I stood in line to express my condolences for the loss of their son. My weight shifted back and forth, hoping somehow the movement would sooth my aching soul, like a mother rocking her crying infant. We all stood awkwardly waiting, unsure of what to say, no words feeling appropriate in the midst of this grief. I turned my attention to the screen showing picture after picture of this young man who was no longer here, too burdened by his life to stay. My eyes burned with tears as I looked at the laughing boy growing into the smiling young man, and I wondered about his pain. At one point, I had to turn my head and close my eyes, unable to watch the slideshow anymore. The pain of life can stifle, making it difficult to breathe.
With each step, I inched closer to the mom. I watched as each person hugged her and couldn’t imagine all that she was carrying. How does a mom lose her child? What does she do with the constant memories of his smile, his voice, the hundreds of school lunches she packed or sporting events she watched? The unexpected hugs he gave her as he left for school, the sweet moment when she saw him hold his newborn son? What does she do with the unspeakable pain that now swirls around every memory? I don’t know.
I think some things in this life leave us a little more broken than others. And sometimes all we have to offer is our tears.
I don’t know about you, but last week was just one of those weeks. It seemed as though Tuesday wanted to compete with Monday for the winning story of loss, until Wednesday came along and pummeled both days, raising its cruel arms in victory and smugly saying, “Top that!” I had to sit with my daughters and explain things that I never thought I would have to explain, things no one should really have to process, especially an eleven year old. And when more tragic news arrived on Friday morning with another devastating story of loss, I just wept from the pain of life that excuses no one.
Later that same day, I sat with my girls and laughed as my oldest captivated us with one of her stories, and I watched with joy as we all reveled in the lighthearted moment. I caught myself in this joy, wondering quietly how I could be laughing so hard after such a devastating week. How do you hold joy and pain in such close proximity?
In Old Friend from Far Away, Natalie Goldberg writes about a recent time when she felt so happy, for no reason. She wondered aloud to her friend how she could feel this way when there was so much suffering in other places in the world. He said, “To be happy is revolutionary. You keep being happy. Oppressors do not want your happiness. They are geared to increase oppression.”
She then goes on to challenge us to not ignore any of it. Don’t dismiss the pain or the joy, but allow your heart to embrace both. “Can we write with a touch of equanimity – not an ounce or hair removed, not coldly turned away, not surprised or taken aback? We have paid attention; we are not naïve. We know what one human being can do to another. And we, the writer, like a mother, gathering all her children onto the page, can write to include it all – the errant, the diseased, the quick-witted, the mean, the defiant, the outright cruel, the sweet and good.”
She talks about reading We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda” by Philip Gourevitch with her book club. She said the stories were horrific, unbearable to read at times. She writes, “Unfortunately, most of the twelve readers in the group couldn’t bear to persevere. They couldn’t get through the book; thus they were downtrodden, stuck in pain when we gathered in our circle to discuss it. They missed the point. The ability to see, to move through, makes us more alive, awake on this earth….We have to be willing to see. The thing about peace is it is not unhinged from suffering. Right in the middle of the terror of the world we can pick up the pen and speak.”
I confess that some days I just get so burdened like those book club readers, that I stay stuck in the pain, downtrodden, unable to move through it. I chastise myself and wonder how I can write about hope when I often wallow in the sorrow instead. I want to be willing to see, but I want to see it all, including the hope.
One of my favorite authors, Micha Boyett, recently shared on her blog that she is expecting her third child. In writing about the celebration, she also acknowledged that she knew of many women who were carrying the pain of miscarriage or infertility, and she wanted to be sensitive to that as well. She herself miscarried a year ago. Micha beautifully expresses all the emotions that come with a celebration like this:
“But I feel the need to say it: All of life is grace. And how will we hold the grace we’ve been given? Living with gratitude also means living with awareness. It means recognizing the loss and frailty around us. I want you to know I’m pregnant. I’m thrilled and I’m grateful and I’m still afraid. And it’s okay to feel all those things at once. This is a beautiful and terrifying world and we believe in a God who loves us and comes close to the beauty and comes close to the terror and brings restoration.”
So I am not pregnant, but I AM alive. And for that, like Micha, I am “thrilled and I am grateful and I am still afraid.” And I offer all of it as I come before you on this humble site and talk about hope. I believe in a God who comes close to the pain and holds us both in our joy and sorrow, and I can’t stop talking about or believing it.
Hoping you will continue to join me as we embrace all of it together.