“There are two ways of telling your story. One is to tell it compulsively and urgently, to keep returning to it because you see your present suffering as the result of your past experiences. But there is another way. [You can] see it as the way to your present freedom… as God’s way of making you more compassionate and understanding towards others.” – Henri Nouwen
The late Henri Nouwen wrote those words during one of the darkest periods of his life. He had just moved to L’Arche Daybreak, a community where he could live life alongside men and women with mental disabilities. This community would be his home until he died ten years later, and it would bring him much deep joy. However, at the moment he entered, the interruption of a friendship which had brought him a deep sense of fulfillment was tearing at the core of his identity. Nothing could console him, neither the memory of his past accomplishments as a beloved spiritual writer nor the care and solace of his other friends and community members. He wept for hours and could not sleep. From December 1987 to June 1988, he lived in daily anguish.
Slowly, Nouwen says, he could eventually “take very small steps toward life.” Frequent meetings with spiritual counselors helped, as did writing about his struggles to maintain his identity as fundamentally beloved despite all the pain he was experiencing in the moment. Years later, friends urged him to share excerpts from the journal he had kept during those dark six months. At first he thought they were too personal and raw to be of any use to others, but after rereading them and considering the idea, he finally allowed them to be published as a book of their own.
I’ve been reading that book, The Inner Voice of Love, for the last few months. My current rate is about a page a day; as Nouwen himself warns at the beginning, the lessons he learned are too intense to take in quickly. His terse reflections, the fierce yet gentle instructions to himself that helped him cling to hope, jump off the page in their vividness. To someone like me who craves approval and fears rejection, it’s like getting instructions from my time-traveling future self, a message that yes, I somehow can make it from here to there.
This story reminds me of another one, the story of a man who was born into darkness: the man born blind who appears in the Gospel of John. The disciples ask Jesus whose fault it is that this man was born with a burden to carry, a struggle to live in a world he can’t see. Did he somehow sin before he was born, or is it a punishment he’s inherited from his parents? “Neither,” replies Jesus. “This happened to him so that the glory of God could be revealed through him.” This man’s entire life, including his blindness, displays the glory of God. All along, his very struggle with darkness can shed light on God’s glory.
This story is repeated whenever someone stuck with a heavy burden wants to share the burdens of others. Whenever someone is lonely and chooses to help others feel less alone. When someone takes the dark things they should never have suffered and chooses to shed light so others will not suffer the same.
I’m watching with awe right now as this story takes place in the life of my sister. Mired in the depths of depression, which constantly steals her joy and peace of mind, she wants to share her story with others through a series of videos about her experiences. I’m blown away that even in the middle of her story, she’s already letting it deepen her compassion. Still on the path to freedom herself, she wants to help lead others out.
I’m thankful for her. Thankful to be so close to someone who is living this story. I need to live it too, the story where my suffering can itself become the raw material for healing.
Have you been inspired by someone who used their story of healing to help others? Are you going or have you gone through a similar experience?