Learning Through Painful Experiences

In an engagement with a Pathwork colleague yesterday, as we were planning a Pathwork community function together, I suddenly found myself recalling being in gym class in high school. It would have been a time when the instructor might have said, “OK, boys, now we are going to jump over this horse and do a front forward role on the other side.” And I would numb myself down, go through the motions, make as ass of myself with my extreme clumsiness, and tolerate the laughter of the class mocking my total ineptitude when I was finished.  Not a good feeling, so I would suppress it, overeat and study hard on the subjects I really enjoyed. I was glad to go to college and enter my career where I did not have to take gym, or play basketball with the frat brothers, or, later in my career, play golf with my business colleagues.

And this adolescent experience was not just in gym class or sports. It related to much of my high school life outside the classroom. I wanted to date, but would not feel socially adept enough to ask a girl out. Or go to a dance? Yikes! Playing tuba in the band, not by my choice but a natural consequence of my parents wanting me to experience playing in the band, was not something I truly enjoyed either musically or socially. Socialize with peers? Rarely. I was just not comfortable in informal social situations with peers. Somehow I could handle the structure of Church Youth Group, the classroom, or the high school band, but not spontaneous friendships that others seemed to enjoy in the midst of and around these structured times.

How did I defend against the pain of my social awkwardness back then? As I mentioned, overeating was one outlet, and I fought my image of obesity my entire life. But another escape was establishing an intellectual context or framework for my life. Also, I could play roles, even leadership roles, in some of the social and organizational settings I was in. This “success” in leadership blinded me to the pain I was in simply connecting to others with whom I served and worked. Finally, I also related to the structure of the teachings of the church as an overarching framework for my Cosmology, though this was challenged by and conflicted over my passion for astronomy. Yes, my religion was an intellectual affair, not a personal transcendent experience.

This approach of systematizing and organizing ideas and processes as a way of feeling safe in the world became a valuable skill for doing well in college and in business. I could feel my passion for creating order out of chaos. I could lead programs, make meaningful understandable presentations concerning complex subjects. And I loved it. Others appreciated it, and I would find myself in leadership roles not infrequently in business, church, and other organizations in which I served.

But in being so mentally organized and thereby “safe” in the world, I had left many aspects of my life behind because I did not want to experience the pain of my physical, emotional, and social deficiencies. On the outside things seemed fine, but inside things were a mess. My carefully constructed life crashed when I was 50, and most of my life since then has been going back to recover and heal some of these missing pieces and wounds. The physical clumsiness and social awkwardness remain, but slowly I am able to be OK with it all. But when experiences like yesterday arise in me and I am taken back to my high school gym experience, I am amazed at the level of dysfunction I was in during my high school and college days, and how many of these patterns of defense still live in me, robbing me of deeper pleasures, fulfillment, and connections in life.

Let me be more specific. In working with my Pathwork colleague yesterday, I was trying to develop a ritual for our community concerning the disharmonies and frustrations we are experiencing. My approach was an inspiration that came from my organizing and systematizing skills. But in this approach, my colleague thought and I came to agree, I was taking our group away from the pain of where we are. In reflection I could see this and see how I was using some of the same organizing techniques for the group that I had used most of my life to get away from and protect myself against the pains of chaos in my own life. My colleague was able to see this and offer a few modifications of my ideas that would allow us to learn to hold some of the disharmony and pain a bit longer and let it resolve organically rather than through a systematic ritual I had imagined. Though at first painful, this experience was once again a positive learning experience for me. I am grateful for this learning experience, though in many ways it suggests how many painful but life-giving experiences I have covered over with my systematizing, organizing and mostly mental approaches to tough and painful situations.

PS  At the same time my colleague could express her appreciation for what I was able to bring to the party. This exchange in itself has been a gift for us both.