Discussing Disgust, the Problem of Roots, and Why We Keep Pushing Each Other Away
The Short Version:
Though we work hard to ignore it, we live in a constant state of Threat Alert. Our radars highly attuned to stuff that doesn’t belong or places where we feel unwelcome. The modern life of high speed and low connection activates a part of our brains built to expel danger, leaving us pent up with rejection we’ve got to dole out somewhere.
Enter Jesus. Ancient Israel had a centuries old practice that put all the old feels on the head of goat sent out on the Old Town Road. Appropriating this old practice, Jesus takes all our exclusionary ways into his embrace. Instead of expelling the unclean among us and within us, He takes our disgust for ourselves and each other, and turns it toward Himself, pulling the contempt out of us like infection from a wound.
This is a story about hydrangeas, cracked soda cans, a goat, a madman and a tree. And running through it is a story about us and Jesus.
The Full Monte:
Des Moines—the mini-metro in which I live—is overrun with incredible family-owned garden centers. Meccas of worship filled with every kind of flowering something, gorgeous trees, vines, shrubs and the friendliest staffs imaginable: an embarrassment of riches. It was at one of these glorious garden centers that one afternoon I decided to spring for the hydrangeas.
Into the ground they went. Surrounded by a healthy blend of 10-10-10 fertilizer, ground soil and manure, I was confident that these plants would be tractor-tire sized in no time. They would fall in love with their new fertile home. And then it rained. And rained. And rained. Hydrangeas need lots of drainage and I started to become concerned that the slightly clayish terrain that I had dug into to plant them would leave them sitting a bathtub of water, drowning the fragile roots in the exact thing necessary to keep them alive.
A hundred-degree sun came out in May and baked the ground so hard it steamed all that water up. I sighed relief. Surely an early appearance of summer sun would save the day. I went out for my daily garden survey and was horrorstruck: my hydrangeas hung like weeping willows, the leaves black on the edges, the threat of death seeping through.
Weeks went buy and the hydrangeas soldiered on the precipice. Their wilt wilted farther. Their leaves purpled deeper in. Back at the garden center, I showed the horticulturist photographic evidence of the slaughter.
“Hard to say why,” he responded with the usual Midwestern casualness. “Maybe they just don’t like where you put them.”
“Maybe,” I thought. But what a tragedy if it’s true. And what kind of fool was I to plant them where they didn’t belong?
ROOTS ARE FRAGILE THINGS
We are all in the midst of being replanted. One part of your old world has become too constrained, like a plastic starter pot holding your roots in. You long for deeper soil, but maybe a little worried that you, too, won’t take well to a new place.
I bought a new house, started a company, left a 15-year career, moved to a new city all within six months, so my life is full of replantings. I’ve tried hard to build up an immunity to the shock of new soil. New surroundings cause me physical disorientation, sometimes even manifesting itself as pain. “Listen to your sensitivity,” Sheryl, my spiritual director, says. Being replanted, I experienced this full force. I made concerted efforts to try to put some roots down into new soil. And sometimes, the soil didn’t feel great. Dizzying disorientation ensued. I bounced between the shame of “what kind of idiot plants himself here?” and the contempt of “what the hell is wrong with this place?” I wilted like wet lettuce. I wondered—attending to my sensitive heart—why can’t I get the perfect mix of rain, sun, and soil acidity that would make this a seamless transition for me?
But roots are fragile things, sensitive to the slightest shift in acidity, humidity and nutrition. All our sensitivity is there to attune us to the voice of God which is more like a whisper than a shout. God nudges not pushes. He woos not coerces. The Spirit’s wind will not shove across the sea, but it will quiet the unwelcome storm within.
I heard Sheryl’s voice in my head.
“Listen to your sensitivity.”
As I listened deeper than my wilted feelings of displacement, I noticed in the roots of me a story about exclusion and embrace.
We all experience a disorienting need for place. Our bodies, like the roots of a displaced plant, go to great lengths to reacclimate, renormalize. All the while, our subconscious minds deciding for us whether we are being accepted or rejected, whether we will accept or reject in kind.
We are ALL doing this ALL OF THE TIME. So those exact people who you so want to include you are likely very worried about you including them. “But I’m uncomfortable, where is there a place for me?” your heart cries. But every heart we come across is crying the same thing, all working very hard to not be heard.
Anne Lamott, in her famous TED talk, says it this way,
“Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared, even the people who seem to have it more or less together. They are much more like you than you would believe. So try not to compare your insides to their outsides.”
We are all on a marathon race to find embrace, a place of belonging which somehow affirms our deepest sense of ourselves while soothing the prickles radiating from our experiences of exclusion. Watch as debates rage over which group or another is more of an outsider and whose privilege is more privileged.* Despite the very real suffering being passed around, much of this fire is fueled by the longing for embrace and the jarring sense of exclusion we can’t seem to escape.
Feeling out-of-place triggers expansive feelings, pressurizing us from within. Placeless discomfort is like the carbonation in a dropped soda can, the slightest weakness in the exterior and stuff comes rushing out, dispelling at times the exact connection we so desperately need.
Our need to push-away is the product of an old mammalian defense system: disgust. Disgust is among the most powerful human emotions, hard-wired into the body to protect us from harm, to separate health from decay. Disgust acts as an infection-alarm, setting to war at the first sign of contamination. Culture points this alarm to foods, behaviors, feelings even people (sometimes ourselves). Feeling out-of-place, guilt and self-doubt can often ensue, armed-guards of disgust come to the frontlines to defend us from something… anything.
Without a healing place to manage our disorientation, disgust leads us to exclusion, pushing away anything and everything which makes life feel wrong, uncomfortable, or unfamiliar. We are all cracked-edge soda cans, spitting out our contents into the world. When we are pushing away the objects of exclusion, we feel justified. “Those people” are wrong. “This place” is bad. We build barriers to keep the “others” away.
The Biblical word for that wrongness we are trying to expel is “unclean” and an entire sacrificial and temple worship system in the Old Testament was built to solve for it. God was so clear that our sensitive roots would recoil and our soil would harden, that He built the Israelites a way to get the contaminant out, with as little harm to other people as possible.
The Book of Leviticus is usually the one that people stall out on in their annual read through the Bible plans. It’s full of seemingly arbitrary rules and structures for ritual worship in ancient Israel, a tough source for our need for modern application. But deep in the weeds of this liturgical grassland is eternal wisdom, trapped in an ancient form. In Leviticus 14, in the middle of instructions for the Day of Atonement is a weird little riff about a goat you dump your sins on and send out into the wild.
The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) was built to be the day when all of Israel would go to therapy. They would bring forward their sin, their doubt, anything that could cause the community harm, and bring them to church. Sounds awesome.
Through the liturgy of animal sacrifice they would burn up the chaos burn in a holy fire; its smoke consumed by the heavens. In the middle of this barbeque cookbook/liturgy is a goat that gets to live. The so-called “scapegoat” takes on the blame of the community and gets it out of town. Participants take their our dark feelings, their shame, their disgust on the body of another. The Israelites would send that goat loaded-up with an entire community’s hatred of self and others and send it out to the wilderness.
We’ve got to put our disgust somewhere. Sometimes it’s on ourselves (“Boy I suck.”); sometimes it’s on others (“Boy they suck.”) The practice of the scapegoat plays out in our culture and our lives every day.
Step 1: Change or conflict creates uncertainty and fear.
Step 2: Uncertainty requires a verdict; shame and blame ensue.
Step 3: Disgust builds up internal pressure.
Step 4: We exclude and separate in the hope of getting rid of the contamination.
Whether it’s the liberals, the gays, the Bible-beaters, the Republicans, the powerful, or the weak. Whether its our mother-in-law, our boss, our brother, the messy neighbors, or the worship leader who sings the wrong songs. We are putting people out of our circles like we put out the trash. Scapegoats exist because we need a place to put our darkest emotions and our disgust for the contamination they make us feel.
You can see it clearly in Mark 5. In a direct application of the scapegoat practice, Jesus meets a man in who has been put out of town carrying the demons of the city. He, like an animal, has been expelled for their collective crimes. When Jesus liberates the man, He doesn’t just put the demons into thin air, he puts them into pigs, the porcine scapegoats then throwing themselves into the sea.
Prior to the exorcism, the poor man had spent his days trying to stone himself on the rocks, cutting himself deep, wallowing in self-destruction. Others-centered disgust and self-focused disgust multiply on each other. The city blames him for their misery and he blames himself as well.
A PLACE FOR US
“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” - Jesus, John 15:7-8
For my 40th birthday I planted a tree. I was still nervous from the hydrangea fiasco as they were still slowly recovering from their near death experience. I dug the hole wide. I filled it with nutrients and biomass. I watered it like mad. I’ve watched it every day, imagining its fragile roots trying to find a new place in unfamiliar soil.
As I hoped for a place for a tree’s roots, I meditated about making space for each other: What if we treated ourselves and each other with the care and watchfulness that I have treated that tree? What if we recognized the vulnerability and sensitivity lurking beneath the surface of the lives that look so good above ground?
And what if we took seriously our need for better soil? What if we believed there was a better place for us? We have tried to find our sustenance in so many things: work, family, church, politics. In the end, these misplaced rental properties and landlords become arenas of exclusion rather than embrace. There is a reason why Jesus made himself the ultimate scapegoat. He knew that where we make our home will be a container for both our exclusion and our embrace. He told us that our disgust for others was really a disgust for Him, and then He absorbed all the disgust into Himself, taking it to a cross.
When Jesus calls us to make our home in Him (not in the institutions which claim Him) it is in the same breath as He takes our sin in His own body. The only place suitable for our roots is one that can embrace all our rejection. And that place is Jesus. Some will call this a trite solution in a world desperately needing practical answers. But we have seen the fruit of causes rooted in the promise of “practical solutions”. We have seen the world where the church is the product and Jesus is the slogan. We have seen the world where government is the solution and Jesus is the campaign. We have seen so little of a world where Jesus is the deep soil where all the roots go.
Our families cannot absorb our need for embrace or our will to exclude. Our businesses cannot do it. Our churches cannot do it. It is only in the deep purifying soil of Jesus where we can empty out our poison and receive only sustenance in return.
Everything I’m learning lately I’ve learned from hydrangeas and trees.
Roots are fragile things.
Uncertainty leads exclusion—of ourselves and each other.
Exclusion is caused by our internal threat monitor: disgust.
We can only grow our roots in a place where our exclusion is met by embrace.
That singular place is Jesus.
* Privilege is real. Our debates about it are often about something less than reality.