My Father's Suffering: What's It Good For?


"We are not meant to stay wounded. We are supposed to move through our tragedies and challenges and to help each other move through the many painful episodes of our lives. By remaining stuck in the power of our wounds, we block our own transformation. We overlook the greater gifts inherent in our wounds — the strength to overcome them and the lessons that we are meant to receive through them. Wounds are the means through which we enter the hearts of other people. They are meant to teach us to become compassionate and wise." — Caroline Myss

It is difficult for many of us to believe in this Caroline Myss quote – to believe that the hard won insights from healing are in fact gifts or lessons. Perhaps you too question the validity of this idea in your own life. Maybe you too feel caught up or lost in some personal darkness of suffering, unable to let in any possibility of transformation.

How do we ever possibly believe in some purpose or goodness of compassion emerging from the pain of hurtful past experiences? How can suffering possibly be a good thing?

The quote above is quite a provocative statement, especially when applied to those of us who have experienced some form of being ignored, neglected, or abandoned by loved ones in relationships. Believing in our capacity to heal an abandonment wound is not an endorsement of what had happened to you; believing in healing is not a conclusion that what had happened was a good thing. It was not a good thing.

Being ignored, neglected, or abandoned, either physically or emotionally was a tragedy; it was incredibly confusing and hurtful. It brought with it deep sadness and a private struggle. I can never fully know your personal experience of loss or depth of pain. I can only really understand my own. Personally, I know the experience of being ignored, but not specifically being left. My father’s story is different however; he was abandoned.

He was from Germany and right after World War 2 he was living with a neighbor who he called grandmother. He bonded with her. His mother would visit periodically but did not live with him. When he was 5 years old, one day, a man came wearing a trench coat and sat at the dining room table to talk with his grandmother. My father did not know who this man was. The next day the man returned and my father was given to him to come to the United States to be adopted.

My father never talked about that experience.

He came to America at age 5 crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a passenger ship. I have often wondered what it was like for that little 5 year old boy to be all alone on that ship, especially how frightening it must have been.

My father was adopted by a family in Ohio that never fully understood him in the way that he needed to be understood. He lived his whole life feeling misplaced and without a home. At around age 36 he went back to Germany three times to try and find any surviving relatives. He was not successful. He died not too many years later in a car-train accident. I was 14 years old when he died.

My father carried his sense of woundedness with him his whole life. He never sought counseling even though he was extremely resourceful and intelligent and had access to counseling at the nearby university. He never sought out other people near our home in Ohio who had also come to America the exact same way that he did. He chose to bury his pain and confusion and hurt and as a result lived battling depression and turning to alcohol to self-medicate. Even before I was born, my mother reports my father started slipping away more and more – becoming emotionally distant. In retrospect it is rather obvious, he never recovered from the profound hurt and rejection of his abandonment.

On the outside he was charismatic and a good man and an excellent provider and a good protector, but internally he was quite shut down, maybe even paralyzed in his grief. Essentially he always felt homeless.

The legacy was passed onto me in that I too feel like a refugee and feel I do not belong to any one place. In my adult life I have moved a lot and probably will continue to do so.

As his child and in this moment referencing the Caroline Myss quote above, I do wonder often why my father never attended to his pain in a way to get himself help. My understanding of the quote above is that no matter how horrendous of an experience, we have to find a way to take the insurmountable suffering and use it as a bridge to open up to some sort of tiny path of compassion for ourselves. We use this bridge of compassion as a way to open our hearts to all of the suffering around us and in that way begin to make peace with our own history.

I humbly share these ideas and interpretation of the quote knowing full well that to actually be in the trenches grappling with such heartbreak is akin to being in a battle with a dragon. It takes an incredible amount of skill and energy. The quote above is suggesting that in fact profound heartbreak in itself is something that holds the potential to wake us up to the heartbreak of the world. There is much pain and suffering in the world as we all know.

And when that heartbreak aligns us with compassion it also creates compassion for ourselves.

And in this example, compassion is not just an idea or a concept. It means compassion as a real-world, heartfelt warmth and ache of love that we realize we can also have for our own heart, our own history, our own woundedness. And if we don't strive for this? If we don't seek to transform suffering into compassion, then we end up like my father - catatonic on the sofa, depressed, self-medicating with beer, and emotionally ignoring his son sitting in the same room with him.

I wish my father had discovered the wisdom contained in the Caroline Myss quote when he was alive. The wisdom captured in the quote reminds us that pain as a reality of experience is not by nature pathological. When we believe the false assumption that pain only means that something is wrong; then we start striving to feel better or comfortable or happy, even if this results in denying the very nature of normal pain.

There is nothing wrong with us just because it hurts. Living with hurt is universal and can be endured. We don't necessarily eradicate pain as much as we practice relating to it honestly and with a willingness to experience it fully without shutting down. This is how suffering becomes a path to consciousness. I wish my father had been able to find the path out of his suffering.


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