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Suffering With

part fourth of a blog series on trauma, relational compassion, and my new book Parrot Flower.

If I am estranged from myself, I am likewise a stranger to others.

Brennan Manning

As much as I would like to say that self-compassion completely solves the problem of personal pain, I know it’s not true. Like the woman in the Song, I find myself longing, always, for a compassionate social response. It’s the social response that often changes me for better or worse because none of us are so independent of other’s opinions that nothing from the outside world affects our self-perception.

Simply put, we need others to meet us in our places of pain or shame and offer solace and support. And, once we tune in to our own dark and estranged places, we can invite others to become familiar with those places and meet our needs.

Says Beverly Engel in It’s Not Your Fault, “Compassion soothes our hurt and comforts our pain. It neutralizes shame’s persistent poison. When someone shows compassion toward a person afflicted with shame, they’re offering a healing elixir. Even an understanding look, a sigh, or a comforting touch can communicate that the other person is with us in our pain. The word compassion comes from the Latin roots com (with) and pati (suffer), so it denotes ‘suffering with’ another person. When a person offers us genuine compassion, he joins us in our suffering.”

Joins us in our suffering. Damn. That’s a lot to ask.

Or is it?

If we all need to be met and witnessed in our places of pain and shame, then the need is universal and ought to be culturally and socially normal. In some ways it is. The need is there whether we acknowledge it or not. It can exist and yet be universally ignored.

Our fear of exposure as dark or flawed in some parts of our humanity frustrates our ability to make space for those parts in social circles, thereby increasing social ignorance of the whole self. To put this in more colloquial language, we need to “fit in” to one or another social circle, so we hide, or estrange, the parts of ourselves that don’t.

This is survival and I can’t denounce its function. In Parrot Flower I quote a few lines from letters Charles Darwin—the original philosopher of survival— wrote to Joseph Dalton Hooker, “the one living soul from whom [he] constantly receive[ed] sympathy.” Darwin not only questioned and explored the function of survival in the grand scheme of living organisms, he felt its necessity. His own shadows sought recognition and comfort in another living soul.

I presume that one of the greatest questions we bring to another is this: what can I safely expose in this space between us?

So asks the woman in our Song. She, confronted with a potential lover, a “chorus” (in the typical literary style of a wedding song) that functions as her social circle, and a reading audience (of the poem), boldly proclaims her former abuses and abusers and how they have harmed her. Then she says, in essence, See this AND all the other parts of me. Learn from this and all the other parts of me. Love this and all the other parts of me.

I love her bravery. The brazen willingness to be fully seen—all parts, dark and light, damaged and intact—realized.

The part I still struggle with is the response. Or rather, my expectation of a negative response from this lover, chorus, and reading audience.

Most of us have probably encountered some negative responses when we bring our shadow selves into certain social circles and those circles diminish or dismiss them. In retrospect, I realize that I have done this to others myself. There are times when others have exposed the darker parts of their humanity and I have seen damage and named it for its ugliness demanding it hide itself away. I am just as culpable in this world of survival even if a mere survivalist is not who I really want to be.

The lovers in Parrot Flower, I’m sorry to say, also fail one another this way. Rather than entering into openness and intimacy, they are repelled by the other’s darkness. Rather than suffering with each other’s pain, they choose to avoid darkness and embrace mutually destructive coping mechanisms. They don’t sit with and make space for all the parts of their shared humanity; therefore, the darkness they do not look at closes in around them . . .

At the moment I write this, I exist in this liminal space, the tattoo on my back with it’s Hebrew lettering insistently telling me “there is no flaw in you,” waiting to manifest in relationship the moment I can embrace its possibility in an other. It is possible to let the mechanisms of avoidance and shame go and boldly proclaim that not only am I dark in parts of my humanity due to abuses and their consequent PTSD, but in those places, I am also lovely—brimming with wisdom gained from having survived significant insult and strain. And it is possible to do this for a flawed and damaged other too.

Parrot Flower comes out with Glass Poetry Press in January of 2021. This is the fourth and final of a series of blogs I will write on trauma, coping, and relational compassion—the hope that comes from taking the time to sit with others in their darkness and learn from them. But “what value is learning,” asks thirteenth-century theologian Anthony of Padua, “that does not lead to love?” Let’s learn and be led to more love.


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