On an episode of the TV show The Good Place, we’re introduced to Doug Forcett, a former stoner who, during a magic mushroom trip, figured out the formula for the afterlife (ie. how to make enough points to get into the Good Place). Doug is living a “perfect” life, ensuring each choice he makes gains him points. He lives on a farm in Canada where he is kind to a fault, treats every plant and animal with respect, and never fails to recycle.
It doesn’t take long to discover, though, that Doug is living a paralyzed and tortured life. He goes into spasms of guilt and fear every time he makes a misstep (ie. he steps on a snail and kills it), he eats nothing but radishes and lentils and drinks his own filtered urine, and he allows himself to be victimized by the neighbourhood bully who takes advantage of his extreme altruism and forgiveness. In the last scene that we see Doug, he is about to walk hundreds of miles to make a donation in atonement for killing the snail.
Yes, there is a shadow side to trying too hard to be good. That shadow deepens when, in the next episode, it is revealed that every “good” choice has dozens of ripple effects that are “bad” (ie. buying an organic tomato that has to be shipped a long distance from another country where there are no ethical labour practices) and even Doug hasn’t made enough points to get into The Good Place.
The torture suffered by the Mennonites under Stalin was brutal. Because they were identified as ethnic Germans, they were treated as the enemy during the first and second World Wars. Their villages were destroyed, their land and/or harvested crops were taken from them and they were left without food, many women were raped, and in some villages, all of the men over sixteen were killed or put in prison. For twenty-five years, until they eventually fled the country, they were treated to unimaginable horrors. About half of the families that left were female-led because so many men had been killed.
As I read through the accounts of these atrocities, this paragraph landed the most heavily on my heart:
“What complicated these traumatic experiences for Mennonites was the fact that they did not defend themselves against such assault, upholding their 400-year pacifist stance. In many cases, husbands and fathers witnessed the brutal rapes of their wives and daughters and did not retaliate.”
I re-read that paragraph several times, overcome with the horror of what it must have been like to be a woman who was not only brutally raped, but whose husband or father did nothing to stop it. What utter betrayal that must have been to know that someone you loved chose their need to be “good” according to their faith over protecting you, their beloved!
That deep-seated value of pacifism – a core tenet of the Mennonite faith that is, in many ways, quite beautiful – has the ironic potential to create the conditions for the greatest form of betrayal for the most marginalized among the community – the women. Much like the fictional Doug Forcett, they were paralyzed by their belief in what it means to be good, and the result of that paralysis was betrayal of those they loved most.
(Side-note: As I’ve written before, after my own rape in my early twenties, my own pacifist father responded by admitting how he suddenly saw in himself a capacity to kill my rapist. That was both surprising and comforting for me at the time. I don’t know, though, what he would have done had he been given the opportunity to defend me.)
There is a shadow side to pacifism, just as there is a shadow side to trying too hard to be good, and far too often, it’s those with little power who are most impacted by that shadow. An insistence on goodness, in fact, can become a tool of oppression, by which those with power can keep those without power in line and silent.
Here are a few other shadows worth reflecting on:
The Shadow Side of Gratitude: While there has been much written about the values of living a grateful life (ie. having a gratitude practice can build resilience and hope and help us live in greater freedom), the shadow side is that it can be a form of spiritual bypassing. When we force ourselves (or others) to be grateful, we ignore the very real pain and grief that we need to process and hold space for in order to heal and transform it. Those darker emotions that we bury when we turn too quickly to gratitude will find more destructive ways of surfacing later on – as trauma, addictions, physical ailments, emotional breakdowns, etc..
The Shadow Side of Forgiveness:Much like gratitude, forgiveness can be a form of spiritual bypassing in which we rush past the complexity of our genuine feelings of rage, pain, betrayal, etc., deny ourselves the right to justice, repair and healing, and let the other person off the hook before they’ve shown genuine remorse. Forgiveness, if there is no remorse and atonement on the part of the person who’s done harm, puts the burden of emotional labour on the shoulders of the victim, and while it may be personally healing for them to forgive, it may also serve to re-victimize them and deny them of their full humanity. In the case of domestic abuse, for example, forgiveness may lead to further abuse. In order to extricate themselves, the victim may, instead, need to hang onto to rage at least long enough to propel themselves out of the situation and establish the boundaries that protect them.
The Shadow Side of Civility: As a recovering conflict-avoider, I’ve long believed that civility was one of the highest goods, but then I started to learn (especially through BIPOC people whose wisdom I value) that an insistence on civility can have harmful consequences. For one thing, it’s almost always those who already have more power who get to decide the rules about what is civil and what is not. For another thing, asking for civility when people have a genuine right to have strong emotions related to their oppression and victimization can be to silence, shame, and further oppress them. And for a third thing, an insistence on civility can often lead to more insidious and underhanded forms of communication (ie. passive aggressiveness, manipulation, tone policing, etc.) rather than more direct and truthful forms.
The Shadow Side of Charity:When I used to work in international development, we used to have long debates about the best ways to support people in need. One of the things that often came up was the way that charity, if it isn’t nuanced and offered with care and respect for people’s dignity and sovereignty, can be destructive and further contribute to an unjust world. For example, much of the charity we saw in international development comes from a place of “white saviorism” where more privileged white people think they know what’s best for less privileged people of colour, and it makes them feel good to impose that charity on them. Misplaced charity can also be disruptive to the local economy (ie. dumping used clothing on Kenyan markets means that much of their local clothing industry has disappeared) and can be disempowering to those who’d be better served by justice.
The Shadow Side of Peace: As I mentioned above, I was raised in a long lineage of pacifism, and so “keeping the peace” was one of the highest goods. But the result of that kind of a belief system was that it took me a long time to leave an abusive situation, I often remained silent in the face of injustice, I let people I loved get hurt, and – to this day – I often have a trauma response when voices are raised and conflict bubbles. When peace is valued too highly, it is largely the most marginalized who suffer. In the book Women Talking, Miriam Toews writes a fictional account of the true story of a Mennonite settlement in which women were being drugged and raped and none of the male leaders were listening to their cries for justice. The male leaders were more intent on keeping the peace (ie. forgiving the men who did it and restoring them to community) than they were in caring for the victims of the rapes. “We are not members,” says one of the women, “. . . we are commodities. . . . When our men have used us up so that we look sixty when we’re thirty and our wombs have literally dropped out of our bodies onto our spotless kitchen floors, finished, they turn to our daughters.”
The Shadow Side of Good Intentions:The problem with good intentions is that we often hide behind them and think that they are enough, even when those good intentions have undesirable outcomes. But what about when the impact is different from the intent? What if, for example, we extend charity (as mentioned above) that results in disempowerment or further injustice? Can we simply say “well, that wasn’t my intention” and go on doing what we’ve always done? No, not if we want to live in a just and ethical world. Especially when we have more agency than the person negatively impacted by our good intentions, we have to be willing to take responsibility for the impact, learn to do better, and make necessary repairs and/or change our future behaviour.
The Shadow Side of Positivity: In the self-help world in recent years, there’s been a lot of talk of the value of positive thinking and the power of attraction (ie. if we think positive thoughts we attract positive things), but there’s a lot of shadow that’s usually not discussed by the self-help gurus. For one thing, insisting that people are responsible for what they attract is a convenient way of overlooking the injustice of the world and blaming a person for the bad that comes their way (ie. if you lose your job, it must be your own fault for your bad attitude rather than the racist behaviour of your boss). For another thing, just as gratitude can be a form of spiritual bypassing, positivity can also deny and shut down the full expression of our humanity in a way that short-circuits healing, growth, and justice.
I write this not to say that we should toss aside our civility, pacifism, forgiveness, gratitude, etc. No – quite the opposite. I think we should embrace them more fully and with more clarity, holding them up to the light so that we can see them for ALL of the shades of complexity contained within. I think we should examine each of these good things and use our discernment to help us see when we’re slipping from the light into the shadows.
To embrace these good things blindly rather than examining them is to choose to stay in an immature, binary spirituality and worldview.
Sometimes, when we witness the shadow side of the good, we’ll need to make choices that make us feel like we’re deviating from our values, and, especially when those values are attached to our sense of safety and belonging (ie. part of our religious upbringing, social conditioning, and/or community values) that can feel like self-betrayal and can result in a trauma response. But perhaps what it really means, when we pause to reflect on it, is that we have developed a more nuanced and robust values system that’s indicative of our growth.
Handmade clothes my son’s body was dressed in after he was born.
If it hadn’t been for doctors’ errors, I would have a sixteen-year-old son.
Halfway through my third pregnancy, I could sense that something was wrong. My body didn’t feel right. “I feel like I have to re-adjust my hips every time I stand up to avoid the baby dropping from between my legs,” I said to my doctor when I called her. “Something feels too loose down there.”
She sent me to the hospital where an intern taped monitors to my stomach and I lay waiting for the prognosis. “Everything looks normal,” said the intern. “The baby is moving well and the heartbeat is strong. I’ve consulted with your doctor and we’ve decided that there is not enough of an indication of a problem to do an internal exam. At this point in the pregnancy, the risks of that kind of invasiveness don’t seem worth it.”
That was the first mistake. They should have checked my cervix.
A week later, I booked some time off work and visited another hospital for a routine, mid-pregnancy ultrasound. The moment the technician turned the screen away from me, I knew something was wrong. The sudden subdued tone in her voice confirmed my suspicion. An hour later, after an awkward call with my doctor, leaning over the receptionist’s desk and trying not to cry, I was on my way back to the hospital where they would now address the problem that had been missed the week before.
My cervix was open. The signals that my body had sent me were accurate – I WAS too loose down there. I was already four centimetres dilated – four months too soon.
After a variety of doctors visited and asked me the same series of questions over and over again, I finally found myself at a third hospital where I was placed into the hands of the only specialist in the city who had the skill to deal with my problem. That evening, Dr. M. spent nearly two hours explaining the situation to my husband and me.
I had an incompetent cervix. Though it had held firmly through my first two pregnancies, like a rubber band that has lost its elasticity, it no longer had the strength to hold itself closed for the nine months it was required to hold a baby in place. Nobody had an explanation – apparently it just happens sometimes. Because it had been open for awhile, the amniotic sac was bulging out of the gap, which is why I’d been feeling the discomfort a week earlier.
The next morning, after a fitful night that included a panic attack after I listened to the frantic sounds of another mother down the hall giving birth to a dead baby, I was wheeled into the surgical theatre where I was to undergo a cerclage. Like the drawstring of a purse, the doctor would stitch a strong thread through my cervix and then pull it closed, simultaneously pushing the amniotic sac back behind the barrier.
After I was prepped for surgery, Dr. M. entered the room with a young intern. It was a teaching hospital, so I was getting used to students following the teacher around. But I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Instead of Dr. M., it was the young intern who picked up the needle and stepped between my legs.
Dr. M. read the concern on my face. “Often it’s actually better to have the more experienced doctor watching and guiding rather than doing the stitching,” he reassured me. “It will be okay. She’ll do a fine job.”
That was the second mistake. Minutes later, the faces of both the intern and Dr. M. told me something had gone horribly wrong. “Pull it out,” said Dr. M. “We have to abandon surgery.”
The amniotic sac had been pierced by the needle she was using for the cerclage. My water was now broken. My baby was no longer protected. I would probably go into labour soon and deliver a baby too tiny to survive.
To the surprise of all of the doctors, I didn’t go into labour right away. In fact, hours stretched into days, and the baby seemed to be thriving despite the lack of amniotic fluid or protection from the outside world. Dr. M. watched vigilantly, doing two ultrasounds a day to make sure all of the baby’s organs were functioning properly.
After the failed surgery, I had another fitful night in which I wrestled with the demons that wanted to convince me to point the blame at the doctors. “It’s their fault,” they shrieked in my ear as I fought through the anxiety. “If they had checked you a week ago, or if Dr. M. had done the surgery, you wouldn’t be in this situation, expecting your baby to die at any moment.”
But there was another voice – a quieter voice – underneath the anger and fear. This voice said “You have a choice to make. Blame the doctors and let the bitterness control you, or let it go and choose a more peaceful way through this.” By morning, I had made a choice. I would let it go. Bitterness wouldn’t do me or my baby any good. I wanted to choose life.
The next day, Dr. M. came to see me and at the end of our visit, he paused for a moment. “The intern would like to come see you. She feels horrible about what happened and would like a chance to apologize. Will you see her?”
I took a deep breath. Was I ready to see her?
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll see her.”
A few hours later, she walked into the room. Her eyes filled with tears as she blurted out an awkward apology.
“I know you were doing your best,” I said, “and you made a mistake. I don’t hold that against you. Don’t let this ruin your career as a doctor. Learn from it and keep doing better.”
For much of the next three weeks in the hospital, I felt surprisingly peaceful. I started a gratitude journal and I had many long, luxurious conversations with the friends and family that came to visit. I joked with people who commented on my peaceful appearance that my hospital stay felt a little like being in an ashram – a retreat space away from my busy life that gave me time to reflect on the meaning of my life.
At the end of those three weeks, though, my peaceful state met the crashing waves of despair. I went downstairs for my morning ultrasound visit and discovered that my baby had died during the night. A few hours later, I had to go through the excruciating pain of labour and delivery, knowing the outcome was a dead baby. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done.
As I prepared to go home from the hospital, my breasts filling with milk my son would never drink, I checked in with myself about the choice I’d made three weeks earlier. Now that my baby was dead, could I still forgive the doctors for their mistakes? The stakes were higher – could I make the choice again? Yes, I decided that I could. Choosing not to let go would be to choose bitterness and hatred. I wanted to choose peace and forgiveness. I made that choice again and again in the coming months as the waves of grief came.
This week, I’ve been reading Wilma Derksen’s new book, The Way of Letting Go, about her thirty-two year journey to forgiveness after her thirteen-year-old daughter’s murder. The term forgive, she says, derives from ‘to give’ or ‘to grant,’ as in ‘to give up.’ Forgiveness is the process of letting go. It “isn’t a miracle drug to mend all broken relationships but a process that demands patience, creativity, and faith.”
I’ve known about Wilma since the story of her daughter Candace’s disappearance erupted in the media, five months after I graduated from high school (in 1984). Seven weeks after the disappearance, Candace’s body was found in a shed just a few blocks from her home.
A few years ago, I heard Wilma give a TEDx talk about forgiveness. What stood out about that talk was that, during the trial of the man accused of murdering Candace, Wilma realized that she could not hold both love and justice in her heart in equal measure. Though she longed for justice for Candace’s sake, for the sake of the family that was still with her, she chose love.
After hearing her speak, I reached out to Wilma and we have since become friends. Last year, while she was working on the book, she invited me to lunch to explore the idea of me being a guest speaker at a class she was teaching about forgiveness. Over lunch, she told me about how she had, after more than thirty years of processing her own forgiveness over the murder of her daughter, come to a somewhat different conclusion about forgiveness than what we’d both been taught in our religious upbringing. As she says in the book, it’s a long journey of letting go and making the choice, again and again, to choose love and life, just as I’d done in the hospital. It’s not about denying that you feel anger and hatred or that you want justice, but it’s a conscious choice not to let those things control you.
Toward the end of our lunch date, I decided to share something with Wilma that I’d hesitated to bring up earlier in the conversation – that my marriage had recently ended. I was reluctant to talk about it for two reasons: 1. I didn’t want it to dominate the conversation, especially when the focus was on her course and her work, and 2. since she was an “expert” on forgiveness and I knew her to be a religious person, I was afraid of what she might think of me for having failed at marriage. (I still carried some old shame about the sin of divorce.)
Wilma’s response caught me by surprise. Not only was she compassionate and non-judgemental, but she offered a simple reframing of a story I shared that helped me see even more clearly why the ending of my marriage had become necessary. She held space for me in the beautiful way that only someone who has walked through pain and has learned not to judge herself for her reaction to it can do.
I realized, in that moment, that I had placed Wilma on an impossible pedestal. For more than thirty years, I’d seen the media’s version of this somewhat saintly Christian woman who had some kind of super-human capacity to forgive the most egregious crime against her and her family. But the truth was much more complicated and nuanced (and, in my mind, appealing) than that. She was, just as I was, a very human woman who’d been nearly drowned in intense pain, anger, and fear, and yet she kept swimming back up to the surface in search of the light.
Forgiveness, for her, was not a pie-in-the-sky utopian ideal that meant she could live in peace and harmony with all who’d wronged her. Instead, it was a daily – sometimes hourly – decision to let go of fear, grief, ego, happy endings, guilt, blame, rage, closure, and self-pity.
I didn’t get to raise my son Matthew, but because, like Wilma, I chose forgiveness instead of bitterness, his short life transformed mine and his legacy is present in all of the work I now do. That three week period in the hospital with him was not only a retreat, it was a reconfiguring, sending my life in a whole new direction that lead me to where I am now.
At the end of the book, Wilma admits that her concept and experience of forgiveness are still changing and evolving. I’m with her on that. Life will keep giving us more chances to learn.
I have been contemplating the above quote ever since I heard it on the radio yesterday. We are, all of us, products of the “crooked timber of humanity”. None of us has ever emerged perfectly straight.
Before being shaped and carved by the woodworker’s tools – life’s chipping and sanding away of our imperfections – we are all irregular, imperfect, and unfinished branches of the crooked timber of humanity. Even after the shaping, our imperfections continue to show, but we learn to cherish rather than hide them.
I have a beautifully carved necklace made from a slice of a branch (see photo at the top – made by Windy Tree). What I like best about it is the way the artisan incorporated the imperfections of the branch, turning it into the rugged edge of a cliff out of which a tree grows.
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of spending a few days with those closest to me on my crooked family tree. My three siblings and I took a trip down memory lane together, visiting our childhood haunts in the rural part of the province where we grew up. We drove past the high school we all attended and talked about our favourite and least favourite teachers. We ate lunch in the Chinese restaurant that’s been there as long as any of us can remember. We played on the swinging bridge that crosses the White Mud River where we all took swimming lessons and were baptized as teenagers. We stopped to see the cairn that was erected at the place where our elementary school once stood.
Our parents are both buried in a graveyard on a sandy ridge close to our home town, under the towering poplar trees. As we stood near their graves, we marvelled at the fact that they are really and truly gone, that we are forever orphans, that they are part of our past and not our future. Though we are all near or past 50, it still feels far too young to have lost both of our parents. Perhaps one never feels old enough for that kind of loss.
Our last visit was to the farm where we grew up. We moved there when I was one year old and Mom and Dad moved away after we’d left home and my brothers and I were all about to welcome our first babies. That farmyard holds a lot of our family’s stories.
As we walked around the now-dilapidated farmyard, we reminisced about all that we’d lived through on that piece of land.
“This is where Grandpa collapsed and died on our lawn.”
“See that concrete pad? That was the front doorstep of the tiny green house we first lived in when we moved here, before we built the new house.”
“This is where we had to drag cattle out of the water that one Spring when there was so much flooding. Oh how we hated Dad when he came to wake us up in the middle of the night because another cow was stuck.”
“We used to climb into the rafters of this barn to find the new kittens.”
“What was that Low German word Dad would use when we were helping him build the steel bins and he wanted us to know a bolt was tightened and we should move to the next one?”
“Mom would have loved to have seen all of these lilacs she’d planted so fully grown and in full bloom.”
“Remember all those times when Dad had to climb down into the well to prime the pump and we stood at the top praying that he’d make it out safely?”
What emerged, as we peeked into broken-down barns and climbed over discarded fence posts, was how harsh and beautiful our childhood on that farm was. Some of our memories still held a touch of the pain those moments had caused. Others were pure joy. Some of them brought back old resentments of the decisions our parents had made. Others honoured them for their courage and resilience.
We were poor and life was often really hard on the farm. We hovered on the verge of bankruptcy and sometimes the phone was cut off or creditors would show up on the yard. Some of our hard luck was due to sandy soil, harsh weather, and the myriad of things that make crops fail or animals die. But some of it could be attributed to our parents’ poor choices and lack of business sense.
And then there were the other things not related to money that were hard – Dad’s anger and impatience, Mom’s way of over-apologizing and never believing she was good enough.
Our parents were imperfect – products of the “crooked timber of humanity”. They made mistakes. They let us down. They made us angry sometimes.
But that’s not the whole story. They were also full of goodness. They taught us how to love. They modelled integrity and morality. They made sure our home was always safe. They made sacrifices on our behalf. Dad taught us to love learning and Mom taught us to love stories.
Harshness and beauty. Kindness and anger. Insecurity and compassion. Poverty and abundance. All mixed together in one imperfect family.
My daughters will some day gather, after my death, to similarly reminisce. They’ll talk about some of the hurt they carried because of me, but they’ll also talk about the deep way I loved them. Because above all, I love them, just as my parents loved me.
And in the end, we must believe that love wins. And imperfection is less important than love.
We are put on this world not to seek perfection, but to learn grace.
We are put here to learn to make beautiful things out of imperfect branches.
We are put here to discover our own resilience and courage even as we hold our pain.
We are put here to love, to forgive, and to persevere.
One of the questions I ask my coaching clients, when they talk about people in their lives who are challenging, is: “How is that person your teacher?” Everyone – those who love us and those who hate us and those in between – can teach us something.
Not everyone in our lives will be good to us and not everyone will have our best interests at heart. Some of you may, for example, have had much more horrible parents than I had and you’ll be struggling at the end of this article to find any good in them or to forgive them for what they did. When I say that “we are put here to love and forgive”, I do not mean that we are meant to put up with all of the harsh treatment that comes our way.
No. That’s not it. You can learn to love with boundaries. You can end relationships that cause you great harm – even with your parents.
BUT, even the people who hurt us can serve as our teachers. Perhaps they teach us to respect ourselves more and not let them treat us that way. Perhaps they teach us our own courage. Perhaps they teach us boundaries. Perhaps they teach us forgiveness with detachment.
Instead of seeking perfection in others or yourself, seek for the lessons each relationship teaches you. Seek for the ways that you can grow because another person has been part of your life. Seek for the pinpoints of grace. Seek the piece of art that emerges from the imperfect branch.
I am writing this newsletter, once again, from my perch in the limbs of the large tree in my backyard. I am surrounded by crooked limbs, and I am grateful for the way their crookedness carved out this space that so perfectly cradles my body. I’m grateful for the smaller crooked limb that juts out at a strange angle that’s perfect for propping up my laptop. I am grateful for the canopy of crooked limbs that spread out above me, giving me shade from the sun’s heat.
Straight limbs are over-rated, especially in family trees.
p.s. If you need to talk to someone about your own crooked family tree and the ways that people serve as your teachers, perhaps I can help. I’m taking on a few new coaching clients.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor Frankl
After last week’s post about serving as wounded healers, I received a thought-provoking email from a reader.“I have been wondering a lot about the language surrounding letting go, moving on, and forgiving. The way the phrases come out seem misleading to me. I mean, how does one just simply choose to forgive, or let go when there is a big part that just isn’t willing to do that yet even though we want to? We can intellectually get why and how, but doing so is almost an entirely different thing.”
I have been thinking a lot about his question ever since. Even after I sent a response to his email, I kept wondering what else there might be to say. Is “letting go” a one time decision, or is it a daily commitment? Is it possible to “let go” entirely, or is it more true that we loosen our grip for awhile until something unexpectedly triggers us and returns us to that wound for another (hopefully deeper) healing journey?
In last week’s post, I made reference to the time a man climbed through my window and raped me in my bed. After years of seeking healing for that wound, I’d like to think that I’ve let go, moved on, and forgiven that man, but in truth, I am still occasionally triggered and the old wounds come back to haunt me. Last Fall, for example, when Tina Fontaine’s body was found in the river near where I’d lived at the time, and then, a few months later, Rinelle Harper survived a similar attack, I found myself triggered once again. Around the same time, it was revealed that Jian Gomeshi, a celebrity in Canada, had been sexually assaulting women for years and getting away with it. I found myself angry, shaken, and some days nearly unable to get out of bed.
Have I let go? Have I healed? Have I forgiven? Yes… and no. I have worked through much of the pain, I have grown immensely from the experience, I have learned to trust people again, and I have used the experience to help me serve as a more compassionate wounded healer. And yet… I can still get angry, I can still fear intimacy, and I can still allow some of the emotional wounds to change how I treat my own body. Last Fall’s triggering taught me that I still have more layers to heal in this story.
So… does that mean that we can never be fully functioning members of society because we are all always carrying around old wounds? No, that’s not it at all. Our wounds change us and become part of our stories, but they do not define us nor do they own us. Though healing may be a lifelong journey, we are still responsible to do the work and to offer the gifts of what we’ve learned to others.
Here are some of my thoughts on the healing journey…
1.) Life is more like a labyrinth than a linear path. A labyrinth journey takes you toward centre, but it never takes you directly there. First you wind in and out, sometimes close to centre and sometimes far away. Life is the same way. Sometimes you feel like you’ve reached your goal and that your wounds are healed, and then suddenly the path turns and you are once again wandering in a wasteland of doubt and despair. That doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong, it simply means that you have more to learn from the place at the edge of the circle.
2.) Pain can be our greatest teacher, but we have to allow ourselves to feel it in order to learn its lessons. We can’t short-circuit the learning that grief and struggle bring to our lives. When we try to ignore it by staying busy or dull it by turning to substance abuse or avoid it by pretending we can simply return to life as usual, we simply put it on hold and can expect that it will surface again later in life in an more urgent and unhealthy way.
3.) When we are mindful, our wounds have less ability to control us. In mindfulness meditation (my limited training comes mostly from the Shambhala Buddhist tradition), we are taught not to try to stop the thoughts, but to witness them and simply let them pass. The same is true for how we should treat our anger, judgement, fear, etc. We shouldn’t try to shut it down or deny ourselves the experience of it. Instead, we have an opportunity to witness it, inquire into it (What is this moment teaching me? What do I still have to learn from this emotional experience? What is the fear hidden beneath my anger?) and then allow it to pass. (I intentionally say “allow” it to pass rather than “let it go” because allowing is less about our control and more about acceptance.) That doesn’t mean it won’t come back again, but when it does come back, it has less ability to debilitate and control us.
4.) Those who search for meaning in any situation are better able to heal from it. Is there a reason for the suffering in the world? I don’t know. It’s hard to justify the suffering caused by the earthquake in Nepal, for example. There may not be a cosmic reason for it, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t meaning for each of us as we live through the suffering. As Viktor Frankl reminds us, in Man’s Search for Meaning, those people who were best able to survive the atrocities of the concentration camps during the Second World War were those people who found meaning in their suffering. “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
5.) As wounded healers, we can offer healing even if we’re still on the healing journey ourselves. Although it’s important to work on our own wounds first (so that we don’t use those wounds as an excuse to inflict more wounds on others), we can’t wait until we are “completely healed” to serve the world around us. There is no such thing as “completely healed”. Instead, there are those who are further along the healing journey than others who reach back and offer compassion and guidance to those behind them. When I started teaching, I adopted as my mantra George Bernard Shaw’s quote… “I’m not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead – ahead of myself as well as you.” Change the word “teacher” to “healer” and it still applies.
6.) Our wounds make us beautiful. Mark Nepo shares the story of a brokenhearted young woman who finds an old man in the woods. When she shares her story of heartbreak with the man, he tells her the story of how each of us is like a flute and each time we are wounded, a new hole is carved into us. ‘It is a simple fact that a flute can make no music…if it has no holes,” says the wise old man. “Each being on earth is such a flute, and each of us releases our songs when our Spirit passes through the holes carved by our life experiences.’” No two flutes have the same holes and therefore no two flutes make the same music.
If you’ve been wounded and are on the path to healing, remember that you are beautiful, right now, exactly as you are. This healing journey will bring you many gifts that are needed for the healing of this world. Be mindful, search for meaning, and let yourself be changed.
Note: I’d like to dedicate one post a month to wrestling with readers’ questions, so if you have been contemplating something that you’d like me to talk about, simply add a comment with your question. I don’t promise “answers” or “solutions”, I’ll simply offer my thoughts from my place on the journey.
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I was standing at my kitchen sink yesterday afternoon when the tears started flowing down my face.
I wasn’t crying because of the drudgery of having to clean the house again, and again, and again. I was crying for the sheer privilege of being able to clean the house for my daughter’s sixteenth birthday.
Wilma Derksen didn’t get to clean the house for her daughter Candace’s sixteenth birthday. When Candace was just thirteen years old, she disappeared on her way home from school. Six weeks later, her body was found, tied up and frozen in a shed not far from the Derksen’s home.
Just last year, twenty-seven years after Candace’s death, her murderer was finally found and convicted.
Yesterday, before cleaning the house, I visited an art show made up mostly of art created by Cliff Derksen and Odia Reimer, father and sister of Candace, during and after the murderer’s trial. Every piece bore marks of pain, anger, guilt, anguish, and love.
The first piece I saw was a set of simple pencil drawings Cliff drew during the trial. There were sketches of the judge, the security guard, the jury, and various other players in the narrative that was their life for those twenty-three days. Mixed into the human characters were images of the guardian angel that protected them throughout, and the demons who were never far from their minds.
The piece that first made me cry was a set of simple black and white photos Odia took of the steps her sister would have taken on her way home from school. Just a simple, ordinary street, with simple, ordinary stories happening all around, and yet those everyday images took on a whole new layer of meaning because they represented her sister’s last view of the earth. Under the images were snippets of text representing the moments and thoughts the family experienced in the days after Candace’s disappearance – the way they’d been treated by police who interpreted their deep faith as religious fanaticism, the day that five plates were set at the table and one had to be put back in the cupboard, the guilt Wilma felt over not picking her daughter up from school that day.
Below the images stood a sculpture that represented Cliff’s anguish. It was titled “Suspicion” and was ostensibly about his youth, growing up on a farm… “how impossible expectation resulting in judgement, created an environment loaded with suspicion and distrust on all sides.” He felt trapped like the first post of a barbed wire fence – something I could immediately recognize, having grown up on a farm with similar expectations. At the bottom of the text, though, was something I had no way of relating to. “Is this symbolic of my 22 years under suspicion?” Imagine… 22 years he lived with the knowledge that some in the police force suspected him of murdering his own daughter.
My own memory flashed back to the day when I’d returned home to the farm after suffering at the hands of a rapist. My father, overcome with emotion and the pain of knowing he’d been unable to protect his own daughter, left the house for a few moments. When he returned, with great pain in his voice, he told the story of a man he’d once known who’d spent five years of his life hunting for the man who’d raped his daughter, with the intent of killing him. “Suddenly,” my pacifist father said, “I know exactly how he felt.” My father was not under suspicion, but like Candace’s father, he probably felt trapped, knowing he could do nothing to change what had happened.
The next piece that caught my attention was one that I’d seen before – 490 crocheted teardrops created by Odia. 70×7 – the number of times the Bible instructs us to forgive those who’ve wronged us. With each teardrop crocheted, I imagine Odia trying to find a drop of forgiveness in her heart for the man who’d taken her sister from her. I’m sure the tears she shed as she crocheted them were more full of rage than they were of forgiveness.
Upstairs in the gallery, two last pieces provided the final frame for the story that the other pieces began. One was a line of six black and white images of feet drawn by Cliff, called Sacred Ground. Each set of feet represented a different member of his immediate family as they sat in the trial waiting to hear the verdict. Most of the feet were barefoot. During the trial, they’d often removed their shoes to remind themselves that, like Moses at the burning bush, they were on Sacred Ground. God was with them in the courtroom and had been with Candace as she lay dying in the shed. What great faith that simple act of removing their shoes must have required!
The final piece moved me even more than the rest, and makes me determined to go back to the gallery so that I can sit quietly in its presence for a little while longer. It’s a set of 23 crocheted circles in red, black, and cream. Each day that Odia sat in the court room, she crocheted a circle. The colours represent the state of her emotions while she sat and listened to the proceedings – cream for neutral, red for pain, black for rage. Some days were mostly cream, other days were a complex mix of all three, and other days were pure black. One day that intrigued me was almost purely cream, with a tiny shock of black. Not unlike my own mandala practice, she brought the complexity of the experience into a simple circle.
With me at the gallery was my friend Gabby with her two small girls – beautiful, vibrant children who made the viewing of the art even more complex and meaningful. While I processed the sadness, little Sadie was busy pulling treasures out of her bag to show me. One was a large plastic sparkly diamond. Surrounded by stories of death, this little girl reminded me of the joy of life. Our stories are messy and complex and the beauty doesn’t stop even when the sadness overwhelms us.
As I stood at my kitchen sink processing the fullness of what I’d seen, I cried for Wilma and Cliff and Odia and the rest of their family. I cried for the day that Candace would have turned sixteen and their basement wasn’t full of the laughter that would soon ring through mine. I cried for the gift that my three daughters continue to bring to my life. I also cried for the sixteenth birthday I will never be able to host for my son Matthew.
Several years ago, I heard Wilma Derksen interviewed on the radio, and she shared a story about the one year anniversary of Candace’s death. She’d been holding her emotions together, when suddenly she’d noticed fingerprints high up on the wall on the way down the stairs. She knew those could only have been Candace’s fingerprints, left there on the many times she’d bounded down the stairs and jumped up to slap the wall above her on her way down.
As I wiped the fingerprints my own children had left around the house yesterday, I thanked God that there will still be fresh fingerprints to wipe off tomorrow, and the day after that, and… I pray… the day after that. I also thanked God for the fingerprints Matthew left on my heart, though he will never leave any on my walls.
A few weeks ago, I heard Wilma Derksen speak at TEDx Manitoba. She said that one of her greatest learnings during the trial was that you can’t hold two things equally in your heart. Though she tried to hold both love and justice during the trial, she knew that there was not enough space for both. And so, for the sake of her family that remained with her, she chose love.
Yesterday, as I prepared to celebrate my daughter, I too chose love. It’s the same choice my dad made after the rapist harmed me. And the same choice I made eleven years ago after human error resulted in the death of my son.