by M. Elaine Dillhunt, O.S.B.
A husband walks out on wife and family, a drunken driver kills a child, a mother mistreats her children, an uncle sexually abuses a young niece, a teenager insults her mother. Someday all these events will likely become the material of memories that need healing.
We are all hurt as we journey through this life. Sometimes we are able to let go of the hurts, no matter how severe. At other times, we hold on to them and let them blot out the joy and beauty of other life experiences. The unfaithfulness of a spouse, the injustice of an employer, the abuse of a parent, the rejection by a friend are examples of hurts that can cling and sting years after they're experienced.
A 20-year-old woman says, "A teacher gave me an F once on a test because she thought I'd cheated. Years later I saw her and very deliberately and with pleasure snubbed her." A middle-aged man says, "I saw the guy who fired me 20 years after it happened and I wanted to punch him in the nose."
A 60-year-old widow says, "I never forgave my mother for being drunk all the time while we were growing up. I left home when I was 18 and never saw her again even though I heard later that she had quit drinking."
Why try to heal life's hurts?
To continue carrying hurts is to choose to continue to hurt. Just as we would seek help and healing immediately if we suffered a gunshot wound or a dog bite, we need to seek healing when we suffer equivalent wounds to our emotions. Not doing so can damage our spiritual, emotional and even physical well-being. Holding on to hurts is like carrying red-hot coals inside us that can be fanned into flames at the least expected moment.
Jesus tells us to let go of our grudges and do good to those who hate us. Psychologists today give us similar advice. They tell us that we have the power to lighten the burdens we carry and that forgiving is one way of doing that.
Some medical scientists say that feeding the wounds of emotional hurts precipitates heart disease, cancer, digestive problems, high blood pressure and mental breakdown. Some doctors see a link between cancer and the tendency to hold resentment and nurse hurts.
Studies show that the human mind and the immune system are closely linked. If you are holding on to memories of hurtful—perhaps evil—experiences in your life, you could very well be hampering your body's ability to fight infection and disease (causing disease in the body's normal functioning).
Our spiritual lives are affected too when we allow past hurts to be part of who we are. Because people have hurt us, we keep our distance from those who could love us—and from those who need our love. When hurts are not healed, we find it difficult to see Christ in those around us and to be Christ for those around us. Relationships are overshadowed with memories of past hurts and, in blocking relationships with others, we block Christ who wants to relate to us through others.
Each of the Church's sacraments begins with a brief rite of reconciliation; unless we are reconciled (healed), the sacrament cannot be fully effective.
In this Update we offer you seven suggestions for the healing of those memories that keep you from living life fully today.
1) Admit that you hurt.
Often it's hard to admit we're hurting. "I'm O.K.," we stoically tell ourselves. "She can't hurt me," we tell others, and "Big boys and girls don't cry."
Admitting you're hurting is one of the first steps toward healing. Running away from pain is the source of all emotional illness, says M. Scott Peck in The Road Less Traveled. To be emotionally healthy, we must embrace the pain of life's hurts.
"The more we are in touch with reality and cope with it, no matter how painful it may be," says Father Martin Padovani (in Healing Wounded Emotions), "the better mental and emotional well-being we enjoy...."
Jesus says, "Pick up your cross and follow me." The hurts of our life are crosses to pick up, to face and to embrace. Denying our hurt feelings is the way to give them control over us and our behavior.
Part of taking a realistic look at our hurt is looking at the "payoff" we get from holding on to it. Does it allow us to maintain a false "poor me" stance? Is it a protective shield saying, "Don't touch; I'm fragile"? Is it a way of escaping the risks of ever loving again?
A friend once told me, "If I let go of the anger and bitterness that have filled me for so long, I'm afraid there will be nothing left but an empty shell. That anger is all I have to let me know I'm alive."
But the wisdom Jesus offers us is that, when we let go of hurts, there's something better that can fill the void—something that is life-giving and sustaining. lt's what sustained him when people he loved turned away, when those he trusted betrayed him, when he hung alone on the cross. It's God's healing, unconditional, overflowing love for each of us.
2) Know you are loved.
The second step in healing a hurt is becoming aware of how much you are loved. Dennis and Matthew Linn, who have coauthored eight books on healing life's hurts, conduct healing retreats and workshops all over the country. Before one of their retreats in the Midwest recently, I talked with them about their personal experiences with healing and what they tell others as they travel around the country.
Dennis Linn is convinced that we can face hurts only to the extent that we feel loved. Oftentimes, he says, people have not allowed expressions of love to enter their awareness. "We have all been loved and cared for or we wouldn't be alive," he says. And we need to let these experiences soak in.
In my own personal experience, I have found that, if we have a day in which we get four or five affirmations and one cutting remark, most of us tend to remember (and feel hurt about) the cutting remark and forget the affirmations. Sometimes when I give workshops on human relations, I ask participants to recall and list some of the ways they've been loved, to experience again how it felt to be hugged by a grandson, or surprised by friends with a birthday party, or told, "I love you."
If we let the light of the realization that we are loved shine through the darkness of our hurts, we can begin to let go of the hurts. God values us "more than many sparrows," Scripture says, and carries us as an eagle carries its young. In love, God offers us Jesus in order to be united with us. As we let this awareness in, we allow new healing tissue to form around life's wounds. As we open our eyes to the many ways God's love is manifested in the life-giving beauty and events of our lives, and in the love that others have for us, we begin to risk living in a present awareness of love instead of with past hurts.
I sometimes think the primary task of this life is to become convinced of God's great love for us. Perhaps that's the resurrection, the rebirth that awaits us.
3) Don't automatically blame yourself for the things you suffer.
If Jesus taught us anything, he taught us that pain, suffering and death precede resurrection and freedom from pain. He was mocked, scourged, spit upon—through no fault of his own—and we can expect the same.
Some of our healing is dependent upon knowing that usually it's not our fault when tragedy strikes or when others hurt us. If we have enough self-esteem, we won't take on blame, for example, if another person treats us cruelly. I've found in my teaching experience that people hurt others because they've been hurt—usually by someone other than their victim. Pseudo-healers are all too quick to ask what you did to "cause" or incite the hurt. Feeling guilty about another's behavior or even about a health problem is not a way to heal your hurts—nor is telling yourself that you "shouldn't" feel hurt or angry.
It's O.K. to be angry at misfortune or with someone who has hurt you. When slapped by the guard of the high priest, Jesus confronted him for the injustice: "Why do you strike me?" (John 18:23). The Linn brothers say that feeling anger at being emotionally hurt is as healthy a reaction as feeling pain from a physical hurt. Those who love themselves, they say, get angry when they're hurt emotionally, whereas people who don't love themselves assume the passive victim role, get depressed and even suicidal. So it's helpful when you're hurting to remember that Jesus before you was an innocent victim and yet was not everybody's doormat.
4) Share your story of hurt.
Tell the story of your hurt in the warm presence of a trusted friend or a journeying companion as a way of healing the wounded emotion. In The Wounded Healer, Father Henri Nouwen describes the healing power of a person who knows what it's like to be hurt, a person who has been wounded. If you can tell your story to a "wounded healer" and allow yourself to be comforted by that person, it's another step toward letting go of it.
We all know some people who sound like a "broken record" as they neurotically repeat and relick their wounds. They may need to control this habit. Here, however, we are talking to those who don't share their hurts at all. If you are one of these, know that it is not healthy to keep it all inside.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance) fits beautifully into this picture. This sacrament is a source of healing grace for many Catholics and an opportunity to unload the pain of hurt. In telling our story to a priest, being repentant about our failure to forgive the one who offended us, and expressing a desire for reconciliation—even with those who may have died since they hurt us—we find healing. God's loving forgiveness of us expressed in this sacrament enables us to forgive those who have hurt us, to understand the pain that may have motivated their treatment (or mistreatment) of us, and to release finally the hurt that has enslaved us. By taking our hurt to this sacrament, we open the way for God to do the healing.
There are other ways of promoting healing by walking with trusted companions in a supportive climate. For example, more and more people today are finding peace of mind through spiritual direction or psychological counseling. Many rely on help in the form of psychotherapy or by joining support groups as a way of getting in touch with and healing their life's hurts. In cases where our hurts have been suppressed for a long time, it may be helpful to seek out a qualified therapist to help us bring them to consciousness so that healing can begin.
5) Turn to Jesus for healing.
For Christians, Jesus is the greatest healer we know and the most trustworthy friend we have. He is the healer of wounds par excellence. Throughout the Gospels we see him healing people over and over again. The physically, spiritually, emotionally wounded go to him for his healing touch, word, glance, prayer. "What do you want?" he asks.
"If you want to, you can heal me."
And Jesus answers, "Of course, I want to." Of course, Jesus wants to heal us: We have only to ask. Since he came that we might "have life and have it to the full," we are assured that he desires our healing.
When I go to Jesus for healing, I've found it effective first to share with him how I feel: how I hurt, how I may even harbor feelings of revenge, how awful it is carrying the hurt alone. Jesus does not judge or scold; he listens with compassion and empathy. When you use this method, you allow Jesus to hurt with you, to be angry at the sin with you.
Next, you go back to the experience of the hurt with Jesus at your side. Relive the terror, the fright, the confusion, the pain, the panic in Jesus' presence. Ask him to be with you as you experience the angry words, the aching heart, the dull stare of the hurt again. Walk through the agony with Jesus.
Then begin to listen to what he has to say to you. Review Jesus' own response to abuse and suffering. Perhaps he'll speak to you through Scripture; perhaps in the quiet of your heart. If you're open to his word, knowing that he is the great healer, Jesus will tell you what you need to know or do to be healed.
Once when I was using this method of healing and was at this stage, Jesus said, "You know I love you." That felt good. Then Jesus said, "And I love her, too" (the person who had hurt me).
"If you love the likes of her," I cried, "I don't want your love." I thus became aware of how hard it is at times for me to forgive.
Sometimes Jesus needs to make us aware of our own sinfulness before he can heal us. This was an opportunity for me to remember how much God loves me—even when I'm at my worst. In so doing, I came to forgive the person who had hurt me.
6) Be patient and persistent.
Healing takes time. We need to have the persistence of the Canaanite woman whom Jesus first ignored and then refused to respond to after her plea to heal her daughter (Matthew 15:21-28). She wouldn't take no for an answer and through a mixture of wit and boldness convinced Jesus to heal the child. Or consider the patience of the blind man (Mark 8:22-26), whom Jesus asked after his initial attempt to heal him: "Do you see anything?"
"I see people looking like trees and walking."
Jesus' second laying on of hands restored his sight completely.
Or emulate the humility of Peter. Three times he answered Jesus' question, "Do you love me, Peter?" (John 21:15-17) until his endurance paid off.
Sometimes Jesus might want us to take a more active role—more responsibility—for our own healing as in the story of the man born blind (John 9). "He wants me to go wash in the pool of Siloam? What kind of healer is this?" the man must have asked himself. But he did what Jesus said and was healed.
I find that sometimes by hanging in there and letting go of little hurts it becomes easier to let go of the big ones. Once I prayed and prayed to be free of a hurtful memory with seemingly no results. Then I experienced a lesser hurt for which I was planning retaliation. When the opportunity came, I chose instead to speak a kind word to the person who had hurt me. Soon after that I realized I had been healed of the hurt I'd been carrying for years.
Proverbs (25:22) tells us we can heap red-hot coals on our enemies' heads by loving them. A student of mine once interpreted this as an invitation to vengeance. "By being nice to the people who have hurt me I'll make them squirm," he said. "I'll make them sorry they ever hurt me."
I think, rather, we "destroy" the enemy in the sense that we no longer have an enemy when we remove the self-diminishing red-hot coals of hatred and bitterness we've carried for so long. The rest of the passage from Proverbs says, "And the Lord will reward you." The Lord rewards loving behavior, not vengeance.
Because it's not always easy to let go of deep-seated feelings or grudges, it's good to recall that love is often a decision more than a feeling. We can make decisions that transcend our feelings and trust that in time our feelings will fall in line.
"How can we love someone who has hurt us?" we ask. If we behave as if we love the person, says spiritual writer Father John Powell, someday we'll discover that we do love them. By behaving as if we love our enemy (even though all the while we may be remembering the hurt), someday we'll discover that we have been healed.
7) Discover the healing power of centering prayer.
Another action that can heal hurts is of a very different nature—a more passive yet intense kind of action. It is to practice the kind of prayer in which we let go of everything (words, thoughts, prayer techniques, images, everything) and simply go very quietly to the center of our being where God is. In this healing prayer we are simply aware of our oneness with God. It's called centering prayer. Father Thomas Keating says there are some hurts that are so deep that only this kind of prayer can heal them.
Keating uses the analogy of a surgeon putting us to sleep to fix what needs fixing. So God uses centering prayer (in which we are so unaware of anything except the nearness of God that it's similar to sleep) to heal some of our deepest—perhaps even unconscious—hurts.
As we put aside all hurts, concerns, hopes, fears, joys, plans, thoughts and feelings, we are in intimate union with God and God's healing presence at the core of our being. If we take the time (perhaps 20 minutes once or twice a day) to be with God in this kind of "centering" prayer, we will find that our life is happier, our burdens are lighter, our hurts are healed.
How do you know when you're healed?
Most spiritual writers say that when you are grateful for the experience that hurt you, you know that you're healed. Not that you would ever be grateful for the untimely death of a child or for having suffered physical abuse, but, rather, you are grateful for the growth, the greater capacity to love and understand and to feel with others.
When you can think of the hurt with feelings of gratitude, peace and even joy rather than with feelings of anger and pain, you know you are healed. "When we can forgive our offender as completely and unconditionally as God forgives us, then we no longer experience the past hurts as painful times but as times of growth," say the Linn brothers in their book Healing Life's Hurts.
God brings good out of evil: We know that from the life of Jesus. God is waiting and wanting to bring good out of the hurt you've experienced.
Forgetting is not one of the signs of being healed. You may be healed of the hurt, but still remember it. Whoever said that "to forgive is to forget" was oversimplifying.
We need to remember. To remember our pain and healing is to remember that God brings good out of evil. Remembering helps us know we really are capable of loving our enemies. Remembering puts us in contact, again, with the healing Jesus. We want to exchange these Spirit-filled memories for the destructive memories that kept the hurting wound open. Embracing these new memories is like embracing the risen Jesus who tells us that after the pain there's new life.
M. Elaine Dillhunt, O.S.B., is a Benedictine from St. Walburg Monastery in Covington, Kentucky. She has been writing for the Catholic press for more than 10 years. She teaches in the Communications Department at Northern Kentucky University.