Healing is Hard Work

James E. Hayes, D. Min., M. Div., Executive Director, Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center

I am white.

I am the son of an auto mechanic.

I witnessed racial violence in my integrated school and it was terrifying.

I was a first generation college student and athlete.

I was dumbfounded by racial slurs shouted from stands that were targeted at black friends and team mates.

My brother, a good man, is a police captain.

I have benefited from my status as a white male.

One of my highest values is justice and loving my neighbor—that means everyone.

I know I am racist in ways I can’t see.

I am grateful for people who have helped me to grow and gain the insights necessary to make that last statement.

I have work to do. Would you like to join me?

We have work to do.

Just when we thought we might get a handle on one virus, we find ourselves facing the sickness of racism—again. So many thoughts are on my mind as I compose this article, which was not my original topic for the newsletter and blog this month. Many of these thoughts relate to mental health and our mission. We work hard to walk with people so that all might flourish.

I received this from Robert Johnson, the CEO of our accrediting agency, the Solihten Institute, as he publicly wrestled with the killing of George Floyd:

As a young therapist, after a particularly difficult week, a mentor pointed out that good therapy, effective therapy, compassionate therapy did not always result with the person or family in front of me feeling relief. Most people seek our help because they are experiencing inextinguishable pain. Their plea, their expectation is that we will douse the flames of their emotional injury as quickly as possible. All too often, he explained, out of a desire to be helpful, we cooperate with this misguided strategy.

There are moments in the course of therapy when our most empathic and ethical response is to provide the support and safe environment where our clients can tolerate living with the discomfort of confusion and ambiguity. This can be as difficult for us as is it for our clients. Giving in to these pleas for relief leads to convenient interventions with quick but also short-term analgesic effects. Rather than genuine healing, we become unintentional partners in the perpetuation of harmful, and in extreme cases disastrous cycles of emotional, physical, and spiritual injury.

The work we have to do as individuals and as a nation has no easy fix and is certainly not going to make us comfortable. But I believe hope and healing are possible.

The questions, the discomfort, the therapy, and the call to action we must lean into include:

  • Are we willing to face our implicit biases?
  • How can we seek out conversations with those of different skin tone, gender, financial status, religious or sexual preference to understand their perspectives and experiences? We have discovered that many of these people are performing essential and dangerous services, making them most at risk in the age of pandemic. After such an encounter, reflect:
  • What was it like to sit with this person?
  • What did I learn that can become an action for good?
  • Do I regret any part of the conversation?
  • Were there moments when I was concerned I might say something offensive?
  • What surprised you? Affirmed you?
  • What is the next best step for following up with this person?
  • Am I willing to explore my own story through another lens by reading some books on racism? Here’s a list recommended by the Des Moines Public Library:
  • Can I knock on doors accessible to me because of my status, and apply pressure in order to begin honest conversations about equity and inclusion in our community?

Healing begins when each of us takes responsibility.

Thank you for helping us to carry out our mission of sustaining hope in times of despair and bringing healing where there is pain. We are in this together and we have work to do.