Sometimes, when working so closely with young women who have lived on the streets, experienced gross physical and emotional abuse, and lived in abject poverty, I can feel guilty for all the circumstantial blessings around me. I can also feel quite inadequate to actually help anyone. I often think to myself: “What do I know about life?” “Who am I to have an option about how to live life well or conquer pain?” “How dare I think that I can provide anything empowering to anyone?” “How can I have the faintest idea what the world needs?”
I do believe it is vitally important to have these three powerful, little words in our vocabulary: “I don’t know.” It is fundamentally important to admit that I may not have a clue how someone else should approach their own healing and recovery. I most certainly don’t know a thing about how to survive on the streets or how to heal from the trauma such an experience creates.
And yet, I recently had a humbling experience with a generous individual who reminded me that I do in fact have something to share. I was chatting with an older survivor, and I mentioned my feelings of inadequacy. She looked at me and simply said…
“But you are a survivor. You are human, are you not? You therefore know pain and disappointment and grief. Don’t minimize that.”
The sweet lesson I was given by that sage survivor, was simply this… I am a survivor too. And so are you. You really cannot compare hardship or loss or trauma. To quote holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl: “A man's suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the "size" of human suffering is absolutely relative.”
Yes, I am blessed beyond belief with stuff; my own car, a house, an amazing education, a loving family, a brave husband. Yes, I am healthy and most days very safe. For this I am breathlessly thankful. And I want to use all these resources for good. There is, however, another resource I have that I think many of us are afraid to claim: My own humanity… my SURVIVOR.
Sometimes in the early morning, when I wake up in my new house and quietly walk to my automatic coffee pot and sip my hot coffee, I think to myself: someone out there - not so far away from me right now - is waking up under a bridge or in a house with no food or coffee or any love at all. This breaks my heart, and makes me so grateful for what I have. I’m also learning to check any feelings of guilt around such blessings. We can use those blessings to help others, and we may not be so different from the “other” as we think.
I have never slept on the streets, and perhaps you haven’t either, but I do know what it is to go to bed lonely. And to wake up the next day only to find the loneliness is still there. And my guess is, you have too. I have never lost sleep because I was hungry, but I do know what it is to lose sleep because I’m hurt or sad or anxious. I know what it is to grieve the loss of someone I relied on, someone I hoped would never pass away. I do know what it is to cry ugly tears and not know how to stop. I know what it is to trust someone completely, only to find out they are human and trust is a dangerous thing to give to anyone but God. I know what it is to call out to that God and hear absolutely nothing when I need to hear something most. I know what it is to feel hateful and bitter and angry, to long for innocence and a soft heart but only have harsh words and irritability at the tip of my tongue. I know what it is to dislike myself and my story. I know what it is to feel shame, to feel mistreated… like I played all the right cards and still got the losing deck. I know what it is to look in the mirror and wish deep down in the core of me that if I could only wish hard enough I could have different hair or a different nose or all my zits would miraculously go away. I know what it is to be void of kindness and self-love and courage. I know what it is to simply want a friend, and yet not have the courage to go out there and make one.
And something tells me, fellow human, you know these feelings too. Maybe you, just like me, do not know the dark side of abuse or poverty… and maybe you do. And maybe you, just like me, do not know the pain of starvation… and maybe you do. But one thing I am coming to believe of myself, and of you, whoever you are, is this…
You, just like me, have cried, have laughed, have longed, have been lonely, have been grieved and afraid and ashamed and unsure. No matter what your story. You and I have something that connects us. So, the next time you think you cannot help others or they cannot help you, consider the possibility that you have both cried at the same time and both wanted a friend at the same time and both needed help at the same time. Consider the possibility that you are both, at the same time… Survivors. Our pain and personalities may be different, but perhaps our tears are not.
Next time you feel inadequate or alone, next time you feel like you have nothing to give, remember this… “You are a survivor. Don’t minimize that.”