Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Frederick Buechner on the Stewardship of Pain

One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, shared these perceptive and personal thoughts on a radio programme several years ago:

One of the troubles with being a man who spends most of his life writing books is that I don't have many adventures. Other people go off into their workplace. They come back and have stories to tell about the people they have seen and the things they have done. The adventures I have are mainly the ones that I have inside my head, except every once in a while.

I am going to tell you about one small adventure I had last summer that meant a lot to me and has left its mark. My wife and I went to Texas for the first time. I spoke at a number of different places, one of which is a marvelous retreat center called Laity Lodge in Kerrville, Texas. If you have never been there, give it a try. It is a magic place, located in the Frio River Valley. To get to it, you have to drive in the river for about a mile and a half, actually in the water with it sloshing around your hub caps. It is magic also in terms of the magic that is generated by the people there. A lot of them have been coming back for a long time. I found that within a very short time of our arrival -- we were there for about a week -- I felt extraordinarily safe in the way you would normally think of feeling safe only in the bosom of your own family; safe to be whoever I was, to say whatever came into my mind, not worried about making a good show or anything like that.

I was wondering what I would talk to them about. They said, "Wing it." I thought, "I don't mind doing that because I feel so comfortable here." I said, "How would you like me to wing it? Wing it about what?"

They said, "How about telling your own story?" I volunteered to do that and did. In place of telling them about my childhood, I read them a small section from a recent book of mine, actually written for children, though published as a regular adult book, called The Wizard's Tide. I described an episode of my childhood which I said could stand for the shadow side of it and what made it tough.

I'll quickly tell you about that episode. It took place in the 1930's during the Depression when there wasn't much money; an awful lot of drinking was going on in the world and in my family; an unsettled and unsettling time even for a child of ten, which I was.

The episode I described concerned a time when my father had come back from somewhere. He had obviously had too much to drink. My mother did not want him to take the car. She got the keys from him somehow and gave them to me and said, "Don't let your father have these." I had already gone to bed. I took the car keys and I had them in my fist under the pillow. My father came and somehow knew I had the keys and said, "Give them to me. I have got to have them. I have got to go some place."

I didn't know what to say, what to be or how to react. I was frightened, sad and all the rest of it. I lay there and listened to him, pleading really, "Give me the keys."

I pulled the covers over my head to escape the situation and then finally, went to sleep with his voice in my ears. A sad story which stood for a lot of other sadness of those early years.

When I finished reading it, Howard Butt, who is head of the Butt Foundation which finances Laity Lodge, came up to me and said something for which I was utterly unprepared. He said, "You have had a fair amount of pain in your life, like everybody else. You have been a good steward of it."

That phrase caught me absolutely off guard -- to be a steward of your pain. I didn't hear it as a compliment particularly. It is not as if I had set out to be a steward of my pain, but rather something that happened.

I thought a lot about what the stewardship of pain means; the ways in which we deal with pain. Beside being a steward of it, there are alternatives. The most tempting is to forget it, to hide it, to cover it over, to pretend it never happened, because it is too hard to deal with. It is too unsettling to remember.

Source: Frederick Buechner, "The Stewardship of Pain", Program #3416, 30 Good Minutes, First air date January 27, 1990.

Image: Frederick Buechner

Related Buechner Stories and References to FB:
A Blessed Silence
The Final Takeoff
When in Doubt…
New Book on Decision Making and Discernment