All of us know the humiliation of being rejected, over-looked, ignored, left for another. As well, we know what it feels like to be unable to actualize our persons, our talents, and our dreams in the way that we would like. And there are times too when we compromise ourselves, betray what’s best in us, sin.
Our lives forever fall short of our dignity, our dreams, and our ideals, just as our capacity for self-expression forever falls short of our inner riches. Inside each of us, there’s always a frustrated artist, musician, poet, writer, athlete, politician, lover, and saint. It’s never a question of “Are we hurt?”, but only of “Where are we hurting?”
And so we all carry a lot of disappointment, frustration, and sadness inside. What we feel in that, really, is wounded pride, but that’s no small, or ungodly, thing. In making us, God gave us a great dignity and we sense that dignity. Our hearts, minds, and dreams are huge, wonderful, and incurably restless. In them, we intuit the divine, its hugeness and its mystery. So we don’t easily absorb limits, humiliations, indignities, rejections, and disappointments. And we don’t easily absorb sin either. We hurt and that does something to us.
When we turn away in coldness from someone or something we once loved, perhaps even from God and religion, we usually do so out of hurt, wounded pride, out of the need to protect ourselves and keep our dignity intact.
While that’s understandable, it isn’t life giving. What is?
What can we do with wounded pride? With disappointment? With jealousy? With the sense of having been wronged? What can we do with all those feelings that invite us to become cold, bitter, angry, and cynical? What can we do when we’ve sinned and betrayed our own dignity and dreams?
The natural temptation is to deny, to lie, to pretend that none of this is happening inside us. And so when we’re asked how we are, we generally say we’re fine, even when our hearts are bleeding, our jealousy is raging, our faces are tense, our eyes are sad, our dignity is compromised, our fists are clenched.
Whenever we deny that we’re wounded, we prepare the perfect breeding ground for bitterness, anger, cynicism, coldness, and rage. When we don’t recognize and accept our wounds and frustrations, we easily grow cold, grow hard, and toughen our skins, minds, and hearts. We turn away in bitterness from what’s soft and life giving to what’s hard so as to put a protective shell over our wounded pride. It seems the only way to preserve ourselves.
But there’s another option – grieving, mourning, tears. We can mourn our losses and cry the kind of tears that rip open our feelings of security and safety and bring us face to face with the painful truth that we are broken, not whole, disappointed, and unable to actualize our dreams. When we grieve, we soften, rather than harden, our hearts in the face of loss and humiliation.
Some months ago, I went a wake service for a friend. For his vigil service, his family had prepared a wonderful collage of photographs of him in various, mostly happy, poses. One photo, in particular, triggered a strong reaction in me. It was a picture of the deceased man holding his grandchild and beaming with a pride, joy, and happiness that can only come from holding your own grandchild. I was unexpectedly stung to the quick, knowing that as a celibate I would never know that particular deep, holy, unadulterated joy, that there would never be a photo of me looking like that, that my face would never radiate that particular kind of happiness and pride, and that one of the deepest, holiest experiences given in this life would never be mine.
I was suddenly very sad and as I walked out of church, mostly ignoring friends around me, everything inside of me was drawn towards coldness, bitterness, anger at my loss, jealousy of others, and frustration at my choices in life. I also felt fiercely restless. I tried eating, phoning friends, taking a walk, but nothing helped until I finally sat down to pray. Tears began to flow and I began a free-fall, literally, into my own chaos, brokenness, inadequacies, restlessness, and pathologies. It’s not pleasant, but scary, to enter into your own brokenness, into all those places that you’ve denied exist inside of you.
I felt scared, but strangely at peace, and the feelings I had then, while still painful, were no longer cold or hard because when we cry we learn that salvation lies not in our capacity to be strong enough never to be broken, but in the opposite, namely, in a surrender in helplessness to a God who can fill in all those places where we are helpless, lost, jealous, restless, and broken.
“The person who doesn’t have a softening of the heart, will eventually have a softening of the head.” Chesterton said that. He’s right.