I recently shared some information with a few close friends about a series of events that has been eating away at me for some time. These events have required me to interact with individuals who are, to put it bluntly, provoking prolonged stress and anxiety in my life — challenging me in ways that I haven’t been prepared to handle.
One very wise friend advised, “These people are your hair shirt.”
Merriam-Webster defines hair shirt as: “A shirt made of rough animal hair worn next to the skin as a penance; one that irritates like a hair shirt.”
A more theological perspective, New Advent expresses hair shirt as: “The sackcloth, for instance, so often mentioned in Holy Scripture as a symbol of mourning and penance, was probably the same thing; and the garment of camels’ hair worn by St. John the Baptist was no doubt somewhat similar (to a hair shirt).”
By these definitions, yes, I would agree with my friend, these people are my hair shirt!
As I’ve contemplated my friend’s words and the details of the situation, I have come to accept that while these events and the people associated with them have been very stress-producing, the situation has also brought some of the ugliest, weakest parts of my self into the open. My thoughts and behaviors about the specifics of what’s going on and toward the people in them are not healthy. Not healthy at all. At times I have been less than charitable or loving. And just plain ugly.
I’ve been told the stepping off point for spiritual growth is humility. The good news: this situation has provided many humbling moments! And as much as I want to rid myself of the conflict, stress, and anxiety, I do thank God for the hair shirt in my life right now — for the opportunity to bring those weak parts of my humanness into the light in order to grow spiritually.
“Genuinely transformational knowing of self always involves encountering and embracing previously unwelcome parts of self … The problem is that there are important aspects of our experience that we ignore. Many of us refuse to face our feelings of shame. They make us feel too vulnerable. So we pretend they do not exist and hope they will go away. Or it may be our broken and wounded self that we try to deny. We must be willing to welcome these ignored parts … giving them space at the family table and slowly allowing them to be softened and healed by love and integrated into the whole person we are becoming.”
God knows me better than I know myself. He knows I needed to metaphorically wear this hair shirt to allow those weaker parts to take up a seat at the kitchen table and hang around for a while. Thank you, God, for breaking into my darkness and pulling these parts out of hiding. I pray to continue hearing and heeding His presence in order to be healed and softened through love and grace.