In 2004, the first single of Ashlee Simpson’s debut album “Autobiography” was released, called “Pieces of Me.” The song ended up being a Top 10 hit for an album that went triple-platinum, the main controversy from the song not being its pop-rock message about finding happiness in a relationship with a decent person, but the fact that the singer lip-synched her performance on Saturday Night Live, which caused her considerable embarrassment. “Pieces Of Me” also served, more to the point, as the title track to the sixth studio album by nine-time Grammy nominated R&B singer Ledisi, where the singer discusses the fact that she is full of layers that many other people do not know. Intriguingly, the cover to the album shows the singer as a puzzle picture with some of the pieces not added, which is also worthy of interest. The song was a top 20 R&B hit and received a Grammy nomination, but it did not win. Either way, we see that there are at least two cases where the idea of people being made up of pieces that can be put together is one that has achieved some notable popularity in music in the last ten to fifteen years.
When we turn our attention towards the Psalms, we face a more complicated picture than would appear to be the case if we are simply looking at the psalms as examples of song lyrics for private devotions, or for public performance at church services. Almost all psalms, regardless of the dark nature of their reflection, end happily. A typical example is Psalm 22, best known for its citation by Jesus Christ during his crucifixion, when he cried out, in Aramaic (see Matthew 27:46), the opening line of the psalm. Psalm 22:1 begins as gloomy and downcast as possible: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, and from the words of My groaning?” When considering that these words were uttered as Jesus Christ faced the abandonment of His father as He bore upon his broken body the burden of humanity’s sins, they are among the most depressing words in all of scripture. Even so, though, this verse ends on an upbeat note because the crucifixion is not the end of the story. Psalm 22 ends in verses 29 through 31 with a tone of optimism: “All the prosperous of the earth shall eat and worship; all those who go down to the dust shall bow before Him, even he who cannot keep himself alive. A posterity shall serve Him. It will be recounted of the Lord to the next generation, they will come and declare His righteousness to a people who will be born, that He has done this.” And so His righteousness has been proclaimed to generation after generation, reminded that if we are free from the burden of sin it is not because of our own goodness but because Jesus Christ has died in our place and paid the wages of death that we all deserve.
I said that almost all psalms ended on an upbeat note, in reminder of what God has done for us. That is not true of all psalms though. By the time I was ten or eleven years of age, I had marked in my Bible the location of Psalm 88, which offers no note of hope or encouragement at all in its despondence . In comparison to the optimistic ending of Psalm 22, Psalm 88 ends as follows, in verses 13 through 18: “But to You I have cried out, O Lord, and in the morning my prayer comes before You. Lord, why do You cast off my soul? Why do You hide Your face from me? I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth; I suffer Your terrors; I am distraught. Your fierce wrath has gone over me; Your terrors have cut me off. They came around me all day long like water; they engulfed me altogether. Loved one and friend You have put far from me, and my acquaintances into darkness.” There is no question that Psalm 88 is a psalm of utter desperation, and it is little wonder that it concerned my family that I was drawn to this song from my youth, for this is not the sort of psalm one wants to relate to particularly strongly.
Yet even if people do not handle grief and mourning and despondency very well, this psalm is in the Bible for a reason, specifically because God does accept this sort of prayer and does not hold it against a believer. This prayer is a reminder to those who feel abandoned by God that the incense of their prayers, even their prayers of bitter grief and sorrow, are heard and will (eventually) be answered, whether in this life or in the world to come. Although the psalm itself begins and ends in grief, its presence in the Bible is a recognition that such a prayer does not put oneself out of the congregation of brethren, that it does not mean one has been abandoned by God in the darkness and in the depths. The hand of God may be heavy on us, and we may feel cut off from those around us, but where we are is not where we will always be. This too is a piece of a larger picture, a reminder of the full scope of what believers sometimes must undergo, a reminder that sometimes there are no easy answers, and sometimes one waits years and years, perhaps one’s entire life, for the promised comfort and deliverance by God. God knows what He is about, even if we do not, and we have not yet come to the end of the story that is being written , even if it contains a great deal of sadness.
When I think of the pieces of me that I examine most intently in the puzzle of my life, the pieces I ponder over with the greatest degree of scrutiny, even more than my own memories, are the accounts I receive from others. If my own memories are colored by my own biases and perspective, the memories I have of what others have told me are doubly unreliable, given that they are not only mediated through my own memory but upon the memory of others. Yet, given that my own history of child abuse occurred during the first three years of my life, my own memory simply does not have access to all of the relevant pieces, and so as unreliable as the accounts of others are, as colored by their own lack of observation, and their own desire for self-justification or other motives, at times such accounts are necessary to fully understand the damage that has been done in my own life and that of those around me, and so with some hesitance I have three such puzzle pieces to remark upon now.
At least according to what I have been able to uncover from stories from family, the first prayer that was ever offered on my behalf before the congregation where I spent the first three years of my life before my parents separated was asked when I was two years of age. The prayer request, at least as far as I remember it being recounted to me, was a request that God heal some damage in my sphincter to allow potty training to take place. I am not sure it was stated as baldly as that, as it is a rather shocking sort of request to make when one stops to think about it. I wonder how those around me—whether family members, the congregational ministry, or the brethren at large–expected a somewhat timid toddler such as myself, who seldom left the narrow confines of home and family farm, to have acquired injuries to such an extent that prayers of such a delicate nature would be necessary. Perhaps in those dark days no one wanted to ask the obvious questions or investigate something that was clearly troubling, and I wonder what sort of incidents would have occurred to prompt such a concern to make a prayer, but not enough concern to figure out what was actually going on. After all, as a friend of mine has pointed out, every child struggles with potty training, so the damage must have been very severe to have led to a call for divine intervention. Even to this day I can feel the physical damages, and live with the knowledge that at times in this life some wounds are beyond easy healing, even if they are not beyond coping with.
As a preteen, when I still lived just outside of Plant City, my maternal grandfather adopted a pet dog he named Muffin . For the first week or so after the dog came into my grandparents’ house, the dog was completely silent, and so we speculated that the dog was part basenji because of its quiet nature. As we prepared to eat dinner before the Sabbath, though, we heard the dog make some timid and tentative barks, and once the mutt realized that she wasn’t going to be hit for making noises, she ended up being a very loud and vocal dog, making noises frequently, barking at anything that approached the boundaries of my grandparents’ place, any car that drove by, and was perhaps among the most noisiest animals I have ever seen. I mention this because one time during my youth my grandfather made a rather off-handed comment that I too was a quiet child when my family first moved to Florida, but that once I started talking I never shut up. Given that I am a very chatty person, except when I am trying to read or write in quiet and peace, or when I am lost in often unpleasant mental reverie, hoping for someone to break the awkward silence, I can only imagine the level of terror I must have felt as a small child to have been so quiet, which is so contrary to my nature as a particularly extroverted person. And yet my initial silence as a small child of three years old, already no stranger to the trauma of physical and sexual abuse as well as the experience of being ripped away suddenly from home and placed in an unfamiliar environment is another puzzle piece, a reminder of the somewhat drastic relocations that have sometimes been my lot in life, and of the fact that first impressions are not nearly enough to understand what is going on.
At about the age of four something happened that drastically shaped the course of my own life, and that of at least one other person, as the reality of my abuse became painfully obvious to my family. I do not remember the incident myself, but have heard it recorded from those who must have heard it from third parties, and also from people who expressed it in ways that are clearly phrasing the matter delicate. Since I do not remember it myself, nor have the precise details of it been told to me as of yet, I will phrase it as I have heard it. While our family was spending the time with friends who lived nearby and who went to a neighboring congregation, I apparently acted in ways that demonstrated age-inappropriate sexual understanding with a girl about a year younger than me. At this point, it was clear to my family that something very wrong had happened, and so it must have been something serious, and from that time I was placed in some sort of play therapy that lasted for two or three years. I do not remember the therapy particularly well—I do have some memories of going to the Panos Center and engaging in playing with toys or drawing pictures, albeit badly, as I have never been very good at drawing, or talking, and I do know that my mother worked at that particular place after my brother started kindergarten before the private psychiatric hospital went out of business, but I have never seen the records of my lengthy therapy there, or what all was discussed or understood. I knew that I was an odd child, and that I had done something wrong that I did not understand, something that has happened all too often in life, but at the same time I remember the Panos Center itself as being a safe and relaxing and peaceful place, perhaps the only time in any sort of psychiatric treatment where I have ever felt calm and at peace, as those are not particularly common experiences in my life in general—with the notable exception of baptism, at least while I was under the water, and a few other such moments that I can recall.
Yet what I reflect upon the most about that incident is the horror I felt at having done harm, even unintentionally and unknowingly, to an innocent and beautiful little girl who was a close friend of mine. Obviously, as a four year old I was not fully aware of what I was doing, but all the same the response of my family must have been deeply frightening, as to this day whenever I think that someone views me as being the sort of person who would abuse or harm or take advantage of anyone else I am filled with an unspeakable horror and loathing at even the thought that such could be considered possible of me. When one knows, even on a vague and intuitive level, that one is broken and troublesome, the obvious solution is to seek to keep that trouble and darkness and brokenness from spreading to others if it is at all possible. And yet there is a tension, and an apparent contradiction, in the task that is faced. For on the one hand one must engage in very strict control over one’s behavior, given the ease at which acting casually or without thought could create immense personal difficulty, while on the other hand such darkness and evil as is experienced by someone who has faced incest and rape and physical and sexual abuse as an infant and toddler is far too much to be kept inside, and it is far too tempting to self-medicate so that the horrors of that wickedness and evil do not continually intrude into mind. And so I write, knowing that the words that come out of my mouth or pen or keyboard are all too easy to misunderstand and misread, yet knowing that if I am to feel safe, and if I am to keep others safe, those people who may simply find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, that some such communication is necessary, not because I am rotten and despicable, but rather because some disaster has happened and it is not clear how that disaster can be contained and overcome. And so I write out the pieces of me, seeking those who will read and understand in the knowledge that I have chosen to face the disaster and darkness of my life with an unclouded mind, in the hope that strength and encouragement may come from another place that I can bear the weight that has been placed on my shoulders as bravely as possible, however long it shall be my burden to bear.
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