No one escapes suffering. And those of us in the helping professions — pastors, therapists, social workers, ministry leaders, missionaries, and others — are uniquely positioned to help alleviate the suffering of those they work with.
But the call to professionally address the suffering of others can make it difficult to shift our attention to ourselves and to look at our own pain . Whether we project it outward onto those around us or turn it inward in contempt for ourselves, transmission of pain is the way many of us have learned to deal with our brokenness.
Pain that remains unrecognized inside of us determines more than we might think. Denial of our suffering, according to cancer survivor and ethicist Arthur Frank, hinders our capacity to accept others’ pain. Instead of being truly present, we often allow the anxiety that rises up within to compel us to escape the truth of a suffering other by silencing them, or levying a happy ending onto their story.
There is a tendency in our culture to hide our wounds. As a society, North Americans tend to demonstrate a limited willingness to engage with our own pain, which impacts our ability to be present with another in their pain. An inability to be fully present with authenticity and vulnerability is usually a symptom of having covered our wounds.
Those of us drawn into various ministries, mission, and roles in the helping professions clearly have a heart to offer ourselves to others in ways that can bring healing and hope. If this weren’t so, none of us would choose to do this work. The inner process of reflection on our stories allows us to make connections between our own pain and the pain of those we seek to help. We need our stories. They are an indispensable aspect of ministry. We rarely give our own stories a cursory glance, let alone engage intimately with the hauntingly beautiful and tragic narratives that make up our lives and shape us to be who we are.
Our stories not only impact the choices we make and the particular ways we relate to others, but they also hold the fodder of blessing for others — even in places of pain. One many of us have such fiery enthusiasm to serve the hurting is because we ourselves know what it is to have suffered. We know what it is like to have our deepest needs go unmet and to have our voices marginalized. We know what it is like to be oppressed, to be on the bottom, to feel less than. Each of us in our own way knows intimately the terrain of affliction.
As Richard Rohr writes, we either transform our pain or we transmit it to others. Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection — what we call the Paschal Mystery — reveals a way of relating to our pain that avoids the temptation to transmit it while embracing the reality of transformation. The crucifixion wounds that led to Jesus’ death were the wounds through which redemption would come to all people. This gospel narrative reveals that the place of pain is the site of the holy. Our wounds are sacred sites of transformation, for us and for those we serve. Imagine if Jesus had covered his pain, declining to reveal his wounds to his disciples and to the world — the greatest story ever told would have never been heard.
With our wounds uncovered and honored as sacred — the paradoxical site of both death and resurrection — we enter the transformative process. To read our lives with honesty is to engage the places of harm and pain that have shaped us in very particular ways. Our own stories, especially the places of darkness, then also become our greatest gift to the world. God uses the bleeding places in us as the locus of our personal transformation and that of others. Our wounds, like those of Jesus, are the conduit not only of suffering, but of redemption.
The process of owning our pain and knowing ourselves allows us to serve people from a stance of mutuality. In this space where suffering meets suffering there is the potential for true transformation to be born. Mutually we are hurting, and mutually we are transformed. By holding our gaze on the woundedness of ourselves, others, and Jesus, we allow the injured places in our psyches and souls to breathe, to have a voice, and to be welcomed in love.
This process allows us to go out into the world as wounded healers, not as invincible saviors. We enter into difficult contexts as people who have known what it is to suffer, and therefore can offer our wounded selves. This “exquisite mutuality,” spoken of by Fr. Greg Boyle, goes far in tearing down the staircase of hierarchy that continues to harm the personhood of the “whole” and the “broken.”
As the ways in which we view ourselves shifts, so too do the ways in which we view the other. It is in brokenness that we come to recognize that we are all connected.
It is from this realization of shared humanity in brokenness that we can begin to lead with our wounds, like Jesus did. Exquisite mutuality arises out of the sense of shared humanity through the union of suffering. Rather than something that must be hidden, brokenness becomes a uniting essence. As different as we are, woundedness becomes the very catalyst for transformation, allowing the ladders of hierarchy and walls of division to naturally begin to decay into the common ground of suffering — a suffering that can, and will be, the very site of new life.