Rolheiser: Grieving as a spiritual exercise
In a remarkable book, The Inner Voice of Love, written while he was in a deep emotional depression, Henri Nouwen shares these words:
“The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking them through. It is better to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to try to understand them, better to let them enter into your silence than to talk about them. The choice you face constantly is whether you are taking your hurts to your head or to your heart. In your head you analyze them, find their causes and consequences, and coin words to speak and write about them. But no final healing is likely to come from that source. You need to let your wounds go down into your heart. Then you can live them through and discover that they will not destroy you. Your heart is greater than your wounds.”
He’s right; your heart is greater than your wounds, though it needs caution in dealing with them. Wounds can soften your heart; but they can also harden you heart and freeze it in bitterness.
So what’s the path here? What leads to warmth and what leads to coldness?
In a remarkable essay, The Drama of the Gifted Child, the Swiss psychologist, Alice Miller, tells us what hardens the heart and what softens it. She does so by outlining a particular drama that commonly unfolds in many lives. For her, giftedness does not refer to intellectual prowess but to sensitivity. The gifted child is the sensitive child. But that gift, sensitivity, is a mixed blessing.
Positively, it lets you feel things more deeply so that the joys of living will mean more to you than to someone who is more callous. That’s its upside.
Conversely, however, if you are sensitive you will habitually fear disappointing others and will forever fear not measuring up. And your inadequacy to always measure up will habitually trigger feelings of anxiety and guilt within you. As well, if you are extraordinarily sensitive, you will tend to be self-effacing to a fault, letting others have their way while you swallow hard as your own needs aren’t met and then absorb the consequences. Not least, if you feel things deeply you will also feel hurt more deeply.
That’s the downside of sensitivity and makes for the drama that Alice Miller calls the “drama of the gifted child”, the drama of the sensitive person.
Further, in her view, for many of us that drama will only begin to really play itself out in our middle and later years, constellating in frustration, disappointment, anger, and bitterness, as the wounds of our childhood and early adulthood begin to break through and overpower the inner mechanisms we have set up to resist them.
In mid-life and beyond, our wounds will make themselves heard so strongly that our habitual ways of denial and coping no longer work. In mid-life you realize that your mother did love your sister better than you, that your father in fact didn’t care much about you, and that all those hurts you absorbed because you swallowed hard and played the stoic are still gnawing away bitterly inside you. That’s how the drama eventually culminates, in a heart that’s angry.
So where does that leave us?
For Alice Miller, the answer lies in grieving. Our wounds are real and there is nothing we can do about them, pure and simple. The clock can’t be turned back.
We cannot relive our lives so as to provide ourselves with different parents, different childhood friends, different experiences on the playground, different choices, and a different temperament. We can only move forward so as to live beyond our wounds. And we do that by grieving.
Alice Miller submits that the entire psychological and spiritual task of midlife and beyond is that of grieving, mourning our wounds until the very foundations of our lives shake enough so that there can be transformation.
A deep psychological scar is the same as having some part of your body permanently damaged in an accident. You will never be whole again and nothing can change that. But you can be happy again; perhaps more happy than ever before. But that loss of wholeness must be grieved or it will manifest itself in anger, bitterness, and jealous regrets.
The Jesuit music composer and spiritual writer, Roc O’Connor, makes the same point, with the added comment that the grieving process also calls for a long patience within which we need to wait long enough so that the healing can occur according to its own natural rhythms. We need, he says, to embrace our wounded humanity and not act out.
What’s helpful, he suggests, is to grieve our human limitations. Then we can endure hunger, emptiness, disappointment, and humiliation without looking for a quick fix – or for a fix at all. We should not try to fill our emptiness too quickly without sufficient waiting.
And we won’t ever make peace with our wounds without sufficient grieving.