My friend’s wife has been angry for forty years. Maybe fifty. When we go out to dinner as couples, she decides which restaurant we visit. Every single time. After all, she knows the best Italian, Chinese, French, and even the best Coney Island restaurants.
During the dinners, if I ask her husband questions, she interrupts his answers with her opinions. Then she offers her (somewhat whacky) views on politics, spirituality, and mental health. My guess is that eighty percent of the time the four of us are together, she is talking.
A couple years ago, she saw a counselor who pinpointed a moment of trauma in her life. When she was seventeen, her father grabbed her favorite homecoming dress and threw it away, in a fit of anger, as a kind of punishment, because she had skipped classes.
After considering what her father had done, and after some soul-searching and deep prayer, she finally began to forgive him.
A year later, she and her husband invited my wife and me out to dinner. She chose the Indian restaurant, and she dominated the discussion with her analyses of Covid, politics, and prayer. And she was still angry.
As far as I could tell, nothing had changed.
Consequences of the Harm Done to Us
I went into fulltime ministry fifteen years ago. During that time I have spoken with hundreds of men and women, all of whom have been injured by a person in their past.
I know a man who was overweight in grade school and whose seventh-grade gym teach told him to go home and get his mother’s bra. I know a woman whose mother repeatedly told her that she was as dumb as dirt and to keep her mouth shut to hide it. And I’ve talked with men and women who were sexually assaulted by neighbors, teachers, and family.
A particularly close spiritual mentor of mine, from my university days, ended our friendship in such an offensive, insensitive manner, I decided never to share my personal life with anyone again. And I didn’t for years. My life suffered for it. As did my wife’s.
Past woundings have affected us all. Some of us are embroiled in a bitterness toward the offender, a bitterness that robs us (and those around us) of freedom and joy. Some of us are entangled by past messages that accompanied those harms. As Churchill once wrote,
Small people, casual remarks, and little things very often shape our lives more powerfully than the deliberate, solemn advice of great people at critical moments.
But It’s Not the Evil Done to Us
A few weeks ago, my friend’s wife emailed to invite us to dinner. She asked, “What is your favorite restaurant?” We suggested the Ethiopian, Blue Nile in downtown Ann Arbor. Over dinner, the woman asked about our life after moving out of Ann Arbor, asked what church we attend, and asked about our grandkids.
I said, “Something seems different about you.” [My understatement of the year.] “What’s happened?” She said that her daughter is getting counseling and came home a few months ago to discuss the trauma she had experienced growing up. Trauma from her, my friend’s wife, the mom.
At first, my friend’s wife was livid: How dare this daughter of mine accuse me of traumatizing behavior! I was a much better parent than my parents! And then she felt convicted. Just as Nathan said to David, “Thou art the man,” she said she felt God convict her with, “Thou art a woman of self-centeredness.” A self-centeredness that fostered harm.
I went through a season of deep repentance. I remembered what a defiant child I had been, with the angry rebellion of the 60’s sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I’m sure my father simply didn’t know what to do with me.
My repentance gave me a humility and other centeredness that I have never experienced. The evil done to us is not always our fault, and we have no control over that. But we can control our response.
She said, “I called my father and repented for my childhood rebellion, anger, and bitterness. Then I repented to past friends, neighbors, and especially to my children. Nothing has ever given me so much freedom as admitting my guilt, confessing my sin, and asking forgiveness.”
I thought my biggest problem was my dad’s bad parenting. I wanted him punished, but my response put me in prison. My original ‘forgiveness’ of my father helped, but I still judged him. Repentance finally slammed that cell door shut, with me on the outside.
Her sharing convicted me. I’m taking a little time to begin the year with repentance. And I hear prison doors slamming and deep forgiveness forming. Or as Augustine prayed:
O Lord, deliver me from this lust of always needing to vindicate myself.