This I Believe: Donna Koning (1994)

I’ve been a member of White Bear Unitarian Church for about three years. Joining the Unitarian Universalist Church was a significant step in my spiritual evolution and I’m happy to be here today to share some of that spiritual evolution with you.

I have never attended one of the “This I Believe” Sundays here at church, so I had no preconceived notions of what form these talks usually take. I did not know whether they were typically very upbeat and celebratory or whether they tended to grapple with tough issues, so mine is a mixture of that yin and yang.

First I’ll tell you a few things about myself. Originally, I hail from North Dakota; I’m a farm kid. I come from a large Catholic family and I am sixth in the batting order of seven kids. After my very active high school years, I attended the University of North Dakota. Having very few role models for a professional career, I finally ended up with a chemical engineering degree despite my best attempts to play Suzy Sorority and destroy my liver. I’m in my twelfth year of my first career as a chemical engineer at 3M. This coming Friday I celebrate my fifth wedding anniversary to my wonderful and supportive husband, Norm. Getting married is what prompted me to give the Catholic Church another try, but the differences between my beliefs and the Vatican, especially as they relate to the role of women, were too much to reconcile. I have found that the Unitarian Universalist Church has provided the sense of community and open search for spiritual growth to be precisely what I envisioned as the ideal church. I am glad to call this home.

Getting ready for this talk was a somewhat bigger challenge for me than I expected. There were so many things I wanted to say. Perhaps I had the overly idealistic dream of being “minister for a day” and that I would be able to touch people’s lives with all sorts of wisdom. Humility and reality set in after the first six or seven drafts, and thus I decided to focus on one particular belief of mine that has strongly influenced my life. I’ll finish up with some quotes, one-liners, and phrases that I use as my inspiration.

The belief that I decided to focus on is this:

“The adversity that we experience in life gives us the gift of choice, and then it’s up to us to choose well.”

Before I explain my own experience with adversity and the choices it gave me, I’d like to tell you about a book that I read that covered this subject better than I ever can. An Austrian psychiatrist by the name of Viktor Frankl wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning. In this book, Dr. Frankl chronicles his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps in World War II. Dr. Frankl made the decision that he would strive to transcend whatever suffering Auschwitz heaped upon him, and that he would devote his life to helping others while he was there. This decision to help others provided him with the reason and will to live, and he indeed survived against tremendous odds. Not only did he survive physically, but he survived with his spirituality intact and strengthened by the experiences. He observed while in the death camps, that adversity did not automatically make one a better person. Instead, it afforded them a choice. Some prisoners committed suicide. Others would betray a fellow prisoner just to get one cigarette. Yet another starving person was seen to give up his last slice of bread to help a dying friend. The range of responses was as varied as the prisoners themselves.

My own adversities pale in comparison to those suffered by Dr. Frankl. I had a less than optimal childhood, a mixture of good and bad. Certainly the farm had many good things to offer; I loved the wide open spaces of North Dakota and being able to play down by the Turtle River by our house. I loved my dog, Sam, and enjoyed the companionship that comes with a large family. But there were problems. My father was, unfortunately, an alcoholic and my mother sought refuge in the rigidity of the Catholic Church and she insisted on the same of her children. This was enough to make life a little crazy but between the ages of four and twelve I was the victim of repeated incest by two male relatives. I feel compelled to say here that the perpetrator of the incest was not my father; he may have been an alcoholic but he would never sexually abuse his daughters. As is typical of most incest victims, I internalized a tremendous amount of guilt and shame as it never occurred to me that it was not my fault. This guilt and shame was, unfortunately, compounded by the Catholic church, the dysfunctional ties that go along with alcoholism, and the fact that, with seven kids in the family, there simply weren’t enough parents to go around.

Though the incest was profoundly damaging, I was still a very good student and active in many extracurricular activities. I think that these adverse conditions are partly responsible for my drive to achieve. I was always striving to redeem myself for those deep, dark secrets that made up my awful past. From all outward appearances, things were great in high school; it wasn’t until college that things started to hit the fan. For many years, I never thought about the incest and, except for always feeling like nothing I did was quite good enough, I was okay. My desire to please all the people around me all the time probably reached its peak in my second or third year of college. This eventually led to my grades taking a nose-dive as I simply could not handle the superhuman effort of simultaneously majoring in engineering, being extremely active in the sorority, working my way through school, having time for a boyfriend, and partying with the best of them. I did finally finish my chemical engineering degree on the six-year plan and was very lucky to be hired by 3M despite the 1982 recession.

The adversities I suffered earlier in life were still offering me choices. Children are brilliant when it comes to surviving and coping with problems and not showing their pain. Unfortunately, the behaviors that enabled me to survive the incest did not serve me quite so well in adulthood. My particular strategy for survival was disassociation; when faced with stress, my mind would “check out” and go somewhere into fantasy land. A similar coping mechanism was to fall asleep when the stress got to be too much. It’s pretty easy to see, then, why I flunked Physics 206 in college. It is very difficult to calculate the strength of an electromagnetic field induced by a DC current when your mind is operating in a different time-space continuum. My situation bottomed out when I had been at 3M for a few years. The stress of a real job, two critically-ill sisters, my own ill-managed finances, a car that was proving unreliable, and the harshest winter in decades all piled up until depression set in. The long-buried memories of the incest began to spontaneously pop back into my head. It was this new set of adversities, combined with the unresolved effects of past adversity, that caused me to choose to get help. I was extremely fortunate that I had a good benefits package to help defray the cost of a psychologist, an understanding boss at work, and good friends to help me along the way. My healing process began in earnest about eight years ago and I am very happy to say that life has improved dramatically as I have gone through the metamorphosis of victim-hood, recovery, healing, and transcendence.

The healing that I’ve experienced has enabled me to do an amicable parting with the Catholic church and continue with my spiritual journey. It also enabled me to develop a wonderful relationship with, and subsequently marry, my husband, Norm. It has also enabled me to experience a very real inner tranquility unlike anything I had imagined possible. Like most normal people, I don’t feel this inner tranquility one hundred percent of the time but the joy I experience when I do is really terrific. Healing from all this has been sort of like spending most of my life in a cold, dark cave and the discovering that I can walk out of that cave into the bright sunshine and see the sky, the trees, and the flowers. Its’ been wonderful.

There are a number of reasons why I chose to share all of this with you. The adversities I faced as a child had a profound impact on me and were thus an important element in forming my present belief system. I believe that silence is largely responsible for enabling things like child abuse to continue. When something is too much of a taboo to even talk about it diminishes our ability to deal with it effectively and prevent history from repeating itself. I also wanted to help dismantle the image of an incest survivor as being “damaged goods”. I’m proud of my accomplishments and wanted to send a message of hope to others who have had similar experiences. Life really can get better; it is possible to move beyond the role of victim and experience real healing. I also wanted to offer my friendship to anyone working through similar adversities from their past. Lastly, I wanted to share the joy and happiness that have come from choosing to heal. This church community has contributed a great deal to that joy and happiness and I thank all of you for that. I encourage everyone to face their adversities, accept the gift of choice that it offers you, and to choose well.

Moving on to my more recent spiritual journey, after working for more than ten years as an engineer, I began to feel that I wanted to be doing something that more directly benefitted people’s lives. I put a great deal of time and energy into my career and social action was an extracurricular activity. I decided that I wanted to invert the ratio of where my time was spent, making social action my career instead. My husband contends that this drive within me to help people and to fix things stems from conditioning by the Catholic church. I think he is probably right. Even during the times when I was most at odds with the Catholic church I always respected and admired the church’s humanitarian and social justice efforts. After considering a number of career possibilities, I decided to pursue admission to medical school. If I am accepted, I hope someday to be either an internist or a family practice physician working in either a rural or inner city setting. It took a significant amount of introspection for me to arrive at that decision. My husband and this church community were very helpful when it came time for me to muster the courage to take the plunge. I must say it was pretty scary to walk into my boss’ office at 3M and tell him that I wanted to trash my career and, “Oh, by the way, can I please get out of supervision, go back to the technical ladder, and go to school part-time?”

Finally, I would like to close by reciting for you some quotes, phrases, and a little silliness that I use as my inspiration now and then:

  1. Ya got 25 priorities, ya got none.
  2. Never compromise in your quest for the truth.
  3. Floss regularly.
  4. You know you’re in for a bad day when the crew from “60 Minutes” shows up at your office.
  5. An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.
  6. Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.
  7. Perfectionism is the highest form of self-abuse.
  8. The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of moral crises, choose to remain neutral.
  9. Paradox is truth standing on her head in order to attract attention.
  10. No form of government or economic system is intrinsically good; they are, rather, amoral. It is up to us humans to apply our ethics and morals to those systems in order to live in a civilized society.
  11. Never wrestle with a pig; you get dirty and the pig likes it.
  12. Change enough of the little pictures and you’ll find you’ve changed the big picture.
  13. The only thing necessary for the propagation of evil is for good [people] to stand idle. (Edmund Burke)
  14. The harder I work, the luckier I get.
  15. The adversity that we experience in life gives us the gift of choice, and then it’s up to us to choose well.