What is your favorite idiom? Maybe you aren’t even sure what an idiom is. An idiom is a word or phrase not intended to be taken literally. For example, the phrase “he bought the farm” has nothing to do with some guys buying a plot of real estate to start a farm. It means that someone died. Or when someone is about to step on stage for a big performance you might say, “Break a leg!” You, of course, do not literally mean you hope your friend breaks their leg (unless you have a sick, twisted view of friendship). This idiomatic phrase is meant to communicate you hope they do well in their performance.
The idiom “digging up bones” means to look into the past and uncover or examine long buried secrets. We all bury things from our past. We repress memories. We reinterpret our past into a story more suitable to our sensibilities or our remembrance. Some of us are even guilty of revisionist history with our past. Our telling of the past today may only be a shade of the truth, depending on who or what we want to blame or frame or vilify or demonize or romanticize.
Frankly, I’ve never been too fond of digging in graveyards. The way I see it, if I cannot remember something from my past, there is probably good reason for that. Maybe the memory isn’t really memorable or it’s too painful or it’s inconsequential or benign.
Despite the fact that I would prefer not to “dig up bones”, that is, apparently, a part of the adoption process. It is important to our case worker that we dig into our past, resurrect those dirty bones, bring them into the light, reassemble them into their original state, and talk about what stories they tell about who I am and why I do what I do.
The exercise itself doesn’t sound too difficult, right? I’m a normal guy. I have never had extensive counseling (disclaimer: not that people who have had extensive counseling aren’t “normal”. In fact, people who intentionally pursue counseling may actually be more in touch with reality than those who think they don’t need it). I do not have a history of abuse or neglect or significant trauma. And so, in my mind, this exercise was going to be a piece of cake. I got my shovel and started to dig, expecting to find a shallow grave of memories.
But my shovel just kept on digging beyond those bones that lay beneath the surface. Once I got past those shallow memories of childhood vacations and my first fight and my favorite place to live, I began uncovering bones I didn’t even know existed, like the scaphoid bone, one of the 8 bones you have in your wrist (I bet you would have guessed there were fewer). I started unearthing bones I didn’t even know I buried, things I’ve never really thought about, but things that have nevertheless shaped me in deep and profound ways.
When you start digging up bones, if you really dig until you uncover all the bones, you begin to discover many disconnects in your life. There is the reality of what actually happened in your past and the impact those events had on your character, your ability to attach and detach relationally, how you cope with change, and how you fought to shape a future different from the burden of your past. But you are also forced to confront what happened in your past in contrast with what you wanted or hoped would happen in your past: remembering why relationships were lost, the emptiness of unrequited desires, the regret of unfulfilled ambitions, the pain of broken, irreversible circumstances and lost opportunities, a lingering father hunger.
I’m not yet ready to write about what kind of bones I’ve found. Maybe I will be someday soon. But this element of the journey is an unexpected twist in this adoption story. I take comfort in the fact that all along the way God is really the one who has been writing my story. Not one thing has happened in my life that God has not sovereignly orchestrated to bring me to the place I am right now, resting in His mercy, grace, and patient, steadfast love. It is in light of the gospel story that I find meaning and purpose in the dirty, discarded, and forgotten bones of my past. I’m grateful to know, love, and serve a God who brings beauty from ashes (Isaiah 61:3).