“The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9
I tromped downstairs in my usual stupor one weekday morning to brew a fresh pot of coffee before heading to work and found our black Labrador, Belle, at the foot of the stairs, wagging her tail enthusiastically and prancing about in anticipation of her breakfast. On most days, one of the kids beats me to the task, yet Belle has learned that if she puts on a good show, she might succeed in convincing me or any other unsuspecting family member who ventures downstairs later in the morning that she is famished. Our clever dog has often enjoyed a second meal before one of us realizes that we have been duped by her well-rehearsed antics.
So I was not going to be fooled this day. Convinced that she had already been attended to, I scolded her for trying to put one over on me and insisted that she go lay down. Her tail ceased its wagging and I noticed her sad kind of sideways glance before she obediently moved toward her bed. After putting the coffee on and marching back upstairs to don my work clothes, I realized that both kids were still asleep in her rooms. Poor Belle had been refused her morning meal and accepted my rebuff with what must have been some measure of confusion – but without the slightest protest. Discovering the truth, I rushed back downstairs, apologized as best I knew how to our sweet dog and escorted her outside to get her dish and make things right. Sadly, poor Belle had readily accepted what I had dished out – or failed to – on the basis of my authority over her.
I can’t help but see an amazing similarity between Belle’s response to me and an abuse victim’s trained response to her abuser. Abuse victims are trained over time to accept the wisdom of their abuser under the guise that some trustworthy form of love is guiding the abuser’s thoughts, motives and actions. Even when the abuse becomes so overtly evident, the victim’s inclination is to believe that the heartache he or she is enduring is somehow normal. We choose to believe the heart’s sweet lie, the soft whisper that says, “Everything will be alright.” We accept the deception, preferring it to the frightening alternative: This person is intentionally hurting me.
What we might be tempted to categorize as optimism is, in reality, a form of self-deception, a psychological response known as the “normalcy bias.” It is a mental state we may adopt when facing potential harm. In the case of abuse, the heart refuses to accept the likelihood of maltreatment that is right before our eyes, yet our minds construct a defensive stance against the possibility of a significant threat to our physical or emotional safety.
“Normalcy bias” is the primary reason many people remained in their homes in spite of stern warnings before hurricane Katrina struck, it is why so many Jews remained in Nazi Germany before and during the Holocaust – and it is one reason abuse victims remain in abusive relationships. We concoct ways to manage our unpredictable lives fairly well and trust that our situation can only improve. To bolster the sweet lie, we seize on minor aberrations that might explain away the hurt.
Haven’t we all chosen to slough off our abuser’s attacks and told ourselves that he doesn’t mean what he says? We prefer to accept that our abuser is lashing out in ignorance. Surely his actions are uncharacteristic of his true nature, a reflection of a bad childhood, uncommon stress, perhaps a job loss or simple misunderstandings. In response, we give ourselves a pep talk and tell ourselves that his behaviors are unintentional and temporary. We believe in a future with the man we fell in love with and trust that, with our help and support, we will see him again. Our heart’s less-than-honest assessment assures us that the hard times will surely blow over, and very soon we will live in a home that is happy, healthy and safe.
We can see this “normalcy bias” played out in Scripture, too. Just before the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were to be destroyed, two messengers from God warned Lot of the impending disaster and urged him to get himself and his family out. You may be surprised at what happens next.
Then the two men said to Lot, “Whom else have you here? A son-in-law, and your sons, and your daughters, and whomever you have in the city, bring them out of the place; for we are about to destroy this place, because their outcry has become so great before the Lord that the Lord has sent us to destroy it.” Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, and said, “Up, get out of this place, for the Lord will destroy the city.” But he appeared to his sons-in-law to be jesting.
When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away in the punishment of the city.” But he hesitated. So the men seized his hand and the hand of his wife and the hands of his two daughters, for the compassion of the Lord was upon him; and they brought him out, and put him outside the city. When they had brought them outside, one said, “Escape for your life! Do not look behind you, and do not stay anywhere in the valley; escape to the mountains, or you will be swept away.” Genesis 19:12-17
On that day, the sun rose and the days’ events unfolded just like on any other, so it is easy to sympathize with Lot’s sons-in-law who scoffed at the urgency. Lot himself knew that the messengers were sent by God. Still he struggled to acknowledge the risk, and had it not been for the men forcefully removing Lot and his wife and daughters, he and his entire family would have died.
Perhaps more bizarre is the reality that we who have tolerated our abuser’s cruelty for years are all too familiar with the signs of impending disaster. Although we have been warned by friends and family members and even at times by our abuser that we are directly in harm’s way, we prefer the illusory comfort of the heart’s sweet lie.
Like the families who believed the threat of hurricane Katrina was exaggerated or the countless Jews who lost their lives under the Nazi regime, every single day all over the world abuse victims suddenly awaken to find themselves on the wrong side of a faulty belief system. The day comes when what we perceived to be a remote possibility becomes a horrifying reality. The heart’s sweet lie must eventually give way to the solemn realization that our abuser’s behavior isn’t normal, accidental or temporary.
Unfortunately, all too often it is not until a victim finds herself up to her eyebrows in brokenness and heartache that she can finally confess that abuse isn’t something that only happens to other people. Yet once the sweet lie is dispelled, the truth flows in, and healing can finally begin.
Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom. Psalm 51:6
Copyright 2013 Cindy Burrell
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