Obstacles to Intimacy: Fear of Pain

It takes a certain fortitude to bring our full attention to inner inventory.  A tendency to avoid introspection or to cut the search short whenever we embark on it could indicate a fear within us asking to be addressed.

One possibility is fear of pain.  Looking honestly at where we fell short and feeling compassion for people we harmed can be painful.  Avoidance and denial can elude pain in the short term.  We pack painful memories into moving boxes, seal them with duct tape and chunk them into the attics of our psyches.  There they stay.  They might not interfere with day-to-day matters, but they don’t go away, either.  We can’t move on without dealing with them somehow.  We can lug them with us like dead weight or lighten our loads by unpacking them, deciding what needs to be discarded or given away, and choosing only those things of value for our journeys.

It’s often said fear of a thing is worse than the thing itself, and I have found that to be true with unpacking painful memories in introspection.  It’s no accident that Twelve Step programs call for fearlessness in the Fourth Step moral inventory.  Honest introspection is the most fearsome part of the practice of confession.  It helps to remember that the pain we fear can be extremely useful.  When we embrace it, it saves us from treading the same ground again.  When gathered up, it fuels the journey from the place where you were wounded to a place of healing and newness of life.

If you find yourself lingering at the threshold of introspection, you may need a shot of courage.  Ask God for it.  When we ask for God’s help navigating obstacles, we tend to be modest.  There are several reasons we ask for too little.  One is we miss the forest for the trees.  Our fixation on an immediate need or desire blinds us to a deeper trait that leads us repeatedly into distress.  Or we hesitate to ask for what we need because we don’t want to seem too greedy or to take more than our share of God’s mercy.  We ask for too little also because don’t really believe God can or will give what we ask, and doubting God seems safer than trusting him, being vulnerable, or being wrong.  We hedge.

Despite our modesty, scripture indicates nothing delights God more than answering the prayers of those who earnestly seek him.  God’s mercy is boundless.  Your share is not apportioned.  Consider whether you want to be driven by fear or something else.  Stephen Hawking put forward radical ideas about physics.  He wasn’t afraid to be wrong.  If he had been, black hole radiation would not have been discovered.  He was too curious to be held back by fear.  Let curiosity about what God can do in your life lead you forward.  Maybe these verses and breathing prayer will bring you courage for the first step.

7Remember not the sins of my youth, or my transgressions; according to thy
steadfast love remember me, for thy goodness’ sake, O Lord!
15My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net. (Ps 25)

Inhale: curiosity
Exhale: fear

Join the conversation.  Is there anything in your attic that you need to give away?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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When Remembering Hurts: Part 3

There are memories, and then there are consequences.  Recognizing that we have veered off course or missed the mark on something we tried to accomplish can be discomfiting.  Consequences – incarceration, legal action, foreclosure—can be excruciatingly painful.  So is facing what has been irretrievably lost.  It’s natural to feel grief concerning the loss of a relationship, an opportunity, a job, another’s trust in you, your trust in another, years gone by, money spent foolishly, pleasures given up, and, of course, the loss of life itself in death.

When mired in grief over the consequences of our actions, we can take some comfort in knowing that grief is not a permanent state but a journey towards something else.  The destination—acceptance—can give us hope.  When we have an idea of where our life is heading, we can put obstacles and hardships into perspective and persevere.  We can examine past choices, and while regret for them may be heartrending, we can look forward with hope that they won’t be repeated.

The honest 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 consequence of confronting this truth.

God, in his infinite compassion to all, is present to all the pain—the pain someone caused me, the pain I caused someone else, and the compassion I feel for the one I hurt. Perhaps most heartbreaking is God’s faithful and unwavering presence to us even when we fail to hold up our end of the relationship with him.

Imagine how it feels to be in a relationship in which you’re ignored.  Your continual shows of love and support are 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.

When we own up to all the ways we turned our back on the one who never stops seeking us, we grow into compassion, reciprocal compassion, for God.  This compassion bears an exquisite 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 perhaps our greatest source of hope.

Join the conversation.  What becomes possible when you release yourself from the self-defense pretense?

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

When Remembering Hurts: Part 1

Studies on American consumerism and happiness reveal the happiness we gain from buying stuff is short lived.  No sooner have we acquired stuff than our attention turns to new stuff.  By contrast, spending on experience–a gathering of friends or an act of kindness–has a longer lasting effect because we can remember the experience and feel happy all over again.

The converse is also true.  Remembering can hurt.  Shining a flashlight on ourselves and seeing the wrong turns we have made can be painful.  Painful aspects of introspection arise from remembering upsetting events, facing the consequences of our choices, and allowing ourselves to experience compassion for those who were hurt.  If you find yourself approaching introspection with some foreboding for any of these reasons, don’t shoulder it alone.  Reach for hope in companions.

“Con dos, no peso un muerto,” is a Spanish expression that 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 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—champion of justice treated unjustly, condemned by those he came to save, son of all-powerful God born powerless—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.  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 with little teeth marks in them was a salve to my wounds during a painful time.  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.

Join the conversation.  Have you found spiritual companions in unlikely places?

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.