normal or good, . . . to get the public to adopt a frame that is not true and is known not to be true.” Spin and propaganda are not the goals of good framing.

Framing well does not mean pretending to ignore the pain of a broken relationship or the tragic aftermath of an unexpected death in the family. Even the man called the Messiah wept. Jesus didn’t say, “Relax, everybody. I’m about to raise Lazarus from the dead” or “Let’s see some smiles out there! Don’t you believe in God?” Jesus didn’t talk just about things that felt good or sounded pleasant.

Though we see through a glass darkly, though our windows are smudged and damaged, if we care about the truth, we will strive for evocative and faithful words. This is a challenging task. In many cases, it is harder to frame well than to frame happily. But it is also crucial and honest and potentially transformative.

We all have our reframing stories, and we all have more reframing to do. For some time now, I’ve noticed how my spiritual development depends on it—because faith-work is often frame-work. Does my life have purpose before a living God or am I merely the product of my genetic code? Does it matter if I follow Jesus or walk alongside or trail far behind?

Reframing is especially relevant for what I call our four essentials of the soul: remembering the past, anticipating the future, dwelling within ourselves, or engaging with others. Although we function during our days as if these aspects just “are the way they are,” they are significantly informed by how we remember, ways we anticipate, the names we call ourselves, and the terms we use as we engage with others. How do I remember my adolescence, anticipate my retirement, dwell with my perfectionism, or engage with those who consistently annoy me? These practices are inescapable—and since we cannot avoid them, we would be wise to bring them into whatever light we can.

These four essentials speak to where we live: in the present between the past and the future, in the center between our inner and outer worlds. It’s the intersection of time and space. This is the life we are called to reframe well.

But first, a few words about words.1

 

The Beginning of the Road of Ice

Remember the time when we first knew?
On that sloppy, wide-eyed ride, the three of us

 

kids in the backseat, no seatbelts
to keep us tight and safe? We grabbed

 

the front seat, remember? Leaning in,
leaning hard, we held on as Dad jerked

 

the car this way and that, around one blind turn
and then blinder still on that snake-night road.

 

“Why are you driving so fast?!” we screamed.
“We can go faster in the dark,” he said,

 

“’cause you can see the other guy’s
headlights coming.” But the thing is,

 

we didn’t see it coming, this drive,
this beginning of the road of ice

 

and bourbon and night after night of near misses
and hits. Now we know—but, remember this too:

 

we didn’t crash that night. Though we’ve had our
accidents, our mangled frames and body work,

 

we made it home.
That’s what we did.
We made it home.

Footnotes
  1. For further reflection, I’ve included a poem of mine at the conclusion of each chapter. Sometimes the connection to the chapter will be obvious, and other times less so. In every case, I have provided some guidance by asking a related question in the “Discussion Questions” for every chapter, which are located at the back of the book. One tip: Read the poem aloud, slowly, and pause slightly at the end of each line.
The content is adapted from Gregory Spencer's Reframing the Soul: How Words Transform Our Faith. Copyright © 2018. Used by permission of Leafwood Publishers.
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