This is the fourth post in a series meant to be preceded by an introductory letter. Please read that here.
“Shame and death are the two great enemies of the Gospel.” ~Jay Thomas
“Much dysfunction is a function of denying brokenness.” ~Ann Voskamp
“Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you. He rises up to show you compassion. For the LORD is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him!” ~ Isaiah 30: 18
As you can see, this post is a “part two.” When I first conceived of writing about intimacy, I thought its value could be summarized in a single post– and then, clearly, realized I was wrong.
What’s more, writing about it for this series has convinced me that an atmosphere of healthy intimacy in the home might be the single greatest gift parents can give their children and the very best means through which we teach our children the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In the previous post, I described many of its gifts to a growing child and their family, and I claimed that intimacy is invaluable for parenting teenagers. I also described some ways in which Jesus’ teaching enables intimacy when lived out in the home, and that this is key for current and future joy.
But as I said, there’s more to say. So here we go.
The best gift of intimacy is joy. We are made to be deeply known and deeply loved, to be delighted in for who we truly are. This is what God does with every individual, and it’s a gift intended for human relationships, too. I think true intimacy is one of the greatest joys of being alive.
But it must be desired by both parties. Everyone wants it at some level, and children show this innately. In this regard, intimacy feels easy with infants: the physical nature of caring for them bonds us, and they can seem blissfully unaware of our emotional tensions and troubles (more on that to come). But as they get older, they naturally present with difficult behaviors and –unhappily– they are more aware of ours. Within this context, children and parents can pull away from one another.
Which leads to a third aspect of intimacy: it is constantly threatened. We are broken beings. Overworked, overtired, overwhelmed, we fail to be compassionate. Wounded by past relationships, we are insecure. Selfish and self-absorbed, we don’t clearly see the needs of others.
The vulnerability of family and home exposes our fault-lines. We have tools to help, and the honest apology (as I said in the last post) is chief among them.
But maintaining an atmosphere of intimacy is a responsibility falling chiefly to the grown-ups. As parents, we must deliberately cultivate it–which means we must also look to the ways that we are inadvertently threatening that intimacy. And one of the ways we threaten intimacy is by not tending to our own pain.
Pain hurts because it’s crying out to be dealt with. If our hurt is mild–say, a skin abrasion–we know how to make it better: antiseptic and a Band-aid. The same is true of emotional pain–say, a hurtful remark, for which we might need an apology. But if our hurt is deep, or if it stems from something shameful to us, we might ignore rather than deal with it. The pain is only ours, after all. We can shunt it aside.
This may enable us to function well enough. The wound isn’t healed, but we cope with it by pretending it isn’t there. This is called avoidance.
The problem is that pain leaks. We all know how it goes: A poor night’s sleep or a bad day at work can readily translate to irritability with others.
The same is true of unresolved, deep-seated pain, but its impact is more insidious: we have found ways to ignore it, so we are often unaware of how it is impacting others. But just as an untreated wound will eventually infect the healthy tissue around it, my emotional wounds don’t exist in isolation. Sooner or later they impact others, even if the connection doesn’t seem obvious.
The fact is that parents’ pain is visited on their children. This happens in a variety of ways, some of which begin in infancy. Unresolved pain can hinder a parent’s ability to be attuned to the needs of their baby, which can result in maladaptive coping strategies in the growing child. As children grow and mature, their natural egocentrism can cause them to blame their parents’ troubles on themselves, breeding shame that they may not be able to voice. There are other ways, too, that emotional pain in parents harms their children.
No parent intends for these things to happen, and –again– we are often unaware that it’s happening. But our own pain stands ready to hurt others, and our children stand on the front line to receive it. The ensuing pain, passed on from us to our children, erodes the parent-child intimacy that enables children to thrive.
If we want to foster intimacy in our homes, we must look to our own emotional health.
It’s natural to want healing from physical injury or illness, and we have all manner of ways to find it, from Band-aids to hospitals. In our churches, we also pray for the physical healing of others.
Christ’s life on earth included myriad physical healings; the apostles carried on with the same. Paul names healing among the many gifts of the Spirit.
But emotional pain has traditionally carried a burden of shame with it. Perhaps we think we should be stronger than this, that we can and should get over it already. Or perhaps the circumstances that caused the pain are embarrassing or shameful, and so we ignore them or wish them away.
It’s a natural and destructive progression. Shame is a lie that compounds an injury. We are already carrying an emotional wound and we are ashamed to be carrying that wound. That shame visits more harm on us while also preventing us from seeking help. Pain begs to be protected. Covering it might seem the only way. And so we walk around with the emotional equivalent of a broken bone or an abscess or worse, and we try to deal with it all by ourselves. Or we avoid it and pretend it isn’t there.
But remember what we said before: pain leaks.
In order to deal with pain, we have to be vulnerable. We have to expose the wound. We have to turn our own gaze on an ugly, ulcerating injury.
A challenge of emotional pain is that we often don’t know what caused the wound, and we’re afraid of what we might find. Or, perhaps worse, we know exactly what caused the wound, and its exposure will open an appalling vulnerability that we’re not really certain we can bear.
And so shame, left unexposed and unanswered, compounds itself. Like a ripening wound, it expands. We’re ashamed that we’re injured. We’re ashamed of the cause. We’re ashamed to be vulnerable. And so we hide.
That avoidance translates into our relationships, too. We are afraid to be vulnerable, ashamed that others will see our injury, and so we refuse to let others in. This impedes the intimacy we all long for. It creates barriers between us and others– most specifically our spouses and our children.
Meanwhile the ugly ulceration gets worse. We slap a cupped hand over it and make our limping way through the world, deeply hurt and hurting others.
Here’s what we need: someone who loves us. Someone who understands. Someone who will never be shocked or dismayed by what we have done or by what has been done to us. Someone who will listen. Someone who will continue to unconditionally love. Someone who can wipe our guilt and shame away and make us okay again.
We need Jesus Christ, whose willing vulnerability led to his death so that he could show us his love.
And maybe we need to see a therapist.
Because of the nature of shame and vulnerability, recognizing our need for help can be difficult. I’m nothing like an expert on the subject; I’ve learned what I’m sharing here from experience (more to follow) and some rich conversations. But in consulting with some professional therapists, I’ve learned indicators we can watch for:
The above may describe any of us at some point or other, so there’s more to consider: Does the presentation of an indicator here create a disruption to you or your family? Would you fight to maintain it? Is it heightened in any way?
In the fall of 2007, I was teaching full-time and developing brand new curriculum, writing my Master’s thesis (due Thanksgiving weekend with no chance of extension), and mothering three children in grade school. During that semester, when multiple claims held every inch of my time, I also began going to counseling.
Why? Because my husband and I decided that my rare but intense fits of anger were caused by more than obvious stress. They were hints at a deeper emotional problem, one related to my marriage but that we couldn’t see clearly to resolve on our own.
Sure, we all get angry sometimes. Many of us experience anxiety. We may occasionally get lost on Twitter or Instagram. But in paying attention for a good minute, can we see that maybe it’s not just circumstance? These behaviors might actually be a Band-aid, and the injury underneath is beginning to ooze.
In September of 2007, I knew I was in over my head with some anger issues, so I added that weekly appointment. There was no way I had time for it, but I went anyway for the sake of my marriage, my children, and me.
Pursuing healing for our emotional pain is enormously instructive to our children. From the outset, it shows them that we haven’t reached perfection. No one has, and no one will. In a culture parading false images of perfection everywhere, we can offer ourselves in contrast: imperfect, and honest about it.
Meanwhile, the pursuit of healing models hope: we can all learn and grow. Even in adulthood we can improve–and the need for growth is nothing to be ashamed of. Growth is intended, I think, to be a source of delight.
All of this is Gospel truth. Jesus came to earth because of our brokenness. He understands that each of us bears pain: both from ways we’ve been hurt and the ways we’ve hurt others.
In his suffering, Jesus took on all the shame of the world, so that we never need to be ashamed of anything in his presence. And in his death, he paid for all the sin of the world, so that we can be forgiven for anything when we ask.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is about healing. But when we don’t seek healing for our emotional wounds, we wound our children and we limit our vulnerability to them, marring our intimacy with them. And we also inadvertently tell them a lie: that Jesus is inadequate to help us face our pain, expose our vulnerability, and heal our shame.
My therapist helped me and my husband immensely over those months of counseling, and since then, my husband and I have gone to counseling together and will do so again. I’m growing. He’s growing. But we’ll never be perfect.
None of us will. We can never create perfect worlds of intimate harmony for our children. Pursuing help is the best we can do, and when we do, we tell our children these gospel truths: Christ is the ultimate source of all healing, and all of our hope is in him.