Healing Current Hurts

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom.  I know if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind I would still be in prison”…Nelson Mandela

The doorbell rang and there stood Jill.  Her long blond hair tied back in a ponytail flailed in the gentle early spring breeze.  Missing were her brightly colored workout clothes replaced by a pair of faded jeans and a t-shirt.  Next I observed that her typically ruddy complexion lacked a certain radiance.  Jill did not look like her bubbly, positive, effervescent self.  A certain dimness shaded her eyes and her mood was considerably more subdued than normal.  I sensed that she was either sad or depressed.  I smiled, welcomed Jill into the foyer and gave her a tight hug. I asked if she wanted water or a cup of tea.  “Tea,” she replied.  An exercise fanatic and strong advocate of drinking eight glasses of water each day, tea was uncharacteristic for Jill.  I knew our meeting today would be different.  We would soon listen to her sacred story during our spiritual direction time.

I walked into the living room with a tray filled with our tea cups and saucers, honey, small pitcher of cream and a pot of brewing tea.  “I think the tea might need about 3 more minutes” I said as I set the tray on the coffee table filled with burning candles and an array of spiritual icons.   I always placed a wooden box with a sacred dove carved into it, lots of hearts and bowl filled with water on the table I set for spiritual companioning.  A vase of daffodils picked from the backyard completed the arrangement.

“Let us begin today with a very brief reading by Howard Thurman called, ‘I Let Go of My Accumulations’ from his book, Deep is the Hunger and then we will take a minute or two for some silence.”  I began most spiritual companioning meetings with a short reading and some silence to help both of us center ourselves in the present moment.

As Jill opened her eyes after a few minutes and began to speak,  I saw they were brimming with tears.  “So as you know I married Rob, a man with adult children and I didn’t think it would be this difficult.  I mean I haven’t ever treated his children with hostility or negativity, in fact I’ve tried to be a good stepmother.  Actually I could hardly be their stepmother.  After all, they were in college when we married.  Well, anyway let me get to the point.  So my stepson, Chase and his wife, Alicia, live in Arizona and they announced last year that they were going to adopt a child.  Rob was a little lukewarm about the idea initially but I persuaded him otherwise.  What a miracle to have a child and to love this wondrous, beautiful baby.  Then, Chase emailed me and asked if I would write a letter, kind of a recommendation, to the birth mother.  You know this adoption thing is so different now.  I mean with some adoption agencies, couples and birth mothers connect, they sort of match them and the adoptive parents can be present at the actual birth.  There wasn’t a lot of time and they really needed a letter so I just dropped everything and worked on it—for almost two days.  I don’t know Alicia at all and I find it a little strange that we haven’t had much contact but you know I didn’t want to say anything that might upset anyone.  These relationships in blended families, I don’t understand them.  I feel like there are layers of complexity and sometimes I don’t know what’s going on.”

I nodded and poured the tea in the cup.  “Would you like cream?”

Jill shook her head “no”  and continued.  “Anyway, little Conner was born in June and we were scheduled to fly out there in July but I caught some God awful cold and I didn’t want to give it to sweet baby Connor so Rob flew to Arizona without me.  I was a bit envious when I saw the pictures but we re-scheduled for August.  Then on the weekend we were to go, Alicia threw out her back or something and the trip was postponed.”

“I see.  So just for clarification, how old is Connor now?”

Jill burst into tears and I reached for the kleenex box I keep under the coffee table for such moments in spiritual direction.  She started sobbing.

“That’s the problem.  They were supposed to come for a visit next week but they canceled and there hasn’t seemed to be a “good time” (using her fingers to indicate the quotes) for me to see the baby.  Now we’re invited to his first birthday party next month!  Can you believe that?  I am supposed to be a grandmother and I haven’t held or kiss this sweet grandchild of mine—I’ve seen him on a few FaceTime calls.  How is it that in a year there was never a “good time” for a short visit?  What kind of priorities do these young people have?  And I am the one who wrote them the damn letter.”

I had never heard Jill curse so I knew she was pretty upset.  “You’re pretty angry, aren’t you, Jill?

“Yes I am!  I mean they rarely call and wish me a Happy Birthday even though my birthday follows Rob’s’ by three days.  They manage to call him.  They would be hurt if I missed their birthdays.  It’s like I feel so disrespected and used.  I really don’t get it because I’ve never done anything—I’ve always supported Rob’s children like for graduations, weddings, even made certain all of the college tuition was paid on time even though I didn’t have any biological children of my own.  I know that God would want me to be forgiving but I am having a hard time with this one.”

As Jill sipped her tea she continued to sobbed.  “This crap has been going on for about 15 years.  Like I said I’ve  have always been kind to Rob’s children and I swear at times, you would think I was the Wicked Witch of the East or the ugly Stepmother.  Actually I could care less if I saw any of them again, really.”

“And Jill, under that rage, it sound like you are hurt, too.  You know hurt typically resides beneath all of anger, rage and resentment, “ I said gently.

Moving closer to Jill who sat on the other side of the long red jacquard covered couch which sits in my living room, I grabbed her hands and held them as she cried.

“Let’s take a moment and pray.  Let’s be still and listen for what the Spirit has for us in the pain you’ve brought to share today.”  We sat in silence for about three minutes.

As I opened my eyes, I sensed Jill relax a bit.  Her lip had stopped quivering and her eyes brightened.

“Did you hear anything in the Silence? “ I asked.

“I think this stuff is about their mother.  They’ve had quite a bit of difficulty with her, some emotional issues or something from their childhood.  I think they have limited contact with her.  I guess I heard that I shouldn’t take this so personal.”

“Yes, being aware that their behavior may not be about you might help a lot especially if you have been a loving stepmother or spouse of their father.  Quite frequently people project things on to us that have nothing to do with us or the current incident.”

I paused a moment before proceeding.  “I heard that perhaps you have some healing to do around feeling excluded, slighted or disrespected.  Have you ever felt this way before?”

Jill pulled out her journal and started to take notes.  “I’ll have ponder that idea some.  I am certain I have.  I don’t know what their behavior is reminding me of.  I’ve always felt different, even as a little girl and well into college and beyond.  I am a deep thinker, intellectual, very spiritual and lots of people don’t like to engage in those types of conversations.  I know in college sometimes girls would exclude me from parties because I often sat around with the guys and talked about politics, current affairs or sports.  I didn’t join a sorority or participate in cliques.   I think I intimidate insecure people who then try to create situations to exclude or ridicule me.   I will journal about it some more later so I can get to the bottom of this.”  She started to smile for the first time today.

“And if you are seeing a therapist right now, that sense of sadness that was triggered by the incident with Chase and Alicia is a perfect topic to discuss with her as well.  My suspicion is that the hurt, the sadness that you brought with you today didn’t begin start with Chase and Alicia.  It may be something you’ve been carrying around in your heart for years and you may want to explore it in a deeper way.”

“Maybe so.  I am not seeing a therapist right now but I promise you if I start to feel more depressed, I will contact her.  I am just feeling kind of sad.”

“I know you mentioned that you like to paint.  Have you thought about painting about this incident or your sadness about it?  It might be great for you to utilize your hurt and anger in another way.”

“That is a great idea!  I need to get back to my brushes and canvas.”

“Also, I know it may be a little early for this but have you thought about cultivating a forgiveness practice?”

“Forgiveness practice?  What is that?” Jill inquired.

I learned about it through a book, Making Peace with Your Parents, I read many, many years ago written by a guy named, Harold Bloomfield.  I needed to forgive my father because at age 30 or so, I couldn’t stand to hear his voice on the phone. That’s a whole other story but I started this practice each morning and evening, by saying, “I forgive you, Dad” and each time he came to mind during the day, I would say the same thing,  “I forgive you, Dad.”  It took nearly three years but I finally got to a point where I could think of him and feel neutral or positive.  I learned a lot about him during those three years that helped me understand why he acted domineering and distant.  Once I felt a certain peace when I thought about him, I knew I was done.  Perhaps when you are ready, you can begin the practice with Chase and Alicia.  I think Spirit will be able to heal some things about you and them in the process.

Jill’s smile grew broader.  “Wow, I wasn’t anticipating talking it through like this, I mean I don’t quite know what I expected.  I do feel better already.  And maybe after some journaling I will try the forgiveness practice.”

“It is vital that you start where you are so if you have to say, ‘I forgive you, you damn Chase’ then that’s where you start.  It is important to acknowledge everything you are feeling—that includes the rage as well as the sadness.  Whatever words you choose, if in your heart you want to let go of the resentment and hurt, you’ll discover that it will happen.  It may take some time.  Eventually, you will be able to feel more peace and joy in your heart.”

Jill stood up and began to walk toward the door.  She turned to me and we hugged for a moment.  “Thank you and thank God for spiritual direction.  It is truly transforming my life.”

“You’re welcome, Jill.  I look forward to seeing you next month.  I’ll be praying for you.”  I waved as she walked down the brick stairs on the path past the rose garden toward the driveway and her car.

This fictionalized portrayal of a spiritual companioning meeting illustrates how it can facilitate the uncovering of Peace in one’s hearts.   As Nelson Mandela points out, if you carry around hatred and bitterness in your heart, you might as well be in prison.  Quickly new or current hurts can become smoldering resentments if they remain unacknowledged.  Is your heart imprisoned by some new hurt that is ripe for developing into a bitterness?  What do you need to do to relinquish it from your heart? How can you let your heart be free to feel the Peace that lies within?

Healing Old Hurts

Last November I watched an interview Oprah Winfrey conducted with Rev. Al Sharpton.  I was struck by the journey “Rev. Al” traveled from an angry black man protesting at any and every event to a well-respected political commentator and advocate for social justice.  The most intriguing aspect of his life centered on what fueled the anger of his adolescence and early adulthood.  As the story goes, Rev. Al was living a classic middle class life with his entire family in tact.  His father owned several businesses that allowed his mother to stay home with little Al and his sister as well as obtain a new Cadillac each year.  But all of that changed when his father fell in love with Rev. Al’s older half sister, Ernestine, his mother’s daughter by a previous marriage.  When Ernestine became pregnant, Rev. Al’s father left his mother only to return to take his other sister.  Little nine year old Al wondered what happened—and what was so wrong with him that his father didn’t take him too (especially since he was named after him).  Moreover, Al’s mother went from living in a very nice home to the projects and scrubbing floors just to so little Rev. Al could wear a suit to church.  Despite his proclivities toward the church, scripture, and preaching, none of these could erase Rev. Al’s outrage at his father and the situation he left them in.  He became a very angry man.

This story reminds me of another one from several years ago.  John, whose beard and hair reminded me of the abolitionist and freedom fighter, Frederick Douglas, always looked like he had just marched in from a demonstration.  A colleague and professor in the English department, John shared over lunch one day that when he was 13 years old he discovered that he had been adopted.  He found the papers in a desk drawer while looking for pen.  When questioned, his African American adoptive parents told him that his German mother left him in the hospital.  I observed for years that John possessed an aura of rage, especially at white people.  Yet he avoided the need to resolve this obvious contradiction.  As I saw it, being half-white meant he hated a part of himself.  I suggested that he write and obtain the adoption records.

Apparently John’s mother gave birth to him when she was only 18.  Olga had become pregnant by the colored soldier next door and her father told her she could return home but she could not bring the baby.  After further investigation, John discovered that his mother later married an African American man and raised 4 or 5 of his half brothers and sisters before dying of brain cancer two years prior to his inquiry.  This information was the beginning of his healing.

Then there was Angela.  Shortly after surviving a heart transplant, I began to conduct “heart readings.” Somehow during my post-surgery recovery, I became very sensitive to feelings.  I could name the most prevalent emotion any person carried in his or her heart.   Yet I still cannot remember when these heart readings sessions began.  I believe I casually remarked to a friend, “Once I am well, we will have to talk about that sadness sitting in your heart.”  Startled, my friend was open to a follow-up conversation and then the word spread.

All kinds of people began calling and showing up at my doorstep ready to open up their hearts to me.  I became acutely aware of how burdened we are by what we carry in our hearts.  Thus, in the morning before a scheduled meeting I would pray that I could be helpful in some way.  When each person showed up, I lit a candle and asked a few questions.  Within 5-10 minutes I not only “knew” the emotion but often sensed its origin.

One winter day Angela stopped by.  Hearing about the heart readings Angela decided she wanted to check it out.  I had encountered Angela several times on campus and similar to John, I witnessed the wrath pulsating in her veins.  I didn’t quite know the source of the outrage but it was clear to everyone that a seething fury was no stranger to either of them.

Angela, petite with auburn hair and greenish-gray eyes entered my dining room and sat down on the other end of a round oak table as the three wick candle burned in the middle.  I paused and closed my eyes.  As I opened them I shared with Angela that I sensed that she was carrying a lot of resentment in her heart.  She smiled.  “Yeah I guess I sorta know that,” she said.  “So thinking  about your childhood, can you remember a time when you didn’t feel enraged?” I asked.  Angela hesitated for a moment and then replied, “Well, I guess it was a little before my father left.”  Bingo, I thought to myself.  As we talked, I learned that Angela and her father were quite close before at age 8, he left and stopped communicating with her.  She never received any phone calls, birthday cards, or Christmas gifts.  Every Father’s Day only fueled the growing resentment churning in her heart.  And beneath the fury lay layers of hurt, loss, and abandonment.  Now as a divorced single mother, each visit or weekend trip her ex-husband spent with their daughter triggered that sting of anger.

Since I perceived these heart readings as some kind of temporary spiritual intervention in the souls directed to me during this time, I prescribed  a forgiveness mantra to use for the throbbing ache Angela carried about her father.  I also knew that a heart bulging with rage and contempt was akin to a ticking time bomb—a potential stroke or heart attack hovered nearby.  Angela readily admitted that she already took multiple medications for her blood pressure.

Finally there was Cousin Vivian.  I first met Vivian when I moved to the Atlanta Metro area about 15 years ago.  I reunited with a few of my relatives who resided in Atlanta and began attending family gatherings on holidays like Labor Day and Thanksgiving.  We would rotate houses and each family brought some delectable dish for the bash.  In catching up with the family, I discovered that Tommy, my cousin on my Daddy’s side married Vivian, a buxom, velvety chocolate woman from Barbados.  When Vivian and I were first introduced I observed that she managed a forced smile as she sat seething at a table on the other side of the family room.  Moreover, there was no love lost between Vivian and her sisters-in law.  Then I noted that Cousin Tommy and Vivian’s two beautiful, precious children, Jeremiah and Brittany possessed a certain sadness about them.  I suspected that an undisclosed family tale lay buried in the midst.

About six months later Vivian called to talk with me perhaps because she felt I had just re-joined this side of the family and didn’t share their long, disagreeable history.  She vented about Tommy and his extramarital affairs hinting that his sisters had even entertained the other woman at their homes.  Shocked I suggested marital therapy but apparently did not know the depth of the hurt.  Each holiday when I embraced Vivian it seemed her bitterness grew like cancer and Jeremiah and Brittany looked even more melancholic.

Three years later as I arrived at another family gathering people were passing around the telephone.  Evidently Vivian was in the hospital with uncontrollable hypertension and when I took the phone to tell her I was praying for her and hoped she felt better soon she shared with me that Cousin Tommy had moved away and now lived with “the other woman” and the two children they had together.  As I looked around at Cousin Tommy who had flown in to see her laughing in the corner, Vivian insisted that she would feel better if Tommy just did the right thing and returned to their family.  The contempt in her voice was unmistakable.

In less than two week, Vivian lie dying in the hospital.  Apparently realizing her family life too had taken a turn for the worse, she stopped taking her blood pressure medications, developed an aneurysm, and suffered a stroke.  The doctors walked into the hospital conference room where all of the family gathered yet again and reported that Cousin Vivian was brain dead.

During the hospital vigil, I met Vivian’s parents and her brother, Wayne.  I observed that Wayne was consumed with rage as well.  Over the subsequent days that brought the family together again and again for Cousin Vivian’s wake, funeral, and repast, I learned that her anger actually didn’t begin with Cousin Tommy.  Allegedly when Vivian’s parents chose to immigrate to the US from Barbados, they left Vivian and Wayne as young children with an abusive grandmother.  Like little seedlings the rage, abandonment and hurt that blossomed in their hearts was cultivated by parents, grandparents and other family members alike.

Often people express a lot of anger, resentment, and hate that has nothing to do with the current circumstances.  Rev. Al, John, Angela, and Cousin Vivian represent classic cases of anger being symptomatic of a larger unhealed wound.  The rage is just the tip of the iceberg.  Many of us are born into challenging situations and nearly all of us to imperfect parents.  Often though we interpret their shortcomings as a commentary on our own worth.  What is so bad about me that Mommy or Daddy would treat or leave me like this?  It is rarely about us.

And not all stories about anger and rage need share the tragic ending of Cousin Vivian’s.  I hope that John and Angela made peace with their pasts.  Rev. Al provides a beacon for a healing transformation.  Now his countenance is more inviting and I suspect his weight loss reflects the relinquishment of all of that hurt.   Whatever he did, therapy, prayer, meditation, or preaching, it seems to have worked.  Rev. Al is indeed a different man who has more energy to devote to the things he feels called to.

Now when I encounter people who appear to be acting particularly angry or hateful, I step back and pause knowing that underneath all of that anger and “attitude” is a hurting child yearning for love, for care, for redemption.  So I send a blessing and pray that a balm will heal the wounds permeating their innocent hearts.

The obvious question here is are you holding on to some old anger and resentment that like some tasty but far too sweet frosting is covering up deeper pain or hurt in your heart?  We know that when pain is pushed down it becomes anger, rage, and resentment.  What pain, which hurts do you need to heal?  Is this what is blocking the Peace in your heart? If so, may you begin the journey today toward understanding and self-healing.  It is never too late to act on your own behalf to release the peace, to feel the joy residing in you heart.