When I first read the terms “deconstruction” and “reconstruction”, I was in the thick of what one might call an existential crisis. Up until this point “deconstruction” was something referring to food in swanky restaurants (A deconstructed cheesecake, for example. Basically it means a messy, smashed cheesecake with a garnish on top.) Suddenly I was hearing this word applied to faith, belief and the way one looks at life. At that time, I felt like my neatly packaged way of looking at the world was suddenly flying about in a million pieces like ticker tape. It was its own messy, smashed cheesecake and I didn’t know how to put it back together.
I don’t know how to write this series in a way that’s neat. Because deconstruction and reconstruction aren’t neat. But I sure hope its helpful. So here are my first four thoughts.
First thought: You’re going to be okay. Its scary as heck. But you’re going to be ok.
Deconstruction, in psychological terms, is a process of critical analysis. You could apply it to faith, relationships, identity, life, or even specific issues in news or media. You could even apply it to a prize fight. Where did it go right? Where did it go wrong? Etc. But the type I’m talking about here usually comes after a loss of some sort: loss of a friendship, a relationship, a faith, a community, etc. It causes you to look back on time and ask things like “What was I thinking? What do I think? Who am I now?” and in some cases, “How do I approach life?”
The process itself involves deconstructing your old ideas about who you are and what you believe (and reconstruction is the partner to this process: where you put those pieces all back together). Think about this like a thousand piece puzzle. Its lovely when the picture is all together and looking sharp, but when you are holding the pieces and you don’t know where to start – well gee. That’s daunting. And its messy as F. (F meaning foretold. You didn’t think I’d drop the F bomb, did you? Heh.)
For some people this process of deconstruction can be limited to one patch of their life. For others its all encompassing. I’ve read that for people leaving a controlling relationship or a high demand group, for example, it can involve high-anxiety and inability to think through things as simple as deciding where and how to open a bank account.
When I started this journey, I was happy with where my bank accounts where held, thank Heavens. But I was second guessing what the Bible really meant, who was God really, how should I raise my kids or approach faith, God, and contribution to society. I was wondering how I should redevelop a tribe for my husband, kids and I to live and thrive in. My experience of faith had informed everything: my friendships, how I interacted with family, career, finance, sleep, tv consumption, major life decisions – everything. All of a sudden it was blown to pieces. I felt like I my locus of control had been external. I didn’t know how to reach out, grab it and figure out how to possess it for myself. I didn’t even know whether I was allowed to. In some moments, I was rapt in the freedom of it all. At other times, I was almost crippled with fear.
Its been three years. And I want to say something to people who are just starting this journey – you are going to be ok. I’ll give you a spoiler here: I’m ok. In fact, I’m happier. My marriage is thriving, as are my friendships. I love my tribe, and my weekends are spent with people I just adore. We soak in the sunshine, watch our kids play, drink wine (on many if not all occasions) and we laugh a lot. I laugh a lot more than I used to. I still have struggles but they are well within the bounds of “normal.” How do you deal with 2 year olds? How do you squeeze in date night when you are so tired? Why do the weeds in my garden have to grow so freakin’ fast? That sort of thing.
If you’re just starting this journey, then it feels all-encompassing right now. It feels messy, and painful, and out of control. But it won’t feel that way forever. I’ve got friends who are 4, 5, 6 and even 15 years post-deconstruction. They are doing well. Life looks different but it looks good. You’re going to be okay. Just keep taking one step at a time.
Second thought: There’s grief, and no matter what you’ve heard about the five stages of grief – it isn’t linear. One moment you are in denial. The next you are angry. You think you’ve accepted it then you change your mind about that. That’s okay. Just roll with it.
Yes, you can grieve for faith, community, or relationships as deeply as you would grieve for a person. Why? Because if you are grieving for the loss of identity or a relationship, then its almost like you are grieving for the person you were before. Its okay. My husband and I used to try to fix each-other. If one of us was having an off day, we would try to talk each-other up and out of that funk. One would compensate for the other persons sadness or rumination with confidence and cheeriness. It was noble. But we have learned something over the years: its better to acknowledge those feelings of sadness and rumination, hug it out, and simply be there in the sadness. You don’t have to feel “up” all the time. You can’t. That’s life. But if you have someone beside you to simply share it, then cherish that. I’m so blessed that hubby was on this journey with me. The way we worked through our deconstruction/reconstruction was different, as was the timeline, but we were in it together. I’m so thankful for that.
Not everyone will go through this process with a partner. If you can’t, then find a friend, a support group, or a therapist. Better still, find all of the above. This is hard stuff. You’re going to make it. But its hard stuff.
Third thought: You probably need to know about limbic lag.
Fun fact: Your prefrontal cortex (which makes sense of the world) sometimes works on a different timeline to your limbic system (which is thought to govern emotions). So when it comes to matters like re-evaluating and re-building your life, if you are feeling like crap, it doesn’t have to mean anything more than that you’re feeling like crap. Acknowledge it. Don’t fight it. But don’t think you need to rethink everything because you are feeling like rubbish in that moment. It could simply be limbic lag – thoughts and feelings working on different schedules. Eventually they’ll line up a bit better. But in the midst of the crisis, they might not. And that’s okay.
Tomorrow will be another day. You don’t have to feel sad tomorrow if you felt sad today. But if you do that’s okay too. (Disclaimer: one or two days is okay, but if your low mood lasts much longer than that, see a doctor. Sometimes when we face upheavals in life, it can wear on our mental health. If you are suffering from ongoing low mood then it could be depression, which is a medical condition. Don’t muck around with that. Your life means too much. Yes, even if you feel like you’ve lost your sense of purpose and place right now. You are worth help. And help helps, you know.)
Now, I know that limbic lag is a bit of a pop-psych terminology to describe this phenomenon but its a helpful one based on how the different sections of the brain work. If you’ve gone on a big process of deconstruction, then your whole life might be put under the microscope of critical thought, and you might be grieving a lot while also talking and thinking through it all. If you are used to “following your gut” to know whether you are right or wrong, then this limbic lag could be confusing. You might wonder if you are wrong on something just because you don’t get that happy, peaceful feeling about it.
In this moment, I encourage you to sit with the feelings and know that sometimes you just feel bad. I’m about to use another pop-psych term (eeek!) but in these moments, self-care matters. So run that bath. Have that chocolate. Go for that walk (get dressed first if you’ve just had that bath! You’re welcome). Phone that friend. See that movie. Deconstruction can feel all encompassing, but you can take a few hours off your existential crisis to see Jason Momoa, er I mean Aquaman or whatever. Your existential crisis will still be there tomorrow, so you can give yourself permission to take a day off making sense of the world.
Fourth Thought: Deconstruction and reconstruction don’t have to be separate. You can do one as you do the other. They can also be positive and freeing, even if the circumstances that lead you there weren’t.
Look, how you face your crisis is your business. No one can tell you how to do it (apart from a good therapist, which EVERYONE needs. I swear. Emphasis on the word good though. A good one will guide you through it, give you the skills to do it, but never demand you do it their way or according to their values). But I found I had to approach deconstruction and reconstruction together, and in an ongoing fashion.
In the beginning, something would pop up almost every day. Its amazing how pervading your belief system can be. During the heavy deconstruction phase after I left a church, lost a community and had to reinvent it all, I was amazed at how much I had to rethink. But deconstruction and reconstruction ran together. Something would pop up, and I’d realise “I used to think this about a particular thing. What do I think now?” I’d then study, think, talk it through with people in my circle and arrive at what I now think. It was a constant process of taking one belief out of my box of beliefs, turning it over, thinking about it and deciding whether it was to be kept, discarded or reinvented.
You see, you can’t just discard a belief. You have to replace it with what you now think. It’s not just a matter of realising Santa doesn’t exist. Its a matter of realising he doesn’t exist, and he’s actually your parents waiting until after you go to bed and putting the presents bought with their hard-earned cash under the tree. Santa didn’t eat the cookie. Ruddolph didn’t eat the carrot. Dad ate the cookie and Mum put the carrot back in the crisper so it could be chopped up and put in with the roasting vegetables.
It sounds terribly orderly, doesn’t it? I wish it were. It was actually a lot less organised. Because one day it was church attendance and tithing, the next it was social justice, predestination, the afterlife and fear of Hell. Then back to tithing or whatever. It was haphazard and emotionally draining, sometimes intellectual, and other times deeply emotive. Sometimes it was easy to arrive at a new conclusion or retain the old one, and sometimes it was too hard to sort through in a day, a week or a month.
Three years on, I hope I keep deconstructing and reconstructing for the rest of my life. Now that I’m through the existential crisis and into a more authentic, congruent and peaceful way of living and expressing faith, I think its an altogether healthy thing to keep asking yourself important questions. Its hard in the beginning if you’ve been living life one way and then it all gets thrown up in the air. But its not always a negative thing or something undertaken in reaction to loss or upheaval.
I realise this blog post lacks my usual references and intellectual geek-speak. I felt like it deserved a bit more of a personal look. I hope it helps. If it doesn’t, then I hope you just hold on to two things: find a good therapist, and you’re going to be okay.
Life can get sunnier if you do the work.
Three years into a deconstruction/reconstruction journey that may come and go for the rest of my life, here’s what I know: I’m still me. I just like me more. I am more able to grow and evolve than I thought I was. I am stronger and more capable than I thought I was. I am still a Christian. God hasn’t changed, but my understanding of Him has and so the way I express that and love people has changed. There will always be things I grieve. Because grief doesn’t necessarily go away. You just grow a bigger life around it.
And you can, you will, grow a bigger life around it.
Good luck. Stay tuned next week when I talk about…something relevant.