The Great Tribe of Pain

Every Tuesday we gather together to tell our stories. They are the saddest stories in the world – tales of children who are sick unto death and families torn apart by guilt, grief, confusion, and pain.

And yet, in and through the tears there is healing. Just being with people who have walked the same tortuous pathway,, who have stumbled, regained their balance, stumbled again and again, and kept on going gives us strength and courage.

We do not feel judged and condemned. We do not feel so alone.

For so long we kept silent, afraid to voice our most shameful secrets. “My 22-year-old is a heroin addict.” “My 14-year- old son is smoking marijuana daily and failing her classes.” “My 19-year- old daughter got drunk, fell down the stairs, and has a serious head injury.” “My gentle, considerate 17-year- old son is punching holes in our walls and dropping the F-bomb left and right.” “My 30-year- old daughter is a meth addict facing a 3-year prison sentence for burglary.”

The stories are all different and yet they are somehow all the same. We “see” ourselves in the mirror of another person’s story.

In a recent family support group at Trilogy Recovery Community, one mother listened to another mother’s story with rapt attention.

“You just told me my own story,” she said, her eyes wide with wonder.

There’s an old, old story about the Baal Shem Tov, a Jewish mystical rabbi. On his deathbed the Besht, as he was often called, assigned each of his disciples a task to carry on in his name and continue his work. The Besht asked the last disciple to travel all over Europe and tell his stories. After many years of telling stories, the disciple heard of an Italian nobleman who would pay a gold ducat for each new story told. But to his embarrassment and shame, the disciple forgot every last one of the Besht’s stories, except for one which he himself had witnessed.

It was Easter in Turkey and Jews were not safe during the Christian High Holiday; in fact, it was the tradition to kill a Jew every year. But the Besht insisted on visiting with the Christian bishop, and he sent his disciple to arrange a meeting. The bishop and the Besht spent many hours together and then, without another word, the Besht announced to his disciple that it was time to go home.

Finishing his story, the storyteller was amazed to see that the nobleman had dissolved into tears.

“Your story saved my soul,” the nobleman said. “I was that Christian bishop, and I participated in the killing of the Jews for many years. When I met with the Baal Shem Tov, he told me that there was still hope for me if I gave up all my worldly possessions and lived a life of good deeds and holiness.

“The last words the Besht said to me were, ‘When a man comes to you and tells you your own story, you will know that your sins are forgiven.’ You remembered only one story, and it was my story – and I know now that the Besht has interceded on my behalf and that God has forgiven me.”

I thought about that story when I watched the two mothers and listened to their shared story. In the mirror of our shared stories, we find forgiveness, and when we are forgiven, we are healed.

And I remembered a favorite quotation from the book “In Speech and Silence” by David Wolpe.

When one suffers a tragedy, the population of fellow sufferers suddenly opens up. The world is filled with those who have undergone the same trauma, but one never knew it. Suddenly everyone was close to or acquainted with someone who had had the same experience . . . There is no nationality so abrupt, so unseen, and so ready to spring into action as the nation of those who have suffered loss -- the vast, wounded totality of the human race. We were now part of the great tribe of pain.

Tragedy leaves few of us unscathed. We are all, I think, “part of the great tribe of pain.”

Photo by Colby Kuschatka