Clean House, Hold Steady

By Allison Backous

When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none. Then he says, “I will return to my house from which I came.” And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first.

—Matthew 12: 43-45

As a Christmas gift, I took Jeremy to an indoor rock climbing facility in Grand Rapids. We rented climbing shoes and chalk bags, slid our legs through the safety belt straps, and listened to our climbing guide, a short, wiry woman in black fleece and glasses.

“This is a sport, and you’ve got to practice it to get good at it,” she said, tightening the lock on a clamp. “Now Allison, I’m going to show you how to belay. You’ll be responsible for helping Jeremy if he falls.”

In a series of swift movements, our instructor tried to show me how to be Jeremy’s anchor as he climbed—keep the rope taut, she said. Don’t let go of the rope. Pull it to the right if he falls; this will hold him in place. Yank the carabiner’s pulley lock back to loosen the slack. Don’t let go of the rope.

I listened diligently, letting the instructor correct my form over and over again. But I could barely control my gasps. The rope burned against my hands. “Don’t let go!” the fleeced woman barked. “Keep it steady!”

Jeremy compensated by pushing himself up the wall, his fingers replacing me as anchor, nimble and assured and strong. But when I tried to climb the wall, I almost blacked out, my body banging against the wall’s neon yellow hand grips, the faux rocks digging into my side.

When I bought the climbing passes, I told myself that rock climbing would be fantastic—I imagined that I would conquer a fear of heights, or at least, laugh at my attempts to do so, learning some new lesson about limits, humility, and grace.

But there was little laughter in this lesson for me. The panicked feeling didn’t leave for the whole three hours, young boys darting around me to hurl themselves against the mats in the bouldering rooms.

What became clear to me, in my utter physical panic, was weakness itself: weakness of my arms, my flesh, weakness born of me alone.

For so long, I’ve seen my weaknesses as products of my childhood—if I am anxious, it is because of how I grew up, what my mother and father did and did not do. If I am angry, it is because I learned poor habits of dealing with anger. If I am selfish, it is because much was demanded of me as a young girl, and I’ve had to learn how to claim any good thing for myself.

And, if all else fails, I can always go back to the source: this is how my mother dealt with her own faults, chalking them up to a family inheritance of guilt and sin. It got her off the hook. Why not me?

I’ve spent my twenties seeing myself as a victim, a nerve rubbed raw by the years of my childhood and adolescence. I had to see myself this way. I was a victim. I had to piece through all that I had seen and known.

But at the beginning of this year, with the season of Epiphany upon us, I cannot help but see myself as I was on the ropes, trembling and petrified, no other source to tie my weakness to but myself. On the rock, the nerve exposed was myself alone.

Not my mother. Not my childhood. Me.

What brings me to this comparison is the fact that, in this year, I’ve seen that nerve of self bring serious hurt on the ones I love. I have paraded behind self-righteousness; I have been fickle to the point of despair. I have seen my apologies become winding pits of vindication. And the old reasons do little but rub the nerve a little more raw.

In these past few years, I’ve been cleaning house, kicking out the old spirits that bound me in such a frenetic inertia of emotion and expectation.

And now that I feel like things are getting set in order, now that I feel ready to lift my head and walk beyond what has marked me, it seems like the old fears have come looking for their old resting place, and that they’ve brought a few friends to join them.

Dangling on the rock, I see my heart exposed, pulsing to a hysterical rhythm, one that oscillates between a nihilistic self-blame and a grudge that seems to point my finger at everyone I love and trust.

I’m not denying that my childhood has long-lasting effects. And I’m not making a martyrdom of my failings. That would be just as simple as the victim mentality, to look at one cause as the ultimate answer.

For I can’t help but think that this is mercy, too, that I’m not being allowed to remain a victim. That both life and heart are being healed, even if that healing is apophatic, demanding an emptying of self that goes right to the bone.

This is part of what Epiphany proclaims, the work of Him who was baptized in the Jordan, flesh and bone brushing water, the kingdom come and still coming.

If climbing is a sport, then so is the walk we take into the life God gives us. The rope burns, and the stones are sharp. It feels too simple a word to say that God anchors us in the struggle, that we are held the whole time.

But maybe that’s what this self-emptying way requires—simplicity, trust, abandonment. No more yanking myself through my heart’s old rhythm.

More silence to help myself hold steady, and to not let go.

Note: This post was originally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.