Taking ownership of our pain

I’ve learned that taking ownership of our pain is the first step towards healing. It doesn’t matter who or what is responsible for our pain. The wound is ours, and it’s up to us to 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.

This is why we ask, why me? Regardless whether we direct it to God or to the great void, we always ask that same question time and again.

Without realizing it, we have a pre-written script of our most basic expectations of what our lives should look like. Things that don’t make it onto our script: accidents, betrayals, abandonment, disillusionment, losing loved ones, epic failures, 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.

But asking why me does nothing except keep us stuck in anger and bitterness. When I think about the times I’ve allowed myself to get trapped in depressive episodes, making no effort to seek recovery, I visualize myself sitting alone in a dark echo chamber repeatedly yelling why me. And we know that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

There are seasons in life during which we become hypersensitive to grievances past and present. Personal regrets, self-blame, insecurities, traumas, fears, feelings of having been wronged — everything surfaces. When depression hits me, 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 the sight of them at the time and had zero desire to acknowledge them.

We’re all in the habit of burying the unpleasantness of life under heaps of work, entertainment, and distractions. It often even feels like triumph. Congratulations, we tell ourselves, the past can longer touch me, and I’m free to start afresh. 

It is with such remarkable success that we convince ourselves of this delusion — the delusion that we can simply start afresh. We know we can’t simply erase selected parts of your life. We know that when we’ve buried something, no matter how carefully we attempt to level the soil, the ground will never look the same again. We’ll always know exactly what lies buried there. We’re not really free, because there is no freedom in walking through life tiptoeing around the potholes that we pretend do not exist. They are the conversations we avoid, the names that freeze us in our tracks, the relationships we have severed, the people we have banished, 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 hurt 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.

First, faith in God’s sovereignty and in His promise that all things work together for the good of those who love Him.

Second, the hope that there is always hope. That nothing is a lost cause: no relationship is too broken to mend, no failure irredeemable, and that death will never 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 and failures to open the door for healing. And perhaps more difficult, we have to love the people who have hurt us, just as God does. 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. And we will emerge healed, restored, renewed.

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Watercolor and ink

This doesn’t mean the pain will disappear 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 past 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 hope, love, and compassion.

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Watercolor and acrylic

The following words by Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and professor who suffered crippling depression, have helped change my outlook on life. Read and soak in them:

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.

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

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9 thoughts on “Taking ownership of our pain”

  1. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  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. Right on, sister! 😉 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. 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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