It was April, and I was headed to a retreat center in the Virginia mountains, where I’d be leading a women’s retreat centered around my book, Available Hope. Spring was already showing off, the weather was perfect, and it felt good to be travelling, to be out, breathing fresh air and engaging with new people.
It had been a helluva year, to say the least.
I arrived just in time for dinner, so I was able to meet a few of the women I’d be working with the next 48 hours. They were welcoming, eager to hear what I had to say and very gracious.
As I left the dining hall, two women I had not met yet stopped to introduce themselves, and we spoke for a few minutes. I noticed one of them watching me closely. Her gaze didn’t feel invasive, but it was definitely obvious, and as our conversation came to a close, she slowly held up one of her hands, and placed it on my cheek. And then, gently, without malice or judgment, and with great compassion, she held my face and looked straight into my eyes as she said, “You, my dear, have known pain. And it’s still inside you. Your face tells me.”
I do not remember my response to her very accurate and unexpected words.
What I do remember is feeling seen. So seen it was almost uncomfortable. And yet somehow also merciful relief.
We all carry pain inside us–or, at the very least, we one day will. Sometimes we call it grief. Sometimes we call it anxiety. If we’re lucky enough to have a good therapist, or at least a good friend, we can name it as trauma. Regardless, we don’t get a choice of whether we will experience pain or not–it is part and parcel of living.
Sometimes it is obvious–a broken relationship or a lost love or an evident physical injury or disease. Sometimes it is less so–a grief long unresolved; a loss never fully processed; a mental illness that makes every single moment a battle. The struggle to belong carries a pain all its own. So does having been bullied or betrayed or abused.
Whatever that pain’s source, and no matter how long ago the pain began, we carry it. And despite our constant efforts to numb, hide and disguise the pain, what we really want is for it to be seen. Acknowledged. Affirmed as real. Because this is the only way healing can begin.
And how we long for healing…so much so that we sometimes become afraid to hope for it, and so resign ourselves to never feeling okay again. And the pain inside us digs deeper, latches on more firmly to our very beings, and twists any sense of belief that wholeness is possible.
This is why I believe, and have written before, that one of the greatest gifts we can give one another is to ask, “Where does it hurt?”
Because somewhere, I assure you, it does.
So, my friends, where does it hurt?
These days, I suspect the answer is probably, “Everywhere.”
In addition to our personal heartaches and fears, any one of which can level a person, we’re watching a world on fire, fueled by half-truths and tribalism and the bully pulpit that social media allows to any person who wants it. We’re cut off from one another by a pandemic, and so missing far too many of the every day gatherings that keep us grounded, connected, able to remember that we are not alone. We are fiercely divided along ideological and sociological and political lines and we treat this as a sport, or as intellectual exercise, none of which addresses the very real needs of very real people. And hate, especially as it makes itself known in racism, is running rampant, leaving violence and chaos in its wake.
Where does it hurt, y’all?
You can try to numb it, I suppose. Push it back. Because honestly, it feels like an awful lot and like maybe it might be our undoing. But pain will sneak up on you, or perhaps come in a tidal wave, and either way, it leaves you gasping for air.
Last week, I read some words translated from the Sufi poet Hafiz, and they went like this:
It happens all the time in heaven, and someday it will begin to happen again on earth–that humans who are married, and humans who are lovers, and humans who give each other beautiful light, will often get down on their knees, and while so tenderly holding their beloved’s hand…with tears in their eyes will so sincerely speak, saying, “My dear, how can I be more loving to you? Darling, how can I be more kind?”
I’ve read these words every day since I stumbled on them, and they are still giving rise to a lump in my throat.
Y’all, what if, in addition to asking where it hurts, we also asked, “What can I do to make that hurt easier to bear?”
Not what I can do to fix it. Not how I can stop it. Not what bandage can I offer. But, “What can I do for you to make the hurt easier to bear?”
We are very, very good at “I-can-do-whatever-I-want-hearts” in this country. And it’s pretty obvious how that’s (not) working out.
What we need are servant hearts, ones that ask “How can I love you better? How can I be more kind? How can I ease your pain?”
Where does it hurt? And how can I make that hurt easier for you to bear?
May it be so.