Replaying Our Wounds

“You get your wounds early.”

—“Early,” by Michael Prewett

People replay their wounds with each other again and again, but not in a way that encourages growth. Rather, they seek endlessly for the validation that their wounds once denied them. They repeat their pain over and over. Consequently, they become stuck and stunted people who cannot grow. How can they stop this cycle of dehumanization?

In Will I Ever Be Good Enough?, a book about maternal narcissism by Karyl McBride, there is a diagram of a hoary old oak tree. The tree has a massive trunk, a full crown of branches, and roots digging deep into the ground. The rough bark of the trunk is labeled “childhood scars,” while the body of leaves is labeled “adult: branching and growing.” The idea is that, like a tree that lost some bark or even a limb when young, a person must overcome her ancient wounds and keep producing new branches.

When you begin to see people in this light, you realize that a categorization is possible, however uncomfortable it is to share: some people are still growing, even in middle and old age, while others are stuck, repeating the same heartbreaking idiocy over and over.

It’s not like those who are still growing never received any wounds. They did. But what sets them apart from those who are stuck? What, in their upbringing, their past, their present, or their nature, allows them to overcome the obstacles that threaten to destroy their self-worth?

We must examine our own wounds. We must examine what we are carrying forwards with us and what we are inflicting senselessly on those around us. We must go to therapy in our heads. And if we don’t have therapeutic insight there from great books, great conversations, or great love, we must seek it out. We must approach someone else and ask for help. It’s this repetition of our own wounds that wounds others and gives them something to repeat. On and on, the cycle of destruction will roll over—unless we stop it.

A few days ago, I wrote about grace. The article is here. Grace is the answer—but we have to give it out rather than seek it from others. Those who can’t reference the receiving end of grace in their own experience can’t pass it on. We have to show it to them. We have to give them an experience that they can reference. We may even have to do it more than once. The only way to stop this toxic cycle is to start extending grace to those agonizingly ungraceful people in our lives.

Maybe this is what a certain teacher meant when he said something about the speck in your neighbor’s eye and the log in your own.


I’ve rubbed up against some difficult characters in the last few years. No, I’m not talking about people I’ve imagined in my stories. I couldn’t invent the kind of insanity I’ve dealt with, though it does help me to write what I hope are twisted, tragic people. But I’m beginning to realize that it’s not just good material for my muse. Very contact with these people is dangerous. If I don’t step in and do something, this self, this me, is going to take on the same insidious contagion that these folks did.

Life circumstances have forced me into varying degrees of sustained contact with three difficult people in particular, each to the point that a personal relationship of some sort should have formed between us. In one case there is no relationship at all except general bitterness in the other party. In another case, an intense argument a while ago broke through the difficulties, and we can at least be cordial with each other. In the last case, the other party’s stance towards me vacillates between irritating attempts at control and good ol’ boy commiserating about our shared struggles.

These people are hard to figure out.

I’ve known a textbook definition of narcissist for a long time: the one who is in love with his own appearance, like Narcissus, from whose name the word is derived. But now I’m learning the daily grind of really knowing a narcissist. I’m learning that it isn’t some fierce self-love, some fiery joy, that drives them; it’s a desperate self-protection, a machination born out of sheer terror. And I’ve discovered the lumpy formations of this cancer in my own heart. In ten years, unchecked, without correction, I would become one of these shattered relics of humanity.

This greatly concerns me. I don’t want to become someone who carries the bitterness of wound after wound with me everywhere. I want to be a vessel, something that beauty passes through on its journey towards people who need it. If I keep acting on this closed feedback loop of check pulse, feel sorry for self, check pulse, feel sorry for self, I fear I will bend the truth-pipe in me back around onto myself. And if that happens, I will no longer be able to write or to love.

That analysis is a bit of an overreaction, but my mind works in overreactions. I like to state the problem in its simplest, scariest terms. Then I can see it intellectually for what it is; see all its causes and all its effects; and attack it at the root.

I’ve done that. And I have a resolution.

I refuse to be relationally safe. I refuse to give in to the voices that tell me he wants that from you; better give it to him or she needs you to not express your true self; better protect her. Instead, I will boldly, but gently, speak the truth in every situation. And I will not be afraid.

We Had Meant To Make A Covenant

My car was in the shop. It was a nuisance, a financial hardship, but a chance to see my world. The sidewalks were just as ruinous as in memory. The house where I used to live was a little less decrepit; new door, new windows. Porch still covered in chairs, though the one chair I had dumpster-dived a few years ago was gone now.

We had thrown out everything else long before: the fellowship, the failure, even the facing of it. We had soared too high. The atmosphere had proved too thin, or else the bullet had found the perfect spot.

I first came to this house as a young college student still living at home. I had heard that they shared everything here, even their food. They were a family bound together not by blood relation but by a signed commitment, a covenant. And they did this voluntarily. I was a little afraid the first time, standing on the back porch knocking.

The place was run by a campus ministry organization. Partnering with the landlord, the organization filled the house with eight students every year, some of whom were leaders within the ministry and directors at the house. The idea was simple, but radical: throw a bunch of college kids under the same roof and ask them to commit to intentional Christian community. No drugs, alcohol, or sex. Regular meetings, meals together, prayer, and Bible study.

Curiosity blossomed in my fear. What was it like? How would it change me? How would I handle the conflicts? How dare I think I wanted to do it? When the time came, I had made it onto the recruitment list. My favorite answer was something between “I don’t know” and “no.” But my friends were persistent, and they took turns. Suddenly, inexplicably, my answer changed to “yes.”

That first year was all discovery. The discipline of our regular meetings called out shadowy feelings higher than the desire to be left alone after a long day. The sense of pure creation hovered in every breath, around every corner: we were doing something new. We were holding all things in common. Surely this thing was contagious. If people could just experience the power of community, they would turn away from fear and individualism and start to live. We had to spread the love.

The neighbors on one side needed it so much. They were foster parents (as evidenced by the age disparity between them and the kids); but it didn’t sound like a loving home. The mom yelled at the kids every morning when she took them to school and every afternoon when she brought them home. I didn’t know what to do. One moment I asked myself whether I had any right to do anything at all, and the next moment I asked how I dared remain silent. One evening, in an overflow of anger, I opened the window of my attic bedroom and shouted “stop yelling at those kids!” Of course, she had a retort for me: I had no idea what it was like to deal with them all day. No, I didn’t; but I had plenty of idea what it was like to deal with her. I didn’t say that, though.

The yelling stopped for a while. Maybe I had put the fear of child services into her, or maybe I had only told her that I hated her, just as everyone else did. But at least I had been an influence, salt and light, man. We were all doing this. We were building this. Of course, the yelling started up again a few months later; and, unwittingly, I had spoken for our whole house in breaking social code and rebuking her from on high. Thenceforth, relations with the neighbors remained polite at best. But, that and other failures aside, I still believed in community. I was ready for a second year.

Then we got the bad news.

Due to a restructuring, the campus ministry directing the community house would have to let the project go after the end of the school year. But several of us, enthused with our experience of a cultural shift away from the American dream toward something like a network of real love, petitioned the owner to let us rent the house again. In leaderless democracy, we would continue the ardent and dire attempt at holding all things in common. (Minus the no alcohol rule, of course.) The owner liked the idea. We got enough people, and we all moved in.

When the honeymoon of late summer dinners and new beers together was over, an obnoxious roadblock appeared: we could not agree on our covenant, the signed statement by which we would all abide and which we had allowed to go unsettled in our rush to get the rental established. Furthermore, we could not even agree on how to work towards agreeing on the covenant; one time, having met specifically to resolve the issue, we spent four hours sitting in abject silence under an apple tree in an orchard. Before long, the old glowing community house had become a hollow place with an outward appearance of peace, love and countercultural sharing, but an inward structure of personal avoidance and even spite. Community living, we called it.

For a while we trundled along, gently working to avoid some of the conflict: trying to clean up gracefully after ourselves and each other, trying to share groceries, and trying to find a time when we could all sit down for that pesky covenant talk. But things just didn’t work out. The mess of mine and my brother’s musical gear in the basement accumulated, wiping out what was once a weightlifting space for others. Some people could only be found coming in or going out or staying behind a closed bedroom door. Dishes accumulated as statements of agitation, and proposed systems for dealing with them led to fights. We could have shrugged and said roomie wars, as it’s nothing new. But the thought just wouldn’t go away: we had meant to make a covenant.

The sad thing was that we never tried to talk about it or apologize or forgive. We just stuck out the lease, stretched out our diverging paths, and moved out on schedule. The malaise in the air had quieted to decomposition. I was not, am not bitter; but it’s still hard for me to see these people when I run into them now and then. It’s even harder to live with the fact that I really don’t see them at all. I still love each one of them.

Two years earlier, my confrontation with our neighbor failed to accomplish anything. Determined to be less harsh and more accepting, I didn’t confront anybody this time. But now I realize that that too was a failure. All right, what were we supposed to do?

That’s not to say that I regret having lived there. That experience still structures my thoughts, from my conversational instincts to the dynamics of my novels. But the riptide of striving together toward a great wholeness has not picked me up since, except perhaps in glimpses at a family holiday or an arts discussion group meeting; and without that sense of collective unity, love, and purpose, life has at times seemed like a dull and endless reciprocation of personal paycheck and personal spending. How I miss that tight and intimate giving, that all-eclipsing net of interdependence.

I’ve had some opportunity to practice that love again. Dating and engagement have shown me a new kind of community that is smaller and more desperately important. The loss of friends, both to death and drifting, has shown me how deep and unbreakable the ties within my family are. Living now at a boarding house with strangers (without a covenant), I’ve listened to people when they’re at their lowest and given them rides to school when they’re too sick to walk. I’ve written about this kind of community in my novels and seen it honored in the naming of our band after that house. But that time of life and all its dreadful seasick learning are just a memory now. And though the failure of that attempt is perhaps less heinous than the verbal abuse next door to it, the reverberations of its dysfunction are surely no less present and no less difficult to circumscribe.

So you’re trying to follow Jesus (sometimes–and that’s why you said trying). What should you do when someone you love is attacked in the heart’s most vulnerable space?

“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow. You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that.”

But the evil committed against her was so–

“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged. And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.”

Excerpts from Matthew 5 and 7.

Love Doesn’t See Achievement

I’ve been studying some personality assessment instruments as I work through a deep edit of my novel, The Tower of Babel. In the process I’ve learned a lot about myself.

The Enneagram model seems to peg me as a Loyal Skeptic, which means I become a Performer (another personality type) under stress. One sentence is still ringing in my head from the paragraph on self-development for Performers:

Remember that love comes from being, not from doing.

Why am I constantly trying to recover my self-worth with my accomplishments? Is my faith in myself, and in God’s declaration that I am made in his image, that small?

Love=doing is an easy lie to swallow. If my girlfriend does my dishes, I’m obligated to do something in return, right? Wrong. She did my dishes out of love. Acts done out of love don’t go onto one side of a scale that needs balancing; they go into an infinite pool that doesn’t keep the books at all.

Stop requiring achievements, accomplishments and doings from other people and yourself. You don’t have to have something impressive to talk about. Be silent and accept silence. Accept a life of mundaneity. Accept the simplicity, smallness, and emptiness of being human.

Be in God’s love and in the love of your family and friends.


I woke up one day and discovered that my girlfriend was not the person I had come to see her as. She was not trying to control me; she was not trying to suck the life out of my passions; she wasn’t even jealous of the time I liked to invest in those passions. All she wanted was the freedom to enjoy them with me. What I thought I saw in her was actually the residue that the lens of my own fears had left on my perception. Because I had always pushed people away out of fear of compromising my creative time, I assumed that she was hitting me at my weakest spot–but she wasn’t. She was giving me the freedom to be alone again and again, but still I didn’t believe that she meant what her simple acts of love were saying. I couldn’t see it because I was insecure.

She was powerless. What could she do other than let me go, and let me go, and let me go? She couldn’t clean my lens for me. Thank goodness, she didn’t try.

If my insecurity could cut me off from another human being, how might it damage my connection with God? He, of course, can clean our lenses for us at any time–indeed, he’s the only one who ever does. But the fact that he can do it doesn’t mean that he always will, or that he’ll keep them clean for us. His method is not to control us or protect us from our own disasters, but to let us live life, love, and hate, with occasional moments of revelation when the lenses come clean.

How do I see God through my own insecurity? Do I cling to the rituals and doctrines of past generations out of fear that God cannot relate to me if I don’t? Do I feel a sense of guilt when I choose a novel over the Bible at breakfast one day? Do I check my hair in the mirror before going to church even though I don’t give a damn about it throughout the week? Do I feel a need to expound X number of core truths about the gospel to some lost soul instead of meeting him wherever he came from and letting God do the rest?

God can break our insecurity, and sometimes he does. If he isn’t laughing when it happens, he must be crying. But most of the time he seems to leave us to make the move that only he can give us the strength to make.