“What has been seen cannot be unseen, what has been learned cannot be unknown. You cannot change the past, but you can learn from it. You can grow from it. You can be made stronger. You can use that strength to change your life, to change your future.”
— C.A. Woolf
There are many universal human experiences, one of which is learning. Regardless of age, ability, culture, family structure, race, creed, gender or sexuality, we all learn — many things in many ways. In particular, we learn words.
Before I started my journey into CPE, or even into seminary, I tended to be very wordy. My voice would fill conversations, sometimes leaving very little space for the other, for listening. In seminary, my writing became more concise and to the point. Then came CPE. My very first CPE final self-evaluation was 12 pages single-spaced. I had a lot to say… about myself. Two years later, my final self-evaluation was half of that and perhaps could have been even shorter. My need to be verbose had diminished some. I didn’t need to use as many words to feel heard.
Maybe this explains why I’ve written so much less in the last two years than before, at least in an online capacity. I don’t want to just be another blogger who writes only about their life happenings. Rather, I want my words to make a difference, to resonate with those who read them and impact them in significant ways. The difficulty is taking the thoughts in my head and the feelings in my heart and translating them into something bigger than myself.
“Sweet words are like honey, a little may refresh,
but too much gluts the stomach.”
― Anne Bradstreet
My life is in yet another state of limbo, leaving what was without knowing what will be. Stages like these can be riddled with words… what happened… who did what to whom… what are you going to do next… how do you feel… how are you going to make ends meet. And while I’ve had numerous conversations with friends both here and abroad, I’ve most appreciated those conversations where, even on the phone, there was space for silence, where silence was welcomed like an old friend in for a warm cup of tea and the comfort of the hearth. In those moments without words, my heart opened up and my head emptied out, no longer feeling the need to fill the void with the sound of my own voice or to ask my silent partner a question that would invoke their own voice. Still, even those spaces without words speak volumes.
I’ve been thinking about the relationship between words and mental illness, or maybe even just with life. We learn words early in life, but some of what we learn comes without the actual words. Rather we learn things from others’ actions, behaviors, facial expressions, body languages, movements and the like.
We learn words like unworthy, worthless, insignificance, unimportance, rejection, failure, abandonment, or disappointment. We learn leave, go away, sit still, be quiet, don’t stand out, be small, be normal, be straight, act white, act manly or womanly but never act what you aren’t. These words, these messages, find their way into the cells of our souls and, should we try to uproot them and replace them with other words, they dig their heels in, grabbing onto whatever is around them pale-knuckled, desperate to escape eviction.
“Learning is not child’s play; we cannot learn without pain.”
My therapist gave me a sheet of paper in one of our earliest sessions containing a list of positive and negative cognitions … a list of words
I don’t deserve love vs. I deserve love… I can have love
I am worthless vs. I am worthy
I am powerless vs. I am powerful
I am insignificant vs. I am important
I am damaged vs. I am whole and healthy
I am ugly vs. I am beautiful or attractive or desirable
The list goes on far longer than what you see above. The truth is that most if not all of us have some of these negative cognitions embedded into our beings, sometimes starting very early in life. My therapist asked me to put an “x” next to the ones I’d ever thought or felt, with multiple x’s to signify the depth of the message. Sitting there on that couch, I remember sinking into sobs as I read these words that I knew were written into my sense of being, not always able to recall when or how or from whom I learned them. She called these origin messages — things we learn often so early in life that they shape our actions, our thoughts, our communications. These are often messages of pain, of powerlessness, of unworthiness.
In his book, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom, Henri Nouwen talks about a part of us feeling left behind very early in life, the most fearful, most vulnerable part of us. He goes on to say that, in order for our “self” to be one, we must embrace that left-behind self and that doing so can be scary beyond belief. But it is in that fearful and vulnerable self where we encounter Jesus, the Divine, the Holy. When we bring that fearful, vulnerable self home to our present-day self, we experience wholeness, self-acceptance, and a deep sense of knowing that we are another word: beloved.
I want to leave you with this question: what are your words? Not the words that you speak, but the ones that you feel most define you. If they are words of pain and unworthiness, notice them, and start finding ways to transform them into words of kindness, belonging, and Belovedness. Because you, every last one of you, is beloved. Always.
MICHAEL OVERMAN is a graduate of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL. As a self-admitted “old soul”, Michael is more than comfortable asking the tough questions and not having immediate answers. Michael is passionate about all things interfaith, challenging the religious status quo — and baking whenever possible.
As he says, “Running from God is easy… running back to God is anything but.” He tried parish ministry. Too hot. He tried the nonprofit sector. Too cold. He finally tried hospital chaplaincy. Just right.
Michael currently lives in Vancouver, WA where he is a hospital chaplain. In his spare time, he loves chocolate, wine, and scifi.