When I was 20 years old, my life was destroyed in a single night. Does that sound overly dramatic? After all, I didn’t actually die, or I wouldn’t be writing this article. And I’ll admit that I can be a bit of a drama queen; it’s what comes of living deeply in my emotions. You might even say I’m a bit of a wallower. My emotions can be quite engulfing, and I do tromp around in the muck of them, perhaps excessively. (Like every quality a person might have, this one has both an upside and a downside.)
To clarify, the night that destroyed my life did not result in a physical death, but in other deaths. Among the things I lost that night: my sense of safety in the world, my sense that God loved and cared about me, the sense that my future was bright and full of possibility.
I truly hope you never experience a night like that. But if you do, I hope that my experience—and my willingness to wallow through it at the time, and, decades later, to sort if all out in hindsight—can help you recover. Here are some of my takeaways.
1. Say hello to sorrow and sadness.
It’s natural to want to avoid negative emotions. Of course we want to alleviate suffering, both our own and that of other people. We have an impulse to escape into a moment of pleasure, and that is not a bad thing. (Why else would God have given us chocolate?) But if we consistently avoid our sorrow and sadness, we will stunt our growth.
God does not promise us a path free of pain; rather, God promises to walk that path with us. So I encourage you to journal your feelings. Talk them through with a friend. Express the emotions in prayer to God, either through writing or out loud. Read the Psalms and pray the words of lament.
The only way through is through. If you experience the crushing blows of loss, don’t think you are somehow supposed to rise above your painful feelings because you are a person of faith. Painful feelings are part of the human experience, and they are a part of you now. You will learn to coexist with them. Like our dear friend Jesus, the man of sorrows, you will become acquainted with grief.
2. Let anger and outrage become fuel.
After a crisis it’s tempting to want to get things back to normal—meaning, the way they were before the crisis happened. We remember “before” in a sort of golden glow, which stands in stark relief to the harsh light of “after.”
But the truth is that the light of trauma—no matter how harsh—casts a light that bears truth. There really is pain and suffering in this world. There really is inequity and injustice. There really is misogyny and racism. There really are people who seek to bring harm on others. We can’t smile blandly and turn a blind eye to such truths once they have been smashed into our lives. But is this knowledge so terrible? It is fuel. Can we not learn to make friends with anger and to harness the power of outrage? What might we do with the knowledge of these realities as allies beside us?
3. Remember that no one can survive for you, long term or short term.
When we’re feeling bowled over by life, it’s tempting to let other people make decisions for us. Many of the decisions we face are personal and significant. Should we press charges against that person? Should we move away from the scene of so much hurt? Should we end that relationship? Should we choose a different career?
It is helpful to solicit feedback and wisdom from people who love us and have our best interests at heart. But those people will not have to live with the results of our decisions. Only we must do that. And we aren’t surviving in just the short term—we are building our lives. What do we want our lives to look like years down the road? We are the only ones who know our hearts’ deepest desires and can honor them. So pay attention to wise counsel, but pay the closest attention to the wisest counsel of all, which is your inner knowledge of what God has placed in your heart and life.
4. Believe that life can be wonderful again.
If you’ve experienced trauma, you will encounter hopelessness and despair. I’ve suggested that it’s wisest to give negative emotions their due. Feel the sadness and sorrow—it’s a way of joining the human race. Let yourself be filled with anger and outrage; let their power fuel your sense of purpose. Seek out wise counsel, but don’t give away control of your life, not to anyone. Eventually, glimmers of hope and trust and happiness will float into your heart. Recognize them when that happens. Welcome them. Make room for them.
You were made for a purpose, and that purpose is not destroyed by what happens to you, no matter how tragic. Instead, your purpose is reshaped by your circumstances. Some new form or passion will emerge. There is a reason that every culture tells the story of transformation. For many, that truth is captured in the ancient story of a phoenix being reborn from the ashes of destruction. For Christians, that powerful truth wears flesh in the story of the Resurrection, which we testify to in Jesus’ story, and which we claim for ourselves in our creeds.
Guest post from Ruth Everhart, author of Ruined.
Ruth Everhart is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor who has been serving the church for more than twenty-five years. A frequent speaker and blogger, Ruth and her husband currently live in the Washington D.C. area.
One brisk November evening during her senior year at a small Midwestern Christian college, two armed intruders broke into the house Ruth Everhart shared with her roommates, held all five girls hostage, and took turns raping them at gunpoint. Reeling with fear, insecurity, and guilt, Ruth believed she was ruined, both physically and in the eyes of God. In the days and weeks that followed, Ruth struggled to come to grips with not only what happened that night but why. The same questions raced through her mind in an unrelenting loop—questions that would continue to haunt her for years to come: Why me? Where was God? Why did God allow this to happen? What am I being punished for? Told with candor and unflinching honesty, Ruined is an extraordinary emotional and spiritual journey that begins with an unspeakable act of violence but ends with tremendous healing and profound spiritual insights about faith, forgiveness, and the will of God.