My wife had dropped it a day earlier. It had shattered, and she had done a meticulous job of cleaning it up. But an impossibly small shard had wedged itself in the rug in front of the kitchen sink. Sticking straight up.
When my heel landed on it, the pain was exquisite.
It took a while for me to realize the shard was still in there, it took a while for my wife to dig it out, and it took while for the wound to heal—every step felt like I was wounding it all over again.
So, I started limping.
And it helped. It protected the wound from further injury and, within a week, my foot was healed. Because our bodies have been built to heal themselves.
Our hearts have been crafted that way, too.
We get glass in our foot and we get glass in our souls. Sometimes, someone is to blame—we get attacked and beat up and mistreated and abused and neglected and stripped of our dignity in countless ways. Other times, no one is to blame—sometimes loneliness is just loneliness and shame is just shame and pain is just part of being alive.
Either way, the good news is, generally, wounds heal.
With just a little attention and tender loving care, the body does what it’s supposed to do—skin closes up and bones reunite, even harder and stronger than before. And with just a bit of intention and guidance, the heart heals, too—it lets go, releases, forgives, expands, reaches out, and loves again. Our wounds, usually, are temporary.
Unfortunately, oftentimes, the ways we protect our wounds become permanent.
I limped to protect my wounded foot, and it worked. But protecting it had become a habit and, unconsciously, I continued to limp a little, even after my heel was healed. And before long, my uneven gait was causing my back to hurt in strange places. Then my hip started to ache. A week after I’d felt the last of the pain from my heel, I felt a searing pain in the opposite knee. It stopped me in my tracks. The habit of hobbling was wounding me worse.
That’s how heart-wounds work, too.
The limping we do to protect our wounded hearts—the pretending and defending and resisting and hiding and lashing out and faking and façading—can become, without us even realizing it, the gait with which we walk through this life. Then, the pain we experience has little to do with our original wound and an awful lot to do with our methods of protecting it.
When did we first feel the loneliness of shame, and when did we start protecting it with hiding, and how is our hiding making us even lonelier? When did we first get attacked and when did we start protecting by retaliating and how much more violence is it attracting? When were we made to feel small and how did we start protecting by acting bigger than—and better than—everyone else, and how much smaller have our lives become because of it?
We developed our habits of protection for good reasons. We needed them to create space for healing. And it’s quite possible they were completely effective—our original wounds may have healed a long time ago. But we’ve been limping ever since.
And protecting for a lifetime can riddle that lifetime with unnecessary pain.
After I felt the knee pain, I started doing something differently. I started paying attention. I noticed my protective limp, and I realized if I was going to feel better and heal completely, I would need to start walking normally again. The problem was, walking normally no longer came naturally. As soon as I quit paying attention, I slipped back into my limp. So, for the next week, everywhere I went, I focused on walking. In other words, I focused on simply moving normally.
Sometimes, normal is the hardest thing to do.
What if, today, we all decided to do the hard thing? What if we paid attention to all the ways we hide and attack and elevate ourselves? And what if we made the conscious and determined choice to stop doing those things? What if, instead, we got back to normal and started stepping authentically into life and into love? It’s possible we’ll step down and feel a searing pain and realize our hearts still have some healing to do.
If so, do it—find a professional to walk with you while you heal.
But it’s also quite possible the pain you’ve been feeling all along was caused mostly by your protecting. It’s quite possible your original wounds have already healed and your heart is already prepared to do again what it naturally does:
to be open
Yes, it’s scary, because you could get wounded again.
In fact, you probably will. After all, there are shards of glass everywhere. But there is redemption in even this, because this is how you find your place of belonging—the one or two people, perhaps more if you were born under a lucky star, who want to dig out your glass with you. Even when it was their shard you stepped upon. Especially when it was their shard.
May we stop protecting against each other and start digging in with each other.
Dr. Kelly Flanagan
Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.