Redemptive Suffering

Sometimes a conference is just a conference.

Sometimes, a conference pokes pretty deep.

Today–well, I got poked. Deep.

I attended the Storyline Conference this week, hosted by Donald Miller.  He has written one of my favourite books, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years…something I wrote about several times almost 3 years ago when I first read it.

He challenges a person to write a story about their lives that is interesting and captivating…a story that is compelling and meaningful.  Another way of saying this: If someone made a movie of your life, would it get boringly get bogged down  cuz all you wanted was a new Honda and a move into a three bedroom home?

One of the critical parts of story–any story–in a movie or a book or a tale well told–is that the main character has a conflict…a challenge that s/he must overcome. An essential part of any movie is how the character is developed in the plot of a movie by going through a negative life turn. The whole arc of a movie is how, over time, valuable opportunities occur to grow and develop and mature the main character. Ultimately, these skills and qualities help the main character triumph.

Donald Miller had us think about some of the negative life turns of our own life…and how, in the words of Victor Frankl, we could see them from a redemptive perspective.

Victor Frankl was a psychiatrist, a guy who hung out with Sigmund Freud. He felt strongly that it was possible to find redemption in all suffering.

Frankl felt redemption could be found in all suffering.

And right about now, as you are bald with chemotherapy, or grieving the loss of a partner, or just having lost a job, you’re thinking, “Wait…huh?  Like, seriously?” Some suffering is just plain suffering, eh?

Let me just say, Frankl earned the right to say this.  He was Jewish man living in Austria in the 30’s and 40’s. He lost his wife, mother and brother to the horrific actions of the Nazis.  He himself spent time in concentration camps. It was in those camps, that he encouraged men not to despair and end their life with suicide when everything seemed hopeless and desperately bleak. He encouraged the men to only die at the hands of the Nazis…thereby actively being part of the atrocities of the Nazis to show the world what was happening.

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” ― Viktor E. Frankl, poster by Bergen and Associates Counseling in Winnipeg

I found myself, in the middle of the morning, drifting away from Miller’s words towards old memories…a time exactly 10 years ago when I was in the midst of despair, watching my life as I had known it crumble both behind my back and before my eyes.

It sucks to watch your life fall apart over a number of months, desperate to do anything to save it–but seeing that any sort of struggle to rescue it only sped up the pace of the disintegration.

I silently bore witness to my my marriage dissolving.

A marriage therapist, helpless to do anything to save her own. Yeah, ouch. Yikes. ohmigosh…no, no, no, no. But yes–and helplessly so.

Short of changing my gender, there was absolutely nothing to be done. Nothing

So 10 years and 9 days ago, on October 22, 2004, I wrote a letter to the love of my life that contained these words:

What few questions you have asked me over the last month have been targeted at finding out what it would look like for me…if you decided to leave.  I never wanted to be single again. I wouldn’t have invited it, but neither do I want a husband who is bound to me out of guilt or obligation. If you need to go–go. A relationship will not work if you don’t feel you can be in it…not facing that doesn’t make it go away.  S…if you need to do homework…let’s do it…If you need to figure out all the logistics in order to free yourself to truly look inside of you in a way that up until now you have been too terrified to do, then let’s do it. …

In that letter I went on to I speak about how it would be hard if he left, but I knew I would continue…a previous loss of children which I write about annually on June 18th every year had done its redemptive work. I further wrote then:

I thought I would die. (I remember wishing I would get hit by a bus).  I thought the grief would make me go crazy, I thought I couldn’t go on without them coming back and so on. But, as I have the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, I did.  I still miss them, I still wish it hadn’t have happened. but I have a good life and found ways to find joy. So…to sum up this paragraph, [if you leave], I will go on, and I will find ways of making my life rich and meaningful, even as I struggle…

The marriage counsellor, the one who helps others connect meaningfully with a partner, lost the connection with hers.

And I was devastated. 

But today’s challenge, at this conference, was to explore the redemptive perspective of that most terrible experience.

[insert deep breath here.]

Bergen and Associates Counselling (now Conexus Counselling) exists.

Bergen and Associates Counselling was never planned.

I never intended it to happen.

Bergen and Associates Counselling was born out of necessity–as a single mom I needed to find a way to provide for my children while also being present with them in the mornings before school, and in the afternoons after school–and everyone knows most couple therapists are generally busiest in the evening. I brought in colleagues to work with me.

I love our clinic…we offer quality therapy using state of the art programs that are scientifically proven to improve results.  We have three clinic spaces in two different locations, offering services 7 days/week.  We are told that we have a solid reputation in the community. Hundreds of people are impacted by the sessions and services we offer. Every. single. week.

We receive cards and letters from folks who tell us their marriages are stronger, their kids are healthier, their lives are more fulfilling, their depression has lifted, and their anxiety is no longer crippling because of the work that has happened within our walls.  People’s lives are changed cuz Bergen and Associates Counselling exists.

We’ve created something remarkably special that we can provide to the people who walk through our doors…and it never would have happened if I wasn’t scrambling to survive.

I have discovered parts of myself I never knew existed.  I have been provided with leadership opportunities that others think I am capable of…who knew?  I didn’t! I have strength to push through difficult times that I couldn’t have known about without this difficult times. I learned that I can be terrified and still get something done well enough–in a way that oftentimes, others don’t even realize how intimidated I am. I was pushed to think through issues of suffering and loneliness in ways that have carved me gentler…more compassionate and understanding.

I think I’m a better therapist because my marriage ended.

I know what it’s like to want something–like staying married–so bad you can hardly breathe.

And then to have to find a way to still somehow catch a breath, even tho I ain’t gonna get it.

I know the absolutely physical pain borne by those in grief…the physical ache that bears heavy and constant for a long time.  The fatigue that happens with grief and loneliness that cannot be shook–it’s exhausting to feel like you’ve lost a part of you, and to figure out how to live when an essential part of you is gone.

I know what it is like to have the breath knocked out of you and the struggle to inhale seems too much.

Yep, been there. Done that. Bought the T-shirt. And wore it night after night trying desperately and in vain to have it keep me warm.

I know now we never get over great losses.

I have written over 750 blog posts in the last 5 years.  No married person has time to write that much.  It made sense for this introvert to write and post as a vehicle to let people know about our work. Not only has it let Winnipeggers know about our work, it has informed and challenged people about issues of connection and relationship all over the world.

I spend time weekly with Dahlia on CJOB680 discussing topics of connection and relationship in our lives.  I speak at women’s groups and retreats, corporate training events, and healthcare education. I never intended to do any of this. I am a Certified Daring Way facilitator, delivering workshops developed out of the work by Dr. Brené Brown. I likely would have done very little of this–these opportunities were born, link by link, strand by strand, out of activities of Bergen and Associates Counselling. They were not in my life plan prior to 10 years ago.

My Junior Tribe Members attended a different school than they would have otherwise attended because of the curve ball our lives took after I became a single mom.  They have both made deep, significant lifelong connections that will alter the course of their lives, in life changing ways. One found his life partner at that school. One has a sports scholarship after excelling at volleyball…only because of that school change.

I love my life…I love making a difference in the lives of our many clients, of interacting with therapist and administrative colleagues on a team that loves working with each other.  We make each other stronger.  They make me stronger. I am grateful for all my colleagues, clients, and experiences have taught me.

I am grateful for the impact we have.

The death of my marriage was painful–I was lonely, sad, disillusioned and broken–for a long time. It is something I never wanted to have happen.

But it did. It ended, without my having any input into the whole thing. I didn’t get to decide. I wouldn’t have been able to predict what would happen.  It seemed bleak and impossible.

Beauty rises out of ashes.

And the gorgeousness of my life sometimes takes my breath away.

Sweet redemption.

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