“…but the summers make up for it.”
That’s what the people from Minnesota always said, when I complained about the long, cold winters. The summers make up for it.
And I laughed at them as I packed my bags and boxes and headed south.
Didn’t they realize that there were places where the summers didn’t have to “make up for it”? Where you could enjoy four seasons without suffering through six months of brutal cold and grey and ice and snow?
I knew better. I would outsmart them all, by finding a place to live where I could have summer without winter.
I was walking down a back road with a friend a few weeks ago, kicking at gravel and talking about my life.
“It just hurts,” I said. “I want it to stop hurting.”
She stopped and looked at me.
“This is called ‘suffering’,” she told me. “That’s why it hurts.”
“If you stop fighting it, you will find God in it. And it will change you.”
Later that evening I sat down with Rohr’s Everything Belongs – a now-dogeared paperback that has become a sort of textbook for my soul this summer:
“In terms of soul work, we dare not get rid of the pain before we have learned what it has to teach us.
Answers are the way out, but that is not what we are here for. But when we look at the questions, we look for the opening to transformation. Fixing something doesn’t usually transform us. We try to change events in order to avoid changing ourselves.
We avoid God, who works in the darkness — where we are not in control! Maybe that is the secret: relinquishing control.
We must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the path, the perilous dark path of true prayer.”
Those words have haunted me this summer — sometimes hanging over me like a terrifying shadow, other times shining like a glimmer of hope.
When I can’t breathe and I feel the anxiety rising in my chest and my heart screams “Please, make it stop hurting,” I hear it over and over again:
“We dare not get rid of the pain before we have learned what it has to teach us.”
Yesterday I stumbled across a scene from Fight Club, and the words I heard Tyler Durden saying were all too familiar:
“This… is a chemical burn. It will hurt more than you have ever been burned, and you will have a scar.”
As the Narrator’s hand burns, he tries to escape inside his mind. Screaming and writhing, he attempts mediation to block out the searing pain. Tyler slaps him back to reality.
“Stay with the pain. Don’t shut this out. THIS is your pain. THIS is your burning hand. It’s right here. “
The Narrator screams for it to stop, tries to disappear again. Again, Tyler brings him back:
“No! Don’t ‘deal with it’. Come on! This is the greatest moment of your life, and you’re off somewhere missing it. Listen to me. You can run water over it and make it worse. Or — look at me — you can use vinegar to neutralize the burn.”
Desperately, the Narrator begs for relief:
“Please! Please give it to me.”
But Tyler refuses, holding the jug of vinegar out of reach.
“First, you have to give up. First, you have to know — not fear, know — that one day you are going to die. It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
As the Narrator finally stops struggling against the burning pain, Tyler pours vinegar onto it. The Narrator collapses on the floor and Tyler tells him,
“Congratulations. You’re one step closer to hitting bottom… Hitting bottom isn’t a weekend retreat. It’s not a goddamn seminar. Stop trying to control everything and just let go! LET GO!”
When Tyler Durden and Richard Rohr and the Frozen soundtrack are all saying the same thing, I guess I’d better listen.
I’m realizing that I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to dodge pain. Run from it, fix it, explain it away. I’ve tried to find theological systems that would protect me from its reality.
And finally, it is catching up with me.
Even now, I find myself trying to stop it, fix it, make sense of it. A hundred times I’ve prayed, “Please, make it stop.” I’ve squirmed against it and tried to numb it and raged against the unfairness of it all. But the pain remains, crashing over me, peeling back the layers I had built around my heart to protect it.
And so left with no choice, I stop flailing and thrashing and struggling against the pain and instead try to accept it. Even befriend it.
This repeats itself over and over again:
I find myself wide awake in the middle of the night, staring at the ceiling, my chest on fire. I reach for my phone and look at it, scroll through what’s on the screen. It’s a reflex, a futile attempt to distract myself from what I’m feeling, to escape.
Then I start to pray:
“God, please make it stop. Please fix this. Please make everything ok. Please change these circumstances. Please take away the pain.”
In the darkness, there is only silence.
I quit struggling.
“… okay, God. Where are you in this? What is this suffering teaching me? It’s ok if you don’t take it away. But please, be with me in the middle of it.”
Sometimes I feel the Spirit near me in those moments. Sometimes I do not.
It never seems to get any easier.
We’re headed back to Minneapolis this month, just in time for the endless winter.
When I left three years ago, I swore I’d never live in that god-forsaken frozen wasteland ever again. I was going to find endless summer.
I laughed at them when I left — those frozen people who thought they had to live through winter in order to experience summer.
But I was the fool, not them. I thought I could run from the cold. I thought I could outsmart pain.
I was talking to my friend Addie on the phone last week, about life in Minnesota. I told her I wasn’t looking forward to the winter again.
She said “Yes, the winter is long. And yes, it’s cold. But the summers… oh, the summers!”
And for the first time hearing those familiar words, it didn’t sound like the excuse of someone who was too dumb to move south. It sounded like someone who had learned something about life that I’m just starting to see:
That winter and summer are the fury and beauty of life. That death comes before resurrection. That pain is what makes us grow. And that the only way out is through.
So here’s to winter. May I be brave enough to let it have its way with me.
[ image: beavela ]
published September 11, 2014
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