Note: I originally wrote this post two weeks ago, on August 8, but I have been sitting on it. I reviewed it this morning and it still speaks truth, so here it is.
I recently returned home from a week as a Graduate Assistant (GA) at the Pacific Central District (PCD) Leadership School in Alamo, CA. This return was more than just physical - in many ways it was a spiritual return to life and connection from a journey through darkness and loneliness that began in March.
I wrote in a post to A Virginia UU in King George's War about my short "honeymoon" after returning from Iraq, and the jarring realization that life at home wasn't all as great as I had pictured it from my tent at Kalsu. What I haven't written about - not directly, anyway - is how my "reentry" into "normal" life has been far from complete. Since about mid-April, I have struggled to feel connected to the people I have rejoined. I have found myself disillusioned with my congregation, angry with my wife and children, and believing I was truly alone in the world. I thought "oh, it will get better, it will change, this loneliness and anger will disappear." It has only started getting better very recently.
Every Sunday during this period, in our congregation's Joys & Sorrows, I longed to stand up and shout "would you get real? I'm totally alone over here and nobody seems to care!!" but I never found the courage. I grasped my attachment to the belief that I was alone, and that nobody could help me. I had no interest in getting reinvolved in congregational activities. I told myself I would find another congregation, one where I could feel at home and connected, because it was easier to blame other people than to look long and hard inside myself and do the hard work of opening my heart to those who were already there. I found myself increasingly short-tempered with my wife and children, and I often felt like a stranger in my own home. I withdrew in subtle ways, spending hours with guitar and bike and sleeping. I believed I was trapped in my life, without hope of rescue or improvement. Being miserable became a habit, and I grew attached to it.
Two days before I left for Leadership School, I finally realized - or admitted to myself - that something had fundamentally changed in the way I relate to other people since my deployment. I had thought about this before, and attributed it to being alone so much of the time. Now I'm not so sure, and I'm exploring other possible explanations (there are many). Regardless of the cause, I had become alone and withdrawn. Other people noticed, of course - my wife, my mom, and some perceptive friends. One friend even mentioned my "separateness" in a comment about a previous post - to which I replied a bit dismissively. Thank you all - I just wasn't ready to listen. Or see.
It was very fortuitous that I was on my way to Leadership School when this epiphany occurred. My first reaction, however, was fear - how could I go there and fulfill my role as a GA with this huge "thing" in my life? I quickly realized that it was the perfect time to go - to take my whole self to this environment, to model living as an imperfect, hurting person. Another beauty of bringing my pain to this environment was being able to tell my story to a group of loving friends in a circle of trust and support, knowing that I would be listened to and held without fear of anyone trying to "fix" me or give unsolicited advice. Just being listened to when I expressed my pain and loneliness was healing beyond measure.
I brought three vital lessons back from Leadership School with me - three gems I can return to when the going gets tough, fear returns, or I begin to believe I'm alone again. I don't know if they are obvious to other people, but they came hard won to me.
First, part of living an authentic life is bringing my whole self to my relationships, pain and all. Right relationship is deep enough to handle real emotions, from the highest pinnacles of joy to the lowest pit of despair. Fear of rejection or ridicule can be hard to overcome, but without taking risks and making real connections, existence is a shallow mockery of life.
Second, it is all right to fail and even to be miserable. I can give myself permission to fall - permission to be human - another aspect of an authentic life. I can let go of my attachment to "being OK," and accept sadness and loneliness as aspects of my Self. By acknowledging these emotions and accepting myself, true healing can begin. It takes a lot less time (and pain) to accept these feelings and let them run their course than to repeatedly push them under, only to have them bubble back to the surface.
Finally, Community provides a place to bring my whole self, a container in which to share my pain and failings, and a place to be heard and held. Community is where I can go when there seems to be nowhere else to turn. There is nothing more empowering than having other people lovingly listen to me, reflect on what they heard me say, and accept me for who I am. This connection is what I find most worthy in organized religion.
Life is a cycle of journeys. Having finished this foray (I hope) through the depths of despair, I have embarked on a new one. Two weeks ago in Joys & Sorrows, I stood and spoke from the heart of my pain, loneliness, and disconnection, bringing my whole self back to the community for the first time in months. It took a lot of effort to overcome my inertia - it would have been so easy to just sit there, mouth closed, feeling lonely and sad. But I didn't - I drew on the transcendant power of Right Relationship and Beloved Community to find the courage to speak. It felt like starting over.
Of course I don't know where this journey will take me, but I'm sure it will contain hope, fear, joy, and sorrow. All I can do is try as hard as I can to bring my whole self along, give myself permission to fall and fail, and surrender to the support of my beloved community.
Fasten your seatbelt, it's gonna be a bumpy ride.