Hiraeth Part II: Beauty Breaks Through

In my previous post I explored the human experience of hiraeth, which the Welsh describe as a bittersweet ache of our heart for some kind of elusive homeland. It’s a rather unique word describing a rather universal human experience – at least for those willing to look deeply within their heart.

I suggested that the experience of hiraeth is ultimately an invitation into Christian hope. In the remotest depths of our heart we “remember” a homeland that has not yet come into full existence. We have tasted its fruits, like the Israelites on the edge of the promised land. Like them, we are held back by sadness and fear. By the power of God, Joshua (Yeshua in Hebrew) led the Israelites through dangers and into the promised land. Jesus (also Yeshua in Hebrew) will lead us through the dark valley and into his Kingdom, the fruits of which we begin to enjoy even now.

Even with Jesus at our side, it can be so hard to muster the courage to re-enter the dark and scary places of our heart. We live in a world that encourages us to escape reality and numb our pain. Instead of grieving well, many brokenhearted people turn to manifestly destructive behaviors: drunkenness, illegal narcotics, internet pornography, sexual promiscuity, impulse shopping, overeating, chain smoking, or compulsive gambling. Aside from addictions, we find more subtle ways of hurting self and others as we try to cope: being critical or sarcastic, “fixing” others, engaging in manipulative behavior, lying, peevishness, or fault finding.

Perhaps we don’t turn to behaviors that are directly hurtful, but run from our pain all the same. I think here of activities such as daydreaming, spending long hours playing video games, binge watching TV shows, a never ending quest for tattoos or piercings, fanatical exercising, plunging into busyness or careerism, obsession with sports, and so forth. We numb and anesthetize, hoping somehow to avoid our pain forever. But it will not go away on its own.

Please don’t get discouraged in reading these lists! Probably all of us engage in some level of coping. It’s part of our survival instincts – which are there by God’s design to help us get through the troubles of life. The problem is when the “high alert” switch gets stuck in the “on” position and we don’t learn how to calm down and face reality.

I look back now on my childhood and realize that I had an enormous amount of emotional and spiritual pain without knowing how to face it. I coped for several years by turning to extensive daydreaming, and so I struggled in school and in sports. As I entered adolescence, I learned how to pay attention and became an overachiever. All seemed well, but it was actually a new way of trying to escape from pain. I spent my down time playing thousands of hours of video games, and otherwise strove towards every accolade I could achieve. There was good that came from all of these things – but they ultimately avoided the pain rather than help me overcome it.

Thankfully, truth and goodness and beauty have a transcendent power. They are always capable of lifting up the human spirit. In my Catholic high school years, I experienced a significant spiritual conversion. Even as I strove to “achieve” in my religion classes, I was captivated by the objective truth and goodness and beauty that I encountered. God writes straight with our crooked lines. My faith and spiritual life deepened, and I went on to have many profound moments of conversion.

Nonetheless, there was still plenty of minimizing and false hope, ignoring the signs that all was not well with my soul. It was only during the most recent years of my life that I realized the need to grieve some of those old wounds in earnest.

For me, as for many others, there were formidable walls of pride and self-protection. In my need to feel safe, I found ways to isolate and protect those places of pain – also keeping the out the good in the process. At times truth and goodness would beat at the door, and I would yield, even if it was painful. I cannot stand to live a lie. But I can be pretty darn skilled at minimizing. My mind is a gift that sometimes works against me.

But beauty breaks through. It has a way of catching us when our guard is down and sneaking past our defenses. Occasionally over the years I would find myself tearing up at scenes in movies. I didn’t always understand why (and was glad no one could notice in the darkness of the theater). But when I became serious about facing past wounds and growing in hope, I realized that I would benefit from turning actively to art, music, poetry, movies, and other aesthetic expressions. I sought and found those that spoke to my heart. And speak they did. I let the tears flow – sometimes cathartically. I talked to trusted friends and to the Lord about what I was experiencing. Layer by layer, the encounter with beauty has helped to heal my heart and increase my hope.

We all have dark and scary places in our heart that we would rather avoid. Thankfully, like Peter and James and John on Mount Tabor, we occasionally receive a glimpse of glory, a foretaste of our true destiny. Like them, we can find the strength to endure the darkness of Good Friday and journey forward in hope to the glory of the Resurrection and Ascension.

From Hiraeth to Hope: Healthy Grieving

A couple of years ago I stumbled upon a wonderful Welsh word: hiraeth. It’s one of those impossible-to-translate words. Hiraeth describes a nostalgic longing, a homesick yearning, a painful ache – perhaps for a homeland or an era that no longer exists. The Welsh are quite insistent that it means much more than mere nostalgia for past people or things or places. It wells up from deep within our hearts, and may include grieving over a past that never was or a future that could have been but is now impossible. It seems to seek a true homeland whose grasp is elusive, one that could never fully be attained or sustained in this life. In that regard, hiraeth and hope seem closely connected.

Hope is a God-given virtue that increases in us a deep desire for fulfillment in Christ’s Kingdom. Hope allows us to be aided by the Holy Spirit so that we can renounce self-reliance and place our trust entirely in Christ and his promises, which will never deceive or disappoint. For he is Truth itself.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 1818) describes hope as elevating and purifying our own yearnings for happiness, bringing them all into subjection to Christ and his Kingship, ordering them towards their true fulfillment. Hope liberates us from discouragement and sustains us when we feel alone and abandoned.

How do we move from hiraeth to hope?

I am convinced that the process involves healthy grieving of one kind or another. Jesus tells us that those who mourn are blessed, and that they will be comforted. Every tear will be wiped away. But we must first pass through the dark places of our heart, our valleys of tears – preferably with all earthly and heavenly helps at our disposal.

Hiraeth is described as bittersweet – and not merely because one had something happy that is now gone. There is so much more. I believe the bitter ache is welling up from a much deeper place in our heart, a dark valley that most of us fear and avoid. The sweetness is welling up from an even deeper place, a place beyond the valley of tears, where God whispers our true eternal identity in our  heart.

Ecclesiastes describes an appointed time for everything under heaven: a time to give birth and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, etc. The author remarks that God has “placed the timeless into their hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Our deepest, truest self knows that all else is vanity and emptiness, and will pass away. That inevitable loss is sad indeed. But hope of our true destiny spurs us on, giving us the determination and the endurance that we need to pass through the valley of tears.

How do we grieve well? The ancients tell us that virtue is found in the middle course. One extreme is to be stuck in the past, paralyzed by nostalgia, incapable of letting go or moving on. At the opposite extreme some of us “rush ahead” into hope, pretending like everything is swell. In doing so, we are denying or minimizing our pain. It will come back with a vengeance. I think of the Pixar film Inside Out as a masterful illustration of our need for healthy grieving and the unhelpfulness of trying to mask over our pain with false joy or false hope.

Just as abiding in the Lord and bearing fruit is long and patient work, so also walking the path from hiraeth to hope will often be slow and arduous. It may require the hard work of clearing out obstacles or cooperating with God in removing toxic filth. It is not a “one and done” task. Therapists compare grieving with the process of peeling layers from an onion. We shed so many tears and receive so much healing that we think the process must surely be done now – only to discover more layers.

Our pain may come from various sources: death of loved ones, sudden tragedy, betrayal or victimization, childhood abuse or neglect, or the creeping realization of old age and human mortality. Often it is the oldest wounds, still unhealed, that cause the most pain. When we find ourselves “overreacting” to a situation in the present moment, it is likely a sign that the situation somehow poked at an old unhealed wound. Such moments are painful, but they are great opportunities to receive the healing balm of the Holy Spirit. Remember that “Christ” means “anointed one.” Therefore being a Christian means allowing ourselves to be anointed. Receiving ointment on unhealed wounds is painful, but is far better than leaving them to fester!

When life touches an old wound, rather than blame the person or situation that upset us, we can heed the invitation to return to the valley of tears. There we can receive strength and anointing from on high, which always happens so much better in healthy community than as an isolated individual. We can reach out to trusted friends, the godly people in our life who know better than to try to “fix” our problems, who will listen to us and give us the encouragement we need to persevere.

On this journey, I think of the wise men following the star together to Bethlehem. They experience a longing very akin to hiraeth. They don’t go it alone, but travel together. They are humble enough to seek and receive guidance from others. They support and encourage one another during their long trek. They have no idea where they are ultimately going, but they trust the deepest yearnings of their heart, and they recognize truth and goodness and beauty when they find it.

When it comes to healthy grieving, sojourning from hiraeth to hope, we very much need the support of others. In communion with them, we will be more open to receiving the healing balm of the Holy Spirit. We will be more disciplined in rooting out from the valley of tears the poisonous plants that block our path to our true homeland.

There are other hindrances and helps to consider. I’ll share more next time.

Panic Rooms

Do you have a panic room?

Unless you’re on the wealthy side, you probably don’t have a high-tech security vault that you can escape to in the event of home invasion, zombie apocalypse, visits from the in-laws, or whatever other threats you may experience.

However, many of us have spiritual or emotional “panic rooms” that we flee to when we feel unsafe or threatened, anxious or confused. That has definitely been part of my story.

My childhood was not always easy. My stepfather could be one of the funniest and funnest people to be around. Other days, he would get into fits of rage, yelling and screaming, name calling, belittling, pushing or shoving, slapping, and the like. God and others have helped me to find healing for the fear and shame that I internalized, yes, even to find deep compassion and mercy for him in his woundedness. I love him and forgive him.

It has been a long journey to make the transition from victim of trauma to lifelong survivor to true freedom as a wise and joyful son of God. Well, okay, I can’t claim to have arrived at the last one, but it’s a work in progress.

Our human brains are wired to survive. Like all mammals, we all have the “fight or flight” instinct – or in other cases, the impulse to “freeze” like an opossum. Whether in the savagery of nature, the horrors of the battlefield, or the hidden hells of suburbia, these hardwired instincts serve to save us, protect us, and help us to survive and endure.

But there is a problem. Our brains can get stuck in “survive” mode, keeping us from becoming who we are destined to be. We are more than mere mammals. As human beings, beloved sons and daughters in God’s image, we are called to abide in love and truth, to experience the joy and peace of communion with God and others.

Those who experience full-blown PTSD can be blocked significantly from this experience. They are often numb. They cannot feel what they feel; they struggle to realize what they really need. They become disconnected from their surroundings and their loved ones. They often plunge into addictions as their interior battle rages on.

Even if we don’t have PTSD, I think a large number of us, in one way or another, run away from our more painful emotions or fail to seek out what we truly desire and need. We hide out in our panic rooms.

As a child, I had various panic rooms. I would hide under the covers of my bed or talk with an imaginary friend. I was especially adept at daydreaming. I probably needed daydreaming as a way of getting through the traumas I was experiencing. On the plus side, I also used my imagination creatively, and became a highly reflective and independent person. But I also became an isolated person. It was a struggle to focus in school or during games on the playground. I was disconnected and lonely.

As I entered adolescence, things shifted. I suddenly discovered determination and a laser focus. In my longing for fatherly affirmation, I entered on a path of overachieving – whether in academics or in athletics. The false god of achievement and success haunted me for a long time. But that is a different story for a different time.

I discovered new “panic rooms.” I spent thousands of hours playing video games. It was the ultimate fantasy escape. I especially loved games that were challenging, but which I could eventually overcome through diligence and ingenuity. I would get a thrill from each level of achievement, and a marvelous sense of accomplishment with the praise and accolades at the end of the game. Sure, there were dangers and threats, but nothing the reset button couldn’t fix. It was a safe little universe with predictable rules. And best of all, I didn’t have to think about or feel any loneliness or shame or fear.

Another “panic room” was turning to comfort food. Later in life, I could add alcohol to the mix. I might have a stressful day, but I would know that at the end of it I could fix myself a drink or eat something I liked. For years of my life, I carried extra weight (not just physically, but spiritually and emotionally as well).

Different people have different panic rooms: indulging in food and drink, watching television, pornography, masturbation, smoking, fixing other people’s problems, getting yet another tattoo, intense exercise, careerism, and many more. Some are more destructive than others. Sometimes what is a healthy hobby for one person becomes a destructive escape for another.

Panic rooms are not a bad thing in and of themselves. People spend thousands of dollars on them for a reason. But consider their real purpose. Whether the citadel on ship or a safety room in a mansion, the purpose is to be a temporary place of safety and refuge. It is supposed to be a three-step process: (1) Retreat into the place of safety; (2) Reach out for help; (3) Come back out into the world safe and secure.

Some of us keep hiding in our place of perceived “safety.” We are too stubborn or scared to ask for help, or too proud to admit that we need it. So we stay stuck in isolation, loneliness, or addictions. When we learn instead to reach out to those who are willing to help us, we can leave behind our panic rooms and enter healthy and safe relationships in the big and beautiful world outside. Panic rooms are great for surviving a real threat. But they are no place to abide in.