Recently in dialog with a young man about the age of my sons, he suggested the metaphor of a cave for the darkness, loneliness, and isolation he sometimes feels — a cave where he feels stuck and that no one else knows it exists. Though painful, he says that he also finds treasure there that is not available to anyone else, and he sweetly encouraged me to look for the treasure in my dark places. I thought he was onto something with the whole idea of finding treasure in a cave, but felt like it needed a little more finesse. I replied:
I’m with you regarding treasure in the sense of my own experience being something no one else can ever know from my perspective. That’s my treasure. Those painful experiences (the happy ones are not in the cave) become treasure when they are examined and understood through the lens of an ever-maturing perspective. For me, then, the treasure is not in the cave, but rather what I bring out of the cave. It’s my personal perspective of pain, survival, and hope that allows me to see the wounded other more clearly as I come through my own woundedness. I am finding surprising value in the difficult work of spending time cleaning out the cave, and I am stunned to recognize that my wounded self is actually the person the world needs. My wounded self is actually me. It’s who I am. It’s all and it’s the best I can offer — and I couldn’t be more caught off guard than to realize that it really is better than presenting the spiffed-up, in control, painted-on-smile me that I have spent so many years trying to perfect. Years of reflection have taught me tolerance of my own wounded self, which has allowed me to feel compassion rather than judgement of others. It has helped me to meet others where they are, and if they ask for it, to walk with them as a companion on their journey.
On another note, while value can come from spending some time in the cave, I find that the more wounds I’ve healed the less time I choose to spend in the cave of isolation and loneliness. Since I now see that the treasure is what I bring out of the cave, that is to say who I am warts and all (holy cow, did I just say that I am the treasure?!), I find less and less need to hide my ugly stuff in the cave. I don’t have to go in there, or if I choose to go in, I don’t have to go alone. I don’t glorify the dark, lonely, isolation of the cave. Yes, good work can happen there, but I have become aware of building resentment because no one comes looking for me in this cave they don’t know exists. If I need to go in, I’ve learned that I can ask someone to go with me to the dark places, and it is so much better than being there alone feeling isolated and then angry. The difficult part has been learning to ask and trusting that people are resilient enough to withstand what I may find to be nearly unbearable.
The lesson I find in all of this is that the best, most honest version of ourselves we have to offer the world, our treasure, is acknowledgement of and attending to our individual woundedness. Once we recognize the gift in our brokenness, we can use it to heal the world around us.