Can We Heal Wounds?

When the horror of September 11th came upon the United States my friends with children fought vigorously to keep their children away from the television screen. Others even fought to keep themselves away from the images we know all too well from that day. Many wondered what to tell their kids when they returned home from school and some even hoped that their teachers hadn’t spilled the beans.

I wondered to myself if this were a healthy approach? It makes sense that we don’t want people, never mind children to be exposed to horrible images that could have traumatic effects on their psyche. But what about telling them about what happened? It seems that many of my friends tried to seal the information from their kids for at least some time, usually before one of their friends remarked about the dreadful news.

I started to think about other things that people don’t tell their kids because they don’t want them to worry. Finances are hard. Mom’s got cancer. There was an accident. Your dog went to heaven. It seems anything that is bad is taboo for children at times and people only tell them things that they need to, only when absolutely necessary.

Slate had a great article today that got me thinking about this. They claim three real reasons that college students (and the rest of us, they claim) are more stressed out than ever before. I’ll riff on each here and add a fourth that stems from them and will add some thoughts about what I see amongst my own students and colleagues.

The first is a lack of community. One colleague of mine said: “I knew there was trouble when I found two student residents in their room arguing with one another–but they weren’t yelling at each other, they were TEXTING and IMing while in the same room! I put a stop to that and made them hash it out.”

Human contact and kinship help alleviate anxiety (our evolutionary ancestors, of course, were always safer in numbers), yet as we leave family behind to migrate all over the country, often settling in insular suburbs where our closest pal is our plasma-screen TV, we miss out on this all-important element of in-person connection. As fear researcher Michael Davis of Emory University told me: “If you’ve lost the extended family and lost the sense of community, you’re going to have fewer people you can depend on, and therefore you’ll be more anxious. Other cultures have much more social support and are better off psychologically because of it.” Another factor that adds to this problem—especially among young people—is our growing reliance on texting and social media for community, which many psychologists say is no substitute for real human interaction. When you’re feeling most dreadful, you don’t run to your Facebook profile for consolation; you run to a flesh-and-blood friend.

I think about my own students with this one. One of the most popular clubs on campus is our Christian Life Communities, a weekly prayer group of sorts that invites people to do a short form of the Ignatian examen in community. We discuss the highs and lows of the week and provide a meditation and a time for affirmations and prayer requests. It’s one of the times in my week that I feel I can really connect with our students and I start to hear just what people are carrying around with them. This is safe space and sometimes when I hear what people are dealing with I’m surprised they are walking and talking, never mind getting a degree. I feel the same way about the students I’ve seen in spiritual direction. And I often feel that they are unprepared for all that life is offering them and impressed that somehow they are still able to function at such high levels.

Professionally, I notice the texting more amongst outside younger colleagues than amongst my students at Canisius. I communicate with many people via text. And sometimes it’s inappropriate. There are some who try to conduct business via text when it would be faster and easier to call and have a conversation. Indeed texting is somehow more efficient but then again, it can lead to problems. My staff does this well. We text when necessary. When we need to get a message to someone quickly and think they are in a meeting or can’t talk. Or when the message is a quick one that requires some kind of action “Can you grab cider for the meeting?” would be an example.

The second is information overload which I discuss at length in my book, Googling God. There’s so much information out there that you can’t possibly consume it all. Our students often ask for bullet points and other quick soundbytes of information and I often give it to them because they just don’t need one more thing to read and information is bombarding them at high rates all the time. I don’t ever not recommend reading and I give them plenty to chew on when I think there’s a book or an article that is worth their time, but I also try to encourage that there’s not a rush to consume this information–to savor the reading process and to enjoy reading and gaining information. I often feel that college would be more enjoyable if we just let students finish when they finish. Now that’s an impossible business model to sustain, but from my own perspective I was able to work and do two graduate classes per semester and I enjoyed that immensely. I found it difficult to take 5 undergraduate classes and hold all that information together while working at the radio station and socializing and all of my campus ministry involvement.

I find my present students are great at balancing their time. Many are involved in much and have heavy duty science majors or are working on a big time business degree. I never knew how the medical students kept up at UB and the pre-meds are just as impressive at Canisius. But I do notice their anxiety. I do notice that it is not easy for them. And I do see them when they get overwhelmed by their to-do lists and the pressure of being good students and having a social life and trying to figure out what they would most like to be and do with their lives.

Some are brilliant: They’ve realized that they are never going to know everything that someone else thinks they should know. It took me years to get that idea through my thick skull.

Finally here’s the last major point:

Put simply, Americans have developed habits for dealing with anxiety and stress that actually make them far worse. We vilify our aversive emotions and fight them, rather than letting them run their own course. We avoid situations that make us nervous. We try to bury uncomfortable feelings like anxiety and stress with alcohol or entertainment or shopping sprees. Psychologist Steven Hayes, creator of a highly effective anxiety treatment formula called acceptance and commitment therapy, told me that we’ve fallen victim to “feel-goodism,” the false idea that “bad” feelings ought to be annihilated, controlled, or erased by a pill. This intolerance toward emotional pain puts us at loggerheads with a basic truth about being human: Sometimes we just feel bad, and there’s nothing wrong with that—which is why struggling too hard to control our anxiety and stress only makes things more difficult.

Amen! We protect ourselves way too much. And we protect others from our sadness and what we perceive is their sadness way too much.

Interestingly enough, comedian Louis CK hits the nail on the head with this: (warning: vulgar at times).

Perhaps our call is not to remove our student’s sadness or stress, but to help them more appropriately deal with that. We often do this in community on retreats, prayer groups, spiritual direction and on more than a few occasions by collaborating with our counseling center.

Our students need us and more importantly, they need community, they need time to chill to detox from information and they need to share their fears in a safe space where they can actually feel their emotions and be supported by peers and ministers.

In a world that is marked by terrorism all too often, anxiety is ever present globally and we have fewer resources to turn to because everyone is so busy that we have a hard time paying attention to those who need us. Older Americans might note that they were afraid of the Russians or of the bomb–but their community structure was much more intertwined with one another than our students’ lives are today.

This is our call as higher ed professionals and as Catholic Campus Ministers. As Pope Francis put it in the recent interview in America Magazine:

“I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.”

Heal the wounds… the wounds that are felt deeply and all too easily pushed away. Help people to feel their wounds and then to not be afraid to place your hands in the wounds of Jesus, like Thomas and allow the healing that God has to offer to take place through you, even in small and simple ways. This is ministry.

And it is where we always encounter God waiting for us and asking us to heal wounds.

A Prayer for Peace

The sound of a bomb
The screaming, the running
Chaos

Boston cries as do I
For the senselessness of it all

God cries too
As he did at Lazurus’ grave
He does again for the little one taken too soon
For the others dead and injured.

He cries too that someone sins gravely
Does not value life, or perhaps is in too much pain themselves.
He cries but does not hate.

That is hard for us.
Hard to imagine loving a killer, a murderer.
He carefully planned this
And it sickens me beyond all health.

So I pray for peace
Peace in my heart
For my prayer for peace must start with me
With my moving towards peace and not hatred
Not more violence
Not more death
But a quiet justice
and a vision of God making all things new again.

It is a righteous anger that we all feel
But our response needs to come from a deeper place.
One that calls us into a better way of being.
A way that ends violence, or at least ends our thoughts of it.

Boston is often a sleepy city.
I have found it to be peaceful,
The harbor beckoning me to it’s boats
It’s Common calling me to sit and wonder at God’s creation all around.
It’s history reminding me of those who longed for peace, for freedom
From tyranny.

So my prayer begins with me
For me to be changed
To bring me to a place of healing
So that I might help others heal
and they help others heal too.

That is God’s work
May we all be called to do it.

Amen.

One Word: Respect

Day #6: of the Fast, Pray, Give Calendar:

So I’ll be honest, I forgot to look this morning at the FPG Calendar and I was cranky for most of the morning because I wasn’t exactly mindful.

But at the end of the day, I was able to spend some time in mindfulness and offered the day to God anyway.

In hindsight the calendar asked of me the following:

FAST from being disrespectful to anyone you encounter today.

PRAY that every experience today is an opportunity for you to exercise respect, grace, and charity.

GIVE unconditional love and kindness to someone who challenges you today.

Well, it turns out that I was able to do this anyway. And a few times during the day I was tempted to disrespect a few folks and I didn’t take that opportunity. So perhaps, God whispers to me anyway and I’m becoming more mindful despite the morning busyness that I had today.

In fact, a student I was with in the afternoon was quite disrespectful to one of my colleagues and we all noticed it and were surprised to see his classmates call him on it.

My opportunity to give came with many friends and colleagues today when I was able to show them appreciation and love for all they do for me. We spent many hours today really listening to one another, our challenges and our solutions in overcoming obstacles in our lives and jobs.

My friend, Fr. Steven Bell, CSP also called me today to discuss an upcoming trip I’m taking to visit him and speak at St Paul’s. I noticed that when I said something self-depricating, Fr. Steve would immediately debunk that thought, turning my negativity into a positive. I was able to hold that with me for most of the day and it was my moment of gratitude during my evening examen tonight.

I also began to self-depricate thinking that the Theology on Tap event we hosted tonight might not have many attendees. Instead, we had many more than we expected. Not a huge crowd, but better than we had thought.

It seems, more often than not, that the one I least respect just might be me. And perhaps lent is God’s time to nudge me away from that and into a more wonderful space where God can show me all that I am and know that I am more than enough.

Change Me, Lord

Prayer doesn’t change God, prayer changes us. Kathleen Norris, the great spiritual writer was featured in the BustedHalo Fast, Pray, Give calendar today and she mentions that when we pray we ask to be changed as opposed to asking God to change something with no effort on our part, as a kind of magical being who performs at our beck and call.

Lent indeed is the stuff of this attitude. What is it that needs to die in order for us to move into a new way of being. To change for the better is what lent calls each one of us.

For myself, I have a tendency to jump to negative conclusions. I often move into the half-empty mode before gathering enough information or clarifying what others say to me.

When we begin to change attitudes, we start to see healthier options and options that lead us to more greatly respect ourselves as well as others. We begin to see how wasteful some of our energies are spent. The people we failed to forgive our of our own vainglory, the ideas we held onto too tightly that were inventions of our imagination, the times we misjudged or failed to give another the benefit of the doubt and the times we just failed to bother to care at all.

Prayer, listening to the quiet parts of our innermost being, where God resides in our hearts, closer to us than we could imagine, brings us into a place where we not only can hear what God is really trying to tell us, but where the truth can no longer hide from us.

Or rather, where we can no longer hide from the truth.

The truth about us is that God loves us more than we could imagine. And that truth is enough to change us. It can make the most hardened criminal become a proverbial good thief, asking only for Christ to remember him, even the bad stuff and trusting that God could look beyond that into forgiveness to see more than the evil that he has committed.

Can we see the same in ourselves, seeing beyond our darkness, our most vulnerable parts to see what God sees in us? In fact, can we see that God touches all of who we are, even our most vulnerable pieces of our darkness, changing it, but only with our cooperation.

Prayer invites us to change. To see what is true about who we are and who we most hope to be. Today, I tried to be most satisfied with the person that I am. To know that I am enough as I am. To not assume the worst about myself or that others assume the worst about me. Fasting from the negativity that I most often entertain.

I spent time in prayer hoping to see and hear others as they are. To hear their concerns and be able to be there for them, to be present in the way that Christ is present to me in prayer, revealing to me what I most need to see and hear.

And I was able to spend some time to help another see God a bit more clearly in their lives, hoping to see a glimpse of God in them myself.

And it was more than enough.

It always is.

Fast, Pray, Give: Day 3

There’s a difference between being hungry and being homeless. Whenever I do some kind of community service I find I’m more drawn to working with the hungry, but not so much with the homeless. Hungry people get their needs met by getting a meal, a temporary relief from the pangs of hunger. Even students who get a free meal from campus ministry are easily satisfied with a free meal from someone.

But it’s a lot harder to satisfy someone without a home.

What’s worse is that a good deal of the time the homeless can be nasty to us when we try to serve them. Dorothy Day even told Catholic Worker volunteers once that they should prepare themselves for that. “If you’re going to work with the poor, be prepared to work with ungrateful and hard-headed people.”

But aren’t we also a bit like that? I know this week I’m looking at a home I own in Queens that I’m having a hard time selling and I’m cursing my home. I have a leaky faucet in my house in the Buffalo suburbs and sometimes when there’s drama at home, I’d rather be somewhere else.

Home is not always where the heart is.

Perhaps therein lies the problem. We are not always satisfied with what we have, but rather are consistently and constantly searching for more.

And there are many who don’t even have the minimum, and we believe they should be happy with just getting that, when we’re not even settled when we have close to the maximum.

At Christmas one year I was on a subway with my then, roommate. We met a homeless man on the D train in the Bronx in New York City much too late at night. He smelled, he was a bit drunk, smoking a cigarette and the conductor could do nothing with him,

“Put that cigarette out!”

“Sorry, can’t hear ya,”

And it’s not like too many cops are around at three in the morning.

Eventually the conductor gave up his argument. And moved down the cars. It was then that the homeless man looked at us and said:

“Guys, I’m tired. I’ve lost everything and they’re trying to take more away from me. They took my house, they took my kids, they will probably even take away this old bottle soon enough. But they can’t take away what’s in my heart…they can’t take away my talent.”

Then he told us that he liked us and that he wanted to sing us a “tired song.”

And in that Christmas Season “Chestnuts roasting on an Open Fire” had never sounded better than when that man sung it for his heart. We laughed when he said “from kids from one to ninety-NINE” (the correct words are 92, to rhyme with the final words Merry Christmas to you”) but it was no matter. We were satisfied with that and so was he. He never asked for money, or even a bit of food. What he sought most of all that night was dignity.

And perhaps, just by listening to his song, we restored a bit of that to him that night. A tip of his cap as we left gave us a warm good-bye as if we were leaving an old friend of the family, and perhaps we were as 24 years later I still remember him.

We often hunger for more than food and the homeless often seek more than four walls. We get misguided in not being satisfied with what we have when others are deprived of the basics. In restoring dignity to all, we give other people an opportunity to be renewed, to see themselves as God does.

And it is more than enough.