Two Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me (Or, That I Wish I Had Listened to When They Did)

I has occurred to me in the past few days that there are two things that are immutable – things that you cannot change. (1) is the past. (No need to thank me, brilliance is part of my job). (2) is a person who does not want to change.

I am slowly becoming aware of the reality that a person’s past is far more predictive of their present, and even future, than what I have been willing to admit. If we are all bent and broken people, it is because at some point in our past we have been bent or broken. It seems to me that we basically have two options open to us regarding those injuries. We can accept that bent and brokenness, we can “own” it, and then move forward to attempt to mend and heal those wounds; or we can deny it, repress it, or, barring any ability to shove it out of our psyche, we can blame others for it and attempt to live our lives free of any responsibility.

The past is done, over with. It is gone. It will never come back. Injuries are injuries, wounds are wounds, whether self-inflicted or others-inflicted. To deny them is really a symptom of insanity. But, on the other hand, to accept them, to “own” them, means that we have to consciously deal with pain – sometimes a great deal of pain. Sometimes it is just easier to “forget” or to repress those injuries. The problem is, our minds don’t ever really “forget.” And so a young wife explodes at her bewildered husband and begins divorce proceedings, not because of something that he is guilty of, but because some of his actions remind her of the manner in which her father treated her mother, and the pain is just too much to handle. Or, a young husband initiates a sexual affair with a co-worker, not because his wife is unaffectionate, but because he is desperately seeking the approval that he never received from his parents. Our past injuries really can and do cripple our present lives.

Unfortunately, in seeking to repress or deny those injuries all we do is to inflict further injury on others.

In regard to immutable truth #1 above, what I have learned is that to admit our past injuries, to recognize them for what they are, is neither to condemn the innocent nor to acquit the guilty. It is simply to say, “I am hurt. I am broken.” It is at that point that we can move on. I do not suggest this is easy, and certainly in many situations it will not be painless. But, I do suggest it is the most mature, and healthy, way to address our bent and brokenness.

In regard to immutable truth #2 above I am more at a loss, but never-the-less I think there are two healthy paths forward. The first is obviously the path of restoration, of redemption and renewal. This, just as obviously, involves the possibility that both parties are willing to come together and to work out all differences, either real or imagined. This, clearly, is the best option. But, sadly, in our fallen world it is not always possible.

In dealing with a person who has, by all indications, become unwilling or unable to change, I believe there are, once again, two paths open to us. The first is for us to apologize, sincerely and honestly, for any pain or injury that we may have caused. The apology may or may not be accepted. Most likely, it will not be, as it requires the other person to own and to work through their own pain. It will be easier for them to hold onto their grievance as a buffer to protect them from addressing their culpability, and perhaps even greater injustices in the past.

Second, and at great cost to ourselves, we will have to lay down the burden of carrying our grudges. I have written elsewhere about situations in which it is impossible to practice the true biblical forgiveness. (Seem my three part series beginning here –The Myth of Unconditional Forgiveness (1) [Uncertain Inferences Series]  To summarize in a sentence, if there is no repentance, if there is no request for forgiveness, there can be no genuine forgiveness, no restoration of a broken relationship. However, that does not excuse us from the possibility, and even at times the necessity, of laying down the crushing burden of resentment and anger. That is what Jesus called turning the other cheek, walking the second mile. It is what the apostle Paul called the willingness to be wronged, and not seek retaliation. And, it is brutally painful.

I am, by virtue of my humanity, a bent and broken person. I have likewise hurt others, many of whom I love and cherish very deeply. I have, in times past, been able to restore some of those broken relationships. With others, I have not been so fortunate. Many will never know how much I grieve those injuries and losses.

I would like to end this rather personal reflection with the words of one of my favorite poems. It is both beautiful and raw. It speaks to the very core of the questions I ask myself. It is, in a way, a beautiful prayer. I share it with you:

Who Am I?

Who am I? They often tell me
I step out of my cell
calm and cheerful and poised,
like a squire from his manor.

Who am I? They often tell me
I speak with my guards
freely, friendly, and clear,
as though I were the one in charge.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bear days of calamity
serenely, smiling and proud,
like one accustomed to victory.

Am I really what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird,
struggling for life breath, as if I were being strangled,
starving for colors, for flowers, for birdsong,
thirsting for kind words, human closeness,
shaking with rage at power lust and pettiest insult,
tossed about, waiting for great things to happen,
helplessly fearing for friends so far away,
too tired and empty to pray, to think, to work,
weary and ready to take my leave of it all?

Who am I? This one or the other?
Am I this one today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? Before others a hypocrite
and in my own eyes a pitiful, whimpering weakling?
Or is what remains in me like a defeated army,
fleeing in disarray from victory already won?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest me; O God, I am thine!

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Who Am I, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English), vol. 8, Letters and Papers from Prison, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), p. 459-460.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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