If we come upon a stump of a tree or a felled tree, we can see the rings which tell the story of the tree’s growth. The lighter rings are laid down in the spring when there is plenty of water and the darker ones laid down in the summer and even early autumn. The wider the rings the better the conditions for growth were. The narrower ones show seasons of drought or insect infestation or other trauma like something leaning against the tree. We can learn a lot about the life of a tree from seeing its rings.
And if we laid bare our own inner record of the life we have lived, would we see evidence of good years of growth and years when growth came at a great price? For us as well as trees and every other plant and animal on this earth, life is full of good years when what we need is in great abundance and difficult years when we’ve had to scramble to get our needs met. Of course, I am not just talking about physical needs, we have other needs as well—safety, love, nurture and more. If our needs are not met positively, like the tree’s need for water, good soil, air and sunlight, then our growth is more stunted.
It is how we handle the difficult circumstances of life that shows their lasting effect on us. Do we take it all personally as if God is doing something to us that he does to no one else? Or do we see our challenges as just what happens here on earth to everyone? Can we forgive what was done to us? Do we grieve the loss and pain or push it away? Do we assume everyone else has it all together because they look as if they do?
How do we handle our own pain and suffering? How do we handle loss? Death? How do we handle others’ pain? With pity? Compassion? It does seem to be the nature of life here that, even in the abundance of food and sunlight and water, there are going to be droughts and natural causes of dislocation as well as the man-made ones such as abuse or rejection or war and other difficulties like illness and death. It matters to our own spiritual health how we deal with the pain and suffering of our lives.
With any kind of trauma or suffering we can see how we deal with God, what our unconscious, functional beliefs about God are as opposed to the ones we consciously ascribe to. Do I take personally my inability to have children for 10 years and figure God is punishing me for the kind of parent I would be? That’s what I did. Right there, if I could have seen it at the time, was fear of the hell-fire-and-damnation God of my childhood ruling me. Or do I just figure that somehow the timing wasn’t right for Hank and I to have children? Was it punishment or just the way things are? All I wanted in life was to be a mother and my desperation colored how I saw what was happening to us.
Is our first reaction to any trauma, “Why me?” or is it just, “I guess it’s my turn.” And then, are we just pushing away the reality that is in our lives? Or are we trying our best to accept it and deal with it? Are we even going so far as to ask, “What am I to learn from this?” That question may have to wait until the crisis is over. Here are some possible questions that we may need to address to get to that essential one:
Do I just want all pain and suffering out of my life?
Do I blame God for putting this in my life?
Do I think less of myself that I have to go through this? Is it embarrassing me? Is it exposing me in some way?
Can I forgive whoever is responsible, if there is anyone?
Can I forgive myself for how I reacted to it?
Can I thoroughly grieve my loss?
Can I just be a human being going through this, as messy as that may seem?
When I think of what Katrina did to people’s lives, or what the shooting in the church in Charleston SC last year did to the families of the people killed…when a loved, treasured person dies in a family…when an illness changes everything…when there is abuse…when there is no love…when there is war and dislocation…my heart breaks for the human suffering. And yet it seems that we have a built-in resilience that enables us to bounce back eventually from any tragedy, to go on in spite of the losses, maybe even to thrive. And I thank God for that resilience and our own natural stubbornness not to let anything take us down.
There is God in all human circumstances, knocking on our doors, wanting to be with us no matter what is happening, helping us to cope, to deal, comforting us, walking with us. Unlike my fears during our early married life about not getting pregnant, when Hank was dying, I knew that God was with us every step of the way. For me he gave me the formula for dealing with this great crisis: to hold all possible outcomes equally. And when I could let go of his living in a healthy state—the only outcome I wanted—I was filled with joy and sorrow until he died. And I was given a gift of faith so incredible that I felt like I was the house built on rock, that nothing could push or shove or take me off of that rock of my faith in God. And I had thought that I had great faith in God before this happened!
By the end of Hank’s life that hell-fire-and-damnation God was no longer operating in me, only the God who is Love itself. The thinking that had felt so bad for being who I was had changed to thinking that I belonged to God, that I was fine with him and he fine with me. Thanks be to God. So now I think that, regardless of what is going on in my life, the “rings” showing my growth in my life are no longer stunted, no longer subject to pain and suffering, because I know that God is here with me no matter what. The pain and suffering in my life no longer stunts my growth. Amen.
Questions to ponder over the week: How do I deal with the pain and suffering that comes into my life? Do I still have events from the past that still trouble me? Have I managed to incorporate the lessons from the pain into who I am? Have I leaned on God to help me deal?
Blessing for the week: May we be the people of God who deal with the pain and suffering in our lives by leaning more on God and less on ourselves. May we always be looking to “what am I to learn from this?” May we seek to give to others what we have learned from our own suffering.
This week I am asking for another kind of testimony for my book on Exodus. Fr. Gregory Boyle who works with gang members in Los Angeles says that we often talk about how when one door closes another door opens in our lives, but no one talks about how far apart the two events are, that there is often a long tunnel between those two events, a long transition. I’d love to hear your stories about the transitional state, in Exodus that would be the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, what it was like until the other door opened. Where was God for you? What was it like? How did you manage?
I have lots of stories from your lives and I am so grateful and so inspired by them. Thank you all so much for responding. In faith and love, Pat