Rat Park

I have an overdeveloped sense of guilt.

Maybe this comes from my Catholic grade school roots. Maybe it’s just from my serotonin issues. Or that it’s Always February in my brain. Or I have a case of the Mondays. All the Mondays. Maybe I just absorbed all the spankings and yelling and timeouts that came to my troublemaker sister. But I have this uncanny ability to be able to figure out how to make everything my fault. Morning gridlock traffic? It was me. Hungry homeless kids? I didn’t do enough to stop it. U2 comes out with a series of mediocre albums? It’s because I am a fair-weather fan and haven’t truly appreciated them since The Joshua Tree. Is it grey and gross in Pittsburgh at the end of January? Somehow, Eeyore and I worked together to staple big woolly gray clouds up into the sky and glue them together with our tears. Whatever it is, I’m sure I can figure out a way to blame myself for it.

And when I DO screw up, which isn’t rare, my guilt is totally out of proportion with the crime. Just the other day, I missed an appointment. For no good reason. It just slipped my mind. And, it was the SECOND time that I’d missed this appointment.

I was so upset with myself that you would have thought that I had thrown away those plastic can holders without cutting them first or tossed my Starbucks coffee cup out of my car window on the highway while idealistic teenagers in bright orange vests and United Way t-shirts were stabbing at litter with those spear things. You would have thought that I’d just been caught torturing puppies or clubbing seals. I missed an appointment, and I felt like I deserved to be hung for treason or at least sent to solitary confinement and fed prison loaf for the next 57 days.

Ok. True confessions. Appropriately, this was an appointment with my therapist…

So I sent an email. And this is what it said:

crap crap crap.

i’m so sorry.

send me the bill.

i’m so so sorry.

I was even too ashamed to use capital letters. And then for the next 48 hours, I proceeded to contemplate things like bridges and winter exposure and too many bottles of aspirin. I trapped myself inside of my guilt-ridden brain, alone, beating myself up every moment.

And then therapist emailed me back. And she said, “There is grace.”

There is grace.

There is grace.

Grace didn’t exist for me. Grace didn’t exist until those words were said. It was spoken in to being.

“There is grace,” she said.

For me, in the midst of my overdeveloped, out-of-proportion guilt and shame, there was no such thing as grace. It had no objective reality. Everything I did was weighed down by the guilt of my screw up. I drank my coffee, guilty. I took my shower, guilty. I changed my son’s diaper and dropped off my other son at preschool…guilty. I had locked myself in a cage of guilt. Alone. And for a ridiculous reason — I’d missed an appointment. I’d inconvenienced someone. I’d made a mistake and now someone thought poorly of me. It was the worst. I was the worst.

And then she said, “there is grace.” And it wasn’t just that she forgave me, or was willing to reschedule, or wasn’t sitting on her therapist couch stewing with her Jenn-shaped voodoo doll and contemplating ways she could plot her revenge. She offered grace.

She’d made an ontological statement. A statement that was true. Real. A statement that defied my doubts simply because it was spoken into existence. A statement that became true as soon as the words were said out loud. See, the grace didn’t exist until there was a speaker and a hearer. A voice and a receiver. A narrator and a narratee. A connection. A relationship. And she chose to speak the grace into existence. It’s quantum entanglement. She thought a thing. I felt that thing from far away. She changed some chemicals in her brain. And something sub-atomic changed in me.

(If you are a metaphysician or if you know anything about physics, please just pretend those last few sentences didn’t happen.)

In the seventies, some scientists did an experiment. They took a rat and put him in a cage all by himself. And then they gave him two water bottles — one filled with just plain old water, and the other, laced with cocaine. And so, the rat went back to the cocaine-laced water again and again until it killed him. Proof, they said, the chemicals in drugs are so evil, so addictive, that once we try them, we will be forever on a downward spiral of addiction until it kills us. Time for the war on drugs.

But then another scientist, a guy by the name of Bruce Alexander, came up with a follow-up of this experiment. He created a cage he called “rat park” — a place with the best rat food, great ratty tunnels to burrow through, fun, brightly colored rat-toys to play with, and a whole bunch of rat-friends to live together. And, he included in this four-star, zagat-rated ratty hotel one bottle with plain water, and one laced with cocaine.

And wouldn’t you know it — the rats tried the cocaine water, of course they did, we’ve all been teenagers once, but then they quickly gave it up, the majority of them rejecting it for the plain-old water and the toys and the delicious rat-food and tunnels and friends.

Alexander — the scientist, in case I’ve already lost you — began to wonder, what if it isn’t simply chemical reactions in our brain that bring us down to our knees, that have us calling out to God in our despair, that have us contemplating cocaine water and bridges and freezing temperatures and bottles and bottles of cherry cough syrup? I mean, sure, absolutely, it does have an impact. Serotonin is nothing to mess with. But, what if it was also our isolation? What if it was our cages we lock ourselves in to, or that we feel we have been locked in to by circumstances or fear or betrayal or our sins or the sins of others?

What if we all had a “rat park” a place where our needs were met and we had other ratty-friends around us? What if we were surrounded by folks who speak the truth of who we are, and thus, bring the truth of who we are into existence? What if we heard, “there is grace”? That it exists. That it’s for you. That you’re surrounded by it all the time simply because you live in rat park? What if we had other rat friends who speak the truth of who we are — out loud — and then we are pulled out of our heads, out of our asses, out of our obsessions about how terrible we think we are, and into a world of the truth?

And the rat park isn’t Facebook. It isn’t texting or tweeting. It isn’t putting a status or blog post online or going in to a chat room and waiting for the waters to stir. It’s not getting trapped in your own head and thinking about how you wish folks could read your mind and notice how very much you’re struggling.

The rat park is the place where you’re connected, where you matter, where you’re invested and invested in. It’s the place where your true value and worth are spoken into existence. Where someone speaks. Where someone hears.

“See! you’ve been made well!”

“You’re back in the temple, back in the rat park, back in community. Go and be who you were made to be. Go and be in community so that you’re not isolated again, so that you don’t ever feel like your sippy cup of cocaine water or self-depravation or anger or helplessness is all that you have to go back to. Here are two bus passes and a couple of transfers that’ll get you to rat park.”

And guys, when we’re getting it right, when we’re really hearing the Gospel and doing this Jesus thing and being real and honest and letting it all fall apart — This is rat park.

There is grace. Because it has been spoken in to existence, and because you’ve heard it. And if you haven’t heard it yet, hear it now: There is grace.

There is grace, because you’re not alone. Because it’s been said out loud in smokey bars and around the AA coffee pot. Because it’s been whispered in your kids’ deep sleeping sighs and tagged in graffiti on the train trellis. Because you’re still here and I’m still here and we’re all just trying to get through this ratty life without despairing too much. There is grace. Because you hear it. Or because you want to hear it. Or because you might hear it. Or because one time you met someone who heard it.

There is grace because you’re surrounded by all these ratty rats, racing through ratty tubes and running on those squeeky wheels and washing their whiskers with their paws. Even if you think you’re all alone. You’re not. You just need to crawl out from under that pile of chewed up Kleenex and sawdust and cedar chips and see that you are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, shouting or whispering or daydreaming or singing in their own ratty ways that there is grace, that it is for you. That it might even be for me — despite the fact that I miss therapy appointments and get lost in a fog of disappointing others and I unravel in these downward spirals of anxiety.

C’mon in. The water’s fine in rat park.