This cabin in the woods is empty now, but on two rainy days in early June it embraced twenty-four souls who gathered together to write their hard stories, the ones they can’t share with just anyone. Sometimes not even themselves. Not quite yet.
When I preach, “It’s the sharing of our stories that saves us,” I mean it, whether you whisper your story to yourself, mail it to your Uncle Bud, or shout it out for the world.
Not everyone who came to write with us during the 2018 Haden Institute Dream and Spirituality Conference at Kanuga shared aloud what they’d written. They didn’t have to, and that was part of the deal.
“Come write,” I say to anyone who will listen. “That’s all you have to do. You don’t have to say a word if you aren’t moved to do so.”
Even that—the writing—is, of course, challenging. I tell clients that writing is as hard, and as easy, as “Just do it.”
After we wrote in response to prompts in the little cabin, when I asked for readers, three women sitting together would, all at once as if they had practiced, shift their eyes toward the floor. Like synchronized swimmers. They made it clear they didn’t want to speak. I didn’t compel or cajole or criticize. I let them be.
Later, two of the ladies would tell me they just couldn’t talk, but that afterwards, in the privacy of their room in the lodge or on a bench by the lake, the words—and the tears—came. They were grateful, they said, and I reminded them that they had done the work. All I did was invite them to try, make the space as safe as I could, and remind them they are not alone. That’s one of the best things sharing our stories can do: Connect us to others—those who grieve just like we do—which is everyone, if they’re honest. All of us have it, that thing that threatens to silence us and prevent us from engaging fully with the life that remains. The life that is.
You might miss your father, dead some twenty years, while the person next to you in the grocery checkout mourns the children he never had. Your neighbor regrets marrying her husband, and your yoga instructor hasn’t spoken to her sister in three years. We’ve all got something.
My goal is not to force people to dwell on what might have been or is no more. Instead, I encourage people to put into words those tender parts of life so that they might gain a little perspective, perhaps. Make a little space in which they can take a breath between the loss and the present day in order to better absorb and honor the gap. We live more fully when we take it all in, even the loss. Maybe especially the loss. I am among those who believe our greatest gifts are uncovered in our greatest tenderness, those places we hesitate to touch for fear something might break loose. Famous people have said it better than I can, like Henri Nouwen:
“Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.” (henrinouwen.org)
I believe that “service to others” begins with our willingness to connect to our fellow pilgrims through our hard stories. Heartache to heartache, soul to soul. Story to story.