“For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.”
-The Apostle Paul, Ephesians 6:12 NLT
The whole room seemed to be holding its breath. We were witnessing a type of aliveness that undoubtedly brought something up within each of us. Seeing a man unbridled in his expression unsettled me in ways I wasn’t prepared to acknowledge. I didn’t know how to hold the moment…it existed somewhere between the extremes that I knew. It wasn’t violent and it wasn’t passive. It was angry and expressive and loud. It was powerful and unfamiliar.
I was taking a class on energetic expression and a mid-30 year old man had volunteered to do some energy work on his relationship with his father. My work as a psychotherapist had led me towards a growing curiosity about the body, trauma, and energetic expression and I wanted to experience some of these modalities for myself. The work was becoming personal inasmuch as it had already become important to me as a professional.
The workshop instructor had created an energetic exercise aimed at connecting him with his bottled-up emotions. Rather than just using words to explore what lay beneath his rigid exterior, she chose to utilize movement to bridge the gap between his internal and external world. The instructor gave him a tennis racket and stacked several couch pillows onto each other. She then invited him to extend the racket above his head and imagine that the pillows were his oppressive father.
The man’s relationship with his dad had been the source of a tremendous amount of pain and shame over the years. When he thought about his father, he felt small and inferior. Although he was exceptionally successful for his age, he always felt like his accomplishments weren’t good enough to satisfy his father’s standards. This deeply impacted his self-worth and self-esteem and he struggled with bouts of depression and thoughts of suicide.
With some hesitance he began to animate his limbs and limply hit the pillows in front of him. The instructor coaxed him to stop taking it easy and really let go. “Don’t hold back, engage your killer instinct!” For the briefest of moments, something was beginning to awaken in his body. I could see the repressed energy starting to flow out of him the more he felt permission to release himself to the act. His posture began to shift as the motion required him to exhale more deeply. But just as it seemed like he was beginning to allow this trapped pain out, he hit a familiar roadblock and backed away. His posture went limp and he stopped.
“I don’t want to do this anymore, I don’t want to hurt him. It doesn’t make me feel better.”
Sweat was beginning to trickle down the man’s face as he held the tennis racket in his hand. Whatever momentum was building had vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared. He couldn’t continue; he didn’t want to destroy his father, even if only in symbol. “This feels wrong,” he said. The room seemed to go limp as well. Even though nobody was being hurt by this, just imagining it felt violent and wrong.
This was a complicated moment. I could sense that I was witnessing this man roll away a tombstone that had held him hostage, but as he backed off from the process the bind that he was now facing encapsulated an even bigger story. His body had invited him to express this tension a million times over, but something in him knew that this type of honesty could have grave consequences. He sensed that his honesty was too powerful, and his father too weak to receive it. So, like he was accustomed, he shut himself down and suppressed what so desperately needed to come out. The energetic exercise created an embodied picture of what he had always struggled with emotionally. He deeply believed that if he were to share his true thoughts with his father, he would essentially be hitting him to death with a tennis racket. So instead of being brutally honest with his father about the impact of his actions, he offered himself up as a sacrificial lamb. Taking his father’s sins on himself.
What happened next in the room continued to show the story of this man’s life. His self-sacrifice was praised. He was told how good of a heart he had for not continuing to create violence. Nobody liked seeing a man angry, much less swinging a tennis racket with force. The whole room seemed to exhale as he chose to “lay down his arms”. I too was relieved that the drama appeared to be over. I had started to feel nervous about how the rest of the room would feel. Would this trigger something for someone? Would it remind people of their past experiences? I knew there were several women in our midst that had shared some of their personal experiences with violent men and I felt like I needed to do something to protect them. Seeing him back off and choose to walk away relieved an immense tension.
The instructor, however, didn’t join in with our chorus. While acknowledging the beauty of not wanting to be violent, she questioned the impulse in all of us to protect ourselves and others from this raw expression. Despite all of the clinical brilliance in the room, she alone noticed that this ending had dire consequences for the man in front of us. He, once again, was feeling nothing and beginning to resume his old posture of being. He had tensed back up as he forced himself to swallow his expression again.
Our collective anxiety rose again as the instructor asked him to pick the racket back up. This time rather than imagining hitting his actual father, an act that we all agreed would be a recreation of violence, she invited him to shift his attention to destroying something else. “I don’t want you to focus on destroying an actual person, I want you to imagine destroying the spirit in him that has caused you so much pain.”
“What do you mean?” He muttered.
“I would never ask you to destroy your father,” she replied, “but you can destroy the parts of him that hurt you. Imagine destroying the part of him that wouldn’t offer his vulnerability. Imagine destroying the parts of him that were cruel and unbearably critical. Destroy the parts of him that was unwilling to give you his love, blessing, and affection.”
This thought offered a backdoor to the dead end that we had all gotten stuck in.
Within a few seconds the animation that had left the man’s body began to flow again. This time with even more fierceness and permission. With a renewed vigor he let out his anger and pain onto the stacked pillows. It was loud and free, but no longer scary to him. The more he could say with his body, the more he could say with his mouth. And as this trapped pain released, so with them came his tears and grief.
After one last swing he dropped the racket and began to weep. Through the tears I could hear a new layer of vulnerability falling out of his suddenly tender frame. “Why wouldn’t you tell me you were proud of me? Why did you have to be so mean to me? I just want to know you love me and believe in me.”
These were the words he could never say. They were the questions that his body had to hold in for so long. I could see his muscles begin to relax, his face soften, and his eyes clear. He was all there, fully alive, for the first time in decades. He didn’t actually hate his father or want to harm him. He actually, most deeply, wanted his acceptance and embrace. He was not an angry man at his core, he was a wounded man.
In the words of theologian Richard Rohr, “pain that is not transformed is transmitted.” Destroying his father would bring no freedom from this bondage. The destruction of another or ourselves never deals with the pain of our hearts. His father was not the enemy to be destroyed. Attempting to locate the evil that had hurt him in his father’s flesh and blood would be to miss the deeper legacy being exposed. This legacy had been passed down generation to generation. It did not honor the deep and vulnerable desire of each man’s heart. Its’ sinister spirit crystalized in generations of fathers withholding themselves and their love from their sons. And up until this moment, it was continuing its movement in and through another generation. It was the true evil that this son needed to confront in his father and himself.
The illness created through violence is always rooted in a mistreatment of something holy. Evil is like a virus in this way. It’s like a spirit breathed from one soul to another. Passing from one body to the next through a recurring drama that misunderstands the story it keeps re-telling. Pushing down our pain neglects our inherent dignity and enables the continuation of the same treatment in the future. And without an exit for our pain, we eventually explode. We see this all the time. From school shootings and domestic violence to self-harm and suicide. If our pain is not treated, it will find a way to tell its’ story by infecting someone or something else.
However, if we are given permission to courageously voice our pain, we will see what lies beneath the hurt and the scars of our body. Our good and tender hearts are still alive and capable of being resurrected. We must be courageous and choose to treat ourselves and our pain in a new way. To walk towards it, listen to it, and express it so that we can begin to heal.
It is through the act of radically turning towards, embracing, and then expressing our pain that we ultimately discover the way to transform our wounds. We are all people in need of respect, kindness, and love. Despite our hardened defenses, we all long to have our dignity acknowledged and our hearts affirmed. We are capable of being liberated from the wounds and patterns of our family and culture by beginning to see evil for what it really is. And in seeing behind the curtain of this transmission, we are freed to offer a new form of love to the parts of us and others that are waiting to be found.