Unearthing joy amid pain

Written by J.M. Bergman

What brings you authentic joy? For me, some sources of true joy are friends who stay close in all of life’s seasons, my dog’s excitement when I say the word “walk,” and the fragrant scent of fresh-baked brownies. 

But to be honest, authenticity has been a new journey for me. When I was 18, I ventured out on my own. With the help of government loans, I went to university and later helped refugees and other newcomers learn independence as I began discovering that freedom also. 

I understood what feeling scared was like and I believe this empathy helped a lot of hurting people. I didn’t realize it, but I needed them to need me; their successes and gratitude became my fuel.

But beneath my shining mask of optimism and confidence I was terrified about what would happen if I failed. This fear was the motivator that kept me from slowing down. Yet for several years, my stomach had been rejecting most foods. I became weaker, and doctors couldn’t find a cure. Eventually, ongoing bedrest was the only option. 

Not only had I not achieved what I’d set out to do, I was now worse off than when I’d begun. And I had no fuel left.

I had failed. 

Recently a counselor asked me, “Jessica, do you think you’re holding onto any unforgiveness?” She shared a list of feelings and symptoms that are often signs of unforgiveness. 

My first instinct was confusion—I was the one who’d failed others after all.  

“What about before you got sick?” She prodded. “What are you holding onto from then?”

My gut twisted, heat crawled up my neck, my shoulder muscles began to cramp, and I felt my blood turning cold. I hardly heard her ask what was happening in my body. Embarrassed, I described my reaction.

She nodded. “That makes sense to me.” 

She suggested a book that had offered her insight into her own problems: When The Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress by Canadian physician Gabor Maté. He believes fatigue symptoms show up as the voices of stress, fear, anger, and unease. This was a perception I hadn’t given serious thought to.

“Do you think you’re still angry at the person or people you’re running from?” my counsellor asked gently.

Probably, I thought. But I wasn’t brave enough to answer out loud. 

“Don’t you think you’ve held onto this anger and fear long enough? Who do you need to forgive so that you can release their hold on you?”

So. Many. People. And each one carried a string of painful emotions that needed to be validated and released. These include the men who ignored the word “no,” that family member who said I’d never survive on my own, and the Bible college staff whose cooking appeared to have negatively impacted my digestive system. 

She suggested I work through the following exercise. Over the course of several days, I went through it a number of times, focusing on different people each time. And let me tell you: it has been a deep, revealing dig.

  1. I’m mad at (fill in the blank) because (fill in the blank).
  2. If the emotions are directed at someone, what is mine to own and what is not mine? For example, my reaction/response is mine. The reaction/response of anyone else involved is not mine.
  3. What needs am/was I trying to meet through them? For example: need to be valued, need to be understood, need to feel safe, need to feel validated.
  4. How can I provide these needs for myself now?
  5. Pray for the person who hurt you.

The hardest is forgiving myself for believing toxic messages about myself and harbouring anger that gnawed away at me.  

I’ve been doing this work for almost a year, and I’ve watched fatigue begin to decrease as I journey towards peace in how I see those I’ve been angry at. And while I’m not whole yet, I hope that after many more deep digs I will begin to find the deep, authentic joy that comes from forgiveness.

J.M. Bergman is an author and poet living in Morden, Man. Read more from the “Body and soul” column.