Though divorced for years, the man’s face reflects a tapestry of bewilderment about why his heartbreak, (this punch that came from nowhere to strike his soul), leaves him reeling with pain.
The woman who lost her job during a downsizing episode speaks with bitterness about her employer for whom she sacrificed much and whose reward was to be fired.
The elderly man whose eyes brim with tears as he holds his beloved wife’s hands, even though dementia has eaten away all her recollections of him.
It is an intriguing idea—this story of hurt. How does one tell oneself this tale? Is there a hero? Is there a villain? Is there even a coherent theme? What if it is badly written, like a muddled story that bucks against the clean lines of Act I nicely leading to Act II, which is then tied together by the end of Act III?
Maybe this story of our hurt says much more about us than it does about whoever or whatever caused it. There may be psychological blinders: low self-confidence, neediness, arrogance, or pride to name a few, that caused the loss. Delving deeply to understand one’s story of hurt is not for the faint of heart. It can overwhelm and sting with its sharp recriminations. It can tempt one to reach for those emotional band-aids: drinking too much, working too much, exercising too much, scheduling every waking moment with activity to numb away the pain, or avoidance. In understanding this story of hurt, self-compassion cannot be omitted. We are each of us human beings with many faults—no one is perfect. Kindness and empathy for oneself can soften the sting of self-introspection.
There is yet another layer to this story. We may hurt because the one who hurt us also hurts. Developing empathy for someone who has harmed us requires a level of emotional strength that is not easy to come by. And so, we may remain angry rather than moving on. That is the danger of unforgiveness: it keeps one tethered to the past and deepens that inner dialogue of resentment. Often, forgiveness is exactly what we may need to do to move forward. Empathy and forgiveness evolve the story of hurt into that of psychological and spiritual growth.
To understand, and here we mean really appreciate the “why” of hurt, may require us to look beyond the emotions that accompany it—regret, anger, melancholy, guilt, and even bewilderment. These may be just shadows on the wall, distracting us from the real issue. It may mean having to cast one’s line deeper into the existential ocean beyond the universal triggers for hurt. Sioux medicine man, John Fire Lame Deer, in Seeker of Visions wrote that unlike the other creatures of the land, “only human beings have come to a point where they no longer know why they exist.” (p. 162)
We may have anchored our sense of the “why” of our existence in things that are impermanent: another person, an occupation, a place. Lame Deer identified this living a “no-life,” reflecting a detachment and lack of awareness of the sacred. Each spiritual path defines this in its own way, but there is a common theme. In the secular realm, it is developing mindfulness. It does not require words, a complex philosophy, or rituals to appreciate. The sacred is all around us—in the stars that stud the night sky, in the bright sun that warms us, in the rains that bring us new life. Lame Deer described it as listening to air, feeling the ground under our feet, and just appreciating the presence of another without words. The story of our hurt is just one note; it is not the song.
Lame Deer, J. F., & Erdoes, R. (1994). Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperback.