Who We Once Were
“O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.” – Psalm 139
Recently someone I respected and cared about did something pretty hurtful. In the aftermath I searched for reconciliation and resolution to no avail. It was a bewildering and painful time; one I’m still in somewhat.
What helped me was remembering a teaching I’d once read from Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh. I’m far from a Buddhist practitioner or scholar, but this one resonated with me. He was talking about forgiving those who hurt us and using the metaphorical example of a father and a wounded son. He asked the “sons,” who could be any of us, to remember who he was as a five-year-old, and to give them compassion. That’s hard enough, but then came the tougher part.
This time he asked the “sons” to try to imagine their “fathers,” the people who had hurt them (who, again, could be any of us), as five- year-olds as well. He asked the “sons” to see that five-year-old, and imagine the ways they have been hurt, and how it has shaped them. He then asked them to have compassion for that five-year-old who would grow to hurt them.
Jesus Christ told us to “let the little children come on to me.” When someone hurts me, I try to think of them as a child. I think of the ways that they were hurt, of the fears they still carry because of it, and of the pain they still might live in daily. When I’m able to do that, I’m able to find compassion, even when I am hurting myself. I picture myself kneeling down, asking that five-year-old if they want a hug, and showing them the compassion they never received.
Many, if not all, of us carry scared, hurt children inside. As adults it’s our job to do the work of healing that is necessary so that we do not then pass those hurts on to others. Sometimes, though, it’s also our job to find ways to welcome the wounded child in others, and to find it in us to give that wounded part of them our compassion.
It’s lifelong work, and every time I’m asked to do it, it’s painful. I remember the words of the Psalm, though, and the God who knows every part of my history, and every part of theirs as well. Both I and those who hurt me, both I and those whom I have hurt, are equally known and beloved by God. There will come a day when we meet again in God’s kingdom, and we will know perfect reconciliation. For now, I just try to get ready for that time, and to practice messy and imperfect compassion here on earth.
Dear God, I see the pain of those who hurt me. I see who they were when they were hurt. I refuse to withhold my compassion any longer. Amen.
Emily C. Heath is the Senior Pastor of The Congregational Church in Exeter (New Hampshire) and the author most recently of Courageous Faith: How to Rise and Resist in a Time of Fear.