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. 🙂

Hope is not an emotion

This past year has taught me a precious lesson. I have, for many years, grossly misunderstood the nature of hope. And the more I longed for my imaginary version of hope, the more elusive hope became.

Hope, as it turns out, is as misunderstood as love. Like love, hope isn’t an emotion. In fact, hope doesn’t have to feel good in the least. Like love, hope is a choice and a commitment. A commitment to what? A commitment to keep choosing the path of life — in spite of feeling hopeless.

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When I first started dealing with periods of severe depression about three years ago, I came to believe that one does not simply choose to have hope. Those seasons of unspeakable, impenetrable internal darkness convinced me that sometimes, one is completely robbed of the capacity to have any hope at all. As such, I began taking for granted this notion that the only way to get out of those psychoemotional abysses was to hang in there and “wait it out”.

I don’t mean to say it doesn’t work. Sometimes, staying alive in itself can get so difficult that that’s all the work you can do. With your loved ones standing by your side and giving you just enough to not quit on life, and you dutifully taking your prescribed medication, the storm eventually dissipates, and you start to see the light again, and you find reason to get back on your feet.

But over the course of my last depressive episode, I noticed something rather peculiar. It started when my therapist told me, “You know, at some point, you’re going to get tired of despairing, and you’re going to want to do something.” This was after many sessions of me walking in simply because it gave me something to do, while remaining unreceptive and unwilling to acknowledge that things could get better. My first reaction to her remark was of annoyance and anger. Get TIRED of despairing? You make it sound like I’m choosing to despair. You make it sound like I know some kind of alternative to this terrible existence. But deep beneath all that maudlin angst, I knew she was on to something.

I was noticing that there comes a time when despair becomes your comfort zone. Comfort zone?! Yes, a very uncomfortable comfort zone, but a comfort zone nonetheless. It’s that zone where you’re no longer thrashing, kicking, writhing, screaming — but you’re floating in that murky, slushy, stinky cesspool of despair. Despairing, loathing, and bemoaning your existence has be come second nature, and the thought of recovery is actually scary. Despair is familiar; recovery is foreign. Not wanting to live has been your default state of being for so long that learning how to live again is intimidating.

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‘Niedergedrückt’ by Melancho Blumenbunt
I reflected on this further, and then I went back to my therapist and admitted to her that I was afraid of recovering. I was afraid that if I should start making some changes to my mental and physical routines, I would start to feel better, but still find myself loathing my lot and my existence, and I would have no more excuse to be less than functional. I would have to accept the terribleness of my existence, and simply deal with it.

This admission to my therapist, but mostly to myself, was an important turning point. Of course, I didn’t make an instant 180 to start making tangible progress — I continued hemming and hawing for a while — the bad cognitive and behavioral habits that develop over months of despairing are so difficult to shake off. But there came a day when I decided I would find a way to start moving again. No, not because I felt better, not because I received a sign from heaven that all issues would be resolved. Simply because I realized I had nothing to lose.

It’s funny how that works. The flip-side of despairing about virtually everything is realizing that you have nothing to lose. And suddenly, you find there’s this untapped reservoir of boldness welling up within you. Call it tragic optimism, or a just darn clever biological mechanism that kicks you in the direction of recovery, but you can choose to ride that wave, or choose to continue thrashing.

It became a psychological discipline to bat away negative thoughts, especially about myself. It doesn’t mean all of a sudden knowing what’s true and what’s false. Instead, the inner dialogue sounded a lot more like this: I know, I know, I’m useless and stupid… But I’m gonna be radically okay with it, and see how far I can go. And so I go about my my day having shelved that particular thought. I read a book, I go for the job interview, I enter into a conversation I would typically have avoided. Oh, yes, and I’m a cruel, heartless, wretched human being undeserving of love… But you know what? People seem okay with it. Let’s see how long I can go before I’m exposed. And again, I go about my day, agreeing to meet a friend, or attending a get-together instead of making excuses to stay home. Oh wait — how about the fact that I’m doomed to a lifetime of lonely misery and will never find happiness? Soon enough, I started being able to say, oh just shut up already. 

Perhaps it all boils down to putting aside your pride. We despair because we are unable to accept ourselves and our lives, or we believe the world cannot accept us, or both. It’s not an easy decision to make, but when we choose radical acceptance, magic happens. Slowly but surely, I started experiencing improvements in my mood. The more I put myself out there in spite of the forces threatening to engulf me, the more the clouds began to clear. My thoughts became more realistic, my emotions more stable, and my social anxiety markedly reduced. I became less inward-focused and could start loving and caring for other people again. At the very core of it, I came to recognize the inherent good of being alive once more.

And so I learned that you don’t sit around waiting to feel hopeful. Often, we imagine hope to mean seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, when it’s more like digging, grasping, and clawing your way through the dirt until you see the light. Hope is hard work. To decide that you are willing to try is a huge victory over despair, a huge cause for celebration for the people who have been rooting for you, and the beginning of a scary but empowering journey.

Hope is courageous: it is letting go of the dogged notion that you need X, Y, and Z to live, and being willing to attempt forging a new path. Hope is humble: it is admitting that you don’t know everything, and that your forecast of doom and gloom is fallible. Hope is radical: it is a commitment to stop comparing yourself to others (you know, the “happy, productive, and functional” folks), and focusing on doing what you can do in a given moment.

And finally, you may or may not agree, but I believe that true, lasting hope requires faith. I know that any of my efforts to reject the voices of my inner demons would have been unsustainable without faith in a loving and merciful God. What made those psychological disciplines possible was a deeply spiritual discipline: to begin each day offering up my fears, anxieties, and regrets to God, and trusting like a child that He is already paving for me a new path my eyes cannot yet see. For hope that is seen is not hope at all. And faith is confidence in what we hope for, and assurance of what we do not see. This hope will not put us to shame.

I thank God for the gift of faith, and for loved ones who, having exhausted creative means to motivate me, beseech me to turn to God.

We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures. We are the sum of the Father’s love for us, and our real capacity to become the image of His Son.

–Pope John Paul II

Thank you for continuing to accompany me on this journey. Peace be with you. 🙂

Life lessons from Dumbo

I used to think this applied only to tragedies and misfortunes, things beyond our control. But I’m learning that it can also be true for the mistakes we make, the damage we create, and the hurt we cause. We can choose to not run away, and instead seek healing and forgiveness, learn about our weaknesses, and commit to do and be better. And that’s where even our most wretched failings could someday take us “up, and up, and up!” Right? Let’s choose to forgive ourselves. To deny that to ourselves to prevent ourselves from growing.

If you are discouraged it is a sign of pride, because it shows you trust in your own powers.

–Mother Teresa

A smooth-sailing life is no adventure!

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I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.

–Theodore Roosevelt

 

 

How do you identify your “passion”?

It’s no secret that I was, for a long time, feeling very lost in life. Unlike many people I know, I didn’t have an obvious passion or hobby, or something that’s enthralled me since childhood. This became a particularly huge source of distress during depressive episodes. If no one checked on me, I’d be confined to my bed for more than half the day, tormented by thoughts about being “useless”, “pathetic”, and “less than human” for not being driven.

Many people and many articles (like these) lead us to believe that our passion ought to be something in which we can lose ourselves, or something that allows us to forget everything else. And the appeal of distraction is particularly pertinent for those of us who are suffering. What helps me forget about my crippling insecurities? What helps me forget about all the craziness and pain in the world?

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But I don’t want that. And I don’t think anyone should. I am seeking something that, contrary to helping me forget the world, would help me understand my place in this world. Not something that blinds me to the suffering in this world, but something that allows me to understand suffering and play a part in healing it.

It becomes apparent that this becomes so much more than a search for a hobby. We are on a quest for Truth.

I don’t want to be protected from the anxiety of mortal existence, I want to understand and overcome it. I absolutely hate being told not to question things too much, not to think too much. Most people who say that are entirely well-meaning. They are worried that these thoughts would lead me down an abyss of hopelessness. But they’re assuming that these questions would lead me to a dark and terrifying place — perhaps the realization that everything is ultimately futile and meaningless.

But I believe that Truth is found where God is — and because the God I know is good, in Him I will find truths that are good and beautiful. Slowly, but surely, I’ve been grasping more and more of this in my journey of faith.

In some ways, I’m thankful for my depression. While it’s no fun being tormented by negative thoughts and emotions 24/7, being depressed forces me to beg for answers to questions that really matter. Why am I suffering? Why is there suffering? Is life even worth living? Why am I alive? What does this all mean? As J. David Franks puts it poetically (in the foreword to The Catholic Guide to Depression by Aaron Kheriaty and Fr. John Cihak): “…some are dragged entirely into the vortex of the world’s pain. To be depressed is to be a wound open to the stinging air of reality…The depressed stand on the marches of the world, where the waters of chaos threaten to overwhelm the bright little circle of life we enjoy.”

Unable to run away from pain, I had to (and am continuing to) seek to understand its meaning and purpose. And you don’t have to be depressed to seek as well.

Related post: Who do you live for?

Hello, dear strangers on the same train!

How is it that of 300 or so subscribers to my blog, there are at least a hundred I haven’t met in real life? I definitely wasn’t expecting this when I first started this blog 3 months ago.

Last night, a good friend remarked that this recent post was a breath of fresh air. “It’s nice when you post about less heavy stuff once in a while,” he said. I suppose as blog followers began expanding beyond my little social circle, I subconsciously began cutting out potential posts that would be irrelevant to a readership that probably looks something like this:

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There are other spaces for college rants and food cravings and other self-indulgent posts, I thought, like Facebook. But then I realized, for people who don’t know me in real life, I must come across as either (A) a super intense person,  or (B) someone who takes herself too seriously. Well, in a sense, B is kind of true — I take myself very seriously — but the same way I (try to) take others very seriously, and C.S. Lewis puts it really well: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendor.” Sorry, that escalated quickly. But seriously, though.

Let me end on a lighthearted note, with another random recording my friend Ben and I made over the weekend.

Colors of the Wind! What could be more lighthearted than Disney? (Maybe try to ignore the possibility that this song could be an environmentalist’s anthem, or an attack on white supremacy…)

But thank you, thank you for your interest in the things I write/post. It’s been a huge encouragement to know that I have thoughts and life experiences that are worth sharing. I’ve greatly enjoyed reading about yours too. 🙂 Even if we don’t know each other, I’m thankful for the common calling(s) we share, wherever you find yourself in that Venn diagram.

Life isn’t what you make it

As much as we’re told that “life is what you make it”, that phrase could not be farther from the truth. The present life we’re living, wherever we’re reading this right now, is collectively made possible by our parents, teachers, friends, neighbors, bosses, doctors, firefighters, law enforcers, lawmakers, ancestors, founding fathers…..and lastly, ourselves.

Nothing apart from the decisions we make is inherently, wholly ours.

First and foremost, we’re alive today because we were each given a shot at life. We had the support of individuals (biologically related or not), groups, communities, and/or institutions that believed that we — though weak, voiceless, defenseless, even useless — were of value and had rights as members of a just and humane society.

We were cared for, taught the ways of survival, of weathering storms, of overcoming obstacles, defying odds, of discovering and pursuing our passions, until we’re ready to take those training wheels off. We then embraced the independence to carve out our own lives, and the freedom to do as we please. But never at the expense of others, because we remember to love and respect the way we were loved and respected for simply being human. We give others a chance to find their way the way we were given chance after chance.

Let’s consider our own profound indebtedness before we  make judgments about whether someone would be worthy recipient of society’s resources, or make assumptions about whether someone would be able to live a fulfilling life. If one is given the resources that will enable them to overcome and flourish, they will.

The greatest of these resources are love and respect, and the most basic of these is a chance at life. And when they no longer need their training wheels, they will pass them on to those who do. May this be the kind of society, the kind of human race we are proud to be members of.

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Either life is always and in all circumstances sacred, or intrinsically of no account; it is inconceivable that it should be in some cases the one, and in some the other.”   –Malcolm Muggeridge