The wrong question that prevents emotional healing
Calvin grew up in a rundown trailer house in the south, with no air conditioning or plumbing. He would relieve himself in a five-gallon bucket, which his mother would wash out.
He didn’t use a shower for the first seventeen years of his life. He was mortified when he did, because he had to tell people that he didn’t know how to use it.
He grew up watching his dad abuse his mother verbally and physically, as well as cheat on her repeatedly. He made her feel worthless.
One of his most painful memories is that of helping his dad on a project. He was shining a light while his dad fixed something in the dark. His dad asked him to hand him a tool and he didn’t know which one it was. His dad snarled in utter contempt, “You’re going to grow up to be as dumb as your mother.”
His school teachers treated him about the same.
Because of malnutrition, he developed kidney issues. He had to pee all the time. One of his teachers wouldn’t let him go to the bathroom, so he had no choice but to pee his pants in his seat, for which she would then berate him.
Another of his teachers once handed him something and asked him to put it away. He had no idea where it was supposed to go. When he asked her where he should put it, she lashed at him in front of the whole class, “It goes back there, dumb dumb.”
Through all this unimaginable, hellacious abuse and pain, there was one bright spot in his life: He loved to sing, and he was good at it. He was invited to sing one time at school, and his teacher and classmates were astounded by his voice. He received a standing ovation.
From then on, until he graduated high school, he was asked to sing many times at school assemblies and other functions. He became so popular that the whole school would chant his name before he sang.
Calvin is a coaching client and a dear friend of mine. He’s a beautiful soul with a heart of gold. My heart broke when he told me his story on our first call.
He told me he wants to use music as a way to reach out to people who feel the same pain and loneliness as he felt growing up, to show them that they’re not alone.
I told him, “I believe with all my heart that you’re going to write and sing songs that are literally going to save lives. People on the verge of suicide are going to listen to your songs and hear in your words and your voice that there’s someone out there who understands what they’re going through.
“If you follow through on this dream, you’re going to receive letters from these people. And you’re going to know to your bones that your deepest wounds have served a profound purpose.”
Few of us have gone through the hell that Calvin has. But every one of us has our own deep emotional wounds from childhood. There’s no escaping it in this life.
And there’s a reason why we have such a hard time healing our wounds and leveraging them to serve the world: It’s because we ask the wrong question.
The question most of us ask throughout our lives, whether consciously or subconsciously, is, “How can I make this pain go away?”
Underlying that question is the assumption that what happened to us should not have happened, that there was some cosmic mistake that created our injustices, and the suffering they have created in our lives.
We spend our whole lives fighting our pain, stifling it, reacting to it. We become a victim of it. Thus, we perpetuate it and make it fester and grow. As one of my mentors, Steve D’Annunzio puts it,
“That which we resist persists.”
If we truly want to heal our emotional wounds, we have to stop asking how to make the pain go away. Rather, we must ask two different questions instead:
- “What can I learn from my wounds?”
- “Whom can I serve because of my wounds?”
Instead of desperately trying to escape our emotional pain, we must learn to transform it. Instead of desperately wishing that our life could have been different, we must learn to see how and why it is so perfect for us, and what we can do for the world precisely because of our pain.
I know how incredibly difficult this is to do, especially in light of the unspeakable abuse that so many people endure in this life. I also know how difficult it is from personal experience. My wounds are so petty compared to what this man has gone through, yet I’ve been crippled by emotional pain for much of my life.
But what I’ve learned is this: Our emotional wounds are not healed by escaping them. Rather, they are healed when we see their purpose and their gifts.
As Pema Chödrön teaches,
“Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.”
The purpose of our deepest wounds is to reveal our Authentic Purpose, which is to connect with others in their pain, and to help them heal their wounds.
Our wounds open our eyes to see the pain of others, open our hearts to feel compassion, and open our capacity to offer healing and strength. The people we are called to serve are those whom we see suffering in the same way we have suffered.
We know we’ve fully healed our emotional wounds when we stop wishing we wouldn’t have experienced them. Instead, we thank God for them and realize we wouldn’t trade them for anything.
Because it’s through our deepest wounds that God fulfills our greatest potential.