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The poverty that breaks the cycle of abuse
Of all the unlikely places for God to introduce a child abuse survivor to the value of poverty, I wouldn’t have picked the palace of Versailles.
I was a 15-year-old exchange student in France, exploring Paris and its environs with two other American girls, strangers in a strange land. Across the Atlantic, I’d left behind a home I was only beginning to discover was abusive, but I was still young and dependent enough on my earthly parents to be mostly in denial about the trauma I was experiencing as their child — the constant criticism, the lack of encouragement and affection, the food and body shaming, not to mention the unhealthy sexual boundaries. I’d survived by developing a strong people-pleasing streak.
Whatever part of myself I needed to deny to acquire counterfeit belonging, I’d deny it.
Study abroad programs tend to shake habits, even in adolescent girls living with undiagnosed complex trauma. As we toured one of the most luxurious palaces ever constructed, I discovered that instead of making up a false narrative about myself to gain acceptance — “Yeah, I like that kind of music, too.”; “Of course, I agree with your opinion on fashion.” — maybe I could just try telling the truth.
As we toured, one of my new friends was talking about some of the problems she had as a rich girl, like how she had to fight her mom to buy her the set of Louis Vuitton luggage she wanted for this trip, and how her driver was sometimes late getting her to her exclusive private school, I remember finally responding with the kind of words I’d never before used to connect with anyone.
I admitted, “I’m so poor, the only reason I made it on this trip is because I got a job working at a nursing home kitchen dishing out prunes.”
Shockingly, my rich new friend threw her arms around me, laughing. “Erin, you are a classic!”
For those who don’t speak 1989, “classic” in this context meant, “funny, reliable and honest.”
Who knew that honesty about what I didn’t have could connect me to people — and connect me in such a way that I didn’t have to worry about them discovering and rejecting the real Erin?
While I wouldn’t know it until decades later, there on the crushed stone pathways around Versailles, I discovered that the God who created us to thrive in community also created us to be poor no matter our family income. He was also showing me that the source of all our sinful misery, especially the disconnected misery of the dysfunctional and abusive family home, comes when people act from a place that denies that lack.
The years passed. I left home in search of healing, driven to be the one who would stop those generations of abuse. Alas, just as the Israelites struggled mightily for generations with a list of “thou shalt nots,” I found myself thinking the key to breaking the cycle of abuse in my own family was just to avoid whatever my parents had done. Sadly, my relationships with my own eventual children came out a bit stunted, because I was having such a hard time unlearning the bad scripts I’d learned in my own childhood: harshness, constant criticism and other discomfort-avoidant behaviors.
Enter the new law: the beatitudes. Just as the Ten Commandments were given to God’s people to point them away from the wrong direction, the wounds I carry from my own parents’ sins give me a photo negative of what it means to have a joyful family. In response to generations of such human failings, Jesus provides in the beatitudes a new law, a positive law that teaches survivors of family abuse and dysfunction what to do to unlearn bad scripts.
The beatitudes start with poverty. How could poverty halt rather than perpetuate child abuse? A body of scholarly work cites undeniable links between poverty and childhood trauma at the hands of overwhelmed parents. It is no big leap to imagine how poverty would do nothing to slow down much less break the cycle of family abuse. And yet, here I am, the child of intergenerational trauma, telling you that I am dismantling that cycle in my own family now, all thanks to poverty.
Poverty, by definition, is lack. In, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Christ tells us that we have God’s kingship over us when we are needy. Some of my fellow people-pleasing trauma survivors may have learned — incorrectly, by the way — that to be poor in spirit means to let others do whatever they want, even if they want to sin to the point of harming vulnerable children. What Jesus really asks of us in this beatitude, however, is to let God do what he wants to fill our needs. Poverty of spirit is not knowing it all, not having all the answers, not doing everything right.
Ask any survivor of any kind of family or relational abuse and you’ll most likely hear that what hurt the most was not the abuse itself but the denial of that abuse. “That never happened.” “I would never do such a thing.” “It wasn’t that bad.”
It seems that what this beatitude holds out to us is that what destroys family relationships isn’t the initial sin but the insistence of the sinner that he or she acted that way because he or she already knows it all, has all the answers and does everything right — therefore, the mistake is not the abuser’s but the abused’s. Destruction comes and stays around when abusers are too spirited to own their emotional and spiritual poverty.
Through this beatitude, Jesus is teaching me that the only way I can stop the cycle of abuse from passing down to my own children is by admitting I’m poor. I don’t know it all. I make mistakes. I need help. I don’t have the answers. This means that when my children indicate that my actions have hurt them, I must embrace my poverty in all its forms and don’t act like I’m something I’m not — perfect.
This is the poverty that stops the cycle of abuse. In admitting my poverty, I teach my children, one mistake at a time, that there is no sin so bad that we can’t open it up to God’s love and let him fill in the gaps we created with his enriching love. We can build palaces not of stone and mirrors but of God-imaging relationships that the next generation can joyfully inherit from ours. Such relationships create foundations with power to outlast even the ambitions of a French king who had it all.
Jesus invites us to the blessings of poverty of spirit because he wants our loved ones to know us as reliable and honest. The funny part of being poor in spirit is that when I fail, it’s not a surprise, and I’ve already had lots of practice owning my poverty in front of my kids, putting myself back under God’s kingship, and beginning again, knowing that we all know that I don’t know it all — and that’s OK.
One might even call it classic.
Erin McCole Cupp writes and speaks about spiritual tools for survivors of family abuse and dysfunction. Learn more about her mission to heal trauma with truth at erinmccolecupp.com.