Last night, he looked at me and with a loud voice in a crowded room asked, “Why do you have that huge scar on your neck?” He had never noticed it, but a 7 inch scar on someone’s neck is pretty rad to a 6 year old boy. I told him that several years ago I was sick and had to have surgery. Before you think this was a beautiful teaching moment between us, know that he just shrugged his shoulders, said “cool” and then told me all about the surgery his cousin had to have (with all the details, of course.)
What I noticed in that moment, though, was that I was kind of proud to tell him about my scar. There was zero embarrassment when he asked me about it. When I found out I had cancer 6 years ago and that I would have such a large scar, I stocked up on scarves and more turtlenecks than I’d like to admit. Six years ago, that wound was something I wanted covered – because I just didn’t want to deal with the stares and questions.
Now, I welcome them.
A few years later, during a particularly stressful time, I found myself dealing with another kind of wound that was not as obvious. Depression and anxiety hit hard. Panic attacks, uncontrollable crying, feeling like there was no light at the end of the tunnel – I was convinced I would never feel normal again. I knew there was something wrong when the doctor walked in and I couldn’t speak because I couldn’t stop the sobbing. What I learned is that this diagnosis was just as dangerous as the cancer diagnosis from before.
It’s not something I could just handle on my own. As much as I needed a surgeon to remove the cancer in my body, I needed mental health professionals (and medication) to help me see through the darkness. I needed people around me who supported me through it. I needed to hear their stories and needed to share mine.
You can’t see the scars from those months, but they are there. A six year old boy won’t walk up to me and ask me why I have a depression scar, because it’s not one you can see. Those are the scars that, I believe, are the most important ones to talk about.
Especially among pastors.
I would venture to say that there are several who are reading this now who can relate to my experience – who may be dealing with something similar even now. It’s important that you talk about it.
In many ways, I think that pastors don’t think they have permission to struggle. We have to hold it together for those hurting around us – we have to show grace to those who have put targets on our backs – we put unreasonable expectations on our schedules, bodies and families. We compare ourselves to others and feel inadequate. We are quick to believe that if we are dealing with anxiety and/or depression (or shame or fear or loneliness or _______), we simply haven’t been spending enough time with the Lord. Rather than sharing with trusted colleagues or a counselor, we put it all in the trash compactor of our soul – push it all down – so we can function. Unfortunately, trash rots. It can’t just sit. You have to deal with it or eventually it’ll really start stinking up the place.
It can be really scary, though. It seems much safer to push it all down than to work through it.
I had a conversation with a nurse a while back. She asked me what I did for a living and when I told her she said, “Give me some scripture to help me make it through today.”
Um, okay. No pressure, lady.
I told her I was living in the first few verses of Romans 5 and that I found it so interesting that hope was put last in the order of things. That it made me wonder if leaning into the struggle or suffering is necessary to have hope.
As I’ve been thinking about this passage I’m reminded of how out of order life with Jesus can sometimes be – at least out of order for us. In our minds, it should read, “if you are hopeful then you won’t suffer because things will be awesome.”
Because, you know, that’s how things always worked for God’s people in the Bible, right? Nope.
We all know that we will all face seasons of struggle – how we move through them, how we face them, how we live in the midst of them, will cultivate one of two things.
Fear or hope.
When you look up these definitions, each contain the word anticipation. To put it simply:
Fear is the anticipation or expectation of bad.
Hope is the anticipation or expectation of good.
I am absolutely convinced that when we “trash compact” our stuff, we are doing so because we anticipate a bad outcome (when in all reality, the act of pushing it all down will have much worse outcomes.) However, when we face or seek help with our struggle and when we are vulnerable, we will be able to persevere, have our characters strengthened and experience hope in a new way.
The beauty of all of this is that when we share these struggles, we give others the freedom to do the same. The result is a sense of belonging – something we all need. As Brene Brown writes, “Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searching struggles is how we invite grace, joy and gratitude into our lives (The Gifts of Imperfection).
I encourage you to share your scars. If you are in the middle of a struggle – whether it be depression, anxiety, feeling inadequate, experiencing fear – find someone you can trust and talk through it. If you are on the other side, be a safe place for someone. You see, hope and fear are both highly contagious. Your bravery to be vulnerable will serve as hope for others – your willingness to engage rather than compact will serve as hope for others. Share your scars. It’ll be good for them. And for you.
Resources to help:
Trevecca Nazarene University, Center for Pastoral Health - 615-248-1213
Brene' Brown - The Gifts of Imperfection
Jen Showalter is Pastor to families with kids at Houston 1st Church of the Nazarene. NTS graduate in 2001. Married to Gerron. Mom to Emma and Henley.