As I near the end of this long stretch of glistening Southern California beach, my legs are getting heavy and tired. Plopping down on the warm sand, I dig my toes in and take in the scene before me. Between the breakers and shoreline, a group of brave, eager beginners maneuver a pod of primary-colored kayaks toward the cresting waves. Two impossibly young, fit instructors bring up the rear. One of them slashes swiftly through the water toward a student struggling to get the hang of heading his red vessel straight into the swells. Instead, he gingerly sidles his boat up parallel to the waves, unwittingly setting himself up to be broadsided and capsized by the next big one. His boat tilts and tips. My mouth turns dry, and I look away. Suddenly, I’m five years old again, my skinny frame slamming and scraping against the ocean floor as I’m tossed and tumbled like a sweatshirt trapped in a spinning dryer. Memories of that experience have kept me out of the ocean for too many years—only gingerly wading up to my knees.
It’s not the pain that kills us, but rather the fear of pain.
By nature, most of us avoid whatever scares us. And while that might increase our odds of living longer, it doesn’t make life better. For over thirty years now, my work as a psychotherapist has placed me in a role like the kayaking instructor, trying to help people learn to navigate overwhelming waves of pain. At first, they feel sure they will drown in its dark waters. I can almost smell the fear. It’s so strong that many are tempted to turn their boats around and go home. Some try to evade the waves, distracting themselves with alcohol, busyness, sex . . . They fail to realize that the safest route—the one that, in the end, will bring them healing and relief—is the one that requires pointing their boat straight into the waves–into the imposing crest, into the heart of those dark, towering coils of grief.
It can take a while for them to understand the physics of healing: It’s not the pain that kills us, but rather the fear of pain. Fear shuts down the movement of emotions—the very feelings we need to access for healing. They become flash-frozen into impenetrable, sharp objects we tiptoe around for the rest of our lives. And still—even though we’ve tried to repress them—they make their presence known in indirect ways like addiction, depression, anxiety, illness, and a life-less existence. Unfortunately, if we try to press down one powerful emotion, it tends to suppress all other emotions, leaving us living muted, flattened lives instead of the abundant, rich ones we were designed to live.
“Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4 NIV)
Is it possible that if we aren’t present enough to our emotions, truly “facing” our trials as such, we could miss out on the healing and growth we could gain in the process?
In 2014 my daughter and I experienced “Big T Trauma” with the disappearance and death of my husband. In our own ways, we each tried to face the emotions threatening to drown us. Our courage waxed and waned, sometimes leading us toward health and sometimes away. But over time, as we learned to deal with the intense pain and grief, our healing slowly progressed—one delicate layer at a time. It was a slow recovery, but it was movement. Enough movement that we began to step out into life more and more.
Then, two years later, we were feeling ready for an adventure. We went kayaking down the turbulent Pacuare River deep in the jungles of Costa Rica. The current was impressive, with foamy waves lifting our tiny, inflatable boats up and slamming them back down again into deep troughs before shooting us up and out onto the next stretch of relatively calm waters. My daughter’s shrieks and peals of laughter floated over the expanse between her kayak and mine. More than once, as my boat lurched and pitched, I was ready to fall into the roiling waters. But each time, the strong guide behind me grabbed my life vest, lifted me up, and plopped me back in my seat. And I heard laughter—his, mine, the river’s. I was here, right smack dab in the middle of the waves, and I was alive. Fully alive.