“If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”
That’s a saying from Richard Rohr, the Catholic teacher whose wisdom on suffering, aging, self-knowledge and peacemaking has shaped the thinking of many spiritual seekers and leaders in our time.
If you ponder his words, it’s easy to think of examples where we ‘transmit’ our pain.
You’ve heard the saying, “Hurt people hurt people.” That’s it in a nutshell. Transmitting our pain is the act of repeating the harm that has been done to us. If my pride is wounded, or I feel betrayed, or I am attacked, I lash out. Maybe I hurt the person who hurt me, or maybe I hurt someone else, whoever is the unlucky soul nearby when I’m feeling raw and untethered.
Either way, I’m in pain, and I transmit it.
It’s more of a challenge to think what it means to ‘transform’ our pain.
Surely, it’s not just putting a silver lining on a terrible situation, convincing ourselves that something bad isn’t really bad. If we’re grieving a great loss, or suffering from a profound injustice, it’s not transformative to tell ourselves (or have someone else tell us) that our pain and it’s source are really good things. That kind of rationalization is insult laid upon injury.
So what is the transformation of pain really about, then?
Well, consider what happens when a 60-watt bulb transforms electricity into light, or when a plant transforms sunshine into food. Power is received, it’s accepted, and then expressed in a new way. If we are to do that with pain, we can’t reject it, deny it’s real; but neither can we simply pass it on to the next person. We have to take it and use it.
Think of someone you know pretty well, who demonstrates great wisdom, or strength, or compassion. This person has a testimony of incredibly painful experiences in their life story, which became critically important to them developing the traits that you so admire in them today. I have no idea who you’re thinking about when I pose this thought experiment, but I know I’m right about this!
The patience, honor, compassion, and zeal for justice of the most extraordinary lives are always at least in part the product of pain that has been transformed.
Rohr’s words are both a warning and an invitation. Our pain can be the source of more pain for everyone, or the seed of something beautiful. Don’t repeat the harm that has been done to you. Allow some new life to grow out of it.
The Table is a Christian Church in Davenport, Iowa, pursuing transformation:
From greed toward generosity
From violence toward peacemaking
From isolation toward neighborliness
From fear toward faith
Worship Sundays at 5pm, 102 E. 2nd St., Davenport