A few weeks ago, the discussion during our Lenten book study at church (which has been lovely all around and I highly recommend the book linked to above) revolved around how terrible humans tend to be at experiencing pain and difficult, darker emotions; and how bad we also tend to be at allowing others to feel and work through their own difficult emotions. Instead of processing and allowing our challenging emotions the space to work in us, we are much more likely to seek out distraction or something to numb our pain, or to engage in “spiritual bypassing” by using religion to dodge dark emotions. We are much too quick to meet other people’s pain with platitudes, improperly wielded Bible verses, or even implying that the fact that their pain is lingering is their own moral failure. Life can certainly be rough, but I think we may have added another layer of difficulty by refusing to give pain the attention it demands.
As I was pondering these things, the first thing that came to mind was my personal birth experiences, and our general birth culture in America. Mainstream birth culture teaches the same “coping” mechanisms as our general culture teaches about emotional pain. Women are taught to fear and avoid the pain of childbirth, to seek out pain-free alternatives, and to use distraction to cope until it inevitably fails (there are things in life that demand our full attention, birth is one of those things); but few are taught to meet the pain head on and work with it to get to the beautiful, breathtaking other side of it. From the outside, we want laboring women to be quiet and we want labor to be predictable. Due dates become mandates. Our limits on “normal” parameters of birth heave led to increased c-section rates and many other complications, but still we persist in our attempts to make it neat, limited, predictable; much like the way we police other’s emotions. All too often, we leave laboring women on their own, without any knowledgeable support people to guide them through the thick of it. Doctors come in when it is over or when there is a crisis, nurses come in to check progress and administer medications, but for the most part you are on your own in a painful wilderness, and it is so easy to feel hopelessly lost…just like when we are suffering in emotional pain and nobody is there to see us through it.
I have experienced “traditional” hospitalized births as well as one non-hospital birth with the support of midwives, and the difference was night and day. The night was infinitely more beautiful! I think there is so much to be learned from the way midwives approach pain, how they bear with the women they are caring for, and the way they allow the time and space for the important work of birth to take place. Josephine’s birth was both incredibly demanding and breathtakingly beautiful. For days and weeks and months after it, I would close my eyes at night and the memories of my own strength and power would wash over me afresh. I endured that. I accomplished that. The pain I experienced did not lessen the beauty surrounding it, it amplified it tenfold. And the kind of love that just oozed out of my heart towards the women who supported me through it was unmatched. I labored with Josie on and off for a few days. I was exhausted and when her active labor finally arrived it was intense and demanding. She was born with her hand out before her head and it was quite a barrier to overcome. I could not have done it on my own, I needed every drop of their support and care. I think there are times in our emotional and spiritual lives when we just as desperately need the support and presence of others, but too often we cannot find someone willing to sit with us through the darkness of night, simply urging us to keep breathing through it all, reminding us that we are stronger than we think.
My midwives were my lifeline. In the moments when I felt like I could not go on (and believe me, those moments came), they still believed I could and they gently made me believe it, too. When I tensed up so much that I fought my own breath, they held my gaze and showed me how to breathe again. The beauty of being at your most vulnerable and being met with only tender, strong support and unwavering patience is miraculous. It still makes my heart want to burst when I think about the earthly magic that happened in that room. They saw me through a dark, exhausting, and, at times, painful night of birth and into the light and joy that comes with a new life. Their comfort and care actually mitigated my physical pain and it was so much less than I what experienced while medicated in the hospital with my first two births, in spite of the extra challenges. It was spectacular.
What would it look like if when grief or pain appeared in our life, we decided to surrender to it, to feel it, to work with it, instead of numb it out with distraction or distance? What would it do for us, as humans, if we resolved to become spiritual or emotional midwives for each other? What if we committed ourselves to being present with each other through the pain, to sitting in the dark with one another in the hardest moments of life knowing that sometimes the best and only thing we can do is breathe with someone and meet their gaze with love and belief in our eyes? How beautifully could we heal if we knew that someone would be patient with us no matter how long the struggle lasted, and they would not give up on us or tell us our pain was no longer welcome or acceptable? What would it be like if we didn’t tell each other to cheer up or look on the bright side or stop doubting God, but made space for one another to feel what we feel for as long as we feel it, and persisted in bearing with one another until real joy was truly born in us again? What kind of growth would be possible for everyone in a world where the pain or questioning that comes with growing was not something to be sidestepped or shunned? What would it mean to you to be loved through your darkness, to be reminded that the night is as bright as the day to God? It makes my heart swell just to think of it.
Let’s commit to loving each other well, whether it is day or night, sun or rain, joy or deep grief. Let’s not disconnect each other’s lifelines in times of trial or doubt. Let’s bear one another’s burdens and keep each other breathing in the moments where it seems impossible for us to do it alone. Let’s embrace our own brokenness and need and allow others into our vulnerable moments. Let’s make peace with the darkness and remember that it belongs to God every bit as much as the light does. And maybe then we’ll be able to sit in it long enough to see the stars begin to sparkle, the way they only can once darkness falls.