046 Your Pain Can Get You Inside This Secret Tribe
‘We were missionaries in Africa,’ the woman tells me. ‘Then our daughter Becky started experiencing depression. That led to drug use, then to self-harm. Then Becky took her life.’* I’m talking with attendees after speaking at a conference. An hour ago this same woman had spoken confidently from the stage, but now her voice is hushed, uncertain.
Later, a man in his fifties pulls me aside. ‘My wife and I adopted two children from the Philippines, one of whom we discovered has autism. He gets violent, and our marriage is under pressure trying to deal with him. Weren’t we being faithful to God, looking after orphans? What did we do to deserve a child who kicks in our walls?’
I’m stopped again by someone else wanting a private word. ‘I used to be an evangelist,’ the man says. ‘Then my four-month old son died.’ The man points to his head: ‘I say I trust God.’ Then he points to his heart: ‘But I don’t really trust God. I can’t tell many people that.’
Experiences like this have become common for me. People email me or pull me aside at events and share their deepest disappointments and shaken faith. It feels like I’ve been granted access to a room where everyone’s secrets are kept, like I’ve been ushered into a new circle, or welcomed into a new tribe. Somehow I’ve entered the Tribe of the Scarred. Here’s how it happened—and how you can enter too.
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Initiation Through Pain
What had I done at that conference to attract this sharing of secrets? I’d simply told the story of an experience my wife and I had shared, from a book I’d never wanted to write, about an experience we’d never expected to have. By sharing our story of infertility publicly, I’d inadvertently effected our initiation into the Tribe. Here’s how it works.
In many primitive tribes, membership of a community is granted only after an initiate has endured a series of painful trials. They’re taken into the wilderness, told the tribe’s stories and laws, ushered into some demanding rituals, then often have their bodies scarred with symbols of maturity or the brand of the tribe. Initiation to a tribe requires pain. There is no entrance without wounds, no inclusion without scars.
Merryn and I had spent ten years in the wilderness of infertility. The wounds we carried from it became our initiation marks into the Tribe of the Scarred. And in writing the book and sharing our story, I had proverbially lifted up my shirt, bared my scars, and alerted other Tribe members that I was one of them.
A Tribe of Common Stories
Bonds form quickly in the Tribe of the Scarred because it is a community of common stories. Once you’re in, you have the liberating experience of finding others who understand what you’ve been through.
‘My husband and I spent ten years trying for children, including nine failed IVF attempts,’ Lynne told me. ‘The questions we asked ourselves and God were exactly the ones you and Merryn ask in Resurrection Year. Through your story I’ve finally found a sense of peace that what my husband and I feel is normal for people who’ve endured what we have.’
But the people who pulled me aside at that conference didn’t share my experience of infertility. They talked about lost children and shaken faith, while others have told me about their struggle with singleness, their chronic illness, or their lost careers. As I discovered, the stories of Tribe members aren’t always common in fact, but common in emotion.
‘One December morning in 2010 my husband went to work,’ Kylie told me. ‘By that afternoon he had been arrested for multiple offenses relating to child sexual abuse. On Christmas Eve of 2010 I too curled up in a foetal position, like Merryn did… We have different journeys, a different loss, but with the same theme of shattered dreams.’
A Tribe of Common Doubts
If the Tribe of the Scarred is a community of common stories, it is also a community of common doubts, where deep questions are faced.
Like the man at the conference who wondered how he deserved a child that kicked in his walls, many Tribe members’ doubts centre on God. ‘If God loves me,’ said Leonie, ‘why doesn’t he give me a child? I only want one.’
Believers aren’t the only ones to doubt, though. ‘My life has gone to sh– after my partner’s death,’ Denise, an agnostic, told me, ‘and there isn’t a thing I can think of to make sense of his passing. Do you have any idea? I can’t find an answer.’
Others turn their doubts on themselves. After his marriage breakdown Daniel confided, ‘In trying to work out what happened these last few months, I’ve had every concept of who I thought I was shattered.’ Broken dreams can leave us doubting our very identities.
A Tribe of Shared Discoveries
Thankfully, while the Tribe may be a community of common doubts, it can also be a community of shared discoveries, where lessons are learnt and insights traded.
‘I’m starting to think we all have subplots going on in our lives,’ Lisa said of her own wilderness experience, ‘and it is one of these subplots that eventually becomes our life purpose, not the main plot we think.’
Others discover their scars have equipped them for an unexpected task. ‘Our baby was stillborn and would’ve been severely disabled had he lived,’ Jane said. ‘As a result, I now work with parents of severely disabled children. Without my experience, devastating though it was, I wouldn’t have the wonderful opportunity to help these parents, who sometimes struggle just to get through the day.’
As Anna told me, ‘Maybe there’s a third option for us beyond fairytale happiness or broken-heartedness, which is serving others through our broken dreams instead.’
A Tribe of Shared Healing
And with doubts aired and discoveries shared, I’ve seen the Tribe become a community of healing, as members find new possibilities for their lives.
For some this healing comes just by hearing that others have survived their trials. For others, it’s come through the bold step of leaving their unfulfilled dream behind. And for almost all, healing includes making peace with a God they can’t fully understand.
‘Soon after my husband’s arrest,’ Kylie continued, ‘I realised I had a choice: I either held on to God and all I professed to believe, or I walked away and blamed God. Somehow I instinctively knew that I wouldn’t survive without him. At some level I also felt that God grieved our situation too.’
The resurrected Jesus retains the scars of his own trial. Many in the Tribe find comfort in this—in a God who suffers too.
Take the Vulnerable Step
There is a Tribe whose members are both hidden and everywhere around you. Initiation to this Tribe comes through suffering, inclusion comes through pain. If you’ve walked through the wilderness and born wounds from it, you’re an initiate. Take the vulnerable step of revealing your scars and you’ll soon be welcomed in.
You don’t need to blab your story through some book or conference, or share your pain with everyone you meet. Start with one person. Some won’t reciprocate your brave vulnerability; others will collapse into your arms.
I didn’t want to share our infertility story with others, but I’m glad now I did. As I take the risky step of sharing my pain with you, I get the privilege of having you entrust your pain with me. And somehow we both heal through this newfound community.
*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy. This post has been drawn from a longer article written for Third Way magazine.