Photo Credit: Tim Yaworski @livingskyguy
It has been my experience that defense often follows discomfort when reconciliation is needed. In my Catholic faith tradition, discomfort can be understood as a gift that invites us to turn back, to repent, to make right. And defensiveness is a self-protective strategy to avoid taking responsibility. Defenses divert us (for now, or forever) from being in real relationships with the ones we have had conflict with.
A mentor of mine frequently reminds me that I can be in relationship or I can be right, but usually not both. Over the last month, as I continue to wrestle with my role in Truth and Reconciliation as a settler and a Catholic, this reminder has been close to my heart. When it comes to Residential Schools and their legacy, my church and my government were simply wrong. And to the extent that we defend participation or resist reparations and structural reforms, our defenses impede the relationships needed for Truth and Reconciliation.
We have failed to fully acknowledge our historic and present sins (because many victims and survivors tell us so). And just as significantly in light of some among us expressing sorrow, collectively, we have not adequately made amends and changed our behaviour that makes us trustworthy or safe people to be in relationship with.
Defense is a normal response to try to protect ourselves from pain, but I have found that it is almost always both ineffective and unhelpful. Still, stopping something that we have relied on for protection is difficult and scary. It works better for me to practice replacing behaviours that are no longer serving me instead of trying to quit.
So I have five suggestions for dealing with discomfort without relying on defenses:
- Grieve the losses. Discomfort almost always points us to heartaches. With Residential Schools, we grieve the lost innocence, family relationships, language, culture, spirituality, and most significantly, the lives damaged and destroyed in death. As members of communities or faith, we also grieve the lesser, but no less real losses of narratives which hid our Catholic sin and shame.
- Listen to the perspectives of others to understand their positions deeply. Ask great questions. Wait to offer your perspective until someone else asks you what you think. Then ask if your listener thinks you are missing anything.
- Notice and acknowledge the gaps between intention and impact. Very often when we are defensive, we note that we or others did not mean to hurt. But if, in fact, people were hurt by actions with good intentions, recognize that the actual harm carries a greater weight than the intentions, no matter how virtuous.
- Apologize and make amends wherever your conscience and discernment calls you to it. Call on our leaders to do likewise. If someone suggests that your apology would be helpful to their healing, hold that request with the greatest respect and care for their vulnerability in asking for what they need.
- Learn new ways of understanding and acting. Reconciliation, as a Catholic Sacrament, asks us to turn away from the actions we have confessed and sin no more. The Truth and Reconciliation process invites no less. Read the Calls to Action. Check out movies, novels, poetry, and history from authors who have a different experience.
In the wake of the betrayal of Judas, his arrest for crimes he didn’t commit, and the gradual distance granted him by almost all of his friends, Jesus cries out to God for another way and then accepts suffering unto death, which becomes the beginning of new life. My church has been complicit in a great evil perpetrated against beloved children of the Creator. Whatever undoing of the Church caused by laying down our defenses could also become the foundation of a new way of being in relationship with one another. If only we will let the Spirit do this work!
So when defensiveness swells in me, I thank it for coming. Then I pay attention to the broken piece of my heart that feels raw and exposed, in need of hiding. I am learning that the temptation to defend is actually a spiritual invitation to healing. This is the work we have to do together, to allow the Creator to heal our own wounds and walk with others seeking to heal theirs. May we set down our defenses so that our whole hearts can be given over to relationships. May our apologies translate into real and meaningful amends. And may we earn the trust of those we have wounded by learning a new way to love.