Compassion – A Circuitous Route

By Ken Wells - 03/02/2021


Series Two: Blog Six

The path of recovery is often circuitous. Initially, owning that life is unmanageable and out of control is a momentous breakthrough experience for an addict sealed and soiled by the dervish spell of addictive behavior. Showing up to a 12-step meeting is a big step forward. Working a 12-step recovery program is transformative in many ways. Further yet, it requires much courage for an addict to embrace the pain of traumatic experience that underlies addictive behavior.

Frequently, it takes more than a 12-step meeting to scrub the emotional wounds of a damaged past.  It requires tremendous courage to face fears and anxiety that have been carried for many years. Revisiting the impact of past trauma and draining the pool of pain is a field-tested antiseptic that emotionally sanitizes and disinfects the soul from the sabotage of addictive behavior. It is very difficult to have compassion and extend love toward others who have harmed you or whom you have harmed without sanitizing the infection of hate, anger, resentment and shame that reside within from past emotional trauma. Most addicts who do not decontaminate their soul from toxic shame are dogged throughout their life, being chased by a pack of wolves called shame. It becomes next to impossible to cradle self-love and acceptance without doing this work.

It is difficult to embrace the pain of abuse perpetrated toward you which became the fuel for your addictive behavior.  It is yet more difficult to embrace the pain and hardship you have perpetrated toward others as a result of your addictive behavior. Recovery from addictive behavior is about growing up emotionally and accepting responsibility for self-care and becoming a responsible member of community. Self-forgiveness is a signature of emotional maturity. Without self-forgiveness it is impossible let go of the harm others have committed toward you. I have learned that when someone forgives themselves for their selfish acts that have hurt others, they are able to forgive those who have hurt them. It is a simple yet arduous recovery task. Simple, in that it is a healthy selfish act that releases you from the emotional prison that has incarcerated you many years ago. Arduous, in that it is difficult to face your own shame of your own hurtful behavior that is in like principle the same as those who have hurt you. Letting go of the willful grasp of resentment and vengeance toward those who have harmed you is not easy. You must examine the payoff for holding on to the resentment and remaining in prison. Often, the instigator of abuse toward you has long since left the scene of the crime. They might even be dead. Still, you remain in prison. I have found that the key for prison release comes with a personal pardon from your own hurtful and destructive behavior that is in principle the same as what was meted out to you. Everyone knows what it is to “want what you want when you want it” regardless of the impact on others. Work on forgiving yourself right there. It will provide the key to let yourself out of your own emotional prison from past trauma.

I have often asked an addict, “if spirituality is found in the wound, the flaw and imperfect experiences or behavior in your life, which part of your wound would be most difficult to embrace?” Likely, the wound is what you would like to avoid. Like a severe knee scrape or sprained ankle, it hurts just thinking about touching or embracing the wound. Yet, if your spiritual resource is found in your wound, what part of the wound would you most want to avoid? Many resort to past trauma experience. Yet, upon exploration, consistently the most difficult part of the wound for an addict to embrace is the destructive behavior that they have perpetrated toward another, particularly a loved one. The part of the wound that is most difficult to embrace is the shame that dominates the existence of addicts who find themselves wallowing in shame like a pig wallows in the mud. Most addicts do so secretly and never pull themselves out of the mud.

In my own personal journey, I have a history of complex trauma involving physical, sexual, emotional and religious abuse throughout my entire childhood. I was raised in a cult. I have been asked “why did you spend 25 years of your life in ministry as a clergy person when your own experience of abuse occurred in and around the church?” It has been a good question. Trauma repetition and re-enactment have certainly been apparent. I am coming to believe that creating meaningfulness from the morass of molestation and mistreatment and striving for redemptive healing has been an emerging response to this question deep within.  I firmly believe that I have been able to have compassion toward those who have perpetrated toward me and have able to generate empathy and offer healing toward those who have perpetrated and have been abusive toward others because I have been able to forgive myself for hurtful, abusive behaviors that I have done to others.

For example, forty years ago, I was a young assistant pastor with little experience. I recall an occurrence when in private conversation with a female parishioner I sexualized the conversation and abused my position and power. Rightfully, the parishioner reported this abusive behavior to the senior pastor. A meeting was arranged with the parishioner, senior pastor, and me. I was fearful and shame bound to say the least. In the meeting around a conference table, the pastor lightly nudged my foot with his under the table and directed the conversation about the parishioner’s secret dalliance with another church member and dismissed her need for validation and consequence for my behavior. It was never brought up again and I was never held accountable for my hurtful and abusive behavior. It was an example of a patriarchal, good ol’ boy covering up and domination of someone who was abused by me. Sadly, these examples are numerous within church systems.  These are the untold stories that the Me Too movement have rightfully called out for truth and accountability. For many years I carried this shame with me and kept it secret from everyone. Yet, in my deeper recovery work, I learned to face myself with this shameful wound that I perpetrated toward another. I worked to effectively forgive myself—not hold it against myself which has been helpful toward forgiving others who have hurt me in like principle (“I want what I want when I want it” behavior) when I was young and vulnerable. I have learned to place the shame on the behavior and not my sense of self. This has taken much training and conditioning.

Telling this shameful part of my story is helpful to validate the concern that the Me Too movement desires to excavate in our patriarchal society. Throughout the years I have listened to women who have been dominated by men. I have attempted to validate their experience of abusive behavior by sharing this example of my own hurtful behavior when appropriate. Making amends and cultivating compassion has resulted in hours of listening and validating experiences of those betrayed. Today, I attempt to validate and support women who have been dominated by other men who have been protected as I was with patriarchal privilege. Listening and validating has been paramount in importance. I have worked to confront patriarchal privilege as destructive and hurtful. Further, embracing the shameful behaviors that I want to avoid has fueled compassion not only toward partners who have been betrayed but also addicts who have taken advantage of imposing privilege and have cheated. I know what it is like to have been victimized and I know what it is like to victimize. We all share the path of victimization and the rocky road of victimizing others. These roadways must be addressed by all in order to experience healing in our communities.  Embracing both has created a circuitous path toward a deeper journey of compassion toward self and others.

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