Kids say the darndest things. As soon as my twins were able to form intelligible sentences, I began keeping a diary of their hysterical “toddlerisms.” Now, at 5 years old, as they begin to develop a more keen awareness of the world around them, they often shock me with insightful kernels of wisdom. Their innocent statements can also conjure up emotions that their young hearts cannot possibly fathom. I was recently reminded of this when my daughter cut her finger. Braving the cleansing and bandaging, she offered with a proud smile: “every pain heals.”
It was one of those moments where you well up unexpectedly, like when a poignant scene in a film suddenly hits you straight in the gut. I grasped for the right thing to say. I knew that my daughter was only repeating what we’ve taught her: when you get hurt, don’t worry, it will get better. So, I simply said, “that’s right,” while fighting the pressure building up behind my eyes. Every pain heals. For the next several days I dwelled on her statement, on the impermanence of her innocence, on the lasting scars that mark our hearts, on the sad reality that every pain does not heal.
Her statement struck a deep chord, and I realized that I was not just wrestling with the half-truths we tell our children, or with what that innocent statement meant in the life of a five-year-old. I was struggling with what it evoked in me–an adult still making sense of the burden worked upon our lives by the painful things we carry. I recounted the story to Phillip, with whom I’ve been trying to build a lasting friendship after grieving our breakup last year. It was a breakup brought about, at least in part, by the things he carried.
Phillip bounced around foster homes as a kid and suffered traumas that, despite our year and a half together, remain a mystery to me. All that Phillip could ever manage to share was that he grew up in a community that was not gay-friendly, and he was sexually abused. I know nothing of the context, the perpetrator, the duration, or the physical harm he endured. Despite my willingness to be a support, Phillip could never bring himself to offer a single detail about this trauma. All I could do was wonder. What happened that often made him bristle at my touch? How can I make him feel safe and secure? Where could our relationship go if he was so reluctant to open up about an experience that affected him (and by extension, “us”) so profoundly?
After struggling (unsuccessfully) to convince Phillip to open up to me, I slowly came to understand that his unresolved pain created a great wall between him and real intimacy. While his trauma often prevented us from enjoying sex, connecting physically was the lesser challenge. Perhaps especially for gay men–who are presumed to be so innately sexually driven–there is a world of difference between intimacy and sex. Investing in someone on an emotional level demands much more than unmet carnal desires and interlocking bodies. It requires the willingness to share frankly, the faith to trust blindly, the resolve to listen openly, and the patience to be heard fully. I have no doubt that Phillip wanted that kind of connection, at least in theory. But, what spelled the end for us (as it had for his past relationships), was that the faithful part of him that trusts was broken, perhaps irretrievably so. Despite the intervening years, his pain was so unresolved, that the closer we became, the more intimacy felt threatening, and the easier it became to tear open scars that had never fully healed.
I was insistent (at times righteously indignant) that Phillip show up for himself; that he endure the hardship it takes to heal. I wanted to believe, and I wanted Phillip to realize, what I have taught my daughter: that every pain heals. While my heart broke for him, I was sure that there was more Phillip could do–to help himself, to save us. My frustration was fueled by equal parts optimism and misunderstanding. I so desperately wanted to connect with Phillip on an intimate level that I became convinced he was stubbornly standing in the way of our progress. But, I did not understand how deep and intractable his pain was. And so I found my rather optimistic nature coming smack up against the reality that every pain does not heal. It’s a lesson that we must learn as we go, and one I hadn’t learned fully before Phillip.
So, as my fearless five-year-old pushed past the tears and stood ready to brave the world with her bandaged finger, I stood there awash in the knowledge that there will be hardships ahead of her that she cannot fathom. Was I lying to this resilient little person when I reassured her that every pain heals? Yes. As parents, I suspect that we all indulge in such comforting deceptions. But regardless of how we struggle to articulate age-appropriate answers to questions that go to the heart of the human experience, our children must make sense of the world as they go, learning life’s lessons by living them.
While I can only wish that my twins will never know of the pains that can paralyze us, I can take real comfort in the knowledge that while they may encounter traumas, so too will they surmount hardships that will empower them. It can sometimes be hard to hold on to that optimism–especially when considering Phillip’s (and others) daunting struggle to overcome the scars of abuse, the news of mistreatment of LGBT people around the world, the bigotry that still characterizes such large swaths of our society, and the mere fact that people, in their inevitable fallibility, make choices and take actions that harm others. But I’m also reminded daily of the acceptance and community I found once I mustered the strength to come out. Even more reassuring has been the outpouring of support that my own child has enjoyed when she began identifying as a female, although she was an assigned male at birth. I know her path–like Phillip’s, my own, and so many others–will not be free of suffering. In some form or another, it will inevitably come. But with any luck, even in her darkest times, she will be able to summon the resilient spirit that assured her that every pain heals.