Refined

Tuesday night, y’all.  Tuesday night Rob Bell’s Drops Like Stars tour made a stop in Tampa.  I was totally over the moon about the whole deal.  Not only was I going to hear Rob Bell (who has shepherded me through some dark spiritual moments via podcast), but M. Monkito was my date for the event.  I mean, sure, Monkito has been my date for almost every event for the past six years… but I totally thought I would be going this alone.  Monkito identifies as atheist most days and agnostic only on days when the Baby Jesus personally tells her jokes on her lunch break. But, apparently, I have talked up Rob Bell enough that she felt like she would be missing something akin to the Second Coming if she stayed home.

If I said the event was sublime, would that be going too far? Because it was.  Sublime.

We spent two hours exploring suffering.  Not why we suffer, but rather what comes out of experience of suffering that shapes our lives into something more beautiful than if we had remained unscathed.  I would love to describe the evening to you in Technicolor language… but I wouldn’t be able to do it justice.  Instead, I can offer you a mixture of what I remember and the thoughts that linger two days later:

Suffering is essential to the human experience.  If we don’t have any suffering in our own life (because we are too sheltered or too privileged), we go numb.  Suffering provides a relief against which we can experience life.  Without that reference point, we cease to feel anything at all.

As I sat there, among hundreds of other people, my angst in high school, for which I have criticized myself for most of my adult life, began to take on new meaning.  Maybe I created my own suffering because I was so completely cut off from the world outside my suburban household.  I had never encountered suffering in my own life, and certainly had not looked into the eyes of anyone who was hungry, addicted, abused or simply alone.  Maybe I created suffering to feel like my life had meaning, scratching out a place in my soul where I could experience the vastness of life.  Maybe.

Suffering establishes solidarity among those with similar experiences, which explains support groups for illness, addiction, loss.  People need to know that they are not alone, that someone understands how they feel.  People desire empathy for their suffering, and in that empathy they can find the strength to move forward.

Since about the sixth month of sobriety, I have struggled with the what I considered the talk therapy format of AA.  I really would rather not think about the chaos I caused for myself, and those that love me, when I was drinking.  I don’t want to listen to people cry and sort through their raw emotions—because it reminds me of how much I hurt at one time.  And I don’t want to feel that way anymore.  But closing myself off to others’ suffering hasn’t helped me heal.  In fact, my irritation and dismissiveness of others’ experiences only shielded me from dealing with my own suffering again.  Solidarity, the knowledge that someone else has stood exactly where I am and has continued to survive—and even flourish—after devastating consequences for their own actions, that is powerful.  Addiction, and the emotional and spiritual violence that we perpetrate in the throes of addiction, is hell.  Emerging on the other side feels like rebirth.  Solidarity offers hope.

Suffering engenders creativity… when we are in pain, we must sift through the dim haze and find what is most important to us.  We nurture those things.  With clarity, we see what is within us.  We refine our creation, our existence.  As we face suffering, we acknowledge that “this too shall shape me.”  The only question is how.

Alcoholism, by nature, is a desire to escape suffering.  To escape suffering by becoming numb (and that numbness is a slow death in and of itself).  But ignoring suffering doesn’t eradicate it.  It simply pushes it out of the mind’s reach.  The pain still exists, but there is no growth, no wisdom to show for it.  So now, as I hold up the suffering that I both caused and endured, the suffering that I could not deal with when I was drunk, I can face the memories and the consequences head on, with the knowledge that they will shape me… but I get to decide how.

I choose strength, hope and joy.  And I choose to open myself up again to share the suffering of others.  I choose to live fully, viewing suffering as the great force that refines who I am…

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