Pain is Beauty

I talk to my mom on the phone most evenings. The frequency of our phone calls tapered to once a week conversations during my marriage and then re-instituted itself as an almost daily routine upon my divorce.

It’s too lonely not to have someone to share things with when the kids are asleep at night. We talk about work, my kids, and life in general. Besides your spouse, who else wants to hear excerpts of your kids’ funny conversations except grandparents?

[My kids watching silkworm moths mate today.]

Paige: What are they doing?

Ryan: They’re mating.

Paige: What does that mean?

Ryan: It means they’re married, Paige.

Paige: But they just hatched! How did they get married so fast?

Mom and Dad took off this week to see the cherry blossoms in Japan, so even with email and skype, it’s been difficult to maintain our daily chatter. Our last conversation, however, was about the unexpected good that comes from losing things. Not “I-lost-my-car-key” kinds of things. The significant things like losing one’s health; a spouse; a marriage; or even a child.

Losses like these are beyond horrible, yet I’m frequently surprised at the number of people I’ve encountered who eventually emerge on the other side of grief and say they were oddly glad for the painful experiences they’ve been through. I think I am starting to count myself among the ranks of those who have experienced loss and yet find myself grateful for the perspective.

It’s not that I celebrating the demise of my marriage. I just believe that hard experiences are fertile ground for growth.

What is the good that’s come out of suffering? There’s so much. A short list might include: Empathy. Humility. A realization that we’re not in control of things. A recognition of the false gods we’ve instituted into our lives. A heightened sense of what’s really important. A closer relationship with God.

In my own life, I’d say that, historically, I have not been high on the empathy scale. I’m not sure if that’s a genetic predisposition or perhaps the result of too much ease in my life, but I haven’t had to struggle for much. Academic success. Good friends. Work/promotions. Most things came fairly easily to me without a lot of striving.

I suspect that those who have to work harder at life develop more empathy for other’s struggles. Growing up, I had this mental checklist of sorts: succeed in school; get into a good college; land a meaningful job; get married; buy a house; advance at work; become a mom. Amazingly, life cooperated with me. Instead of recognizing these as undeserved blessings, I took a ton of credit for it all: Wow, I’m good. I made all the right choices and look at how on-course my life is!

It would be fair to say I was arrogant, and it’s difficult to develop empathy for others when you haven’t struggled or failed at things.

My divorce was possibly my first real, significant failure. Ever. In retrospect, I think failure humbles you and helps you develop new lenses through which to understand the sorrow and suffering of others. Today, when I encounter someone’s pain, there is a greater understanding for what the person is experiencing and possibly a greater sense of what will help and what won’t. I still have a long ways to go, but the process has begun…

The end of my marriage also helped me finally realize that other human beings (and events) are not in my control. I had some odd notion that I could persuade, coerce, require, demand that people cede to my will. It was eye-opening to discover that it takes two people to decide to get married and one person to end a marriage.

(In the process of our divorce, Megan once asked me if I could just refuse to be “de-married.” Seems like you should be able to, doesn’t it? Then again, would you want to be married to someone who doesn’t want to be married to you?)

Suffering rarely limits itself to one individual. It spreads along the lines to anyone who loves a person in pain, so my family walked through the hell of my divorce as well and had their own refinements in the fire. My mother says the whole thing helped her realize how much she fixed her happiness and joy on her children and grandchildren. We were her magnum opus, her “great work.” Watching two daughters and precious grandchildren struggle and suffer through one son-in-law’s death and the other thru divorce in the span of a few weeks was akin to Job’s servants’ multiple announcements of catastrophic loss. But pain has a way of pointing out what we’ve made too important in our lives and gives us a chance to take people and things out of the center of our hearts where ultimately only God belongs.

Mom grieved with my sister and me, but she also learned to walk with peace and a certitude that God was still in control of all of our lives.

For my father, obtaining financial success has been a goal to insulate him and his family against the harsh things of life. When my father graduated from college in the ’60s, an Asian person couldn’t buy a home in Orange County, CA. (Incomprehensible to me as today, Orange County possibly has a higher population of Asians than Asia itself!) Dad worked three jobs to get through college, including cleaning out dog kennels in order to have lodging at a veterinary clinic.

Success meant that you didn’t have to accept menial, hard jobs. Money often wore down prejudices and paved the way for societal acceptance. And a good financial portfolio afforded your children privileges and opportunities you were denied.

But money can be a deceptively manipulative force that can make you seek its power and convince you that it can control life if you have enough of it. If the end of my marriage was my first significant failure; my divorce and my sister’s widowhood were perhaps the first time that my father came face-to-face with the limits of his bank account.

No amount of money could bring my brother-in-law Richard back to life; no dollar amount could preserve a splintering family. Sure money can cushion the blows, but it can never speak to the things that are the most fundamental to our hearts.

Suffering makes us realize how impotent and false our “gods” truly are. We worship strong families, loving marriages, happy children, secure bank accounts, good looks, strong health, career successes and enduring friendships. My favorite pastor, Tim Keller, would say we take good things and make them ultimate things. No matter how good these things are, they eventually fail us, if not intentionally, then eventually in this life.

Children grow up and lead their own lives. Friendships ebb with distance or time. Even the best of marriages have their ups and downs. Sometimes they end or spouses die.

Yes, very cheery thoughts. But actually it doesn’t depress me much these days. There’s lingering sadness from time-to-time, but once you face down grief, you discover that there’s a new-found strength on the other side of suffering; a resilience and a grace that bears up under even intense pressure. If pain takes you down to the ground, you might find that God is the one you’re wrestling with, and there’s a good chance you’ll emerge from the struggle with a new identity.

Sleep beckons, but one last comment. In the absence of family phone calls this week, I took the time to catch up on some filing and came across a note to me from one of my mother’s best friends—one of those Chinese “Aunts” who’s not really related, but honored with familial titles for her closeness to our family. She sent me these quotes from Parker Palmer:

“People who have been penetrated by darkness and suffering, they will lead the rest of us to a place of hidden wholeness because they have been there and know the way.”

“Crisis, the whirlwind in our life, is a sacred opportunity for God to take me somewhere. A passage. A separation. The trouble is, in the midst of crisis, we are hardly aware of God’s holy doing. We feel crushed. Abandoned. Bemoaning our loss and grief. Crisis is a holy summon to cross a threshold. It involves a leaving behind or stepping forward. A separation or an opportunity for redirection; soul-making; a turning; a holy beginning, a sacred opportunity for inner transformation.”

Perhaps one of my favorite quotes is from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross:

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

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