What is Most Private is Most Communal
A cool breeze puffs its way across my face. The widow in our bedroom, an all but glorified piece of plastic wrap, makes me one with creation, whether I wish to be in this way or not. Like the two night owls on the mountainside at the end of our block, I’m wide-awake and attentive. The clock turns 1:51.
The owls chant piercingly like the classic rock band by the same name.
Meanwhile, widespread physical and emotional pain covers me like a bedspread. I want to scream because the throbbing is so intense—yet at the same time I don’t want to—because those owls are wholly at peace with the world—and have only made it through track number three of their greatest hits album.
My mind wanders to a quote from the late philosopher Seneca:
For who listens to us in all the world, whether he be friend or teacher, brother or father or mother, sister or neighbor, son or ruler or servant? Does he listen, our advocate, or our husbands or wives, those who are dearest to us? Do the stars listen, when we turn despairingly from man, or the great winds, or the seas or the mountains? To whom can any man say — Here I am! Behold me in my nakedness, my wounds, my secret grief, my despair, my betrayal, my pain, my tongue which cannot express my sorrow, my terror, my abandonment. Listen to me for a day — an hour! — a moment! Lest I expire in my terrible wilderness, my lonely silence! O God, is there no one to listen? Is there no one to listen? You ask. Ah yes there is one who listens, who will always listen. Hasten to him, my friend! He waits on the hill for you. For you, alone.
I wonder what Seneca’s secret pain was? His lonely silence? His terrible wilderness?
Here I am in my own secret pain, my lonely silence, my terrible wilderness.
A bit incoherent, I fumble with my phone; it hits the floor. The light amidst the darkness, along with the blissful music outside my window, reminds me of actually being at a rock concert by the band The Who.
I pick up the phone and open the first email in my inbox. It reads:
It is hard to believe that it has been almost three years since we talked in my living room. Much has changed, and much has not. I am reading “Moved with Compassion”, and I am overwhelmed with the multi-faceted connections that jump out at me from each page.
Thank you for writing with such honesty and vulnerability. I want to shout your message from the mountaintops!
May you continue to hear and share the truth. I feel your pain quite literally as I read, because I too have the invisible (sometimes unbelievable physical pain, by others) of fibromyalgia and the mental and emotional pain of depression. Please be encouraged to know that you have touched me many times even though I haven’t reached out. Sometimes, I refuse to add one more activity, such as meeting with you, because it is much easier to just dwell. However, I am desperate for someone to talk to.
I’ve often grappled with the questions: Why write about my secret pain? My lonely silence? My terrible wilderness?
I want to believe the places most intimate, most vulnerable, and toughest to think about or write about or talk about, are the most common, the most human, and the most spiritual. Those places are the places of connection and intimacy, the place that makes life most worth living.
The late Henri Nouwen, our favorite theologian, once wrote:
We like to make a distinction between our private and public lives and say, “Whatever I do in my private life is nobody else’s business.” But anyone trying to live a spiritual life will soon discover that the most personal is the most universal, the most hidden is the most public, and the most solitary is the most communal. What we live in the most intimate places of our beings is not just for us but for all people. That is why our inner lives are lives for others. That is why our solitude is a gift to our community, and that is why our most secret thoughts affect our common life.
I’m reminded of a time when we met a dear friend one gloomy afternoon. She had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, truly a death sentence for most. We anticipated spending much our time together listening to her cries of fear and grief over the potential outcome her cancer diagnosis might produce. But we were quickly humbled when we spent most of the time discussing other secret sufferings, the tarnished relationship with a close family member, her lack of fulfillment after following her dreams of being a singer and a writer, as well as the other burdening condition she lived with each day called restless leg syndrome—a condition keeping her awake most nights. Her secret pain. Her lonely silence. Her terrible wilderness.
In the sharing though, in the safety of our presence together, she started to find comfort from her afflictions. Especially after conveying my own secret pain, my own lonely silence, my own terrible wilderness. In the sharing, we became a gift for each other. What was most personal and most intimate for each of us, became the source of healing as we connected with what was most universal: disappointment, sorrow, grief, loneliness, fear, and even joy. We found joy in knowing that our secret thoughts, memories and feelings could actually draw us closer together, not further apart.
We’ve made a commitment through Someone To Tell It To to being vulnerable about our own humanness, our own experiences, our own struggles, when we believe it can help others to know that they are not alone in theirs. It’s vital in helping others tell their stories that we tell relevant parts of ours.
That’s why I’ve made it a point – especially in this time of the #MeToo movement – to be honest about the fact that I had my own #MeToo moments when I was 16 and 17. I’ve written about it in our two books together. On occasion when I thought it was appropriate, I’ve spoken about it to groups and with individuals. In essence, as the story goes, when I was a high school senior, a man twice my age consistently and methodically cornered and groped me, and talked very graphically about his sexual life] when we were working alone together on Wednesday nights in my uncle’s clothing store. My embarrassment, shame, fear of not being believed, and the fact that in that era no one ever talked about those things, kept me from saying one word about what had happened. Until 17 years later. Even then, I didn’t say much and was still embarrassed about what had taken place.
Author and researcher Dr. Brené Brown has written,
“Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen. It’s tough to do that when we’re terrified about what people might see or think.”
We’re living in a time when there are many #MeToo conversations, as there need to be. History shows that far too many women and girls have had to live with and endure the humiliating and entitled actions and words of far too many men who believed it to be their right to control and take advantage of females. Societies have been complicit and have allowed – even encouraged – it to happen. And obviously, we know it’s not only females who have been accosted, abused, or ashamed.
By speaking up, by being vulnerable, and by overcoming my embarrassment about what happened to me, it enables others to overcome their embarrassment and shame too.
We cannot exaggerate how many people have told us about their own #MeToo moments. Females and males, alike. Sometimes the abuse is handed down through several generations. Sometimes it’s a singular isolated, yet searing and life-changing incident. Sometimes it touches every member of a nuclear family. Sometimes it’s one member, alone.
Often times, a family member perpetrates it. Often times, a workplace superior exerts (usually) his power. Often times, threats are made to shut down the person who’s been abused. Often times, the secret is held onto for years and years, decades, in fact. There are times, we suspect, when many such secrets are never fully told.
It’s tough to do that when we’re terrified about what people might see or think.
But how freeing it can be when you know you won’t be judged or condemned or made to feel ashamed.
When a young girl isn’t believed as she tells her story and then her grandmother speaks up and admits, “It happened to me, too”, the darkness begins to disappear. When a grandfather whispers that he was touched inappropriately decades before, by more than one trusted mentor, his shame begins to diminish. When a woman reveals that her married boss fired her because she wouldn’t play his sexual games, she begins to take back her life. When a young mother details how she was raped, the shadows begin to shorten. When a dying man admits what happened to him when he was an altar boy, he has much less baggage to carry as he begins his journey from this life.
We’ve heard all these stories. We’ve heard many more. They happen, when together we can all say, #MeToo.
Our secret ‘sufferings’, the things most private and most intimate, can be places of true connection, intimacy, and joy – when we allow ourselves to be open about them. More often than not, most of us keep those secrets to ourselves, fearful that others won’t like us or love us if we share them. Our openness, our nakedness, when exposed, with friends we trust, remind us that we aren’t alone, that others do care, that others will love us and embrace us more fully for who we are, our authentic selves. Those secrets, when uncovered, become the source of intimacy and connection, moving us closer together, making us more loving, forgiving, and compassionate.
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says,
“The way we heal our own pain is by turning to the pain of others…to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all those around you.”