The Difference Between Brokenness That Drives Us To God and the Brokenness that Wounds Others

There is a lot of very fluffy ‘wisdom’ posted on ‘Facebook’, I think. Some of it is in the form of “You control your reality!’ Well, being social animals, we don’t! It’s a communal affair how ‘reality’ is determined. But sometimes a person posts an aphorism that does not strike me as overly simplistic. One I read this week said this “It is important to distinguish between the brokenness that sends us to God, and the Brokenness that makes us do hurt to others.’  So I want to explore this a bit.

The last time I experienced some brokenness that drove me to God was when I became aware of being ‘over reactive’ and of speaking too quickly and hurtfully.

This I know can be hurtful when it happens, and so when I see those whom I care about are hurt, I feel guilty. This sends me to God. I wrote a prayer which I say as I am doing my prayers in the morning. It goes

O Holy Spirit
Be my answers and let not my dark and frightened self speak for me.
Answer for me, speak for me,
because I cannot do it on my own.
Give me time to respond and to think,
for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

This his prayer goes on my prayer desk, and becomes what I put on ‘God’s radar screen’. I know from experience that as I pray this prayer and carry it with me during the day, my behaviour will change, slowly, over time, in the direction that I want it to go.

What is going on here? First, it is the knowledge that I have hurt someone whom I love that is made conscious. Second, I have failed in my own expectation of myself: that most of the time I remain calm. Both of these conditions cause me pain, and so it is the internal pain that drives me to God.  Second, this behaviour fulfils both of the conditions in the aphorism which began this reflection. It is a behaviour that hurts other people, and it is a behaviour that that sends me to God in prayer.

It seems to me that there is a kind of continuum: There is the kind of thinking and acting of which I am aware, that it hurts others, and that I don’t like it. When I demonstrate this kind of behaviour, it is not enough just to say ‘sorry’ although that is important. What is important that I do something about it.

But what I want to do is not to engage in a great act of will, whereby by force I make myself behave in a certain way. What I want is for my consciousness to be touched. I want that my awareness be shaped during the day by my prayer. That is why I think I have addressed the prayer to the Spirit so that I do not in fact act hurtfully.

It strikes me that it is the Spirit who actsin us unconsciously to do this work. When I am ‘convicted of sin’ (a particular role of the Spirit) it is as if I am made aware of something in me which I don’t like. I need the Spirit to act in me at a level that is deeper than my ability to will something, consciously.

But there are other, dark parts of my life that have not yet been touched by the Spirit. God is excluded from them. I have no control over them. This is the kind of action that is shaped by the less than perfect context in which one was raised. This is true for us all. As Dorothy Law Nolte says

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.

It is these kinds of unconscious stances toward the world that represent the brokenness of everyone. It is this kind of brokenness that we call ‘original sin’: Not because we inherit sinfulness via sexual intercourse, but because we are all born into structures and contexts that are the result of the damage that others have suffered, and which is not available for healing, just yet. This is the kind of brokenness that does hurt to others, but does not necessarily drive us to God.

Because there is a continuum between this kind of brokenness and the brokenness that drives us to God, the process of living before the face of God is one of ‘scrabbling away’ as the surface of  our unconscious, gradually allowing the Spirit to touch us and bring to light the hidden things of darkness, so that they become available to us for changing.

Since Henri Nouwen wrote his book, there is a lot of talk these days about the ‘Wounded Healer’. A healer can only be a healer as they have allowed the work of the Spirit to see how the different kinds of unconscious wounds can be healed: like learning to ski as an adult makes me a good ski teacher. But a ‘wounded healer’ who has not attended to their wounds, just ends up being a wounded wounder.

I think I stayed single for a long time because at some level I thought “ I am not the kind of person who is able to be married”.  Getting married again means that within the context of prayer, and mutual love, and of strong bonds, like the winter snows that keep us at home, unable to escape from difficulty, I am required to make contact with that boundary between the unconscious darkness that wounds others, but is not open to change, and the parts on myself that are already healed and not a problem.  This is the same kind of process that is available to us as members of the Church too. As Aiden Kavanagah has described it: that being in the Church can be a kind of ‘Jesus (discipleship) therapy.   The most creative spot in the whole process, then, is at the interface. This is where I hope the Spirit will work.

So the place that I come to is to say that the distinction between the kind of brokenness that drives us to God, and the kind of brokenness that breaks others is that the first kind is the kind of brokenness that lives just below the level of awareness, which is ripe for the Spirit’s work. It is about these issues that we are ready to learn the ways of God. The other kind of brokenness is the kind that is not yet available for the Spirit’s work. For this kind of brokenness, we must simply limit it as much as possible, say sorry and accept the consequences when it breaks out.


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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