One of the most frequent questions I get asked by people who know I am getting my Master’s in Counseling is how I am able to listen to my clients “problems” and not be 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 keep people and their sufferings at a distance because we want to remain unaffected, un-phased, and untouched by them. It’s safer that way and it requires less from us. 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. But to feel, to love, to be affected requires us to allow our hearts to be open, to be stretched, to suffer for and to suffer 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.”-Henri Nouwen
As Christians we must be clear: To be affected by someone doesn’t mean we take their crosses from them. I always tell my clients, “If we take their 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 and help light the path towards hope. The difficult balance lies in being able to enter into people’s lives without being overcome by their own darkness, struggles and grief. There may be times when we become too consumed with others’ pain that it becomes unhealthy and there may be other times when we lack the compassion that we should have extended to them. Finding a balance is all part of the journey and 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. But, if we never allow ourselves to see others’ misery or try to understand others’ wounds, if we keep them at a distance, or fear that their suffering may be contagious, 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 not all of us will 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. 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.” So much of therapy involves helping people work through the lies they believe about themselves so that they may replace each lie with the truth of Christ. As I was sitting there in my car I started thinking about how the last thing Satan, the father of all lies, wants is freedom for each of us. It was then that I realized the magnitude of what Jesus was asking me to do with my clients. He was asking me to stand on the front lines of the battlefield and help lead His children to truth. He was asking me to be spiritually and emotionally martyred for the sake of helping another find truth and healing. I was going to be standing in the gap between the truth and the lies, helping my clients cross the bridge to freedom. I was going to be attacked some days. I was going to hurt some days. I was going to be affected. And I was.
This is the question Christ asks each of us: “Are you willing to be martyred for someone else to be set free, for someone else to experience the truth I created them to know? Are you willing to trust that I have your back when you step out to lead someone through the valley of darkness? Will you have faith that you have all of Heaven behind you, arming you with love and prayer?” If we respond yes, then we must prepare our hearts to be affected. If we say no, then we may not be attacked, stretched or vulnerable to affliction but we also will not take part in consoling the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
In Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium he stated,
“Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.”
The shelters that we build in our minds and our hearts may protect us from others struggles, but they also keep us from being ambassadors of Christ’s healing. In order to help heal others wounds, we have to allow ourselves to get close enough to understand their wounds. This begins when we allow ourselves to first get close enough to Christ’s wounds. If we are not affected by the wounds of Christ, if we are not inspired and moved to love every time we see the cross, then we will never be affected by the wounds of our brothers and sisters around us.
When I think of someone who allowed herself to be affected I think of Blessed Mother Teresa. She walked for nearly 50 years in darkness, in what St. John of the Cross referred to as “the dark night of the soul.“ Yet, she continued to live, love and light up the hearts of the poor in Calcutta to bring them the Gospel of Christ. She suffered greatly to bring love to those in darkness and in order to do that she entered into their darkness; into the passion of Christ. Mother Mary’s “Fiat” was a yes to have her life radically affected. It was a yes to stand beneath the cross of her dying son and experience the agony of His darkest hour with Him. I can only imagine how our Blessed Mother must have suffered, how her heart must have been pierced by the sharpest of swords. Jesus Himself remains the greatest example we have of what it means to be affected for the sake of another. He wept at the tomb of Lazarus. He knocked on the hearts of the lowly. He endured persecution. He said yes to His Father to suffer the greatest of sufferings for all of humanity. Jesus was affected like no other person in all of history has ever been affected, not because He had to be, but because He chose to be. Sometimes we will encounter people in darkness who are hanging beside Jesus on the cross and the Lord will ask us to imitate His beloved Mother and stand beneath their cross looking upon them with love and compassion. Other times we may be asked to hang beside them and be intimately united to them in their trials. Regardless of what the Lord calls us to do one thing is certain: He will ask us to love. And when we love, we will always be affected. Love affects people. The cross affects people. But we must let ourselves be affected by.
My clients have changed me. They inspire me. They teach me. They push me to look at my own wounds and to find new ways to use the gifts God has given me for the glory of His Kingdom. They have so much wisdom and so much beauty. I have days filled with joy because I see God’s grace so clearly at work in their lives and other days when I struggle to see the path God is leading them down and I have no other answer but to surrender and trust that His grace is sufficient for them and for myself (2 Cor 12:9). When I look at my clients I see the courage that I often lack, the strength I often need and the hope I always pray for. They continuously persevere when it would be much easier and less painful to give up. They make me a better person and most importantly, a better Christian. They affect me. And I pray that in a world that has grown cold with indifference, that we as Christians may have the courage to never cease being affected; that we may always say yes to love, even at the cost of the cross.