Light in the Darkness

Sometimes, I am keenly aware that my writing, processing, thinking, and speaking tends towards the dark, the haggard, and the grief-slog of day-in-day-out challenges. Often the things that speak to me the most are those things that put words to the heartbreak. There is purpose in this, a reason that this hopeful onetime-positive Baptist boy from the Midwest now refuses to be pinned down in too much hope and an over-positivity with “what may be.” Western culture is not sane in its stance towards that which is natural and good… terror, trauma, and narcissism has been made into entertainment so that the news becomes Hollywood while adolescence, youth, and denial are celebrated as salvation. Ironically, I was always told we’d get new bodies when we get to heaven, ones that don’t get sick, old, or feel pain. I think if heaven is full of young-bodied youths, I’m not sure I want to be there. Let me enjoy getting old, for God’s sake!

This is why I put words to the trouble, why I try to name the grief in such a way that others feel it in their gut, or their throats close up and they can’t speak. I want to let it hang there for a while and not jump off the hook too early. Someone’s got to do this… and I am so grateful for those who continue to hold us up to the edge of the abyss with a trust that we will not be forsaken, that we may come out the other side. It is also important for me to remember that there are those who have had such bad luck in their lives, who have faced such tragedy that anyone really listening in would wonder if it truly is real. Or else what was in the water they have been drinking?!? Families completely riddled by cancer, trauma, death, tragedy. There are so many in the world feeling worthless and completely cast out of a society glorifying the glitz and glamour of success, money, health, and youthfulness. So many in the world… no, so many in my neighborhood! If I can’t honor the pain they have experienced in their lives and put words to it, how can I possibly get close enough to walk with them in this?

I really am a positive person. I am not lost in depression and unable to see the light. I won’t get pinned down too easily on hope and heaven and miracles… but there is redemption and there is salvation. Watch the birds and the bunnies and know that they are finding food without stockpiles of nuts and grass that are growing compound interest at the best rates. For every winter there is a spring coming, no matter how cold, barren, or buried by snow it has been for the last 3 months… or years. Every time the sun goes down, it comes back up again. Life Force moves through the universe, down into the smallest atom, infusing it all with the buzz of life. Synchronicities and wonders happen to those who pay attention, reminding us that we are not alone and that in some sense, we will be ok. The wild, the world, is not an unfriendly place in its design. As Gerald Manley Hopkins writes, “Christ plays in ten-thousand places, lovely in eyes and in limbs not his.”

There is incredible joy to be found in allowing life to be what it is going to be. This includes death, pain, and grief. This includes praising said life and all that comes our way, praising it all with words and exclamations – sometimes with tears and screams – affirming the life that we see and the life that is given. It is all a gift, after all. We are in debt to life, so let us live like it, speak like it, and love like it.

Advertisements

Emotional burden not burnout

Down time, some quiet, a couple moments of peace between one emotional, heavy day in patient rooms and family waiting rooms and another heavy, emotional grief group tonight… I spoke with a young man today as we reflected on finding our path and doing what we feel most passionate about. I told him about my work, something he seemed genuinely interested in after he completes his two years in college missions work for the Catholic church. “You should do it,” I said. “It’s such good work and so rewarding… as long as you don’t mind being heart-broken every day!” We laughed, or maybe I did so I wouldn’t start crying. He noted that it must be a lot of emotional burnout.

Emotional burnout? No… Emotional burden. That’s what I would say about what it is like to do the work I do. And I feel that carrying this with people is an honor and a privilege. Getting close to them and what they are going through, even for a few moments, changes me as much as it might change them. It is good work. And it kicks my ass sometimes.

I can’t even begin to describe how much sticks with me. In two weeks… no let’s make it one. Drug overdose, suicide by hanging, death after death, cancer, depression, abuse, three hospitals in one month… it all makes me want to weep. I started up with a new round of grief group which is a whole other level for me, being with men and women for six weeks (more if I was with them in the hospital) as they process really complicated grief sometimes that they have been hanging onto for two or more years.

So I grieve. Martin Prechtel writes, “It’s definitely safer to not actively grieve in the modern situation. But the modern world is definitely not as sane as it thinks it is to have lost the arts of grief and praise. There has to be a way.” I, personally, got us a puppy, what Prechtel calls, a “grief orphan,” because animals can absorb grief in a way that people often can’t. I don’t have such good ways of grieving on a daily day basis. Probably because I don’t have such a good habit for praising, something Prechtel notes goes hand in hand with grief. The world itself needs us to grief as much as it needs us to praise. We grieve life we have loved and we praise life we are gifted with. Read The Smell of Rain on Dust. It’s a start.

So all of this does really become an emotional burden. I was asked once how I am doing with all this. My response was to start shuffling my feet with my head down as I said, “Like this.” But emotional burdens are not bad. They are not something to be avoided as much as they are to be welcomed as ways to draw ourselves deeper into life as the world experiences it, in all her mystery. Emotional burdens make us wider, more able to embrace those who hurt, both human and more-than-human. I know I want to see life as it happens, not pretend it is different than as it is. This is the mystic way. There is room for grief as much as there is room for the kind of praise that makes me want to whistle to the chickadee as he sings his spring song, “TEE HEE.” I walked to my car last week as a crow cawed. “HELLOOOO CROOOWW!” I said… and he kept right on making his racket, with that wild bobbing head thing that crows do when they make a lot of racket. But he flew along with me, greeting me after a long day.

Praise eases the burden. Using my language, the true power of the human being. Recognizing life in its many forms as it happens, even through death. Glory to the world and to the Life-Force that flows through it all.

The Sick and Aging are part of the community

We in our modern society tend to build upon a myth of an ideal society, consisting of selected and approved individuals – of “normal” human beings, with average intelligence, average bodily health and with a sufficient degree of psychic maturity. These selected and privileged individuals have – it is true – the obligation on their shoulders, in the name of humanity, to take care of the others who do not belong to this class of the “true ” society. This kind of care does not, however, acknowledge the sick as belonging to the body, unless they recover. One might say the sick people do not belong… The prevalance of this idea among us is obvious if we think of how we speak of the sick [person‘s] return to society, as if [one] had not been in [the] society while sick – especially if [one] had been in the hospital. Racial discrimination is not in any way an isolated phenomena among us! It is as though the human defects and illness do not belong to our proper life and that individuals who had by accident succumbed to the fate of being ill (or dying!) were not actual, proper members of society-unless they recovered-unless they could be made healthy again.“ (Dr Martti Siirala)

The failing aged will never be made healthy again, they will never again become proper members of a society of the well, so we must invite them into a community where membership is not dependent on health and productivity. To tell someone yes, your life is over and you feel useless, but you are not an outcast and I will not shun you, requires that we look into the mirror and accept our own aging selves, accept the part of us that is infirm, incontinent, and unproductive. This acceptance, to be a source of hope, must go beyond recognition; it must be a deep form of acceptance, “an entrance into the fact that takes hold of the fact, but not with the grip of evil.”

William Lynch recalls a Christian legend about the wicked angels who fell from heaven because they were given an anticipatory vision of Christ‘s humanity and refused to adore it. They cared only for the light.

– from The Dark Night of Hope, Annette Brownlee

Can’t go on, must go on

What do I mean when I say this, and what difference does it make for me and for others? “Can’t go on, must go on” is a mantra for the moment to moment mourners, the grief-learners, the ones who journey daily through slivers of light and stretches of shadow. To live in this awareness or to remind myself of this is to learn that there are times in life, sometimes daily where I need to be honest about two things: one, that there is more than enough heartbreak and trouble to go around and it is real and it hurts like hell; and two, that my place is to keep putting one foot in front of the other and walk with wonder and fullness in this heartbreak.

“Can’t go on, must go on” is not a declaration of self-pity. It is not depression, nor is it desperation. It is the look I see in the eyes of people day after day after day who courageously lean into their own sickness or the trouble of those whom they love dearly. These words are words of the lean-in, the hold-to, the push-forward, the hang-on to something… anything.

But most people don’t say the words. I see it but I don’t hear it. And some stop half way. “I can’t go on, and I won’t go on” is expressed often and it truly is a dark day, when someone stops there, especially when it doesn’t have to be true.

“I can go on, and I must go on.” This, too, doesn’t carry any weight, and often in many ways is heartbreaking in itself. No… ultimately you can’t go on. Or you won’t go on. Listen to what they are telling you. As Brendan told me yesterday, “Nothing lives forever, Dad.” Thank you, six-year-old chaplain’s son, thank you.

If we want to learn compassion, learn to have joy, to witness ourselves expanding both up AND down, words like these need to be said among us. Words like these need to be felt deep into our beings. I feel like I am at the end. I feel like I can’t take any more. I’ve got nothing left and I can’t cope with one more stress/tragedy/heartbreak. I can’t go on… and yet… I know this is not the end. There are still things for me to do. The world, my home, my land, my people, they need me. I will call upon whatever strength I might have and whatever strength I am given by the mysterious out-there/in-here. Divine Life will enliven my spirit and/or my body… to take one more breath… until there are are no breaths left and my spirit and my body will enliven others. Even then, we go on. Nothing is lost. Everything comes from somewhere.

Spiritual Direction and reflections on Life, Trouble, and Heartbreak

%d bloggers like this: