As we continue wrestling with the human need for nurturing care, we will inevitably have to confront our fear of vulnerability, our fear that the broken, unresolved parts of ourselves will be exposed. Here, Dr. Doug Shirley, Assistant Professor of Counseling, writes about his family’s recent experience with a “hiding tree” at their home, and how even things of beauty—like intelligence, professional roles, and the call to serve others—can be used to guard against vulnerability.

“…and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

Earlier this spring, my family and I came across a(n) (un)welcome surprise: We had joined forces with a tree that hid our home from others, but also from ourselves. What’s more, like this hiding tree, we realized we had each been hiding from each other, and also from the world around us. And it was by the wounds of this (tree) friend that we were healed. Let me explain.

My wife had been suggesting that we cut the tree down for any number of years, but I hadn’t been open to the idea. She knew she’d need to keep peppering me with this suggestion, until one day I would bend. I did, and welcome to our relationship.

It turns out the real estate agent who sold us our house back in 2009 had made a similar suggestion fairly immediately upon seeing our house for the first time. You see, our house was depressed when we bought it. It had held the energies of what sounded like a pretty brutal divorce, and it came onto the market mid-depressive episode. It would take lots of cans of paint, new carpet, and a series of house blessings from a team of pastors to clear the air in our home. Those dark, depressive energies seemed to be fairly deeply rooted, not unlike our hiding tree.

Our hiding tree was a Japanese maple, and alongside of the tree that stood beside it, this tree had kept our house from being fully seen from top to bottom. We live in a split-level home, which is fairly boxy, and this hiding tree contributed to the apparent plainness of our home’s curb appeal. So these suggestions to take down the tree had everything to do with aesthetics: Our house would be more visible and would appear less overgrown if we allowed it to be better seen. The beauty of this hiding tree had become a source of its contribution to the concealment of (or in) our home.

My wife and I are both therapists, and when we got together, we had a lot of learning to do in terms of the art and skill of vulnerable living. I came to our relationship loaded with theories that could cover insecurities, vulnerabilities, and frailties. My ability to theorize is actually a thing of beauty and something that contributes to my calling(s) in life, both as teacher and as a healer, but my ability to theorize is also a beauty I’ve hidden behind, often concealing the life that twists and turns within me.

“My ability to theorize is also a beauty I’ve hidden behind, often concealing the life that twists and turns within me.”

But back to the felling of this tree: It was a Sunday morning, and our family had chosen to stay home and get some housework done, rather than going to church. What we didn’t know was that “church” would be coming to us that morning. I started to cut some of the smaller branches of the tree: the ones that were fairly high up but also within reach from the ground. The cut limbs began to weep. The water that had coursed through their veins now poured out onto the ground with surprising haste. I began to feel the pain I imagined this tree was experiencing, as I cut and as it was cut. My own body started to ache as I pressed on in my work, soon realizing that this tree and me were in a deeply spiritual contact with one another.

Soon I called my wife and our three boys over to the area where the tree had once stood, and I spoke with resonance to the life and pending death of this tree, and to how it had clearly served as a vestige of pain and hiding: a legacy of the house that was our house before it became our home. Maybe the irony of this service was that, by all appearances, the tree in and of itself was beautiful.

Ever since, I’ve been working with this experience turned memory. That spring Sunday in March our family, to a person, each spoke to the ways we felt freer as a result of the ritual we spontaneously created as we brought the hiding tree down. We each confessed to each other, and to the more-than-human world around us, how we had joined with the tree in our respective hidings: We were each able to articulate ways we used “things,” maybe even things that looked good (e.g. for me, a busy schedule), to keep us from more stark exposure to each other, and to the world that awaits and calls us by name.

Typing these words I’m quickly reminded of what I learned when I came to The Seattle School (then Mars Hill Graduate School) as a Master of Divinity student in 2002: I had used the beauty of a strong intellect (remember that theorizing my wife referenced?) and my intensity as an “8” on the Enneagram (too much is just about enough for me) to become quite technically proficient at practicing and teaching the life and work of a therapist, all the while hiding myself from myself and also from the world around me.

I’m currently listening to a book on tape entitled Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, by psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb. The book follows multiple therapy patients, including the life that Gottlieb has lived as a patient herself. In talking about what separates more senior clinicians from those that are proverbially greener, Gottlieb notes that one has to be willing to be the same person, the same “self,” both inside and outside of the therapy office, in order to set oneself apart as more senior or advanced in the work. In other words, if I put on the garb of therapist and I use such a costume to distance myself and my clients from my own human experiences and vulnerabilities, then the work of therapy (and probably best said the therapeutic relationship) will not progress in the same way it would if I felt freer to be me across time, space, and frame.

In my listening, as I move back and forth between my use of the word “client” and Gottlieb’s use of the word “patient,” I am reminded that the Latin root of the latter is the word patiens, which means “to suffer.” So a therapist treats “one who suffers.” But a therapist being true to all of who they are means that they are patiens, ones who suffer, as well. The version of me that came to seminary was acquainted with grief and suffering, but of the ilk of serving others who were supposedly experiencing it differently (more profoundly) than I. It was only in being cracked open by my practicum (Listening Lab), personal counseling, and other extra-curricular experiences that I came to believe that being a co-traveler (ala Irvin Yalom) would be the only path to shared healing.

In April, Meg Wheatley, renowned organizational psychologist and author of Who Do We Choose to Be?, came to campus and put a call out for “human human beings” who could serve as “islands of sanity” for each other in an age that calls for “warriors of the human spirit.” Meg spoke to how the ever-present need for belonging can twist and turn its way into lots of unhealthy human behaviors and interactions.

One way such a downgrading happens is when a person decides to take on a role as a way of limiting their exposure to the interconnectedness of all things. Gregory Bateson, a systems-thinker and major player in the establishment of the field of cybernetics, called roles a “half-assed relationship,” in that surrendering one’s interconnectedness to the discreteness of a role allows and results in half-assed living for the role-bearer. This is often the way of it for many who find themselves in helping roles, healing capacities, and/or positions of spiritual authority: Their roles become their identities, their identities become half-assed, and they function as other/less than human humans (a nod to social identity theory).

If this month’s blog posts are about nurturing and formation, it wouldn’t take a far reach to claim that positions of leadership (including the pastorate, helping, and healing professions) often stifle those very things (nurturance and formation) in the people who serve in such posts. Rather than being permitted the messiness of having needs and of fraying at the edges like formation so often requires, such leaders are invited to be anything but human as they are charged to constrict and/or to restrict themselves to that which appears shiny and clean.

“Leaders are invited to be anything but human as they are charged to constrict and/or to restrict themselves to that which appears shiny and clean.”

Like our family’s home, helpers and healers are often subtly charged to hide behind beautiful things. It’s a beautiful thing to be called into ministry. It’s a beautiful thing to be in a position to see and to name on behalf of another. It’s a beautiful thing to walk the road of healer, having tasted some of the trials and tribulations that have brought people to one’s door asking, seeking, and knocking (Matthew 7:7). Our society desperately needs healing professionals and spiritual leaders willing to heed the call of caring for others. In a land rife with derision, we need to become “islands of sanity” for each other (thanks again, Meg Wheatley!).

That said, one can hide out on an island, just like one can hide out behind a beautiful Japanese maple. For me, the call to hide long preceded me. I come from a long line of men who hide behind positions of power and influence, or behind an absence of words or authentic encounter with another. A mix of Methodist good works (appearances) and Presbyterian rigidities (male privileging) coupled with war-time trauma, sickness, and a modern-era milieu populated with a toxic male code (see David & Brannon, 1976) contribute(d) to my ongoing tendency to use beauty (my intellect, my speed of processing, my use of words, and other performance-related variables) to hide.

But it is by the wounds of the suffering servant that we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). The felling of our hiding tree offered us a taste of that very reality. Our family was able to trade one beauty (hiding) for another (warmth and connection), in the form of a repurposed engagement with our hiding tree. Branches are now neatly stacked and ready to be used for summer backyard bonfires, and a seedling that had started to randomly grow on its own has since been replanted in our front yard, showing good signs of vim and vigor but also standing at least 10 yards from our house.

Beauty requires deliberation (see the work of Elaine Scarry), and beauty renders us impotent (and also the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar). Beauty calls, and the recipient responds. Beauty can and will draw us face-to-face with our need to receive, and with our need for divine encounter. But beautiful things can also be used to limit, if not conceal, other forms of goodness longing to be exposed to the light. Rooms on both levels of our home now beam with light in ways they never had before, and that light calls each person in our family to do and be the same.

So maybe an invitation for any of us who serve in helping or healing capacities, or who are called into one or more positions of spiritual authority: Where do you allow what was planted before you to keep root in a form that hides the fullness of who you are? Where do we take what we’ve been given, bidden and unbidden, replete with beauty but also defense, and repurpose such into opportunities for warmth and connection?

Chances are it was our wounds that got us into our work, whatever it may be, in the first place. Wounds heal not only on or in bodies, but also in souls as well. Roles protect humans from the inevitable wounding of their humanity, and beautiful things can be used to hide deeper goodness. Islands can isolate, or islands can protect. And always we begin again.

Feeling called or compelled to emerge in some way? If so, please don’t be bashful in sharing with others: Our own nurturance, formation, and sanity awaits.