“To instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to admonish sinners, to comfort the afflicted.”
As a second year student in the Counseling program at Franciscan University, I am an intern working with recovering addicts. I am a recovering addict. And the thing that has struck me most poignantly of all in my experience with recovering addicts, is that my training in the Mental Health field is not the most important thing when it comes to my job. The most important thing is shared experience.
The most important thing is not that I have training in counseling, it is that I did my time as an intern and professional addict. It is that when I introduce myself during a Narcotics Anonymous meeting I can say, “Hi, I’m Jake and I’m an addict. I have seven days clean, and I’m feeling pretty good about that.” And yet, I’m the professional in the room. But I am no different at heart.
I may not be able to understand all the things someone has been through because their addiction brought them to crushing poverty and the brink of despair more times than they care to admit. I may not be able to understand what it is like to hang out in a crack house or a heroin den. I don’t know what getting drunk is like by experience, because I have never been drunk. My addiction is somewhat less dramatic. But I do understand what it feels like to be addicted to “now.” We addicts like “now.” We want relief, pleasure, escape now more than we want that drug itself. I do understand the power of addicted craving. I do understand the hopelessness of ever becoming better. Addiction in my experience is more a sin of despair than one of desire. I use (whatever my drug is) because I despair of not using, I despair of anything better than using—including God.
All this brings me to my point: If counselors are the only counselors in the world, things aren’t going to get any better. We are all counselors. We must be. Every human being knows what it is like to be some kind of human being: addict, homeless, lonely, angry, hopeless, faithless, bitter. We all know some kind of suffering. And that qualifies us to be some kind of counselor. We don’t have to be “professionals” with all the fancy letters, and training, and endless laws and requirements and redundancies. What we do have to be is courageously human. What would this world be like if each of us could get out of our own hurts and wounds and show compassion and acceptance to someone else in the same position? Or is it too hard to help them because we are afraid of what we feel ourselves? Are we afraid of admitting something to ourselves? Are we afraid of what we must dig up in order to enter into that other person’s suffering? If we are addicts out of despair, then it stands to reason that to be free we need hope above all else. And hope comes from shared experience. Hope comes because of the Incarnation–the Divine shared experience.
Now I’m not saying that as friends we can handle everything someone might throw at us. There are reasons that people are trained as counselors. If it is over your head, by all means call a professional. However, what I am saying is that our suffering is God’s way of showing us who he wants us to have compassion for in a particular way. Those are the people we are called to help, in some way, big or small. We are meant to give them hope by sharing our own experience, by showing them that there is something better. That better is possible for them too. That is what counseling is all about.
Last time I checked Jesus preferred the company of sinners. Do we prefer the company of sinners? Or do we prefer the company of people with hidden faults, or with sins “worse than mine?” Are we courageously human–that is, broken, wounded and scarred but not afraid, even “boasting in our weaknesses?”One look at our friends, our coworkers, and the random people we actually acknowledge exist and talk to should tell us the answer. Can we be broken without fear?