Last week I wrote about how it is in our collective brokenness that we find our true humanity. Today I’d like to continue exploring the idea of brokenness a little further.
First, it might be useful to unpack what we mean by “brokenness” (or, at least, what I understand it to mean).
We often think of brokenness as a place we come to either when we’re faced with the consequences of our own actions or when the actions of others, or events beyond our control, leave us wounded and in pain. This is, I think, an entirely valid and appropriate use of the word “brokenness”: sometimes we are broken by the disastrous consequences of our own poor choices, by the actions of other people, or by a host of other seemingly random causes collectively known as “life”.
However, there is also another sense of the word “brokenness”, and it is simply this: that we are all wounded, and so we are all broken in various ways.
Some of the wounds we carry we are well aware of, maybe because we sustained them in some terrible experience that we will never forget, or perhaps simply because the pain of them is so great that it continues to dominate our world. Other wounds are buried under many layers of self-protective armour. Either way, and however well we might appear to mask it, there is brokenness in all of us, deep down.
So, all of us are or have been broken in some way. The only difference is that some of us know it and others don’t.
Often, it takes an experience of the first kind of brokenness to bring us to a place where we can acknowledge the second kind. In other words, it often takes an intensely painful crisis to bring us to a place where we become aware of – or are prepared to recognise – the underlying low-level brokenness we’ve been carrying around like heavy baggage for years. For me, it took the painful and humiliating admission that I had developed a drink problem to drag me to a place where I was open enough, and my defences were lowered far enough, for me to begin to be able to see and name the wounds I’d been nursing, some of them since childhood.
This brings us to two more things I think we can say about brokenness.
First, in many cases the roots of our brokenness go back to our youngest days. During our formative childhood and teenage years, when our infinitely complex and intricate psychological and emotional selves were being constructed, we were exposed to events and/or forces that were difficult or impossible to cope with. We unconsciously tried our best to cope, but in many cases the best we could do was to find ways to numb or bury the pain, distract ourselves from it, or pursue strategies designed to ensure that we would never again allow ourselves to end up in such a vulnerable position.
Your story may be different from mine; the trauma you suffered may have been more or less obvious and extreme than mine. But the bottom line is that, in a great many cases, we were wounded during our most vulnerable years; as shame researcher Brené Brown puts it, “Every single person has a story that’ll break your heart”. And because we could not tend to the wounds we received, and because the world around us told us to man up, get over it and be strong, those wounds turned into a deep and pervading brokenness. Somewhere within us, there is a bewildered child still trying to make sense of things beyond his or her understanding, and to survive in a scary and confusing world.
Second, although our brokenness may be buried deep beneath many layers of armour, its effects continue to play out in our lives in myriad ways, years or even decades after the original wounds were sustained. Again, how and where our brokenness manifests in our lives will differ in a thousand ways. It might show up in inexplicable outbursts of anger, a pervading sense of anxiety or fear, repeated self-sabotage in relationships or other aspects of our lives, depression, addiction, self-harm… the list is almost endless. But the basic truth is the same: our unhealed wounds shape our thoughts, emotions and actions in ways we neither understand nor are even aware of.
If we are all broken at some level, then, and if our brokenness is often so well hidden from us, how can we find healing?
I do not claim to have any all-encompassing answers here. I have much more to learn than I have to teach. But I think I can say there are a couple of things I’ve discovered in my journey thus far.
First, the essential prerequisite to healing is acceptance. Acceptance is the gateway through which we must pass if we are to even set foot on the path toward healing and wholeness. Denying, hiding from or minimising our brokenness will not only prevent us from moving toward healing; in many cases it will simply result in more and greater pain. We could spend a long time thinking and talking about why that is so, but I think it mainly boils down to this: because of the kind of world in which we live, our brokenness often becomes a source of shame, so we naturally try to hide it and cover it up. But shame feeds on secrecy and fear, so the more we try to cover it up, the stronger it gets, and the harder we have to work to try to cover it up… and so the cycle continues.
Denial or repression, then, is the enemy of healing, because it prevents us from taking that first step of accepting the reality of our brokenness. In passing, I note with sadness that many (though by no means all) churches seem to provide a culture in which openness and honesty are not encouraged, or even in which there are great incentives to keep your brokenness – which is to say your humanity – very well concealed. How tragic that what ought to be communities of healing are often places that simply lead us to bury our wounds even deeper and increase our already acute sense of shame and inadequacy.
It’s important to note that when I talk about accepting our brokenness, I do not mean we should resign ourselves to the fact that we are and always will be damaged goods. That is the path to perpetual victimhood, not to healing. What I mean by acceptance is open acknowledgement that we are wounded, and that our wounds are hurting us and those around us in ways we cannot understand or control. Just as the alcoholic at the start of AA’s famous Twelve Steps must admit that he is powerless over alcohol and his life has become unmanageable, so we must admit that we are, at this point, at the mercy of our wounds and helpless to do anything much about them.
Second, and briefly, there are no silver bullets or magic formulas when it comes to healing our deep-seated wounds. Why do we imagine that wounds that have been with us most of our lives will be magicked away by a quick prayer at the front of a ministry line? The purpose of this post is not to pick on churches, but I must once again say that, in my experience, churches are often more of a hindrance than a help in this regard. This is especially true at the charismatic end of the spectrum, where there is often an emphasis on healing through prayer alone, and where attempts to seek outside help – such as from a qualified and experienced therapist – are frequently met with skepticism if not outright derision or hostility. Combine that with a culture in which the idea of “victorious Christian living” is held up as the ultimate goal, and what you have is a recipe for wounds, even when recognised, to be misdiagnosed, mishandled and left to fester without the care and attention they need.
Let me also say that I am not suggesting that prayer is useless, or that God cannot and does not heal even the most painful wounds. I believe he can and he does, sometimes miraculously – though the latter, I would say, is very much the exception rather than the norm. But I also believe that in a great many cases, God leads us along a gradual path toward healing and wholeness. While that path might include prayer or some other form of “ministry”, rarely do those things alone bring us the healing we need.
I realise that what I’ve written here is far from conclusive. It is probably full of gaps and shortcomings. In many ways, it is simply the voicing “out loud” of much that has been in my thoughts of late. As a broken person on the path toward healing, it is helpful for me to be able to articulate such things… and I am very grateful to you, dear reader, for having spent a few moments walking with me as I try to process them. I hope this is in some way helpful for you too. Remember, as I said last week: I am, because you are. I am human, because you are human. Our recognition of our shared brokenness is, I believe, part of the key to our collective healing.