growth

Out of pierced and broken hearts...

“What do you do with your losses?”

I remember reading this sentence in Henri Nouwen’s book With Burning Hearts about eight months ago and thinking, “Yes, Henri. Please tell me: what can be done with our losses?”

Those who are in pain tend to spend a lot of time thinking about the purposes pain serves, what we might do with it, what is happening to us when we are in it, if we actually have to pass through (instead of around) it… and many other questions like this. And it could not be a more human thing to do – to ask questions and interrogate our pain. Though I don’t think it’s essential for us to understand pain for it to transform us, I have been thinking a lot this past year about why pain transforms us and what is happening when we are in the dark nights of our souls.

I really enjoy the less visible people in stories, and as I was considering pain and broken-heartedness, I was reminded of a man mentioned in the Bible named Simeon. Simeon shows up only very briefly in the New Testament around the time Jesus was born. The particular story in which he shows up is where Jesus has just been circumcised (welcome to the world, Jesus!) and Mary and Joseph were faithfully carrying out all the Jewish ceremonies around having a new baby. Only a few things are said about Simeon: 1) He was a just and devoted man; 2) he was a man who had very eagerly anticipated the arrival of the Anointed One because of the promised liberation he would bring, and 3) he was very attuned to the Spirit. The story in Luke chapter 2 says that Simeon woke up that day feeling prompted by the Spirit to go to the temple, so he did. And there his dream came true.

He held Jesus in his arms, this newborn who would do things Simeon would never see in his Earthly lifetime. I like to imagine that, in looking into this little baby’s eyes and holding his warm little body, Simeon could perhaps see in that moment all that would come to pass – the pain, the freedom, the vastness. I like to imagine he could see and feel all the surrender, the opening, the One-ing, and the freedom that would come through the life of this sweet, brand new child who was the Light of the Cosmos. This tiny body of the One who manifested all things from poetry and stardust would grow up to be pierced and torn apart by hatred and addiction to certainty. So helpless and utterly dependent, this baby would become the man who would entangle Himself with all humankind for their total, unstoppable liberation. As Simeon was standing there after seeing this, he says, “I can die in peace now.”

Then out of the space of this deeply life-changing moment, Simeon looks at Mary and essentially says to her: He will pierce human hearts. And out of those pierced hearts will pour the secrets of humankind. He will pierce even your soul, Mary.

Can you imagine?

This tells me something about what we might do with our losses – our pierced and broken hearts. When our hearts are broken, we cannot help but see what is inside them. We cannot help but see exposed thoughts, feelings, defenses, fears, loves… Some of these will not be surprising, some of these will be total strangers to us, and I daresay some of these will be downright terrifying. But what is Human Life if we do not allow ourselves to see and integrate all the pieces of ourselves into the whole that is the True Self? We are left incomplete and fragmented. We might tell ourselves that we’re good just knowing what is easy to know. But that's simply not true. The things about us that are the hardest to see are the very things that are our greatest teachers. And perhaps our greatest liberators.

When our hearts are pierced and broken and our secrets pour out of our wounds, we can name them accurately and truthfully. And this is not so we can wallow and fester in our shame, but so we can make them available to the healing power of the Light. In fact, the most integral aspect of of Jesus’s liberation mission as the Light of the Cosmos is to shine this healing light on human hearts. Heart wounds, by definition, open closed hearts. We feel vulnerable in pain because, well, we are. While our social and cultural constructs have instructed us that vulnerability and authenticity is scary and bad, it is only this kind of opening that allows the transformative Light of the Cosmos to freely make its way into us.

One of my favorite recorded statements Jesus ever makes is found in John 8:12: I am the Light that shines through the cosmos; if you walk with Me, you will thrive in the Nourishing Light that gives Life and will not know darkness. 

So what do we do with our losses? We name the wounds, the piercings, the pains. And we look upon and listen to the secrets that pour out of them. We face ALL the things we see (not just the “pretty” ones) with confidence and assurance, trusting that somehow the Light heals because that’s what is promised. Heartbreak gives us the opportunity to become more receptive people – exposing us to what we need; opening us to growth, expansion, birth; and helping us make space for all things within us and around us to belong, even the tensions and longings that scare us.

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In what ways does your heart stand pierced and broken, asking to be heard? Can you look at the secrets, those precious and sacred teachers, and allow their authenticity to lead you toward your own integration and liberation? If it feels overwhelming, that's okay. What is just one thing you can choose to name and hold today?

The Best Four Dollars I Ever Spent (Twice)

On a cold rainy night my sophomore year of college, my roommate was out of town. I decided to be my best introvert-self so I headed to the video store in search of a good story. This particular video store had a bin near the front that was full of old discounted VHS movies they didn't see fit to rent out anymore. This was always my go-to spot, and I went digging.

There were some really terrible movies in that bin, like the kind of movies that are not quite bad enough to fulfill the so-bad-it's-good movie requirements, but bad enough that you wonder who in their right mind would fund its production. But that night the bargain bin had a treasure for me: Good Will Hunting, $4.00. I hadn't seen it before, and it was only a dollar more to buy this copy than to rent it. So I headed out with my new movie in hand.

I don't remember the exact details of what happened inside me after I pressed play, except that some thoughts like these that ran through my head: "Why aren't more people like this Sean Maguire character?" (played by Robin Williams), and "I bet doctoral degrees cost a fortune," and "How on earth did a couple of 20-something-year-olds write this??"

Though I remember those thoughts being fast and fleeting, I remember one thing very clearly: that was the night I decided I wanted to pursue being a counselor.

For lots of reasons too personal to mention here, it took me ten years to get my masters in Professional Counseling, but every job I've ever done since that moment has included some form of walking alongside people in a lot of pain. Arguably, the innate gifts needed to be a counselor lie within a person, but meaningful stories like Good Will Hunting can awaken such gifts in a person and open our eyes to new desires and aspirations. (In my mind, this is one of the purposes of story-telling.)

I remember this film revealing to me some of the differences between popular mental health/person care and quality mental health/person care. This was pretty big considering when the story was written, the mental health field was just beginning to shed its stigmas. The subtle commentary made by this film about the importance of the quality of care may have even helped the field of counseling become what it is today. Who knows.

I also remember this film busting a myth for me. It made me realize therapists don't have special powers, they are not superhuman. Quite the opposite in fact.

One essential quality of a "good" therapist or helper is a clear awareness of one's own strengths & limitations without being more focused on these things than he/she is on the person directly in front of them.

A "good" therapist isn't using the person he is helping to make him feel good about himself or good at his job. When I heard Curt Thompson (a deeply dear and wise helper) speak in Philadelphia last Spring, he invited us to ask ourselves this question: Do you ever unconsciously categorize a therapy session as a “good session" simply because it makes you feel like a good therapist? (Ouch. But also, thank you.) This is a lesson well-taught in Good Will Hunting. The main character, Will, cycles through several "shrinks" before meeting one who cares more about Will than he does about feeling like a good therapist.

Fast forward several years.

Last Monday (quite poignantly, a day before the one year anniversary of Robin Williams's death) I was running errands and came across my old friend, the video bargain bin. I went digging. And before I knew it I had a DVD in my hand and I was headed for the register with a smile that must have made it look like I just heard an inside joke.

Good Will Hunting, $4.00.

How does anyone get this lucky TWICE in a lifetime?!, I asked myself. That night my husband and I watched it, and I realized that I appreciate this film more every time I watch it. I also pondered just how ahead of its time it was. And how ahead of my time it was, and how surprisingly formative it's been in making me the therapist I am today.

I may not have realized this as a sophomore in college, but when I watched this film it may have been the first time I realized (before I even really realized) how much being a good listener and helper requires a total revamping of one's measuring stick for and definition of “success.”

Have you ever stopped to consider what may be happening in moments where there is what we may call deafening silence? At least in the Western world, we seem to be programmed to automatically believe that nothing is happening when there is no sound or motion. It makes people feel awkward and compels them to fill the silence, perhaps believing silence and stillness is a waste of time. I disagree with that, however.

What if, in the midst of silence, an internal something that is far bigger and more important than any external counterpart is occurring?

In the film, Will and Sean (his "shrink") have at least two sessions where literally no words are spoken. Does this have any value or is this a huge waste of time and money? I think we're inclined to say, "This is a waste. No progress is being made." This story, however, gives a very realistic example of the power of silence. These dead-silent sessions end up being crucial moments where the therapist earns Will's trust. The movie never comes out and says this explicitly, but I think when Will’s therapist shows him he can handle the silence, he also shows Will that he can handle a lot of other things that normally make people uncomfortable.

Sean, the therapist, chooses the person over an attempt to have something clear to “show” by the end of session. This builds a bridge between them that leads to actual change instead of just “results.”

Now, I know this is just a story, and one story at that. But it’s a really good story. And I can now say after many years of experience with people, it's actually pretty realistic. If you are a therapist, a social worker, a professor, a helper of any kind, please watch this movie again and again. You will see new things each time. It will open up new hidden things in you, I would bravely bet. And if nothing else, you will get a taste of what good listening looks like.


Food for further thought: If you are in a helping profession, what are some barriers for you as you seek to find balance between empirically-sound care for people and the kind of care that can’t necessarily be measured in an hour? Who helps keep you in balance?