Integrating Our Negative Experience

This past weekend I had the opportunity to celebrate a wedding – one of my favorite things to do. Unlike many of my colleagues across traditions, I really enjoy going to wedding receptions. I meet so many wonderful and interesting people at receptions, as this past weekend when I sat at a table with relatives of the married couple and was privileged to chat with a delightful couple and their fraternal twin daughters who are twenty-five years old. Our spiritual journeys had followed similar courses, and one of the daughters did her undergraduate work in Women’s Studies and minored in Islamic Studies. She has done some graduate work in Public Health, and is now going back for a nursing degree to prepare her more fully for that work. I couldn’t help but reflect that when I was twenty-five I would have found her terribly intimidating, but at twice her age I found her perfectly delightful!

It’s not just the pleasant conversations that attract me to receptions. In fact, even more than delightful conversations, I enjoy the opportunity to work informally with people who have been wounded by the Church or by life in general – or both. Last weekend there were two receptions going on in the venue, and they shared an outdoor balcony. I was actually a little chilly from the air conditioning – surely the effects of ten days of temperatures hovering between ninety-five and one hundred five degrees – so I stepped out onto the patio for some warm air. (That just sounds wrong, doesn’t it?) I was addressed by a thirty year old woman from the other reception who said, “Hello, Father! Don’t tell God!” When I asked her what she didn’t want me to tell God, it was that she was smoking. After reassuring her that I was quite confident that God didn’t care and some idle banter, I suggested to her that perhaps  there was something else she really wanted to tell me about. As an aside, people quite often will start by telling a clergy person about something relatively benign and then move on to asking about their tradition and perspective as a prelude to speaking about what is really on their mind.

She shared with me the pains and concerns of her life, some of the struggles of her journey, and some of the way she made sense of it – the details aren’t important for this post. I spoke with her about the truth that all of our life experiences – the good, the bad, and the in between – contribute to who we are today. Even if we were able to take away of a piece of our history, it wouldn’t be desirable to do so because the person we are today would cease to exist. That’s not to say that our traumas are good or desirable things, or that we would like to repeat them, or that we would wish them on anybody else. It is to say that we are best served by integrating our experiences in our self-understanding in a way that allows them to work for us rather than against us.

The work that I am able to do on a impromptu basis in situations like these is among the most rewarding that I do. Only by allowing myself to be radically available can I meet wonderful people like this woman. These encounters allow me to grow through our exchanges as much as the other does. Hopefully, we both allow ourselves to grow in exchanges like these and can use what we take away to help others.

Can you see yourself integrating your experiences and using what you learn there to reach out to others. More crucially, can you see yourself integrating your life experiences and using what your learn there to reach out to yourself?

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