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A Reflection on Painful Spaces

Some spaces are difficult to exist in.

Spaces where the most precious memories reside while, simultaneously, the searing pain of loss envelops me like a dense fog, rendering clear vision impossible. As I approach these spaces, the feeling of dread rises like an ominous monument looming in the distance. It’s as if I’m constructing my own staircase to this painful space, travailing to get myself there, but at the same time knowing the burden will only grow heavier at the top. It’s exhausting. While I aim to appear strong, maintaining the façade of someone who is doing “just fine,” it does wear away at me. Sitting in those spaces hurts. God, it hurts.


Yet day after day I return to these spaces. Not out of necessity, for there is no obligation to return so frequently. But I do. I return, and I sit there. Sometimes (most times), I cry. Other times I let my anger rise to the surface and forcefully scribble out answers to homework, all the while crying out from the depths of my soul, “How long Lord? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” Still other times I sit quietly, forcing myself to endure the pain with no outward signs of distress.


Why do I do this? Why return so often? Why do I intentionally journey to the spaces where I experience the most pain, the most hopelessness, the most anger, the most sadness?

Could this invisible draw come from the notion that the memories will fade if I do not return to the place where they have their roots? Am I going to lose what’s most precious if I avoid the space—avoid the pain? Maybe by avoiding these spaces, I am somehow telling myself that I want to forget the memories.


No, that cannot be it. That is not why I return. For I can never forget; no matter how far I am spatially removed, I will not forget the contagious laugh, the smile, the encouraging words backed by caring eyes. These memories are grafted in my mind. I don’t return to save the memories, for they don’t need saving.


But why, then? I don’t understand.


I’ve struggled with the “what-ifs.” What if I had reached out more or asked the right questions? What if I had sent that text? What if I had lived up to my own standards of a “good friend”? What if I was more observant and less focused on myself? What if…what if…what if…?


Does the magnetism of these spaces emerge from a desire to remind myself that I was not enough—that I am not enough? A type of punishment for not doing more? This sounds like something I would do.


But I do not think it is why I return. I’ve tried to be intentional about identifying my habit of thinking or feeling ‘I could have done more’ and replacing that lie with truth. As a trusted friend once encouraged me, I’m trying to take hold of the “what if” thoughts and walk them by the hand to the precipice of my mind and let them fall. I do not want to purposefully put myself in places where those thoughts can climb back into my mind and take root.


I wonder if the reason is much simpler. Maybe I return because of the pain. I know it will hurt, but maybe that is the draw. Do I just like the feeling? No, that seems absurd. Years of self-reflection have taught me I do all I can to avoid pain and hurt: keeping people at arm’s length for fear of them discovering the real me and turning away; refusing to talk about my struggles because it worsens the pain and makes me face it head on; avoiding difficult conversations to escape losing something or someone a little bit longer. I go to great lengths to prevent hurt. I don’t want to experience it. I am not returning to these spaces because of the hurt, but rather, despite it.


So, the mystery remains: what brings me back again and again?


Could it be possible that the pain I experience in these spaces creates a place for solace?

When I sit there, I am at my most vulnerable, battered state. The anger and sadness mix to produce a waterfall of tears, unstoppable by any rational thought. I’m hopeless, tormented by my own thoughts, craving a return to normalcy that will never come.


But wait.


A small light pierces the shadows of my broken heart.


A warm smile and friendly wave through the window. The caring embrace of a professor who sees the distress plastered on my face. I don’t usually let people see that part of me, for fear of judgement or further hurt when people leave because my emotions and thoughts are “too much” for them. But I have no choice except to let people see my struggle when existing in those spaces, mostly, because even my most desperate attempts at maintaining my composure have failed. To my great surprise, though, each time someone has engaged with my exposed vulnerability, I sense a small fragment of my shattered self being reassembled.


This brings me to wonder: is the way to healing actually embracing the pain more? Maybe as a cut has to be exposed to the air to fully heal, I too need to expose my wounds before they can be fully mended. Instead of running from the pain, I should allow the hurt to wreck me like a violent storm ravages a small ship. Then might I see healing? Will I be able to look back fondly on the time I had and the memories I hold without drowning in grief?


I’ve been captivated by several poems and Psalms I’ve read recently, through which the same theme has run: mending and new life only come after Christ batters and breaks. Identifying and accepting brokenness and pain precede the ever-sought-after wholeness.

It’s an interesting paradox, isn’t it?


The pain that tears me apart is also the instrument through which I am put back together.

So maybe this is why I feel drawn to stay in the painful spaces. I experience more healing when I leave my wounds open. When I fully embrace my battered heart, Jesus comes in and begins to bind it up. By letting my pain and sadness ravage me, I open the door to healing and usher it in.

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