Hitting When We Hurt
A scene in last week’s Grey’s Anatomy (yes, I’m still watching) depicted a patient going through some painful rehabilitation on the road to recovery. The doctor, well aware of the pain that more than not accompanies healing of the substantial wounds, repeated to the patient, “Hit me, but keep going. Hit me, you’re almost there.”
The doctor’s intuition was right. Often when we are healing from traumatic wounds, physical, emotional, and spiritual, the only way we can push through the pain of healing is to lash out at others.
We all have wounds on our souls. The metaphor of burns works for me. Life burns us. Our relationships burn us. Events burn us. Some of the burns are painful for a while, then heal fairly shortly. Some burns are deeper, those second degree fires that need more time and care to heal well, and the memory of the pain stays around for a bit.
Then we have the deep, scarring third degree burns from our encounters with others. Most of these soul burns occur on our young skin that hasn’t been exposed to life enough to have much of a defense to the scorching behavior of others. We carry these deep, traumatic soul burns with us until we find places or circumstances in our lives where we are called to face the uncomfortable healing process.
If you've ever had to rehabilitate a knee after surgery, you will know the act of rehabilitation, of helping the healing process along, is not without pain. But that’s the way of healing - physical, spiritual, and emotional. To heal the deep wounds, we experience pain. And for our emotional wounds that have been layered over by years (maybe decades) of scar tissue, the pain may be significant.
As clergy, we are called to be present with people who are making the journey of transformation and healing. Often the initial movement comes from an event that triggers the deep, unhealed soul burn. I’m aware of this moment when someone’s reaction to an event is filled with unsettling emotion that seems disproportinate to the initial triggering event.
Maybe the person needs to talk about the pain, so as clergy, we listen. We likely listen to several attempts for the quick fix. When those fixes haven’t salved the burn, we may begin the early, tentative steps to deep healing.
One of the first responses to the initial forays into healing deep wounds is to hurt those around us. Blame them, wound them, make them feel some part of the pain we feel. Direct our pain to them. After all, we humans reason, if I can wound another, it will be an analgesic to my own pain.
And those of us in the vocation of being present with others in their hurt, and sometimes in their healing, we are often the ones who get hit.
Hit me, as you focus on your healing.
Clergy seem to be a landing space for the raging pain of others. Maybe we’re a representative of God, an incarnation of the Being who is supposed to make all things okay and when things aren’t okay, God must be punished with our anger. Maybe we’re just convenient.
Being hit emotionally and spiritually is one of the realities of clergy life that doesn’t make the top 10 reasons I love the priesthood.
But it is a reality.
People lash out in pain, and often at the closest and most convenient target. Close friends and family are also easy targets for people in the midst of deep soul healing.
How do we, in this place of such pain and healing, offer our presence without being hit too much?
First of all, we hopefully are aware of our own wounds and have offered them for healing and transformation. We need healthy perspective when we feel the first emotional punch from a person in pain to remind ourselves, “This is not about me.” Or we are aware of our wounds still in need of healing and can recognize we are not the person who can be present on this particular journey. We add nothing to someone's deep healing if we, too, are lashing out. Being all things to all people is not a necessary quality of a minister; recognizing our limitations is a necessary quality.
We are also not called to endure abuse. Far too many times I’ve experienced and seen others experience continued abusive behavior from those who are lashing out in their own pain. There is quite a difference between being present with someone doing their hard work of healing that involves some discomfort on your end and walking with someone who simply wants to continue lashing out in their own pain at a cost to your soul - especially after you've identified the behavior that is deeply hurtful and they have not responded.
Some signs that the lashing out necessary for healing has slipped into its own wounding behavior are the language of stuck (the conversations repeat and repeat and repeat the same things with no sense of insight or movement); placing all the responsibility on you (if you would do this and this, everything would be okay, realizing if you do all that’s asked, you cannot heal another); the realization that huge amounts of your energy is going to this situation (at the expense of your own well being); and responses to anxiety that are hurtful (you can read a post on that here).
Clergy are also not therapists. Most aren’t, anyway. Certainly the lines around therapeutic issues can be numinous at times, but we are not trained as therapists. The Episcopal Church (and I suspect other denominations) has a policy about the number of times we can meet with members about a particular issue. It's a wise Canon. When members of our faith communities are doing the long-term work of offering the deep burns for healing and transformation, they should have a therapist who can work with them regularly, perhaps even a support group like AlAnon, to walk with them on their journey. Remember, we are called to walk with and be present with a person in their pain and healing. We are not called to fix them.
Clergy should have a therapist, spiritual director, or other support person or group who can help us recognize when we have crossed the line between helpful presence and trying to fix; when we have ceased being the place safe for people to be angry and express their pain and have become a punching bag for them; and when we have stumbled upon our own deep wounds and need our own place to heal through the hurt.
The model of healing ideally would not involve hurting another. We could trust that God is with us, that the pain will eventually become manageable, and that even in our brokenness we are wholly loved by God.
Alas, that model seems less popular than the one where we want to hit another as we work through the pain. So we're out there in the midst of this. Be safe.