Parallel process is a clinical term used to describe the common occurrence in therapy when the therapist’s own experience is reflected in the client’s. It is when a client comes in grieving over the loss of a loved one while the therapist has only just experienced his or her own loss as well. It is a therapist helping a client through feelings of anger and hurt that the therapist has also just recently confronted.
But, here’s the thing: we are all in parallel process. Too often in life it goes unsaid.
Here is where I say it.***
For my high school years I attended a captivating, red brick campus at the foot of Signal Mountain, Tennessee. Both a boarding school and a day school, I experienced each of these worlds, living on the campus as a boarder my junior and senior year. Are you old enough to have seen Dead Poet’s Society? Got that campus look in your mind? Ok, welcome to my high school. In fact, I was told that they were going to film part of that movie at my alma mater, but because our chapel was under construction at the time it did not work. SUPPOSEDLY one of the crew boat scenes has something to do with our campus? Not sure how much of those rumors are urban…aww…suburban… legend…
That school wasn’t and isn’t for everyone, but I am not going to lie. I loved it. I loved my tennis team. I loved my friends. I loved the view from the library that overlooked the Tennessee River. I loved the walk to the tennis courts…over Baylor lake that we always complained was a nasty mess, through the woods, to the tennis center… and I even loved the walk back…ALL the way up the hill to the dining hall…up all of those chapel steps…across the quad…my friends and I all sweaty from practice, our legs still wobbly from the suicide sprints Coach Bandy had ended practice with.
I was in complete awe that I had the opportunity to study and play tennis there. I never lost that sense of gratitude. It was as though God plucked me out of my life and dropped me onto that campus. Freedom. But that’s another story…
I loved my teachers, too…almost all of them. (Smile) But, like most students, I had a favorite in high school. His name was Mr. Harris. Hairy Dog most students called him. He was short in stature, but what he lacked in height he made up for with his bushy beard, his dramatic flair for teaching history, his humor and enormous laugh, as well as the erasers he would throw at you if he thought you were being an idiot.
I was brand new to Baylor when I walked into his class that first day of my sophomore year. I was scared to death and it only took watching a couple of erasers fly by my head to decide my quiet classroom nature would be a huge benefit to me in Western Civilization.
Mr. Harris’s classroom was straight out of a novel with old fashioned wooden desks, artifacts all over the shelves, and a teacher that could, at any moment, stand up in his chair with a Robin Williams flair that made me want to stand up and say: “O Captain! My Captain!”
Our textbook in that class? Mr. Harris wrote it himself. It was housed in a red Baylor binder and each week we would read our material, have a lecture, discuss, and then expect a quiz at the beginning of each class. The quizzes were tough. The only way I could ensure an A was to get to school early and go see Mr. Harris to make sure I had answered all of the review questions correctly. Mr. Harris encouraged this routine among students and he could always be found at about 7:30 AM outside his classroom, smoking, and answering students’ questions…sometimes with a sarcastic edge.
I was afraid of Mr. Harris, but knew that in order to do well in the class I had to endure any potential looks he might shoot my direction in response to my ignorant questions.
So, morning after morning I would show up outside his classroom.
Mr. Harris’s curriculum for the class was challenging, but usually interesting. He made history entertaining. Then, one day, I turned the page and found myself staring at that day’s reading assignment: the book of Job from the bible.
Mr. Harris lectured that day on Job. He explained the position of this piece of literature in Western Civilization as well as the Hebraic Canon.
He went on to explain that he was an agnostic. He didn’t know if he believed in God or not. He also admitted that he really struggled with the book of Job. Why would God allow Satan to play with Job like that? Mr. Harris brought up all sorts of things that day about a book in the bible. He attempted to engage us in dialogue, but I am ashamed to say that many of the students, although professing Christians, knew little about the subject. “Most Christians know very little about their book, the Bible” Mr. Harris observed as we finished up class that day.
I left that classroom with so many questions…questions I took to my parents and others I trusted. Mr. Harris had provoked me as well as my faith.
It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Over the year I would come back and engage Mr. Harris in conversation beyond the study questions for the quiz. I wasn’t afraid anymore…just respectful and curious. I was hungry…to grow.
I remember bringing him a tape of my pastor’s sermon because my pastor, who was also brilliant, had spoken on a topic that related to one of Mr. Harris’ lectures. He actually listened to it and discussed it with me.
I remember when I thought he said something disrespectful about Christians in class approaching him about it afterwards…he was quick to apologize and explain.
I remember him walking…across the bridge, through the woods, to the tennis center…to watch our matches…and how he would praise my strong forehand and chastise my much weaker backhand. “Your forehand is so good! What happened to your backhand?”
I remember his wife, who ended up being my French teacher, keeping me after class and quietly handing me a book, saying: “I thought you might appreciate this.” It was the Bible…translated into French, Spanish, and German.
I remember…will never forget…Mr. Harris keeping me after class one day and expressing concern about how I had answered an essay question on a major exam. “It sounded like you were losing your faith.” I don’t remember the question or why my faith would have been relevant in the exam material, but I assured him I was not. He was concerned because he did not want to be the reason.
My faith grew that year under the teaching of my smoking, antagonistic, agnostic teacher, Mr. Harris…but, I wanted to be challenged. Craved it. I didn’t realize it, but I guess I was hungry for it. Other fifteen year olds could have responded in other ways, but I was in the right place at the right time.
My relationship with an agnostic teacher who took time to talk with students every morning outside his classroom watered my growing love for scripture and theology.
Twenty years later, just earlier today, I mentally stood outside myself, regarding my attitude, and realized that I was being judgmental. I know, I know. It was awful. Horrid, really. I was sad to realize I was judging the ability or “preparedness” of others for God to use them.
I am appalled. Really.
Anyway, I realized I was criticizing, thinking inwardly that because a person had not done “A” or HAD done/was still doing “B” they were not in a position for God to use them in certain ways yet.
Well, move over God…Emily seems to have a plan for how things should work!
Good grief. Really, Emily? REALLY?
But, the thing is…so many of us do this even if we do not realize it. We put parameters on who God can use and how. We say…inside our little insidious minds…you have or are still doing “X” so you really should not be doing this or God cannot really use you. Or, because you have not done “Y” you cannot be effective here.
My judgment of others is like a boomerang. It always comes back as judgment on myself.
When I make those judgment calls on others, I am also making them on myself. I am saying…Emily, because you have done or are still doing, struggling with “X”, God cannot use you…so don’t even think about it. Close yourself off until you are…PERFECT. Until you have it all together.
My judgment of others is like a boomerang. It always comes back as judgment on myself.
Or, Emily, because you have not experienced “Y” you cannot really be of use here.
This concern is something I struggled with a lot as a newbie therapist. Either I would bring it up to myself or someone I knew would ask me: “Well, you have never been through “A, B, or C” so how can you help them?
I do not remember which teacher or supervisor offered me this analogy, but it goes something like this…
If you broke your leg, when you went in to get help from the doctor, would you stop him or her and say: “Have you broken your leg before? Because if you haven’t…I don’t think you can help me. I need someone to help who has broken their leg…in the exact same spot if possible.”
So, what’s the point?
The point is God can use you. Right now. Right here.
He probably already is.
You (and that person you were judging last week) will never have it all together. Ever.
The church IS full of hypocrites.
We are all in process…messed up humans making mistakes all the time…seeking the One who can make us whole.
So, in the midst of my internal, judgmental rant (are you judging ME now? Go ahead…it is awful, I know!), God quietly recalled Mr. Harris to my mind. I had not thought of him in years
I thought about Mr. Harris, Hairy Dog, with his bushy beard, his dramatic flair for teaching history, his humor and enormous laugh, as well as the erasers he would throw at you if he thought you were being an idiot…
Mr. Harris…the antagonizing, agnostic…not who I would choose to disciple my children..and I realized that God knows. He has the plan. And, He can use anyone, anytime, anyhow to bring growth in a person’s life…if the other person on the receiving end is open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
We are all in process. I doubt many of you reading this are agnostics or atheists…but, I’m guessing you sometimes feel just as ill equipped for the job of helping others in faith and life.
While I appreciate testimonies and think there is something INCREDIBLY valuable in relating over shared stories and have participated in such powerful moments, you do not have to have broken your leg in the exact same spot as the person you are helping or ministering to. You don’t have to have it all together. God is probably already using you…and you don’t even realize it.
Maybe, God was using me in Mr. Harris’ life even as He was using Mr. Harris in mine!
Watch out! God can be tricky like that. He has an amazing sense of humor. He likes to use surprising people…people like you!