As children, we don’t always have the perspective that enables us to understand that adult screaming, raging, ignoring, and abusing are abnormal. But, if we have this kind of rage or abuse in our past, there comes a time in our adult lives when we need to acknowledge where we’ve come from—an awakening of sorts. An awareness that leads to growth.
My friend Annie was in her 30s when she began to struggle with an eating disorder. Interestingly, during this same time she also began to acknowledge the fact that she had been sexually abused by her dad while growing up. This was a secret she had buried deep within, encasing it with bubble wrap, hoping no one would make it pop. When she daringly began to unravel the abuse, the eating disorder lost its power and subsided. It was in the acknowledging of her pain that she was able to break free from it. This is where healing begins.
I was a late bloomer when it came to acknowledging. I kept beating myself up, wondering what was wrong with me, before I finally accepted the fact that my mom’s struggle with alcohol and my dad’s paralysis left imprints in the deepest crevices of my spirit.
I remember one day when the principal of our elementary school, Sister Marilyn, pulled me and my siblings into her dark office for a chat. She bent down to eye level with the three of us as she said, “You kids are really going to have to try harder—especially you, Gari, since you’re the oldest. You come to school and your hair isn’t combed and your uniforms aren’t ironed, and some days you don’t have lunches packed.”
I sorrowfully offered an apology and promised we would try harder. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I got mad about that conversation. Sister Marilyn knew our home life was chaotic, yet she was scolding us about combed hair, ironed uniforms, and packed lunches . . . when it was a miracle we even got to school each day. Most days we walked several miles to get there, in all kinds of weather. Who cares what our hair looked like when we arrived! Never once did anyone from that church help our family.
Many years later, when I was able to acknowledge that things in my childhood were hard, I also began to accept that God used every year and event in my life to shape me into the woman I was meant to be. Even Sister Marilyn (whom I eventually was able to respect and love) played a part in the stitching of character that only God can sew in our lives.
To accept our past is to make peace with it—to quit pinching it, trying to get a reaction. Acceptance is where we learn empathy, both for ourselves and for the families we grew up in. The Bible describes empathy as compassion, and the psalms sing of its powerful balm: “Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me. He forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases. He redeems me from death and crowns me with love and tender mercies. He fills me with good things. My youth is renewed like the eagle’s!” (Psalm 103:2–5).
Compassion crowns us with a maturity that produces love, and love is the reflective image of our true parent, God. Sometimes when we’ve come from a home of wounds it’s tempting to withhold compassion from those who wounded us. It’s here that the balm of empathy soothes. Can you reflect on what made your parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and siblings act the way they did? Can you look objectively, without judgment, and accept the pain in their lives that caused them to inflict pain on you? Paul instructs us to put compassion on like a garment, like a piece of clothing that protects and covers our pain: “Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others” (Colossians 3:12–13).
Notice that Paul doesn’t add, “Go and be best friends,” or, “Go and forget that anything ever happened.” Many people get stuck on acceptance because they think it means negating the pain that was inflicted or placing themselves in harm’s way if a parent or family member is better left alone. Paul is simply saying we should put this garment on so we can heal and move past what ties our heart in knots. Bitterness is a knot that must be unraveled. Someone else may have tied that knot on your rope, but forgiveness will untie it and untangle you.
Finally, we anticipate. This is where acknowledgment and acceptance cross the finish line in a satisfied blaze of glory. Our God is a God of anticipation; he is always reminding us of what we have to look forward to. If you’ve struggled with disappointment or pain from the way you were raised, you can joyfully anticipate that God has a life for you that is free from the confines of pain’s definition. You can walk away joyously from the narrow chambers of your past to a spacious mansion built for your future. It doesn’t matter how old you are; you are meant to live in a mansion of hope, not a shack of bitter regret.
Untying the knots of dysfunction in life brings the cloudy confusion of our pain into focus. It leads us to experience watershed moments where we see purpose in pain. Pastor Rick Warren writes: “There is nothing quite as potent as a focused life, one lived on purpose. The men and women who have made the greatest difference in history were the most focused. For instance, the apostle Paul almost single-handedly spread Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. His secret was a focused life. He said ‘I am focusing all my energies on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead.’”
If we can shift our focus from what has been done to what is ahead—from the past to the promise of the future—we will experience a watershed of awareness that will expose and heal the blemished patches of our lives.
Adapted from Watershed Moments by Gari Meacham. Copyright © 2013. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.Zondervan.com