What does it mean to truly be seen by another person? Isn’t that something we all long for—to be seen, known, and accepted for who we are? In this excerpt from Jonathan Browning’s short book of reflections on pastoral ministry and mental health care, he explores this human longing and how being seen is especially meaningful and healing for people experiencing mental health challenges.
Adaptation from Do You See Me? by Jonathan Browning
“One of the deepest longings of the human soul is to be seen.” – John O’Donohue: Anam Cara
We begin with that most vulnerable of questions—perhaps the most vulnerable that we will ever dare to ask of another. Do you see me?
It’s raw, isn’t it? Uncomfortable. Exposing. And therein lies its restorative and healing power.
In my years of pastoral ministry, I have heard many watered down versions of this question and have seen many carefully approach it but then choose to retreat into safer waters. That makes complete sense, of course. A question like that leaves us totally exposed and vulnerable. Our default response is to swallow those words immediately, hoping they went unheard or, better still, we had only imagined ourselves saying them.
For the past six years, I have had the incredible privilege of caring for the men and women who have sought an admission at St. John of God Burwood Hospital for support with their mental health challenges. These men and women struggle with a wide range of complex and debilitating challenges, including anxiety; depression and various other mood disorders; alcohol, drug, and other addictive disorders; trauma; and personality vulnerabilities.
The courage shown by those who seek support is both desperate and determined, and it is the most challenging pastoral role I have ever had—by far. It is, and continues to be, a very real wrestle of the heart to hold onto hope when confronted with such difficult and often tragic life stories. It has also involved a very personal exploration of what healing might look like in terms of mental health and recovery.
I am not sure I have arrived at any ground-breaking answers, but I have been able to hold onto my belief in God’s healing. A great deal of the time it remains hidden in this context, and remaining faithful has meant acknowledging its apparent absence as well. For many people I have journeyed with there have been multiple admissions and many of their circumstances are heartbreaking.
Let us return to that most uncomfortable question which forms the theme for this book. Do you see me?
I believe this question lies at the heart of all authentic pastoral conversations. In August 2019, I heard it with a clarity that was truly heartbreaking. I was helping to facilitate a therapy group at the hospital, and we were exploring faith and mental health. Initially, the conversation seemed to settle upon the familiar territory of navigating the confusion and disorientation of life and how loss and personal trauma can make hope and faith really challenging and, more often than not, simply out of reach. But as the group members continued to share, the conversation shifted and, perhaps without any of us realizing it, became a whole lot deeper.
It was still familiar territory for those who were sharing, but things usually kept a little more private were being voiced out loud. Loss was no longer a generic experience where the rules of containment kept everyone ‘safe.’ Personal struggles, doubts and deeply felt losses—the consequences of which seemed to be a far-reaching web that ensnared and entangled pretty much all of their lives—were shared openly. Particularly, they each described a lost connection with a spirituality that was once very important to them. The connection was lost because they had to hide parts of themselves from family, friends, and leaders at their respective churches for fear of being misunderstood or, worse, completely rejected. These hidden parts were, in their own words, their truest self, but they felt it wasn’t safe to reveal or express this true self.
What followed was story after story of not fitting in, of feeling exhausted, confused, and disconnected from themselves and those they love dearly. Essentially, they had to compartmentalize who they felt they were and who it was safe to be in their worlds. It quickly became so much bigger than a conversation about faith. It became one of how to survive being different in our world, how to fit in when living with mental health challenges, and, further, whether fitting in is even possible.
I sat and listened for well over an hour before feeling that I had any right to respond, let alone voice what had been brooding in my heart all morning. Eventually, I spoke up and wondered out loud whether or not the cry of their hearts might be something like: do you see me?
In my heart I was hearing Jesus pose the same question to Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:44. “Do you see this woman? This woman who feels unworthy, excluded, alone—do you see her?”
The question hung in the air, and an awkward reflective silence followed. For me it was one of those ‘aha’ moments. A moment filled with profound sadness as the ensuing silence spoke more than enough for each person in the room that day.
I have spent the last six years listening to many people. As the Pastoral Services Coordinator at St. John of God Burwood Hospital, I have heard many life stories and tried to discern some of these unspoken hopes and questions. When patients feel safe enough to voice what they have kept buried and protected for some time, these have been some of the most healing conversations that I have had.
Healing is the work of a lifetime, and we will never be entirely rid of the wounds we have received along the way. Nor will we discover the delights of a shame-free existence. We can, however, lessen shame’s hold over us as we discover a much deeper and richer understanding of the wounds we carry.
To do so, we need others who will love and champion us along the way. A community of belonging where we are honoured and loved is not just something that might prove helpful. To experience the depths of healing that we truly need and seek after, a community where we feel seen is essential.
To be seen is to be both heard and known. It is a place of intimacy and vulnerability which is the very crucible for healing and restoration. It is a place of deep connection which is the core ingredient in mental health recovery and is, I believe, at the very heart of pastoral ministry.
Jonathan is husband to Michelle; father to Jacob, Eli, and Abbey; and dog owner to Mack. He loves travelling, spending time outdoors hiking, or watching his children play sports each weekend. Jonathan runs a counselling and pastoral supervision practice in Sydney, Australia and also works in adolescent mental health care as a high school counsellor.
Jonathan’s interest in mental health and the role the Church can play in an individual’s recovery journey came from his years working at St. John of God Burwood, a psychiatric hospital offering both inpatient and outpatient support for people with a range of mental health challenges. His recent book, Do You See Me, is a reflection on those years at St. John of God and seeks to explore a narrative approach to listening and pastoral ministry. In an acute psychiatric setting, trauma, shame, and helplessness will often mean the story of a patient’s life has been silenced, unconstructed, or indeed remains unspoken. Jonathan believes that finding ways to give voice to and safely explore one’s story is a prerequisite for healing and recovery.
For a free digital copy of Do You See Me, please email firstname.lastname@example.org