How to Use Personal Pain to Nourish Others
It was a hot summer day in the 1980s, not unlike the ones we’ve been experiencing lately. My dad took me downtown with him…he had some business to take care of. Downtown Dallas was huge…endless skyscrapers, and of course being a kid, the city blocks seemed endless. We finally arrived, and found a parking space on the street. You could smell the city…the sewer, trash, food, construction materials…everything.
I honestly don’t remember what we were doing there, but we were close to one of the downtown fast food joints. I knew that because I spotted it on the way in and started wondering how I was going to convince my dad to get me some french fries.
As we walked out of the building and back towards the car, a homeless man approached my dad and said, “Excuse me sir, I only have 35 cents, could you spare some change so I can get myself a cheeseburger?” My dad responded with “We were actually on our way there now, why don’t you join us?” Of course, I just had my mind on the french fries. We walked over, and the man waited towards the back, by the entrance. Management tried to kick him out, until my dad explained he was with us. Bought him a meal, and we ate. The man offered my dad his 35 cents, but my dad refused. He thanked us as we left.
On the way home, my dad cited these experiences (when a person is in need of help) as opportunities. He told me that God is in all of us, and that we should do our best to be kind to one another.
Fast forward some 30 years, and in some ways, I’m still that same kid, with the idealism of innocence and inexperience, coupled with the cynicism from life’s scars. I still have deep conversations with my parents…politics, human nature, religion, philosophy, you name it. I enjoy them. My values have that same duality – idealism and cynicism – and I sometimes find it difficult to pinpoint the reasons for widespread conflict in our world.
Election years always seem to bring out our extremes. It dawned on me recently, that the conflicts we see in our world today, are primarily motivated and perpetuated by our desire for material things. Whether we’re examining class warfare, ideological conflict, or some other brand of discord, there always seems to be an economic component. Though, I’m convinced that war, as we know it, exists, because our individual spirits are torn. If we have no experience in dealing with this internal conflict, then we either hurt ourselves or hurt others…and the latter escalates and war materializes.
I read a quote recently that said something to the effect of,
“We cannot understand the pain we cause others until our own pain has been acknowledged.”
The easiest place to see examples of this is in our close relationships with family members and friends. When we get into heated disagreements, a common element is one or more parties stops listening, and instead, pursues a personal agenda. I remember, some years back, being snowed in, and getting into arguments with some of those closest to me. I left and went for a walk. And as I walked down the street and back, I thought to myself, “If I can’t even get along with my own family, how can I expect tensions to ease on a global scale?”
How to identify and own our pain
I’m fortunate in that my idealism slightly outweighs my cynicism (it’s probably around 50.5% to 49.5%). That being said, on a good day, I believe it IS possible to ease tensions on a global scale…but…it doesn’t happen by trying to coerce others into our way of thinking. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone just abandoned their systems of belief and just agreed with us? But then…with whom would we disagree…and how would we learn?
I’ve found a few things useful on the journey towards respect for one another:
1. Acknowledge my pain and be grateful for it;
2. Take responsibility for my role in my own pain;
3. When I identify instances of pain or hurt in the present moment, deliberately and intentionally choose to do something good for someone.
Follow the links in numbers one and two if you’re curious about a perspective on them. I’d like to focus on number three, because it is so far, the most difficult (then again, numbers one and two seemed insurmountable before I attempted them). When we are hurt by someone (usually by something they say), we tend to react impulsively. Maybe we get defensive, maybe we hurl an insult, maybe we yell or become impatient, but…we often lose control in some way. In my experience, I’ve found that my impulsive reactions usually come from a place that was embedded in my psyche long ago…likely when I was a child.
I’ve found that I have perhaps a handful…or maybe up to ten or so things that “set me off” and I’ve been able to pinpoint some – not all – of the root causes of them…so when I come across versions of these events in everyday life, I am, in a sense, recreating them. This makes me responsible for these events because after all, I am the one choosing how to react to them, even if my reactions come from a subconscious place.
But herein lies the difficult part – since I am aware of this, then I also have a responsibility to not perpetuate or pass on my negative perception of an event, in a hurtful way, to someone else. You hear the saying, “Hurt people, hurt others,” or in other words, a person who experiences pain tends to pass that pain along to those around them. For the most part, we all do this.
When you have accumulated some experience with numbers one and two above, you become more conscious of your reactions to instances where you can choose to respond negatively and impulsively. And please don’t misunderstand me…sometimes pain is all there is…and sometimes anger is all there is. Hell, we might even be best served during these times by going to a room and just yelling…because that energy has to go somewhere! But by being conscious of these instances, we are invited to harness the energy from them in a positive way.
Utilizing the energy from a negative experience…in a positive way
By developing and practicing a habit like this, we position ourselves to be re-directors of the energy we encounter throughout the world. When others are angry with us or when they feel hurt by us, we can choose to acknowledge their feelings, because by doing this, we are acknowledging their own, individual, spiritual displacements.
Think back to when you were a little kid. A friend of yours was upset, or sitting by him or herself on the playground. Did you go yell at them? Well, maybe you did, if that’s the way you were treated at home. But more often than not, you’d go up to them and say, “What’s wrong?” Or hug them. Or invite them to join you. That’s all we’re doing, by acknowledging the anger and hurt in others, even when they are angry with or hurt by us. We’re simply inviting them back. Some of us, like me, just forgot how to be that way because we allowed ourselves to become jaded from life.
So we are faced with the challenge – when we feel hurt or angered by someone, that is our invitation – our opportunity – to do something good for someone, and refuse to perpetuate the negative energy. And if you don’t have any positive words to offer…french fries go a long way.
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