The Traumatized Pastor

Author George Santayana (1863-1952) said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In 1948 Winston Churchill stole Santayana’s words and made a slight change, “Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it.” And I say, those who ignore their past will fail to understand who they are and why they behave and think the way they do. 

Never underestimate the effect your past has on your present and your future. 

Last year I turned sixty-one. The road of my past is now far longer than the road leading into my future. Now I’m not saying that I’ve been ignoring my past but it is certainly true that the last year or two I have been looking more seriously at the effect my past, and more specifically the negative parts of my past, has had on shaping me into the person I am today. 

I had some traumatic experiences as a child that, I believe, planted seeds of fear in me that I am still dealing with today. A friend of mine in Elementary school had a brother who accidentally fell off a cliff while hiking, and died. For some reason this really freaked me out. I can still remember sitting in the back of our car while my mom was driving and all of a sudden sobbing uncontrollably. My mom pulled to the side of the road and asked me what was wrong. I told her about my friend’s brother and that I was afraid that I was going to die. She tried her best to reassure me. 

On another occasion I was traveling with my Dad and Mom in the car and the traffic came to a crawl. Up ahead was an accident. As we slowly passed the crash, a group of bystanders were flipping the overturned car back on it’s wheels only to reveal the mangled, bloody body of a person. I’d never seen a dead person before, especially in that condition. 

And then there was that time with my brother. I only have one sibling, Gary, or at least he was called Gary back then. He would change his name shortly after leaving home at the age of eighteen and would forever be known as Jacob Mills…it’s a long story. We wanted to go into the entertainment business, which he did, and I guess that Jacob Mills sounded way more cool than Gary Jacobs…which it does. Anyway, Gary is five years older than me, and at that time he was becoming a bit of a hippie. His bedroom was way cool. He had posters and blacklights and beads hanging from the ceiling. There were shelves with knickknacks and a few bottles filled with colored water. I never understood what those bottles actually contained. One day while Gary was gone, I unscrewed one of the bottles and took a sip. Just as I did, Gary walked into the room:

“What are you doing?” “Nothing.” “Get out of my room.” “Okay.” “You didn’t drink that, did you?” “No.” “Good, because it’s poison and it will kill you.”

I ran out of his room and into the living room where my parents were watching television.

“I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die.” My Dad said, “What in the hell are you talking about?” “I drank poison. I’m gonna die.” “Where’d you get poison?” “In Gary’s room.” “GARY, GARY, GET OUT HERE!”

I think that’s about the time when Gary left home.

It’s a funny story now, but it wasn’t funny then. 

There have been times in my past when I have been honest with some friends about having changed my theology on certain controversial things, only to have them turn on me and put an end to our friendship. Because of this, I am cautious about being totally honest with people.

There were times when I was pastoring that were so hurtful to me and Ellen, that now, when asked if I ever think I will return to the pastorate, I throw my head back, let out a loud and prolonged laugh, followed by a firm, “No way!”

But enough about me. What about you?

There have been good experiences from your past that have had a good and lasting effect on you. And, there have been bad experiences from your past that have had a bad and lasting effect on you. 

  • If you’ve been betrayed then you might have a hard time trusting people.
  • If you have been lied to, then you might have a hard time believing people.
  • If you have been abused, then you might have a hard time feeling safe with people.
  • If God has disappointed you, then you might be consciously or unconsciously, keeping Him at a distance. 

Some people seem to be less effected by the bad things from their past than others are. But just remember, just because it doesn’t seem to you that you’ve been effected by your past does not mean that you haven’t been effected by your past.

I can’t imagine anyone reading this chapter and disagreeing that our past can effect who we are, how we think, and why we behave the way we do. The real point is this; never underestimate the effect your past can have on your present and your future. 

Often times a trusted friend or a professional counselor can help you make these connections. Be willing to do the hard work of asking the hard questions about your past in order to move more freely in your present and into your future. 

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