the state of us: how we do the darkness

This week has been hard.  Two people some of us feel we have known or appreciated for years died through violent acts of self harm.  News of suicide tends to cause suicidality in others, so this week also brought concern for those who struggle with demons of mental anxiety and illness.  A child I love very much has been terribly ill, and I have watched his parents suffer deeply with confusion, exhaustion and grief.  I have friends who lost babies, friends whose teenagers seem determined to destroy the good, friends who ache for those marginalized by power in their cities, friends who cannot get pregnant and friends whose marriages are compilations of misfires, resentments and coverups.  To quote a hilarious friend, “What in the actual hell is happening here?”

These types of weeks usually lead me to dark places.  Why is this precious child suffering so much?  Why must parents suffer with such loss?  Why does our society reward greed and ignore those wounded in the process? Why is marriage, or adulting in community for that matter, so difficult? How can a person as thoughtful and engaging and curious as Anthony Bourdain hang himself?  How can Kate Spade, who was fighting for her health with intentional intervention, and creating a new brand that gave her energy, give up on life?  

We don’t have answers to these questions, but as we try to move through such darkness I’d like to suggest three avenues of productive thought.  First, disease and un-well-ness are with us, indeed.  Second, the way we often engage each other can lead to profound loneliness.  Third, the presence of bad does not erase the presence of good in the people around us!

We are not well.  Suicide and a host of other mental and physical illnesses are on the rise.  We are obese.  We are lonely.  We are fearful.  We blame.  And yet, I think most of us live expecting to find the “good life.”  Many comfortable Americans are shocked and appalled when confronted with a hardship or roadblock.  We spent the weekend with my fabulous inlaws, and this morning, after eating his beloved made-from-scratch-by-Jojo-coffeecake, my third child was asked to take his plate to the dishwasher.  “What?!”, he retorted, “I don’t deserve this!”  Hyperbole aside, his words voice the way many of us feel when life absolutely does not turn out the way we hoped.  People get sick.  People experience devastating loss.  People are hurting all the time.  Why do we think we will be exempt from pain?  It might be helpful to evaluate our expectations, understanding that we can live with joy and hope but that injustice and disease will likely be part of our story.  

I in no way suggest pessimism or nihilism as a path forward.  Instead, I think an honest understanding of our personal and collective histories prepares us for the hard thing staring us in the face.  Rather than celebrating only stories of ascendance, of upward mobility, take the time to know your history.  You likely belong to a family, a country, or a religion that has had profound seasons of transcendence and profound moments of grief.  We are not automatons, but human beings who live and love and ache and cry and abuse and absolve and win and lose.  Tell yourself the whole story of you, and you might find you are very well equipped to walk through the dark night of the soul you now face.

If you want to know how to walk through loss, talk to a person who lives at or below the poverty line.  Talk to a person whose skin tone is deemed suspicious in America.  Talk to a person who lives off the land.  Talk to a person with chronic pain or disability.  Talk to a person who has never expected life “to be fair.”  These warriors in our midst should become our mentors.  For generations, many have faced setbacks, injustices and illnesses with little relief, and therefore developed capacities for perseverance and patience that I do not have.  When I want to know how to forgive betrayal, how to believe God is good, or how to think creatively about healing, I go to friends often overlooked by society.  We will encounter un-well-ness, and we might be better equipped if we accepted it will come, and then asked seasoned others to help us navigate the dark.

We must next acknowledge that most of the ways we “belong” do not provide real community.  Measuring our value through followers, quantifying our lives through published stories or images, feeling loved by the number of likes…these metrics fall short when we face real pain or despair.  Clicking “like” can feel like an affirmation of another’s personhood, but is it the same as meeting for a drink, asking them about their best or worst moment of the week, and then processing that narrative in real time?  Not a chance!  I am not opposing new ways of connecting; rather, I think we must at least consider our deficits if our engagement with others is mostly through social media.

Finally, remember the good.  Just because things are terrible does not mean all things are terrible.  I have had a hard week.  Nevertheless, I spent time with a cancer survivor, texted with people whose anxiety and mental illness no longer define them, remembered that a bad diagnosis does not always predict an outcome.  An older mentor held me while I sobbed.  Friends texted who knew I was hurting just to check in.  I was part of a community coming together to love those overlooked and ignored by wealth in Nashville.  I walked with a friend who told me feeling lost and unsure of where I am does not mean I will be there forever; indeed, it is likely part of my process.  A friend called who knows I need some love. 

In the midst of grief and despair—which will surely come for all of us—there are rays of light.  There are moments of hope.  Find them.  Be them for others.  Show up. Call. Embrace the awkward and get in the mire with others.  Sometimes there are no answers, but being present, witnessing pain together, feeling your way in the dark with another, can provide even more relief than an answer could.