Once I was invited to the retirement party of a fond acquaintance, a well respected lawyer. He was a man I personally knew to be honest as well as exceedingly good at his profession. The party was fun; full of toasts and speeches commemorating the career of this good and admirable man. He sure helped a lot of people. Here was a guy who had really made it, and he did it in the right way.
After the formal part of the festivities, the guests were scattered throughout the large, bright room, happily socializing. I noticed the guest of honor, the lawyer, quietly slip away through a side door of the room with, if I wasn’t mistaken, an expression of alarm. I followed my hunch and found him in a secluded spot, very upset.
He was ready to talk about a topic I didn’t expect: his troubled relationship with his father. The father had been a cold man, stingy with affection and praise. This retirement party, overflowing with praise and appreciation, stirred memories of the lawyer’s intense longing for the praise and appreciation of the one important person who withheld it, his dad.
His father respected professional men – doctors and lawyers – so the son went to law school. On graduation day, the father remarked that a man wasn’t “a real lawyer” until he passed the bar exam. On the day the son passed the bar exam his father responded with a frown, “Well, do you think you can handle it?”
I kept quiet and listened, aware I was seeing this dear man’s deepest wound. His eyes were wet and his face a mix of despair and choked anger. He was now nearly seventy years old, his father long dead. On this day, dedicated to celebrating his own well-lived adult life, his wound, begun probably in childhood, still festered inside. His experience is well described by the poet Robert Bly: “If a young man is not being admired by an older man, the young man is being wounded.”
What does it feel like to carry this kind of pain day after day, year after year; a deep pain that never really goes away through the seasons of life? We don’t have to wonder for very long because I think we all know. It is part of the universal human condition to be wounded in some way, and every one of us is vexed by the remnants of emotional injury.
We could hear laughter from the party. The lawyer gathered himself and we went back in. A short time later he too was laughing with the guests, looking as though he hadn’t a care in the world. But I was still disturbed. His poignant description of a pain carried too long called forth my own hidden pain, now agitated and asking for attention.
Later I reflected on the difficulty of resolving, not to mention healing, this kind of damage to the inner life. No matter how well put together people are on the outside, every jack one of them has a secret place deep inside that is a repository for their worst personal pain. It is the dank, dark basement of the soul with thick walls, where nobody wants to go. In East of Eden, John Steinbeck describes it this way, “Everyone concealed that little hell in himself, while publicly pretending it did not exist – and when he was caught up in it he was completely helpless.”
Feeling helpless and vulnerable is dreadful, and we may do anything to avoid it, and so we tend to push down our deepest pain. But emotional pain doesn’t always do as it is told; in fact, it never does for long. Though confined, it eventually surfaces anyway, but often in disguise as depression, anxiety, shame or self-doubt, or even physical illness. Hidden wounds don’t want to remain hidden. Still, a man hiding his sorrow is as old as the human race.
In his book The Examined Life, Stephen Grosz describes how we may feel trapped by our wounds, imprisoned by our own hidden history and react to it by repeating mistakes and self-defeating behaviors. Yet those same mistakes and self-defeating behaviors are also emissaries, delivering messages about something inside needing attention.
Grosz describes the experience of American soldiers captured during the Vietnam War. The soldiers, often kept in brutal solitary confinement, learned to communicate with each other through an ingenious system of tapping a code on the walls of the cells that separated them. Their tapping and listening skills became so sophisticated that they were able to discern, through only a few taps, the mood of the message sender; if he was hopeful or depressed, for example.
Grosz quotes philosopher Simone Weil on this same phenomenon of prisoner tapping: “The wall is the thing which separates them but it is also their means of communication,” she said. “Every separation is a link.” Walling off our emotional wounds to protect ourselves from further suffering is an understandable impulse. But the pain imprisoned inside us is tapping on the wall, always tapping, trying to forge a link to the conscious mind, to be understood, to be accepted, to be healed. Weil says the wall, “…is the barrier. At the same time it is the way through.” What beautiful irony that is; fortunate for us because it suggests the possibility our suffering, while often hideous, may contain the seeds of its own redemption. Our agonies and traumas are not meaningless; they can serve a greater good. May I suggest one of those greater goods?
One of the grotesque things about emotional woundedness is its cozy relationship with shame. The wound is bad enough by itself, but then we, the wounded, heap additional shame upon the wound. The shame is the jailer, keeping the wound locked up in darkness and secrecy, where it remains infected and able to exert its serpentine influence. Quite often the biggest difficulty to facing the deep wound is getting past the shame that blocks access.
Entrenched shame does more than perpetuate misery from the wound, however. Shame is also an enemy to intimacy in relationships. And now we get to the heart of the matter. Here is the sensational greater good that emerges from the courageous work of facing old wounds.
By sharing our pain with a worthy other, someone who can listen with affection and not judgement, we begin learning how to become known, to be seen as we are: first to another, then to ourselves. We begin to experience the nourishing relationship between self-acceptance and intimacy, which is essential for the art of giving and receiving love with our whole self.
Beyond wounds, beyond grievances, beyond acclaim, beyond professional and material success, even beyond great sex, meaningful love reigns supreme. Love, based on the truth of who we are, is the pearl of great price.
Who would have thought that the dreaded experience of woundedness could be connected to the much desired attainment of love? In the pilgrimage of life everything is connected, even as we attempt to disconnect things. You can see how holding onto old pain could be an effective defense against the risks of true intimacy.
But it’s not really effective because we hear the tapping. As my lawyer friend discovered on his day of celebration, his greatest sorrow showed up as well; an uninvited guest, but one that would not be denied admittance.
“Every separation is a link,” is a terrifying and wonderful statement. Intentionally seeking out our hidden pain may seem impossibly frightening at first, but if we incline our ears to the tapping and move towards the wall, we may end up getting what our wounded souls are really looking for.