Pain Pushes us to Our Own Healing
Those called to work for healing and social transformation of our world must think about two transformations.
The first is obvious, the mission of healing, leadership, or change we’ve trained for, and on which we spend our days: To call for peace when the masses clamor for war, to build bridges across no-man’s land, to assist wounded people to get to safe space, to build coalitions among those too weak to stand on their own, to be an advocate for the voiceless.
These tasks require knowledge, skills galore, connections, experience, ability to find resources, and more. Graduate programs of many kinds excel at preparing young people for vocations of healing and social change.
But there is a second kind of transformation that is just as important and just as challenging, a transformation the professional schools and guilds barely acknowledge, let alone touch. This is the transformation of the peacebuilder, the healing of the healer.
To say others have problems and we want to help is one thing. To admit that in the process of helping others we encounter our own problems and need help is quite another.
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It may be devotion to others that calls us to our work, but it is pain that pushes us to our own healing. At four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon I find myself flooded with unfocused anxiety so strong I can’t ignore it. The day was meant for repair projects around home, but it took half the morning just to settle on strategy and materials. Then came a lengthy conversation with a drop-in friend.
At mid-day eldest daughter needed the family van, which meant I now couldn’t fetch materials for my project. I did other shopping instead, failed to find what I sought, and fretted in long lines in the store. Now with evening at hand, there seems to be nothing to show for that rare commodity, a free Saturday at home.
And I am overrun with guilty restlessness. A river of it washes up from the gut. I think of all the things I could have done on this day that might have made the world a better place. There are workshops to plan, phone calls to make, books to write. I feel that I have failed, that I am not living up to my potential, my obligation as a human being. Release would come, it seems, if I found some important task and did it. Then I would be at peace with myself and my day.
What is this all about? All the years of teaching, writing and practicing on relationship-building notwithstanding, somewhere in the misty inner world of my psyche resides a powerful conviction that I earn my existence through work and accomplishment. On this day when I have no product to point to, I feel anxious and unworthy, in the core of my being.
This is a setup for burnout. People who believe their identity and personal value depend on the work they produce never rest. After all, a sense of self-worth vacillates in most of us. If we add to that unstable foundation the belief that work is a requirement for self-worth, we will labor ceaselessly to steady our inner world.
And when work goes poorly – as happens in every life at points – emotional and spiritual well-being suffer with it. Then inner pressures push us to set aside everything else – family, friends, spiritual life, even health, in a determined effort to earn self-esteem. Even when work goes well, we feel that we have never done enough.
How can someone who teaches a course a course on personal sustenance and transformation be so unhealed from a compulsion to work, I wonder? No progress to show for years of effort? But then I remember concepts from the course. The goal is not perfection, but rather awareness and a commitment to the journey. The journey has ups and downs.
In down moments we often feel as though we never started. But if we allow ourselves to be “in” those moments by acknowledging our feelings, letting them be and reflecting on their lessons, we are released from them and assisted to move on. The goal is not to “overcome” weakness and hurt, but rather to befriend them, to be taught by them, and in their presence to journey towards grace and joy.
As we recognize our own pain, and accept the truth of our own woundedness, we open possibilities for our limitations to become a resource rather than a liability. Our self-knowledge expands our understanding of others and increases our ability to support them in the difficulties they experience.
So this afternoon I take a deep breath, and think about befriending the tide of ill feeling within. Where do I experience it physically? I wonder. I set aside thought and focus solely on the physical feeling of the knot in my stomach. Where, precisely, is it located? How would I describe its sensation?
As I focus on the physical dimensions alone, my emotional discomfort decreases. Attentiveness to the physical body is a powerful tool for being present in the here and now that opens the way for other kinds of self-care and healing.
I reflect on where this compulsion to work comes from. I think about my parents and their ceaseless labor to feed, clothe, and school seven children of their own, plus several foster boys. I think about the moral burden I carry as a middle class professional residing comfortably on a quiet street in a safe community, with friends across the globe struggling just to survive. I recognize once again the presence within of a guilt-tinged sense of responsibility to use every bit of my privilege well.
I ponder the possibility of divine presence in all this and recall the beloved old song “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”. What does that mean for me here, now? How could I shift myself towards gratitude in the present moment for the unearned gift of simply being alive and aware? I smile at myself, breathe deeply and release the impulse to plunge into a big project at four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. I will call it a day, and rest.
Pain brings us to awareness of unhealed places, and gives opportunity to acknowledge those places. It also pushes us to make room for other things essential to the transformative journey, rest, contemplation, relationships and joy.
The strength for living well and being a healing presence can never come from work and accomplishment alone. It comes rather from the deep and sacred wellsprings of Being itself, a source whose riches cannot be engaged through one conduit alone.
Whenever we devote ourselves narrowly to a single pursuit at the exclusion of others, we diminish our access to the Source of life. We encounter the Source most fully when we honor mystery in many dimensions. We must work, but we must also pray, meditate, make art and music; we must play and love and care for our bodies as temples of the divine.
Tonight I recognize that my inner restlessness reflects more than the disappointments of the day. I am in a time of high stress on every hand, with needs of family, work, community, and friends in endless competition. Struggling to keep up, I have not exercised well this week, nor have I made space for prayer, solitude, or creative activities.
I find shoes and head out for a walk. As my pulse quickens, I feel tension ebbing from my shoulders. The knot in my stomach begins to loosen.
I practice an ancient spiritual discipline as I walk, focusing my mind on one simple thing, re-focusing again and again each time my attention scatters on the winds of anxieties. On this balmy evening I choose the sound of the insects whose song fills the air in an endless symphony to the Creator.
I have used other things in the past to discipline my wayward thoughts – the beautiful pine a quarter mile ahead, a mental image of my spiritual Guide walking by my side, a prayerful phrase. But it is the insects that speak to my soul at this moment and I choose them as the focus of tonight’s meditation. When I return to the house, I get out my dulcimer, a friend of many years whose music reminds me of a world where hope never fades.
One day, one moment of pain, one step in the journey of personal transformation. Am I healed? Transformed? Hardly.
But I have chosen responses that keep me in the journey. These responses make me more aware and more insightful about my place in the larger whole. Being aware of the stream of thoughts and feelings that flow in every waking minute helps me make conscious choices instead of responding automatically without awareness.
Across a span of months, years, and decades, such choices leave an impact. They support a spirit of thoughtfulness, restfulness, and peacefulness that can accompany us anywhere, including into rooms of angry or wounded people. They help to find a pace of living and working and letting go that is sustainable for a lifetime, rather than for a few years of meteoric performance that fade into darkness. These choices bring soul into our work and attune us to guidance from that dimension of being that resides beyond time and space.
For thought and discussion
Reflect on – or better yet, swap stories with a professional colleague about – a time when you experienced personal pain related to your calling that you take as confirmation that a journey of personal transformation is required in order to survive long-term and thrive in your work. What practices, disciplines, or support did you use to cope?
This blog is the second in a series by Ron Kraybill for activists, healers, peacebuilders, and agents of change, on making vocations of healing a spiritual path. To read others in the series, click on the category “Transform the Healer” in the right column of this blogpost. Copyright 2019, Ron Kraybill.
Wow, thank you for sharing. This came at a perfect time.