Second Calling: Making Peace With the Past - Part I
- 2006 9 May
We know surprisingly little about Naomi’s past. For all of the rich detail the Bible gives us about her situation, it seems strange that we would know so few specifics about her husband and sons. We don’t know if they died suddenly or from long illnesses. We don’t see any evidence of the circumstances causing Naomi to wonder what went wrong or if she could have done something different.
In that absence of information there seems to be a basic principle: Naomi didn’t get stuck in the past. She didn’t replay the good times or the bad. Chapters aren’t devoted to what she might have done differently or how unjust it was that both sons were killed. She doesn’t spend time holding a grudge, seeking revenge, or asking what might have been.
If Naomi had dwelled on such thoughts, she might have used up her time and energy getting even. She could have become critical of her daughters-in-law and angry with her late husband for bringing her to such a godforsaken land. She might have tried to attract another man or asked Ruth’s family to take her in. She might have done any of those things, but she didn’t.
Naomi was busy looking to God for her second calling. She didn’t name it that or even imagine that God had anything special for her. But one of the most striking aspects of her story is how much it is rooted in the present and future and how little it relates to the past.
The Challenge of Releasing Our Past
Giving up the past may be the greatest challenge we face during our midlife. We want to hold on to so many of the good things – our looks, our energy, and our roles that once defined us. We also tend to hold on to the bad as well – the insults, betrayals, criticisms, and injustices.
On one hand, such tendencies are natural. We can even justify them by claiming to want to be as good as we can be. But unless we come to grips with the fact that being all we can be means something entirely different at this stage of life than it did when we were twenty, we will spend our days and years trying to become imitations of our former selves. Yes, we should take our health seriously and be aware that what we eat and how much exercise we get will have a very real impact on our ability to enjoy future years. But we should do such things not out of vanity or competition but because we want to live a quality life and not be a burden to others. There is nothing sadder than an aging woman living in denial.
We may especially mourn the loss of our children as they grow up and no longer need us. But if we don’t let them go and encourage their independence, we are not fulfilling our rightful role in their lives. Many women who were terrific mothers of toddlers and early teens become negligent mothers of nearly adult children. Negligent may sound like a strange term, but I have learned that unless we give our children the skills and encouragement they need to leave us and live independently, we are creating an unhealthy dependence in them. If we don’t create a new foundation for our relationship, we will miss out on the joy of adult friendships with our own children.
At first I loved that my son Chase would call me from college to ask advice or help him make a decision. But gradually I realized that such phone calls were not necessarily a sign of my success as a mother. I needed to learn to push Chase back toward independence if he was going to be a confident man. I needed to love him so much that I would let him fail on his own and make mistakes. I had to stop holding on to the past closeness I so enjoyed and move to a place that was painful for me but necessary for my son. As much as I loved our relationship as it was, I needed to make a change that might leave us both missing the familiar.
As we have worked at this, Chase and I have developed new patterns of respect for one another. I try to celebrate his decisions even when they aren’t necessarily ones I might have made. He has learned to ask for my advice and then feel free to accept or disagree with my opinions. We now have a relationship that is less like the past but is large enough to embrace the future. It isn’t always easy for either of us, but we know we are building a solid basis for our future relationship.
My friend Julie had a similar epiphany with her hair. She had worn the same style through most of her adult years, although now she had to cover the gray and work a bit harder to achieve the “natural” look. One day, she walked in to her hair salon and said, “Cut it.” She was not only referring to her hair, but also to her ties to the past. She told me that she had looked at her family Christmas pictures and noticed how much everyone else in the family changed, yet she seemed to stay the same — with a few more wrinkles but always the same hairstyle.
It suddenly struck her that she was trying to hold on to “the Julie of Christmas past.” She knew exactly how to style the haircut she had and knew that it was still flattering, even after all these years. But there was something about it that was too familiar. Julie’s new, natural cut is short, spunky, and gray. It suits her and will certainly stand out in this year’s picture. For her, it is symbolic of redefining herself not as someone clinging to the past, but as someone who is fully invested in the present and future.
Leaving good things behind can be hard. But leaving the pain of the past can be far more challenging. To some degree, we all have places in our hearts where the past is still gripping us. The pain of a loss can still bring tears, and the memory of betrayal can tighten our stomachs. We can replay scenes and rewind words over and over again.
The amount of time and energy we spend on the past robs us of time, space, and energy for the future. If you get nothing else out of this book, please, please take this warning seriously. You must let go of your past. It won’t be easy. You may need help. But wiping the slate clean may be the most important work of this time in your life. If you hold on to past pain, you may spend the rest of your life as a bitter or defeated person. God will only be able to work in a small part of your soul because it will already be full of scar tissue.
The Slivers Beneath the Skin
One day, my Bible study group was listening to a sermon by pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. The sermon was on the topic of envy. At first, I couldn’t really think of anyone I envied to the point of sin; nevertheless, I asked God to show me if there was something lurking in a corner of my heart that I was missing.
The name that came to mind was shocking. I couldn’t even imagine why I had thought of her. She was a former business associate I had never particularly liked or admired. She seemed to me to have an overblown ego and poor work habits. But as I thought of her, I realized that she had gained the approval of someone I did admire. And there it was: envy. I resented this woman because, in my opinion, she had not “earned” the approval she received. And I resented our boss for not seeing the situation clearly.
That’s when I began to get at the root of a deep problem in my life. I was an achiever who often tried to accomplish something in order to win approval. It was a characteristic that had driven me to achieve good grades, work hard for promotions, and even write articles that would win awards. As much as I pretended to be independent and unmoved by awards or honors, I realized how deeply I needed the approval of people I admired and how deeply I hurt when I was overlooked. And if someone received what I considered undeserved approval, I often reacted with resentment.
Getting to the Truth
I wrote down this discovery in my journal and began to ask God to purge me of envy, the cancer that had probably colored more relationships than I knew. A few days later, I was praying when the name of a friend came to mind. I hadn’t thought of her for years, partially because even remembering her name brought pain. We had been very close, like sisters. I had been willing to do anything for her and had time and time again gone out of my way to support her, encourage her, and help her through tough times.
Then one day, without warning, she turned on me. She shut down, turned away, and didn’t even return my telephone calls. It was a perplexing and painful situation. There had been no argument between us, and even our mutual friends were stunned by her coldness to me. I couldn’t imagine what I had done wrong or what I might have done differently. All of our mutual friends agreed that her actions were harsh, shocking, and irrational. She woundedme deeply, and I kept thinking she’d eventually come around and apologize. But she never did. Weeks turned into months and months into years. My hope for reconciliationeventually died. Our friendship was simply a memory.
All this time later, the memory was still painful. In his book "Everything Belongs," Richard Rohr says that God often has a reason for pain, so “we dare not get rid of the pain before we have learned what it has to teach us.”1 While I don’t think God wants us stuck in the past, I do think he will show us if there is a reason that, after prayerful petitioning, we can’t let something go. I was convinced that this situation was one of those times. So I prayed that God would show me what it was about this situation that still made it so painful. After all, if my friend had irrationally turned on me, why couldn’t I just accept that it was her problem and really not about me at all? If that was the case, I had simply loved an irrational, unstable person. I’d done my best to be a good friend, but apparently she had needed more.
During this time, I came across a book called "Loving What Is" by Byron Katie. It’s not a Christian book, and I don’t agree with many of the things Katie has written and endorsed. But all truth is God’s truth, and, in my opinion, the process that Katie outlines in this book is consistent with the Bible. The way the book came to me seemed more than coincidental, so I decided to try a method Katie calls “The Work.”2 As a first step, she suggests that you take a situation that is causing pain and write down all of your thoughts and beliefs about it. She urges you to get downright petty. So with that encouragement, I did. I began to write all my feelings about this person, whom I’ll call Mary.
Mary took but rarely gave back. Mary expected me to be there for her, but whenever I needed something she wasn’t there for me. Mary used me. Mary expected me to clean up her problems. Mary was not honest with me. Mary borrowed things and never returned them. Mary didn’t care how much she hurt me. Mary was never loyal to me. Mary called me late at night and never asked if she was bothering me. ...
Once I got the hang of it, I was amazed by how my feelings flowed. I did get downright petty. I was surprised by the specifics I could still remember and the anger I felt over all I had done for Mary and how little I deserved her treatment of me. I quickly filled a sheet of paper with my accusations, resentments, and hurts.
"What’s so Christian about that?" you may wonder. I did, too, at first. But this step is such an important part of healing old wounds that I really searched Scripture for understanding. I think this is all part of coming clean with ourselves and God. Certainly, the Lord knows that we are holding on to all these nasty thoughts. Yet we delude ourselves so that we can believe we are good people. Trust me, when I looked at this page of whining and bitterness, I was astounded by how nasty I sounded. And in my mind, I wanted to believe that I was the good and worthy person in the relationship who had been hurt by mean old Mary.
In his book "The Lies We Believe," psychologist Chris Thurman says, “Most of our emotional struggles, relationship difficulties, and spiritual setbacks are caused by the lies we tell ourselves.”4 These words are so true. Just think about how Jesus dealt with people who came to him for healing. The woman at the well dodged the truth about her marital status, and Jesus had to confront her with reality before he could heal her. The man at the pool of Bethesda whined about his inability to get to the water until Jesus asked him bluntly, “Do you want to get well?”
Human beings are masters of delusion. Without coming clean, it’s hard to find healing. And after living a few decades, most of us have developed a pretty good ability to lie to ourselves. And it was beginning to dawn on me that I hadn’t told myself the whole truth about my relationship with Mary.
1Richard Rohr, "Everything Belongs: The Gift o Contemplative Prayer (New York: Crossroad, 1999), 43.
2Byron Katie with Stephen Mitchell, "Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life" (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003). This five-step process is not identified with any religion, Christian or otherwise; Katie's web site clarifies that she "developed The Work completely out of her own experiences. Any similarities to other systems [of belief] are purely coincidental." The author's personal experience with The Work does not constitute an endorsement of "Loving What Is," Byron Katie or her recommended resources.
4Chris Thurman, "The Lies We Believe" (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 5.
Taken from "Second Calling" © 2006 by Dale Hanson Bourke. Used with permission. Published by Integrity Publishers, a division of Integrity Media, Inc. 5250 Virginia Way, Suite 110 Brentwood, TN 37027. All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means – electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or any other – except for brief quotations in printed reviews, without the prior permission of the publisher.
A graduate of Wheaton College, Dale Hanson Bourke earned an MBA from the University of Maryland and formerly served as editor of Today's Christian Woman magazine and publisher of Religion News Service. She is now the president of PDI, a marketing and strategy consulting firm specializing in work with nonprofit ogranizations. Dale lives just outside Washington, DC, with her husband,Tom, and they are the parents of two sons. For more information, visit www.secondcalling.org.