Sometimes my dreams have touched me, inspired or intrigued me. But there was one a long time ago that taught me a great lesson that I still remember. In the dream I am stepping very carefully down a dark, narrow stairwell. I’m being very careful not to touch the stone walls or railings on either side as they are slimy and have awful words scrawled on them in white: death, destruction, war, illness, pestilence, fear, and more, all very scary. I was trembling by the time I got to the bottom. In the dark I could just make out a door, but I was afraid to open it. When I had gathered the courage to open the door, I found a well-lighted room with a table in the middle of the room. On it was lying a precious new-born baby. As I have pondered that dream over the years I have understood that this was its message: that I have to go through the negativity and pain to get to the other side which holds new life.
There are all kinds of applications for this rule of life. First, I have to face my own negativity in order to get beyond it. Then I have to face up to my flaws to learn a new way to live. I have to grieve everything thoroughly so that I can let go of the old dead dreams and any sadness to which I would cling. Up until I dreamt this dream, I was avoiding the negative, even running away from it. Since then I have tried to face the old demons and give myself a chance for real healing. I have had the chance to claim the negativity within me and to really let it go. Once I’ve done that with each issue, I find that I am more at peace with myself and with others. There’s a principle of psychology at work in this: what you do not accept about yourself, you will project onto others as unacceptable in them. When you take back the projections, you can accept the flaws in others, as well as in yourself.
This rule also applies to the way we look at our lives. Am I embracing the changes that come or always pushing them away. Do I hover at the top of that dank staircase, avoiding the creepy descent, so that I don’t have to move into the midst of it or into actually living in the new reality, instead always pushing it away? The dream again points to just doing it, getting over it, allowing it to be in our lives and seeing what new life it brings. Wil Hernandez writes in Henry Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities “to own our pain is to bring it home deep into our hearts, to allow it to settle down there. Henri Nouwen alerts us: ‘As long as your wounded part remains foreign to your adult self, your pain will injure you as well as others.’” [p. 35] Avoidance of our own pain in a way intensifies it, keeps it aching within us. Exploring our pain and feeling it often are the last thing we want to do, but the way out, as the dream suggests, is the way through.
It’s through acknowledging our vulnerabilities that we begin to free ourselves from them. It’s from not pushing them away that we gain new life, it’s through sharing our pain that we are able to be truly helpful to another in pain, because we do know what a toll the pain has taken on us, whether the pain is from abuse or a physiological condition, from an accident or a trauma. Feeling our pain instead of running away from it brings its own relief. It recedes somewhat into its rightful place in our memories, but often without the original charge of overwhelming emotion, it becomes more like an old friend that we’ve lived with for a long time. We are able to be truly helpful to others, truly compassionate, because when we know our own wounds and can co-exist with them, then we can be with others who suffer without running from our pain or theirs.
Hernandez talks of healing from Nouwen’s point of view: “We are healed first of all by letting[our memories]be available, by leading them out of the corner of forgetfulness and by remembering them as a part of our life stories. What is forgotten is unavailable, and what is unavailable cannot be healed.” Bringing painful memories and griefs to consciousness, feeling the pain we ordinarily avoid, is the way to true healing.