In August of this year I heard Father Gregory Boyle speak in Charlotte about his work with gang members in East Los Angeles. For 35 years he has invited young men and women out of gangs into Homeboy and Homegirl Industries. He has written two books about his work, Tattoos on the Heart and Barking to the Choir which taught me so much about where my sense of judgment of people comes from and how I am not loving them. As Fr. Boyle tells his stories of the homies he gives the backgrounds, their family life growing up and other details. I could finally see that there is a direct correlation between early trauma as they were growing up and later acting out. Before reading his books I would have judged the behavior of these young men and women and not thought at all about what had formed them in this way. Now I can clearly see the direct relationship between trauma and their life choices.
Later my son who is a therapist recommended a book to me, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by a Dutch-American psychiatrist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. His thesis is that trauma like PTSD and other incidences of abuse need a whole new approach. He has worked a lot with such patients and has found that traditional therapies, especially talking therapies don’t work until the trauma can be accessed through the body. It’s taken the medical community more than 30+ years since the end of the Vietnam War to get a handle on how to treat PTSD. Now Dr. van der Kolk starts PTSD patients on yoga or other physical modalities, finding that through them the body calms down over time, so that the person can actually address verbally and emotionally the memories of war or abuse. Without using a body-based approach first the sufferer cannot address the causal incidents. Because the body keeps the score!
So what does that have to do with gang members and others whom I would judge by their behavior or successes and failures? The memory of the trauma, be it the
rigors of war or
sexual or physical abuse or
neglect by alcoholic or abusive parents
death of a parent or sibling when a child is young
unrelenting teasing or ostracizing in school or at home
hell-fire-damnation-teaching about God
all kinds of abuse
gets lodged in the body and cannot be healed until the body is able to release its memory. Then, and only then can the mind and the brain and the emotions release their impressions of the same trauma.
After reading these three books I know that every behavior that I would have judged before was the product of trauma in that person’s life. That, until there was healing, the person would not be able to choose a different way of being. So, for those of us who follow Jesus, the task becomes one of seeing clearly the person who is before us, to get to know them so that we understand how they came to be who they are today, to validate and to embrace them as they are; in other words, we are to love them, no matter who they are or what they have done. For we, too, have been hurt in some way; we, too, are not perfect; we, too, have done things we are ashamed of or things have been done to us that we are ashamed of. And we, too, have acted out.
I know this, too, as I acknowledge the two great hurts/traumas of my life: being raised in a hell-fire-and-damnation church with its punitive and capricious God and never being understood by my mother. I’ve written about these two things before, so I won’t go over them again, but they formed me into a very self-conscious, anxious person who was very dependent on everyone else’s opinion of me. I had no idea who I was created to be. Fortunately, God rescued me from that life, and over the years, has provided me with a fulfilling and purposeful life through His healing ways and His love for me–and you and every other human being!.
And so, I have learned to love myself and to love others as they are, not as I think they should be. I have set aside judgment and discrimination and can now accept people for who and what they are. Just embrace. Just love. Just good, kind and gentle. It is love that transforms, not preaching at someone or judging them.
Here is the wisdom Mother Teresa offered from her years of caring for the sick and dying on the streets of Calcutta, India: “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.” Love does heal the unwanted, the unloved and uncared for. It values them. It sees Jesus in their faces. It treats them like a valued human being, in spite of how they have lived. We are all made in the image of God. That image, that connection to God remains a potential in us until we bring those ties to God to the surface of our lives and live them.
In our country we are quick to blame and to punish. We like quick solutions to problems, so we rarely address any underlying causes, like trauma. We’ve even given up much of the rehab and educational work that used to go on in prisons in favor of three-strikes-and-you’re-out policies that are so punitive and offer little incentive to change or opportunities to learn. And when a prisoner is released after serving his sentence, he or she may not be able to rent an apartment, or get a decent job or vote. The punishment goes on.
Until we can acknowledge the causes of behaviors we don’t like, there is no way for us or the people we meet to change or adapt to new ways of doing life. But can we still call ourselves a Christian nation if we treat people, particularly those on the margins of life, so poorly? Are we following Jesus? Do we share His attitudes towards people different from Him, either lame or sick or foreigners or outcasts? Wouldn’t we rather preach at someone rather than love him or her? Are we as inviting into the kingdom as Jesus was? These are the questions whose answers will prove whether we are living in the kingdom of God or in the world.
Questions to ponder over the week: Am I more apt to be judging of others or loving of them? Why do I judge them? Why do I love them? Do I see the face of Jesus in the person before me or do I judge them for the surface things about them that are different from me? Do I pray for those I struggle with? Do I see them as created in God’s image, too?
Blessing for the week: May we be the people of God who are more interested in loving another person than judging them. May we show the people who are different from us that we value their lives and all that they have been through. May we be God’s love in this world.
If you live near Charlotte NC I am offering a two-day retreat on “Living the Two Great Commandments of Jesus October 12th and November 9th at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in The Third Place, 1604 Park Drive, Charlotte, from 9 to 4. Register at firstname.lastname@example.org. $50. total both sessions. Bring a bag lunch. Drinks and snacks will be provided.
If you’d like to receive my blog five days a week in your email, go to patsaidadams.com/by-the-waters-blog/. There’s a gift waiting for you.
Check out my other website, deepeningyourfaith.com, for information about spiritual practices and more writings about the spiritual life. New posts 2x a month. 10.1.19s is entitled “Two Principles of the Spiritual Life and One Great Practice.”
 Galatians 5:22-3 The fruit of the Spirit