We have all been wounded. I remember seeing the phrase, “Hurt people hurt people.” These wounds can be crippling and take years, if not decades, for their effects to be realized. Often we may not recognize that a trigger from an old wound is still very much relevant in the present, and a reaction we have to a straightforward interaction or comment may be deeply rooted.
Thanks to the fall from grace into sin in the Garden of Eden, we now suffer the results of giving in to temptation. Sin, pain, hatred, anger, and the negative attributes of humanity are active and have integrated themselves into our collective history. Brokenness, disparity, poverty of every kind, but especially poverty of love and spirit, have damaged us.
I worked at a free clinic for the uninsured population during college and for several years after that. In addition to the local clinic, I began to travel internationally with a medical missionary organization. When I started this work, I began to encounter and experience the patients as angry, defensive, short, argumentative and impatient. I took this personally for a long time, afraid, unaware and ignorant of their circumstances. I did not know how to talk to or reason with people who were so enraged at those trying to help them.
When in Nicaragua on medical missions, the chaos and frustration of the mothers begging us to examine their children, asking for vitamins and a cure for their baby’s runny nose and malnutrition was ever-present. It was easy to feel taken advantage of, irritated, and annoyed with the constant questions and demands of these women. I had no frame of reference for their behavior, and very little (if any) understanding of their culture. I loved the work I was doing, but did not understand the depth of it.
I distinctly remember a day at the free clinic when a man I previously thought of as bitter started opening up to me during a normal conversation. I had offered him a number of resources to consider which would allow him more access to available community services. This was a conversation I had numerous times with each patient who came for care at our clinic. I was mystified as to why these individuals, so in need of resources, would refuse to go to appointments for public assistance or sign up for low-cost medication programs.
When I offered him another chance to complete an application for a county-wide insurance program, he brought me the paper and began to speak. He informed me of the humiliation of sitting in the offices where these programs are offered, the way in which he and countless others were judged and criticized and insulted and called lazy, drunks, slackers, and labeled as taking advantage of the system. He has a permanent disability from an injury on the job, and in the decades since being unable to work, or doing odd jobs to try and make ends meet, he was continually told he was a drain on resources and to get back to being “a contributing member of society.”
He told me he was tired of being judged, yelled at, devalued and being spoken to like he was not intelligent. The problem of material and physical poverty, the pain of broken family ties, and the bitterness with such hardship throughout his life were evident. And yet listening to him, I began to see better his humanity, and how at the base of our differing experiences, we wanted the same thing: to be heard, understood and loved for who we are.
I began to experience the same understanding when working in Nicaragua, and when working in Haiti in subsequent years. I experience the same in my interactions with my patients and colleagues in the hospital. Just last week I had a deep conversation with the mother of a patient who is critically ill. She was speaking of the powerlessness and helplessness she felt in the face of her son’s illness which may very well lead to his death. She is in her most vulnerable state, unable to control what is happening during each day and broken with the pain of watching him suffer. As we spoke, I found myself in the same place I was with the gentleman at the clinic so many years ago, and I was able to see the similarity in this mom’s experience with his.
We have come from families with cycles of dysfunction. We have experienced abuse growing up. We have lived through breaks in friendships, conflicts and traumas caused by others. And the high likelihood is that we have also had a hand in causing traumas or wounding others as well. Some wounds are easy to forgive and we are able to see and identify the cause, resolving it easily. Other wounds are deeper. Words are said which cut into our beliefs about ourselves. Violations happen which break us physically, emotionally, sexually, and spiritually.
Trust is betrayed, unhealthy patterns are established and continued generationally, defenses are employed and walls are built. Some people choose to live in unforgiveness and hatred. I understand that some wounds and traumas are severe, and I do not diminish the tremendous suffering that can occur and has occurred in the lives of those affected by violence or abuse. There are men and women who have committed horrific acts and display evidence of the great evil that exists in the world today. Our lives are altered by the wounding we experience, and we live differently sometimes without even realizing how we have changed.
I have worked extensively with therapists throughout my adult life and most recently have been unpacking traumatic memories through EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is a specific type of therapy which helps us re-program and rewrite the narrative of our lives as we process deep wounds. Through this therapy I have come to realize some significant things as they relate to those who caused the traumas I have endured, and how I have lived with their effects.
One thing my therapist regularly tells me, when I diminish myself or criticize my behavior and/or choices during our sessions, is that time after time as I experienced injury from others and learned patterns which were unhealthy, was that I made the best decision I could at the time with the knowledge I had. It is easy to delve into the negative beliefs we have about ourselves, showing no mercy or grace as we untangle the cycles we have lived through in response to the wounds we carry. When I am able to see my choices this way, as not a good or bad decision but the decision that seemed correct at the time, I am able to be gentler with myself.
I can look at the wounds I have caused others, the conflict and pain which exist as humans attempt to live around each other, as the result of patterns of behavior I learned through creating defense mechanisms and protective measures. Even more, I can see often the patterns of brokenness, dysfunction, wounding, and survival which affected the humans who have wounded me, and can see their humanity. Forgiveness is a topic for another day, one which I have written about previously, so I won’t visit that for the sake of this topic. But when I am able to step back, walk through the slow and fast traumas I have experienced with the help of my therapist, based in the depth and protection of God’s mercy, I am able to recognize that none of us are created evil. No one is born with the hatred and anger and brokenness and trauma that are the drivers that give them the potential to hurt others.
We are each made in the image of God. We are created with His intent that we live for and be with Him in eternity. Sin entered the world and we are mortal. We live with the effects of a choice made by our ancestors in a garden thousands of years ago. We witness the temporariness and pain of a fallen world. We experience illness, injury, suffering, temptation, conflict, and vulnerability at the hands of others. Sometimes we experience it at our own hands.
The impoverished people of Southeast Michigan, the women and children in Nicaragua, the desperate Haitians, the mothers of children in hospitals here in the USA. The violent offender on trial for a crime completed in anger. The former friend we have chosen to stop communicating with. The toxic parent or sibling. Each one of these individuals was created for good and is loved by a compassionate God full of the same grace we beg for when we ask for His intervention.
In recognizing the intent of our God when He created the world, and in the sacrifice He completed for our sake, perhaps we can each begin to see His image in the depths of the hearts which have caused pain to ours. Those hearts were broken by trauma or illness or circumstance, and those individuals could not visualize a healthy way out of their situations. We have suffered as a result. However, when we choose to look more deeply at their histories, the choices made around them and for them, and the God who always intends for the best possible outcome but leaves it up to us to choose, we can begin to recognize His presence.