Each of us has experienced some kind of trauma at some point in our lives. Events that might have seemed minor to other people in our lives may have impacted us far more severely than others might have thought. Maybe someone made fun of us when we were kids, and that gave us a complex later in life. Maybe someone laughed at us because we were too tall or too short or too heavy or too thin and we developed life-long sensitivities and insecurities about our bodies. Maybe we have experienced other emotional trauma or even physical pain and illness. Maybe we’ve suffered broken bones or developed chronic breathing problems. There aren’t many universal truths in life, but one is that none of us make it out alive, and each of us brings some kind of trauma with us along our journey. When we have traumatic experiences, it is not uncommon to suppress the pain we feel. Sometimes we compare our pain to the pain of others. Sometimes we feel like we shouldn’t feel down about our pain because things could be so much worse. But this kind of thinking deprives ourselves from healing. Someone else’s pain does not take away from our own.

               Comparing our pain against the pain of someone else makes us feel like we shouldn’t put much weight on the pain we’re experiencing. We might say, “Well. I twisted my ankle. But the guy in the hospital room next to mine doesn’t even have a foot. So I guess I shouldn’t feel bad.” This is a very common way of thinking but it isn’t actually helpful. I’m certain the guy in the next room who doesn’t have a foot is not saying, “I wish I had an ankle that could be injured!” That person is probably thinking he shouldn’t feel bad because something that seems even worse is going on in the room on the other side of his. It’s a vicious cycle that leads us to continually look for the person with the ultimate illness or injury. The illness or injury that is finally worth feeling upset about. Discounting our own pain denies ourselves permission for feeling things that are perfectly normal and natural. It can get in the way of our spiritual growth.

               People sometimes say that things happen for a reason. This is dangerous thinking. God doesn’t make us become sick or injured so that he can teach us lessons. But sometimes we bring with us an understanding that God made something bad happen to us so that we can become more compassionate toward others. It is important to separate the result from the reason. Through our suffering we can indeed learn to become more compassionate and empathetic toward others. However, the suffering we experience did not take place simply so that this outcome could be achieved. As much as some people would like us to believe it isn’t true, our world is not a reward-punishment place. Sometimes good things happen to bad people. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes good things happen to good people and sometimes bad things happen to bad people. The things that happen to us are not dependent upon our “goodness”. Sometimes we behave in a risky way that makes us more likely to become ill or injured. Think of smoking, for instance. Just about everyone knows that smoking can make us very sick. Yet some people continue to smoke. This doesn’t make them bad people and it doesn’t mean that any illnesses they experience are “deserved”. It simply means that their behavior (smoking) has potential consequences (illness). Some people who don’t smoke become ill and some people smoke all their lives are perfectly healthy. The illness doesn’t come as a “lesson”.

               We are rounding out this liturgical season of Lent and we are approaching Holy Week and Easter. It is common this time of year to think of the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. Some people believe that the crucifixion needed to happen so that the resurrection could occur. I suppose on some level there must be some truth to this because that’s the way it worked out. But who is to say the resurrection wouldn’t have still occurred had Jesus died a different way? The crucifixion was not a direct contributing factor to the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection did come from the crucifixion, but the crucifixion did not cause the resurrection.

               Thinking something like “I broke my leg so I would learn my lesson about wearing pads on my skateboard” is an oversimplification. The broken leg is not a punishment for not wearing pads. Perhaps pads might have prevented the serious injury, but the absence of pads did not cause the injury. It would require a cruel and punitive god to toy with people and cause injury to teach someone a lesson. Notice the word “god” was not capitalized in that sentence because a god that would do something like that is not the God I believe in. The God I believe in is loving and compassionate. The God I believe in is present in our suffering. The God I believe in is sad when we’re in pain. The God I believe in doesn’t dish out injuries and illnesess of different degrees because some people are “more” or “less” deserving of pain and suffering.

               Our secular society tells us we shouldn’t acknowledge our pain and suffering. We’re taught to ignore it. We’re taught we shouldn’t cry. We’re taught we shouldn’t show weakness. We’re taught we shouldn’t show some emotions but others are ok. We’re taught that if we’re in pain, then we should be glad our pain isn’t as bad as someone else’s. But the truth is, we’re human. We do feel pain. When we are cut, we bleed. When someone says something hurtful to us, we experience a pain response. When we lose something or someone we love, we feel the loss. If someone has lost one parent it doesn’t make the loss any less significant just because someone else has lost both parents. Both things can be true at the same time. Both people can be in pain.

               It can be helpful to acknowledge our pain. It can be helpful to invite God into our pain and suffering with us and to allow ourselves to feel it. Sometimes we don’t like to feel it. Sometimes we use food or alcohol or exercise or other things to distract us from feeling what we need to feel. We deflect from things that make us uncomfortable. But it can be healing to dive right in. If we don’t acknowledge our pain, then how can we expect to know what it might feel like to heal? If we don’t acknowledge our pain, how can we express empathy and compassion to others who might feel similarly? Our pain does not affect us simply so that we can do these things, but we can certainly learn to do them after the pain has occurred. The city doesn’t burn so that the phoenix can rise from the ashes, but the phoenix can rise from the ashes anyway. Good Friday didn’t happen so that Easter could come, but Easter came from Good Friday anyway. Bad things don’t happen so that good things can happen, but good things can happen after bad things happen.

               As we continue our Lenten journey together, let’s continue to be mindful of our pain and the pain others experience. Let’s allow ourselves permission to sit with our pain. Someone else might be in pain, too, but that doesn’t mean our pain is any less real or any less significant. We don’t experience pain as a means for teaching us a lesson. But we can certainly learn from our pain. And when we learn from our pain, we have a chance to heal and to promote healing for others.

Out of the Ashes