When Pain Becomes a Bridge



I remember when I learned to listen to pain.

It was right after the move that shattered me. The curveball in our carefully sculpted and passionately executed script. Devastation had permeated both plot and characters and we found ourselves packing.

I mean, clearly it was the move that brought me dangerously close to the end of sanity, right?  It was the money it took to pack up our belongings and traverse desolate highways, through cornfields and past small towns steeped in antiquity. It was the loneliness of going beyond the lights of the city and the welcome habits of familiar friendships. It was the upheaval that comes in leaving behind comfortable professionalism and a well worn path of parenting paradigms.


So I convinced myself. At least, for the first few months.

And … well, yes, I was right, in a way. So much change did leave me marked. But that wasn’t all.

It was also the pain.

Because as warm and generous as we found our new community to be, there was this story that kept replaying itself within the confines of my thoughts. Unaddressed fears. Delinquent disappointments. Suspicions and presumptions. I remembered words spoken in relationships now estranged and throbbing injuries still fresh.

They didn’t mend with a change of scenery. They didn’t blend into positivity with time. They followed me. Nagging all the way.

But good stories aren’t always about what happens.

Change or no change. Script or lack thereof. Stories are not built around a straight line from the word GO to the finish line. Good stories, rather, are about how the characters are changed in the midst of the mess.

And toward this end, sometimes pain becomes a key player.

About this time, I read those famous words of Frederick Buechner:

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

And I decided I would marry that man if he ever asked me. But since we were both already married (happily, even), I would have to be content to glean the wisdom of his words and do the harder work of living them.

Oh, and what hard work it turned out to be.

Because the work? It required listening to the very voice I’d been running from: my pain.

Now, listening to your life is a dangerous thing to do in the best of times, but in the worst of times? It’s downright terrifying. The numbing behaviors and superiority complexes all stand before you in the shabbiness with which they’ve been parading around, hidden under the garb of pleasant promises. You look them in the eye and they glance back at you, shuffling their feet. There and then you know that their presence is only the result of a failure to listen. To courageously face what you would rather flee than open.

And this takes wild audacity. It hurts like hell. But it’s not the end of the story.

As the pain begins to surface and you give voice to the honesty of it all, you also begin to heal. I won’t say it’s the same process for everyone, and I hesitate to map out a plan of health and wholeness (since I am in no way qualified), but I do know that in my case the guts it took to open the wounds were somehow kin to the quiet power of solace.

Somehow exposing the cracks, indeed, let the Light in.

The pain didn’t turn me into a raving hater. It didn’t color the corners of my life in every shade of dark bitterness. (Well, at least, not permanently.) In the final analysis, like Buechner so sagely advises, listening instructed me to see how all moments are key moments. The grace that is life itself.

And the fact that pain was my most trusted advisor? Only proved further that straw transforms into gold. It expanded me and empowered me. It broke me of my feeble coping mechanisms and opened wide the door to confident gentleness.

I don’t know how else to say it: it made me soft in ways I had known only hard.

And as beautiful and worthwhile as that was/is, this is not the end of the story, either. Like all stories of redemption, this one’s ripples extend to the outermost edge of the pond.

Pain—when we dare to listen to it—becomes a bridge. You can feel it, can’t you? When someone has known pain and had the courage to face it? There is a sense of communion between those who suffer, a camaraderie with the downcast, an intimacy among others struggling with the bald fact of their existence.

I’ve seen it in my fellow barista’s eyes, only later to discover she lost her father at a young age after a brutal battle with cancer. I’ve heard it behind the minister’s judgmental statements about marriage when later the tears stood in his eyes as he described his own ravenous divorce. And that one time when a bright, successful, young entrepreneur talked my ear off for almost an hour as he poured out his struggle with depression? A struggle he is mocked for in every other relationship in his life? Yes, I believe these are more than a result of a woman with a listening ear.

These are a result of a heart unafraid to be broken with the pain of others because it has looked its own hurt in the eye and not been scared silent.

Perhaps pain is one of the best instructors in the school of tenderness. Of compassion. Perhaps when we listen to it, it leads us to solidarity, to intimacy.

And perhaps, in this way, shatterings of all kinds can open chapters in our stories we never would have known.

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” – Ernest Hemingway


Image credit: Holger

Kelli Woodford
I live in the midwest, surrounded by cornfields and love, with my husband and seven blue-eyed children. We laugh, we play, we fight, we mend; but we don’t do anything that even slightly resembles quiet. Unless it’s listening to our lives, which has proved to be the biggest challenge of them all.
Kelli Woodford
Kelli Woodford

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