After Great Pain: Finding a Way Out

by Joan Chittister

Joan Chittister, O.S.B., is a member of the Mount Benedict Monastery in Erie, PA. She edits “The Monastic Way,” a monthly periodical of daily meditations, and is the author of several books, including The Story of Ruth, Twelve Moments in Every Woman’s Life; The Friendship of Women: A Spiritual Tradition; and Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, March 22, 2003, pp. 38-44. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


It isn’t true that the loss of any single thing will destroy us. Everything in life has some value and life is full of valuable things, things worth living for, things worth doing, things worth becoming, things worth loving again.

Struggle is a very private thing. It happens in the very depths of our souls. It comes with the loss of what we have considered so significant that we cannot abide the thought of life without it. Other people commiserate, of course, as they watch us struggle with the pain of losing, the meaning of endings, the shock of great change, the emptiness of the present. But they cannot really share our pain because what we have lost, however significant to us, cannot be totally understood, respected or revered by them. What we lose is ours and ours alone: our dream, our hope, our expectation, our property, our identity. All private. All personal. All uniquely and singularly ours. Our friends look on caringly, of course, but there’s little else they can do. They advise, but they cannot possibly know the cost of every step we take. It is not their arms that are heavy, not their legs that have gone to lead, not their "knees that are weak" (Psalm 109).

They talk to us about going on but they do not understand that the thought of going on is unimportant to us now. If anything, it is what we least want to do; indeed, it seems impossible. And, as far as we are concerned, it is certainly not desirable any more. Go on for what reason? Those others who stand at the edges of our lives at such times cannot realize the sense of deep, deep isolation that comes when life as we have known it has been suddenly extinguished.

There is no one who can take the pain away because the pain cannot be taken away. There is no one there to ease it because it simply cannot be eased.

Desperate to help, people tell us how insignificant the thing was that we staked our lives upon. "It doesn’t matter," they say. "You’ll have another one." As in child or house or job or lover or dream. "It isn’t worth it," they tell us. Or, at their best, they remind us that "time will heal the pain," and that we "will learn to live with" the loss. But, oh, how wrong they are! I gave my life to it. Surely my life was worth something. "This is unjust," they agree, but injustice happens nevertheless. No one changes it. No one confronts it. No one does a thing but commiserate, And that only for a while, In the end, we are alone. Alone with the struggle. Alone with the violence, the emptiness, the rage within. "And Jacob was left alone," the biblical story tells us. Indeed.

I worked with a woman who had been a victim of incest in her early grade-school years. An older brother, home from seminary, began to molest her when she was eight years old. Old enough to have the beginnings of a conscience, not old enough to know sin from act. He was the apple of his Catholic mother’s eye. So no help there. He was the paragon of family virtue, but he was doing to her what she had been told was mortal to her soul. And so time after time she feared more for her eternal salvation than she did for her present preservation.

She would gladly have died to stop the sin but she could not tell a mother who, she was sure, would have blamed her for lying about him, not him for abusing her.

This woman was 70 years old before she told me about it and sobbed in my office while she did. All her life, she said she had been afraid that everyone who passed her in the hall could see what she had done. She had been doing angry penance all her life for something that was not her fault. All her life she had lived in isolation, wrestling with the writhing in her soul. All her life she had been in pain. All her life she had been alone in her agony.

I put my arms around her while she sobbed, but I never thought for a moment that there was anyway in the world that I could take away those years of lonely despair. We went on talking about it, of course. We worked for a sense of wholeness, a new perspective on the self, a feeling of internal, personal goodness. And the ongoing conversation, the support, the acceptance seemed to give her little bursts of well-being. But down deep, the wounds never really healed; the scars never went away.

Scientists have known for decades the effects of isolation, both physical and emotional. Infants denied physical contact die. People deprived of emotional support stand to slip into a reality of their own. They withdraw from the circle of people whose plastic smiles and good times and lack of caring they cannot abide. They begin to resent laughter, to be as wounded by others’ enjoyment as they are by the sufferings with which they are still dealing. After all, who has a right to laugh in the face of such hurt? They begin to trade in fantasy. They slip in and out of the memories that haunt them. One day they are gentle and communicative. The next day they are hostile and sour. Alone with what they cannot put down, they relive it and its shock and its wounds day after day.

Isolation is not simply a physical event that emits us off from sensory stimulation. Isolation also shrinks the psyche itself. It cages us round with bitterness. Cut off from the rest of the human race, we stand frozen in our tracks, left to mourn what was but is no more while the rest of the world goes on without us, oblivious, helpless and, as far as we can tell, uncaring. Some never sense the pain in us at all. Some see the hurt but have no balm to bring to it. Some diminish it or despise it or ignore it. It doesn’t quite matter which -- the effects are all the same. In the end, struggle is private.

But struggle is also public. When the foundations of our world begin to shake -- when relationships end, when long-held beliefs no longer satisfy, when our securities vanish -- our ability to deal with the remainder of our world begins to shudder too. Life-management crises in one area have a way of seeping over into other areas like a drop of ink in a gallon of water. One struggle colors everything.

Reality becomes blurred. We live in our losses, our pain, our memories, our lost hopes. We run or we lean. Most of all, like children burned on a stove or animals subjected to shock collars, we take no chances now on anything that might hurt us the same way again. We shun love, fear organizations, stop our work, burn our plans, avoid the very things we love most, keep our distance from whatever might tempt us to try again, to begin over, to trust.

But if isolation becomes one kind of refuge, dependence is another. Either we close people out of our lives or we become totally compliant, totally apathetic. We shut ourselves off from the rest of the world or we give ourselves over entirely to its excesses. Judgment fails us; social paralysis sets in. The drinking starts, the smoking begins, the all-night movies drown out the need for sleep and the memories that haunt us, the pain that taunts us in the darkness. We become disoriented and begin to call friends for directions about the smallest things in life: how to write a check, how to read a recipe, how to get the furnace fixed, what to have for dinner. Having lost one dimension of life, we allow people to direct us through the rest of it and so we give whatever little remains of our once-confident lives away. Where is the way out of this morass? Where is the end of the pain? Where is life when all of life has been destroyed?

The spiritual response is too often a simplistic one: either we abandon God or we blame God for abandoning us. "I beg you. tell me your name," Jacob pleads with the spirit with which he wrestles. But he gets no answer. Nor do we. We find no cause to cure us, no one to accuse, no way to respond. And, alone with ourselves, we like ourselves less and less every day.

Such junctures are dangerous times, both psychologically and spiritually. We are in the grip of a strange force to which we would be just as happy to surrender. We are caught in the vortex of an inner storm. Having lost the dream, we risk losing the balance in ourselves as well. We stand on the brink of losing the future as well as the past. And that is the temptation of struggle.

We find ourselves alone in a fragile world not of our own making, an unfriendly place where the sun no longer shines for us. What can possibly be the gift of such a state? It is the call out of isolation into independence. It is the grace of discovering that our lives are more than any one event and that we, not fate, are really what will determine what the rest of our lives will be like.

Vonetta Flowers, a young African-American track star from Alabama, failed to qualify for the Salt Lake City 2000 Summer Olympics. It was a devastating time for her; years of preparation were lost in a matter of seconds. The simple disappointment of missing the games, never mind the medals, was enough to break her heart and plunge her into depression. But instead of despairing, she tried out for the bobsled team. It was a sport she had never even seen, let alone attempted. Yet Flowers became the first black American to win a gold medal for bobsledding in the Winter Olympics.

Did she achieve her heart’s desire or not?

John Walsh, father of a young son kidnapped off his own street in a small rural community, channeled his sorrow and his rage into launching the first national organization for missing children. The government had never done it. Law enforcement agencies had not done it. But Walsh did it and because of him countless children have been returned safely to their homes.

Was his struggle worth it or not?

Lisa Beamer, mother of two small children and six months pregnant with the third, was widowed in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001. Her husband, Todd, led the effort to down the third of the attack planes over Pittsburgh before it could be used to bomb another government building. Several months after his death and before the birth of their third baby, Lisa Beamer began a charitable foundation in his name, the purpose of which is to help other families who find themselves left to cope with disaster with limited resources and heavy hearts.

Was isolation her response to struggle?

Struggle faces us with choices. Hard choices. "There can be no growth without resistance," the Chinese proverb teaches us. The thought compels. Struggle is a fact of life. What we struggle against, what we struggle for, what we struggle with all test and hone us. It is the resistance itself that seasons us. The great choice with which struggle confronts us, then, is not whether to accept it -- struggle comes unbidden. It doesn’t matter whether we accept it. The choice is whether to crumble under it or to brave it.

Struggle is an unsparing lesson but a necessary gift. It is not a gift which, at first sight, we want. With the coming of the Human Potential Movement in the 1960s, rigid self-discipline gave way to unrestrained emotional expression. The social norm of cerebral self-control and privacy was challenged by a new ethic of full disclosure. It was one excess following another. Having learned to be controlled to the extreme in the name of mental health and spiritual virtue, we were encouraged to be just as extreme in our display of emotions.

Strangers came together in weekly workshops to reveal to one another their most secret fantasies, their most shameful actions. They shouted one another down, gave way to inner angers a lifetime in developing, "let it all hang out." Satisfying the emotional demands of the moment, the gurus of the movement told us, is the measure of our humanity. It did not work.

Too often people withdrew from the encounters feeling more hurt, more rejected, more emotionally confused than ever. Now they knew intimacy but not love. Worse, now they were left with old wounds newly opened and not a clue about what to do with them in the future.

They had expressed their emotions, but they had not struggled with them. They had revealed their hurts, but they had not worked through them. They had exposed their agonies but had not put them down. They had lost control of themselves and gained nothing to put in its place. Feelings oozed out of people like oil, over everyone and everything they touched, but the pain remained and the soul stayed dry. There was clearly something missing. The expression of feelings was simply not enough to dispel suffering.

The notion that to suppress feelings is to distort human development ignored an entire stream of spiritual literature on holy indifference. The ancient Christian virtue of detachment became at least suspect, often anathema.

From Clement of Alexandria in the second century, to Meister Eckhart in the 13th, to Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th, the idea of spiritual indifference -- openness to the many manifestations of the will of God -- has been respected. There were many ways to live, not simply one, the spiritual theory taught, all of them good, some of them better than others from one moment to the next. The marrow of the spiritual life was determining which of life’s many possibilities were most suitable to the will of God in the present situation. The root of the exercise was "holy indifference," awareness of the multiple gifts of God and openness to all of them. This is a spirituality with enduring psychological value as well.

The isolation that marks any serious struggle is a call to recognize that life is full of gifts that come and go, come and go as we ourselves come and go through the many stages of living. Detachment from the idea that there is only one way for me to go through life joyfully is key. The pain of loss is a real and a present thing. It manacles my soul and breaks my heart, yes. But holy indifference -- detachment -- teaches me that there is no room for isolation, abandonment, death of the spirit when I lose one thing because I know that there is something else waiting for me in its place. If only I can allow myself to watch for it, to wait for it, to grasp it when it comes.

Designed to enable a person to regard all of life with an open mind and a willing heart, detachment -- holy indifference -- is the foundation of spiritual discernment. To discern is to choose between available options on the grounds that both are good but that one is more likely at this time to be preferable. It is the willingness to accept the idea that one option is more likely to result in growth at this time than the other, though both are good possibilities. Discernment and detachment are lifelines out of the pit of loss and the island of isolation to which it threatens to doom us.

Detachment teaches us to let go. Let go of unwavering answers. Let go of present achievements. Let go of life’s little hoards of trinkets. Let go of the now which is frozen in emotion for the sake of a future freed from old chains. It is the ability to see that there are many things of value in our lives, some of them more suited to one time than to another.

Discernment is based on the awareness that we cannot always have what we want, true, but also that there is enduring, sometimes hidden, always surprising spiritual value in what we do have. Discernment asks us to love many things for many different reasons and to choose what is the best of them for this instance.

The important mark of discernment is that it involves choice. It involves independence of judgment, the ability to maintain breadth of vision even in the midst of crisis, the awareness that we are not enslaved to our past. We can dream again. We can go on without leaning, without withering. We can summon up from within ourselves parts of ourselves that have yet to see the light of life. It means that despite the depth of our struggles, we must come out of our insulating isolation and live again or we shall have died, no matter how long we live.

Isolation erodes spiritual independence. In fact, it is dependence of the highest, most destructive order. Isolation blocks us from moving in the present because we are dependent on the past, trapped in the past. Or, it means that having fallen into isolation, we do not move newly into the present because we have chosen instead to be dependent on the world around us. We have chosen to be carried rather than to stand. We have chosen to give up on ourselves, to let other people carry us rather than to take care of’ ourselves. We deny or overlook or ignore the gift of independence, the place of detachment, in human development.

Isolation leaves us feeling cut off from the human race, aloof, withdrawn, at the mercy of the universe. Independence, on the other hand, emerges out of an awareness that there are other things to live for and we have within ourselves the ability to reach out and grasp them, if only we will.

Over the centuries, detachment lost its spiritual glow. Distorted by the excesses of extreme asceticism but at the same time, paradoxically, always regarded in its classical sense not as a way to deny the world but as the spiritual key to living in it more freely, detachment became the counterfeit coin of the happy life. It dampened feelings rather than sharpening them, its critics said -- and not without reason. Jansenism, with its emphasis on ascetic discipline, became popular among French Catholics in the 18th century. In the name of holiness, it suppressed emotions rather than listening to them. It rendered the world dour and made living an act of denial. In doing so it destroyed what is needed most in a time of struggle: the will to live because the world is bountiful. Detachment based on negation rather than an awareness of endless abundance is not a solution. At its healthiest, the human spirit is irrepressible and the human heart seeks hope, not desolation, however disguised dearth may be in the trappings of holiness.

But the truth remains: Nothing lasts. No single thing can consume our entire life’s meaning. No single thing can give us total satisfaction. Nothing is worth everything: neither past, nor present nor future. It isn’t true that the loss of any single thing will destroy us. Everything in life has some value and life is full of valuable things, things worth living for, things worth doing, things worth becoming, things worth loving again. It is only a matter of being detached enough from one thing to be open to everything else.

The essence of life is not to find the one thing that satisfies us but to realize that nothing can ever completely satisfy us.