Friday Favorite, 6.19.15

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

These are the words of Nazi concentration camp survivor and Nobel Prize winning author Elie Wiesel, and they ring true deeply in my soul today. I am praying for wisdom in how to best stand with those who need an advocate, a friend, an ally.

Finding Peace in the Past

The problem with being reflective is that you eventually encounter the long-buried, unresolved shit in your past. Just when you think you have made great progress and acquired some wisdom, you are smacked in the face with a realization so significant that it nearly brings you to your knees. It is a reality that has become so intertwined with your thoughts and actions that at first it is hard to tell where IT ends and YOU begin.

For me it was a hurt of sorts. It wasn’t a traumatic event; those are easy to recognize. This was a quieter sort of thing. Not one event but something that unfolded over time and took its toll. If I told you what it was, you might just shrug your shoulders in confusion.

I am now seeing clearly all that has been impacted over the years, like the ripples in a lake after you have thrown a stone into it. As the ripples keep rippling, knowing it is too late to take back my stone’s throw, I am left with only one choice. I have done too much work to deny its effects any longer. And so I sit by the water’s edge, figuratively speaking, and watch the ripples grow. I feel the feelings that come with those ripples and I cry as I realize the impact. I cry for the years I had tried to protect myself. I cry for how ineffective that protection really was. I cry for what would never be. I cry for what I had lost…

I suspect some can relate. Whether it is a hurt, a regret, a lost love, a do-over you would give anything to have, there is a similarity among the experiences. It is either deeply embedded within, so subtle that its presence is hardly known, or it haunts and never lets one forget. Or maybe it is a bit of both. The ripples keep coming whether we watch for them or not. And when we periodically get a glimpse of a ripple that we intuitively know is connected, we close our eyes or look away. Or we rationalize. Or we reinterpret to suit our logic.

I was aware for a long time of the hurt I held, although I would not have called it a hurt. I had a very rational, reasonable explanation for what had happened way back then. But I irrationally denied its impact. And thus I was shaped by it far more than I realized. I can now see the hurt that was caused by outside forces. But what is both freeing and horrifying simultaneously is how the lasting impact of that hurt has been largely my doing. My rationalization might have satisfied my mind, but the little kid in me still continued to seek healing. Thus I carried the hurt with me like a heavy carcass, which impacted nearly every step, nearly every turn, nearly every perception. And I did so subconsciously.

Now I sit with it as it is. And although I am watching the ripples, they seem to be smoothing themselves out. By bringing the hurt into the light, or simply by naming it for what it is, I am disarming it. I can feel it losing its grip on me. It’s like the space between the unknown and the diagnosis. You hold your breath anticipating what will come. As soon as you know, it doesn’t go away, but you now know what you are dealing with. I hold my breath for just a moment, whisper what I have been feeling all along, I make peace with myself and my past. No more excuses. No more reframing. No more denying. It happened. It is part of me. And I am going to be okay.

 

A Companion Called Grief

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The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

Ellen Bass

 I find myself inundated with loss. A new loss occurred last Thursday with the sudden death of our cat. She had been part of the family for more than a decade. On Monday, we received a terminal diagnosis for our dog, and are now preparing ourselves for losing her. Thursday is the anniversary of a most difficult loss, the death of my beloved friend. It will have been one year since she was painfully taken from us. I was ill-prepared for a loss like that. Maybe we are never prepared. But up to this point, I had been able to visit with Grief for a little while and then move on.

I have experienced loss before. My parents’ marriage ended. I have moved. I have been left behind. My grandparents died. My son’s close friend died at 14. All of these experiences brought Grief into my life, and painfully so. But I somehow managed to avoid getting to know Grief. I kept her at arm’s length. I remained a stranger by moving on as quickly as possible. This time Grief unrelentingly took up residence. She would not be ignored. And her presence brought up not only the loss of my dear friend, but previous losses. I thought I had successfully navigated Grief in the past, but it turns out she had left quite a mark. She forced me to sift through pain that was residing deep within me.

Physical pain can be a sign that something is wrong, and it can also be a sign of healing. Emotional pain is similar in that it is not always clear what is going on. It is never an easy journey to take. And pain can be with us for years without our even realizing it. Instead we numb our pain. We eat our pain or spend our pain or sift through relationships always blaming the other for its failure. We think maybe this next accomplishment will assuage our pain. If only I am this size or have this title or drive this car. If only I have this many friends or support this many causes or collect this much stuff. But the If Only’s are just smoke and mirrors. Pain is pain, and lasting pain cannot be addressed until we welcome the presence of Grief to learn what has caused the pain. Only then are we able to adequately deal with it.

As I sat with Grief to feel the loss of my friend, I became aware of other stuff that I had buried: relationships that will never be what I wish they could be, the unsettling of my faith, feeling the consequences of failures and regrets. Even though this was terribly difficult, I chose to stay with Grief in spite of the exit ramps that regularly came. I welcomed Grief, not as my friend but as a needed companion. And rather than be offended by her presence, ignore her presence, or attempt to move her along as quickly as possible, I have learned to sit with her and learn from her. I accept her when she is here.

It is important to point out that there is a difference between acceptance and desire. To desire Grief is to take on an almost masochistic approach. I know people who are like this, who seem to relish their losses and be defined largely as victims. This is not a healthy relationship with Grief but rather a codependent one. My relationship with Grief is undergirded by the reality that she can consume me rather than help me. This is what prevents her from being my friend. I never forget that she is capable of destroying me, and that helps to keep my relationship with Grief a healthy one.

Last week in a blogpost, I advocated for hope over knowledge. I had some great conversations with people in response. For some, it resonated. For others, it was too easy. I have come to the conclusion that authentic hope is anything but easy. Hope is the ability to grab life like a face between the palms of my hands and say, “I know what you are capable of, and yet I choose you anyway.”  To give space for friendships when you know what its loss might cause takes courage. To choose love when you know it will disappoint is living. To try again when you know what failure feels like takes guts. Surprisingly it has been my time spent with Grief that has deepened my hope. Grief allows me to accept what is, and hope enables me to see what is possible. Grief and hope are teaching me how to be both alive and free.

I have been deeply moved by others who know Grief. Experiences with her can vary greatly from person to person. To be with someone who intuitively understands her complexity and respects her is comforting beyond words. For those of you who feel alone, overwhelmed, or nearly consumed by Grief, know that you are not alone. Find someone who listens well, listens deeply, and doesn’t try to fix what is wrong. Those people will be invaluable to you as you learn to walk with Grief. And hope will come. Eventually. For we are told and I have learned that troubles produce patience, patience produces character, and character produces hope (Romans 5:3-4).

Assumptions, Hope, and “The Walking Dead”

I am a huge fan of The Walking Dead, a television show that follows a group of people living in a zombie apocalypse. It is fascinating to watch. All the assumptions have been taken away from these characters, and they are left with the task of figuring out what it means to be human without any social normatives. Who do you trust? How do you survive? How do you retain your humanity when “survival of the fittest” has become the new norm? The show does a great job of examining the different ways people navigate life under constant duress. I find myself wondering how I would do in this kind of situation. What would I do in the chaos? Would I be able to maintain my humanity? If so, how?

Thankfully we do not currently live in a zombie apocalypse. Instead we live with plenty of assumptions. You know the saying – assume makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me”. And yet we all have them. Lots of them. It’s not that assumptions are inherently bad. But assumptions can prevent us from learning, growing, and moving forward. We assume that we know what is best. We assume that what we believe is true. We assume that we know people’s stories. We assume that our “normal” is everyone’s “normal”. We assume that what we want is what we should have. It is easy to spot someone else’s assumptions. But it takes a lot of work to discover your own assumptions. They are so ingrained into your thinking that they seem normal, right, and true.

My faith is full of assumptions. And I built my faith on many of these assumptions. For example, I assume that the bible teaches me about God, so I read it with the assumption that the bible is helpful and good. God has yet to confirm this with me directly, and yet I still utilize the bible as a resource for my faith. My assumptions didn’t come from out of thin air. They came about as I spent time reading the bible and learning what others had to say about it. But they were still assumptions. When I encounter someone who doesn’t view the bible in the same way, instead of seeing myself as “knowing” what that person hasn’t yet realized, I recognize that this person simply doesn’t hold the same assumptions that I do. If I focus on the assumption of what the bible is, I miss the opportunity to talk about what the bible has meant to me. And I miss the opportunity to learn what the other person thinks.

I think this is a critical point for a life of faith in the 21st century. We used to have the luxury in western civilization of believing that we were the epicenter of truth, that we had somehow uncovered the right questions to ask and reached the answers to those questions. We saw our responsibility then to share our knowledge with the rest of the world, or at least wait for everyone to catch up. But science, sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and even religion are exposing that we, westerners, are shaped and impacted by our power structures and social normatives just like everyone else. We cannot be entirely objective. Our perspectives, beliefs, and convictions are all filled with assumptions. When we are not aware of them, we are prone to arrogance.

We are seeing a crisis of the Christian faith in the 21st century. Churches are closing. Society is changing. Morality is increasingly fluid. And truth seems to be relative. I talk with a lot of Christians who find these times to be scary and daunting. But I disagree. This an opportunity to shift one’s faith from a foundation of assumptions to a foundation of hope. We are invited to become less focused on what we think we know, and more in tune to what we hope for through faith. We recognize that to a large extent God is beyond all of our understanding and perhaps we might be able to learn from each other regardless of the assumptions we have. And whereas knowledge is limited, hope is immeasurable.

Think about the characters of The Walking Dead. They are struggling to stay safe, to find food and water, to learn a new way of living. They know virtually nothing. They are disconnected from everyone, except those they encounter along the way. They don’t know if they’ll live another day. They don’t know who to trust outside of their own group. Assumptions are exposed with every episode. What seems to keep the group going is not any knowledge that tomorrow will be better, but a hope that it might be. It is a tough fight to keep that hope, but without it they know they will never do more than just survive. And merely surviving, particularly as loved ones are lost and life gets harder, does not inspire the group onward. But hope does.

For those of us who profess some kind of faith, shouldn’t it be similar? Shouldn’t our faith exist for the purpose of bringing hope? Not to prove that we are right or better or “in” with God, but to offer hope for a better day, hope that God cares, hope that the sun will rise again? I have had many assumptions exposed, disproven, replaced by better assumptions. And if I continued to build my faith on any of these assumptions, I’m not sure if I would have much faith left. With hope as my reason for faith, I am compelled to carry on. I still have my assumptions and always will. But they fail me from time to time. With hope, I am able to face the dark days, the tough questions, the irreconcilable issues. With hope, I can leave behind fear and anxiety. With hope, I can find a reason to smile and laugh. With hope, faith matters.