“My mother did the best she could. Grandma was hard and cruel to her. Mom wasn’t so bad to me. It could have been worse. I know I told you about that time she locked me in the closet and wouldn’t let me out for hours, but she only did that once. Her mother did it to her dozens of times. And Mom was mortified that she’d done it to me.” Thirty-eight year old “Annie” wiped away a tear as she thrust her feet forward, crossing her ankles. Her posture looked out of place with her stockbroker clothing–a white silk blouse under a gray suit.
“Yes, one instance of abuse, with heartfelt repentance, isn’t so traumatizing. But you often sound sarcastic, even bitter, when you discuss your upbringing. What’s that about?” I’d been seeing Annie (name and details changed) for several weeks for depression after a divorce.
Because we learn about relationships from our first relationships, we’d been discussing her childhood interactions with family, especially her sister and mother. We hadn’t yet talked about her father, whom she rarely saw. I got the feeling that, like the suit was a cover up for her ample body, her sarcasm (i.e., anger) was a cover up for more painful feelings.
I suspected she felt neglected by her mom and taunted by her sister, but she wasn’t ready to admit, much less feel, those feelings. She had not yet owned her childhood losses. And I knew something she had not yet grasped. She would never be emotionally free until she began at the beginning.
Annie wanted to begin at step four, empathy. I’ve been talking, in the last few posts, about the process of forgiveness. We identify the sin, we identify the emotions, we feel the sadness, fear, and anger. Then (or concurrently) we work on understanding the reasons for the other person’s sin. We pray for empathy for what provoked their sin. There are no excuses for sin, but there are reasons.
Many times, like Annie, we Christians make step four step one. Without ever exploring our own emotional reality, we say, “She was just doing the best she could.”
Emotionally real empathy is putting ourselves in the other person’s place. It’s feeling what they felt. Empathy comes from learning about the other person’s history. Empathy comes when we pray for understanding of what they have suffered.
The trick is, “She did her best,” needs to come after “I hate her. (No, that’s probably not too strong, if the trauma is intense.)” It’s both/and. We own our own hurt and pain. And we empathize with the other person’s pain. Yes, very challenging. But if we want peace, this is the process.
Jesus, this process takes all we have, and more. Show us what our next steps are. For your glory and the peace you’ve promised. Amen.