The one inescapable fact of our humanness happens to be the one thing that we seldom have the courage to talk openly about, and that is coming to terms with loss and how it reverberates through our life—at times like a quiet seismic wave, and at other times, like a torturous crack that fractures to the surface.
The tremors of loss can cause us to pause and possibly ache for what once was, but loss can also shudder us awake making us lose our bearings as we grasp for the stability that’s been pulled out from under us. Any degree of loss coincides with feelings of disorientation, and self-questioning; however, often the most disquieting aspect is learning to endure the pain that comes with the loss. It’s almost instinctual that we push away from this pain by denying it space in our lives, or by avoiding it entirely at any cost—even through defensive self-sabotaging behavior.
Happiness has become a multi-billion dollar industry, and it is most likely a by-product of our post-modern upbringing, which leads us to believe it’s our inalienable right to be cushioned against discomfort and immune to soul-deflating loss. Compounding this fallacy that we can somehow sidestep the emotional scarring of loss in our life, is the naïve belief that personal growth takes the path of a steady upward trajectory. When we subscribe to this belief, any setback has the ability to completely derail us, and thereby deflate any resiliency reserves we may have at our disposal.
But is there a better way? Are we resigned to having to sit back and helplessly witness battles with addiction, mental health struggles, and broken relationships lying scattered before us because of our unwillingness to directly confront the loss and trauma that echoes below the surface in so many lives? Is it foolhardy to believe that what we intuitively desire to run away from what may in fact be our greatest teacher? Are setbacks really just awakenings—pathways to be traversed to greater understanding? If this is indeed the case, why do we as a society continue to counsel friends and family struggling through a hard time by telling them to “get over it”, “put it behind you”, and “move on”?
The American author and Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, offers some valuable insights into what lies at the core of this perennial human struggle to recoil in the midst of discomfort, pain, and loss. “In life, we think the that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem. The real truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together for a time, then they fall back apart. Then they come together and fall apart again. It’s just like that.”
When I launched Breathe Through This just over a year ago, my guiding principle was to learn to “Live a Bigger Life” by fearlessly digging into those darker corners of my life I’m most afraid to confront. What began as a therapeutic writing exercise has gradually grown into an open dialogue that appears to resonate with many of the more than 200,000 readers/subscribers to my blog. I’ve written candidly about what sobriety “really” looks like, the challenges associated with mental health issues in my past and present, and my coming to terms with the childhood sexual abuse I had buried deep inside for most of my life.
What generates the most response from readers are my posts about how all these issues impact my relationship with my wife, and how this process has challenged, stretched, and enriched our relationship. Having said that, lately I have not been cultivating a “bigger life”—In fact, I’ve been actively pushing away the discomfort I once delicately moved towards. By closing myself off from these feelings of loss and discomfort, I was also not allowing the space for joy, love, and support to enter where it was desperately needed.
The words we choose can have such power over us, and they offer a window into what sits in our heart or eats at our soul. Words have had such meaning and alchemy in my life too. They govern my life when I say I’m a “recovering” addict, not a “recovered” addict. This was the case even last year, when I began to see myself as “survivor” of childhood sexual abuse, rather than as a “victim”. Yesterday, as I sat with my wife, once again I searched inside for the words to attach to the pain and loss that was beginning to consume me. I can’t explain why my wife, the one person who has never wavered in her support of me, was the person I had the hardest time saying these words to. For the first time, I found the courage and the words to say to her, “I was raped when I was 12 years old.” Simply speaking those words out loud helped to dispel some of their power over me. What I thought was my “breakthrough” last year turns out to have been a therapeutic appetizer for the deep-dive work I’m about to begin. I should also add that every fear that I harbored about what my wife might say, how she would react, and what this could do to our relationship, never materialized. Even though I felt incapable of looking her in the eye, she reached out and held my hand, and at that moment, I knew I didn’t have the answers, but I knew that everything would be ok.
I guess this is what Pema Chödrön was referring to when she said: “Let the hard things in life break you. Let them affect you. Let them change you. Let those hard moments inform you. Let this pain be your teacher. The experiences of your life are trying to tell you something about yourself. Don’t cop out on that. Don’t run away and hide under your covers. Lean into it.”