Then I brought your father Abraham from the region beyond the River and led him through the entire land of Canaan. I made his descendants numerous, and gave him Isaac. To Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. To Esau I assigned the mountain region of Seir in which to settle , while Jacob and his children went down to Egypt.
Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and smote Egypt with the prodigies which I wrought in her midst.
The special relationship between God and God’s people is based on memory. It is the memory of what God has done for them and that memory as formative in their lives in the present that constitutes the bond of the covenant between God and the people. So we read today from Joshua of the Lord’s reminding Israel of the fidelity that God has shown them from Abraham to Moses and throughout their entire history.
As I read the long list of the ways that God chose and saved his people, however, my mind began to fill in events and experiences that were not listed. There was the abject terror involved in Abraham’s leaving his own land and heritage to strike out anew at God’s call. There was the horror of what Abraham understood to be God’s demand that he sacrifice his only son. There was the jealousy and evil of Jacob that led him to deceive his father and deny his brother his birthright. Before the people were freed from Egypt, they experienced the generations of submission and slavery to the Egyptians. As Teresa of Avila, whose paternal grandfather and father were Jewish, once declared to God: “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”
Perhaps the scriptures call God’s people to remember God’s presence and fidelity to them in all God has done for them because they, like we, tend to remember the difficult and painful experiences much more readily than the positive and liberating ones. Recently I was speaking with a friend whom, unfortunately, I see all too rarely. In the course of our conversation, she spoke of her own and her family’s history. That history, as is true of the stories of all of us, had made its way to the present through every type of experience and every form of human emotion. As she thought back over her life and the life of those she loves, she expressed that it was often the more painful experiences that had the most profound effect on her and their lives in the present. She mentioned especially how what she worked most diligently to provide for her children was precisely what she had lacked as a child. In her words, she experienced herself in that way as a “wounded healer.”
What my friend shared with me was testimony to the reality of our memories as formative. Human memory is not replication and imagistic reproduction. It is rather our recall of the past in the light of our present experience. As we recall even quite traumatic experiences of life, we go through them again to some degree. We realize that our present experience always includes our past as well. Yet, as we, in the present, relive our difficult and traumatic experiences of the past, we also experience, if we can advert to it, the truth that “we are still here.” As we are present to the events of our lives, events that come and go in what seem to us both their good and their bad dimensions, we come to realize that “we” are someone who endures, who continues to be all the way through these experiences. Underneath the turbulence of the waves of passing experience, there is the deep sea in which we truly abide.
One of the least helpful and most ridiculous things that some religious people often say to a person that is suffering is that what is happening to them “is God’s will.” A part of the problem with this is that our conventional sense of will would suggest that God inflicts evil on us in a somewhat whimsical way. It also tends to discredit the depth of what a person is experiencing at such a time. It is saying to the suffering person that when they “wake up” they will somehow see this present horror as a good. I had an Aunt who was a very faith-filled and optimistic person her whole life. The nature of her faith gave her a ready response and explanation for every difficult thing that could happen. Near the end of what was for her quite a long life, however, she fell into a very deep depression. As she was drawn into a long and difficult period of loneliness and depression, the “faith” by which she had lived failed her. In the face of her suffering of soul, optimism was not enough. She may well have been experiencing what St. John of the Cross calls “the dark night of the spirit.” The faith that has ready answers is not yet faith in God; it is rather a faith that God will always “come through” for us as we desire.
It is from realizing our union with God that faith in its deepest sense arises. The First Noble Truth of the Buddha is that “life is suffering.” As long as we evade suffering, including evasion by certain kinds of religious optimism, it shall continue to dominate our lives. It shall either overcome us and depress us, or we shall live in a tenuous and fragile illusion born of our evasion of our own life. The spiritual “therapy” of the Buddha is to awaken, to be attentive to and to bear with our suffering as it is. This is why at the core of Buddhist practice is learning to sit still. This is so difficult for us because we carry the mistaken notion that our own lives, and so our own suffering, are too much for us. We unconsciously believe that we must flee or overcome our very lives if we are to survive.
My relatively young friend, however, had already learned that life comes not from evasion and illusion but by becoming a disciple of our own life and its suffering. While our suffering may not, in the conventional sense, be “God’s will,” we can say that God is with us in our suffering. In it we are being formed into our very call, a call, as she said, to be “wounded healers.” By learning to sit still, literally and figuratively, we come to enter our own life and call, both when it is pleasant and unpleasant, when it is comfortable and painful, when it is joyful and when it is sad. This is what Jan van Ruusbroec called the “ordinary.” It is what brings us to know ourselves as living the “common” life of all human beings. We can have compassion for the other’s suffering, recognize it as our own, and so need not avoid them, because we have not avoided and do not avoid our own suffering.
Thus, our memories of our own life experiences continue to take form and to reform throughout our entire lives. Because we are “still here,” even the most painful and difficult of memories can be seen in a new light. We discover, not cognitively but in our hearts, that we have never been unloved. We learn by experience and by the reformation of our deformative memories that God has always been with us and, even now, continues to liberate us. Remembering out of the core of our being and in a steadfast and faithful presence to ourselves, we are slowly taught that at every moment of our lives “Surely the Lord is in this place and I was not aware of it.” (Gen. 28:16)
Trauma is the way into the self, and the way out. To be free, to come to terms with our lives, we have to have a direct experience of ourselves as we really are, warts and all. To understand selflessness—the central and liberating concept I was reaching for when I reminded Monica of her oceanic nature—we have to first find the self that we take to be so real, the one that is pushing us around in life, the one that feels traumatized, entangled in a tangle. The freedom the Buddha envisioned does not come from jettisoning imprisoning thoughts and feelings or from abandoning the suffering self; it comes from learning how to hold it all differently, juggling them rather than cleaving to their ultimate realities.
Mark Epstein, The Trauma of Everyday Life, p. 15