In the past decade, it has been popular for children of famous people to write tell-all accounts of mistreatment and neglect at the hands of their parents. Many well-known parents have been the target of such blasts, from Debbie Reynolds to President Reagan. The trend toward exposing all the wrongs parents have done to their children surely has not stopped at the bookstore. Countless families have been broken apart as grown children have gone into therapy and “gained the strength” to tell their parents “everything they ever did wrong.”
It is fashionable in our society to find reasons for why we are like we are, and to find someone else to blame. According to Larry Crabb in his book, Men and Women, we are often after a change, especially in troubled relationships, either “in someone else who is causing us pain or in the way we feel, or both.” This is part of our intrinsic commitment to ourselves. But our avoidance of pain and our refusal of suffering leads to broken and hurtful ways of coping.
For Christians, God is maturing our faith in the context of relationships that push us to trust Him. In these relationships we come to understand who we are before God. And it is in these relationships, whether past or present, that we must finally trust God with our unmet needs and desires. Accepting God’s scripting of our lives must include a willingness to grow beyond blaming those who have hurt us, and on to taking responsibility for ourselves in our current–and past–relationships. That means we don’t use our pain as an excuse to hurt other people.
Even if the hurtful issues with which we are dealing seem minor compared to tales of abuse and neglect, we often hurt. From our earliest experiences, we have been injured in the context of our relationships, whether we acknowledge it or not. These past hurts result in areas of sensitivity and reactivity, because they have contributed to what we believe about reality, relationships, and ourselves on a deep, often unconscious, level. From this deeply personal belief system, we make our choices and live our lives.
For example, Alice had been a Christian since her teen years. By the time she was in her late twenties, she realized how much her relationship with her father had disappointed her, and how much it had impacted her relationship with her husband, Don. Her alcoholic father had rarely been home for special family occasions, and Alice came to see that his absence was especially hurtful to her. This was probably why Don’s absence on her birthday last year (he had been out of town on business) had been such a problem for her. Alice realized she wanted her birthday to be very special to Don; she wanted him to celebrate her lavishly on that day. She told Don how much this meant to her, and asked that he celebrate her birthday generously this year. When Don gave her a special card and flowers on her birthday, but no expensive gift, Alice felt strangely disappointed.
As a result of her new awareness, Alice felt she now understood what would make her happy. She sought to claim what had never been hers: a man in her life who would meet all her needs. However, Don noticed that his wife had become increasingly demanding, rarely concerned with what he might need or want in their relationship. Realizing he had his own childhood issues, he suddenly felt quite alone and invisible in their marriage.
Alice had turned from being the victim of her father’s alcoholism to victimizing her husband with her ever-increasing demands. Though it might not appear so on the surface, she was not taking responsibility for herself. She was asking her husband to take the responsibility for her.
Like Alice, we are all victims, injured by others in our childhood relationships. As adults, we now play the victimizer, rather than risk being injured again. We are naturally people who protect ourselves. We are selfish, and when we don’t get what we want, we react: we demand that our needs be met. Our backgrounds may give different complexions to our selfishness, but whatever flavor it takes, we are self-protective, reactive, and easily offended. And rather than suffer the pain of such injury, we fight back, creatively justifying our position and developing socially acceptable ways to retaliate. For example, Sophie might choose a marriage in which equality in roles is attained, thus avoiding the pain of the abuse she watched her mother endure. Whatever the circumstance, we want it to be someone else’s problem. This is not taking responsibility for ourselves.
It was wrong for those from our childhood to have hurt us. It is also wrong for us as adults to hurt others in response to the injustices we have suffered. And it is not faith when we refuse to recognize, to grieve, and to accept our life as God has given it. When we refuse to grieve our losses and our hurts, we end up acting out our own agenda in such a way that it becomes someone else’s responsibility that we never hurt again.
We are all familiar with the experience of having someone say something (harmless from their perspective), which we misinterpret and enlarge to monstrous proportions. Or, similarly, we may say something harmless that a hearer completely misconstrues. We call this “overreacting.” Normally we brush off such an experience and chalk it up to miscommunication. However, when the other person is a wife or a husband, and the encounter repeats itself over and over, despite our requests to be treated differently, it becomes harder to brush off. We feel wounded and misunderstood. We may choose either to fight back or to withdraw; but either way we seek to protect ourselves.
A few years back, I wrote an article entitled “The Role of Emotions in the Life of Faith” (N&V, Winter, 1993). I argued that emotions point us to our underlying fears and beliefs about reality in a way that can help us understand them and thus help us make better decisions about loving others. I argued that the purpose of introspection and of understanding how our past experiences and relationships have shaped us is for us to become better able to make informed, and therefore more loving, decisions. Understanding our own personal fears and beliefs allows us to take responsibility for ourselves, which in turn allows us to love others better. This contrasts with Alice’s experience: she used her new understanding to try to manipulate those around her so that she would never have to experience the pain of those issues again. Our faith requires that we be willing to face the pain of our past injuries and to take responsibility for ourselves in the present and future.
Alice pursued Don’s cooperation in her newly designed marriage for a long time. When Don would fail to meet her demands, Alice would accuse him of not loving her. Finally, Don was able to verbalize his frustration: he found it difficult to go overboard for Alice’s birthday the way she wanted, because when he was growing up, his family’s extravagant birthday celebrations seemed hollow and dishonest in light of the way they related to one another the rest of the time. Although Don had refused Alice’s request for extravagant birthdays, among other things, he felt he had done so because of his love for her, which he felt he showed in many ways throughout the year.
After a long and painful process, Alice discovered that what she really needed was to face the pain of her relationship with her father, and all of her missed birthdays, rather than make demands of her husband he could never meet. She found she had been trying to construct her life in such a way that she never felt her pain. By the grace of God and with the help of friends, she was finally able to enter a very frightening and alone place, where she grieved her many losses. She gradually accepted the life God had given her. She also grieved the ways she had hurt others in her quest to resolve her issues, recognizing that what she had done was not much different than what her father had done. She asked God to forgive her. And to her surprise, she realized she could finally forgive her father, and her husband, for the many ways they had disappointed her.
Alice learned to accept that God, who has our lives in His hands from beginning to end, has woven both joyful and painful experiences into the fabric of her life. She discovered that trusting the God of the universe requires that she trust Him with the vulnerability she has as His creature, including how her past experiences have hurt her and still cause her to automatically protect herself.
Like Alice, our areas of sensitivity and injury are ultimately given to us by God. God calls us to be in relationships with people in order to work with these issues and to eventually trust God with them. We are not in these relationships to escape our issues. In fact, we are not in these relationships necessarily to resolve our issues, or even to remove the hurt involved.
Moreover, an overreaction does not necessarily reduce to one issue. Although we may be reacting out of our past issues, we may also be reacting because we’re not getting what we want. Or, on another level, maybe we just don’t want to trust God with the reality of the life He has given us, including all the ways in which those who are supposed to love us have not given us what we need. We are complex creatures, and it gets all mixed up.
When we fail to take responsibility for ourselves, we not only hurt other people, but we also are not trusting God for what He has brought into our lives. Maybe our overreaction has nothing to do with “our issue”; maybe it’s just painful and we don’t want it. Either way, we are rejecting reality. We are rejecting what is true about what God has brought into our lives, and we are rejecting our feelings about it. And that is not faith.
In essence, faith is trusting God with every aspect of our lives, both the difficult things and the comfortable things. It is good for us to go to that frightening and alone place and to feel our feelings. When we jump to solutions too quickly, by-passing our pain, we miss an opportunity to trust God. He brought us here, and we must trust Him here, where He meets and cares for us.
So, what does it look like to take personal responsibility for the complexity of our humanity? What does it look like to be broken, wounded people who seek to love one another and to be loved? Knowing who we are and what has happened to us, and understanding how that plays itself out in our lives, can give us information with which to love others better. Knowing our past injuries, we must seek to deal with our issues in ways that don’t hurt other people. Dealing with those issues may involve facing the pain associated with past losses, or going back and grieving once again over something we feel we have grieved a million times before. Whatever that looks like, whatever we need to do, we must work with our own issues. We must claim them as our own, in all their complexity, so that how we deal with our hurts doesn’t hurt others. And we must seek to trust God in the process.
For Alice, taking responsibility means risking vulnerability with Don over the deep hurts from her past and acknowledging her human but wrong desire for him to make them better. It means she recognizes that it is not Don’s job to take away her pain, but it is his job to love her in the midst of it, the best he knows how. It is her job to feel her feelings and to trust God with her issues.
For Alice, taking responsibility also means giving Don the space and safety to share his deep hurts. The two of them can now come together in humble recognition of life’s struggles. In this way, Alice and Don can learn to support each other and to give each other room to fail. And by God’s grace, they can learn to trust God and to have mercy on each other.
Just as our own humanity is complex, our relationships are complex. Furthermore, we are in many different kinds of relationships. In some, it is appropriate for us to risk. In others, it is not. There are two sides to any conflict. Whenever we face hurt or pain from someone else, we must always be willing to look at the part we play. We are easily injured, and we easily injure. Even if the misunderstanding really is someone else’s “fault,” we must be willing to look ourselves square in the eye and accept the reality that we protect ourselves, first and foremost, rather than be hurt. Maybe we have been truly injured. This life is full of injustice. But in the midst of such injury, how do we respond? Do we hurt back, or do we finally grant mercy, because we have understood our own deep need for it?
Being responsible does not necessarily get easier as we journey toward the kingdom. Part of the brokenness of this life with which we must trust God involves continually facing these issues. We will not be “fixed” before the kingdom. We will mature and, by God’s grace, become more merciful. And we will grow in our desire to take responsibility for ourselves. Yet our issues will still play themselves out, because we are not yet fixed. We will trust God and love others with a “hit or miss” record, and often in retrospect. But most importantly, we will grow in our recognition of who we are and who we want to be ultimately.
What does it look like to love others and to be kind? It looks like being willing to look at our own issues and to feel the feelings associated with them. This is where we move toward mercy. In the midst of our pain, we come to the truth about God and about ourselves. We come to understand that we are not on a different playing field than the person who has hurt us. We understand that we are just as evil as the next guy. We are no better at giving others what they need than they are with us. When we understand our own need for mercy from God and from those we love, we can then extend mercy in the context of our relationships.
Viktor Frankl, a medical doctor who spent much of World War II in the concentration camps, wrote extensively on human choice and the meaning of life. He concluded that our freedom as humans is not freedom from conditions, but rather it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions. This is the choice we face as believers. We cannot choose our past. But we can choose how we respond to that past and whether we will trust God with our pain.