Honoring a painful experience

When pain comes our way, our natural tendency is to push it away, hide it, brush it under the carpet, move beyond it as quickly as possible. Why are we resisting pain, when we actually know that the more we resist, the longer it will persist and haunt our days? We push back out of fear—fear of meeting that pain again.

Conversely, embracing pain deepens our connection and understanding of life. It opens space for new life teachings. It allows us to expand beyond the limits of our experiences to date, instead of retracting and closing off to what life has to offer and teach. It is so important when pain comes around to honor the experience, to welcome it into our lives as a new connection, opening a sacred passage to deeper awareness and mindfulness..

At the beginning of my career, as a specialist of Africa I was asked to brief a Canadian General who was preparing to take up his new assignment, commanding the United Nations troops in Rwanda, in the summer of 1993. On 6 April 1994, a genocide began in Rwanda. Upon his return home at the end of his mission, I sat again with the General for a debriefing on his experience. This was a very different man. I will never forget this defining moment in my life. It took him some time to finally put his story on paper and publish a book. He gave an interview over four days in the fall of 2003 (nearly 10 years later) where he described how Rwanda would never leave him: “My soul is in those hills, my spirit with the spirits of all those people who were slaughtered. … Lots of those eyes still haunt me, angry eyes or innocent eyes. But the worst eyes that haunt me are the eyes of those people who were totally bewildered. They’re looking at me with my blue beret and saying, ‘What in the hell happened?’” He became a humanitarian advocate, providing leadership and action to prevent mass atrocities in the world.

There are different ways to honor a painful experience, by sharing, talking, writing, creating, performing, leading, grieving. Be it psychological, emotional, or physical pain, it is always about marking a transition and ushering transformation in our lives. For as long as it stays inside unshared, we will remain stuck.

I was expelled from Russia, on 6 May 2009—a Russian political decision in retaliation for the expulsion of Russian diplomats from the international organization I was representing in Moscow. I learned about this in the newspaper… bewildered by the lack of personal interest—compassion—from my own authorities. Where were they? What had happened? My son called from school that morning: “Mom, what is happening? You are in the front page of the newspaper! My world unravelled within a split second; my job, my family, my home, everything disappeared in record time, never to recover.

I chose to buckle up, focus, and move on. Whenever asked to talk about my experience, I would push back, hiding the pain, running away as fast as I could in the hope of getting it all behind me. Six years passed. The pain never went away—only dug deeper.

Why keep silent for so long? There was no need to speak about the ugly politics of this breakdown. The human dimension was the story to tell. No amount of politics, knowledge, theories, and analyses are likely to bridge the gap between people. Storytelling may stand a chance. The heart enters darkness where the mind stays at the door.

The time has come to embrace the pain with courage!

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