I vividly remember stomping up the stairs, irate tears streaming down my face. “Aaaarrgh! Mom! Why won’t you just let me make my own mistakes?!?! I want to experience my own pain!” I screamed out my irrational teenage angst before slamming the door so hard that the windowpanes shook.
Yup, this was a pretty common scene for teenage Kristin. I had an internal fire to do and experience everything myself, even make my own mistakes and deal with the pain that ensued. In my adolescent wisdom from a life relatively empty of pain, I was so frustrated that my parents were so overprotective. Of course, I see now that they actually gave me quite a bit of freedom. And, of course, now that I have my own children, I do, in fact, feel the same way they did.
And, of course, my mom is once again correct – the most painful part of parenting is…well, pain. Not mine, but the pain of my children.
DISCLAIMER: It is that time of year where I write deep, dark posts. Because, it is always at this time of year that I am reminded how little ability I actually have to protect my girls from pain. You see, exactly 5 years ago today, I was holding a 6-week old Madeline in the doctor’s office for a checkup to rule out pink eye when the first year resident said, “Well, the good news is, her eye is fine! But, we think there may be something wrong with her heart.”
I am too aware of all the incomprehensible horrors in the world that threaten my precious, innocent and sensitive girls. In particular since we’ve been raising money for and volunteering with Preemptive Love Coalition, I see the faces of my girls in the faces of the children fleeing from ISIS.
Lately, I find myself almost desperately wondering, How do I give my girls the strength to survive something like that? To not be destroyed by it? To be able to fully live in the midst of it and after?
Happy topic, I know.
But, I’m realizing now more than ever that my focus should be less on protecting them and more on preparing them. Because while we will hopefully never have to face that kind of cruelty and unspeakable pain, suffering has and will continue to come. They will make their own mistakes. I will continue to make mistakes. Others will harm them. The unthinkable may happen. It is an inevitable part of life, and I don’t want them to spend their lives hiding away from the possibility of pain. But how do I do that without paralyzing them, giving them nightmares or saddling them with needless anxiety?! Frustratingly, I can see that it is not a science. Because each child and each circumstance is unique, it is a crushingly daunting dance. A dance where the music changes daily and I must constantly listen for my cue to leap forward to protect or to take a bow, step back and let go.
Next on my list of books to read is Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. A trained psychiatrist, Frankl used his experiences as a Holocaust survivor of four different Nazi camps (including Auschwitz) to found Logotherapy.
Logotherapy purports that man’s primary motivation is meaning and that life has meaning regardless of circumstance. He believes that life does not owe us happiness, but offers us meaning. That we all have the ability to choose to turn suffering into achievement. Even as a victim of horrendous suffering, he would conduct therapy sessions in the barracks of the concentration camps to help others. He found that those of his fellow prisoners who not only survived but lived, were those who had a hope, a purpose, a meaning beyond themselves. I first took notice of the book because of this Frankl quote:
Life in a concentration camp exposes your soul’s foundation. Only a few of the prisoners were able to keep their inner liberty and inner strength. Life only has meaning in any circumstances if we have a hope that neither suffering, circumstances, nor death itself can destroy.
While I haven’t suffered as much as most, I have felt the suffocating fear of handing your baby over to a stranger, not knowing if you will ever see her smile again. I have watched tubes being pulled from holes in her tiny little chest, her face twisted in pain and her throat too hoarse from being intubated to cry. I have lain awake night after night, listening, searching anxiety-inducing Google, praying, never sure if she’s really all okay.
And I know my little girls, who are so, so very sensitive, will also have to face crushing pain of their own. And it is our job to help them find that meaning, that purpose, that hope. A hope that is not an abstract theology on a thin piece of Bible paper, but stronger and more vivid and tangible than whatever may threaten them. So when they face suffering, it will not destroy them, but make them more fully into who they are.
Like most things in parenting, I feel like I’m mostly making everything up as I go and don’t have much to go on. But I know I have to start somewhere. So, I fumble through and try to introduce them to the One that has been my unshakable (though utterly frustrating at times) hope through the devastating moments in my life. The One who promises to turn my crap into fertilizer if I let Him. The One whose promise I believe because I’ve seen Him do just that.
But that’s the happy, easy part – beauty can come out of any pain. I also know that sometimes that beauty is not visible for years, or decades, or maybe even ever. Most of the time, it is not the beauty I want. Many times, the beauty does not seem to be glorious enough to make up for the pain. Most of the time, the pain never goes completely away. Much like Madeline’s scar, which has now started aching during growth spurts, the marks of suffering impact us forever.
But I want them to know that because they have a purpose in life, a meaning to pursue, and a hope for something so incomparably greater, that they can redefine that scar, and turn it into something they survived, something that made them better.
And, like most things deep and meaningful, Madeline is way ahead of me on this one.
Since her surgery, Nick and I have worried that Madeline would hate and resent her scar, worried that she would feel different from everyone else. A few months ago, Madeline asked me, “Will I still have my scar in heaven?” Not having any idea where she wanted the answer to go and, like most theological questions they ask, I answered, “Well, that’s a good question. I have no idea.” Without even a pause, she said, “I hope I do. I don’t want to be in heaven without my scar. It’s me. It makes me unique.”
And that lesson is for me. A message from teenage Kristin to adult Kristin. Sometimes the pain we want so desperately to protect them from, is actually the very thing that turns them into the person they are meant to be. It’s the theme of every enduring story throughout time. We just don’t like to have to experience it.
Jeremy Courtney, one of the founders of Preemptive Love, lives in Iraq with his wife and two young kids, risking their lives to save children like Madeline and help victims of ISIS. Ever since I read the words from his fantastic book, Preemptive Love, his prayer for his children has become my prayer for the girls.
…I’ve been asking God to shape them into people of peace – at peace with God and at peace with the world around them…
May that Peace be the Hope that guides them through the pain and into the beauty.
5 thoughts on “The Dance of Teaching Pain”
Beautifully written, Kristin.
Thank you, Jean!