Our First Suffering

Our First Suffering

In his insightful book, The Middle Passage – From Misery to Meaning in Midlife, James Hollis says we acquire a “provisional identity during the first adulthood.” Early in life we need boundaries and the values of mom and dad. Without them we would be adrift in a vast ocean without a clue how to live.

There comes a time, however, when we realize our parents’ dreams for us were never our own. Novelist Colum McCann calls this our “first suffering.” He writes, “What is the source of our first suffering? It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak. It was born in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us.” These silent things were actually within us from our first years.

In his autobiographical novel, James Agee writes, “All the large questions were asked by the child we once were, as we observed the big folk silently, as we lay in our beds at night, half-fearful, half-joyous to be alive. But the weight of the schooling, the parenting, and the acculturation process gradually replaces the child’s sense of awe with normative expectations and cultural certainties.”

Agee concludes by recalling how he was taken to bed when he was a child. He writes that he was taken to his bedroom by the big people, “as one familiar and well beloved in that home: but they will not, oh, will not, not now not ever, but will not ever tell me who I am.” No one can tell you who you are but you.

Fortunately life affords many opportunities to suffer and most of us are forced into a reluctant consciousness in which those ferocious first questions return, demanding answers. “Who am I?” James Hollis says, “If we are courageous enough, care enough about our lives, we may, through that suffering, get our lives back.”

Richard Rohr calls this “second half” the time when we become less concerned about being well known and successful, and more concerned about nurturing the soul. You are nearing a place where psychological wholeness and spiritual holiness come together. You are able to dialog with others because you can comfortably hold your own identity.

In this second half of life, with greater consciousness, your self-image comes from inside and not from the choices others make for you. You do what you are called to do and let go of the consequences. Sometimes what you must do may no longer feel like a choice, but a calling. Silence, poetry and story become your companions, not the community of strivers.

This second half is good. We settle into ourselves, our bodies no longer tools, but vessels that nurture one’s entire being.  Children and grandchildren are no longer accomplishments, but precious and mysterious gifts. With renewed confidence, this second half becomes a time when we do not hesitate to speak. We know the sound of the voice we hear, confident and clear. The voice is our own.

One thought on “Our First Suffering

  1. I am grateful for your words today. I think there is a point where we each must decide, will I stand up and be who I am or will I cower in fear, never really acknowledging who I am. As one who has decided that it would be better to speak with my own voice and respectfully step away from the path laid out for me by others, I too have discovered both loneliness and fresh eyes to see the mysteries of God.
    I know that you have received a lot of harsh treatment lately. I will not pretend to understand your situation. Please keep writing. Please remember that many will read your words and heartily agree but will say nothing or perhaps even be critical, not because your words aren’t true but rather because they haven’t come to that place where the path chosen by others for them hasn’t chafed them sufficiently enough yet to cause them to throw it off and live.


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