As a spiritual director, spiritual life coach, and pastoral counselor, I try to help wounded people by accompanying them to the Great Physician. We are all wounded. Not beyond repair, but wounded nonetheless. It took a long time to mess us up. It takes a long time to be reparented. Maybe a lifetime.
Reparenting involves helping people unlearn the negative lessons and undo the hurtful experiences of childhood, replacing them with a positive parental role model. Most of the depression, negativity, anger, hostility, rage, addiction, abuse, and anxiety we experience has its roots in the family of origin. Something went wrong in the formative years; there was some negative influence that occurred that contributed to the development of the problem that now plagues the adult.
No parent is perfect. Some are worse than others. The alcoholic or abusive parent damages children. But, so does the emotionally distant parent, albeit more subtly. Parental styles are usually intergenerational – the emotionally distant parent was raised by an emotionally distant parent, the abusive parent was the victim of abuse, and the addicted parent is the adult child of an addict.
But even the most loving parents can’t help but inadvertently wound their little children. No judgement. Most parents do their best and had no intension of hurting anyone. An infant cannot differentiate self from parent and feels disjointed when her parent leaves the room. Some of us were raised in fundamentalist homes where we got the message that we were worthless worms. Others of us were doted on, told we were wonderful, and are ill-prepared to face adversity. Some of us had mentally ill parents. Some of us didn’t have parents. We live in a fallen world, so we’re wounded.
God is love. God created us to be whole. God wants to help us break the bonds of the past, snap the negative cycles that weigh us down, and set us free. Doing so involves a gradual process; it does not come quickly, easily, or magically. Transformation and the inner healing of deep wounds takes time. We are not actualized, we do not become fully human and fully alive, overnight.
God wants me to be free of the negative influences of the past, but how can I actually appropriate that manumission into my individual life?
First, I must determine whether I truly want to be free. Jesus’ poignant question to the paralytic hits us where we live – “Do you want to be healed, or have you grown so accustomed to and comfortable with your disability and the attention it brings you that you would prefer it to health?” Health for the paralytic meant not only assuming gainful employment and responsibility, but also giving up his very identity as a dependent to be pitied.
Similarly, we must honestly ask ourselves what our particular psychological infirmities are accomplishing for us.
· Have they come to define who we are so that without them we would be nonexistent?
· Do we fear annihilation if the negativity, depression, or anxiety is removed?
· Does the infirmity of heart or mind bring us needed attention or sympathy?
· Are we afraid that without it we might not be loved?
· Would the giving up of an intergenerational family trait somehow be subconsciously viewed as a
betrayal of our mothers and fathers?
· Are we abandoning them if we refuse to join their dance?
Family loyalty grips us in our very essence – many of us would rather live lives of bondage and abuse than feel we have betrayed the family, even when the family is sick. These are deep-seated emotions – we cannot bear to not be loved. Betrayal is a fierce crime aimed at generations gone by. The fear of nonexistence is the deepest fear known to humankind. Desiring to be free may involve the facing of truths about ourselves we would rather avoid.
Often, our honest response to God is negative. No, we would rather not be free of depression, anxiety, addiction, or even cycles of violence and abuse, if being free means facing the feelings of nonexistence, betrayal, or being unloved. If we respond negatively, the God who loves us so much as to allow us freedom condescends to deal with us at the lower level we have chosen.
Our first task towards embracing our own manumission is the difficult task. It most often requires outside help. With the help of a good therapist or spiritual director, we face who we would be without the bondage, and how willing we are to pay the price.
Freedom may involve betraying an unworthy family tradition – distancing from the negative dance of the dysfunctional family.
Freedom may involve a shift in our basic perceptions of who we are – no longer can we be defined as the weak one, the irritated one, the lonely one, the depressed one, the nervous one, or the addicted one who needs everyone’s help. That may feel like annihilation, nonexistence, unless it is replaced with a new and richer definition of self as Beloved of God.
Freedom may involve sacrificing the need to be needy, the need to be loved, and replacing it with the need to love others.
Freedom may involve squarely facing very unpleasant truths about ourselves – deep-seated misogyny, homophobia, racism, or a need to manipulate and control others.
Nevertheless, knowing the truth is the precursor to freedom – “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free”.
So, I begin by praying, “God, I want to want to be healed, help my unbelief and conquer my fear of nonexistence, help me to trust that you will replace the life I perceive to be losing with one far richer and greater, exchanging my narrow hemmed in bondage for the expanse of age-abiding life in the fullest. Help me to face the hard truths about who I am, knowing that I do so in the shadow of your unconditional love. Help me to be willing to betray that which deserves to be betrayed because it is unworthy of loyalty, and accept my adoption into your family. And, Lord, if I do not mean this prayer, make me mean it.” Then the healing can begin.
The next step is to use our imaginations to replace those who wounded us with Abba. (Not the band – Abba is a term of endearment for God, kind of like “poppa” or “daddy.”)
We must learn who God really is, not based on early experiences with our own parental figures, nor our encounters with church officials or ecclesiastical rules, but by stripping away all our preconceived ideas and approaching the scriptures with open eyes and hearts.
We cannot escape enculturation. We all read scripture through the lens of who we are, but with the help of good scholarship, we can more clearly understand the context of what we’re reading. It’s a formable task. I do not believe it to be possible without contemplative prayer and the wisdom of spiritual mentors.
As we pray, meditate, read and learn, we discover that God (unlike the false gods of religions and nations) entirely loves, unconditionally forgives, accepts all, always understands, ever embraces, and is kind, compassionate, wise and wonderful. As we steep ourselves in the reality of the true and living God, we gradually come to trust God enough to let go of our fears of personal annihilation, our habits of low self-esteem, and our need to be loyal to that which is subhuman. Convinced at our core that God loves us unconditionally and eternally, we can then allow God to become the parents we need.
Being reparented by Abba involves literally picturing our childhood experiences, especially our hurtful early childhood experiences, as they would be if Jesus had been our mom or dad. We accurately replay the tape of our memories, slowly, one at a time, substituting Jesus in our imaginations for our parents.
Now, rather than the parent who yelled, “you can’t do anything right, you’re worthless”, we see Poppa or Momma Jesus smiling, we feel God’s warm embrace and hear our Abba say, “Don’t worry, we all make mistakes, it’s no big deal; I love you and I always will, no matter what.” We bask in the newly created memory.
Then at our leisure – these things must not be rushed – we conjure up another memory, replacing the negative with Jesus – we see ourselves introducing him to our friends – “This is my poppa, Yeshua, he’s a carpenter and cabinet maker, he attends all my events, recitals and sports and cheers me on, he takes me places and spends time with me, and never has a harsh word to say. I love him so much because he loves me more than I can imagine.”
The slow wonderful process of being reparented by Abba transforms us, little by little, systematically, from fearful, depressed, addicted, abusive, angry people into women and men alive with the love of God.