Face painful experiences with introspection

By Rev. Tim LedbetterJuly 26, 2013 

The "tragic gap." I believe the term was coined by sociologist and higher education advocate Parker J. Palmer, referring to that frustrating experience commonly known as being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

There are rocks around us -- heavy, unmovable, seemingly permanent. Likewise there are hard places around us -- beaten down, concreted over, seemingly impermeable.

Rocks may be diseases, systems, traditions or convictions. Hard places may involve attitudes, discouragement, relationships or assumptions. Either option is packed with challenges to movement, growth and relief; their presence may lock us in and hinder efforts to create healthy spaces for living.

In my work as a hospice chaplain, my care-giving colleagues and I regularly see people and their families struggle mightily as they face a life-ending disease.

For example, if the individual is in chronic pain and weary of it all, the family may feel torn between wanting their loved one to be comfortable and wanting them to be awake and alert: a tragic gap.

Eventually, families may anguish between wanting their loved one's suffering to be over and wanting them to remain with them awhile longer. The suffering might involve unmanaged or unmanageable physical pain; but, it may just as likely involve complicated emotional-relational and spiritual pain. In these situations, a gap looms like a canyon.

The excruciating difficulty of facing tragic gaps that confront or challenge or threaten to overwhelm, is that no matter which way we turn, it will likely be deeply painful and frustrating. Rocks can hurt and hard places can hurt. Left or right -- where does one turn, what is one to do when facing the gap?

Ironically or paradoxically, a clue is found in two words just mentioned: "deeply painful." Instead of looking left or right for an answer, when we look down into the reality of the pain we will not resolve it but we may deepen its meaning.

Deep within the tragic gap we may find a wellspring of understanding to sustain us. Thus, we can respond like an ancient philosopher suggested: "Not to laugh, not to cry, not to lament, but to understand." We can respond like a modern theologian suggested, asking for serenity to accept what we cannot change, courage to change what we can, and wisdom to know the difference.

And finally, who or what will stand in the gap with us? Who or what will help us look downward into our soul -- that painful process of deep introspection and reflection?

Lay persons, professional chaplains and other caregivers specialize in standing with people in their gaps. They are called and trained to engage the intense emotional-spiritual heat found in the tragic gap. Their work is to help another person lean into the deep pain of the gap -- to not cool, minimize or avoid the heat before healing and understanding can happen.

There will be more rocks, hard places and gaps. Some experiences cannot be fixed but they can be understood down deep, and in understanding we gain wisdom and meaningfulness for the living of our days.

Tragic gaps invite us into true soul-work.

-- Rev. Dr. Timothy Ledbetter is an American Baptist-endorsed professional chaplain and member of Shalom United Church of Christ in Richland. Questions and comments should be directed to editor Lucy Luginbill in care of the Tri-City Herald newsroom, 333 W. Canal Drive, Kennewick, WA 99336. Or email lluginbill@tricityherald.com.

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