Daniel Berrigan once wrote that if Jesus returned to earth he would pick up the whips he used on the moneychangers, go into counseling offices and therapy groups, and drive out therapists and clients alike with the words: “Take up your couch and walk”! You have skin to cover raw nerves; you don’t have to be that sensitive!”
That’s vintage “Berrigan-talk”, so it comes across harshly, even as it underscores something very important. As human beings, we have tremendous powers of resiliency and we owe it to ourselves and to our world to claim them … otherwise we will never come to community.
We are called to community, to stay with each other. This, despite romantic dreams about friendship, marriage, and community, is singularly the most difficult task that there is. We cannot ever be close to anyone for long without seriously hurting him or her and she or he seriously hurting us. Hence community depends upon us having the resiliency to forgive, forget, bounce back, and live in some joy and happiness despite having been hurt and wounded.
And all of us are wounded, deeply so. There are no whole persons. All of us, from the moment we emerge from the womb, in ways physical and emotional, take spills, get dropped, get burned, get rejected, and are abused. Nobody reaches adulthood without deep scars. This damage, as Judith Viorst so aptly puts it, “is permanent, but not fatal!”
Today, however, it is in vogue to live as if it were fatal. So much, both inside and outside of us, encourages us to be hypersensitive and the result is often psychological and relational paralysis … and the breakdown of community. Rare today is the marriage, friendship, family, religious community, parish community, academic faculty, or social justice group that stays intact for long. Invariably someone (and eventually everyone) gets hurt and things begin to fall apart and everyone heads off to lick their wounds or to look at them in therapy.
Therapy itself can be good. However, and this is Berrigan’s point. It can also become an excuse for not claiming the resiliency (and, yes, toughness) with which God endowed us and without which we cannot live with each other. Much good is happening in therapeutic rooms and in growth groups today as we get in touch with our wounds, addictions, and dysfunctions and the systems that help cause them. But there is also the tendency among too many of us to let the therapy itself and the new sensitivity become yet another addiction. When this happens then sensitivity to our wounds and dysfunctions tends to make us so oversensitive that we become impossible to live with because everything hurts us so badly. We get to a point where we can no longer take the normal bump and grind that is simply part of all living and relating.
Too common today is the phenomenon of claiming one’s right to be angry and offended, of stomping out of rooms in rage because somebody slipped and said something which offended our sensitivities, and of refusing to make the effort to come back to certain communities and relationships because “we just can’t handle the hurt”. There’s a time for claiming one’s hurts and licking one’s wounds, but there is also a time for claiming one’s resiliency and to get on with the hard, and non-negotiable, task of living and working together … despite and beyond the fact that we hurt.
In her marvelous autobiography, Therese of Lisieux tells us how her major conversion in life was not religious, nor moral, but psychological. As a child she had always been extraordinarily sensitive … to the point where the most minute slight or hurt would cause her to freeze over and withdraw in tears. She reached a point where this deprived her not only of any bounce and happiness in life, but of physical health as well. She lay dying. There, together with her family, she prayed for a miracle. The miracle that eventually restored her health brought with it the ingredient to retain it, the gift of resiliency, bounce, and toughness. Looking back, on her deathbed, she sees this as the turning point in her life … she was able to live beyond her hypersensitivity. She still remained an extraordinarily sensitive person, but she was, from the moment of that conversion onwards, also as person of extraordinary bounce and resiliency, finally equipped with what it takes to live in love and community.
We need to pray for that kind of conversion. To be a Christian is not to be some tragic anti-hero, frozen outside of community by the sure knowledge that we’ve been done to. To be a Christian, is to be both a mammal endowed with extraordinary resiliency and a child of the resurrection who is capable of bouncing back from more than one or two black Fridays … with a new spirit bathing old scars in a joyous light. Real love and community come after that.
There is something deeply catholic (in the full meaning of that word) in claiming one’s resiliency. Christ really meant it when he said: Take up your couch and walk!