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The Wounded Prodigal Within Us

From Henri Nouwen’s  A Spirituality of Living

“We all have wounds…….It is a feeling of loneliness that lurks behind our successes, a feeling of uselessness that hides under all the praise we receive…….that makes us grab onto people and expect from them an affection and love they cannot give. If we want other people to give us something that only God can give, we become a heavy burden.”

Nouwen goes on to say: “I love Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son. The father holds his child, touches his child, and says, ‘You are my beloved. I’m not going to ask you any questions. Wherever you have gone, whatever you have done, and whatever people say about you, you’re my beloved. You can come home to me whose name is Compassion, whose name is Love.’

Nouwen says, “ If we keep that in mind, we can deal with an enormous amount of success as well as an enormous amount of failure without losing our identity, because our identity is that we are the beloved. Long before our father and mother, our brothers and sisters, our teachers, our church or anyone else touched us in a loving or wounding way —— long before we were rejected by some person or praised by someone else-that voice was there. ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love.’

That love was there before we were born and will be there after we die. A life of fifty, sixty, seventy, or a hundred years is just a little moment in which we have been given time to say, ‘Yes, I love you too.’ ”

Henri Nouwen was a priest theologian/author who toward his later years went to live and minister in a settlement for the mentally challenged.
This quote is from a tiny gem of a book put together from insights from his other books, called A Spirituality of Living.

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Ode to Those that Climb the Mountains of Disabilities

A granddaughter and a great-grandson graduated from different high schools this weekend.  They each beamed with pride as did I.  It has been a long and arduous journey for both of them.  One suffered the confusion of spoken language that Autism brings and the other the confusion of written language that Dyslexia causes.

They were blessed because they each had caring parents and grand-parents, special teachers and even therapists. But ultimately the challenge was theirs and no one else could do it for them.  They made it because they persevered.

I never was sure that the hours I spent trying to help them made anything easier for them, but it formed a bond for me with them that will always keep them in my heart in a deep tender spot soft from tears unshed and I pray that I will always be in theirs, even when I’m no longer here.

Their journey isn’t over and neither are the challenges they face, but their graduation days mark an accomplishment that few can understand.  Often it has meant struggling with things that seemed simple to others, so their amazing achievements went unnoticed and unsung.  And because their differences set them apart, they often walked alone, unnoticed and unaffirmed.

But those of us that have shared their journey know that while others jumped small hurdles, they climbed mountains to get to the same goals.

We saw and heard the fears, discouragement and frustration they overcame, so we celebrate their achievement as unsung Olympian Medalists in courage, determination and perseverance.

The Trap of Depression

I need to start with a disclaimer. My struggle with depression and the things that have helped me may not help anyone else. And there may be things that would have helped me more. I also believe that we are born with different chemical balances and that stages of life like puberty, pregnancy, and change of life can cause balances to get more out of whack for some people.(How’s that for medical terminology.)
Also, when the chips are down, I do believe deeply that I am loved, just as I am, by the only One who actually makes much difference at my stage of life and that means I know I am not alone when down in the pit of despair.

Depression is the emotional equivalent of an abscessed tooth. Self-hatred is a judgement and judgment is like cement that sets emotion into stone.The one thing about emotions is they are normally changeable, but self-hatred for being depressed locks us into the depression.

Those of us who have high, possibly unrealistic, expectations of ourselves and of life are vulnerable not only to depression, but particularly to a sense of failure and inadequacy that triggers self-hatred.

Depression is painful. And pain of any kind both saps our energy and centers us in on ourselves. (Remember the abscessed tooth.)

My first step for getting out of the mire of depression is to accept it. That doesn’t mean wallowing or giving up hope. It means accepting the reality of it, like we would an excruciating toothache, and cutting ourselves some slack by prioritizing and minimizing our obligations to the world. When we first experience the darkness of despair, we may need to stop our everyday world and get off for a time, but as we learn coping skills
we can lower our expectations and at least continue functioning in areas of our strengths. Eventually, if we get smart enough, we quit trying to give 120 % in our up times, so in the down times we can just slow down the pace a little and cope.

I’m convinced some of the problem is cultural, patriarchal, in fact. In the old hunter/warrior society emotions were considered weakness. We have to shut out empathy to kill a deer or a person. When we have to do these things to keep our family, village or tribe alive, we learn to compartmentalize our feelings. I’ve noticed that generally men handle women’s anger much better than our tears. I’ve known husbands that told their wives to stay in the bathroom to cry. I knew a seasoned Army Staff Sergeant, a veteran of two wars, who asked to be transferred from a safe cushy posting to a dangerous no frills one, because all his officers were women and they cried at Staff meetings. I could understand his reaction, but couldn’t help but wonder if all the officers in the various armies sat around crying would it cut down on wars?

I’m personally convinced that tears are a healthy release for tension and possibly one of the reasons women outlive men.

However, life goes on even when our every movement is like wading through quick sand and having to make even the smallest decision sets off panic. If we had an actual abscessed tooth, we would cut ourselves some slack and so would the world. But at this point in our culture, unless we are hospitalized, we and the world expect us to continue just as we usually do.

Some of us seem to be born with personalities that see possibilities, usually ideal scenarios, not necessarily based on life’s realities. We are not always easily identifiable, we may take on disguises such as Goth attire or metal appendages and flaunt the dark side to hide our fragile dreams of being heroes and our inner fear that there are no heroes.

Sometimes, we hide behind sarcasm or cynicism.

But, the truth is almost all humans are ordinary. We aren’t qualified to be extraordinary or called to save the world.

We are called to give a cup of water to the thirsty, a smile of welcome to the outcast, a hug to the discouraged, a piece of art to call attention to the beauty of the world, or a poem to remind us of others’ suffering, a song to soften hearts, laughter to lighten heavy hearts, even the gift of our honesty about our own failures to share our freedom to be a fallible human with others.

The list goes on and on and doesn’t require heroic measure or extraordinary talent.

I seem to have been born one of those with big dreams, high hopes, and many ideas. Unfortunately, I am lousy at detail and loathe the boredom of repetition, so my dreams and ideas remain just that, dreams and ideas. I’ve always hurt for others, worried about the whole world, and still sometimes have to work through the paralysis of depression when I can’t fix life for those I love who are in pain. It has taken me a long time to admit that it was hubris to think I could save the world or anyone in it. And that struggling with that delusion kept me from doing what I actually can do.

I used to not go to funerals because I couldn’t think of anything miraculously healing to say and feeling others’ sadness sent me into depression. Then, when my own father died, I realized that each person there represented someone that cared enough to come and that it truly helped me to know that his life mattered to others. They didn’t need to say anything.

My son, Tommy, when he was about three, taught me that you don’t have to say anything to help people feel loved. He would be doing his little boy thing and would suddenly stop and come over smiling to pat my hand or shoulder and then just go right back to what he was doing.
I called them “Tommy pats” and eventually when I saw a rainbow or caught all the green lights when running late, I called those, “God’s Tommy pats.” And even now, Julian and I will often stop and give each other a smile and a “Tommy pat.”

Once, when I was overwhelmed by fear of the lifelong consequences of a bad decision by one of my children, I poured out my heartbreak to my friend Paige. She simply wept with me. It’s hard to describe how much that helped me. Someone cared enough to feel my pain with me. I wasn’t alone inside it.

So, what I finally know now, is that when I am depressed because I am not extraordinary or heroic and even perhaps have lost it and made life darker for someone else, I can humbly do the ordinary. And if we all do these little things, no one will go thirsty, or be alone in their sorrow, or feel unloved. And we all, even the depressed, will experience the reality of the Psalm that says, “But then comes the morning, yesterdays sorrows behind.”

Life is a School

Life is a school where tests are not about passing or failing, but are a learning tool instead. Loneliness is a universal experience meant to fuel a lifelong quest for God. And the vulnerabilities of those we love open us to prayer. Then the joy of loving leads us from just crying “Help!” to celebrations of “Thanks” and “Praise.” Lack of money challenges us to learn to live by God’s priorities. Loss of health brings us to depend on Him. The old are freed from caring what others think; they see that only God’s opinion matters. And recess comes when once we admit we’ve passed our peak, we’re free to just be comic relief.

The Journey

At first, it seemed as if God walked
through the garden of my life
on velvet kitten paws,
gifting me with fleet impression
of brushing soft caress,
leaving feather light prints
in the tender earth
of my spirit.

But, in later times, God climbed
the granite mountain of my will
using painful stake and hobnail boots
to gain each foothold,
bringing about His kingdom
through the thundering voice
of circumstance.

Then recently, I sensed God lost,
absent on Sabbatical
of undetermined length,
leaving only fading echoes
in my memory.
Until at last, in desert night
and aching loneliness,
I faced my emptiness
and discovered Her within.