A couple of weeks ago, before life intervened, I began a little series trying to lay out the building blocks of my own, personal pre-theological understanding/journey. If I’m going to criticise thinkers, I felt I should present my own position. So, this is the second one. The topic? The role of suffering, and how a weekend in Lorne helped me on my journey.
John J Shea, in his book Finding God Again: Spirituality for Adults has this to say about the role of suffering in becoming spiritually adult:
Some of us, in experiencing suffering, trauma, and loss, may find a safe and compassionate space in which to begin to accept what happened. In time, we may come to terms with the suffering, the trauma, and the loss, not minimizing what happened but allowing it to become part of a renegotiated and, perhaps, more inclusive sense of self. There is no calculus for suffering, trauma, and loss. Viktor Frankl speaks of the “tragic triad” of suffering, guilt, and death as being at the heart of human experience, calling us to face ourselves and to search for personal meaning in ways nothing else can. Suffering, trauma, and loss are a two-edged sword for us. At times they make adulthood much harder to realise, and at times they help usher it in.
This is true for me. I don’t want to minimize other people’s experiences, but for me, the various experiences of grief and loss have broken my heart open to the world, in a way which I find very difficulty to explain. To be honest, I find it hard to name, let alone acknowledge, negative emotions. This is probably due to a number of reasons. I’m a man, and we don’t like to show weakness, I’m a modern, Western person and we like to think of ourselves as forward looking, positive people, I come from a family which puts a premium on “coping” and disapproves of complaining. Nonetheless, a major component of my spirituality is founded on the potentially transforming power of suffering. I also believe in the power of story, so perhaps that’s a good place to start.
Anne and I suffer from idiopathic infertility, where “idiopathic” means that the doctors shrug their shoulders and give up. Who knows what the problem was? Not us, they say. We did IVF: we failed. It was a hard experience. A very, very hard experience. It was a part of a truly awful time in our lives – a serious car accident, un- and under-employment, financial troubles, a tree falling on our house in the bush during a storm, and all the difficulty of moving countries, of discovering that you really cannot go home again.
But I’m a Pate, we don’t complain, we Cope, we are Good Little Soldiers and we certainly don’t Admit to Negative Emotions. Also, that’s kind of the man’s role during IVF. You do your duty in the Blue Room, you ferry your wife to and from appointments, and you look after her. The emotional space is totally taken up with your wife’s emotions, which are huge. It’s a story I have heard a lot amongst other IVF survivors: there is no time or space for the man to really allow himself to experience the feelings he is experiencing.
It turns out to take a little while to figure out what is going for you, emotionally. At least it did me. When I did realise what was going on, it took me by surprise.
It had all seemed like such a good idea: Anne was going to spend a weekend at a retreat enticingly called “Who Stole The Joy,” so I thought I might go away for a couple of days as well, rather than hang around the house by myself. So I decided to go to Lorne. I would take a bottle of single malt, which I would carefully ration, a copy of Karl Bath’s Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, and I would run along the beach, and read, and drink responsible measures of scotch, and eat steak, and generally have a refreshing time of it.
As soon as I got to Lorne, on that dark, drizzly Friday night in winter, I began to suspect that I had made a mistake. To save money (or perhaps because I am tight) I stayed in a caravan park, and stayed in the cheapest caravan they had. On a sunny, optimistic summer’s day, when you are looking forward to spending long sun-drenched optimistic days romping on the beach with your friends and perhaps a suitably energetic dog, it would be an excellent place to stay. But when I opened the door, my heart sank. It was quite cold, it was very ugly, and it was rather dark, even with both the lights on. But I was not to be put off. I retreated into my sleeping bag with my book and a medicinal slug of scotch. Tomorrow would be a brighter, more cheerful day.
Inevitably, it was nothing of the sort. If anything, the next day was even greyer and drabber than the previous day. I trotted soggily along the beach, ate chips while looking at the rain, read my book in a cold, empty café, and felt less and less cheerful as time went on. By the time the evening came, I was, as we say in Australia, feeling Pretty Ordinary. Not even watching The Bucket List in Lorne’s engagingly run down cinema cheered me up. It was a bleak evening, notwithstanding the steak. And I felt sure that the happy laughing families, of which there were only one or two anyway, were exchanging glances with each other, warning their children to stay away from the weird loner in the damp looking caravan near the park toilets.
Usually I sleep like someone has taken my batteries out, and I never wake up early unless I have something like a plane to catch, but I remember that on the second day I woke up before dawn. I walked out in the drizzle to try to see the sun rise over the sea, and sat on a bench, waiting as the sun unsuccessfully tried to lighten the darkness of the morning. Did I cry? I’m not sure. I’m not much of a crier. But perhaps I did – I certainly remember feeling as miserable as I ever have in my life, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why. Why was I so down? Sure the day was drizzly, and I’m an extrovert, so being completely alone for a weekend probably wasn’t, on reflection, the wisest thing I could possibly have done. But I was entirely baffled by it. Until I thought to myself: you know, perhaps it’s got something to do with the trauma of infertility, not to mention the whole oceans of shit I have been wading through these last five years.
It was quite the realisation for me that I was suffering from grief. And not just lowercase grief, but Grief. I’d been holding on so long that I was no longer aware that I was holding on at all.
I wish I could tell you that a cleansing flood of tears overwhelmed me and I ended up feeling much better. But that would be a lie. It wasn’t an ending point, but rather another beginning for me, where I was wrenched open to the world.
Theologically, or even pre-theologically, this is my starting point. I don’t feel like I need a theologian to tell me that life is pain – that we are all caught by Frankl’s Tragic Triad. That is the starting point as far as I’m concerned. Pain, doubt, grief, our own inevitable death and the death of those we love, the serious temptation to despair: those are the basic data of life, or at least put up a very strong case for being seen that way. What I want, indeed what I need, and what I think any faith in God worth bothering with has to have at its heart, is the “and yet.” Life seems so hard sometimes, “and yet” it is worth living. Theology which acknowledges the grief and pain of life, but asserts that, nevertheless, “all will be well,” is the only sort in which I have the remotest interest. For me, a theology that is all Good Friday and no Easter Sunday is exactly as much use as those theologies of glory which are all Easter Sunday and no Good Friday. Friday and Sunday are both required: pain is real, but so, perhaps, is resurrection.
Ultimately, my Weekend in Lorne was a good, albeit painful, experience. It awoke me to how I really was – and how a lot of people are, a lot of the time. It is tempting to try to pretend that we are better than we are, even to ourselves. This isn’t to fetishise suffering, clinging on to our pain as a mark of our significance in the world. Instead it is to underline how vital it is to accept the reality of our situation. Only then is it possible to move forward: If you want to be born again, you have to die first.
So, what next? What does one do with this acknowledged suffering, this openness towards the world, this hope for something more? In next week’s post I’ll try to explore it a little.