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IDEMA: Are you haunted by ghosts from your past?

• Oct 17, 2018 at 3:00 PM

On Sept. 27, the nation, during a hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, heard from Judge Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford as each person offered their own interpretation of events that happened or did not happen over three decades ago.

Was there an attempted rape by Judge Kavanaugh of Dr. Ford at a party when both were in high school? Kavanaugh did not deny there might have been an attempted rape, but he asserted that he was 100 percent sure it was not him. Ford said at the hearing she was 100 percent sure her assailant was Brett Kavanaugh.

No truer words as a description of this hearing are William Faulkner's: "The past is never dead. It is not even past."

My purpose here is not to argue for the truth of either side. What I want to explore with you is how we overcome our own traumas from the past.

We all have had incidents in our past which haunt us like the ghost of Christmas past in Dickens' novel, "A Christmas Carol." Some of these ghosts from our past are what we did to others, and other ghosts are what other people did to us. Such events often return to us in our dreams at night, or are relived through listening to an old song, or visiting places from our past like our high schools or colleges.

Sometimes we cannot even remember past traumas, having perhaps repressed the feelings. Sometimes we remember all too vividly such events, which stir up deep feelings which can even paralyze us for a time.

Psychologists are faced with the task of helping their patients uncover the past, trying to get at the truth of what happened. Then, hopefully, healing comes from working through all the myriad feelings.

This process is incredibly painful for some people, who often put up defenses against the feelings and resist them or the truth which underlies such feelings. Therapy can take months, even years.

Clergy sometimes participate in that process of self-discovery with parishioners. Christianity (and other traditions) offer something that psychologists don't, and that is forgiveness. Psychologists can help a person accept the past, which is invaluable. But forgiveness, especially in the context of worship or individual confession, can uniquely break the grip of the past upon the psyche.

The Episcopal Church's general confession, used each Sunday, offers this wisdom: "Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone." I would add that, in confession, we also offer up for God's forgiveness our sins against others, sins known and unknown, or sins by others that we endured.

Then, after the general confession, the priest proclaims, "Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ." In another version of confession in “The Book of Common Prayer,” written centuries earlier, we read the following: "We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed, against thy divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable."

Memories are indeed painful, and their burden can crush us.

Carl Jung had a term for what the Church calls the sinful aspect of human nature, "the shadow " side of ourselves. For Jung — as in the Church — human beings are made up of good and evil, light and darkness. We are in constant battle between these two sides of ourselves; and for most, if not all of us, that shadow side of us has victimized others by "thought, word or deed."

Whether we did the hurting or were hurt, many of us are haunted by the past. The key is taking ownership, as best as we can, of what we did, or what others did to us.

Jesus said the truth will set you free. Getting at the truth of our past, especially when decades have passed, is difficult. Defenses against pain can be strong, and defenses against the truth can be equally strong. The power of forgiveness can penetrate such defenses, as can the power of confession.

Too many of us are in the grip of the past. Facing up to the past, confessing our faults, asking for forgiveness and becoming reconciled with both God and the people in our lives, both dead and living, is truly liberating.

The past may not be dead, as our memories and dreams at night remind us of, but we need not be forever victimized or afflicted by the past.

— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune community columnist

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