I’d like to talk about this bowl of fruit for a minute.
A little over a year ago, I unexpectedly faced something that brought hurtful memories back to the forefront of my mind. Because I had spent most of my life believing I couldn’t have difficult or negative emotions and be righteous at the same time, and later learned otherwise, I went to the other extreme: I embraced the trigger. In fact, after it randomly came into my life, I intentionally began putting it in front of my face at least daily, sobbing every time, because I believed it was healing me. I believed I was facing what had hurt me and in turn was becoming a healthy person.
But after over a week of this gut-wrenching new habit, I felt physically sick and more emotionally and mentally unwell than I’d felt in quite some time. I wondered if maybe it was okay for me to stop waving the trigger in my own face. Yet the feeling in my stomach– the knots, the burning, the heaviness, the dread– wouldn’t leave me alone.
I thought it was the Holy Spirit.
And I did not want to disobey Him.
So I continued, until my body and my heart simply couldn’t take it anymore. I prayed He would understand as I started saying no to the urging I felt. But the guilt was heavy.
I spoke to and prayed with the safe people in my life, and they all agreed passionately that the God who loved me would not do this to me. But I had it in my head that God’s love could come in forms like this, could be torturous in the name of strengthening and healing.
I didn’t know God’s ways are higher than ours— not lower.
I started to believe what my safe people said… until I saw a therapist, who would not deviate from the subject of the thing that had triggered me, no matter how many times I asked her to or how many ways I showed her I truly had processed what I’d gone through.
She didn’t understand, nor did I fully, that you can fully process and understand and heal from something– and still ache at the thought of it.
The ache is not a sign of unfinished work. Sometimes, it’s simply a sign you have a heart that still works.
Remembering deep pain and heartbreak isn’t necessarily like remembering other events in your life. These are things that affected us and imprinted themselves into our brains, often undetected for however long, and it took time for us to recognize them, look them in the face, understand their impact, then release them and begin walking forward. It’s okay if the memories still hurt. It’s okay if tears still come sometimes. It’s okay if you occasionally have to remove reminders from your life. It doesn’t mean you’re still stuck in it.
It isn’t weak to say no to invasive thoughts. It’s bizarrely hard to give up the sense of security the familiar pangs give us, but the further we walk away, the clearer we see that the pain wasn’t embracing us– it was gripping our necks.
I didn’t understand these things quite yet, and having a relentless and unkind therapist who didn’t, either, made things even more confusing. Even when I broke things off with her and recognized the false in her words to me, the thoughts and doubts had been planted and watered. I spent the fall and winter months wrestling intensely with myself and with what I thought was the Holy Spirit, genuinely all day, every day.
In the church I grew up in, we were always encouraged to listen for the still, small voice of God inside us and to do what it said. But we were never taught how to recognize what was Him… and what wasn’t. Add to that a lack of understanding of mental illness, and they had unintentionally trained me that the voice of anxiety that pushed me toward my heartache and gave me physical pain when certain ideas would enter my mind– was God. And if God was love… that must be what love was like.
But God’s ways are higher, not lower.
And He has told us what is good.
I thought making me hurt because of that trigger over and over again was God’s way of loving me, of bringing healing to me by teaching me endurance and bravery. I thought it was a gift in disguise, if only I would prove I trusted Him.
Then I began to dwell on the gospel.
I began to repeat over and over again the succinct words of Jon Acuff:
“It is finished.” May those words land on your bones for the nights when fear tells you the cross was a beginning and you must finish grace.
My healing isn’t mine to accomplish– it’s His. And He has already done it. My job is to accept it from Him, declare it over my life, and thank Him for it, over and over and over until I see it. And to rebuke any voice that tries to convince me of any other reality.
I began to realize that love does not insist on it’s own way; it is not irritable or resentful. It isn’t like the demanding voice I’d always thought was His.
And I finally began to understand what Jesus was getting at when He said:
Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is heaven give good things to those who ask Him!
Remember when Jesus was facing temptation in the wilderness, and the enemy told Him to command the stones to become bread? Jesus said no. He later added He wouldn’t put God to the test. He knew their relationship didn’t work that way.
God gives good, undisguised gifts.
I had to memorize those words, along with many more scriptures. I had to repeat them to myself literally countless times a day. I had to continue renewing my mind day after day, changing the old patterns I’d built into my brain by creating new ones through telling myself the truth, even when my gut didn’t believe it yet.
But do you know what I didn’t have to do?
I didn’t have to trigger myself.
I didn’t have to focus on my pain.
I didn’t have to keep digging in search for more to heal.
Many of us grew up the way I did: suppressing things so much that we barely knew of their existence until they burst out of us much later in an ugly mess. And now I see so many of us going the other way and doing what I’ve just explained I had done– grabbing our pain by the shoulders and shaking it vigorously, demanding answers and healing and finality, and not letting go even when it’s given us all it can. Because we know what it’s like to avoid our pain, and we don’t want to do that anymore. But, now, I can say from experience– the other extreme is not better. It could actually be even worse.
Our minds are the control center of every other part of us. When we are focused on something, that’s the fuel we’re choosing to use at that moment, what we’re feeding ourselves with. Sometimes, there’s something negative that needs to be dealt with, and understanding it in order to start moving forward from it is important and healthy.
There simply comes a cut-off point. There comes a time when we’ve learned what we can, and the transition is made from processing to recovering. And if we don’t allow that transition to happen, we can get stuck. We see and understand our pain, but neglect to do anything more. We keep looking at it and it’s unchanging face, instead of shifting our focus to what’s next and letting the face fade into a faint memory. We grip it tightly, wringing it out like a dishrag in expectation of a few more drops of insight, but never getting anything truly new.
We don’t have to ignore our pain; we shouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean it gets the stage or the reigns, especially not forever. Its lingering presence doesn’t mean it has anything to teach us. Often, it simply means our brains are delicate organs that do so much work it takes a while to get through the pile. Those things will go to the back files. We have to trust the (sometimes lengthy) process our brains were built to carry out.
We don’t think we need to keep doing things to heal our bodies when we break an arm and it still hurts for a while; we know it takes time to fully recover. The initial pain was an indicator, but the lingering pain is remains, a reminder that something affected you and now you need to be gentle with yourself for a while. Tampering with the wound would most likely make it worse, and make the recovery time even longer. Most of the healing process is simply letting things get better. Our brains don’t have to be viewed differently; they’re part of our bodies, too, they just also happen to host our minds.
I still ache sometimes. I still get triggered. Today, I started sobbing on my drive home because I was just so sad over a memory and what came with it. But triggered doesn’t mean unhealed; it simply means reminded.
Thoughts that enter my mind can be welcomed, or they can be told to leave. I am the gatekeeper, and I get to choose. Even if it’s a choice I have to make a hundred times a day sometimes.
What empowers us to do this? In my experience this year, it has been knowing God loves me, with actual love, that is lavish and obvious and heart-warming and joy-bringing. He doesn’t disguise it, or use pain as a messenger. He certainly brings good out of my pain, but He is not the one who gave the pain to me in the first place. He gives good gifts, undisguised, and that is all.
And He has told us what is good.
He has taught us about goodness and about love through the ways He’s told us are best to live. Somehow, I’d been convinced His definitions for Himself could be different. But He’s the one who gave the definitions to us; they originated in Him. They aren’t standards He created for us– they’re His already established character. They’re what He is and does. He is goodness and love, in wholeness, and He gives those things to us. Not in ways that first rip us apart and are cruel to us, but in ways that embrace us and give grace to us. Because that’s what love does. We know this with human beings; we can know it even deeper and more assuredly with Him.
His ways are higher, not lower.
When I began to understand that… I don’t know how else to say it, so I’m just going to embrace sounding cliché and tell you the truth: every single aspect of my life changed.
I started living as if I was loved. I started saying no to the voice of anxiety, knowing it wasn’t at all reminiscent of the God who loved me. I started making choices as if He believed in me and wanted my good. I started becoming less concerned with my image and more concerned with being genuine and seeking the genuine good in others. I even got a job, after living at home unemployed for three years because I’d thought He asked me to through those gut-pains I’d felt at the thought of it. And the freedom, health, and quality of life I’ve experienced since are evidences of His true character, of what love is actually like.
My life has changed completely, all because I started believing what He’s proven from day one: He loves me. He gives me good, undisguised gifts. And in His love, I am safe and I am free. Not a twisted version of safe and free that comes through painful, hurtful means– truly and obviously safe, truly and obviously free, already paid for in love on the cross.
As I was learning to release the trauma that I kept mentally returning to, a new heartbreak showed up. And it hurt, and I had to process it. But you know what? It was so much different this time.
Because I knew now that I didn’t have to shake it by the shoulders: I just had to look it in the eyes. I had to acknowledge it was there and understand why, then shift my gaze toward what I wanted to build in my life next. Time did the rest.
So now, as I face another fresh heartbreak, one that admittedly stings quite a bit more than the last one… I remember these things.
I remember pain points out the tenderness of my heart and the places it’s been bruised; I also remember pain isn’t something I have to ask to stay.
I remember it’s okay to cry and ache and feel heavy; I also remember I don’t have to force myself to lean into those things in the name of not avoiding how I feel or wringing out insight or healing.
I remember it takes time; I also remember there comes a point when that’s all it takes, when there’s nothing for me to fix and I just have to let my brain do its organizing.
Mostly, I remember God loves me. With an obvious love, in undisguised ways. And that’s why I get to walk forward, whole.
By now, if you even remember at this point that I mentioned it, you might be saying, “Tessa, what about the bowl of fruit?”
Oh, yeah, that.
I’m doing well, overall. Walking forward from this most recent heartbreak has been deeply painful and difficult, but I know I’m where I need to be in the process and I know the ache will lessen the further I walk over time. It’s just still hard right now. I still miss what I lost often, even as I understand why it couldn’t be part of my life anymore. My thoughts are all over the place and I have to journal, vocalize, and/or replace them all the time. And when there are days that are overwhelmingly heavy, I pray for help. Not in grand, pleading prayers, but usually just in the literal words, “Please help me.” And He hears that, and He wraps me up and gives me forehead kisses and assurance.
I was talking to my mom (one of my safe people) about it recently, and she said she personally, in response to chaotic thoughts that threaten her peace, prays that she will see Him in something. He always responds; something little will happen, and it will light up her spirit in joy for a minute and she’ll recognize Him and His love for her, ever present. I’m noticing the same thing happens with me.
Last week, my morning started out with a handful of upsetting things, which was not pairing well with the fragility I was already feeling. As I entered the kitchen to find some breakfast, I noticed a bowl of fruit. It had the usual oranges we keep on the counter, but it also had pears and a banana. And something about it just made my heart leap for a moment and feel a sense of abundance, and I remembered Him. I took a breath, and I faced my day feeling a little lighter.
Am I saying to just focus on the little joys and your trauma will go away? If you know me, you know I don’t shut up about the power of gratitude, but no, I’m not saying that. What I am saying is that where we focus is where we go.
When we focus on loss or lack or pain, that’s what we’re going to see. That’s what life is going to consist of for us. When we focus on gifts given and on potential and on our hopes? That’s what we’ll see. That’s what we’ll build on and that’s what our life will end up being about. God has given us such powerful minds, and His love gives us the safety to use them. We get to build our lives with the good He constantly places around us.
He gives us new things to dwell on, instead of our pain. He gives us reason to rejoice.
So I’ll let bowls of fruit make my heart leap. I’ll squeal at sunset clouds. I’ll jot down words that resonate a sweet note with me. And I’ll give my time to people who need a hand or a presence, and I’ll hug my loved ones tightly and often, and I’ll pursue chances at love when they come along. And when I do this– when I choose to cherish and build up the good around me and make that what I dwell on– that’s what my life will be made of.
I get to choose what stays and what simply visits. I am the gatekeeper, with my sound mind.
And He has storehouses of good, undisguised gifts, steadily on the way to me.
“To rest through it and look outside ourselves to the beauty around us gives sadness the space to finish up.” –Tiffany Mitchell