If we deny happiness, resist our satisfaction,
We lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. . .
~Jack Gilbert, "A Brief for the Defense"
One of the survivors of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil drill disaster made an escape that sounds like something from a Tom Cruise Summer blockbuster movie. While drilling the ocean floor, a geyser of mud, methane gas, and seawater erupted onto the rig, shooting 240 ft into the air. The methane ignited into a series of explosions and ultimately a firestorm. The initial blast sent a three-inch thick metal fire door slamming into a worker on the exploding rig. As soon as he was able to free himself, another explosion sent another door straight into him, pinning him to the wall again. By that point he was starting to get angry. After watching all their fire drills go to waste by the panic around him, the worker plunged two or three stories into the ocean which gave him a few seconds to think about the fact that he had jumped from a place that wasn't on fire into the ocean, which actually was aflame with burning oil. When he got over being stunned by hitting the water, hard, he realized he wasn't dead because he felt a burning sensation all over his body; fortunately he wasn't on fire.
We see this story again and again, in real life as well as in books and screen: the hero, so righteous, so noble, good and pure, one trauma is not enough to break her. If traumatizing a hero once can earn the audience's sympathy, then what better way to earn love for a character than to lay trauma after trauma on her like a falling row of dominoes? Whatever can go wrong for our hero will go wrong. The hero will lose everyone she loves, find every promise broken and every dream unfulfilled. Some call this dramatic effect “The Trauma Conga Line,” and it’s a story as old as the book of Job. In the face of suffering, the audience wants to save the person. We want to pluck her out of her tragedy and hug her with nurturing love. Audience members experience relief from their own hurts by fantasizing about relieving the protagonist’s pain.
The Apostle Paul also had a place in the Trauma Conga Line. When we pay attention to the book of Acts and Paul’s letters, we read about one trauma after another. Paul was flogged an uncounted number of times, received 39 lashes five different times, beaten with rods three different times, was stoned one time, shipwrecked three times, and spent a day and night bobbing in sea. Paul was weary and in pain, and often sleepless. He was imprisoned many times. As legend has it, Paul was tortured and eventually beheaded by the Emperor Nero. During one of his imprisonments, Paul writes on of the loveliest, most hopeful letters in our Scriptures. Either he is the ultimate optimist, or he’s insane from all the trauma. In the Book of Philippians he writes,
“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you" (Philippians 4:6-9).I can just picture a tortured man with a long beard and tattered clothes chained to a murky subterranean cement wall. Cue the music – it’s Bob Marley in the background singing:
“Don’t worry about a thing,Or, if you need more irony, maybe the Shirelles singing, “Mama said there'd be days like this . . .”
‘Cuz every little thing, gonna be alright.”
Joy? Praise? Thanksgiving? Beauty? Acceptance? We are not always so sure about positive, life-generating responses to trauma. Suffering we get. Suffering characters resonate with us because many of us have narratives of our own lives that tell the story of one ache after another. An antagonist has tested and tried us, beaten us down, robbed us of joy and stolen our dreams.
All of our experiences of the past put us where we are now: all of the past traumatic events. all of the past disappointments, past insults we’ve believed, past offenses, and past mistakes. We can be quick to blame others. We can become victims of the past. But what about joy in the midst of suffering? Gratitude in times of want? Beauty in the face of terror? What might happen when we make peace with the past and allow ourselves to create, to love, to shine? What happens when we make peace with the past and begin to risk delight?
Imagine yourself as the hero of your own story. You start out in the ordinary world of your life with nothing but a nagging notion that things can be better than how they have been in the past. There must be something more to life. Listen to the voice that separates you from your past. That voice asks you to step into a Hero’s Journey. What is it you’re no longer willing to accept anymore in your world? What’s a new goal that you want to set for yourself, a goal enticing and powerful enough that would want to make peace with the past and step into a new life? What is the treasure you seek?
In all good hero stories, the treasure is guarded and protected. There are obstacles in the way. Challenges to overcome. As the hero of your story, the closer you come towards your treasure, the more difficult the obstacles become. Heroes have no choice but to face down the most difficult challenges. So, you travel into the heart of darkness; you go into the Innermost Cave of the Evil One, the one being who would do anything to see you fail. We all have someone standing in the way of our deep desires. There’s that someone you’ve been putting off facing even though you know you need to; or the situation that’s been giving you difficulty but you’ve avoided facing; or a limiting belief that’s been weighing you down.
Facing failure may be the most difficult point in your Hero’s Journey. It’s where everything seems bleak and all hope feels lost. But facing the worst of your demons, you push beyond your limits, and triumph over that which stands in the way of claiming your treasure.
Once you triumph over the worst of the negative energies coming your way, then you can learn from them. You’ve stretched yourself so far beyond your old self that you will no longer return back to the status quo. You get to claim your treasure. But wait! That’s not all! You also find that the journey itself has strengthened you. You’ve grown wiser with experience and knowledge. You’ve been reborn. And the treasures you’ve discovered will also benefit someone else out there who needs it.
We can do it. We can discover joy in suffering. We can uncover beauty in ashes. We can shift our perceptions. We can make peace with the past.
The journey can begin today. What might happen if you declare, “Not even the Trauma Conga Line can break me.”
I no longer pretend.
Today I embrace who I am—all of me—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I am grateful for all of the experiences I’ve encountered.
I realize that I was judging myself far more harshly that anyone else ever could.
I let go of the belief that I have to hide from my past.
I let go of the belief of being “less than.”
I let go of the belief of not being worthy.
Or, in the words of Poet Jack Gilbert:
If we deny happiness, resist our satisfaction,Poets have a stubborn refusal to be cowed by terrible circumstances. They can praise the gift of life and the beauty of this world, even in the midst of suffering. They know this world is a ruthless furnace. It devours everything in its flames. But there are two types of flames. As T.S. Elliot reminds us in The Four Quartets:
We lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight.
The only hope, or else despair,Which flames do we allow to define our existence, the flames of hell or the flame of the Holy Spirit? Gladness, joy, beauty, delight – these have no place in our hells. When we are captive to the suffering of the past, we turn inward, tempted to wallow in self-absorption. In our personal hells, injustice becomes the only measure of our attention. But the flame of God, the gift of the Spirit, turns us outward to the world, no longer alone.
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –
To be redeemed by fire or fire.
A compassionate intelligence knows this world is both heaven and hell, here and now. When we feel sorrow, our job is not to blame the past. Our job is to feel the depths of the sorrow. And when joy arises, who are we to question? Our job is to give in to delight, utterly. The only thing we are not allowed is indifference. Indifference is the greatest obstacle to an awakened heart.
In the midst of our traumas, our personal hells and inner caves, obstacles and challenges, yes, even in rehearsing the sufferings of the past, we acclaim this: whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Think on these things NOW. And the God of peace will be with you.
The Hero’s Journey By Alvin Soon From Life Coaches Blog, http://www.peerzone.info/sites/default/files/resources/The%20Heros%20Journey.pdf
The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz
Ten Poems to Change Your Life Again and Again by Roger Housden.