One of the most frequent questions that people who know I’m a therapist ask me is “How do you listen to your clients problems and not get affected by it?” I think my response is somewhat surprising when I tell them, “I am affected by it.” It’s difficult to sit across from an individual day after day, listening to them bare their souls, their memories, their deepest, darkest secrets, their joys, and their triumphs and remain unaffected. If I’ve learned one thing from my time working with my clients it’s that to do anything with love requires letting your heart be touched.
I think this is one of the most important aspects of therapy and of life: to let ourselves be affected; to let ourselves be moved and inspired by our brothers and sisters. So often we are afraid to let ourselves be touched by the lives of others. We are afraid of their sins, their wounds, and their past. We worry that their wounds and insecurities may expose our own. We worry that our love will be insufficient, our virtue will be lacking, and our words may be empty so we build walls and keep our distance. But to feel, to love, to be affected requires us to allow our hearts to be open, to be stretched, to suffer for and with our brothers and sisters. This is what compassion is all about.
“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”-Father Henri Nouwen
As Christians, we must be clear: To be affected by someone doesn’t mean we take their crosses from them (as many of us who have struggled with disordered and misplaced compassion are tempted to do). I always tell my clients, “If we take another’s cross, we also take the grace that is borne from the cross.” To be affected also doesn’t mean that we will cry every time someone else is crying or that we are called to stay in darkness with those who are suffering. Someone needs to be there to wipe away the tears or help light the path. There will be times when we become too consumed with the pain of others and there will be other times when we lack the compassion that we should’ve given them. We must always discern the degree to which we become affected and pray about the course of action the Lord is asking us to take in ministering to those around us (healthy boundaries are needed). However, if we never allow ourselves to see the misery in others or try to understand their wounds, and we keep them at a distance, then how are we to grow in love for one another? In compassion? In virtue?
We often hear stories about the martyrs of the Church that laid down their lives for Christ. While most of us Christians will not be burned at the stake or physically martyred, we may experience a degree of emotional or spiritual martyrdom. I was thinking about this one day as I was driving home from work in tears. It was my last year in Graduate school and my first year counseling clients and I was completely overwhelmed by the suffering that I was encountering on a daily basis. It felt like I was listening to one painful memory after another, helping my clients process through one trauma after another and I felt like I had nothing to give. I was completely unprepared for encountering this continual suffering of others. I pulled my car over and just started sobbing and praying and crying out to God that He needed to do something about all this suffering. As I was crying I kept telling the Lord how I’m not strong enough to help His children. “I don’t have the answer, Lord. I feel like a fraud, Lord. I still have my own struggles, Lord. I’m tired, Lord. I’m being attacked, Lord.” Through my pain and suffering I was learning that therapy is a journey of healing and sometimes in order for people to get to the other side of their pain, they have to walk through the valley of darkness first. This continues to be such an honor for me, that I get to walk with people in their pain, who so often have suffered alone, and silently for years. It is a beautiful gift to be able to help someone carry their cross and we as Christians can freely give this gift to everyone we encounter.
© 2017 Drewe DeJesus
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