Freeing Space for Fear

I’ve had a deeply tenderizing experience recently all about respect and responsibility. The details are unimportant. I acted out of irritation and unawareness, venting frustration in a universal way when a particular response was warranted. I was called on my action. The action in itself was fairly minor and common, but the fallout was great, and it was one of those events that seems designed by Being to break down and tear away another layer of self-protection to reveal a new skin of tenderness and authenticity.

Processing this event took me down to a deep place in my shadow zone, a young and innocent place that is easily confused by unclear expectations and easily wounded by disappointing those expectations. As I leaned into these edges with my circle of support, I was gifted a revelation about my absolute resistance to realizing my fear.

What powerful defenses I have constructed against it! Elaborate and familiar rationales and patterned responses rise up whenever fear comes calling. I created a whole lexicon of code words to keep it locked away.

Once I recognized fear beneath the discomfort of my experience, once I spoke it out loud, I dropped into a greater existential pain. It laid me low. Today I woke into a deeper resting in my body, a more accessible vulnerability and tender heartedness.

What I want to say is that fear is a condition of our human experience. It is responsible to a high degree for our collective and individual survival at a very basic level. But more than that, it is an opportunity to relieve ourselves of a super-human expectation, a dehumanizing limitation. There is a strong impulse to cast it as a lesser emotion, something to be resisted, avoided or overcome. Much of our culture is dedicated to its denial or transcendence.

To flip a great American axiom: there is nothing to fear in fear itself. Like all taboos, its repression fuels its desire for expression. It wants some space. Once you let up on the pressure to contain it, it transmutes like fog and dissipates leaving something freshly revealed in its place.

Leaning into Impalement, or Emotional Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection

We are entering the time of the astrological Grand Cross and at the same time the Christian commemoration of the Crucifixion.  These events are shadowing each other, shadowing us, as we each experience our own human suffering.  It’s been said that there is no hierarchy of suffering.  It’s also been said that suffering is unnecessary pain.   When does pain become unnecessary?  The thinking goes that it’s when we add to it by prolonging it.  And yet, there’s a fine line between prolonging pain by choice and prolonging pain by necessity.

There’s a powerful urge in us to get away from pain.  It’s a natural part of the body’s program to save itself.  If your shoe rubs, you take it off.  And yet when life rubs, it’s not so easy to take it off.  An article in the New York Times from 2008 called “The Urge to End It,” says about people who took their own lives, “They had wanted their inner pain to stop; they wanted some measure of relief; and this was the only answer they could find. They were in spiritual agony, and they sought a physical solution.” 

A young friend of mine who took his life earlier this month is said to have told his therapist that the way he dealt with his suicidal ideation was to walk right up to it as close as he could get until the urge dissipated.  The last time this happened, he kept walking.

Spiritual agony.  Inner pain.  Some measure of relief. This is the cycle of emotional crucifixion, death and resurrection.  I don’t mean to justify my young friend’s death.  I can’t.  It is something that happened and not just to him.  It happened to a hundred of us who were his family, friends and acquaintances.  But it also represents a way of leaning in to what is profoundly difficult.  For him, the leaning in ended his physical life; we can’t know if it ended his spiritual pain.  Inasmuch as the body is the highly sensitive organ of perception, it’s arguable that destroying it destroys the stimulus and feeling of agony.  Sadly, it also ends the opportunity to come through the other side of the particular difficulty that took him off the side of a bridge.

Since then, an image of a painting by Frida Kahlo has been with me, of her being impaled by the beam of a street car she was riding in her teens, an injury that plagued her throughout her life and also gave rise to her particular “poetics” of imagery.  As I watch the show of human horrors that unfolds daily in the newspapers, I am aware of the way each story is a kind of goad, and how much easier it must feel to turn the page, read the ads, follow the Yanks.

But if we lean into difficulty, lean into the impalement of our difficult experiences and feelings, there’s a way in which they open up a spaciousness in us at the deepest level of Being.  It’s as if the leaning in, the piercing of the heart, also inoculates us, leaves a trace of its DNA, a sort of psychic homeopathy that I’ve been thinking of as “informed spaciousness.”  Once we let it in, no matter how painful it is, we also let it out.  If we lean with all our weight on the goads of our suffering, then they will come through the other side.

Twice recently, I came across the term “organic Shrapnel,” a term from war that refers to pieces of other bodies that pierce a living person’s flesh.  It’s gruesome and it happens.  It feels to me like an apt metaphor for the way we experience our own individual pain and suffering in this life.  A parent’s or sibling’s or mate’s “explosion” sends up parts of themselves that puncture us.  Like their counterparts in the material realm, they sink deep, fester and begin a journey through the underground of our psyches toward expulsion and the light.

This is the season of rebirth.  The mystery religions, of which Christianity is surely one, are based on this cycle of suffering, death and resurrection.  Can we embrace the mystery?  Can we lean into our suffering, not to prolong it but to allow it to puncture the protective shell we’ve built up around our hearts?  Can we embrace the Shrapnel, trust that as we lean, we will learn, and our compassion will deepen?

Cynthia Bourgeault in her powerful book, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, writes about the act of “substituted love,” in which those who have emptied themselves of personal will and opened to the Divine are able to fully take on the emotional burdens of others.  To kneel at the cross, to wait at the tomb is to receive the vision of the resurrection.  I invite you, at this time of deep transformation, to be both the Christ and the Magdalene.  To lean into the pain and await the release that will carry you to rebirth.