As I awoke from surgery, I was keenly aware that I did not have the dreamy, light, euphoric feeling I had coming out of anesthesia ten years earlier. This was different. It felt more like a backhoe had gutted a hole in my core—gut and bowels included. Any movement at all would shift what felt like a pile of rocks, roots, and stems it had only recently excavated or rearranged.
Deeply-held sensitivity has been a strong theme in my lifetime. As a child, I fell off my bike onto the gravel pavement, and my burning knee missed no beat in telling my brain that young skin and pulverized stone don’t mix well. I stared at my knee, squeezing out the bubbling blood as if to validate the searing sting. At the time, I never had the thought, This shouldn’t hurt so much. It just was painful.
Over the decades, I began to despise my deep sensitivity, which always cost me precious time or extra care. In my early 30s, when I was the director of a ministry in a megachurch, a supervisor used to tell me I needed to grow tougher skin. “People will take advantage of you and you will become your own obstacle,” he would say, preaching 1990s leadership lessons at their finest. One day, he decided he would bring me along to a meeting where he confronted a graphic designer who hadn’t delivered in the time frame he had promised. My only instructions were to watch as he modeled his version of tough skin. I did watch. The graphic designer’s blushed face said it all. My boss humiliated him like a shamed child and felt victorious in making his point.
His so-called “lesson” stuck with me. If you grow tougher skin, people listen. If you grow tougher skin, you too can become callous to the look of shame you’ve just inflicted. Not long after this incident, I left staff at this megachurch, holding on to my sensitive heart in the hopes that nothing would erode it. It struck me that without my tender heart, I would not have even seen the graphic designer’s obvious face of humiliation, a skill I was beginning to appreciate.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve considered myself quite resilient, and yet in no way in need of tougher skin. Instead, I’ve learned I need extra-wide margins, creative structure, long mornings, purring cats, lingering bedtimes, and a few deep relationships with people who provide ample space for me, and I for them. As I grow older, this simple pace has become an anchoring in me and, consequently, how I engage the world as God’s unique light.
Dr. Paul Brand is likely one of the most well-researched doctors of our time in regard to pain. His research on the disease of leprosy reveals much. Leprosy occurs when nerve endings die, leaving an individual unaware of self-harm as he walks on raw wounds which are never felt. Amputation often becomes necessary because, in the absence of pain, a leper could leave him or herself with disfigured limbs, eroded by self-infliction. Brand’s conclusion is that pain is a necessary gift to humankind, allowing us natural signals of our limitations and need for help. We are fragile beings and without sensitivity, we too can easily lose responsiveness, like those damaged nerve endings.
In a world where we are intolerant of others, we often miss the fact that we are not handling our pain very well.
We yell at newscasters and ignore the sting we feel when others dismiss, betray, or abandon us. Rather, we are taught to scream, demand, refuse, or fight—all good things, if we equally embrace the immense pain that leaves us powerless and squeezing out the bubbling blood, as if to validate the searing sting. Reverend Jacqui Lewis says that we are, as Jesus commands, to love others as ourselves, but we’re not loving ourselves well, and therefore are becoming incapable of loving others. Ironically, this begins with feeling our own pain and powerlessness.
I am now at home, recovered from my surgery, one I elected in order to donate my kidney to an acquaintance in desperate need. While I have never had children, I am gently learning to receive the care of God as a Mother caring for me, Her daughter. Ironically, new skin is beginning to form now that the surgery is over. God’s mercy is enough.
Natalie Sum comes alive and sees the face of Jesus when engaging the stories of others. While seeking to become all she was created to be, she thrives by facilitating groups, counseling others, implementing initiatives, and advocating for others who are marginalized. Natalie resides just outside of Chicago with her wife, Amy. They met in 2007 while working for a conservative ministry, and have weathered much in reconciling their sexual orientation and their walk with Jesus. Natalie is currently working on her master’s degree to be a licensed therapist, and has received training certificates in trauma care through The Allender Center. She loves riding her bike, basking in creation, watching movies and developing curriculum. You can learn more at NatalieSumResources.com.