I just read an article in today’s New York Times called The Trauma of Being Alive. It pissed me off. It feeds the dysfunctional obsession with defining ourselves in terms of the worst thing that has happened so far. Child of bad parents? Been through an ugly divorce? Lose a friend or sibling or parent or child? Receive a terrible medical diagnosis? Welcome to the new you! this line of thinking goes, inviting you to accept your new reality wherein life is forever seen through the lens of your misfortune.
I’ve been through a number of rough situations. There was the bad marriage where I fled and lived under an assumed name for three years because my then-husband had a gun and some anger management issues. There have been miscarriages, and wow, do those suck. A few years ago, Steve and I moved to a different state for a new job, and then moved back four months later – unemployed and homeless – because things went horribly awry. Then we watched as our senior pastor reinterpreted the Bible, blew out most of his long term members and friends, then abandoned the church to move to the West Coast. And most recently, we lost the little girl we’d been asked to become guardians of as she was sucked back into a sick system that has failed to protect or help her.
We’ve been through some stuff. And yes, the trauma is real. But it’s not forever, and these things don’t define us. (And just because we sometimes seem okay in conversations or in Facebook posts doesn’t mean we’re stuffing our pain or ignoring it.) This dichotomy – outwardly process your pain forever, or ignore it while it festers and eats you up inside – is a false one, and I’m calling bullish*t. (In a polite way. With an asterisk :) )
I’m a private person when it comes to grief. An “internal processor,” if you will. I hibernate after bad things happen. I need time to figure them out before I talk about them. I need time with God – a lot of it – before I can talk about tough things with anyone else.
The few times I’ve tried to “work-through” my stuff with other people after a catastrophe have done more damage than good. It was like I kept ripping off the band-aid each time someone asked about my wound. For example: the time we moved to a new state for four months & then came back? I tried processing this pain with a group from my church. I told the stories and gave updates and cried and cried. They asked questions and I tried to answer, but often I was just guessing because I hadn’t considered whatever it was they asked. There were things I said that later I realized, “Oh, I don’t think that at all.” And with all of this, I was still “working through” the experience in that group two years later. Which was absurd, because other than being inconvenient and expensive, this was minor as far as traumatic situations go. But it became what people asked about, and therefore what I told them about, and thus what our friendships came to be defined by. A vicious cycle.
When you’ve been through something awful, sometimes it feels good to be listened to, heard, affirmed. But for me, the satisfaction is short-lived. Unless someone can do something to fix whatever the situation is, I’ve realized, I’m not helped by telling them about it, no matter how many times they nod and say, “Wow, that must have been hard.” And I wonder if the short-term comfort of receiving affirmation and feeling heard isn’t a bit addictive – if it might be part of the reason so many of us fall into the trap of being defined by our trauma, ripping the band-aid off over and over again so people can give us these short hits of attention, rather than leaving our wounds covered so they can heal?
Or maybe this is just me, how I’m wired. But I think we need to allow that our wiring can differ.
One of the miraculous aspects about how we’re made is that we have the capacity to get over things. Life goes on, as the saying goes. And strangely enough, it’s true. It’s surreal, of course: the uneasy feeling that hits the first time you laugh really hard or enjoy a fruity cocktail while watching the sunset after you’ve been through something awful, the moment you realize, “Wow, I wasn’t thinking about X right then.” Because until that moment, you couldn’t imagine a time when you wouldn’t be thinking about X. But those moments come, and if we let them, they add up.
Toward the end of the article, the author mentions that he’s a Buddhist, and maybe this is why we disagree. When I was living in hiding after my first marriage, I bought a book by a famous Buddhist monk that promised to guide me in what to do after my world fell apart. I don’t remember the details of what it said – something about how I should accept that I’d never get over it – but I remember vividly throwing the book away and then taking the garbage all the way out to the end of the driveway because I wanted that grim diagnosis (it felt like a curse) as far away from me as possible. Wherever that path led, it was not the path for me.
A few years later I became a Christian largely because Jesus promised me that if I gave him my past–the hurts, mistakes, betrayals, disappointments; all the crap–he would transform it. He did, and he has – again and again. It’s not that I never think about the things that have happened. It’s that they no longer hurt. I’m not angry or frustrated or bitter; I don’t spend time imagining how things might have turned out differently, or what I wish I’d said. Jesus offers freedom, rather than never-ending process. That’s the possibility I reach for when life spins out of control.
So now, even as we’re in the midst of the worst grief we’ve ever experienced over losing this little girl we love so much, Steve and I know this: the trauma does not define us – or her – and it will not last forever. We have hope that God will bring good out of this situation that seems so heartbreaking and bad. It’s how we trust that He will make our lives joyful, interesting, worthwhile. Not defined by trauma. Defined by God. This is the hope that we have, the Hope of Being Alive, if you will.
I find it a better lens to look through.