When the Past Hurts


I was sitting in therapy once and found something in my soul I never knew was there. It was as if I was taking a guest on a tour of my home and noticed a door in the hallway I'd never seen before–it was that unexpected. It was a door that I wouldn't be able to open for weeks.

It wasn't that long ago. I was still a part of the Baptist church, but I'd become a black sheep for talking about marriage equality and evolution. It felt like getting divorced–one of the most painful things I'd ever endured. So, I started going to see a therapist once a week.

We were talking about my childhood–my therapist insisted on it. Therapists are always getting you to talk about parts of your life you don't want to talk about. The funny thing is I could talk about what happened when I was a kid, and I could explain what other kids had done to me when I was bullied so much. It didn't bother me, and I told my therapist that I was over all that.

But then she asked me how I felt when those things happened to me. She asked me how I felt when kids would throw softballs at me, or push me over when we were running laps.

I don't want to sound melodramatic, but it was that moment that I saw the unexpected door for the first time. And when I touched the doorknob, it scalded me. It was if that once unseen door was the Gates of Hell itself, and evil emanated from it–an oppressive, terrifying radiation that is not seen, but felt.

I couldn't tell my therapist how I felt. Even thinking about it made my heart pound like a bass drum, while filling me with some awful terror. It confused and disoriented me.

I mean, here I was in a safe place and I was terrified just because a kind, smart woman asked me how I felt about something that happened decades ago. It split my consciousness for a few seconds–part of me was afraid, and part of me was wearing a lab coat, studying that fear.

That was a rough day. I was shaken for the rest of the afternoon, uncomfortable in my own thoughts. Just as uneasy as I'd be at home with a mysterious door to Hell, a few feet from my favorite couch.

Week after week, my therapist would keep guiding me toward that door. I told her why I wasn't able to cry, about how I'd learned to make myself not cry via biofeedback so well that it was automatic these days. I'd become a person who could sob once, before I'd reflexively relax my core muscles and slow my breathing.

And then, one week, my friend Bradley asked me what I would tell the 7 year old me if he was sitting across from me, and the door opened.

A river of grief came out. Grief is a briny river for sure, but somehow it leaves you feeling clean.

After that, I could cry in therapy. We had to talk about some of my childhood feelings over and over. I still felt panicky and afraid when we'd move through what it was like to be a fat, ginger kid who loved computers and science.

The craziest thing was that the more I opened that door, the less it scared me. And each time, the flow of grief was a little smaller, until at last it was just another door.

Don't get me wrong, that's not the part of my soul where I want to watch TV or have a party. But, I don't mind going in there anymore, especially if I can grab a story that will help someone else face their own grief over past trauma, loss, or hurt.

Here's the thing: when you bury the pain of the past it can warp you. On the one hand, my bullies gave me a gift. I have a profound sense of independence and I'm not too worried about the approval of a crowd. On the other hand, I have an acute fear or rejection, and intense doubt when people tell me they like me.

By suppressing all those feelings of rejection from my childhood, I set the stage from some pretty toxic behaviors later in life. It's where I get my love of being in front of crowds, entertaining them, but also controlling the interaction. It also lead me to seek acceptance and validation in some unhealthy romantic relationships.

I was able to drop a lot of those behaviors and live a healthier life when I finally forgive the people who'd hurt me as a child. They were children, after all. The first step in redeeming the wounds of our past is forgiving the ones who wounded us. It's the only way forward.

But it's just the beginning of the healing process. After forgiveness comes grief. You have to mourn the loss that came from that wound. Western people have a profound talent for avoiding grief, and Americans are exceptional at it even by the standards of the West.

This is all rooted in our brains, of course. When you recall events and people from the past, different parts of your brain light up. For traumatic memories, your amygdala will get hyped up just as powerfully as if am imminent, physical threat was present. The power of the human brain in recreating the past means our painful memories have exquisite power.

Why wouldn't you bury something like that? Who would chose to wander into such pain? It's awful.

Awful, but essential. Because every time you recall a memory, your brain changes that memory a little bit. That's how conditioning works. Pavlov's insights apply to people just as much as dogs. I salivate when the microwave dings. It's positive reinforcement. But if someone hit me with a rock every time the microwave did it's thing, I'd probably break into a sweat every time someone reached for a frozen dinner. That's why grief and therapy work so well.

When we recall the painful past in as safe environment, we weaken that memories association with the parts of our brain that drive fear and anger. We rewire our brains to take the punch out of those wounds, and finally allow them to heal.

I think that's why people who've been hurt have to return to their stories over and over. They have an instinctive drive to share once they feel safe. As long as that doesn't become an obsession, it's healthy.

I've found that forgiveness and grief are helpful in living a whole, healthy life.

I'd love to hear your insights about coping with past traumas in the comments below.

photo credit: via photopin (license)

Bright, Shining as the Sun...

My formative years as a musician were decidedly unreligious. I mostly played in bars and clubs that I was not old enough to enter as a customer. After high school, I continued to work hard to "make it" and even played with some acts that did ok on a regional basis. My greatest addiction was standing on a stage and playing for people. There is absolutely nothing in the human experience like a worked-up crowd at a rock show. You can eat the energy and feel full for days.

But I kept getting older, and fatter, and less rock and roll. That was a shame, because I was just getting where I could play the bass worth a damn. I'd also acted as a stand-in manager for a band or two, so I understood a lot about the business of making a music happen.

This friend of mine, who's name is Todd, kept bugging me to come and play with his band. The guys were younger than I me, and they played Christian music, but Todd said they were really good. I finally decided to load up my bass rig and go practice with them. That was quite a commitment as my rig at the time was taller than me and weighed a couple hundred pounds. When I arrived at the church where they practiced, I was pretty disappointed to see an electric guitar plugged into a mixer, and an acoustic guitar. I'm enough of a 90s grunge kid that I once associated acoustic guitars with lame unplugged acts and bands that sat on stools. But whatever, I was there so why not play?

The first thing I noticed was these kids could sing, and they could sing a lot better than most bands I'd played with. Our focus was always on the guitars and the drums. Vocalists were just a thing you had to have. But these guys, man, they could sing. They could actually sing too well, because they never really stopped with the three part harmony. That aside, they were good song writers. I kept practicing with them, and joined the band.

We were Beneath His Feet.

We performed mostly at churches and summer camps. Sometimes we would play at or even organize these little Christian music festivals with other local Christian bands. Our music was unbearably cheesy in a lot of ways, but we still had this really enthusiastic following. We played every week for a youth group, and at some point we were less a band and more a community. It was hard to tell where the band stopped and where the community began. And that's the funny thing: the biggest impact we had on this word was not our music, but all those relationships. All those kids still run through my mind like a slideshow sometimes. I love them dearly.

I never had a brother growing up. It was just me and my sister at home. But in Beneath His Feet, I found that my family grew. I had four brothers and tons of parents. Any of our folks would take in the whole clan anytime. They traveled with us to shows, all over the southeast.

Our band broke up years ago, but our family never did. We have been through some major league stuff together. We've fought, and we've hugged, celebrated and wept. Now is a time for celebrating.

And for weeping.

My brother Mike Park (it is for him I gained the namesake "Mike2") just released his Mom into the next life. She is not with us anymore, here. She is elsewhere. And even as I type this words into my laptop I am crying again.

Mike's family has absolute assurance that she has gone on to be with Jesus himself. I get that too. But I can't get past the idea that I will not see her anymore. I am so happy that she isn't suffering like she was, but man, it is always so good to see Syble. I saw her just a couple of weeks ago. She asked the band to play some music for her celebration service, and we came over and played some of that music for her at home.

There was more healing and more tears than I have known in my days. It was sacred, like when I watched my dad and his brothers and sister sing for my grandmother before she left us.

There are many tough people in this world, but I am not one of them. I've been gliding on autopilot since yesterday, when I heard the news that Syble has moved on. It was not unexpected at all, but I just put off processing it all.

You can feel guilty about grief. Even ashamed. You don't want to make it about you, you know? You want it to be about them. Which is crazy. Because Syble is fine.

It is me who misses her. God knows my thoughts are constantly with Mike and his family, and how they are feeling and moving through it all. And that hit me. The strings of my heart move in harmony with theirs, for my friend-closer-than-a-brother and his birth clan. They have experienced lost, even if it is just for a time, and so I experience loss too.

Syble lived a good life, and touched many profoundly. She raised up three boys who are powerful men of integrity and patience. Were it not for her, Mike Park would not be in my life. He would not have taught me so many things, or shown me how to follow God with grace. He would not have set with me in a seafood restaurant while I spoke aloud a scandalous secret: I am not sure I believe in God anymore. Not only did Syble affect me profoundly: she produced one of the most important people in my life.

And that is what I told her the last time we spoke. Thank God for you and thank you for Mike Park.

I love you Syble. Peace be with you.

Forever and ever, Amen.


The Ones Who Are Gone

There are about 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms in the human body. That's a lot. Our hydrogen atoms are almost as old as the universe, and our other atoms are made of hydrogen atoms. These atoms last are effectively immortal. They are made of energy.

Atoms make molecules and molecules make cells. No cell in the human body is older than 10 years. We are in a constant process of rebirth and renewal for as long as we live. As these cells metabolize, as we live and breath, we swap out molecules with the world. Given the staggering number of atoms in each of us, the math tells us that some of every person who ever lived is in us. When we breathe, we commune physically with all of humanity.

In a very real sense, our loved ones never leave us. The matter and energy that made them is already within us and we carry them forward.

That's to say nothing of genetics. We are all related. Every bit of life on this planet has a common origin. But our families are even more special. Their DNA is very similar to ours, and we carry on the specific arrangement of molecules, the pattern that made them, well, them. We continue the march of their lineage across the ages.

But is that enough? Of course not. Human thoughts can be converted into language. The way we look is delivered to others through the scattering of photons and the reaction of photoreceptors. The unique smell of a person is carried by floating molecules that bind to our own body. All these things created a neurological pattern of that person in your own mind. The memories of how they look, the values they expressed, and the funny little quirks of language are all a part of the living tissue of our brains.

So, while you can not longer interact with the consciousness of one who is gone, do not be deceived. They will always be with you.