Naming and Transforming Experience

In a well known expression, Richard Rohr says that suffering that is not transformed is transmitted. The challenge is to acknowledge our own pain rather than inflict it on others. If we are able to become attuned to our own sacred core, deeper than and not overcome by any sorrow, we can move gradually from a genuine self-acceptance and self-caring to a concern for others, those nearest to us, and then those more distant.

Wayne Muller also stresses that there is a certain amount of pain in everyone’s life, sometimes great and sometimes small, like a wind that either blows gently or roars through a persons’s life. Gordon Cosby also adds that most of us have an a great deal of unfaced suffering in our histories that has to be looked at and worked through.

What they all stress is that we are able to face our own pain and not have to run from ourselves and the pain that lives within us. Despite our initial fear and reluctance, if we do so, if we allow our sadness to open our hearts, we will find within us a greater freedom and peace, a fuller sense of who we truly are, deeper than any sorrow, We will find, as Rohr says, that they become sacred wounds rather than disfiguring scars, And we will be freed from becoming cynical and bitter, and from needing to scapegoat others and export to them our unresolved hurt. We can also then become, in Henri Nouwen’s terms, a wounded healer to one another.

I would add that what is often helpful is to entrust our sorrow to a trustworthy other. This is a matter not of inflicting or imposing it upon another as an attack, but rather offering it to another as a gift behind which is our very self. As I have often said as well, it is important that such recognition be in a safe place, which may be a time quietly and non-judgmentally by ourselves as well as with an intelligently caring other. And the naming of such experience can be through image, story, music or other art form.

Of course, there is a whole spectrum of experiences, of joy and love, peace and hope. These are also good to name and entrust. Many years ago, I said that we are transformed by what we let affect us deeply. I think that this means to allow ourselves to experience and come to awareness of all the different dimensions within ourselves. Yet it also suggests that in terms of influences from without that we not be open to everything outside us where there is a choice. This can include something as simple as avoiding listening to too many newscasts to to deciding not to expose ourselves to contacts or relationships that have a toxic impact on us.

Within this framework it seems most meaningful to experience deeply, to name our experience, and to share our experience. And if we realize that our own experience is limited, we may also allow our experience to be enriched and expanded by the named experience of others. Again, perhaps the best naming can come from the images, stories, music, painting, sculpture, architecture, and other art forms, as well as philosophical traditions, and these within as well as outside of religious traditions.

Norman King