Healing from our Broken Places
Phil 2:4-11; Gal. 5:1, 13-15
Jesmond Ward grew up with her four siblings in Delilse, Mississippi, down where the Delta meets the coast in the deeper part of the Deep South. She grew up on the black side of Dixie. It is true that a great deal has changed in Mississippi over the past thirty years, but from the land of Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, she’s written a piece that explores the question of why, by the time that she was 25, were four boys that she knew- including a brother and a cousin- all dead.
They all died separately and in quite various ways - but in their own intricate way – it became a way for her to review her childhood community. Thinking in the broader sub-conscious trends that form the cultural ethos they all lived in, she says, ‘We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: you are nothing. We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, we were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”
As it turns out, this propensity for thinking that we are ‘not enough’ encompasses a much larger of our personal reflection on the meaning of our lives than you would imagine. Jesmond is describing the indirect after-effects of racism as it was (and is) in the Deep South. Substitute, addiction in our families- drugs and alcohol. Substitute, homelessness or economic precariousness. Substitute- dysfunctional family members. Substitute genetic patterns for depression and other medical maladies.
Even though, we may have left our childhood world far behind and even though we may have actually been fortunate to achieve much personal accomplishment. Even though, we have since known substantive love in our lives that is a lot more healthy, this ‘not enough’ mentality occupies the personal reflections of a much bigger proportion of the population than I would have imagined.
We mostly just carry around this inferiority complex by ourselves, especially if we have something that we think we really need to hide like the fact that our family has been homeless or my mother is a heroin addict. But, the literature suggests that the preponderance of us actually carry around some secret that we try to hide about ourselves, whether we should or not. We are worried, more that we wish we were, that we just aren’t good enough to be accepted, well liked or loved.
Even if it lies dormant for years, usually it surfaces again during the transition of the generations. Several years ago, we had a woman in town that was nearing the end of her life. The family had asked me to get involved because her 5 children were trying to decide just how much to do for her as her health was failing and she was transitioning to hospice care.
Like a lot of these situations, her medical situation was ambiguous and 1 or 2 kids wanted to pursue an aggressive line of treatment, two of the kids did not. There was a lot of back and forth, much of it amicable. But, there was also a lot of competitive humor in the Irish tradition of sarcasm. I’m sure they watched ‘All in the Family’ back in the 70’s and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the father in the family had been an Archie Bunker type.
All of them were in their 60’s when their mother was dying, but I remember at one point, one of the daughters had a suggestion for the group, something none of them had considered before. The oldest two in the family dismissed her out of hand, really because she was the fourth child in the family and they had never cared much about the fourth child’s opinion about anything when they were little and they still couldn’t figure out why they needed to pay her any attention now.
It was somewhat remarkable the way that they could jump back in time several decades to recall old scores, like ‘you don’t think I care? I care more than you did when you left our dog Checkers in the station wagon in the hot sun, nearly killed the dog from heat exhaustion while you and your girlfriend Courtney were making out at Stone Harbor.’
I’m thinking, the legal statue of limitations runs out after 7 years, but in families 7 decades seems like just a week ago. At any rate, hopefully we’ve changed from the person we were when we were in high school.
But that is not the point. If we have some time on our hands and we are together during the changing of the generations, we all do some processing of then and now, some sifting. And sometimes, some of these scores really still haven’t been settled and brothers and sisters will continue on settling them.
Over the weeks that their Mother lingered on, I had a chance to talk to four of the five kids, listen to them really process the passing of their parents and what their family had meant to each of them. They were probably a pretty typical family that goes through a process like this. One of the kids, a therapist, wanted to process more of their generation, dealing with all of the vices as well as the virtues. Three of the kids wanted to talk about it somewhat but selectively. One of them just wanted the family to gather, take a family portrait with everyone smiling, (i.e. remember the good things) and then just go home our separate ways.
They sort of represent all of the different voices in the choir inside our souls as we process the changing of the generation. In some ways we want to process the good and the bad and strategize about how we are going to avoid some of the things that we want to overcome and in other parts we just want to have this idealized sentiment that we can return to in the future when we need to recall the image of home.
I left an email message for my brother this summer, as our family is going through this, my father has died, my mother in the end stages of Alzheimer’s. It read, “I had one of those days when I came to grips with one of the gifts that I received from the previous generation, that thing in myself that I need to overcome in order to be lovable.” I titled it ‘The gift that keeps on giving’.
My brother wrote back, “Remember Alan”. My brother had taken me to an AA meeting on Capitol Hill. His is a very interesting AA meeting because it has Congressman, politicos of all types and the street guys from Washington.
“I’m Alan and I’m an alcoholic”… he began. And then he told this incredible story of success, risky behavior when his drinking started to get out of hand that made your stomach tighten, and the progressive dissolution of his friendships that ended with him driving home (dead drunk) one night when it was snowing in our nation’s capital. He gets to his home in MacLean, Virginia, drives down his driveway, can’t quite see where the driveway ends and the yard begins, ends up driving over the shrubbery into the front living room of his house through the magnificent picture window. He gets out of his car, now inside his home, decides he’ll deal with this in the morning, finds a piece of the couch and falls asleep.
He awakens in the morning, cops outside because apparently he’d been playing bumper cars on the way home to his house and had hit half a dozen things down his street. The cops get him up to talk and just then he notices his wife carrying out the last box of the things she had been hauling out for a couple hours now. She tells him she has filed for divorce and leaves.
I’m like, “Wow, you can’t make this up.” Then Alan said, “You know people often ask me, don’t you wish you hadn’t been born an alcoholic? When you look at how much damage it has done in your life. Don’t you wish you hadn’t lost your big job and your fantastic career arc? Don’t you wish you hadn’t lost your wife and your family? Don’t you wish you could just go back and live your life over without all of litter that alcohol caused you?”
“I tell them, I’m glad I was born an alcoholic. I’m grateful to be alive at all. I’ve learned a humility about living now. I have to say that really, I’m glad I’m an alcoholic. Truly sorry for the damage that I’ve done to my family and many of my friends, truly sorry for the irresponsible behavior I inflicted on all the people that worked for me.
“But, I’ve come to know so much about myself. I’ve grown so much and discovered what real faith is and what my purpose is on this earth. Since, I’ve been in recovery, I’ve learned how to be honest with myself and how to actually be available to love other people. I’m so grateful for the person that I’ve become through healing that it is hard for me to say what I would be like if I hadn’t gone through so much change in my life.
“I’m Catholic, and what I learned from Jesus is that he accepted the world as it is, not the way that He wanted it to be. He just accepted the world as it is. And he started to heal what he could right around him. And that is what I think my life is about now. I’m born broken. My family was born broken. Our society came to me broken before I was old enough to know it. My job is to offer some healing around the broken places.
I don’t have to be perfect anymore. I don’t have to be Mr. Big in order to be acceptable to myself. Once I was able to accept God’s acceptance of me, I found a new freedom and a new project. I am simply called to heal what I can in myself and what I can in the world around me. And this is enough”.
Alan, from MacLean, got it pretty close on what we should take away from Jesus. And the freedom that is speaks of, the almost giddy joy and release from the burdens of carrying around this great persona that he used to prop up, that is the beginning of the quest for authenticity in your life.
Most of us suffer from a kind of personal tyranny trying to become an image, a persona that someone else gave to us. Our culture holds up an image of success. Our well meaning parents, often compensating for their own inadequacies and insecurities, project onto us these hopes and dreams that they tell us we need to fulfill in order to be on the path of success. And we are perfectly capable of convincing ourselves that if we could just attain this status, if we could position ourselves in this social arena, we will be cool. It makes us restless and anxious, hyper-critical of ourselves.
Spiritually, it is inauthentic because we are trying to live as someone else. Jesus tells you that you are a child of God. You are acceptable just like you are. You don’t need to try to be somebody that you are not. You don’t have to live someone else’s blueprint for acceptable cool.
It takes us years of trying to be someone we are not, years of frustration around that and this strange dissatisfaction even when we are successful, because it is not us, really. And then one day, sometimes because we hit bottom like Alan from MacLean, or maybe because people around us really love us and give us the confidence to be who we are.
I hope for you that when the season of your life is right, you too will accept God’s acceptance of you. I hope that you will discover that freedom that comes from simply being honest about where you come from and what your life vector is about, the possibilities and also the broken places. I hope that you can find people to share yourself with, people that will support you for who you are and help you discover how and what you need to heal in your actual life, in the limited time we have left on what has been a really great adventure so far.
It is a vulnerable path to be sure, but it leads towards the door to authenticity and the deeper fulfillment that we might know in this life, not a perfect path, just the way of redemption. Peace be with you. Amen.