on resisting: being with

I wrote the following on a very bad day full of very bad news. I wrote it as an act of resistance, because I realized that bad news has a way of becoming the center. The consuming, expanding center of everything. I felt the devouring begin to happen and I refused to allow the monster of bad news to erase the person for whom the news was bad. I wanted to resist the erasure, to remind myself that while bad news can be loud, I could learn to drown it out by singing the song of a remarkable child who belongs to a family who loves him. Today more bad news threatens to take all our attention, and I find myself resisting again. I won’t let the hard things take my eye off the good lives I know. Every instant we commit to loving those who hurt creates a moment of beautiful resistance. As perfect love casts out fear, stubborn belonging dispels the power of evil.

From July:

Today I found out my sister’s son will likely die within a year. He has a brain tumor, and it used to be a gentle tumor stuck in a bad place. This summer it turned into a ferocious tumor that respects no boundaries. His name is Judah, and I have to remember that he is the one, the star of his life, not the damn tumor. The tumor seems to be calling the shots, but Judah’s life is much more than a tumor bearer. He is an image bearer. He was put together by a creative and loving God who knows his name. Who knows his every thought. Who sees each tear that falls, and hears him when he calls.

It is easy to forget this in the midst of hospitals and ERs and pain meds and appointments and tests and labs and waiting rooms and waiting in general. But Judah himself is a gift to us. He is clever. Super smart and observant and notices stuff that others don’t. He loses himself in imaginings. He laughs at funny faces. He latches on to clever turns of phrase. He loves to be the one who knows, who understands, who gets it, and so he builds connections with the adults he trusts. He’ll pick up on a phrase and then, hours later, look at the adult who first said it, and repeat it with a knowing glance, “Oh, here we go again…we’ve been here before.” Endearing, this ability of his to connect. To remember. To create a thing we share. He has made me feel worth observing.

In the face of bad news, it is all too easy to turn away, to shut down, to pretend we don’t care because we can’t imagine how to fix it, to try to minimize the pain by averting our gaze. But when you love someone, these methods don’t work. You can’t turn away, because the grief is in every corner. The only thing to do is to lament. To acknowledge what has been done and to confess what you have done.

To cry out for all the sadness, to witness the pain, to sit in the grief, to behold the breaking heart.

Apathy and indifference feel viable until they aren’t. Distraction works until it doesn’t. Therapists tell us we cannot heal until we talk about our pain. There is power in bearing witness. In being present for the awful.

Sometimes this life can feel like a fight to win. Or an effort to be upwardly mobile. Or a platform to find followers. Or a canvas on which to leave a mark. Or a warehouse in which to horde wealth. Or a story to write that makes you the exceptional hero.

What if it is none of those things? What if life is really about the chance to show up and be present with others? What if life is a block of time in which we get to lend a hand to others, be a companion on a fearful fretful journey, and bear witness in all the possible ways? Bear witness to the truth you have experienced, to the ways of God as you understand them, and also to witness other humans being human? To watch, observe, listen and stand next to? What if life is about being with?

When God gave a vision to Isaiah, his Prophet, about the coming Messiah, the One who would redeem and save the people God created, he called him “Emmanuel.” God with us. I have come to believe that bearing witness to Emmanuel is the best we can do. By this I mean that perhaps the best we can do is to show up in someone’s life and offer to be “with” them. If we hope to emulate God then we must be people who are with other people, as Christ was. We must strive for the “with.”

 In the weeks and months ahead, my sister and her husband will be “with” their hurting son and his siblings. They will be companions. They will observe and listen and lean in. In this way, they will elevate Judah the child of God, not Judah the kid with cancer. Judah is Subject of this story, not the object of a disease. Judah is worth witnessing. Judah is worth being with.

 When we see so much pain around us, from counselor offices to Senate hearings to adolescent angst to refugees fleeing home, let’s work to remember that the people enduring the pain are the ones we want to stand beside. Don’t look to the problem before we see the people suffering underneath the problem. It is so easy to focus on the trouble, to give attention to the pain. The better path though, is to hold on to the uniquely fabulous person underneath all that trouble. Good energy is spent telling the story of a person’s self, refusing to allow them to be eclipsed by the pain they endure or the problem they survive.

Bear witness to the lives of the people around you. Show up. Make time. Pay attention. Remember. These are ways to resist the darkness: Give people a place to belong when the path ahead is dim. Remind them that they are seen and loved, not lost in all the pain. Find the story of them, not just the suffering. Be with.

laboring for joy: the work of grief

This weekend my family got together to create and seek and accept joy in the midst of terrible pain. It was, as I now often say, excruciatingly beautiful. When the injustice and intimacy of pain makes the ground shake, it tends to become THE story. It is the lens through which everything else is seen, shading it all in an indistinguishable gray. Pain sometimes deadens the senses, so that you cannot notice, let alone experience, joy and all the relief it brings. This weekend though, with great effort, we made room in the pain for joy. 

It was hard. When grief tries to swallow you up, it takes all the effort you have to keep from drowning. The lift is enormous. After doing the heavy lifting, with others, to create the space and environment that could invite joy to enter, I learned a few things:

1) It was hard. It drew from the bone marrow, and took all we had. It was hard to plan, hard to show up, hard to smile. Grief makes everything hard. It is a type of labor, and it is worth saying out loud that this is true. 

2) It was also easy, though. When the space was created, the plan set in motion, and the people started gathering, the joy that comes out of community took us all in. Joy is a slippery term, but I'm using it to capture those moments when gratitude wells up, when a shared resonance with another human surprises you, when the connection between the right now and the eternity we were made for seems less ridiculous. Joy is the experience that reminds you that hope outlasts despair. To quote Bono, you have found joy when your soul believes, for a fleeting moment, that "love is bigger than anything in its way." Joy is able to make room in the midst of pain for comfort and gratitude. This weekend, joy came in and reminded us we aren't alone, that our community is witnessing this awful thing communally, and together we bear each other up as we bear the weight of sadness. The fun and laughter came easily, and we all got swept up in the incredible gift of this one moment. Pain, yes. But joy as well. Weepy smiles. The pain was still there, but it was a guest, rather than the host. Grief is not more manageable when managed. Being with others who know a bit about your hurt, even when you have no desire to be with anyone, somehow makes joy possible. 

This Labor Day, I see a new side of labor. I am an advocate of working with our hands, of creating beauty and order with our bodies. Of the privilege and dignity of labor in a world that only values capital. This Labor Day though, I wanted to pause and say that creating joy in the midst of pain is very hard work. It is labor. And yet, joy and grief can coexist when we walk through life with others (The scriptures say it is not good for us to be alone, and maybe this is why). Joy is a stubborn ass, and she will show up every single time, even if it takes a great deal of labor to create space for her. Just because it is hard does not mean it is is not possible. Do the work to help hurting people in your life survive their pain. Do the work to belong to a community that pays attention to the people in it. Labor is hard! Spend yourself thoroughly in creating space for joy, and then rest, knowing your sacrifice, your presence, might provide a merciful gift to a person in pain.

on grief: the limits of the lonely way

When I grieve I tend to lose my keys. I forget people’s birthdays and kids’ lunch boxes. I tend to wander around aimlessly like our dearly departed dog, Copper, whom my brother consistently called, “Vacant.” I lose thoughts mid-sentence, without even knowing I trailed off (I am baffling to be around, a thing I know because I regularly look up to see my kids looking at each other with a side glance at me, saying-without-saying, “Are you watching this? Mom is losing it.”). Splendid.

Therapists have told me that my psyche is working hard to process grief that defies processing. That this effort requires a lot of work, and so there isn’t brain energy left to hold the grocery list, or to remember that the stop sign is not going to turn green, and that it’s my turn to go. This incompetence is challenging for me, a productivity addict.

Still, there is a beauty in it. I have come to wonder if perhaps the fog through which I move when I am overwhelmed with sadness is an unconscious attempt to protect the self.  That my deep essence knows I can’t do the juggling, so my hands don’t reach for the balls. My executive function knows it is broken, and so it signals to those around me, “Don’t give her anything to do. It won’t go well.”

It makes sense to try to protect ourselves, to pull back when we hurt. When I was young and my brother was leaving for college, I tried to do trial runs of surviving his absence all year. I would pull back, aloof, acting like I didn’t care that he would soon leave me behind. I thought it would make it easier. It didn’t work.

Sometimes the universe feels dark. We feel surrounded by tragedy, or hesitant after so many revelations of bad news. Whether it is interpersonal pain or the wail of living in a world of such atrocious injustice, there are reasons to grieve. We walk wounded, nearly ducking from an innocent breeze, aware that trauma can lurk in any shadow. The hiding away doesn’t work though. Sometimes we suffer. Sometimes life is excruciating. Sometimes we can’t run fast enough to outrun the pain.

In Memphis, TN, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital stands as a defiant beacon of hope. St. Jude is an amazing place that regularly delivers miracles; it is also a warehouse of personal tragedy. Outside the complex of buildings that houses so much pain—kids hurting and parents aching that their beloved child’s life is on the line—exists a marker of the route of one of the most painful corporate experiences in American History. The road that runs alongside St. Jude is littered with signs that say, “Trail of Tears: Original Path.” Deeply personal pain surrounded by expansive, generational, shared pain.

The first time I drove past St. Jude, I glimpsed the sign but didn’t catch the entire thing. I couldn’t believe it. A few hundred yards down the road, there was another marker. Long before St. Jude was built, long before the street was paved, thousands of Natives, forced from their land by the US Government, walked that road. Held children as they died on that road. And now, along that street, personal tragedy and historical trauma bear witness to each other. How do we witness such pain? How do we face evidence of corporate and historical trauma in the face of our own, personal disappointments or tragedies? 

It is easy to try to protect ourselves. To decide to shut down. If you are a parent walking into St. Jude with your kid, you probably don’t have any room to encounter or lament the Trail of Tears. We want to hide, to burrow away. We can’t face so much sadness. Our bodies and souls and psyches can’t take it. This is true.

However, I have learned it is also true that hiding away in my own personal grief does not make it easier. Instead, it is a beautiful thing to bring my hurting self to see all the other hurting selves and to be together there. To be a hurting human with other hurting humans. Especially when it hurts or causes discomfort, I now believe we must lean in to the pain in others that sees the pain in us. It might feel safe to hide within our own boundaries, but it is a sure way to dehumanize the soul as it braves the wilderness alone, forging a self outside of community. When it all feels like it is too much, it seems safe to discipline ourselves to be aloof. However, to be aloof is to deny your own humanity, because the human in you must resonate with the human in others. Especially in pain.

We have far too little expectations for our capacity to empathize and heal. Perhaps instead of shutting down in our pain, we now choose to bring it with us into our communities. Could we allow ourselves to be together in it? Could we expand our capacity to grieve the personal and the collective? Pretending to ignore corporate grief does not make it go away, nor does it alleviate our own encounters with suffering. It comes for us whether we are ready or not.

Perhaps we can learn to take a page out of the St. Jude playbook. They find a way when there is no way. They celebrate kids and have parties in sick wards, and laugh and play while kids endure unthinkable pain. They refuse to shut down in the face of suffering. They look it square on, with tears, and then continue to fight for every kid as long as they are able. The fight often brings more pain, but fight they do. They know increasing the capacity to fight for every kid does not diminish the ability to engage one kid with compassion. Could the same be true in us? Instead of withdrawing in our pain, could we find more healing through engaging in the pain of others? Could our burdens be more bearable if we lean in to stand with all those who bear impossible hardships each day?

Ignoring corporate angst, avoiding the pain of systemic injustice, does not protect me from my own personal loss. Is it possible that our own encounter with unspeakable personal pain teaches us how to grieve, lament, hope and then resist the systems of injustice that continue to wreak havoc on all of us? Rather than working to erect walls that promise to keep us safe, I suggest we increase our capacity to witness and engage with the pain of others. It might actually help us survive our lament, teaching us to hope again, with companions along the way.