I walked out the door without a jacket this weekend. An unfamiliar warmth and exhilaration swept over me, quickly followed by a wave of distrust. Not sure if I could really believe that our long winter is finally over, I went back inside and got an extra layer, just in case. The plants and blossoms are also tentative in their reentry, making their appearance timidly, unsure of their welcome, but persevering nonetheless.
By all counts it was a long dark winter here in Boston, record breaking snowfall and frigid temperatures stretching into a slow, chilly spring. It wore people down, it really did. Everyone was demoralized and dazed by the time winter finally eased its icy grip. But I feel it has not only been a hard time here in Boston: it seems a lot of people I know are struggling in some way. Friends who pay attention to astrology tell me the stars have something to say about this and I am inclined to believe them. Or perhaps it is because most of my friends and I are over fifty now. We are at a time of life when our parents are aging, our children are facing adult problems and we ourselves are experiencing health challenges. There is suffering, death, addiction, anxiety and depression everywhere. Unrest and tragedies in the world beyond my own circles, too, seep into our consciousness. How can we not feel the pain of the world’s suffering at some level?
To help me navigate these challenging times I have been reading Miriam Greenspan’s compelling book, Healing Through The Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear and Despair.
An insightful psychotherapist, Greenspan explains how it is only through allowing the dark emotions of grief, despair and fear to flow through us, to be felt and acknowledged, that we can find the gifts they offer: gratitude, faith and joy. Running from the pain, as tempting as it is, causes all sorts of emotional and physical damage, including addiction, violence, depression, illness and anger. She writes, “Painful emotions challenge us to know the sacred in the broken; to develop an enlarged sense of Self beyond the suffering ego, an awareness that comes from being mindful of life’s difficulties rather than disengaging from them; to arrive at a wider and deeper perspective not limited by our pain but expanded by it.”(p. 27)
Her words have struck a chord with me. My own painful experiences of the past few years forced me to face those demons of grief, fear and despair and, while there was nothing pleasant about it, I have to admit there have been gifts along the way. Greenspan is right: gratitude, faith and joy are indeed the unlikely offspring of some pretty dark emotions. Like childbirth, agonizing, messy and uncontrollable, the journey through hard times can result in new life.
Through the humbling experience of breaking down and rebuilding, I discovered another beautiful truth that Greenspan discusses in her book: the way to healing is through connection with others. In Greenspan’s words: “As we become more aware of our own dark emotions and able to tolerate them, we become more aware of the suffering of others and more empathic. We loosen the constriction of isolated pain. We open our hearts to the world. We grow in compassion.” (p. 240)
Ah yes, “…the constriction of isolated pain.” Isolation is the enemy and it can be a tough one to fight. When we are in pain, we can feel so alone. Depending on what we are struggling with, we can be paralyzed by shame, physical limitations, anxiety or any number of obstacles to seeking connection. Like being shut-in during this endless winter, when just walking outside required backbreaking shoveling, and getting anywhere was a merciless slog, reaching out can feel overwhelming. But once you find the courage to open up, you will find, like the crowds of people waiting for overdue trains, that you are not alone. We are connected beyond what we could have imagined. As Greenspan so beautifully puts it, “Look into the pain of the world and you find your own private path writ large. Look into your heart and you find the broken heart of the world.” (p. 212)
Once you can speak up, putting a voice to your pain, the worst is over and the healing can begin. Connection can be found in unlikely places. People show up to listen and you may be surprised who else has been where you are. This community connection can be the crack through which light streams into the inky darkness. I am talking about the life affirming joy that can be found in being seen, heard and understood, in knowing others have stood where you now stand, the relief of knowing you are not alone. You and the world around you benefit, as compassion breaks through the isolation.
I suppose it is not a surprise to realize the importance of human connection. We spend much of our lives in a variety of communities: family, friends, classmates, religious groups, neighbors. In fact it is not uncommon to feel alienated from some of these groups over time, as we grow and develop our unique selves. We don’t always get along, or agree with one another. In troubled times though, the deep value of community becomes clear, and we need to find ways to develop the support network – new or old – that we need. Whether it is a sorority or club amongst a sea of new faces in college, a table of lunch buddies we see every day, a recovery support group, or the familiar faces of your family and friends, the support of community can provide a sense of belonging that can carry you through. Those people provide motivation and accountability. They are a witness to your journey. They are there to notice when you stumble and listen to your pain. They are proof you are not alone.This weekend I will plant vegetables in my community garden plot. The people there don’t know my particular struggles, nor I theirs, but we recognize each other’s humanity and pale faces after a harsh and brutal winter. This group doesn’t usually interact much but this spring is different: we have already had a planning meeting and two work parties to weed paths and sort out some communal issues. Already we are sending more emails, hoping to share plant purchases and future harvests. We are chipping in to improve our garden, letting each other know that we are not alone. As the garlic shoots and leeks rev up their growth after the long winter under snow, I feel the stirrings of hope: the gifts of gratitude, faith and joy are taking root.