For this reflection, you will do more writing than I do. You’ll want a separate piece of paper or journal to begin to trace your story. But you should read the full reflection before you begin writing.

The premise of this reflection is that anger and pain are messy chaotic experiences but healing and recovery require us to put our world back together again. In that sense, what authenticity (i.e., anger and pain) and progress (i.e., healing and recovery) require are in tension with one another. Both have their time and place. My hope is that this exercise begins to help you transition from one to the other.

In this exercise you will do two things with the key events related to your pain.

    1. Create a Timeline: This will put the “raw material” of your life in chronological order. Often our memory of painful events is glitchy and jumps around. We lose a sense of sequence and progression. Regaining these can be helpful to the grieving process (of which our anger is a part).
    2. Trace a Topography: You may remember having a topographical globe in your elementary classroom. The mountains would have been raised and the valleys indented. You could feel the rise and fall with your finger. A timeline is left and right. It’s flat. But major events in our life don’t just have sequence; they also have impact. We need to trace the up and downs, the “emotional net wins and losses” of what happened to do justice to your experience.

Taking the time to map these things out will help you assimilate, not just merely understand, the material we will cover in future reflections. Grieving is what allows us to stop fighting against the memories of what happened. Early in the grief process we fight against accepting that our loved one is really gone. As we assimilate that reality into our story, we draw upon what we learned from their life, and while sad or nostalgic, our emotions are not as fierce, intrusive, or overwhelming. That’s what we’re after.

Creating a Timeline

Don’t get intimidated by this. Writing a history of your pain can feel daunting. But all we’re doing is taking the things you already rehearse and putting them on paper sequentially. The intent is that this will have three beneficial effects.

  1. Reduce the amount of rehearsal. Putting something on paper allows us to feel less compelled to cognitively rehearse what happened. You can edit what you wrote, but there isn’t the need to perpetually replay it in your mind.
  2. Help you see the whole of what you’re grieving. Seeing the whole timeline make it clearer why your emotions fluctuate as much as they have. When we only measure our response to each event, none of the individual pieces seem to account for the whole of what we’re feeling.
  3. Allow you to more effectively invite a trusted friend to come alongside you. If you don’t have that person already, we’ll soon discuss how to identify someone. This exercise is preparation for that step.

As you work on this exercise, if you start to feel overwhelmed, take a break and come back to it later.

To help you create the timeline, writing prompts are given in four “time zones.” Not every question or prompt may be relevant for your pain. Feel free to disregard the ones that are not.

  1. Event(s): Start with the key event(s) that created your pain or prompted our anger.
    • What was the day, month, or year when things went bad?
    • How long was the span of time in which the “intense pain or offense” phase transpired?
    • When did this phase begin? End? What were the key events?
    • If this phase of life were a chapter in a book, who would the main characters be?
    • Where did significant events take place?
    • How many key events or conversations were there?
    • Who were the “innocent bystanders” (if any) who didn’t know what was going on?
    • Who were the “fellow victims” who were also hurt or offended by these events?
    • What life markers happened at the same time these things were occurring?
    • What were indicators or evidences of God’s faithfulness during this time?[1]

This will likely be the emotionally hardest part of the timeline to develop. Your goal is to create a factual, sequential history of what happened. It doesn’t have to be exhaustive (i.e., capturing every event or detail). You can consider it “finished” when you’re satisfied that, “If someone read what I’ve written, they would have a basic understanding of this part of my life. They would know me.”

  1. Before: Examine the time before the “Events” to identify what made those events so painful.
    • How did the relationship with the key people involved develop?
    • How did the setting and context of these painful events become meaningful to you?
    • When and how did you invest in the things that were lost/damaged because of these events?
    • What seasons of life were represented in these investments?
    • What sweet memories were marred or changed by these events?
    • What kind of innocence, faith, or trust did you experience “before” that are hard “now”?
    • What were indicators or evidences of God’s faithfulness during this time?

If “Event” was the hardest part to write, “Before” will likely be the saddest. Writing this material should give you a sense for the relevance of grief in processing the painful things that happened. The things that were damaged had to be meaningful to you to invoke such strong emotions. Acknowledging these good things and allowing ourselves to be sad about their absence is part of regaining the vulnerability necessary for emotional, relational, and spiritual health.

  1. Aftermath: This time period is after the intense “Events” subsided.
    • What were the aftershocks and disappointments after the “Event(s)” time period?
    • When and how was silence painful?
    • When did innocent people who “just didn’t know” make things worse?
    • What things did non-innocent people to compound the pain of this time?
    • How others create a competing narrative about what was happening?
    • What relationships faded away during this time?
    • What activities or events became less enjoyable or available during this time?
    • What were indicators or evidences of God’s faithfulness during this time?

The “Aftermath” period may be the most misunderstood and unclear part of the timeline. You were likely exhausted and emotionally threadbare as it happened. It is a time when our responses may have been most disproportional to the actual events because we were responding to the cumulative effect of what happened. This time period is one where we can learn to hold our impression of what happened with a loose hand and begin allowing trusted people to speak into how we remember things.

  1. Now: The “here and now” bares the fingerprint of the “then and there.” In this section of your timeline, you are tracing the fingerprint.
    • What questions do you dread being asked now?
    • What people or activities do you avoid or encounter less?
    • Who are the people you unduly trust less than you should?
    • What emotions do you experience more frequently? Less?
    • What roles or opportunities are you in less? More?
    • What physical effects of your pain do you still experience? Emotional? Spiritual?
    • How do you relate to the idea of trust, faith, or hope differently?
    • What are indicators or evidences of God’s faithfulness now?

We make progress from the “Now” place on the timeline. The work you are doing is to improve this part of the timeline. Unfortunately, we can’t unwrite the hurtful things of the past. We can grieve, learn from, and assimilate them into our story. We can reduce the impact of the “then and there” on the “here and now.” We can become both more wise and less calloused. As you ask, “What am I after in this series?” That is the answer. That is the realistic benefit that can be gained.

We can’t unwrite the hurtful things of the past. We can grieve, learn from, and assimilate them into our story. We can reduce their impact. We can become more wise and less calloused. Click To Tweet

Tracing the Topography

There is not much new writing in this section. If you wrote the other section out in paragraph form, this is where you pick up a different color pen and begin to write numbers in the margins. You might write “+10” next to the best things in your “Before” section. You might write “-10” next to the most painful event. Other events will get numbers in between.

As you do this, you should see a rise and fall of hope and despair in the topography of your story like you experience in a well-written movie. You might take out a separate piece of paper to create a traditional timeline and make a wavy line on top of it represent these numbers. Doing helps assimilate your memories into a cohesive story. One that may have felt disjointed for a long time. Your life begins to come together as one story as you trace the emotional topography with the factual timeline.

This exercise is complete when you can say, “This is my life. These are the things that I need to grieve and process to engage the present moment with hope and vitality again. This is what a trusted friend would need to know to understand how things ‘move’ me the way they do. If I am going to see God as good and for me, then this is the story in which I will have to do that.” You don’t have to be in that place. Our goal in this exercise was merely to harvest the raw material and arrange it in a way that helps us get to that place.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What emotional challenges and benefits did you experience from sequencing the timeline?
  2. What emotional challenges and benefits did you experience from tracing the topography?

* * * This article is part of a series entitled Anger with God: Grappling with God Amidst Life’s Greatest Pains and Betrayals.

[1] This will be the final question in each of the four time zones. Answer it to the degree you are able. If the question stumps or disrupts you, don’t try to force this part of the reflection until you are ready.