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Tear Down Relationship Walls

Tear Down Relationship Walls

Excerpted from Walking into Walls, copyright 2011 by Stephen Arterburn. Published by Worthy Publishing, Brentwood, TN; Used by permission.

A friend told me the story of a bird that wandered down a chimney and into a family residence one night. Morning came and the family discovered the terrified creature. Trapped by walls and apparently threatened by monsters suddenly appearing in the room, the panicked bird flew toward the morning sunlight streaming through the big picture window. But it crashed into the wall of glass and fell back into the room. The family tried to catch the bird and release it harmlessly through the door, but each time it would flee in panic and fly again toward the sunrise, only to hit the same wall of glass. It happened again and again because the poor creature simply could not see the barrier that blocked it from reaching what looked like glorious freedom.

Walls of Our Own

The first reaction to this story is to think that bird should have learned a lesson the first time it hit the glass. Why would it keep flying into the same barrier again and again? But, quite frankly, many of us often walk into walls, back off, collect ourselves, and then proceed to walk right back into them again. These are walls of guilt and shame, anger and bitterness, worry and regret, and fear and anxiety.

I have developed relationships in business, ministry, and my personal life that felt like prison walls. Some of those relational prisons were optional, but I chose to live with them. In my per­sonal life, sometimes others chose to end their relationships with me, leaving me walled off inside my pitiful little cell of shame, regret, and loneliness.

I could have changed, but I kept myself locked up with beliefs that barred me from doing so. Ever said any of these things to yourself?

  • “This is not my fault.”
  • “My parents just didn’t get it.”
  • “Nobody can help me but me."
  • “I know how to deal with this on my own.”
  • “I am not the one with the problem here.”
  • “How could this person hurt me, knowing what a victim of others I have been?”
  • “You have to be crazy to see a counselor.”
  • “Anyone would feel this way if he or she knew what I have been through.”
  • “When the person who hurt me makes a move toward resolu­tion, I am prepared to respond, but not until then.”
  • “I’m so guilty that God can never forgive me, so I’m now on my own.”

I had a lot of other erroneous beliefs rolling around in my head that became barrier walls, keeping me from a life of free­dom, purpose, and meaning. Yet I kept these beliefs in front of me, encountering them again and again. Each encounter became more painful than the pain that would have been involved in tearing down those walls and moving into freedom. While in college I thought I had made so much progress with myself that I should make a career out of helping others. The real truth was, I had no idea how little progress I had made, how far I had to go, and how much more pain I would have to endure.

Potty Training

In 1977 I began my studies in counseling at a seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. For the first time I looked forward to every day of school. Very quickly I was involved in doctoral courses and providing counseling under the supervision of doctoral students. I loved it and believed, as I still do, that I had found my purpose: to help people with emotional and mental problems.

As I progressed I wanted to gain experience with those strug­gling with the worst of psychiatric diagnoses. The only job I could find was as an attendant on a psychiatric ward, and I took it with great excitement and dedication. My job description was to help in any way needed. That meant counseling a newly admitted patient or cleaning toilets. In my ascent from custo­dian to chief therapist, I saw nearly every kind of emotional and mental damage. Much of it was inflicted by cruel and heartless perpetrators who ripped normalcy out of patients’ lives and left them with scarred souls.

At first I could not understand the depths of evil committed against the innocent. One man’s moment of sexual gratifica­tion often destroyed the healthy and happy life of another. I don’t have research figures, but I would guess that one moment of illicit sexual gratification produces ten thousand moments of pain and suffering during the lifetime of a victim.

It wasn’t just men who wreaked havoc on the lives of the young. Mothers did it too. Some smothered, even trapped their young to always be there for them throughout their entire lives. Never free to become independent adults, these tethered people collapsed into psychiatric care, not understanding why life was so unmanageable or their minds so filled with conflict. Unex­pressed rage and ungrieved loss piled on top of confusion and disappointment.

The Mystery of Misery

Every patient I counseled was a mystery. Was his problem perpe­trated upon him, or was he born with a genetic predisposition to experience the downside of life? Had she had a harder life than others, or had she simply been less equipped to deal with life’s realities? The mysteries of the causes of emotional and mental dysfunction were just the beginning. Beyond those was the mys­tery of how some made their way out of the morass of terrible despair into fully functional lives.

What struck me most about these extreme cases was this: if these patients who had experienced the worst could overcome what troubled them, there was good reason for hope for those who were not in such bad shape. Relationships could be healed, inner conflict and struggle could be resolved, and addicts could recover.

So the question was, why did some patients lose themselves after great loss, while others found themselves and moved past their walls into new lives? I learned that the better outcome is often due to how a person sees life in light of his past and current relationships, as well as how others see him. Millions of people are still hurting over something that may have happened years ago.

It has become a wall they cannot get past. Rather than resolve the pain and move on, such broken people continue to bump against that wall, living as if that painful past were a pres­ent reality. They judge themselves and others based on an event that could have been resolved long ago. Their wall becomes a past that cannot be changed, and so they will not move on until those who hurt them remove the wall by making a change. That change rarely occurs, leaving the wall intact and the emotions and faith of the injured person impaired. Thus wounded and confined, the injured person goes on facing life in a negative, self-defeating way.

Deal with the Wall or Remain in Misery

Too many people live needlessly in defeat, immobilized by their own mistakes or the mistakes of others. They repeatedly walk into emotional walls that block the work God wants to do in them. It does not have to be this way! No matter how broken or hurt, every person can discover the way to healing, hope, and a new way of living. Walls of pain erected by past traumas need not be the obstacles they so often become. Getting past these walls means seeing them for what they are, finding the lies they present and the truths they hide, or finding the door in the wall that will allow us to move on. The important thing to remem­ber is this: no matter how big or impassable your wall seems to be, there is always a way to get past it. Always. There is a way around it, through it, over it, or there is a way to take the wall down. Walking into walls may be inevitable, but staying stuck behind them is not.

Jacob Witting's Wall

The movie Winter’s End of the Sarah, Plain and Tall series illus­trates what it means to have a wall built on past hurt. It tells the story of Jacob Witting (Christopher Walken), a Midwestern farmer, and his wife, Sarah (Glenn Close). It is set during World War I, and the family enjoys a hard but good life with three children in a small, rural community.

Early in the story Jacob’s father, John Witting (Jack Palance), suddenly shows up. He is aged and ill and apparently a drifter with no means of support. He had abandoned his wife and son when the boy was in grade school, and he has never contacted the family since. Jacob actually thought the man was dead.

Jacob Witting deeply resents his father for the abandonment, and he wants the man out of his house. Sarah, however, talks Jacob into allowing his father to stay until he is at least well enough to travel.

When Jacob is injured in an angry confrontation with his father, the older man must stay on to help with the farm. During this time the family begins to accept him—that is, everyone but Jacob, whose bitterness is a wall that he cannot get past.

But Sarah finally talks Jacob into at least hearing his father’s side of the story. There may be more to it than Jacob knows. Jacob relents and has the talk. He learns that the circumstances of his father’s leaving were not at all what he had assumed. His mother, raised in a prosperous eastern family, had deeply resented the hard farm life marriage had imposed on her. Her resentment was so deep that John Witting had come to believe that the only way she could be happy was for him to get out of her life. So he left. He wrote letters to his son, but his bitter wife never passed them on to the boy. John explains that, looking back, he realized that leaving was the wrong thing to do.

With his father’s explanation and confession, Jacob’s wall crumbles, and he accepts his father fully into the family.

The Need for New Light

You may never understand relationship barriers in the present until you see your past in a whole new light. Often the hurt we feel in the wake of a traumatic event becomes the lens through which we view ourselves and those involved in the incident. That lens of pain can distort the truth or some part of the truth and leave us facing a wall of bitterness or rejection or a damaged self-image that we cannot get past. If you have lost your free­dom and hope because you are trapped behind walls of old pat­terns of thinking, you can begin to live a new life. You can view your past—and your present—with pain-free clarity rather than through the lens of your heartache and hurt. If you have never fully achieved all you thought you could or wanted, you can find a new way to break through the wall that holds you back and focus on your goals and your future.

Stephen Arterburn is an award-winning author with over 8 million books in print, including the bestsellers Every Man’s Battle and Healing Is a Choice. He has also been editor of 10 Bible projects, including the Life Recovery Bible. Steve founded New Life Treatment Centers in 1988 and is currently host of the radio and television show “New Life Live.” In 1996 he started the most successful traveling conference, Women of Faith – attended by over 4 million women. He and his wife live with their 5 kids in Fishers, Indiana.