A few months ago I published “Hope and Healing Among the Amish” about the tragic schoolhouse shootings in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Now that some time has passed I’ve had a chance dig a little deeper and expand my earlier thoughts.
After the shootings, the Amish demolished the schoolhouse where so many suffered and died. I see this act as both necessary and sane — how could a building that had been so defiled become a safe place for children to learn? I also suspect that this concrete act of razing the schoolhouse was therapeutic for this pacifist community. When pain is awesome we bear it in our bodies as well as our hearts, and sometimes we just need to do something about it.
Long after the schoolhouse has been torn apart, we do well to keep it in our hearts, because it reminds us of what can happen to an unprotected community in an unsafe world — and what can happen to our own unguarded hearts.
Broken Heart Syndrome
The other day I heard an interesting segment on NPR’s Science Hour about a new diagnosis sometimes referred to as “Broken Heart Syndrome.” This syndrome resembles a heart attack, but is rooted in emotional trauma. Middle aged to elderly women, who are most prone to this syndrome, may suffer some kind of trauma such as a car accident, a painful conflict, or news of the death of a loved one and they may experience heart failure as a result.
After this kind of shock, stress hormones flood the body and sometimes prove toxic to the heart causing a muscle weakness resembling a massive heart attack. Because these women generally have healthy hearts and strong bodies, they have all recovered quickly and easily.
This syndrome reminds me that we bear pain in our bodies as much as our hearts. Just as stress can negatively affect our bodies, trauma might also bring on aches. I wonder if part of the work of forgiveness is finding a physical — not just emotional — outlet for our toxic pain. Perhaps we can lighten our own load by taking brisk walks, throwing eggs at trees or even cleaning vigorously.
Calling a Spade a Spade
Some imagine that forgiveness implies a denial of reality. But forgiveness has nothing to do with this — we must speak the truth in love. As Lewis Smedes said, “When we forgive evil we do not excuse it, we do not tolerate it, we do not smother it. We look evil full in the face, call it what it is, let its horror shock and stun and enrage us and only then do we forgive it.”
When somebody has done something that is objectively wrong — physical or emotional abuse, neglect or deception — we need to directly confront the pain. Sometimes it is unsafe or unwise to directly confront the other person, but this does not mean that we whitewash the act. Sometimes we need a trusted friend or counselor to help us walk through our experience.
Even as we confront the pain, we must hold out hope — both for the other and for ourselves. C.S. Lewis said that we hate another’s sin in the same way that we loathe it in ourselves: we should be, “Sorry that man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is in anyway possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere, he shall be cured and made human again.”
Processing the Pain
Even as we hope for healing for the other, we must desire it for ourselves. Bitterness can blind us to the humanity if the other. We become focused on the idea that they are “other” — so different, so separate from us that we can scarcely understand them. As we become fixed on this notion, we push them away instead of pulling them closer to our hearts and prayers.
Sometimes reconciliation can appear to have occurred long before our hearts have digested the full implications of what has happened. And digest we must, even if it means returning again and again to the episode and thinking about it about 9,000 times more than we’d like to in a day. This kind of obsessive thinking can be irritating — we want to move on but our minds can’t let go.
We might feel like we’ve slipped into a single groove on a record and we can’t stop going around and around and around. This can be a dull and agonizing ride, both for ourselves and for those who are brave enough to walk beside us. As long as we’re stuck we might be unable to receive the grace that comes to us.
A Continual Surrender
But there is also a hopeful side of these thoughts — they are an invitation to prayer and surrender. When they return again and again, we can offer up a simple prayer like “Help Jesus.” We can also remember that processing the act can be part of healing. One of my seminary professors, psychologist Dr. Albert Rossi, compares this ongoing remembrance to stepping in and out of river. “They say that you can’t step in the same river twice,” Rossi said. “Each time you step in that river it is in fact a different river, but your foot is also a different foot.”
As time passes and we grow and transform, we understand the experience in fresh ways. This process is not unlike what a survivor of a traumatic accident might go through as they begin to piece their life back together and come to continually new understandings of what has happened and how the experience has changed them.
We become unstuck when we find a larger context for our own experience — when we begin to see our own pain as just one small drop in an ocean of aches. Or perhaps the pain can help us to awaken to some part of ourselves that is not yet whole. In Anne Lamott’s most recent book Grace (Eventually) she devotes four essays to what she calls “forgivishness.” She believes that sometimes the people who hurt us in our adult lives have come to heal something hidden and old in us. If nothing else, these encounters can show us where our sore points are.
We might want to say — maybe even scream — “Don’t touch me there!” But sometimes right there is the very place we need to be healed. When somebody rubs up against a sensitive spot, they help us to realize that we still have work to do, that we have imagined that we are further along than we actually are. We hold onto so many illusions about ourselves. Pain can sometimes help us to awaken to the reality that we must let those illusions go.
If forgiveness is like stepping in and out of river, then we know that healing has begun the day that we don’t want to go back to that river. We might always know the river is there, flowing through our lives, but we no longer feel a need to dip into that current. After that inner shift occurs, you feel compassion for the other and for yourself, and rage is replaced by sadness and hope. When forgiveness finally roots in you, you find you have nothing left to say at all.
The article was originally published on Boundless Webzine (link) - and the article image is provided courtesy of Boundless.