Taking other people’s baggage and making it my own, then trying to fix them is a complete and utter train wreck, waiting to happen. For me, for them, and for anyone that lives in the wake of the traumatic experience.
In contrast, God taking people’s baggage and making it his own, then trying to fix them is a complete miracle that can and does happen and is really the only hope for those problems that people are experiencing.
I can feel what they feel.
I have had a problem with this from birth. I know what people are feeling. I can read their emotions and know exactly what they feel about me, how they feel about those around them. The problem is, I am most often wrong. Or maybe I’m not. According to most of the personality profiling tests that I have taken, I happen to be one that empathizes with other people’s emotions to the point of internalizing their emotions within me. They don’t have to say a thing to me. I can simply feel what they feel.
As a kid, I became quite adept at reading body language and facial structure to understand the emotions of those that were living in close proximity with me. This was an adapted trait that allowed me to ‘feel’ the emotions that were in the room so that I could properly respond to the room and change whatever negative emotion was present. I began to take on not just the role of changing the emotion, but also taking on the emotion itself, exchanging negative emotion for positive energy. I began to see myself as a ‘Savior’ of the room. My career in fixing people began.
It wasn’t anyone else’s ‘fault’ but my own. Each person should have and should share their emotion with those around them. It was my choice and my own errancy that brought me to the place of baggage snagging.
But this ran the course of life because at some point, I could not take on any more emotional baggage that wasn’t mine to carry in the first place. This is where the art of isolation began to occur for me. Isolation allowed me to be free to deal with the emotional baggage that I continued to haul around at my side. I could systematically go through and deal with each emotional hurdle that I had to jump to work through the plethora of negativity that I had somehow bottled up inside of me. I never really talked about any of this, and even further, I began to learn to ‘stuff it.’ I learned that it was easier for me in the long run, if I simply bottled up emotion, put it all away, and forgot about it in some long lost corner of my emotional baggage corner. I would find ways to forget about the deep dark corner, with distraction and entertainment and activity, all the while, disaster lurked. Around each corner, the baggage corner became ever present in my purview.
I played sports in high school. I loved the game of basketball, the strategy, physicality, and the incredible sense of team that it allowed for. As I have reflected upon my time playing the game of basketball, entirely all of it allowed me to, for just a bit of time each day, to completely forget about the corner of emotional baggage that I had chosen to carry around with me. It couldn’t follow me onto the court. I could remain completely engaged in the game that was happening in front of me, around me, and on the ends of my fingertips. I didn’t have to deal with the ever-present darkness that invaded when boredom took over. It was a form of distraction, and probably my first form of addiction that I can recall. Sure, video games were always a distraction and probably addiction forming as well, but basketball allowed for complete and utter separation from the things that would cause anxiety. Basketball was a great distraction, one of the tactics that I learned in recovery, much later in life.
Baggage snagging was a common theme in my life, as a Pastor. People would arrive in my office, expecting to dump their lives all over someone, and the place that was a natural place to do so, was the Pastor’s office. After all, isn’t that why people at church pay the people that work at the church? Isn’t that in their job description, to listen to the things that people need to ‘get off their chest?’ That was my experience as a ‘professional pastor.’ People needed me to listen, and so I did. I listened intently to all of their issues, all of their problems, and I even tried to ‘fix’ people. While I did so, I took on the emotion that they shared. I snagged the baggage that was left for me to handle. I stuffed it. And then I went home to try and be emotionally present with my family. What a mistake. Listening to the folks that came to my office was not a mistake. After all, counseling was part of my job description. Empathizing with them wasn’t a mistake, after all, isn’t that in humanity’s job description? My mistake was having an unhealthy ‘compassion’ for them. I recently heard a Pastor at our local church describe compassion as ‘feeling what others feel.’ I did that, for people, even when they didn’t ask me to do so. I felt with them, I felt for them, and I even felt beyond them. This led me to a place where I thought maybe I could ‘fix’ people. What another stupid concept.
I saw many examples of ‘great’ Pastors trying to fix other people’s baggage, even when unsolicited. I saw this cause tremendous pain. I saw this cause splits in relationships, drive people away from the church, and ultimately, saw people find more pain than they could ever imagine, because of well meaning leaders at a church trying to fix people, all in the name of shepherding. I remember well a situation at a church that I served at when a family was making a decision that was deeply personal to them, and there was no clear ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in what they were doing. The issue that they were confronted with was extremely polarizing and couldn’t really have a great outcome with whatever decision they came to. But as church leaders, we thought it was our ‘duty’ to dive in and fix the situation. We brought a letter to the family, had them come sit in an elder meeting, and our Senior Leader even tried to talk to the family in an effort to fix the situation. That family was deeply wounded, ended up leaving the only community that they had known for years, and, I would guess still deals with extreme bitterness over the entire saga.
When someone becomes a member at a church, in the United States of America, to that person, it is as if they are joining a club. A group of people that they can enjoy being with. Sometimes they get to experience wonderful preaching and singing events with that group of people. Sometimes, they get to find some sense of community in a small group, etc. But they aren’t signing up for the church to be the ‘authority’ in their lives. Maybe it should be that way, according to several places in the bible, but it’s not. (If you really think about it, there are groups in the United States that do have these types of standards for their members, and we usually dub them ‘cults.’ ) And for pastoral leaders to believe that to be the case are probably just a bit starry eyed in their influence and position. The people that are in attendance are not there to have people tell them what they can and cannot do. They aren’t attending so that leaders in the church can meddle in their personal lives or decisions. People are there because they enjoy it. And when life gets hard and they are confronted with difficult decisions, they might reach out for input and help. But often they don’t. And yet, church leaders (myself included for many years) feel the need to fix the situation. This is heavy handed, power seeking, and ultimately ends in pain, even when it should end in deeper relationships, and a tighter community.
Now I wasn’t just baggage snagging and creating a deep desolation in my own life, I was actually trying to remedy someone else’s problems that were just that. Their own problems. I now understand that I cannot fix anyone. I’m not God. But I thought maybe if I could fix people, I could stop feeling what they were feeling. I thought maybe if I could fix them, I could fix me. Saving one more person ‘for Jesus’ was always the mantra. But if Jesus wants to save someone, he can do it. He doesn’t need or want my help in doing so. I am slow to learn that. Fixing baggage is a meaningless mantle to take up, even as a Pastor. Helping people might be a better way to describe what I should have been doing. Helping people allows one to come alongside of another and walk with them in the problems that they face, offering empathy, compassion, and, when asked, advice. Helping people is very different than fixing people. Had I been focused on helping instead of fixing, I may have been able to run the distance as a Pastor. I may have been able to do what my friends that are pastors pride themselves on doing and produce longevity. Instead, I flamed out. I failed. And that’s that. I am left to look back and learn the things that I was unable or unwilling to learn during the course of my pastoral ministerial career. So, what have I learned?
- I can’t fix anyone.
- Compassion doesn’t mean that I have to carry other’s problems.
- Helping others is what I am wired to do.
- Jesus can fix people when he wants, how he wants, and doesn’t need or want my help in doing so.
- I really don’t know what others are thinking about me. And unless they tell me what they are thinking it is a worthless venture to try and assume what they might be thinking.
I’m at a different place today. I have to work hard to keep my ‘advice’ to myself. I fail often at keeping it to myself, though it’s easier now that I am not in some professional world of trying to fix people. I fail those close to me when I think I have some better solution than what they are currently doing. But I’m working hard at keeping it to myself. I’m no longer failing as a Pastor in this weakness. And I’m extremely grateful for that. There isn’t anyone that shows up at my doorstop with some preconceived crazy idea that I can help them further than the next person. If someone asks me for advice or asks me for help, I’m always willing to jump in and do what I can. But if there is a crack or fissure in someone else’s life, it’s not my job to cement the gap. That’s God’s job. That’s the person’s job and responsibility. And it’s not on me to try and take His place. There is great relief in those realizations. There is great peace knowing that fixing me is really the only responsibility I must maintain.