Butterfly, Caterpillar, or Dementor…which are you?

This week I found myself thanking God for my pain. I found myself thanking him for the suffering I have lived through. I found my heart overflowing with gratitude that he didn’t leave me in my comfort and mediocrity, thankful that he had pulled me into the deep and submerged me in a sea of suffering.

I’m not a masochist or anything. I hate pain just as much as the next person, but I have learned something about pain.metamorphosis-012

It’s our cocoon.

It is the key ingredient in our metamorphosis.

It is through pain that we emerge either in our splendor or…in a crippled and warped version of ourselves.

And the difference is all in our attitude.

One of my friends always throws a big halloween party, and I was excited to go this year as a bunch of my old gang, many who I hadn’t seen in over a year, were going to be there.

One of the things I hadn’t thought through was the fact that, the intervening year had been one of the hardest and most humiliating of my life. And of course, every single one of them was going to ask me how I was doing.

That was a loaded question.

How was I doing?

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not one to just answer with the lame (and typically untrue) “fine.” One of my core beliefs is living with my life wide open. I don’t mean emotionally vomiting all over people (be honest, you just had someone’s face or name flash though your mind. We all have that one person). I mean being authentic and real.  Admitting to my struggles and open with my failures. No photoshopping my life to make it look better than it is. Just being me, in all my imperfection.

So if I was going to answer how I was doing and be real, I needed to do some real reflection. How was I really?

With a little bit of surprise, and a feeling of intense gratitude, I realized I was good, really good.

Wow.

Last year at this time, I was still feeling the ache (and sometimes sharp agonizing pains) of betrayal. I was still fighting the battle of humiliation. I was still battling (sometimes hourly) the fear of how I was going to make it as a single mother in an expensive city with zero child support.

Last year was a battle in faith. It was a battle in truth. And it was a battle of trust.

I put my stake in the ground, my hands up in surrender, and I threw myself in the arms of my savior.

Nothing made sense. Nothing was what I had planned. I didn’t know how tomorrow could possibly work.

But I knew my God. And I trusted that He had a plan.

god in the stormNot despite the devastation I was experiencing, but through it.

There were times I begged God to take the pain away. Times when I thought this life was just too hard. Times when the very idea of living made me feel weary.

But, beneath those times, and far deeper, was my knowledge, my unshakeable faith that, if I let him, the work He would do in me would be well worth the pain. All I needed to do was hold on. And hold to him with everything I was worth.

And here, only a year later, I realized that I had come full circle.

His promise to comfort was filled. His promise to heal was answered. His promise to provide was fulfilled.

And I found myself filled with gratitude for my suffering.

Because here I stand, not just a survivor, but an overcomer. Stronger than I ever imagined. Independent. More sure of who I am and whose I am than ever before. And it never would have happened if He hadn’t led me through the fire.

hidden strengthMany people have often told me how strong I am. But, I don’t think that my strength is exceptional. It’s just that suffering and heartache have burned away my weakness and revealed what was already there–I just didn’t know it.

I’m not stronger. I just let pain do it’s work.

See, growth is often not about growing, as much as it is about chiseling away the excess and revealing what is already there, buried beneath the surface.

The Bible calls it the refiner’s fire, burning away the dross.

And we have so very much dross.

We tend to see the fire as an attack from the enemy, or an injustice, or the unfairness of fate, but I believe that God is not just in the good parts of my life, but also in the storms, the disasters, and the darkest nights of our soul. They are a holy fire, a gift, yes a gift, and an answer to our prayers to be more like Him.

So many times, when I tell someone about Serena and what I lived through with her loss, they say they could never have done that, they never could have survived such a loss. But here’s the thing, I would have said the same thing if I hadn’t been forced to live it.

We simply don’t know what we’re capable of until we’re forced to it. Until we’re stretched and pulled and thrown into the fire we just don’t know what we’re capable of. Only then do we find out just how strong we really are.

If I have learned anything from this crazy, and heart-wrenching journey called life, it is this: Though our instinct is to run from pain, we should meet it with our arms open wide and embrace it, knowing that, if we let it, transformation is on the other side.

If we fight it, if we run, or if we hide, pain warps and it cripples, but when embraced, we are re-made.

The thing about pain is, it catches us all. There is no escaping it. It is part of the human experience.

No one gets to stay a caterpillar.

The decision we each have to make it who we want to be on the other side of it.

dementorThere are no short cuts when it comes to pain. There is no getting around it. Not tunneling under it. No hiding from it.

There is only getting through it.

When we hide from our pain, ignore it, or when we allow it to consume us, it turns us into something ugly. It is a poison that steals and maims.

And these people never emerge as who they were intended to be.

In truth, these people tend to become inflicters of pain. In their brokenness, they leave pain in their wake. They suck life from those around them, a real-life dementor.

 

But here’s the thing, it’s totally up to you.

You are stronger than you know. Are you willing to find out how strong?

You are capable of more than you ever believed. Will you dare to find out just what you can do?

And you are more amazing, more beautiful, than you can imagine. Are you willing to be transformed?

I won’t lie to you. It won’t be easy.

But it’s worth it. You can trust Him. He’s got you, and He’s got this.

 

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A Letter to my Students

child hospitalAs a teacher, I am continually exposed to the suffering of others. This year has been particularly bad. I hear of these kids struggling with real-life, grown up suffering well before they should be. I hear of their fights with cancer and cystic fibrosis and diabetes. I hear of broken families and death. I hear of rape. I hear of abuse. I hear of suicide. I hear the pain in the words they write, the things they share, and I see it in their eyes. They are too young for such pain. Childhood should not be shadowed by its presence. I wish I could take it away, make it better, do something. But I cannot take it away, and I can’t really make it better, though maybe by simply listening I do make it just a little bit better, because in listening, they know that they are not alone.

Dedicated-to-the-rape-victim--28502This morning as I was driving into work I was thinking of one of my students and what she has gone through. I see the effects of the trauma she experienced playing out on a daily basis. She is a sweet girl. A good girl. She did not deserve what happened to her, but we seldom do, do we?

I was thinking of what I would say to her if I could. What wisdom have I gained on my own road of suffering? What pearls of wisdom could I pass on?

I thought of my journey, my own pain. I remembered the heartache. I remembered my idealism shattering. I felt the echoes of the soul crushing agony and how my journey of childhood, naivity, came to a bone crushing halt as I found myself thrust in to the heartbreaking world of realism.

I reflected on the story we’re currently reading in my classes, Annie Dillard’s “The Deer at Providencia.” Most of my fellow teachers hate teaching this story. It’s not an enjoyable story, but I find that I love teaching it. I love it for its realism, for the lessons it has to share. And I know those lessons to be true, and I am glad that I get the chance to share that wisdom with my students. Those are the messages I would pass on.

suffering1We all, when suffering comes our way, ask why. Why me? Why God do you hate me? What have I done that you turn your face from me?

We feel alone in our suffering. But we are not alone.

There is very little that is guaranteed in this life, but one thing that is is the reality that you will suffer. Life itself cannot exist without suffering. For our continued existence, something must die. Even if you are a vegetarian or even a vegan, your life is sustained by the ending of something else. It is the cycle of life.

When that suffering comes, we must remember that, though we feel alone in our suffering, though we feel like no one has suffered like we suffer, we are not, in actuality, alone. The person sitting next to us on the bus has suffered. The woman in the car next to you at the stop light has suffered. That friend from high school who seems to have the perfect life on Facebook has suffered. We might not look like we have suffered to an unknowing eye, but don’t doubt it, not for a moment, we have suffered.

It’s not like we wear a badge that says “Yes, I have had my fill of suffering.” We don’t have bumper stickers to announce it to the world, and most of us don’t splash it all over social media. But we have suffered. We all have. You are not alone.

angryThe next thing that I think I would want to tell my student is to allow herself to feel the raw emotions. Feel the anger, the rage, the bitterness. Allow yourself to acknowledge the feelings of wrongness. It was not fair. It should not have happened. It was wrong. Life shouldn’t be this way. Those feelings are there, and they need to be acknowledged. We cannot ignore them, push them down, and pretend that they are not there. It’s only in acknowledging them, embracing them, that we can begin to let them go.

I remember after Serena died I had a hard time seeing couples with a little baby. I felt a surge of anger and bitterness. Why was their child allowed to live when my darling girl had to die? Why were they allowed their blissful parenthood when mine was shadowed with pain? Why, in this world of healthy babies, was mine marked to die?

It did not make me less of a person to feel this way. It did not make me a bad person or less of a Christian. I wrestled with my feelings. I howled at the sky. I cursed God.

stormBut the thunder storm quieted to a downpour, and the downpour dimished to a rain, and the rain faded to an intermittent shower which gave way to gray skies . . . and finally . . . I found myself in a place of acceptance.

Eventually I stopped asking “Why me” and I began asking, “Why not me?” In this world of suffering, why should I have been given a free pass?

Let yourself feel what you feel so that you can come to a place of acceptance. Those demons need to be acknowledged, confronted and wrestled with. They won’t go away just because you ignore them; they will just keep rearing their heads and poisoning your life until they are dealt with.

Acceptance. That sounds sort of trite. Optimistic. As if I am giving my approval to what has happened, saying it was somehow right or good.

Let me be clear. I will never give my approval to these horrendous moments of suffering. I will never say it’s okay. I will not try to say that the pain is outweighed by the “goodness” or the growth that comes after.

heartI will never accept the “rightness” of what happened, because it will never be right. What happened to you was not right;what happened to me wasn’t right either.

You don’t accept that you deserved it, because you didn’t. She didn’t. I didn’t.

But you accept that it happened–you accept its presence in your life–and you embrace it.

The only choice we have in suffering, the only power we have, is in how we allow it to change us.

Suffering sucks, there is no way around it. It it not okay. It hurts us and it breaks us. It tears and it rends. It’s agony. But if we embrace it, acknowledge it’s inevitabilty, and it is inevitable, we can become stronger, better versions of ourselves.

innocenceIn Dillard’s story, “The Deer at Providencia” she begins the story with the description of a deer that is caught and suffering, awaiting its death. She describes this full grown deer in terms that would resemble a fawn in the area where I grew up. It was delicate and frail. Small and “thin skinned.” Fragile. Breakable. Childlike.

I think that her description of the deer is symbolic of what we are like before we suffer. Though we may or may not be full grown, we are still as children. Fragile in our ideals. Breakable in our naivity.

It is in the very process of suffering that we grow, that we understand. It is a part of our coming of age, though we don’t really define it as such.

It makes me think of the process of weight training. To grow our muscles, we must break them. We stretch our muscles beyond their endurance causing little tears. These tears, when mended by our bodies, cause our muscles to increase in size and strength.

Suffering is like weight training for our souls–if we embrace it and let it do what it is meant to do. The little tears mend, and we become stronger, better, wiser versions of our selves.

Unfortunately, many never accept it, much less embrace it. These individuals become lost in the past, in the world of “could haves” and “should haves.” They continue to feel alone, singled out, picked on. These inidividuals become angry and bitter. Instead of their souls growing stronger and into something more intricate and wise, the wrinkle and shrivel like raisins in the reality of their suffering. They become the worst versions of who they could be.

Some tears, some breaking, is beyond what we can easily endure. Just as with muscles, sometimes we are pushed beyond what can  easily heal. We rip the muscle. It pulls from the bone. We injure it beyond the normal process.

In weight training it can take months for the body to heal these kinds of wounds.

It can take the soul even longer to heal. But it can heal from the greatest and most horrific of suffering.

WieselI think of Elie Wiesel. I think of what he suffered, what he endured, living through the Holocaust. As awful as losing my daughter was, his suffering was so much more. It is hard to believe that the human psyche can survive what he survived, much less become anything but a bitter husk in the aftermath, but he, and so many like him, are living proof that even the grossest of injustices, the most debilitating of suffering, can not only be overcome, but can also be transformative.

The power we have in our suffering is to embrace its transformative nature, to allow light to be shed on our misconceptions, to send its searching eyes into the darkness and imperfections of our own souls, and to see our inclusion in this mad story called the human existence.

We are all part of the story, and we all contribute to the song of suffering. It is unavoidable.

So my dear students, I so wish that I could take away your pain. I wish I could ease your suffering. I wish I could tell you that this world was different, gentler and kinder, than it is.

But I can’t. I can’t tell you that all your dreams will come true. I can’t tell you that you won’t know loss and betrayal. I can’t tell you that you will never be touched by injustice or the wild spin of chance. I can’t tell you that suffering will not come to your door. I can’t even tell you that it will come once, but never again.

rainbow-after-a-stormWhat I can tell you is that you are not alone. I journey with you. We all journey with you. We might not know what it means. We might not know why we suffer, why God allows it, but I can assure you, that it doesn’t have to cripple you. You can be transformed by even the ugliest this world can give you. You can become beautiful in a way that is intricate and real, not despite of your suffering, but because of it.

And I can tell you that though the world is ugly, it is also beautiful. The very ugliness brings the beauty into such sharp detail because of the very contrast. Don’t allow suffering to overshadow the beauty that exists, but instead to throw it in sharp relief. Allow it to make you, and your world, beautiful in a way that is more real, and more true, than it was before you suffered.