The Wounds of the Heart

The last two months have been challenging for me, hence my lack of blogging. They aren’t limited to losing my advisor. But what I have seen running throughout many of these challenges is a kind of a deep psychological conflict that I will call wounds of the heart.

A wound of the heart is an emotional hurt that generates intense, seemingly unbearable psychic stress and that can create long-term damage to one’s personality due to overpowering negative moral emotions, like resentment and hatred, and that may last for the rest of one’s life. They are typically caused by some act by one’s close friends, family, or community. The wounded person believes the act signals that the offending group bears him or her bad will, and that the group does not love or support the wounded person in the way he or she had counted upon in the past. It can overwhelm the wounded person’s agency, leading them to lash out and creating a new harm, and perhaps wounding the hearts of others. When multiple parties to a relationship have wounds of the heart, that can spell the death of the relationship, even if the relationship continues pro forma.

One remarkable feature of wounds of the heart is that they can easily lead to false beliefs about the purported wounding individual or group, not merely that one’s family, friends, or community is corrupt or toxic, but that the group has been corrupt and toxic all along. We who are wounded revisit the wounding event, coming to a darker and darker reading of it, attributing worse and worse motives to those involved, all to comfort ourselves in a way that never quite works. In this way, a wound of the heart can trap the wounded person in beliefs that make healing impossible, even when the purported wounding party is in fact open to reconciliation and healing, and indeed yearns for it.

Healing wounds of the heart is an urgent moral task, in no small part because it can create new, negative character traits, and even break the unity of one’s soul and agency. But it is very difficult to begin the healing process. Usually the wounded person is so overwhelmed with hurt that he or she has had to close herself off emotionally in order to endure the hurt. Proposing to heal the wound is a psychic threat in itself because it creates the possibility of new hurt and pain. But without healing, things will only get worse, or they will settle at a level of harm that becomes too ingrained to heal.

I try to cultivate a desire to heal the wounds of the heart I have played any role in, but those desires have always been frustrated. And the pain I’ve felt in my inability to heal those wounds is one of the reasons I became so interested in trust and reconciliation in the first place. But those I have wounded have refused to speak with me, or have insisted that I see the world in their way before any conversation can begin, even when that is a wholly unreasonable demand.

I also have my own wounds of the heart, ones that I struggle to heal every day with prayer and repentance. But they remain a never-ending source of grief and anger. I am not sure my wounds of the heart will heal in my lifetime. Until then, it is my responsibility to manage them, keep them in check, and to pray that God will give me the opportunity to heal and even reconcile despite them. It is essential for the health of my soul that I do this. This level of pain can overwhelm anyone, distort their personality, and cause staggering moral decline. Perhaps this has already happened to me, perhaps the damage is permanent, but today I am recommitting to soldiering on. May I be healed of my wounds of the heart, and may I play some role, however small, in healing the heart wounds of others.



1 Comment

  • Harper Posted October 31, 2020 5:14 pm

    I’m sorry things are so tough for you right now. I’ve experienced similar things and I have my own thoughts on the subject.

    In my experience, moral judgments are not things that we make idly and at leisure. They seem to force themselves on us as we live our lives. Someone pushes ahead of me on the bus and the thought “That’s bad” just pops into my head. Well, it would probably be phrased more pungently, but you know what I mean.

    I think moral philosophers underestimate how much these automatic judgments help guide us through our lives. Without them we’d be high and dry. For example, let’s say I got into a confrontation with someone on the bus who pushed ahead of me. I’d have to be constantly making judgments about them, me, and the overall situation, while keeping my attention on the person in front of me and what’s actually happening.

    The thing is, when we experience trauma, depression, anxiety, and so on, our judgments go all out of order. I think therapists and doctors underestimate the degree to which mood disorders are disorders of moral judgment. Constantly beating yourself up, feeling like you’re in mortal danger when you are probably safe, losing a sense that things matter. These are all problems with moral judgment before they’re anything else.

    In my life I’ve dealt with all of the above — trauma, depression, and anxiety. I know exactly what you mean when you talk about the helplessly hating others. I want to be good, kind, and loving, but when I believe that I don’t deserve to be treated well, that others will continue to torment me, and that none of this will ever change, hatred arises in my heart without my wanting it.

    I was only able to extinguish hatred by finding a true sense of safety. That involved a lot of things, which I won’t go into here, but if anyone wants to know the therapeutic nuts-and-bolts of it you can just comment and I’ll share. I had to find both outward safety and inward safety — freedom from abuse without and within. That is not easy to find in this world.

    However, since I’ve found safety, I find the bitterness in my heart is replaced with an expansive compassion and loving-kindness. I don’t think safety is sufficient for getting this feeling, but I am sure it is necessary. Before, I was hiding like a wounded animal. These days I want to go out into the world and try to help ease the suffering of others.

    That’s my story. I wish you well on your own path.

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