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More than a decade ago I was involved in a prison ministry called Kairos. A team of us would prepare for months to go into Lakin Correctional Center for three and half days for an intense spiritual weekend which included singing, talks, good food, and thousands of dozens of cookies. Our motto was “Listen, Listen, Love, Love” and our main purpose was to share love by allowing each woman to be truly heard.

One of the most important aspects of the weekend was time with our “table families”. Each table family consisted of three volunteers and six inmates and we spent the time sharing our stories with each other, our frustrations, our disappointments, our joys, our regrets, our heartaches.

People in prison learn quickly not to show emotion. In prison it’s considered a weakness that can leave you very vulnerable. But when we shared our stories, tears always flowed, even from the women who seemed the toughest of all.

There were plenty of tissue boxes on the table if anyone needed them, but we were taught not to offer a tissue to anyone. Handing someone a tissue might imply that it was time to dry up the tears, move on from this pain, from this show of emotion. Instead we wanted to give them permission to allow the tears to flow.

Tears can be healing. Tears can be transformative. Tears can empty us, lighten us, soften us, strengthen us. In our culture, and not just the prison culture, we tend to want to skip over that step. Step 1: Something bad happens. Step 2: Get over it. We forget about the real Step 2: Feel it, experience the grief, the loss, the suffering, the discouragement, the disappointment. Cry if you need to. Be angry if you have to. Only then can we experience the real Step 3: Heal from it, learn from it, change, grow.

In his book Soul-Making, Alan Jones explains that, “The gift of tears is concerned with living in and with the truth and with the new life that the truth always brings. The tears are like the breaking of waters of the womb before the birth of a child.” Being honest about our pain, being willing to feel it, and believing we are strong enough to experience it, allows new birth, new growth, and true healing to occur.

I recently realized that my role as a spiritual director is very similar to Kairos’ motto, “Listen, Listen, Love, Love.” Often times I sit with people in their pain, holding a safe space for them, sometimes just bearing witness to that pain. Many times there are tears. A tissue box is always near by. Sometimes when I see them struggling to find a way to wipe the evidence of their tears away, I will sit the box beside of them. I never offer them one.

People need a safe space for tears to flow. People need to know that it’s ok to be human, that pain is part of the human experience, that they are strong enough to feel it. People need a place to experience their pain without being rushed to move past it.

We can be that place. We can witness each other’s suffering without trying to quickly end it or transform it. We can look at them in the midst of their pain and see their strength, their beauty, their humanness, and believe in their ability to heal when the time is right. We can do the same thing for ourselves.

So if you’re ever in my office crying and I don’t offer you a tissue, please don’t think I’m being cheap or inhospitable. It’s my way of letting you know that your tears are welcome here, that I believe they have healing power, that I believe in your strength and your ability to transform when the time is right, that there is no rush or hurry for healing.

I feel privileged to be in your presence in those moments. I am in awe of your vulnerability and courage. I know that these tears are just a pathway to transformation, and I am grateful to witness that. And there will always be a box of tissues close by, just in case you need them.

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