From the Pulpit
Healing Our Hearts
1995 Affirmation Conference
By Rob Killian
It is fitting I meet with you here in Seattle at the University of OZ, because it was seventeen years ago that I left this, my hometown, Seattle. I intended to leave for just a short while to get a degree and then to return to lead a life of public service. I dreamed of being a lawyer and of becoming the first Mormon Senator from this state.
Seventeen years is half my life time, yet it feels like I am just still beginning. I am thrilled to be here because in some ways Seattle has turned into the Emerald city of OZ, my city of dreams and ideals. I have not yet moved home, and I have altered my dreams and my life plans, as you can tell (some of those were great changes). But today marks the day that I have returned home. It is a symbolic day of healing and hope, and I want to share this day with you.
I am reminded of the journey that Dorothy took through OZ to reach her emerald city. Her experiences can provide many lessons for us. I would like to take you back to the land of OZ as Dorothy found it (unless you've had too much of that this weekend!). It was an amazing experience to watch that movie in preparation for this weekend as a gay adult. There really is a certain queer sensibility to that movie, and it became obvious why Dorothy is our icon for gay pride and coming out. Her journey paralleled much of our own struggle to find the Wizard who could help us return home.
Let me remind you of a few things about the movie. Dorothy was a young and worried girl. She was worried about losing her most prized possession, her dog Toto. She was ignored by nearly everyone that she cared about. They seemed too busy to notice that she was frightened and alone. She felt isolated misunderstood and longed for a world where there would be no more pain, thus her song, Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Miss Gulch, the insensitive neighbor who wanted to take Toto away, was rigid, unforgiving and righteous. Law and tradition appeared to be on her side. She seemed inhuman, yet she is representative of what we continue to do to ourselves as we hold ourselves up to an unachievable standard of perfection. Sadly this is also what religion came to represent for many of us.
In Munchkin Land (if you remember that beautiful, colorful land), Glynda, the Good Witch, who seemed to know everything, knew that it was safe and good, and gently sang to the hiding Munchkins, Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are. They were a gentle and peaceful people who had lived in constant fear of that wicked witch. And the Yellow Brick Road? Remember it wasn't straight, and it wasn't representative of some planned out life journey that we are supposed to travel on. It was circular, winding and dividing without road signs or directions. It curved and twisted like the realities of our own journeys. We constantly circle and double back to the issues that seem to haunt and delay our growth.
The Scare Crow, remember him? He's the one who seemed to know enough to know that he didn't have all the answers. His quest was to seek knowledge and truth. Unfortunately, he was stuck on a pole, unable to move, unable to get close to others.
And how about the Lion? All he wanted was courage. He tried to act the role he assumed he was destined to act. He had been born a Lion, yet his roaring was just a cover. When Dorothy and Toto finally confront his bullying, they call his bluff and he begins to cry. And for the first time we see that, just like us, he is scared to death. Deep down he's scared of even his own tail. He sings this song (if you remember it), "it's been in me so long, I just got tell you how I feel. It's sad Missy, when you're born to be a sissy, Without the vim and verve . . . " And he closes with "I'm afraid there's no denying I'm just a dandelion!"
There's so much in that one movie that I could spend all day delving into, and laughing over, the similarities and parallels between our lives and that movie — but I have a different task today. I would like to spend the rest of the hour focusing on the Tin Man.
In the middle of the forest Dorothy and the Scare Crow stumble upon a man made of tin. He was rusted, rigidly frozen, unable to move, to talk or to cry. His problems represent to me, the struggles we have with our own hearts, and with the pain we must endure.
My message today will be about reclaiming joy and finding the space to coexist with the pain. It's about discovering the power of our hearts to heal, to guide, to teach us to love ourselves, and to teach us to love one another.
The Tin Man said (after Dorothy oiled his joints) "I could be kind of human if I only had a heart . . ." and "bang on my chest, it is empty . . ." and "I would lock it with a zipper, if I only had a heart." He blamed his lack of a heart on the Tin Smith who must have forgotten to give him one. The Tin Man was just out living and got caught in the rain, which is very symbolic (unless you live here in Seattle). All of us can probably relate to the Tin Man. We too, have probably rusted shut a time or two.
We've had reasons to zip up our hearts, to surround ourselves with metal, trying to protect ourselves from any more pain, loss, disappointment, or rejection. I'm sure we've all felt empty inside and pounded on our chests a time or two to see if there was anything there. We wanted to see if we could feel anymore. All of us, have, at times, when the pain was so great, have felt that it was better to escape, to numb ourselves, to avoid any chance of being hurt again. Yet when we do that, we still long to be human. We want to be held, and to be touched, and to be able to touch others. We, like the Tin Man, want to know how to protect our hearts without becoming the hollow shell of a human being. We want our hearts to be able to bear our pain.
At least once a week in my life as a physician I get asked how I can work in a hospice with dying patients? How can I work as a physician with sick and dying patients in my practice? They ask "how do you keep on going?" "How do you protect your heart so that you can remain so open?" People are really asking how to carry on when their own personal losses are so incredibly painful. There is so much loss in our own community to divorce, AIDS, suicide, addictions, and to the closet. We lose our children, often times we lose our families. These questions are valid ones for us, but they are also questions for all of humankind. Those were difficult questions for me for a very long time. I never knew how to answer those people that asked those questions. I wanted to have the answers. I wanted to be smart enough to help. I wasn't sure how to answer them without revealing my own pain and suffering and continual struggle to understand and accept the suffering that I saw. I wanted to be perfect and in control of my emotions, and for a time I thought there must be a way to make it all better.
Over the past year, however, the answers have become clearer, at least for me. I cannot claim any authority, but what I share with you is some of my own journey. I am only here to tell you how I do it, not how you must do it. You see, I hurt all the time. And I have gone through periods where I have zipped closed my own heart. And I have gone through periods where I have rusted shut and closed out the world. And I still have times where I need to escape and just play, or need to find beauty somewhere to call my heart. But by painful experience I have learned that shutting people out usually ends up hurting me more than letting them in.
It has been thorough my work, working with the outcasts of society, the dying, the sick, the disabled, the homeless, the drug addicted, the gay and lesbian community, that I have learned to make sense of the message of Christ. And that is what has sustained me to continue my work, to keep returning and that is what has got me through those worst times. I keep returning because I find God among these people. I found humanity in all its glory and horror. I found eyes full of longing and hope. And as a result I feel blessed with a deep sense of the beauty and the mystery of human courage, suffering, and even death.
I see the world today. There is so much pain. Some of us have grown weary of relentless stories of victims and suffering. The suffering we see begins to lose its sting and we ignore and devalue human misery. Just being human brings us pain and loss, and being homosexual seems to multiply or own pain and loss. I have come to believe that, in some ways, we are all victims. We all have pain that we carry with us: the pain of disappointments, the pain of self judgement, the pain of withered dreams, the loss of our membership in our communities. Sometimes I want to yell at God and ask "why can't we have just one day without pain or any more losses? Why?" And then I remember that it seems like I seem to want my own version of the land somewhere over the rainbow.
When I was first involved in medicine I worked as a respiratory therapist at Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City. I loved the kids and I thrived in my work. Yet the tragedies and traumas and deaths that I had to deal with there began to wear away at my spirit. I worked with kids suffering and dying from cystic fibrosis, from cancer, from traumas, drownings and child abuse. One night while I was working in the intensive unit I had a patient who was two years old. He looked just like my own son who was two. It was like, all night long I had to look at my own son laying on that bed. He had been left with his grandparents for the weekend while his parents went away for a respite in Saint George. The grandparents had a pool and he had fallen in and drowned. His brain was already dead, but we were keeping his heart going long enough to get his parents there.
Late that night his parents arrived. I watched them walk into the unit to see their son. The father collapsed onto the floor and just sobbed. It was literally one of the most painful and difficult things I have ever witnessed in my life. Shortly after they arrived the life supports were discontinued and that little boy died. I quit my job the next morning. I had seen enough children die to last me a lifetime. I went to work with adults in a hospital in Provo, Utah. Sure I miss the kids, but I still love my work. Death was still a part of my experience, but it seemed easier to handle when the dying were older. And of course I had a long time to think about the events I had seen up there in Salt Lake, and all those kids that had touched my heart.
One year later I was working in the ICU (again), and a young twenty one year old female was brought in with sever respiratory difficulty. She had been fighting a brain tumor since the age of sixteen, and over the years the chemotherapy drugs had stiffened her lungs and she could barely breathe. That day she required mechanical ventilation to be able to keep her blood oxygenated, and she was put on a breathing machine. After that tube was placed in her throat she had tears in her eyes and no matter what we did she could not stop crying. I knew she was scared. I was scared for her. Who wouldn't be? And I began to imagine what it must be like to face death at such an early age, to be in that bed in the ICU.
Suddenly the thought came to me that I would want music playing and I rushed out of the unit determined to find a radio somewhere in that hospital. When I returned I dialed through the different stations until she smiled. She became my patient. She lived for one more week.
When she began to die she lapsed into a comma and her heart started to give out. Her parents decided to let her go peacefully. Her mother asked that I be the one to turn off the breathing machine. She and I went to the bedside and we each said good-bye. I turned off the ventilator and she died.
It was during that week, however, working with that young lady that I realized that regardless of how hard the pain was, I was so glad to be a witness to her struggle, to see her courage, and to get to know about her life. I was proud to have known her and her family. That gratitude began to extend backwards to many of the other patients I have lost or worked with. I was very fortunate to be able to share such intimate life experiences with so many other people, and within a few weeks I was back working at the children's hospital that I loved.
I have come to trust that as the pain multiplies in my life I have to do something about it. I can no longer just run away. I can't deny its existence. I have a phrase that I often say (and many of you have heard me say this), "I have learned to celebrate the pain, because I have learned that I learn from it." To deny it only hurts more. It blocks me from getting close to knowing people that I would never have known. I see many effects of denied pain all around me. I see the effects of drug and alcohol when used as a continuous escape from pain. I see rusted people who are stuck, not growing, not living and not loving. This amazing paradox is clear to me now. I must love even if it hurts, because I will hurt more if I don't.
Years went by and I entered medical school and began the slow process of coming out, facing the fact that my marriage would have to end and that my life plans were really going to change. The anger of that period forced me to turn inside, forced me to begin a journey to know myself, to begin to rid myself of the feeling of being separate, and the feeling of anger towards me, my family, and my church. I grew up with guilt and fear as the norm. I felt I was of little value. As gay, lesbian, bisexuals, we are told to not believe our feelings. We were taught to pretend to fit in, to deny our loves. We have been taught to lie to ourselves, to our families, to our church and our communities, but it hurts to lie. It is not good for us. It is not good for our families or anyone else. This life lesson, of going inside, has expanded to include learning to forgive and love myself.
Part of my healing began when I turned inside and began to face my own demons and fears. When I began to try to know and understand who I was. I have learned that I had to stop looking outside for answers and start the journey inside to discover them. My quest for self understanding and self love was inseparable from the spiritual journey that I had been on. I had to face the fact that I was and am, just like all of you are, worthy of love.
To begin to heal my wounds I have also learned that I had to reclaim my spirituality. I had to find ways of channeling my anger and to clear the roadblocks to loving myself. I had to begin seeking to understand my place in this world where my role now seemed so foreign to me. To be healed I needed to love and to be loved. But to be healed is not to be free of pain or suffering. It is a fantasy to presume otherwise. To be healed is to be whole, to find joy and love amid the suffering. People say that time heals all wounds. Time may dull some of the pain, but deep healing doesn't happen unless you consciously choose it.
When I was a very small boy I experienced a very traumatic event. I'll spare you the details, but I ended up being locked out of my house in the middle of a winter night in my pajamas bleeding from my face. I was being punished for something I did not do. I never really understood what happened that night. For years I carried that confusion, hurt and anger of that event. My punishment was so harsh and so unfair. For thirty years I would often think about that night in my life. How could this have happened to me? What did I do to deserve this? I could not get past the loss of innocence, the anger, and eventually it did isolate me in my journey. That night I was rescued from the porch by my mother, but that memory has never seemed to help ease the painful memory.
This last fall, thirty years later, as part of my medical training, I underwent four months of a group psychotherapy experience with four of my colleges. Near the end of those four months we each underwent what is called an uncovering interview. The therapist wanted us to tell our stories, and he would interject with questions leading us to those things we seemed to be avoiding. I began by talking about how great my life is, how much I have grown, how much I like my work . . . But within a few minutes, I was directed back to that porch. I began reliving the terror and the anger and the disappointment. I had not planned on talking about anything having to do with that period in my life. But I was not only talking about it, I was there. It felt horrible, and it felt unfair. And for sometime there in front of four of my friends I became a little boy dressed in pajamas stuck on the porch of my childhood home. I couldn't leave there, and the tears were real and the fear and the trembling returned. I finally had to stop talking because there was no more story to tell. I felt scared and I was embarrassed to have broken down so easily in front of my friends. After a few minutes of silence, the therapist, having held everyone back from comforting me, asked me what I was looking at. And all I could see was that locked door. He asked me what I wanted. I told him that all I wanted was that door to be opened. He asked me why I did not reach out and open the door? It was a startling question, but I got it. As a thirty four year old man I realised I now had the power to open that door. It was about my own ability to let myself heal, to get past that event. The session ended there and I raced out of the room, stopping only to rinse out my eyes, so that I can go to my clinic and be a doctor and take care of patients for the rest of the day. It was funny because I thought "wow that was great!" All I have to do is open the door to my heart that had been locked up for so many years. So much anger had been hidden away inside of me and I was responsible to open the door, to unlock it and let it go.
What I did not get was the real lesson about the rest of the story. That took me a little bit longer to get. After work that day I did not feel like going home. I ran several errands, ate out, went to a movie, and then I went out and picked up some stranger and had one of those stereotypical anonymous sexual encounters. That's not my usual style, but I felt an incredible need and I acted on it. I finally dragged myself home very late that night wondering why I had been running all day, why I did not feel better, and why I had done that deed with some stranger. The experience that morning had been so powerful, but I was exhausted and I needed to sleep. At home I went straight to my room and I had the oddest sensation as I got into bed that I was not alone. I reached up and turned off the light and as I lay back the feeling overwhelmed me that someone else was there in bed waiting for me. I closed my eyes and was immediately transported back to that porch. I had not thought about the porch all day, I had thought about my heart. Yet there in the dark I found myself on that porch and that little boy was there with me. I had left him there. Then it became obvious that he was the one waiting for me there in my bed. Not only did he want the door opened, but he needed to be held, to heal and to be loved. That night I had the privilege of holding him. I got to be the father and mother of that child within me. I put my arms around this big pillow, curled up, feeling incredibly safe, and I went to sleep. I cannot explain the physics, or physiology, or the psychology of it, but I got to hold that little boy all night long. It was a night full of dreams that I cannot seem to remember, but my heart was lighter in the morning, and much of my anger and the pain from my childhood seemed to have dissipated.
I learned that I am responsible for my heart. For loving it and listening to its needs. I learned that I can choose to hold on to my anger and my disappointments, or I can open a window and let some light in. I learned that I can open the door to my heart and move forward. I learned that I can love myself.
I have learned that there is more than anger, more than sadness, more than terror. There is hope. There is a aphorism that I really like: "no one gets cheated out of trouble, and the only way out is through."
Andrew Harvey, who wrote a book called Hidden Journeys, said "Hearts were meant to break. But accepting heart break and allowing the heart to break again and again without the fear of consolation, a space is opened in the heart in which the whole universe can be placed. By allowing the sum of love to awaken in us and shine through us, we come to feel and taste our inner glory. Slowly the illusions of shame guilt and impotence melt away." Ram Das, a gay spiritual leader, who also works with the dying, has said "after a while the human heart must die. The pain of suffering is unbearable. But in the death of that human romantic heart is the ashes from which may rise the compassionate heart. It is a place where joy can live among the suffering." To me suffering and pain remind me that I am human. I have learned that we are all connected. To heal we need to explore those connections. We need to touch. We need to be touched. We need to keep on loving and to be loved. When we accept the pain and hurt that go along with living, we are given a birth of joy, light and love, because you can then truly connect with other humans. You do not have to hold back because of your own fears.
Christ told us that the two great laws of Heaven are to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. If you really think about it, it's three laws: love God, love yourselves, and love your neighbors.
In the early winter of this year I was assigned to supervise the residence on the oncology or cancer service for a month. This came at a time when the losses in my hospice had been particularly hard. I had lost several people in the previous few weeks, and was in a space where I needed to protect my own heart a bit. I needed to give myself some time to heal. I was glad to be the supervising resident because it meant that the interns spent most of the time with the patients and I just had to make sure that their work was done, that the orders were correct, and that the patients were getting the things they needed. But every fourth day I was the one on call and admitting new patients. Somewhere in that month I was called about a young lady who was thirty-six years old and she was dying of breast cancer. She was needing to be admitted for pain control, severe nausea and vomiting, and to get some other things under control. It was with trepidation that I entered her room and found her retching and in severe pain. Thus, I had an excuse not to linger, but to get on with ordering the medicine she would need and leave her to rest. I talked a while with her husband and then got her story, and of course, felt for him and the trauma this illness had brought to their lives and their family. She had two children, four and six years of age. She had been fighting the illness since her second pregnancy. She had, in fact, delayed treatment in order to birth her second baby.
I checked on her later in the day and she was sleeping, comfortable and peaceful, so of course I did not have to wake her up. I was being lucky, I was helping her but not getting too close. That night, as I was cleaning up and doing my evening rounds, I popped my head into her room and found her sitting up in bed reading. She looked up and invited me in. I knew, as I looked at her face, that despite my attempts to protect my heart, it was inevitable that she was going to touch me in a profound way. I took a deep breath, pulled up a chair, and sat with her. I asked her about her story. I asked what it was like to be fighting breast cancer. She could not believe I was able to talk about it, and off she went, the story and the anguish just pouring out. The distress, the anger, the guilt for putting her children through this, the guilt knowing she would be leaving them . . . we cried, and we laughed, and time passed very quickly. No one in her life, her husband, her parents (especially her parents), and her doctor, had let her talk about dying before, and she was ready to talk about it. She wanted to talk about it and she needed to share her fears and her hurts.
By the end of the first few minutes in that room I knew that she had not only moved into my heart, but that I had a new sister. We were completely bonded, and the joy she felt from this connection was contagious. I watched her visibly relax as she was able to share her pain. I knew that my heart was going to be hurt again. It was not healed yet from the last death. Her death was inevitable. The loss would be real. But I learned that night that my heart had many rooms and windows and doors to enter. That there was room for her and probably many, many more.
I got to meet her kids the next day and I became the daily visitor. My heart hurts when I think about her dying, when I think about the trauma of her experience, yet, once again, I am so glad to have met her. I am so glad to have her let me into her heart as she entered mine. My life would not be as full or as rich without knowing her. It is in this kind of connection with another human being that I have learned to find God. I have learned that my heart grows and becomes more powerful, that the sentimental heart is only one aspect of the power that we have within us. It is the compassionate open honest heart that can lead us to the place where suffering and joy can coexist. I have learned that, although a lot of lip service is paid to love, we really do not know how to love well. Sure, some of it may be chemistry, and some partly grace, but it is also an art that must be learned. It takes practice to develop a compassionate heart.
One of my favorite authors on my journey out (and in) was Sam King, and in a recent book he wrote "compassion is an outgrowth of wisdom, a consequence of awareness that self and others are already joined. Love is the recognition that unity is prior to diversity. That the commonwealth is the fertile ground in which individuality is rooted. Practice loving with imagination and empathy."
At my hospice the following quote is posted for everyone to see: "There are places in the heart which do not yet exist, and into them suffering enters so that they may have existence."