Category Archives: pain and suffering

Hiking, Hills, and Healing (Part 5)

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scenic photo of lake surrounded by trees

(This is Part 5 in a 5 Part series.  See below for links to the other parts.)

I must continue to move on, of course, but I do not want to forget all that has been revealed to me here – in the midst of this indescribably difficult pilgrimage.  I want to savor it, drink it in with great gulps, and remember it for the sweetness and grandeur it’s been in the very midst of excruciating pain.  I don’t want to forget any of the journey, really, the beauty or the hardship.  But I know how prone I am to remembering the negative and forgetting the even more profound positive.  I want to remember the beauty that was at first obscured and hidden from view.  I want to remember the way my soul has been fed even when I thought I would wither from thirst for life, hunger for companionship, and sheer exhaustion from the struggles.  I want to remember the good, the beautiful, and the true that can only be witnessed here.

I couldn’t see any of that when I first looked at the mountain range ahead of me.  I was overcome by the length and height and breadth of the torment that lay all around me.  But now I can tell you that I am genuinely thankful for being able to choose to move forward.  If I had turned back, refusing to take on this perilous path, not only would I have settled for a life imprisoned by the trauma that enslaved me, but I would have missed out on the hidden treasures that can only be seen here – in the most difficult places to get to.

I want to get to the other side of the mountain range – I really do.  And I long for a time when every single day isn’t has hard as I can possibly cope with.  I don’t want to diminish or, God forbid, somehow idealize how grueling it is to be hiking through these mountains.  It’s brutal and I really do want it to be over.  But while this is the way my days go, I’m grateful for what is being revealed to me along this suffering road.  The mountains are hard.  There are many dangers lurking here – both known and as yet, still unknown.  I am not naïve enough to think that because I am climbing the first ridge I have this all figured out – I know enough to know that I do not.  But it is the Maker of these Mountains who has called me to traverse them. As I learn to trust him more and more, I am less afraid to go onward.  I’m still slow and out of breath, and I still long for aid and comfort along the way.  I still wish I had better equipment – but I’m beginning to wonder if the mountains actually already contain the provisions I need.  I wonder if part of the process is learning to see it.

I still believe that a pleasant landscape might lie on the other side of this rugged expanse, but I am also learning to love the mountains again. I am learning to be content to hike, to learn, to grow, to be strengthened.  I am grateful for the views afforded at the peaks, for the beauty and strength contained in the very ruggedness and the challenges they present to climbers like me.  I appreciate better the shelter provided in the valleys, even as I see that there are many more mountains to climb.  And I am even glad to have been exposed to the realities of the pits and crevices that are beautiful near the surface but which claim lives by the scores and leave them putrefying in their clutches.  These mountains are indescribably difficult, but I am learning that they are also good.

I never would have chosen this journey if I hadn’t been pushed by the bursting open of that box I had so tightly sealed and the horrible contents that spilled out leaving carnage lying everywhere around me.  If it hadn’t felt like the only option in life-or-death choices, I can assure you that I would never have embarked on this journey.  But since I did have to choose it, I am growing more and more grateful for it.  I don’t really know if the landscape on the other side of this will be pleasant or not, but even if it isn’t, the mountains have goodness and mercy contained in them that I could not have witnessed or experienced without setting out – one faithful, trembling foot at a time.  Pressing on is the only option, but I think I might actually be beginning to believe that hiking, hills, and healing are inextricably linked together and that I can’t have the healing without hiking these hills.  I’ll let you know what the other side looks like once I get there.  But maybe, before long, I’ll decide that living in the mountains isn’t all that bad.

Photo by Roberto Shumski on Pexels.com

Click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

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Hiking, Hills, and Healing (Part 4)

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photography of person on green mountain

(This is Part 4 in a 5 Part series being published this week.  See below for links to the other parts.)

And so I hike – present tense.  I’m hiking still.  I gather what I can along the way to help me, and learn better ways to navigate through the rough spots.  I’m still on the first ridge, but I am farther than that first hill, and farther than that first mountain.

A hiker can start out slow and clumsy and unfit for the task.  She might be easily exhausted and think she can’t go on at first.  But with every step she gains strength, stamina, and experience that help her for the remainder of the journey.  She learns when to push through the fatigue and when to stop and rest.  She learns when to eat and sleep, when to look for landmarks to get her bearings.  She learns the signs that danger is near and how to avoid allowing it to consume her.  But she learns something else, too.  She learns that there are times when the most important thing to do is to simply stop and notice the beauty.

That was something I hadn’t noticed about the mountain range when I first saw it looming large in front of me.  The sheer size of the range was overwhelming and terrifying.  I felt faint and defeated before I’d even put one foot forward on it.  But now that I’ve come to accept that my life – for the foreseeable future anyway – consists of mountain climbing, I’ve been able to view these mountains a little differently.  I can see that there is much more on these peaks than difficulty and trouble – there is also breath-taking splendor if I only have eyes to see.

It slows my pace at times, but there are places where I can see so far and so much that I am astounded by all that a mountain range can reveal.  There are pristine lakes of clear, still, life-giving water where quiet peace is palpable.  There is clarity in the air away from the every-day noise and commotion of ordinary life – a clarity that I didn’t even know I lacked – that makes truth so much easier to see.  And there is a solace in knowing that hiking through this mountain range is producing something in me that couldn’t have been produced in any other way.  There are insights into eternity that I never could have imagined, but I have been humbled and am grateful to have become acquainted with.  I know that these are things which are only able to be witnessed or experienced here – in these mountains of adversity.  They require a perilous journey over treacherous terrain, but they are worth it.  And, the truth is, I realize now, too, that there are chasms and dangerous depths that are more terrifying and deadly than I ever dreamed.  These perilous pits have always existed, but I would never had known that though they seem interesting and are even beautiful at the surface, they contain piles and piles of corpses in their depths.  Their stench isn’t immediately noticeable, but when you get close enough – close enough to be swallowed alive in them – their choking fumes are overwhelming.  I would not have known what they were really like – how bad they really are – had I not been made to climb to these heights.

I must continue to move on, of course, but I do not want to forget all that has been revealed to me here – in the midst of this indescribably difficult pilgrimage.

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Click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 5

Hiking, Hills, and Healing (Part 3)

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mountain under cloudy sky

(This is Part 3 of a 5 part series being published this week.  See below for links to the other parts.)

Instead of seeing the pleasant, rolling valley I had expected to see, what I saw left me shaken to the core.  Instead of patchworks of fields with happy homes and the cheerful promise of safety, stability, and belonging, a vast mountain range stretched before me.  The peaks were far higher than the one I’d just climbed, and far more treacherous.  They went on as far as I could see – there was no end to them.  They were jagged and sharp, steep and menacing. I couldn’t see a single path or road that led through them – just the uneven  route that I’d have to forge for myself.  Every direction I looked, save one, looked the same.  I could return to the crypt, or I could face what seemed impossible.  I wept.  My legs buckled underneath me and I went down.  I was already so weary.  I had barely made it to the top of that mountain – how could I go on?  Despair engulfed me and I had no strength left to be able to take in what was in front of me.

I spent a long time considering the impossible options that presented themselves to me – choiceless choices that promised only pain and suffering.  The way out could only be through that range.  Turning back would be no easy thing either, but it would only lead to utter defeat and with it a lifelong prison sentence.  How could I go back to be shackled to the torturous creatures pouring out of that vault?  Many of them clung to and hounded me as I made my way up the hill and the mountain already.  They were already dead weight threatening to crush me – who would voluntarily let them have more power?  But did I have what it would take to go forward?  There was no end in sight.  Could I make it?  The path that had been difficult to follow up till now was completely gone ahead – how would I know how to go?  The mountain I had just climbed was steep and rugged.  But the ones ahead bore sheer cliffs, bald and barren inclines, and snow caps that promised harsh conditions I knew I wasn’t prepared for.  I didn’t have the right supplies to get me through – I thought I was only going to have to climb a hill when I started out.  I needed better provisions – better shoes, warmer clothing – how could anyone make it through?

Again and again I searched for a third option, but there were only ever two: go back and be sentenced to suffer at the groping hands of my tormentors forever, or go forward on the dangerous journey ahead which offered at least the idea of hope of freedom from them on the other side.  I didn’t want to start the journey through that terrifying mountain range, but who wants to voluntarily climb back down and turn themselves in to face a life imprisoned by their worst memories and fears?  How could that be a better option?  I knew what I had to do.

Mountain ranges are big, but they’re not eternal, right?  They might stretch on for many, many miles, but eventually they would give way to foot hills and pleasant, rolling landscape on the other side, wouldn’t they?  There has to be hope on the other side of all of this, doesn’t there?

Photo by Philip Ackermann on Pexels.com

Click here for Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5

Hiking, Hills, and Healing (Part 2)

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(This is Part 2 in a 5 part series being published this week. See below for links to the other parts.)

When I was little, I used to dream about living in the mountains.  I loved the pictures I’d seen of the Alps and the Rockies, and I delighted in the short trips we’d taken to the Poconos to visit an aunt and uncle who lived there.  I loved coming round a bend to be greeted by a panoramic view of the valleys below where patchwork fields and little houses dotted an idyllic version of life that I so wanted as my own.  I was sure that this is what would await me on the other side of this hill in front of me.

I looked forward to the pleasant vista that would be a reward for all my hard work and a promise of a better way of life.  I began dreaming about what I would do once I got to that beautiful other side.  But as I crested the top of that hill, I realized that I had been wrong about all of this, really wrong.  This was not just any hill – it was a foot hill.  There was a mountain behind that hill – a big one.  The mountain had had been obscured by the hill itself because the hill was all I could see.  When I got high enough on the hill to see what lay beyond it, I was disheartened.  I thought I was getting close to the end of this difficult process.  I was tired and I was disappointed to see that after this initial effort that had seemed to fill up my life and take all the energy I had, there was another, bigger challenge waiting for me.

But what else could be done?  You climb a mountain the same way you climb a hill – right?  You put one foot in front of the other and eventually those faithful steps in the right direction get you somewhere – right?  So, once I had climbed that foot hill and then down again on the other side of it, I started to climb the mountain.  It was harder, steeper, rockier than the hill had been.  The path was barely there and I had to spend cold and lonely nights on those rocks willing myself to move forward to get to the other side.  I kept looking up at the peak that seemed to touch the clouds, longing for the day when I’d reach it and be able to begin my descent and get to the other side.  I even imagined there might be another foot hill on the other side but thought, “it’s ok – what’s one more foot hill after you’ve already climbed a mountain?  It’ll be easy compared to this.”

It took a long time – a really long time – to get to the top of that mountain.  I was exhausted.  I had underestimated the effort it would take – the strength and stamina, the stubborn determination.  I had not considered the deprivation, the loneliness, the cold winds.  But the top did get nearer with each step and that was enough encouragement to keep going.  I kept thinking, “it’s taking longer than I thought, and this is way harder than I imagined it would be, but I am getting closer to the top.  I just need to push through a little further.  I just need to keep going and I’ll get there!”  When I did, I was not exuberant – but I was relieved.  “At last,” I thought, “I’m done the hardest part of this.  I made it through and now I can begin the journey down into safer, easier landscapes.”

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw at the top of that mountain.  Nothing.

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Click here for Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

Hiking, Hills, and Healing (Part 1)

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Hiking, Hills, and Healing

(This is Part 1 in a 5 Part series being published this week.  See below for links to the other parts.)

When I was a child, I lived in a hilly area.  There were also many train lines crisscrossing the towns and boroughs and as a result, there were lots of roads that went through stone or concrete tunnels underneath the tracks.  On one such tunnel wall, an “artist” left a message that even the adults in the area found amusing.  It stated simply, “Humpty Dumpty was pushed.”

I’ve thought of that statement a few times over the past few years, because when I was confronted with the need to finally face a life time of trauma, I did not do so as an eager volunteer. I was pushed.

For decades I had managed well enough by setting all of “that” aside, working harder and harder to push through the demands of life, and building an iron-bar reinforced concrete cavern for any painful memories or experiences to be locked tightly into.  I kept it far beneath the surface so that no one could ever know.  I was able to even forget the torturous tenants were there sometimes, but the inhabitants of that vault never did.  And while I had unconsciously added rooms and extra storage areas over the years to accommodate more and more “stuff” that needed to be hidden away in that crypt, eventually it became so overcrowded that no amount of energy or willpower was enough to keep the lids or doors shut tight.

Trauma will only be encased for so long

Trauma will only be encased for so long.  Though I tried valiantly to live as though none of it was true, eventually even iron reinforcements rust and concrete mausoleums crumble.  My tightly locked dungeon that housed all the ugly started to break down and refused to accommodate one more thing.  It didn’t take much at that point for the locks to fail, the doors to be forced open, and for all hell to break loose.  When it did, I was forced (pushed) to make some decisions about how to proceed with my life.

My options were few and none of them good.  The first option was that I could unpack all of this stench that had been encased in the box – cleaning out one disgusting inmate’s remains at a time.  The promises made with this option were “this will change you – you’ll always walk with a limp – but you’ll be ‘healed,’” whatever that was supposed to mean.  The second, and final, option was that I could proceed without any specific interventions to clean out or clean up the evil personified pouring out of the cavernous coffin.  But the promises made with this option included only one truth – that I would be sentenced to living with the exhumed inhabitants of that terrible chamber controlling me like a puppet on a string for the rest of my life.

I “chose” to try to clean up the mess, but it didn’t really seem like a choice.  It seemed like an injustice – because it was.  I hadn’t created the demons that inhabited those spaces, and I wasn’t responsible for all they had done.  But they were here.  This was, like it or not, an injustice that had to be borne, and so finally, I said “yes” to it.  But reluctantly, and after a lot of thinking.  In fact, my “yes” was more like a shove off a wall.  I had no idea what I was saying yes to – no idea at all.

I often use the mountains as an analogy for the process I had to embark upon – this process called “trauma healing”. At first I thought I had a big hill in front of me. Very big, in fact, but climbable. So, being the hard worker I had learned to become, I tackled it the way I tackled everything – I set my resolve and started climbing. It didn’t matter that I didn’t really know what I was doing or why I was even climbing – there was a hill in front of me and that meant one thing:  Climb.  After some time and no small effort, I was close enough to the top of that hill to begin to look for the view I was sure would greet me on the other side.

(Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Click here for Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

Who do you say that I am?

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When walking alongside the suffering – the traumatized, the abused, the vulnerable – know that though they might never utter the words to you, they are inwardly pleading with you to answer the question:

 

Who Do You Say That I Am?

I have been called many things by many people – but you, who do you say that I am?

You have invited me into your space, quieted your voice to come closer to my voiceless pain – but who do you say that I am?

You have asked me to trust, and so I try – through sideways and straight-on glances I watch to see if I might.

You have spent hours to help me find words, to listen – to help me bring order to the chaos in my mind.

You speak slowly, calmly, truthfully.  You have waited for what must often seem an impossibly long time for me to try to explain.

You have offered tissues and silence in the face of deep grief.  But who do you say that I am?

Your project?  Your case?  Your ten o’clock?

Your subject?  Your burden?  Your alphabet soup disordered mess?

You refer to us – the others and me – as “they.”  With distanced compassion that reminds us that we are not like you, and you are emphatically not us.

I tell you I am inherently bad – ruined, disgusting, filthy.  You say “not true” but you do not see any good.

I tell you I am trash – and you say, “no, not you” but you stand above holding tight and close your sheltered life so it cannot be soiled by mine.

I confide in you that I hate myself – and you say, “that needs to change,” but you keep a safe distance so that my pain won’t contaminate you – because you hate it, too.

You see me through a glass darkly – the filter of trauma has obscured your view.

I am a human being – hurting and raw, to be sure – but I am more like you than you want to believe, and you – you are more like me than you are willing to admit.

Your great life is a gift I did not receive but that was not because of me – or you.

I have qualities I keep trying to show you, but they are hidden from your view because you only look at one thing – the damage I must cope with.

You say I lack stability, skills, and understanding.  You are the expert of my lacking, and because I am desperate for filling, I submit and absorb your limited estimations.  I lack so many, many things.

But perhaps you lack something, too?  Perhaps you, too, are weak, and frail, and needy.  Perhaps my slowness might reveal your impatience, intolerance, haste.  Perhaps, because you’ve seen it all before you no longer see it all clearly.  Maybe, in fact, you’ve misjudged, short-changed, and dismissed the hurting human before you.

I can teach you, too, you know – a great many things – but you won’t stop to listen – not to me.  You think I am only beggarly, not rich enough to share.

Yes, I am a wounded soul.  My body has been broken by those who should have been good – my heart, and mind, too.  I am scared and weary, distrustful and confused.  I need a great deal.

But do you see that I am also a loving parent, a friend, a teacher?  Do you know I’ve shown great capacity and strength in terrible times and have helped many others find their way?

Have you learned that I am kind and gentle?  Compassionate, patient, and loving despite the murky filth they tried to steep me in?  Can you tell that I possess resources and creativity that even you could be impressed with?

I am someone you might like to know – apart from the damage – but you don’t see me as an equal, an ally, and certainly never a peer or a friend.

I am a person, but you seem to only see a problem.

I’ve been called many things by many people.  But you – who do you say that I am?

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“Do I matter?”

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“Do I matter?

Have you ever been repeatedly irritated by something someone says?  You know – a quirky phrase misused, or a chronically mispronounced word?  The kind of thing that tempts you to want to correct, even though it’s not really worth embarrassing someone over?

That’s what the phrase “you matter” is for me.

It’s a sort of mantra these days, a slogan, or (if I’m generous) perhaps people intend it to be a conversation starter.  An acquaintance of mine says to me, “you matter” on a regular basis.  And to be perfectly honest, it’s just plain irritating.

I know what she’s trying to communicate – that my life has significance and meaning in the world.  But that is not what she is saying – at least not to me.

I know very little about her – we’re not friends.  There’s no mutuality to the relationship.  I spend time with her on a regular basis because of circumstances, but the level of intimacy required to know whether or not I matter is not there and for her to keep saying it is, well, irksome.  Maybe I’m just being a pedantic jerk – I don’t know – but every time she says it now I want to ask her, “tell me – to whom?”

OK, I get it.  In the great, grand scheme of things, everyone “matters.”  As Christians we believe humans are made in the image of God, and therefore we have inherent dignity and worth.  Human life has significance.  Most reasonable people agree with this even if they wouldn’t put it in these terms – it’s generally accepted that we shouldn’t be indiscriminately killed or consumed as food.  There is a quality about being human that is different from being an animal or a plant.

Apparently, some would argue that taking up space in the world as a human, then, is the essence of “mattering.”

I would not be among them.  Instead, I would argue that “mattering” only makes sense in the context of a relationship.  The significance and importance ascribed to one person must be valued by another.  In other words, the sentence is incomplete if we stop at, “you matter.”  We need to complete it by saying, “you matter to me.”  “Mattering” has to be in relationship to someone else or it’s nonsense.

To matter at all means that you are connected to another human.  Being human carries inherent dignity and worth, but you can have dignity and worth and be utterly alone.  If you matter to someone, it means that they have regarded your dignity and worth as something worth attending.  You are seen – your personality, your strengths, your character, your perspectives and thoughts, your hopes and dreams, and even your fears – as worth investing in, worth knowing.  Your presence will have been noticed – and valued – by another soul.

 

To matter to someone is to be held in a place of priority – to be “special” to someone in some way.  To matter to someone is to be regarded as worth investing time, resources, effort, and care into.  To matter to someone means your well-being is important to them and your flourishing is something they are willing to work toward.  In its simplest terms, to matter to someone means that you are cared about, and cared for.  It may not always rise to the level of love and affection, but it always rises above “the crowd.”

We respond warmly to it and derive a sense of our own significance and worth from it.  To matter to someone is to be significant and important to them.

That is what it means to matter. Mattering is always in the context of a relationship.  It’s absurd to think of it any other way.

So, why does all this talk about mattering matter to me?  Because as a survivor of abuse, I have often wondered – do I matter to anyone?  Is anyone interested in who I am – not just in what they can get from me but for what makes me a person, an individual, me?  It’s a question every survivor asks, so hopefully this public wrestling with words proves at least somewhat valuable to others.

Abuse strikes at the very core of a person’s identity.  It is inter-personal betrayal in the most foundational level of relationships.  Treachery that comes wrapped in the guise of what should be loving, safe relationships but are instead abusive, destroys a victim’s concept of having any meaning or significance in the world at all.  It makes sense that being exploited by the people you should matter to twists and distorts the idea of mattering at all.  Survivors not only struggle to understand the people and circumstances that surround them, but they struggle to understand their own selves, as well.  When those closest to you don’t serve to protect your being, when even your own skin can’t protect the core of who you are, what can?  Children growing up in loving, healthy environments never wonder if they matter to anyone – they know they do and inhale it with the air they breathe.  But this is not so for those who have been damaged and shamed by abuse.

Diane Langberg, PhD often speaks of how we need to learn about the abstract through the concrete.  She talks about how Jesus used ordinary things that even peasants would be familiar with – like water, bread, and wine – to teach us who he is and what he is like.  We all needed Jesus to be a man – the concreteness of God “in the flesh” – to really be able to understand his heart.  I think the same is true with the concept of “mattering” to anyone.

How can an individual understand that he or she matters to an invisible God if they’ve never known what it is like to matter to another human being?  How can they understand that “being used by God” is not the same as being used by those who abused them?  How can a person possibly understand what it means to have significance and meaning outside of a human relationship, if they’ve never known it inside one?

You see, mattering to someone is how we can come to understand that we matter to God.  We need the more tangible experience of mattering to someone “in the flesh” in order to understand that we even could matter to God.  The question, “Do I matter?” can only be answered in the context of a relationship, and the conclusion, “yes, I matter,” can only be arrived at through the experience of a relationship where we are appreciated, valued, and treasured simply because of who we are.

Sometimes people ask, “How can I help you?  What can I do for you?”  when they learn about my struggle.  It’s a hard question to answer because I don’t know if they mean really do something or if they don’t know what else to say.  But If you really want to help a survivor of abuse, let them matter to you.  See them, know them, love them for who they are.  Let their flourishing be important enough to you to pursue.  Don’t look at the abuse only but appreciate their strengths and their character.  Learn of their creativity or depths of compassion.  Care about what is important to them and what they’re hoping for.  See past the damage and the work they need to do to become whole again, and delight in the complex, multi-faceted human being they were created to be.  Let them really matter to you so that they can taste and see the goodness and care of the One to whom they matter the most.  Answer their question, “Do I matter?” with, “Yes!  You matter a great deal to me,” for I have a sneaking suspicion that coming to believe that we might matter to someone is the gateway for believing that we might be loved.  And that, beloved church, is what survivors need to know the most.