DEALING WITH EMOTIONAL PAIN

 

This is a subject that most men steer away from.  Loss, heartache, grief, sadness.  Whether the pain is existential: Who am I? Where am I going? Who’s coming with me? Or the more immediate kind of suffering – from death, divorce, job loss, etc.  Pain comes to us all.  So how do we deal with pain when it comes? The wounded boy has many strategies to navigate thru the territories of pain. The wounded boy cannot tolerate feelings of helplessness so he becomes a warrior fighting the good fight.  The heroic boy will either deny the pain or fight against the pain by trying to conquer the difficult feelings and win.  The other strategy of the wounded boy is being a victim – I am helpless.  I am not good enough or brave enough, I am not lovable enough to enter the circle of life, so I become depressed, small, contracted.  Both strategies, the hero and the victim, are deeply identified with the woundedness of the boy and are caught like a fly in a web of the wound’s complexes.  The wound’s complexes comprise a contracted world of isolation, self loathing and shame.  The boy must fight these feelings or drown in them.  There seem to be no other options.  Win or lose.  The sad story of the hero is that he loses by giving all of his energy to fighting.  He has no ability to receive love.  He is desperate – a fighting, doing, producing machine. Even his giving is a contracted strategy contrived to fight being with what is.

Enter the man: The man’s presence brings the miracle of the witness, the ability to have awareness of awareness.  And here is the miracle: The boy is pain, the man has pain.  The man is in relationship with his pain. The pain is held with mercy and kindness.  The pain is an honored guest and welcomed at the altar of the man’s life.  The man is curious and reverent of the pain that comes.  He is a sacred host to the difficult visitors that invade his psychic house.

 

 

 

The wounded boy leans away from life.  He strategically steers around the intersections of his life where there is any possibility of conflict.  He is terrified of being too visible, and so he turns away from life, and isolates.  If he does enter the complexity of living, he tends to react, tear down or rebel.  He has two gears: turn away or act out. What is so tragically missing in the wounded boy’s tool box is the ability to appreciate life on life’s terms.  He doesn’t know how to enter into his life with any genuine curiosity and reverence.

James Hillman says that when a man shifts in his consciousness from “being the pain” to “having the pain”, that is like two years of psychotherapy in one moment. So, the man holds his pain with dignity and a sense of holiness.  He listens to his pain as a deep cry from his soul and he holds this cry as sacred.  So he slows down and he walks differently upon the earth.  The pain is teaching him to live with humility and gratitude.  This man is cracking open into his giftedness.  He is slowly becoming a man who is devoted to protecting and blessing the sacredness of life.  When pain is kissed and given a sacred homecoming, the man begins the healing of the boy’s wounds.  And the boy begins to melt into the heart of the man.  And the man walks the earth in his aliveness, awe and wounds.

 

This being human is a guest-house

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture, still,

treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

–Jelalludin Rumi, “The Guest House”

 

THE WOUNDED BOY

 

When I am in my wounded boy, I am a creature who is wistful and full of unexpressed sorrow, who keeps his feelings at bay, even from himself, and tries to maintain a cheerful exterior. What is being held at bay? Feelings of abandonment, loss, deprecation, inferiority, helplessness, and rage.

The abandonment this boy feels is profound.  Although surrounded by people who care about him, he does not feel their caring somehow.  He knows that in the past, people who were supposed to care about him all the time did so spottily, not always when he really needed it.  He learned to do without caring attention.  He learned to carry on the best he could, filling in the blanks in his knowledge and competence with estimations of what was called for.  He learned that, more often than not, he could not rely on others to address his needs and that if he wanted something, he had to take care of it himself.  He became a lonely soldier, marching through life with a grim belief that he was all alone in the world.

The feelings of loss plague this boy and chip away at his outward cheerfulness.  Loss of friends has become a weight on his soul that grows incrementally through time.  Loss of friends through death, relocation, physical and emotional distancing, and the busyness of life has taken a toll on him.  Loss of dreams also weigh on him.  Loss of finding his way to complete a vision he had when younger aches in him and fills him with regret.  Losses in the greater world fill him with anguish as habitats, species, and ecosystems are lost or destroyed. The weight of these losses weigh heavily on his shoulders as he carries them as a daily burden through life.  This boy will not share his grief with others.  He does not want to burden them or have them think of him as weak.

This wounded boy does not believe he is as good or worthy as others.  He believes others are better at whatever quality or activity is being called up.  He can easily value others and disparage himself.  He can see their good traits while maintaining blindness to his own.

This boy feels helpless to impact his relationships.  He believes that others will always prevail over his wants, needs, intentions, and desires and that it is futile to even try to express, confront, negotiate, or stand up for himself.  He would rather not risk the rejection and failure that he believes is sure to come.

Because of all the foregoing, this boy is filled with rage.  He is angry that things have turned out to be the way he perceives them.  He resents others who seem to thrive and prosper at his expense.  He is envious of those who seem to manage to fulfill their desires and successfully strive for what they want in life.

When this boy is activated, and unconsciously allowed to prevail, the actions that come forth bring grief to others.

 

THE EXUBERANT BOY–AWE AND WONDER

 

          I recall boyhood summers in St. Paul, Minnesota: the moist smell of freshly mown grass, the heat of morning sunlight already penetrating the day by mid-morning, riding bikes through the neighborhood that was shaded by mature elms and populated by large, old homes to the corner store a few blocks away where we consumed cool soda pop and candy (yes, it was allowed in those days). We played whiffle ball in my friend’s back yard. If you hit the ball over the house, it was an automatic home run. We explored the dense, verdant woods behind the houses across the street. We sat on cool lawns in the shade and arm-wrestled and talked. The girls still seemed like almost another species, off in their own world of dolls and dress-up. But sometimes they joined us in the evening for kick the can or hide and seek, which we played through the onslaught of the mosquitoes at dusk, until we were called home when the streetlights came on.

Those summers also included a vacation at a lake up north, where we spent most of the day in the refreshing water, diving for frogs or turtles, hunting for garter snakes, lounging on the sandy beach, and taking our enforced afternoon naps. The forest that surrounded that lake and the lake itself were my primary introduction to the wonders of nature. There I felt this expansiveness and freedom I could not have described or articulated back then. It was where my first spiritual experience occurred and the home of my basic connection to the earth.

It was especially in summer, which was not interrupted by the duties and tasks of school, that this expansive sense of awe and wonder developed. Time stretched out. I could watch a caterpillar work its way across the damp, dark earth. I gazed at clouds and watched them change shape as they moved across the sky. I could spend all day in the woods digging a hole in the ground, which we called a “fort.” I could climb into the limbs of a large, old tree and be cradled there for hours.

Unbridled emotion was a primary characteristic of this phase of life. If I hit a home run, I would leap for joy. If I fell off my bike, the tears quickly followed the pain. If I felt rejected by peers, I immediately fell into a shroud of sadness. An ice cream cone brought welcome waves of pleasure and contentment. I had not yet developed the filter that descended in adolescence which would moderate my responses according to the social milieu. My body simply responded, as one, with my emotional life.

These experiences filled my soul with a richness that I will always treasure. Recalling them, I feel this richness of my life that now seems so simple, yet so profound. I realize that this ability to experience awe and wonder is a necessary ingredient for the life of a mature man. While it stems from boyhood, it brings a freshness to life that is essential to bearing responsibility and developing maturity. We must be able to tap into this ability to be surprised and astonished in order to develop reverence. Awe fosters respect. Respect brings a posture of honesty and integrity.

We do not need to remain naïve in order to nurture our sense of awe and wonder. When our childlike outlook is present, we do not have to completely ignore all we have learned. We merely let our curiosity and openness take precedence over other qualities for a brief time and give ourselves over to enchantment. We put all our “knowledge” and “wisdom” in the background in order to enter that beginner’s mind, which is a mind prone to discovery. We allow ourselves to embody the eight-year-old boy we once were and to see the world from his eyes, with his abundant imagination.

Sometimes I yearn for this boyhood experience. When I am called, I may wander into some woods, lie on my back and watch the clouds, observe an anthill and its inhabitants, float on water, stick my nose to the ground and smell. As I allow these experiences to wash over me, I am reconnecting with that exuberant boy who was filled with the mystery of life. I am drawing on an essential source of maturity. I am renewing my sense of awe and wonder.

Tom McGee

8/1/16