To Give Our Hearts

The wee hounds and I took our second walk today.  They didn’t much want to talk so I tuned into a YouTube lecture I had wanted to hear.    The lecture was by Arthur Brooks, soon to be ex-President of the American Enterprise Institute.  It was on the book he wrote a while back called “Love Your Enemies.” 

He told a story about talking with his academic mentor, James Q. Wilson, a highly influential social/ political scientist who passed away in 2012.   Wilson stunned Brooks one day when he said, “You know, Arthur, any given change in public policy affects only about 5% of a person’s life.”

Brooks was shocked.  After all, he had only recently completed his Ph.D. in a public policy related program.
 
“James, if public policy only affects 5% of a person’s life, what affects the other 95%?”

“Love,” replied the great man.
 
The quality of our families, our neighborhoods and communities, as well as our nation, is related not so much to public policy as it is to the quality of love we demonstrate toward one another in everyday life and regardless of our agreements or differences.

The quality of our lives together is more about what happens across the property line than it is about what happens across the aisle in Washington, D.C.

The reason I thought about all of this while picking up wee hound poop was because I had just before our walk seen those plague indifferent self-absorbed kids on the beach in Florida.  Of course, the little clip I saw only featured the worst of the worst…I hope!  And, after all, kids will be kids- especially when Pavlov rings the “Spring Break!” bell.  

What strikes me about them, at least in this moment, is that they ‘have not love.”  That is, they have not love for anyone or anything beyond their own good times. They are doing what they do because it is what they think good for themselves in this glorious Spring Break moment.
 
They are not thinking of how they may be (and some likely are) spreading CV.   They are not thinking about the frontline health care workers whose lives are on the line as they help people suffering from this virus.  They are not thinking about their own grandparents or other loved ones with compromised immune systems.  They are not even thinking of themselves while doing nothing BUT  thinking of the themselves.
 

But then it struck me that I am too, in own immunosuppressed way.   I mean I get the whole social distancing thing.  My own daughter is a sitting duck in her medical practice in Tennessee and I am concerned for her and her whole staff.  So, you might say, I have my own flesh and blood in the game.

However, when I think about my need to run out to buy some necessity, the first thing I think about is ME.   What if I run into Ingles and unknowingly walk through a fine mist of someone’s sneeze from 60 seconds before?

I don’t want to get sick but it’s not because of a fear of dying.  It is because of a fear of suffering.  I’ve done extreme shortness of breath.  I’ve done ventilation and dialysis.     I’m done being so miserable that death itself would be a welcome relief. I’ve done all that and I don’t EVER want to do that again!

So, like the kids on the beach, my first thought is too often not about others but about myself.

Kid: I want to have a really good time.   

Moi: I want to avoid having a really bad time.
Keyword:  “I.”

When Brooks speaks of ‘loving‘ one’s enemies, he means precisely what Jesus meant.  


Seek the interests of the other even over your own!
Think cross-shaped love.

 
Now, I’m not going to expose myself to the dangers of CV more that I absolutely must because of the reasons I mentioned. I am sheltering in place like a hermit.  I really don’t want to get sick.   And, as it turns out, that is the better thing to do than to go PAR-TAY on the beach only inches away from strangers while looking for love in all the wrong places. (AS IF! Ha!)  However, I still think that neither self-gratification nor self-preservation is my best course of action nor my best motive for taking up a course of action. 

The heart matters.  And, among other things, what we do and why we do what we do not only displays our hearts, those things shape our hearts.  We become what we do and we become the why behind what we do.  If I consistently act out of self-preservation, then I become the kind of man who is principally out to protect himself.  

Is there a better way to act than out of mere self-preservation, even if some good comes out of my act?  There must be.  After all, Jesus said that if anyone would follow after him, that person must deny the self..  It would be a contradiction in terms to follow Jesus if one is only interested in self-preservation.   Self-preservation is the opposite motive to what is entailed in following him. Why?   We not only are to deny ourselves, we are to take up crosses. 

We take UP crosses so as to lay DOWN our selves. 


If I only act out of self-preservation,  I reinforce what comes most naturally to me, which is to continue looking out for number one.   However, at least in this situation we are in,  if I act on the basis of what is good for the other (i.e. the nurse tending patients in ICU) not only is the nurse better off but I am as well- both physically AND morally.    

When I give my heart to or for the other, I protect the heart I have. 

Shema!

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One.”  (Deuteronomy 6:4)

This morning, as I walked the wee hounds, I listened to Tim Mackie* talk about the first word in that verse.   The verse is known as the Shema and is central to Judaism.  The first word in the verse is “Hear” or better “Listen.”   The Hebrew word that is translated “Listen” is Shema.   Yep.  The verse is named after the first word.

“Listen.” 

Now when we think of the word listen, we think of something we do with our ears.  Mackie reminded me that to Shema is to listen with one’s whole being -heart, mind, body, and soul.  

To Shema is to (1) pick up a sound via one’s ears, (2) attend to that sound, (3) respond to that sound, (4) with urgency. 

A young mother is at home alone with her newborn who is asleep in her crib.   Suddenly, the baby cries.   The mom picks up the sound with her ears, attends to it (what is the meaning of it?), runs to the baby’s side, and picks her up.  

Hear.  Attend.  Respond with urgency.

All of that is packed into that one word, Shema.  To Shema, is a far sight more than simply hearing, more even than how we think of listening.

When the Shema begins with Shema! it means to hear with your whole being and rush to acknowledge with your whole being this truth:  the Lord is God, the Lord is One.   

The whole-being nature of listening (Shema) and doing is confirmed in the next verse:  “Love the Lord your God (response) with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, i.e. your whole being.”

Mackie’s comments set me to thinking about the meaning and practice of parakaleo, ‘coming alongside‘ as it pertains to the suffering. 

It struck me that we are called by God alongside the suffering but we are also called alongside the suffering by the suffering themselves.

We all know that to come alongside the suffering at least entails listening to them when we get there.  But, what if to come alongside the suffering is to ‘shema‘ to them?

That would mean that when we are called alongside the suffering we are called not merely to come with an ear but to come with our whole being.  It means to hear/respond with the urgency required in the moment.

But how are we ‘called‘ by the suffering?  Do we wait by the phone?  Do we wait until we hear from them? No, the very fact of the suffering, the existence of the suffering, is call enough. 

One of the great ironic moments in scripture occurred when the priest and Levite, who likely prayed the Shema first thing that morning, passed by the man who had been beaten half to death by thieves.  (“He was just lying there.  He didn’t say anything!”) But, the Samaritan, the outsider, who likely didn’t pray the Shema that morning, heard the silence of the bloodied unconscious man and urgently responded to him with aid.

An unconscious bloodied man lying by the side of the road screams by virtue of the fact that he is an unconscious bloodied man lying by the side of the road.

He IS the call to come alongside and offer aid. 

Last week I spoke with the administrator of the assisted living facility where my mother-in-law lives.   He told me that 60% of the 105 residents in his facility have NO ONE who visits them.   I replied to him that whenever I visit my mother-in-law, I see the same 40 or so residents every time.  He said that that’s because that 60% tend to stay in their rooms. That is to say, that about 60 souls sit in silence behind closed doors alone, day after day. 

Now, I’m ruined.

I cannot walk the long hallway to my mother-in-law’s room without hearing the silent cry of loneliness coming from behind closed doors.

Shema.

  • Tim Mackie is the excellent teacher on The Bible Project videos and podcasts. If you haven’t visited The Bible Project site…SHEMA!…What a terrific accessible resource it is for those who want to learn more about the Bible, the Books of the Bible, and other things pertinent to it as well. Their podcast is well worth the effort too!

Coming Alongside…But

As I was thinking about Parkaleo (coming alongside) this morning, I remembered a famous 80’s Benneton ad. The photograph came to be known as the ‘photograph that changed the face of HIV/AIDS.’ It also became a flashpoint when people protested that Benneton employed the image of a dying man in the embrace of his grieving father to sell colorful attire.

I think it is a compelling photograph. But, I also get the complaint…it does strike me to use it to sell fashion.

In any case, for my purposes here, it is THE image of Parkaleo, that ‘coming alongside’ the suffering that is the point of this site.

Here is an article that describes the background and controversy that erupted around it.

Descent into Delirium

In coming alongside the depressed, we might recognize that some depressed folks are depressed because the world is too much with them.   Like those who are hypersensitive to the ‘buzzing, booming, confusion‘ of life and who withdraw or become agitated in its presence, some folks are depressed because they cannot NOT see the world as a house of horrors.

When I have suggested such to people I get a similar response, “Well, yes..there is a lot  of bad stuff in the world but there is a lot of good too.”     Sigh.   Yes, I know.  There is a lot of good stuff too.   Those of us who live in safe, affluent environments and are sheltered from the bad stuff in the world find it easy to say that sort of thing.  Those of us who have never been traumatized by some horror do too.

I am saying that there are some among us who see only the horrors of life.  Perhaps at some level, they see the flowers and birds and lamb-like clouds that float gently on the breath of God but even that is a horror to them because they feel so awful. 

The very audacity of Spring!

As T.S. Eliot wrote in the opening line of The Waste Land:

“April is the cruelest month…”   

Whatever that may have meant to Eliot, many have understood it to mean that the person who is depressed or despairing experiences the flower-bursting beauty of April as a mockery. 

Are they wrong to experience such beauty in that way?  No.  Given that they see most clearly the horrors of life,  April appears a contrast to their own experience. They are driven more deeply into the winter-darkness of the soul…and often prefer it. 

The idea that some people are depressed because they clearly see horror in the foreground of experience has a long history.   I have thought about it for a long time myself.  I have come alongside the depressed many times and sometimes, after hearing them speak of such things, I found myself thinking, “Well, you do have a point!”     But, often it was a point heard only in the abstract.  “Every schoolchild knows there is suffering in the world. 

However, it was not until I experienced deep delirium after my heart transplant in April 2019, that the idea took on flesh for me.

I am not going to go into detail here (I’m working on a book about it) but will tell you why it so transformed my thinking. 

The experience of delirium, which occurs in 70% of ICU patients, varies from person to person.  For some, it manifests in confusion, for others hallucinations, and for others something all but unnameable.  It can be temporary and it can last for a while.  It can even cause some degree of permanent damage to cognition and memory.

I experienced all three and, loosely speaking, in that order.   The first week of my stay, while I was on kidney dialysis and being pumped full of drugs, I became confused about where I was, why I was there, who other people were and what was happening to me.

Some time afterward, I began to experience hallucinations within my room.  Things floating in air.  I saw people who were not there and didn’t see people who were.  I watched the paint peel from the walls.  And, I figured out how to turn the hands of a clock back with my mind. 

That was all pre-transplant.  However, for two weeks following transplant, I utterly broke with reality and went somewhere completely other than where I was.  I don’t know if I was there 10 minutes or 10 days.  It felt like an eternity. 

It was not a dream.  And, it was not a hallucination.  It was something that approached a vision, though I hesitate to say that lest people think I’ve become more inflated than I am.   (I would call it a ‘visionoid, as something that resembles the real thing,‘ but that sounds like a medical condition.  I could call it vision-esque,  but that might be taken as a performance involving baggy pants and seltzer water  and that would minimize it. )  All I can tell you is that it was far more real than everyday reality: the colors were far more vivid, the sounds far more acute, and the emotions completely beyond the pale.  

Terror comes to mind.

I want to say ‘vision‘ not because I think I’m Ezekiel, or Jesus, or Paul, or the blessed John on the Isle of Patmos. I want to say vision because I was led somewhere and shown things that are the Reality within reality or as Tim Mackie put it in one of his lectures:  an experience in which you are taken into the deep heart of human experience. (c.f. his lecture on the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness in his Podcast “Exploring My Strange Bible.)

I was taken to a place that was filled with the most violent, disordered, disfigured people on earth.   And, I witnessed and was engaged with the most fearful things, things I couldn’t begin to describe.  Death.  Violence.  The continual threat of violence.  Hannibal Lectors lined the hallways.  Piles of bodies- men, women, and children stacked in coal cars that extended into the dark of a tunnel. Assassins.  Terrorists.  Beings half-human, half-animal.  People who seemed to be made from scrap metal.  All dangerous.  All vicious.  All on the edge.

There were people who were charged with caring for those people.  They were themselves corrupted and corruptible.

I was there for days or so it seemed.  When I tried to sleep I heard scratching on the walls, tapping at the windows, tiny feet running through the ceiling, racing across the roof.  I was told it was the sound of Trouble…Trouble scratching its way through the walls.

The threat of a terrorist attack loomed large. Some people hated the very existence of the place and had vowed to destroy it.  They had tried once before with well=placed bombs. 

Finally, I was beaten to the point of death by a gang of residents and as I lay dying the building caved in upon us.  (The sound of that is the sound you hear when you are defibrillated and are half-conscious.   Roar and clang.)

When I emerged out of it, I found myself tied to a bed.  Dark.  A woman sat with me and I was completely out of control   Somehow the terror of the place where I had been returned with me.  I flailed.  I screamed.  I swore.  Soon four nurses surrounded me and that only served to amp me up even more.  (They were wise to restrain me but I was so weak from the transplant I’m not sure what I could have done.)

My actions were perfectly reasonable within the bounds of that horrific experience.  I thought the building we were in was about to explode and I didn’t know where my family was so I could warn them. 

Now, I get that there are good medical explanations for what I experienced.  I get that the brain is a pattern maker and that we are all sense-makers and storytellers.  I understand that we are in the realm of subjective experience.  I agree that it’s an iffy proposition interpreting one’s own dreams and visions.   I know…I know…I know.

But, I don’t care. I know what I endured and it was more real than everyday reality.
And not one day passes that I do not think about it.  And because I am not one to ‘waste my miseries,’  I have tried to make sense of it.  Sometimes the horror of it is too much to dwell on though. 

I won’t say anything here about how I’ve explored it, but I will tell you this:  It was as if all of the suffering and pain and horror, all of the disfigurement, disorder, and destruction, all of the violence and evil of this world was compressed into one building and all at once.  And I was there to see it, suffer with it, and suffer because of it.  And, the experience was compounded by the fact that I was cut off from the world I know and from the supports that constitute my everyday life. 

Thankfully, I emerged from it relatively intact.  Traumatized, yes.  But only with small-letter ptsd.

As a pastor, I have lived my adult life coming alongside suffering people but I had no clue, no clue whatsoever, as to what suffering was until that experience.

Before this experience, I knew there was suffering in the world.  Heart failure had, at times, given me a  taste.  But, those hard moments were few and far between and usually managed by medicine. 

And, I have been right there with everyone else as we read online about some distant ethnic cleansing, some war, some mass shooting, some famine, some virulence stalking some country, some kidnapping, some rape, some child molested and left to die in some distant wood, another shooting, another theft.  

I know about the diseases that haunt us down.   The shortness of time.  Loneliness.  

And somehow I have managed along with everyone else to live with it, to shake my head at the tragedy of it, and then move on, maybe a little wounded by it, maybe a little scarred, but it’s all in a day. 

There is a lot of good stuff in the world, you know.

But I’m not sure that’s true for everyone.  Some people really have to strain to see the good stuff.   I am convinced there are those who know what I’m talking about and who cannot get past the horror that surrounds us, who cannot get beyond the trauma they experience (or have experienced) because of it and are left  wounded and often alone. 

I believe it is a calling to come alongside them and listen.

They may have something to say that we desperately need to hear.  

And, maybe there is something we have to add to the conversation too. 




For Good Reason

Not long ago, a student asked me what I recommend he could do for a friend of his who was depressed.  Since I’ve been talking about ‘coming alongside’ since I began to get my feet on the ground post-transplant, his was a question that naturally followed.  I think my answer surprised him:

“Well, first, you have to ask yourself whether your friend is depressed for good reason.”   He cocked his head like a dog who was trying to make sense of his master’s belch. “You don’t want to fault him for being a realist, do you?” 

His head twisted so far, I thought he was going to roll over.

My question to him was not as weird as it sounds.  We assume that depression has its causes.  Chemical imbalances in the brain.  ‘Stupid thinking by not-stupid people,” to quote the ever-rational therapist, Albert Ellis. A response to loss fueled by errors in how one thinks, to paraphrase CBT’s Aaron Beck.    Genetics.  Family history.  And, those may all be good causes, especially when considered together.

But, I didn’t say good causes.  I said good reason. I meant to suggest to him that perhaps his friend’s depression was a moral good.  Is my student’s friend depressed for good reason?   Does the friend’s struggle serve a positive end, a positive purpose worth serving?  That’s how we know something is good.  Does X serve the purpose for which it exists? 

My house key is a good little house key because it unlocks the front door, the purpose for which it was created.   If it never unlocked the front door, it would be a bad house key and, like non-salty salt,  fit only to be ‘cast out and trod under the foot of men.”

Q:  For what purpose might at least some forms of depression exist?  

A:   The truth.  Some who suffer in that way may have a clearer vision of the truth of this world.

If prophets exist not so much to foretell the future but to speak the Truth, then maybe some people who suffer depression are contemporary prophets, eager to tell us how things are.  And maybe some of them are depressed or find that experience compounded because we don’t listen.  So, maybe rather than rushing to fix them, drug them, shock them, reason with them, we ought to sit down and listen to them.

At least some depressed folks may be the ones gifted to see, feel, and know the deep reality in which we all live and maybe what they see is horrible to behold.

What if we listened to them on the off chance that they have something to tell us?

Language

To do that we need to think about the language we use in describing the experience we call depression.   Our language about it suggests that we think of it as something people ‘have.‘  The word ‘depression’ is a noun.  Depression is this thing that some people carry like a 400-pound brick.  

Or we think of it as a character trait.  He has a depressive personality.   In other words, he’s sort of bent that way, oriented that way.  Genetics and practice, you know.  “A man who has carried a 400-pound brick his whole life, at the end of his life, looks like a man who has carried a 400-pound brick his whole life.”

I’d like to suggest that what we call depression is a dynamic, an energy, a power.   (I’d  also suggest that turning the verb ‘depress‘ into a noun by adding that magic ‘ion‘ gives us a feeling of control.  Whew!  At least we know what it is now.  When we ‘thing‘ a dynamic, we feel as if we are in a better position to manage it.) 

I have come to think that the experience of the  ‘D-word,” at least for some,  is more like having a living lion in the house than a statue of a lion in the house.

But, if this thing we call ‘depression’ is a dynamic then what?  What is the sufferer supposed to say, “I am depressing myself?”  I’ve heard some therapists say that.  It is intended to give the sufferer a sense of agency.  “If I can depress myself, I can un-depress myself!”  

Or, maybe the sufferer should say, “My children are depressing me!  My husband- who started out as my knight in shining armor but has become a recliner that belches- is depressing me.”   But then do wall-bouncing children and belching, scratching knights have that kind of power?

Maybe the suffering should say, “I am under the influence of a depressing spirit.”  Or, maybe it’s none of that that, “it’s merely this chemical imbalance I have.”

Maybe the whole experience of that heaviness is a dance with several partners.

Maybe some people who suffer from it do so because they have a clearer vision of reality than the rest of us.  Maybe those of us who do the happy-clappy dance through life are self-deceived about the nature of the world around us and the depressed are those granted the gift of dancing with deep reality. 

Maybe some of them pay such a high cost because the rest of us refuse to see for ourselves?

Life is difficult.  So wrote Scott Peck in his book The Road Less Travelled.  Those first- three words of the book are worth the price of the book.  

“Well, yeah…it is…BUT…” we say.

Maybe that’s the difference between those of us who tap-dance in the rain and those of us drag themselves across an unvarnished floor of despair.   

We tap-dancers have big BUTS and the depressed have no buts a’tall.

The preamble to the wisdom teachings of Jesus includes these words and I paraphrase:  “How utterly and profoundly blessed are those who mourn because they see themselves and the world for what it is.” ( King Jimmy Version)  Why?  Because they will be comforted, oh yes!  But also because they GET IT.

The most painful parts of my heart transplant were not the hours of gasping for air as my old heart began its fast descent.  It was not the roasting darkness of night time, surrounded by bewildered doctors, nurses, and loved ones as I agonized for air.  It was not the massive toothache that became my body when the lining of my old heart became infected.  It was not the endless puking, the starvation, the eternal nights of wild-eyed wakefulness. It was not having my chest cut, my rib cage split, the lifting out of my old broken heart or the replacement of it with the healthy heart of another.  It was not post-transplant pain.  I managed that with Tylenol.

It was not even that I was sliding toward dying.  

By far, the most painful aspect of that whole experience was the deep delirium I suffered post-transplant.  It was an awful, awe-filled descent into a grace-filled hell.

What I learned in the throes of that merciless, merciful madness has utterly transformed my life because, whatever its cause, it seemed to be a deep dive into the world as world, a deep dive into a non-real Reality.

It pertains to the topic at hand and I will write about it next.

The Fear of Tears

The sudden death of my first cousin from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1966 was the most traumatic and life-shaping event in my own family’s history.   A 22-year-old college senior with a promising future in physics, he dropped dead while playing basketball in a PE class. 

I was 15.

Ours was a tightly woven extended family. The cousins were more like siblings and aunts and uncles were more like extra moms and dads. To say his death wracked us up would be an understatement.

After many years, I asked my aunt what she found helpful as she experienced her grief.  

“Two things,” she said, “Work and being able to talk about him.”   But, then she added, “I had a lot more of the first than of the second.”

My aunt worked for the Hubbard’s Pants Company as a seamstress.  All-day long, she sewed pockets into men’s pants.  Pocket after pocket,  minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, week after week.  She lost herself in the rattle of sewing machines and the repetitive ritual at hand.  

But, the opportunities to talk about her son came few and far between. 

“Nobody wants to hear about it after a certain point,” she said. “They just move on and leave you alone with your grief.”

She went on to tell me about the time she introduced herself to the new preacher at her church.   “He walked up to me and introduced himself.  I told him who I was, how long I had been at the church and all that.   He asked me about my family.” 

She mentioned that she had lost her only child several years before.  She told him how it happened. 

“And, do you know what he said?”  she asked me.  “He said, ‘Huh…that’s tough.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it. ‘Huh…that’s tough.‘  Then, he just moved on to the next person.”

She leaned toward me and said, “Let me tell you something, preacher…When a bereaved mother wants to talk about her deceased son, you let her talk all she wants to!”

I have thought a lot about why we find it so difficult to allow the grieving to talk about the one they lost.  I don’t think it is because we don’t care about their loss or their grief.  While it may be because we don’t want to get caught up in a long story because ‘we have miles to go before we sleep,’  I don’t think that is the real reason. 

I think it is because we believe that allowing the grieving to talk about their loved one will only open up their box of sorrows and make them sadder as they remember.  But that’s only a part of it.

I think we suffer from a fear of tears.

“What if they cry?  What if they cry uncontrollably?  What would I say?  What would I do?”

If I’m right about that (and maybe I’m not!), then that means that the reason we don’t open the door for the grieving to share the story of their loved one is that we fear that we will feel powerless in the moment.  And why do we fear that? 

Because the feeling of powerlessness is the defining characteristic of suffering.

We don’t want to listen because we don’t want to suffer.

But then how will we ever bring comfort to a powerless, suffering person if we ourselves are afraid of our own powerlessness, our own suffering. 

To truly ‘come alongside‘ the grieving, we must be willing to open ourselves to their powerlessness and be powerless with them.   

I started this series of posts on coming alongside the grieving after one of my long-loved -friend’s son passed away this past Christmas Eve.  The other day she posted something on Facebook that reminded me of my conversation with my aunt, who died 19 years ago.  (She was followed by her sister, my mother, 6 days later.  They went everywhere together.)

My friend posted:

“In this new year,
I promise to keep your memory alive by
speaking your name,  
telling your story,  
loving you.”

That’s exactly what she should do, what she must do.  She does not want her son to be forgotten.  She does not want to be left standing and holding her grief alone while the rest of us just move on.

“Huh…that’s tough.”

I wrote her back, and though I didn’t tell her the story of my aunt and the preacher, I shared with her something I try to say anytime a mother (or a father) tells me that they have lost a child (or anyone for that matter):

“What is his name and what did you love about him?”

I believe we do not simply saunter up to the grieving.  I believe we are led there, called there.  If we let our fear of tears keep us from offering hospitality to another’s grief, we will have not only have failed the grieving, we will have failed our calling.

 

 

What Gets Lost (5)

So What?

So, what difference does it make in terms of ‘coming alongside’ the grieving that we consider ‘what gets lost’ after their loved one dies? For me, the key idea is that grief is not a slab of stone with no component parts but an organic whole consisting of living parts, each with a lifespan of its own. Grief is not simply one thing that one has to ‘get over.’ It is not a stomach bug. Grief is an organic experience with a life span all its own.

By using the word lifespan, I am trying to avoid using two other words: (1) progress and (2) journey. For me, those words, though readily at hand, are overused.

Progress

The idea of progress presupposes that one moves from a worse place to a better place. That the experience of grief is something on the order of a defect and that one is somehow supposed to move toward being less defective.

However, who is to say that the experience of grief- say shortly after the death of a loved one- is somehow worse?  Worse in what way?   Grief is a natural response to the death of a loved one.   It is what it is.  It is neither better nor worse.   To say that one can progress through grief is to pronounce judgment upon grief itself.  

I know a woman who lost her son in a horrible car accident.   For all anyone can tell she has not grieved her son at all.  (Of course, who knows what she goes through in her quiet, alone times?)  She has grieved other losses, so it’s not as if the lacks a grief neuron or something.   She has shown no evidence that she is sad that her son is gone.   (I don’t know what lies behind that.) 

Now, which is ‘worse,’ if we want to go there:  a mother who grieves the death of her son or a mother who does not grieve the death of her son?  I don’t know the answer to that but I do know that something does not feel right about the latter.  I want to say to not grieve is worse than grieving.

For me, it is better to accept grief as an appropriate response to the death of a loved one than to think of it as ‘worse’ than some future state called ‘better.’   If nothing else,  thinking in that way enables the one grieving to accept the pain of loss as a natural response than simply as something to be gotten rid of or escaped right away. *

Maybe we would be better off if we honored our grief as evidence of our love rather than as an interruption to our neatly ordered, well-planned (fantasy) lives.

Journey

As difficult as it is, I think it is better when describing the grief of another to avoid referring to it as a journey- especially for a Christian. The idea of a journey is closely linked, at least in my mind, with the storyline called the Hero’s Journey.

A person (the hero) lives his life when something happens that alters his course, something that creates a problem to be solved, or a conflict to be resolved.

Along the way, the hero faces many obstacles and must find a way to overcome each. Often the hero experiences some kind of death, it’s all over for him, but then by some strange twist, he emerges at his destination a better person for it.

That’s a powerful tool in story-telling and likely sounds familiar to you.

I’ve heard many people refer to grief in precisely those terms.

But here’s the problem: the process of grief, for the believer, is more like being carried along than it is like a heroic journey. While there may be an element of the heroic in enduring, we believe that God is our comfort and that we are carried along by God’s enduring comfort and grace.

Lifespan

Maybe I’m a bit harsh about the ideas of progress and journey as they pertain to grief, but I do think that the idea is helpful that grief is more like an organism, with component parts that have lifespans, and a lifespan itself.

Grief is experienced by living creatures and just as living creatures have a lifespan so grief as a part of life has a lifespan too. In other words, grief is not an interruption to life, it is not a matter of progress from worse to better, and it is not a journey undertaken by a hero, who fights her own battles and endures her suffering with valor and might.

Grief is life and life is grief.

The patterns we lose when a loved one dies eventually seek other patterns- though not without sadness. The all-but-mythic projections we cast upon our all-too-human beloveds are withdrawn or cast onto others. As the finality of death sets in, the prospects of a future together in this temporal realm are exchanged for a hope that just across that gossamer veil we shall meet again.

All that is left is the memory of the beloved and the growing suspicion that the beloved is closer to us in death than they were in life.

As to those of us who are called alongside the grieving, our duty is not to guide or to cajole or to cheerlead the downcast. Our calling is to nurture their grief, to protect it so that grief may live out its life on its own terms. It is to be present, to encourage, and to remind. It is not to dampen its pain.

To nurture the grief of the grieving is to come alongside realizing that the shortest distance across the valley of the shadow of death is a straight line. It is to signify by our presence the presence of the One who is the Father of all compassion and comfort, the ultimate Thou-Art-With-Me, Emmanuel, whose mercy overshadows even the shadows of death.

+++

* Several writers on suffering have pointed out that suffering, here in Western culture, is considered an interruption to how life ought to be. In a culture dedicated to the ‘pursuit of happiness,’ any suffering is seen as an intrusion that must be annihilated as soon as possible. That may help explain the absurdity of physicians prescribing anti-depressants for grief. Rather than endure this natural response to loss, the physician describes a technology that will speed ‘recovery’ along.

What Gets Lost (4)

Prospects

Somewhere, in one of his books, Stanley Hauerwas asks why it is that we experience the death of a child as tragic and the death of an old person as not tragic.  As I recall, part of his answer was that the death of a child, as opposed to the death of an older person,  seems tragic because the child’s life ended before the child’s story did. 

I call this kind of loss the loss of prospects and by that I mean the prospects for the future with the loved one who has died. 

We imagine the future of our children.  We see them growing up, going to college, getting married, having babies for us to spoil. We imagine a future as a home movie not yet made. We create a story.

Ah, even out there in the future, God is in his heaven and all is…

“How could this have happened?”

“We had so much we looked forward to.”

“ I wanted to see her finish college, get married, have a family…” 

A friend of mine whose 40-year-old brother had died told me about how full of life his brother had been. 

“The guy could make anything with his hands,” he said. “He was building these beautiful bookshelves for his den and just keeled over and died.   You would have thought that God would have let him at least finish those damned bookshelves.”

The sawdust on the floor.  The hammer against the wall.  The bag of nails. The stacks of wood.  The cold silence. 

Indeed, you would have thought…

Everybody dies in the midst of some project they’d hoped to see through and that we’d hoped to see through with them.

Not long ago, I pondered the words of James (and I paraphrase) , “Listen, do not say ‘Today or tomorrow I will go to such and such a place, and there I will do business, and there I will make money.’   Who are you to say such a thing?  Why you do not even know that tomorrow will come!  After all, what is your life if not a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes?   Instead, you might consider saying this: ‘If the Lord wills, I will do thus and such.’  Anything more than that comes from the evil one.”  

Strong words there at the end. Why is that statement ‘evil?’  I think it is because it suggests that we as mere mortals not only think we have all the time in the world but that we act as if we have all the time in the world. and that we control time AND outcomes.

We think the same about our loved ones.

Creating projects for ourselves or planning to do thus and such with this kind of wonderful outcome may, at some deep level, be one way we stave off death.  

Surely the reaper will not show before I get my own grass cut!  Surely, I will not be taken to the curb before I get the garage cleaned out.

“Ah, now I will take mine ease,” quipped Mr. Bigger Barns as he kicked back in his Lazy Boy.

“He looked so peaceful,” said his wife who found him the next morning.  “We had so looked forward to…” 

I riff on a proverb that someone told me is a bit of AA wisdom: “Expectations are the mother of disappointment, the father of resentment.”

It is not uncommon for the grieving to feel disappointed, resentful, angry.  “How could such a thing have happened? We had plans!”  

I see myself getting up from this computer and walking the wee hounds in a few minutes. I’m waiting for the rain to let up. Then I have to take the garbage to the curb and get to work on a syllabus on the Gospel of Matthew. (How does anyone teach that in one semester?)

I can’t not do it. Neither can you.

I think of that good old .38 Special song:

“Hold on loosely
But don’t let go;
If you cling too tightly,
You’re going to lose control.”

Envisioning a future together is inevitable, maybe even necessary…Maybe it is a good thing.   But hold on loosely…It is risky business.

The future we see so clearly may not be the future we hoped for.

And being the one who is left behind hurts like hell.

And we who are left behind with them, we who are called alongside, may find that we listen to them but only hear ourselves. 

*If anyone knows the Hauerwas reference, I’ll be happy to supply it. I gave a lot of books away and now all I have is my memories of them!

What Gets Lost (3)

I stood on the beach in Panama City, Florida and gazed at the great expanse of water before me.   I watched the waves roll in.  I was six. My first time at the beach.   I did that for several days. I noticed that while the great expanse never changed, the movement of the waves did.  One day the waves rolled in and other days the Gulf was as flat as a kitchen floor.

I remember thinking, “I wonder where the men are who turn the wheel that makes the waves bigger or smaller.”  I envisioned this big brick building where burly men in hard hats regulated the tides.

I knew my dad would know.  My dad was a god.  He knew everything.   And how reassured I felt when I realized that he not only knew everything, he pretty much controlled everything…well, especially as it pertained to me.  Nothing bad could happen to me as long as my dad was around. 

Well, that was at the age of 6.  But, at the age of 7 or 8, something happened and I realized that my dad was not a god.  My dad was a man!   How disappointing!

“How could my own father do this to me?  How could my father turn out to be a man?”

+++

“His head was ‘gold, his chest and arms were silver, his waist was bronze, his legs were iron, and his feet and his toes were iron mixed with clay.”  (Daniel 2:32&33) 

+++

I was 27 and in Clinical Pastoral Education and told my supervisor about my dad.  I was angry and unkind.  He did this.  He didn’t do that.  He was….  And, do you know what my supervisor said to me?

He said, “So?”

So?  Didn’t you hear me?

“Can you think of ways in which you are like your dad?”

Like how?  Like…like..that I am not the son of a god?

“Is it possible that you are a man too?”

+++

I stood by the casket of a great 87-year-old man.
His best friend, another great man,  stood beside me.
We looked down at him together.
His friend said, “Do you know what he thought the first few seconds after he died?”
I turned to look at him.   “No.  What?”
“How could such a thing have happened to ME?”

++++

We sometimes cannot bear the thought that those upon whom we most depend are ordinary people.  Oh, people greatly loved, for sure!  People greatly valued, created in the image and likeness of God, oh yes, but..you know… people nonetheless. 

And, as we learn soon enough, we are just like them.  Ordinary people feeling our way forward listening, listening, listening for guidance, for assurance, the Voice that makes all things well…at least not as bad as we think.

As anthropologist Gregory Bateson once wrote:

Grass dies.
Men die.
Men are grass.

“What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

Yet we need some people to be more than they are!  Someone!  And, if they can’t be that for us anymore, we enlist ourselves.

“I am the Master of my fate! I am the captain of my soul!

But, here we all are, relentlessly human.

++++

We project upon certain of our loved ones that ‘more than they are‘ bit.  And, when they die,  we are stunned: “how could such a thing have happened to him?”  And, when they die, we have to admit:  indeed, he was,.. she was…after all….mortal.

+++

I looked down at my dad.  Dressed in his Sunday suit, he lay still and quiet as stone. I touched his hand.  Cold leather.  Brittle…like a 200-year-old-shoe.

Only the Sunday before, or so my mother told me, he had dressed in that suit for church. He walked into the living room where she waited to leave. He said, “I sure look purdy, don’t I?”

+++

We rode with him out to the city cemetery.    We passed through town.  Cars pulled to the curb out of respect but people walked oblivious on the sidewalks.   They entered and exited stores that walled the town streets.  They sauntered as if it were just another Tuesday. 

Apart from the curbed cars, nothing stopped.  No one stopped.  Business went on as usual.  Money exchanged hands.   People gabbed.  Some had the audacity to laugh.  One man slapped another man on the back.  He threw back his head and he-hawed.

I wanted to roll down the window of the car.  I wanted to shout out the window,  “What’s wrong with you people?  Don’t you know what has happened?  Don’t you know who this is?  Show some respect! 


My dad..my dad is passing by.”