My whole life, I HATED crying. In my early years, I cried when my brothers picked on me. I would run to my dad and he would come to my rescue. I cried in second grade when my friends would purposely buy their lunch when I was bringing mine so they wouldn’t have to sit with me. For several weeks of that year, I sat with the special needs kids because I was afraid to sit with anyone in my class. (And yes, at the time I had a bowl cut, a speech impediment, and a KILLER Peewee Herman fluorescent purple jumpsuit that I wore on school picture day.) I cried in fourth grade when some of my classmates said they wanted to start an “AJAS Club” (AJAS stood for “Against Jennifer Ann Sumner”). In middle school, there were days when my friends would take bets on who could make me cry first in the day. Now before you feel too bad for me, you should know I had my share of bullying others as well. Making others cry made me feel better because it meant I wasn’t the only crier. It was a defense mechanism and a way to feel cool, and trust me: I would do anything to take back the hurt I caused others. Even in seminary, I cried in the middle of a lecture when my professor could remember the names of everyone in the class except mine.
My first unit of supervisory training ended last week. This unit has been an incredible time of growth and learning. One of the greatest things I have learned this unit is that old habits die hard and I am still learning to embrace my tears. I thought I would outgrow my tears - and in some ways, I have - but I have learned that tears are just part of who God created me to be. I struggle with my tears because I don’t feel like I cry at the right times. I don’t cry when others are standing at the bedside of their sick loved one, or when I am called to a death, or when I deliver the news to a family member that their loved one was in an accident. I certainly feel compassion and empathy towards the person, but that is not when my tears normally fall. Instead, I cry when I am angry, when I feel powerless, or when I am passionate about something. I cry when I feel invisible and when I feel I don’t fit in. Part of my supervisory process is not running from my tears, but embracing them and talking through them.
Just this last week, I got angry with my supervisor over something and I started crying. You know those tears that start in the privacy of your office and continue into the lunch line with bright fluorescent lights shining on your swollen eyes? Yes, those. I told him at first that I was just frustrated, but then I told him the scary truth: I was actually angry. He calmly listened as I shared. I was trying to shy away from my true feelings and he was inviting me into them. After I spoke with him, he thanked me for telling him I was angry and for being authentic in my feelings. I thought, ‘Hmm, what a weird job I have that I get thanked for telling someone I am angry with them.’
While tears used to be one of my greatest fears, now I am learning to make friends with them. Tears are not my weakness – they are one of my strengths. As one of my supervisors says, they are a gift from God just like all our other emotions. I have wrestled with the projection that my supervisors are thinking, “Oh no, we made the little emotional girl chaplain cry again,” but I have learned they do not think that; even better, they don’t react negatively at all to my tears. No handing me a tissue, no stopping the conversation, no awkward look like they’ve inflicted unnecessary pain on me. Nope, the conversation continues like nothing even happened. And their behavior with me is exactly how I am with patients in their tears: calm, quiet, present. They have taught me to be present with others in their tears; now I am learning to be present with myself in my own tears. It will continue to take time, but I am getting there.
My supervisor wrote in my evaluation, “Jenny’s perfectionism is tamed by her vulnerability. She makes it easier for people to be with her and to know her.” I hope others have gotten to know me better. I definitely have gotten to know myself more. Tears and all.