Over the past years, I have had the pain and the privilege of going on a journey. It was one that has taken me from the familiar and comfortable and into the unknown. The origin of this journey was pain. The pain of my own making, the pain inflicted on me by others, pain from loss, pain from loneliness, and pain from the insecurity and uncertainty of leaving the life I had, leaving that life and pursuing the unknown. This did not feel like the hero’s journey or the serendipitous journey that Joseph Campbell writes about, but it was, and is, a journey. Someone once said to me that if you live long enough, you can be both the hero and the villain in your own story. But pain can be a gift. As the Greek poet, Aeschylus wrote so long ago, “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” Against our will, we become wise and free.
I suspect that some of you can relate to this. But there is far more to this journey than loss. There is also that which you find. Like all journeys, you meet people on the way, you encounter dangers, but you find those sunlit moments of freedom. You lose, you gain, and you are irrevocably changed as the passing of time and place alter who you are inside. That is what life does, and if done right, it makes us more gentle, tolerant, and hopefully wise.
It seems particularly true that the journey allows you to grow free from those things that constrained you and see the beauty in something you were once blind to.
Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Journeys can be fatal to blindness and the hardness of the heart.
So, maybe you can relate to this? I learned how to face loneliness and rejection on my journey, but I also learned how to accept others' embrace and acceptance. I learned painfully of the narrowness of friends, but I also learned of the kindness of strangers. I learned what it was to be a foreigner in a strange land, and to feel that strange land was home.
Journeys have dragons and storms, but mine also had poets, artists, storytellers, happy villagers, playful children, and grandparents who had seen both suffering and triumph. My journey taught me that human suffering is everywhere, but freedom and joy are also everywhere. And what joy! As the years passed, my view of the world, God, and fellow man yielded to a bigger, kinder, freer world. An artist friend of mine recently quoted someone saying something like; sometimes your heart has to break for it to get bigger. In the end, the world needs us to have bigger hearts, all of us.
So, what happens when you reencounter your past after finding this joy, this freedom? When you love a specific group or type of people and have been out of contact with them for a while, you forget that they have not benefited from the experience of freedom you have had. They have not had Mark Twain’s fatal journey, and their lives are still bound by what they can see and understand from the familiarity of their “Shire.” Though we only know in part, we seldom remind ourselves of that fact. That I see something does not mean that I see everything — or even most of anything. I can often fail to grasp the importance of keeping a humble agnosticism about the world in which I live.
We have to remember this when we were in our bubble, which is still theirs; we would have seen ourselves (as we are now) like a wild beast. Those people you love see your changes, new insight, and freedom as a threat. For your own sake, be gentle and kind to them. You were them then. You may be them to someone else now. The journey has taught you tolerance, which you must extend to the intolerant as well. It has also taught us that we may have more room to grow.
When we contact our old group again, and they are still living in a world we have now happily been freed from, albeit painfully, it can be momentarily jarring. Time can delude us into thinking that they, too, have grown, journeyed, and become free when they have not. It is easy when they accidentally hurt us by unknowing to grow angry or judgmental toward them. But that is not the answer. The answer is to live as we feel we have been called to live—free from those things and ideas that once prevented us from loving others or being kind. But we must also be loving and kind to them. They are us, and we are them. We all share the same humanity. We all need the same love and kindness.
Instead, be thankful that the weird mental and emotional boxes in which some choose to lock themselves up do not have to lock us up. When they imagine themselves helpful and want to “reconcile” us to their little darkness, it is best to love them from a distance, at least for a while. How can a prisoner, once freed, ever feel he would want to be reconciled to return to his prison cell? They are like those in Plato’s cave. Don’t be angry; love them, and don’t be offended. Don’t grow mad or hurt. Gaze on them with tender pity, and sigh a prayer of thanks that we are free and a prayer of hope that they may also be free one day.
Our hope must always be that they will one day discover their capacity to love without the need for sad religious boxes or lurking in the security of the darkness. That they will be free of the love of the things that imprison them. And become free to know and explore the new and uncertain. Ignorance can be comforting when we are afraid of change, of the new and unknown. But joy comes with freedom.
Even if we must give some distance, love them. People will ask you why you still care about such cruel people? Tell them that those people do not understand nor see how brutal and heartless they appear to those outside. Tell them you believe that they don’t want to be this way. They would be shocked if they could see themselves as others do. One lesson the writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky left us was that people do not just deserve love because all people deserve love. People also deserve love because they are capable of love and kindness, and we should never give up hope, while they are still alive, that they will be able to find that capacity in themselves.
Don’t take offense at rejection. It is not you that they are rejecting. A person’s fear is often a fear of dealing with their own trapped heart. They are not excluding you; they are hiding from painful truth behind their emotional iron curtain. They want to feel safe. Freedom and light carry a scary uncertainty, and the illusion of certainty is a warm and comforting blanket.
Remind yourself to stay in love. In love with the world, in love with life, in love with the journey from which you can never return. Love the beauty of what God has given you, the freedom, and even love the pain that has taught you this. Do not let the prison of anger or bitterness return. Go boldly on into your journey of freedom. I hope you can sit with them one day, these people from whom you have come, and help them find their broad places. Until then, bid them adieu but leave your heart's door unlocked and a candle in the window so that if they ever need you, they can find you in the dark.
“…But do not hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years, so you are old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you have gained on the way, not expecting Ithaka to make you rich. Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey. Without her, you would not have set out. She has nothing left to give you now. And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you. Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.” — Constantine Cavafy — excerpt from the poem “Ithaka.”