The past is more than water under the bridge. It lingers with us as a sort of spirit, a guiding force. Some spirits nurture us and sustain us. That’s how my mother and my grandmother live on with me to this day. Their kindness and courage and hope offer reliable guides in my daily life.
Other spirits constrain us, confine us, and slowly suffocate us. That’s the sort of spirit that our past traumas impart to us. Such spirits will retain a powerful hold on us until we face them squarely. And even when we’ve faced them, we will need help to be liberated from them.
Take for instance Teresa Yung. Starting when she was one and ending when she turned seven, a family member had sexually abused her. She remained silent—she remained captive of her trauma—for 28 years.
She wrote, “My room wasn’t safe. My home wasn’t safe. My body wasn’t safe. The people who were supposed to be my protectors and caregivers weren’t safe. I was hurting and alone.”
In the intervening years the abuse continued to lay destructive claim on her. Like other forms of trauma, sexual abuse leaves us with far more than a series of bad memories. In his bestseller The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel A. van der Kolk explains:
“We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present.”
Like many survivors, Teresa kept quiet about the abuse as a defense mechanism. And yet that very silence takes a toll on both psyche and body. Teresa shares that, according Douglas Nemecek, MD, Cigna’s Chief Medical Officer for Behavioral Health, the isolation and loneliness of keeping such secrets “has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.”
Teresa finally broke her silence. She participated in support groups, did serious soul work, researched trauma, and became an activist devoted to the healing of other trauma survivors. She reports that “finally, 34 years later – I experience glimmers of acceptance and hope.” (Read more from Teresa in “Awakening to Trauma: A ‘Coming Out’ Story,” https://traumaresearchfoundation.org/awakening-to-trauma-a-coming-out-story/)
Teresa’s story came to mind as I was reading a story about another woman. “A woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.” (Luke 13:10-17) Teresa’s trauma had been a sort of spirit that distorted and diminished her life. It was like a hidden algorithm or code that governed her everyday actions in destructive and self-destructive ways.
Some of us have been sexually abused. Some of us have never experienced what we would call a traumatic event. But nobody gets out of this life unscathed. We have all been battered, bruised, scuffed, and scraped. We are all hurt people.
And what research says about trauma survivors goes for all of us hurt people. Our hurt is not something that simply happened in the past. It stays with us as a life-diminishing spirit unless we find a way to be free of that spirit.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, everybody will try to free themselves of the ongoing effects of past hurts. And it takes only a cursory glance at the news or a quick review of history to see that we humans keep trying the same fruitless strategy to heal ourselves of the hurt we feel. We hurt other people. As is often said, hurt people hurt people.
We are all people bound by a spirit of hurt. And Jesus has come into our lives to liberate us from that spirit. He says to the bent-over woman, “You are set free from your ailment.” And he says the same to you and to me.
Jesus is the power of love in the flesh. And that is the only power capable of releasing us from the spirit of pain, betrayal, loss, and oppression.
But Jesus does not, alas, simply wave a magic wand. Instead, in another context, he tells his disciple to take up their cross and follow him. Richard Rohr explains it this way:
“[Jesus] allowed it to change him (“Resurrection”) and, it is to be hoped, us, so that we would be freed from the endless cycle of projecting our pain elsewhere or remaining trapped inside of it…. The people who hold the contradictions and resolve them in themselves are the saviors of the world. They are the only real agents of transformation, reconciliation, and newness.” (The Universal Christ, p. 147).
Love sets us free. The love that is perfected in forgiveness and reconciliation. That kind of love faces the past. Faces pain. Sweeps nothing under the rug. And yet it mends without passing along hurts from the past.
In Christ, we acknowledge that we are all hurt people so that we no longer hurt people. Exercising this sort of love is not easy. In fact it’s likely to be hard and painful. But it’s also the way to a new kind of life. A new kind of world.
You can check out my latest book Looking for God in Messy Places here. Read more about overcoming the past in A Resurrection Shaped Life. These days I’m working on a book about discipleship. To contact me about speaking at your event, leading a retreat, or touching base with your book group via Zoom or in-person, click here.