Taking ownership of our pain

I’ve learned that the first step towards healing is to take ownership of our pain. It doesn’t matter who or what is responsible for our pain. The wound is ours, and we decide whether to let it fester, or to begin nursing it.

We often blame people — be it others or ourselves — for the pain we experience. But at the core of it, it is often not people that we have trouble forgiving. What we can’t forgive is the fact that life has not gone according to plan.

Without realizing it, we have a pre-written script of how our lives should play out. Things that don’t usually feature in the storyboard: accidents, failures, betrayals, abandonment, humiliation, disillusionment, disability, mental illness, the list goes on.

For some reason, we keep forgetting that the universe owes us nothing, and that we have no reason to be surprised when things don’t go our way. Yet we demand to know: why me?

But demanding an answer — as if any would satisfy — keeps us stuck in anger and bitterness. With time, a part of us is paralyzed. We have denied ourselves of healing.

ophelia
‘Ophelia’ (1851-52) by John Everett Millais
There are seasons in life during which I am made more cognizant of grievances past and present. Personal regrets, self-blame, insecurities, fears, feelings of having been wronged — everything surfaces. It’s like waking up one morning and finding that the carcasses I’d worked so hard to bury have clawed their way out of their graves, and are now confronting me for having buried them alive. These are the memories, events, and people I’d hastily buried, because for one reason or another, I couldn’t stand to even acknowledge their existence at the time.

We’re all in the habit of burying the unpleasantness of life under heaps of work, entertainment, or other preferred modes of distraction. It often even feels like triumph. Congratulations, we tell ourselves, the past can longer touch you, and you’re free to start afresh. It is with such remarkable hubris that we participate in this delusion — the delusion that we can simply erase select parts of our lives.

143297995183163120177_Edward-Okun_Four-Strings-of-the-Violin_1914-1024x678
Four Strings of a Violin (1914) by Edward Okuń
When we bury something, no matter how carefully we attempt to level the soil, the landscape will never look the same again. We’ll always know exactly what lies buried and where. We’re not really free, because there is no freedom in walking through life tiptoeing around the potholes that we pretend do not exist. These are the conversations we avoid, the names that freeze us in our tracks, the relationships we have severed, and all those suppressed memories lying dormant in wait of the right catalyst.

What we can choose, however, is to find a way to coexist peacefully with them. And I don’t mean just to tolerate. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the things that wound us can nourish us.

If there’s one lesson depression has forced me to learn, it’s this: bury the past if you must, but return to water it. I’ve found that revisiting my buried pain isn’t scary as long as I’m armed with three things: faith, hope, and love.

Van_Gogh_-_Zwei_grabende_Bäuerinnen_auf_schneebedecktem_Feld
‘Two Peasant Women Digging in Field with Snow’ (1890) by Vincent van Gogh

First, faith in the gentle wisdom of God, and the promise that He makes all things new.

Second, the hope that there is always hope. That nothing is a lost cause — no relationship too broken to mend, no failure irredeemable, and that evil will not have the final say.

And finally, love. Because love is the gentle and merciful hand that nurses wounds. We have to love ourselves, in spite of our weaknesses, to open the door for healing. And perhaps the much taller order would be to also love the people who have hurt us. Sometimes this involves forgiving those who never asked for forgiveness, and commending them to our loving Father. Said St. Thomas the Athonite, the man who cries out against evil men, but does not pray for them, will never know the grace of God.

Leave anger and bitterness at the door. Take faith, hope, and love.

This doesn’t mean we will emerge healed, restored, and renewed overnight. But in the meantime, we would have robbed anguish and regret of their oppressive power over us. We might still feel them, but those feelings can now coexist with the joys of life.

So bury the pain if you must, but return to water it. Only then can new life will spring forth, and the same places that once harbored pain will become, instead, wellsprings of goodness and compassion.

I will leave you with the following excerpt from the journal of a Catholic priest who battled crippling depression:

To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives — the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections — that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for. Let’s not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see it in the guiding hand of a loving God.

Henri Nouwen (The Inner Voice of Love)

As always, thank you for accompanying me on this journey. 🙂

Monet's garden at Vétheuil
Detail of ‘The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil’ (1881) by Claude Monet

18 thoughts on “Taking ownership of our pain

  1. Imagine if, in this difficult and polarized time, we made a practice of praying for and sending love to those who we disagree with. I will try to work on that. Thank you for the reminder.

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    1. You’re so right! Thanks for contextualising it to our present times. We hear a lot about vengeance vs justice, but mercy is too often missing from the dialogue. I just came across this great quote by St Augustine: “If you are suffering from a bad man’s injustice, forgive him – lest there be two bad men.”

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  2. I found this so powerful I hope you do not mind I credited and linked to it In a poem I just wrote and included the last paragraph.. it helped to articulate something I am struggling to integrate with healing..Thanks so much for writing this. Henri Nouwen’s book written when struggling with depression was given to me many years ago by a friend in recovery, I adore his writing.

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    1. Not a problem at all! I’m happy that you found it worth sharing with your readers. Thank you for following my writings! I’ll be sure to check out your blog. 🙂

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  3. Great point regarding the past and it’s positive use. Like martyrs become soil for the humble Christian revolution. The past are our memories in tangible form like scars. After all what hope would Teresa be for those in friendship with Christ, if their Savior did not use His scars to plead for the Father’s mercy on our behalf?

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  4. There is a saying, “When the past calls, don’t answer.” I disagree. The past will always be there, it is up to us to learn from it, let it enrich our lives like dead leaves decomposing to refresh the soil with new nutrients for our growing tree. Thank you for this post. It is refreshing to find a similar viewpoint.

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    1. You’re right, it’s amazing how many well-meaning but harmful platitudes there are out there. Things like…”bury the hatchet”, for instance. It might sound positive on the surface, but really, don’t bury it. Pick it apart, fix it together, and move forward having been enriched by the experience of forgiving and not forgetting.

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  5. You write straight from the heart, but with wisdom too. You are correct; it is up to us to be accountable for the choices we make in life, and the events we find ourselves enduring. I know myself that depression can drag you down into a very deep well, one that has no windows and no way out… But it is up to us to keep crawling back up, no matter how long it takes us to reach the surface. I love the quote you mentioned ~ ‘bury the past, but be sure to water it’. There is so much truth to this.. Thankyou, I enjoyed your post 🙂

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  6. I really needed to read these words today. A lot of bitterness and anger resides in my heart and that probably causes me to have endless bouts of anxiety. Now I realize I need to let go, forgive, and try to love those that have hurt me.

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    1. Thank you for sharing this – I’m sure you’re not the only one. I pray that you will be able to come to a place of peace with regard to the events that have hurt you. I believe the key is to trust that we will eventually, if not soon, see how the past unfolds as part of God’s greater plan of redemption and sanctification.

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  7. Wow. You have a beautiful heart my friend that has gifted me during a most difficult time in my life. This was everything and more that I needed to hear to challenge my faith and truly believe all things work to the good of those who love God. I love God. I also love Henri Nouwen. Today will be more hopeful, more grateful, and more faithful because of your gift to me. With deepest gratitude, Chris

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    1. You are too kind… But thank you so much for your encouraging words. I’m thankful that these reflections were somehow a blessing to you on your present journey. I’m thankful for your unwavering faith in God even in the midst of trials. Keep following the path lit by His light, even when the surrounding darkness threatens to overcome us, and we can’t go wrong. “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” –St. Francis of Assisi

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