Feeling Pain for the Last Time


“Who dares to suggest this pain could be felt for the last time?  What an audacious assertion.  Maybe your pain.  Not my pain.   Not with what I have been through.”

It’s a radical idea, bidding adieu to pains that have followed us through life.  Many of us learn empirically that ignoring them doesn’t really make them go away.  Some of us have grown accustomed to our pains, and perhaps, have let them seep into our identity, making them difficult to release.  How many of us have honestly tried confronting our pain, though?  Looking deep into our pains—staring down our demons—mines hope for healing.

To be successful, we must be thorough.  There are no shortcuts.  There is no advantage to wallowing, either.   If it’s a feeling you have been repressing, allow yourself to experience the feeling.  Is it as bad as you feared?  Is it worse?  Stay with the feeling and find out.  Conversely, maybe the feeling is extremely familiar, a feeling that you have slid into repeatedly through life without ever realizing its origin.  What kinds of situations lead you to this same old chestnut?  What connects these situations?  Is there an underlying belief that gives way to this feeling?  When examined intellectually, does the magnitude of pain you have experienced measure to the magnitude of its origin?  Allow yourself to be fully present with the pain until you feel a small emptiness where the pain was.  Pain will do this.  It will empty you.

Although arduous, there is something very important to remember when journeying through painful remembrances.  If you are open to change, you can feel this particular
pain for the last time.  You can be healed.

Search yourself.  Is there more pain you want to feel for the last time?  Turn over every rock and search it out.  If pain is lying under there, give it as much feeling as it is due.  Be reflective about how this pain has affected you and if you have given it more than its due.  Know that when you are healed, you will reflect on this matter as a fact, devoid of raw emotion.  The reason you are feeling it for the last time is that you are leaving this place, propelled to a new place and a new way of being.

Dutch priest and revered writer on the spiritual life Henri Nouwen offers, “When we become aware that we do not have to escape our pains, but that we can mobilize them into a common search for life, those very pains are transformed from expressions of despair into signs of hope. “  When we are able to recognize our expressions of despair in this broken place as a sign of hope that a healed destination awaits us, we have fuel for the journey.

Join the conversation.  Do you believe a pain long buried can be healed for all time?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Visualization Technique for Using Pain as Fuel

Everyone  experiences emotional pain, but it’s the wise ones who know how to harness it and to put it to work to drive positive changes.  We feel pain when we’re caught in particular  conditions at discrete times.  If we can conceive of different conditions, then we can put the pain to work for us.  Visualizing the change we desire, however commonplace, is a big help.

Here is a way to do it.  When you identify the patterns that have dragged you down, away from who you want to be, or away from God, make note of the other choices you might have made.  If you had known more, if you had had more self-control, if you had been free from coercion, if you had only realized… what might you have been able to choose?  Pick the best choice, and ask yourself what character traits are
required to choose them.  Construct a scenario that places you in its center with those characteristics.  That’s your destination.

Here’s an example.  Someone leaving an abusive relationship confronts fear of retribution, shame for having accepted the abuse for a time, guilt for not preventing danger to self and perhaps to children, and, poignantly, grief for the relationship that was desired but never was.  She fears independence because her abuser has told her she can’t make it on her own so many times she believes it.  For that abuse survivor, the destination might look like sitting in the living room of her own apartment where her children are relaxing comfortably regaling each other with funny stories.  They are safe, free to be themselves, and at peace with one another.  When she confronts an obstacle, she can taste the fuel and level her sights with determination on that living room.

It’s wise to maintain some curiosity and flexibility about the destination.  Abraham’s story of setting off on a journey with no clear vision of his destination speaks to recovery seekers, newlyweds, teenagers and anyone else embarking on radical life change.  You don’t know exactly how things will unfold.  It’s ok to be unsure whether you’re focused on the best possible destination.  The important thing is setting out—lech lecha, go fourth Do your best to construct a provisional destination, and revise it as mercy and truth are revealed.

Dallas Willard in Spirit of the Disciplines offers another visualization.  “The old leaf automatically falls from the branch as the new leaf emerges.”  Define the old leaf, the one that needs to fall.  Visualize the new leaf, that which is budding.  It’s hard to “Just say no” to one thing without saying “Yes!” to something better.  When I realize God’s imagination for me is better than mine for myself, I can relinquish my silly notions that I know best.  Whether those notions have led me to complete devastation or to a dull ache of emptiness (“There’s got to be more”), relinquishing them will free my imagination for the destination God would have for me.

Our culture conditions us to remedy pain quickly, so we must resist the impulse to avoid or to medicate it.  If we can think about how badly it hurts here and how much we
want to be there, pain becomes our rocket fuel.  Don’t avoid it and don’t waste one
ounce of it.  Use it all to reach the destination.

Join the conversation.  What visualization techniques have helped you process pain?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Pain: Fuel for the Journey

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves offers a sobering choice:  a broken heart or an irredeemable one.  Fortunately for those inclined towards the former, a broken heart’s byproduct, pain, is extraordinarily useful.  The pain we encounter is not some kind of punishment for wrongdoing.  Pain is not something that God exacts or something from which God could choose to spare us.  Rather, it is an extraordinarily useful gift that arrives amid suffering.   How is pain useful?

First, it can serve as a warning.  Martin Smith in Reconciliation offers, “God refuses to soften or neutralize the painful effects of sin because we need the pain to warn us the acts are destructive of life.”

Second, it can serve as a teacher.  Painful consequences can steer us towards better choices.  Toddlers learn disobedience has consequences.  Though it pains parents to see children suffer the consequences of their bad choices, good parents don’t deprive their children of this learning essential to survival.  Where is God in our pain?  Like the parent, teaching, hoping, loving, infinitely sensitive and compassionate.

Third, it can serve as an impetus.  Few people seek radical life-changing transformation when they are in a comfortable rut.  It’s when the fruitless rut becomes uncomfortable that we open ourselves to another way.  The pain encountered when we look inward for where we have veered off course is the seed of the new way.  If tended to, the seed can grow into a magnificently fruitful tree.

Most compelling to me, pain is fuel.  Japanese poet, author and social activist Kenji Miyazawa (1896 –1933) famously said we must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.  Picking something specific to visualize is going to help in the heat of painful moments.  It could be coal that powers a locomotive you ride to another place or liquid hydrogen in a rocket that blasts you the heck out of here.  Be creative and be visceral.  What does jet fuel feel like? Does it give you a metallic taste in your mouth? Do you smell it?  Evoke all your senses when pain arises, and level your eyes with determination on the destination.

Destination is the key.  At first it may suffice simply to cry, “Beam me up, Scotty,” and evacuate.  Many times I have cried, “My eyes are ever towards the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net.”  (Psalm 25:15)  Eventually, though, what we’re propelled from only gets us so far.  We have to give vision to what we’re propelled towards.

Join the conversation.  How has having a clear vision of your destination helped you work through painful but necessary life changes?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Charting a Course: Remembering

Studies on American consumerism and happiness reveal money can buy happiness if you spend it right.  The happiness we gain from buying stuff is short lived, though.  No sooner have we acquired stuff than our attention turns to new stuff.  By contrast, spending on experience, a reunion or a special trip, for example, has a longer lasting effect because we can relive the experience and feel happy all over again.  The converse is also true.  Remembering a painful experience hurts.  Recalling where we have been, however, is essential to charting the course to our destination.  We’re liable to repeat the past if we fail to examine it.

Navigating painful memories is easier when we don’t do it alone.  “Con dos, no peso un
muerto.”  My friend Marja is a chef and learned this wonderful expression from her grateful line cook when she stood in for an absent prep assistant one day.  It means,
“With two, even death isn’t heavy.”  Scripture offers companions.

Spend some time in Isaiah 53.  Isaiah here foretells of one to whom the Lord is revealed but who goes without any form of majesty.  He endures astonishing rejection and injustice.  While Jews see a suffering servant representative of the house of Israel in this prophesy, Christians see Jesus (an interpretation that does not agree with the context of the preceding songs of Isaiah, by the way, but is suggested in the gospel of Luke nonetheless).  Both interpretations find a fellow sufferer.  The injustice borne
by Jews through history may put one’s own suffering into sharp relief.  If we can appreciate the juxtaposition of extremes that the person of Jesus embodied—condemned by the ones he came to save, champion of justice treated unjustly—we find someone well acquainted with pain.

The Psalter is a fantastic companion for walking through painful memories.  This book of poetry offers words to capture the full range of human emotion and experience.  You will have no difficulty finding verses that voice your ill-will for the one who wronged you, for example.  My personal favorite is Psalm 63.  Here is the ending:

9 But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth;
10 they shall be given over to the power of the sword,
they shall be food for jackals.
11 But the king shall rejoice in God; all who swear by him shall exult,
for the mouths of liars will be stopped.

Visualizing a group of jackals sitting around, gnawing on a pile of my tormentor’s bones bearing little teeth marks was a salve to my wounds.  When you find a Psalm that gives voice to your emotion, pray it with vigor.  The honest exhortation to God will give you some release.

Some Christian faith traditions embrace remembrance of Mary, mother of Jesus, as a
companion.  As one chosen to carry an inconceivably great mission, she knew fear.  As a low born unwed pregnant teenager, she knew disgrace and the humiliation of being misunderstood.  As a merciful and courageous companion to her son in his suffering, she knew grief.  The suffering interlaced with blessing that Mary represents is captured beautifully in the prayer we know as the Hail Mary.  This prayer can bring the interlacing of our own blessing and suffering to mind.

Join the conversation.  How has confronting painful memories brought clarity to your destination?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Charting a Course: Sources of Hope

Many years ago, a friend’s beloved black lab was diagnosed with cancer.  It was a particular kind of cancer that was proven to be treatable in dogs, but the treatment had severe side-effects.  Doctors can tell human patients, “There’s good news and bad news.  The bad news is it will feel like this treatment is killing you.  The good news is it will actually save your life instead.”  You can’t communicate that to dogs, though.  Dogs receiving treatment gave up on life and died in distress in such great numbers that veterinary best practice evolved to making dogs comfortable as long as possible before euthanizing.  Dogs couldn’t bear the journey without some concept of the destination.  They couldn’t endure without hope.

The destination can be a source of hope for us, too.  When we have an idea of where our life is heading, we can put obstacles and hardships into perspective and persevere.
The destination also gives us hope when we look inward to determine the course correction we need.  Looking inward is difficult.  Confronting the fact that we veered off course can be painful, and the pain can arise in a number of ways.  Here are three of them.

Consequences:  Incarceration, civil damages, foreclosure, loss of relationship, health, job, or life…some consequences are exquisitely painful.  So is genuine grief for years one can’t get back and opportunities that won’t come again.  Someone who spent her childbearing years in an unfruitful relationship might grieve the years gone by.  She
might morn the lost opportunity to put a little sock on a little foot every morning or to teach someone how to eat an apple.  Facing what is lost is one way we encounter pain.

Compassion:  The earnest seeker will, at some point, stop defending himself from the
truth.  In an effort to rationalize our actions to ourselves, we erect barriers to truth.  We hold our victims culpable in some way for our actions against them.  When we release ourselves from the self-defense pretense, we have an unobstructed view to the pain we caused others.  Feeling their pain, compassion, is a natural response to confronting this truth.

God’s pain:  Imagine being in a relationship in which you’re ignored.  Your continual demonstration of love and support is overlooked or taken for granted.  Your intervening help saves the day over and over, but your partner acts as if she had it under control all along and you didn’t have anything to do it.  You work hard to dream up the perfect gift and are excited to give it, but it is left unopened, not even important enough for her to bother unwrapping.  What kind of relationship is that?  It is how I treat God.

God, in his infinite compassion to all, experiences all the pain—the pain someone caused me, the pain I caused someone else, the compassion I feel for the one I hurt.  Perhaps most significant is what God feels when we fail to hold up our end of the relationship with him.  When we come into a full realization of the impact our choices have on our relationship with God, we grow into compassion, reciprocal compassion, for God.  This is a special kind of pain.  To feel the pain God feels over you is to grasp just how much he loves you.  It is a big step into intimacy with God, and it is our greatest source of hope.

Join the conversation.  What hope sustained your honest look inward?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Is it time for a course correction? How do you know?

I’m a sailor, and I am dating myself here, but I remember the days before GPS was ubiquitous and one actually had to chart a course.  When cruising someplace where we anchored at night, every morning we would make coffee, get out the charts, pinpoint where we were based on the geography of the shore, and decide where we were going to sail that day.  A handy clear plastic sliding parallel tool made it a simple matter to determine the compass heading that would take us there.  Any sailor who has tried to steer to an exact compass heading manually, however, knows that actually doing it is more difficult.  The task is trickier still in ocean crossing because determining one’s exact position involves greater discernment, and a small heading error can make a big difference over a long distance.

It strikes me that navigating our lives is kind of like that.  Sometimes we are close to shore and we know exactly where we are.  Sometimes we don’t even need to read our compass heading because the destination is within sight.  Other times it feels as though we haven’t seen land for days, and although we have a general idea of where we are, we’re not exactly sure.  Taking stock of where we are is critical.  A heading that is just a few degrees off can put us hundreds of miles away from our intended destination if we sail merrily along without periodically pausing to assess our position and direction.

Brian McLaren offers a spiritual exercise to this effect in his book, Finding Our Way Again.  He suggests:

Think about who you were yesterday in terms of character, compared to who you are today. How would you fill in these blanks: “Today I’m more _____ and less ____ than
yesterday”? Do the same regarding a year ago and ten years ago.

He then asks:

What will your character be like in ten years, given your current trajectory?

This was a useful and provocative exercise for me personally, but it begs the bigger question:  Where do you want to go?  This is the question for Elul.  Maybe we haven’t figured out our life’s destination, but we can contemplate our destination for the year ahead and take stock.  At the risk of torturing the metaphor, sailing the course is difficult and corrections can offset our mistakes.  Further, sometimes life events alter our destination.  If I’m sailing for Gibraltar and a hurricane pops up in my path, I might be wise to course correct to Florida.  It pays to stay alert in hurricane season!  At times my course may need only a few degrees of adjustment, and at times it may need a total turn-around.  But how does one ever know if one doesn’t stop to look?

Join the conversation. What inspires you to take a compass reading on your life path?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.   Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

9/11: Reflections and Projections

Every time I turn on the radio or read newspaper I hear or see moving testimonials from those whose lives were dramatically altered by the events of 9/11/01.  I find these reflections to be fitting tributes, but I also wonder about where we go from here.  In particular, I ponder how fear is shaping us.

I worked in telecom network engineering for a number of years, and the marketing professionals whose job it was to define the value proposition of engineering solutions were always crafting FUD—fear, uncertainty and doubt.  It was not enough to create a case so compelling it inspired belief that one solution was clearly best.  One also had to plant FUD concerning doing nothing or alternative solutions.  Fear, marketing professionals knew, was a more powerful fuel for action than faith.

US policy makers were well versed in the power of FUD in the aftermath of 9/11.  Remember Homeland Security’s urging to have an emergency kit but demurring as to what it should contain?  Textbook FUD.  I may take heat for saying it, but I know road warriors who feel the TSA is a form of government terrorism against the travelling public.  Every trip starts with the inescapable reminder that danger, real or imagined, is present.

I was selected for special security screening once when travelling alone with my daughter.  She was three years old and it succeeded in terrifying her.  She was told to sit in a chair amid a sea of strangers hurrying to collect their things and rushing past while I was pulled aside for the search.  She was afraid to do as she was told, but reluctantly she did, and she sat on the edge of her chair anxiously trying to see what was happening to me.  When it was over, she implored me to tell her what they were looking for or what bad thing I had done.  She was just too young to comprehend random sampling.  To her mind, if they were searching me there was a reason they picked ME.  That confused her as much as being separated from me terrified her.  She had her turn three years later when at six years old she travelled with a 12-year old cousin to visit their grandparents.  I escorted them through airport security and was left untouched while the young girls were patted down.  Again, she was frightened
and perhaps a bit indignant as well.  (I could be projecting the indignation part.)

I also ponder the long-term impact of security screening required for all students, teachers and other workers on public school campuses in my home town.  I am in no way saying there is any place for weapons on planes or campuses or that authorities should not take precautions to prevent their use, but I do wonder about the message we are sending our youth.  Do they hear, “You are safe,” or “Danger is present?”  Do they hear, “You are dangerous so we have to screen YOU?”

More than that, I wonder about our trajectory as a nation.  If our pre-9/11 psyche is one
point, and where we are now is another point defining a line, then where will another
10 years on that line put us?

Join the conversation.  In 10 years will we be a nation guided by faith in ourselves or fear of ourselves?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

An Irresistable Invitation

Elul stirs mixed feelings for me.  The last month before the Jewish New Year and High Holy Days is a time for reflection and preparation.  It’s a time when Jews take stock of their actions over the past year and decide what course corrections they need to turn back to God to live more just, loving and kind lives in the year ahead.  It is a magnificent invitation.  Whereas Yom Kippur sees “the closing of the gates,” during Elul, the gates are wide open for all who take the necessary steps to walk through them.  With such a magnanimous and loving invitation, why do we pause at the threshold or procrastinate taking those steps?

Several traditions ponder this human reticence.  There’s a Sufi story about Mullah Nasruddin searching for the key to his house.  He looks frantically outside under the lamp post and his neighbors come to help him.  After hours of searching, one asks where he was when he lost the key.  Nasruddin replies he lost it in his house.  “Why are you looking outside?” asks the neighbor.  “Because the light is better out here under the lamp.”

A friend who is in recovery from addiction described approaching the Fourth Step—searching and fearless moral inventory—in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous in much the same way.  When he got to the Fourth Step, he found his Twelve Step guide to be woefully lacking in helpful information for completing the step.  He bought a second guide and worked diligently through the first three steps but again found insufficient direction on the Fourth Step.  He bought a third guide and became increasingly frustrated that the book was short on answers.  At that point, he came to see that, like Nasruddin, the answers he needed could never come from an external
light but could only come from looking within.

Several Christian traditions observe preparatory and penitential seasons, namely Advent preceding Christmas and more especially Lent preceding Easter, during which introspection and confession are encouraged.  Although Catholics receive more exposure to this practice than other Christians, as many as 75 percent of US
report they never attend confession, or do so less than once a year.

Several traditions teach the only thing that can possibly stand in the way of God’s love for us is ourselves.  When we make ourselves vulnerable in the act of honest introspection, we are rewarded with intimacy with God and with self.  Moreover, when we expose ourselves to God’s power, he can help us make the very changes we seek.

Join the conversation.  In the face of an irresistible invitation, why do we resist taking an
honest look inward?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.   Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Conditions for Forgiveness

The Jewish tradition has three words for sin:  Chet translates literally to missing the mark.  Avon means desire, and pesha means rebellion.  We all miss the mark or fall short of our good intentions.  We each have free will, and at times, following our desires leads to rebelling against God’s will.  What does God do when that happens?  Different traditions answer that question differently.

Jewish theology describes God’s nature in terms of polar opposites that are simultaneously true.  God cares about justice and holds individuals and groups of people responsible for their actions.  God is also merciful to sinners who turn to him and change their ways.  Jews believe God is merciful and forgives when they take certain steps that include:

  • Tzedakah: helping those in need for the sake of fairness
  • Teshuvah: confessing, making amends to and getting forgiveness from those harmed, and, above all, stopping the wrongdoing
  • T’fila: prayer

The Jewish prayers of confession, called the vidui, include extending forgiveness to those who have harmed us.  The Jewish tradition encourages forgiveness but does not require it if the offender has not completed teshuvah.

Islam shares some similarities with Jewish teaching in the steps for receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness:

  • Confessing the offense to those harmed and to God
  • Making amends to and asking forgiveness from those harmed
  • Tauba: feeling remorse and committing to stop wrongdoing
  • Istighfar: asking God for forgiveness

Whereas Jewish forgiveness rests on evidence—e.g. securing the victim’s forgiveness rather than asking, stopping wrongdoing rather than intending to stop—in Islam, God’s forgiveness rests on sincerity.  Forgiving others, even enemies, is a virtue the prophet Muhammad taught by his words and his living example.  While God loves and rewards extending forgiveness to others, it is not a requirement if all the other conditions are

The Christian tradition departs rather significantly from both these traditions with only one condition for receiving God’s forgiveness:

  • Forgiving the offenses of others, whether they deserve it or not

New Testament scripture repeatedly makes clear that God extends forgiveness under no other terms.  The Christian tradition does include a practice of confession of sins to God, but since Christians believe Jesus’ death atones for all sins for all time, Christians are drawn to confession to reconcile their relationship with God, to grow closer to him, to bring him joy and to receive his help to change rather than for forgiveness alone.

Another significant difference between Christian beliefs and beliefs shared by the
Jewish and Muslim traditions concerns the victim’s exclusive power to forgive.  In the latter two, God only forgives offenses against God, and offenses against man must be amended and forgiven among men as a condition for God’s forgiveness.  Although the Christian tradition does not require making amends and seeking forgiveness for harm done, the process of Christian reconciliation with God does require forgiving others, so it has a reconciling effect among men nonetheless.

Join the conversation.  What do you think about these different conditions for God’s

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.