Indeed, now what? When we’ve suffered…when we’ve suffered very badly, what do we do with our instinctual “fight or flight” response? What do we do with our pain?
Without the mental skills by which to metabolize our suffering, the memory of our suffering—and with it, our emotional pain—keeps the fight or flight reaction going. It just sits there in our intrapsychic craw. It sits there going around and around in our minds, sometimes consciously…all the time unconsciously. Whether we think about it or not, we literally meditate on our misery 24/7.
Because we have nowhere to go with it. We can’t “fight” back. When someone hurts us badly, society won’t let us hurt, maim, or kill that person. And for most of us, neither will our consciences. Nor can we “flee.” The memory of our suffering is in us. There is nowhere to run to.
As we try to move on with life, the nonconscious pain lurking below the surface keeps spinning within us. We try to ignore it. We pray about it. We get prayed over for it. And oftentimes we medicate it. But it just doesn’t go away. Instead, our memory—that is, the fear and pain buried in that memory—keeps the fight or flight response going while we try to move on. But we can only do this so long and take so much. Our underlying suffering has to come out, and does so in various ways.
We get depressed—which is the conscious experience of the tiredness and heaviness of our ongoing emotionally charged meditations. We get anxious—which is the experience of our fight or flight response going 24/7. We have panic attacks—which are high alert moments when the psyche says, “I can’t do this anymore.” We get muscle aches and pains which are the body’s symptoms of extreme fatigue trying to fight or run—without anyone to fight and with nowhere to run to. We get frustrated. Often angry. And end up in fruitless arguments with our spouses—all because we’re always on edge. Like soldiers back from war, we suffer nightmares—the mind’s way of trying to vent and master what’s happened to us. Since we can’t literally run away, we retreat through drinking, drugging (even with prescription drugs), gambling, impulsive spending, overeating, or extramarital affairs. Or seemingly more harmless escapes like watching TV for hours and hours or having to keep busy with no time for reflection.
We sometimes look bipolar. Every fiber in our being feels the underlying agitation. We talk fast, get easily angered, and act both foolishly and impulsively trying to outrun the emotional pain trapped inside us. Then, having spent ourselves, we plummet into exhaustion. We become depressed, tasting the underlying morbidity of our deep inner suffering. We swing back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes within hours. Sometimes within months. Simply because there is nowhere to go with it all.
Other times, we call our faith into question. Actually, as the title of one book goes, we put God on the witness stand. In our secret imaginations, we grab him by his spiritual lapels and shake him. We may even throttle him. After all, God controls everything and everybody; if he’s any God at all, he has to be in charge. He was in charge of those dysfunctional parents who hurt us. He was in charge while the rapist raped us. He is in charge while the disease torments us. Believing that God exists, and believing he is in charge, actually gives our fight or flight response someone to fight against. It gives us an outlet for all the pent up pain, fear, and sadness.
We’ll take God on even though we know we cannot win. After all, he’s God. Still, we’ll keep taking him on—and do so even though we get discouraged, disillusioned, and bitter. We take God on like a young boy or girl angrily but tearfully pounding daddy’s chest because life isn’t going the way we honestly believe it should. In fantasy, we beat God up, much like a woman throwing off her rapist in her imagination and then beating him to a pulp.
Still other times, we kill God. We do this passive-aggressively by refusing to talk to him and never going back to church. He becomes dead to us.
If our pain persists, we might even consider suicide as the only way through. Though dead, we contemplate that at least we’d be at peace. The inner drama, and with it, the daily struggles to live a life, would be over.
I began this brief article saying these things all happen when we do not learn the mental skills by which to metabolize our suffering. But what happens when we do? Then what?