I’ve spent most of my life trying to solve the problem of suffering, both personally and professionally. I think I have more questions now than when I started. But I am sure of one thing: our pain can only be attended to if there is a quiet space around us and a quiet space inside of us. And healing it comes not through doing, but through receiving…
Last January, my oldest son woke up with a large lump at the base of his skull—a swollen cervical lymph node. As I felt the bump, I also felt the sharp-tingle of adrenaline coursing through me.
Swollen lymph nodes are scary.
Because they may be the doorway into an awful lot of pain and suffering.
I faked calm as I called the doctor and scheduled an appointment for mid-day. As we drove to the medical center, Aidan was filled with ideas and explanations for the lump—a spider bite was his favorite answer. Like most Chicago pediatric offices in the dead of winter, the wait was long with red cheeks and runny noses and listless eyes. Aidan continued to speculate incessantly about insect bites and allergic reactions. In the frantic activity of thoughts, analysis, and confident solutions, I knew I was witnessing my son’s best attempt to keep his fear contained to a quiet place inside of him.
And I knew he had learned to avoid his fear from the master: his dad. In his torrent of thoughts, I saw my own hurried, compulsive ways of avoiding, numbing, and distracting from my quiet, anxious places.
As Aidan and I waited in the pediatrician’s office that January afternoon, I pulled out a coin, hoping to distract him from his anxious thoughts, complicit in the game of avoidance. I was certain a little magic would do the trick (okay, pun intended).
I laid my palms face-up, placing the quarter at the base of the index finger on my left hand. Then I quickly turned my hands inward, slapping them down on the table. The centrifugal force propelled the coin out of my left hand and toward my right, where I pinned it to the table as I slapped the right hand down. To the untrained eye, the quarter appeared to have travelled between hands by magic. My son was amazed, all lump-thoughts forgotten.
But true to who he is, he would settle for nothing less than a complete explanation.
So I told him to watch the space between my hands.
I performed the trick again, and he exclaimed with joy, “I saw it, I saw the light shine off the coin as it flew across!”
And that’s when it hit me: Our pain is like that coin.
Our pain can only be glimpsed in the space between our actions.
And I suddenly understood my son needed to have space to feel his pain. So we stopped, and we breathed a few times together, and then I asked him what he worried the doctor might tell him. And my so-young son uttered a word I didn’t even know was in his vocabulary.
He said, “Cancer.”
The quiet space between all of our activity can hurt.
It can hurt so badly.
I think we all have quiet places inside of us, and regardless of how charmed our lives have been, we exist in a broken world, and our quiet places have been filled with all sorts of suffering:
The worry of an existence that is mostly unpredictable and out of our control. The aching loneliness we feel in a busy, distracted world. The inevitable grief of lives touched by illness and death. The anguish of betrayal. Helplessness in the midst of unspeakable injustice. The shame we hide away, as we compete for a sense of worthiness.
Our quiet places hurt so badly. It’s no wonder we want to avoid them.
And the world offers us countless distractions, some more obvious than others. We drink and flood our resentment with momentary euphoria and numbness. Or we stick needles in our veins. Or we anesthetize with rage, always exploding with angry demands and never focused on ourselves. Or we turn to sex, and we make it an escape, rather than a union.
But the world also hands us a menu of more subtle and acceptable—even exalted—methods for avoiding the discomfort of our quiet places.
We compulsively check Facebook walls and Twitter feeds. (Blogs are excluded. Obviously.) We web surf, whiling away the hours “stumbling upon” that for which we aren’t even really searching. We shop and purchase and decorate and rack up the debt of distraction. We purchase forty sports channels and enough digital video recorders to capture it all. We eat, because it is almost impossible to swallow food and feel sad at the same time. We turn faith into a religion that anesthetizes our pain, rather than an event giving us the strength to walk directly into our pain and the suffering of a broken world. And we work, and work, and work.
With so many attractive alternatives, why would we ever choose to enter into our quiet places, where we may catch the glint of light off the surface of our suffering?
I received the answer from a friend last Friday night, at a park, while our kids played.
It was a glorious May evening—the new-green leaves were choreographers, directing the dance of light upon a field of newly-mown grass and a playground undulating like a beehive, all of it set to the music of children shouting and laughing in the moment.
I stood in the middle of all that glory, and my friend talked to me about healing from alcoholism. He told me that real healing in Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t happen during the 60-minute meeting.
The real healing happens in the fifteen-minute spaces before and after a meeting.
Because by arriving early and staying late, not knowing anyone and laid open by the admission of your addiction, you have to face your own loneliness, shame, fear of rejection, and vulnerability. You have to resist the urge to act busy and self-important by flicking through your smart phone and, instead, just sit there, completely open to the quiet space and how much it hurts to not belong and to risk further rejection.
But, as it turns out, the healing is in the hurting.
My friend added: If you can enter that space, if you can sit there and endure it, you discover it doesn’t last as long as you expected. Because someone will sit down next to you, and they will join you in the space, and they will understand what you are going through.
Upon entering the quiet-aching space, we discover the premium we have placed on comfort and painlessness was cheap relief coming at a great price. We discover that, in our effort to avoid the quiet places, we were unwittingly poring the salt of loneliness onto the wounds of a lifetime. We discover that, by making our quiet spaces and our wounds available to others, we are met in our pain by a welcoming eye and a gentle hand. We discover the pain is bearable, because we are not bearing it alone. And we discover that healing is not about getting rid of our pain—healing is about being met in our pain.
We are met by a stranger who is about to become a lifelong friend.
We are met by a lifelong friend who wants all of us, not just the fun parts.
We are met by a parent or a spouse who is truly in it for-better-or-worse.
We are met by a therapist, who spends time with so many others but has still reserved a special place for us in his heart.
We are met by a still, small voice inside of us, whispering, “You are not alone.”
As it turns out, being joined in the quiet-hurting places is the soothing balm for which we have been so frantically searching.
When we make our quiet spaces and the pain therein available to ourselves and to others, we may even discover there is a party waiting to happen there. It’s not the kind of party the world throws, characterized by food and drink and disconnection. It’s a radically different kind of party. It’s a party in which our whole being is celebrated, in which vulnerability and authenticity and connection are the party favors, and the guests are a motley crew of also-broken and suffering companions who are ready to be with us in all our mess.
A party like that can redeem anything.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.