When in pain, pain takes over. It is all we can focus on—the pain, its sources and the resulting brokenness. Without perspective, it is all we can see and all we can feel.
Betrayal and rejection are this way. Shootings, rape, inequities, organized hate crimes, internment camps, tragic losses, chronic illness, being bullied or silenced for being different, abuse and even natural disasters can freeze us in pain and brokenness. The pain of tragedy is a piercing, aching pain that does not go away. Our bodies will not let it. The pain becomes about survival and safety. If we overlook or forget the pain, we open ourselves to the repetition of its cause. When our bodies do not feel safe, our bodies keep sending out warnings and alerts every time anything comes up that might be connected to the pain. A sound or a smell may trigger our body into a survival response. If we remain in a survival response, there is little room for healing.
In a funny YouTube clip about couples’ communication, a couple sits talking to each other. The woman is talking to her partner about the aching pain in her head, how it impacts everything and snags all her sweaters. The camera then switches the focus to her face where you see she has a nail in her forehead. As is common in communication, her partner, rather than listening, jumps into problem-solving—if you remove the nail, the problem is solved. But what she wants is for her partner to listen, to understand and to connect with her, not simply to pull out the nail.
Take the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. We can use this story to help illustrate the communication dilemma. Most of us can only imagine the pain of being pierced by and then hung by a nail. Imagining this, it is easy to make the nail the focal point of all that went wrong and it becomes the embodiment of betrayal. When this happens, the solution is clear: Remove the nail and you take away the pain. Solution solved, now let us get on with life.
Yet we know from our historical perspective, that the nailing to the cross was a tiny part of the story. The nail itself cannot capture the depth nor breadth of betrayal, the selling of a soul for coins, the desire to bypass the weight of demands, the lies to hide fear or even the kiss of betrayal. We can remove the nail but this cannot remove the forces that drove in the nail nor the hole it leaves behind.
To heal from betrayal, and so many other wounds, we must look past the nail, past the hammer, and past the person wielding the hammer. We need to dive into the desert of our sorrow and come to terms with the pain knowing there is meaning and purpose in survival. This is where living begins, when the focus on the pain and the questions about why this happened turn to a new direction to do what needs to be done now to move forward, to go on living.
What must I do to be more than a flawed and broken soul?
This is where meaning becomes important. We are meaning-making beings. Our meanings drive our behaviors and yet meanings are difficult to define and are rarely discussed. This is a challenging concept. Our behaviors are driven or influenced by a force that is difficult to define and almost never discussed.
In the crucifixion story, we have centuries of perspective and reflection to help us move past the nail and to understand the importance of its meaning – divine love, hope and the power of transformation. In our own stories of woundedness and betrayal, the pain of the nail can become all-consuming. We do not have the luxury of perspective. That is what makes this journey to living so challenging. It requires the faith or strength and determination to step away from the pain, to see beyond the pain, to move toward transformation.
Beginning to live again
This is where living begins, when the questions turn from why, from the focus on the pain, to what I need to do now to go on living. To turn from “why” to “now what” can feel like a dismissal of the pain and suffering that has gone before us. There is even a fear that in losing the story of pain and suffering our mere existence will be diminished. I have lived this with my daughter’s disability, with my own life challenges but mostly, I have witnessed the stories of so many wounded souls, and even though their stories on the surface vary greatly, the underlying journey toward healing is similar. At some point in time, the only way to heal is forward. We must plant a new harvest regardless of the desire to keep looking for the roots of what went wrong.
Just to be clear, this does not mean ignoring the crucifixion story, nor our stories of betrayal, hurt humiliation, fear or trauma. It means using these stories for growth. It requires the resurrection of new perspectives and meanings. These are turning points in much the same way the boulder moved away from the empty tomb changed the Jesus story. The story of Jesus includes betrayal and being hung on a cross, but the glory of the story in Christian traditions is about transformation. It is about change, about embracing life and a new way of living. It is about seeing possibility rather than getting buried in betrayal. It is about understanding the driving force of meaning.
Understand the meaning that drives behavior
Meaning is like the air we breathe; we take it for granted and rarely consider it until its source is cut off or drastically changed. Perhaps we enter a new place where the air we breathe is so polluted we can chew it, or the smell so strong we choke on it. It is not until these times that we consider the meaning of the fresh air. Our day-to-day meaning in life is much this way. We take on what we know as given rather than question possibility. That is until a tragedy occurs such as a young man stopped for expired tabs who ends up shot. The young man attempting to flee was likely in a trauma response fueled by the meaning of being a young black man. When in a trauma response the caveman’s brain overrules the executive brain. What seems obvious in hindsight is not seen when our body is keeping us safe.
The most profound lesson I learned about meaning came from my daughter and living with the outcome of the accident that left her severely disabled. Between the ages of 2 and nearly 7 she did not gain any weight. This is, of course, a critical time to gain weight. The spasticity of her muscles and the mixed messages from her damaged brain, made swallowing a challenge. Eating without aspirating took an incredible amount of time with great efforts to make the food as calorie dense and as easy to swallow as possible.
Whenever we brought her to her brain injury clinic, the doctors would tell us that our life would be so much easier if our daughter had surgery to get a feeding tube. What does it mean to be a good mom or dad? We feed our children. We sacrifice for them when necessary. That is one of our measures of love. So, wanting to be “good” parents, we could not put our child through surgery to make our life easier. We fed our daughter, here, there, and everywhere, 5 to 6 hours a day. She never gained weight and her aspiration pneumonia became more frequent until a new pediatrician, with infinite compassion and patience, walked us through step by step, test by test until the feeding tube was the only option. Now when I talk with physicians about understanding their client’s decision process, I tell this story. I talk about the necessity of understanding the meaning that drives behavior. I tell the physicians; had we been told that getting a feeding tube would increase the nutrition to her brain and increase her chances for healing, especially her brain, do you think we would have waited a minute?! Meaning is profound. It drives our behavior, yet we rarely examine it.
Step out of powerless and into responsibility
Recently a man I have known since he was a child spoke about his Asian American experience. This brought me to a new examination of meaning. I never once thought of this kind, loving member of my community as being less than, or apart from, yet he experienced and lived this with racial betrayal.
This was a profound shift in perspective that I have also experienced with my daughter. When I look at her, I see and feel love. On the rare occasion, my daughter is on stage, I still see and feel her love and beauty, but it also becomes clear to me what others likely see: all the signs of her disability. All her limitations. This shift in perspective is painful because so much beauty and love are lost in that perspective.
To move forward is to step out of powerlessness and into responsibility. My daughter has no voice to speak on her behalf, and there are others whose voices are subdued or silenced by outside forces. We all bear the responsibility to let their voices be heard. To act from the role of responsibility we must first understand the meanings that drive our behaviors and, if need be, take action to change our meanings.
In transforming pain and betrayal, we need to stop searching for answers that cannot be answered and become change by planting and nurturing seeds for growth. This is what is required to heal from betrayal.
In betrayal, our survival becomes rooted in understanding, avoiding, and distancing ourselves from the betrayal. We may even become trapped in our own betrayal story. Like the resurrection story, the healing comes in transformation, not in the repetition of the pain and suffering. In this story, we are invited to live as an agent of change. We are encouraged to be responsible for transformation, or more simply put, to live differently.
It would be nice if we could skip over the part of searching for all the answers to what went wrong, for desiring solutions, for wanting to pull out the nail and be done with the problem, or even for wanting to ignore adding one more responsibility to our over-loaded schedules. I do not think this is possible. There would not be a resurrection story if there was not an unjustifiable tragedy. So, it is with our own tragedies, that we must be open to and be responsible for transformation, to grow our possibilities, and to become more.
How we tell our experience matters
We live according to these stories. Victor Frankel, in “Man’s Search for Meaning,” writes about his story and theory about surviving his time in a concentration camp. He theorizes that meaning plays a critical role. Before I understood the power of story in healing, I wrote my daughter’s story, “Princess Sophia’s Gifts,” to help the children in her class to see her rather than just her disability. The story did make a difference to others, but perhaps more importantly, it transformed my own story. It gave my daughter the role of teacher and it helped move me beyond the pain and sorrow to live a life that is filled with meaning. It has shaped my life purpose.
In our personal healing, the story of our betrayal is critical. However, it cannot stop there. It is the transformation, the healing, the hope and the desire to live and to become whole, the potential of who we can be. There are many paths to this point and even though the pain and suffering cannot be avoided, it can be transformed. Our stories can be one of transformation, of learning to fly with new wings. If we destroy the milkweed that feeds the caterpillar who becomes the butterfly, we will not have as many butterflies.
Wherever you may be in your journey, there remains the possibility of transformation. It is not out of reach, but you will have to stretch to reach it.