Tag Archives: healing

When grief is unpalatable

We’ve spent the last few weeks caring for our daughter who just had surgery.  She was in a fog for about three days from the anesthesia and all the pain killers, and though she had no major complications, we felt like we lost her for five days or so to that medicine-induced haze and the severe pain she experienced intermittently.  Leaving home last weekend and this past Monday to head to work was particularly difficult because she wasn’t fully healed (she still isn’t), and she certainly wasn’t yet herself.

And when people asked well meaning questions I felt most qualified to answer them from my experience–my husband and I were struggling so much with seeing her usual bubbly self all comatose and uncomfortable.  Caring for someone who is in pain is painful.  Despite the seeming wisdom of it, then, when people tried to move past the pain–“but the surgery was successful, right?”  “But she’ll feel better soon,” or even, “Well, of course she’s in pain…”–it made me feel very misunderstood.  It felt like other people were trying to look past the real pain and grief of my experience because it wasn’t very palatable, convenient, or acceptable.  They wanted to resolve my grief for me, but when I came home and found Lucia limp in my husband’s arms or screaming in pain, I felt so alone.

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Lucia and her father cuddling on a Sunday afternoon.  My photo.

Precisely because I was grappling so ungracefully with my own grief these past few weeks, I immediately recognized something similar in my students’ tear-stained faces, slumped shoulders, and speechless, flustering sighs the Wednesday morning after the election.  Truth be told, given my own personal grief, I didn’t quite feel like beholding the grief of another.  But something nudged me that a void remains a void (or becomes even worse) unless a leader, even a trepidatious and imperfect one, steps into it.  And so, armed with some words of wisdom, some humility (after all, I knew that some students’ grief would be juxtaposed with other students’ celebration), and a deep conviction, I showed up to class that morning.

I showed up and told them I wasn’t really equipped to moderate their discussion but felt that we needed to acknowledge what happened, our varied feelings, but mostly that for the 15-20 minutes as a class we would covenant to make our space safe for all people, and to be respectful to especially those who were grieving.  Many students cried, other students aired frustrations, some students tried to move forward.  Very gently I nudged them back toward their grief.  When one student tried to tell others they were overreacting, I did the same.

I tried to carve out a space where grief was acceptable and welcome, recalling how alone I’d felt just that past weekend when my grief had been too much for others to bear.  It was only 20 minutes.  My students have a paper due this weekend. Life goes on.

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But I wonder sometimes what our country might have been this past week if we could have bore one another’s grief a bit more consciously and transparently and reverently  over these past 18 months leading put to the election.  It seems so much anger, righteousness, and denial in both campaigns speak to distinct places and manifestations of grief in more palatable clothes.  It’s always more acceptable in America to express anger as opposed to weakness, righteousness over fear, blame rather than humility.  But it feels decidedly too little too late when so many in this country were already hurting, but we mistook their grief for the ugly face-value emotions they presented.

Perhaps my greatest comfort in these trying personal and corporate experiences of grief is knowing that even when we fail, God’s empathy is deep enough for us all.  When we think we’re alone in our grief, we never really are.  But God is also not “on our side” as we in America are always tempted to think; God does not rejoice in our clanging campaigns of strength and righteousness but in our genuine holy moments of listening to one another.

In the dramatic days after the election, despite our penchant for progress, there have been holy moments of grief.  They are moments we want to move past, but what if they’re just the beginning?  What if they are moments that truly matter?  I learned this past week that even when we are weak, God can make us strong.  We can make space for those who are grieving to be heard, and while it may seem a simple step, it’s a vital one to healing.

We cannot heal if we do not break apart.  We cannot lead if we assume God is looking for wholeness and greatness and power.  Perhaps God can use us just as we are.  Perhaps our lament is pleasing to God’s ears, too.

 

Your Thursday morning inspiration

“The only means of strengthening the intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing–to let the mind be a thoroughfare for thought.”  -John Keats, 1819

My husband and I don’t really understand the hullabaloo around the RNC and the DNC.  As he snarkily commented, “Are these the same people who enjoyed pep rallies in high school?”  I love that people are getting excited about something, especially when the world has been so dark as of late, when our problems seem so immense.

But to me, it’s mostly just rhetoric.  Is that maybe all it is?

Even when I listen to inspiring words from the likes of Cory Booker and Michelle Obama (and as a preacher love her line about “when they go low, we go high,” and Booker’s reprise of “we will rise”), I can’t help but think that they’re merely performing the words of another (exceptionally and with permission, of course).  I worry that if all America has at this point in time are great words written by great speech writers, we might just be papering over our problems and our misunderstandings of our differences with lofty lines and grand gestures, feeling so surprised when they return and rear their ugly heads.

Our country seems caught in this wild rhetoric of hyperbole that I’ve never been the least bit comfortable with.  If one candidate says that we’re making “America great again,” the other outwits him by saying “America is already great,” if another suggests we ostracize Muslims and foreigners, another purports to invite them to join us (which is not all that much better).  It becomes a war of words and all the important nuances, perhaps the real things that make America who she is and potentially really great, get lost and buried in the crossfire.

Our responses to all this are not much better: we either seem to rally around the least offensive rhetoric or cry cynicism because the politics is truly so off-putting.  But cynicism really is the height of laziness because it’s fully dependent, accusatory, and glib (and most definitely not an agent for change), and vapid enthusiasm isn’t much better, because it doesn’t teach us anything about who we really are, it doesn’t heal wounds, it doesn’t create solutions.

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Michelle Obama speaking before the DNC 2016.

So where’s the inspiration this morning?  Well, I think it begins with us.  

As I’ve been hearing all these great words these past few weeks, I’ve been thinking, let us not wait for someone to inspire us, America, because what we need is less of politics and more of real life.  Let us do the inspiring by telling our everyday stories to one another, by sharing our problems, our triumphs, our solutions.

A few nights ago I had to run out to Walmart to grab a few things.  I actually love going to Walmart because whatever your politics, it is one of the most diverse places around here.  I hate going to Walmart though because it always takes so damn long.  But I noticed something on that extra warm evening–people who didn’t look anything like each other, who don’t speak each other’s languages, and who come from very different cultural backgrounds, were going out of their way to be kind to one another.  The young black guy behind the counter, so deferential to the Spanish-speaking family in front of me, the woman with the headscarf behind me, and to me, the young white woman.  The lines were jammed up against the registers but people were patient; I watched a couple young black men let an Indian family with a full cart go in front of them in line.

I thought to myself, not bad, New Jersey, not bad.

This kind of stuff that we do everyday in America goes unnoticed but it needs to be celebrated.  It’s not going to make the papers, it’s not going to make the speeches, but it’s inspiring and it’s life well lived.  By sharing such a simple story, I don’t mean to paper over the real differences and the real problems in our country either–but I guess when I think in terms of inspiration, I’d rather find something concrete that I see in front of me, in my backyard, that’s real and right and true.  I’d rather take my cues from the diverse group of students in my classroom that cultivate meaningful but respectful conversation everyday as points of inspiration rather than the words of a few.  I’d rather think critically with folks in my congregation about how to build community rather than watch someone else pontificate about who or what America is or will be.

I guess my plea for inspiration this morning is for us to take heart and hold of the good things around us that often go unnoticed–to report them to somebody and to someone, and to talk together, to begin to share and pave real community solutions where rhetoric may fall short.  I’m not saying that we can’t watch the RNC or the DNC and we can’t have passion for the candidates that inspire us, but I guess I’m saying that I think, we the people, need to do the real work of inspiring.  

And if we look around, even in the most seemingly ordinary places, we just might find it.

The God of all of us

The other day when I was speaking with my wise spiritual director, I was imagining these concentric circles in my life, ones that stretch to China, Puerto Rico, Mexico, many states in this union, and narrow toward  local church, friends, and family.  I was reveling how faithful God has been to show that God is just as present in China as in this country, and the irony that sometimes it’s those inner circles–church, friends, and family–where we have the most trouble trusting and inviting God into our lives.

We may not give up on friends or family all that easily, we may continue to share our lives together, but we might just be going through the motions.  We might reserve our prayers and our hopes for far off places rather than those nearest to us.

We might have our reasons.  

Maybe a friend’s made it clear that God is not for her, a family member has been burned by the church and can’t bear to go near one again, and we’ve learned to choose wisely the topics we’ll discuss at church, with friends, and at home, because conflict and harsh words are inevitable.

A butterfly in Princeton.  My photo.
A butterfly in Princeton. My photo.

But as I reflected on the beauty of these concentric circles and the way God permeates them, I realized that it’s me, it’s we, who assume some people somehow lie outside them.  Even when those in our lives have made attempts to separate themselves from God, no one is truly outside God’s purview.  Even if I give up on people in my life, even if my faith is not really as faithful as I profess, God does not give up on me just as God does not give up on those around me.

Rodin Abraham and Isaac sculpture on Princeton University campus.  My photo.
Rodin Abraham and Isaac sculpture on Princeton University campus. My photo.

So I’m lifting up prayers for those in my “inner circle” this morning, those who I’ve neglected, but God hasn’t, and I’m not just asking God to grow others toward healing, wholeness, and ultimately toward God, but I’m asking for forgiveness for the limits I put on the God of all circles.  I’m praising a God for whom none lie outside, and a God who never, ever gives up, and I’m contemplating what it would mean for me to be just a little more faithful, and to truly believe and live as though none of us are ever outside God.

What would that look like for you?

On community

When I came back from China I was really hurting.

I miss my life there, I would tell people with great drama, but it was how I felt, as though something had been ripped from me, because I’d had friends who knew my heart even though we spoke another language together.  I’d seen strength of character like no other in the foster mothers I’d met, and I wasn’t all that hopeful that I’d find it again in this land of affluence and privilege.

Statues in Paris, France.  All photos by Evan Schneider.
Statues in Paris, France. All photos by Evan Schneider.

But I was drawing these lines around communities the way God never does.

It was easier for me to compartmentalize and think in binaries: China was a place where great struggle and sacrifice produced something real and holy, whereas in the United States, life was hollow and stuffy, less shot through with God’s work, because there was less need, less contrast.

It wasn’t true, of course, but it seemed to make the ups and downs of culture shock more justifiable.  But I was insulating myself from life here by thinking and dreaming about China and logging many hours in Mandarin on skype.  Although I gradually reentered the world of academia and my husband I began to reconnect with friends and find a church community, deep down I still doubted whether these communities would ever compare to what I had in China.

Prayer candles in a cathedral.
Prayer candles in a cathedral.

This past weekend, my husband and I took a great leap and joined a church community that has gently, yet firmly demonstrated God’s faithfulness over the months of culture shock in this land.  What’s so powerful to me is that over those months, I haven’t particularly mentioned my doubts and fears to many people there.  We’ve told people that we spent time in China, but I haven’t asked for their prayers.  I didn’t really know how when sometimes the very prospect of being in community here seemed the last thing I wanted.

But as I’ve listened to the prayers of this community over the last few months, I’ve noticed something.  Before I went to China, I used to lead prayers of the people in my previous congregation, separating the joys from the concerns, but the people at our new church let them bravely comingle.  They don’t seem to worry that the praise of one might smart in the wounds of the suffering, or that great needs might rain on the parade of another’s blessing.  And that’s what life is like, what hope is like, not some naive optimism, but a conviction that suffering exists, and yet, God is very much present.

I realized, I’d been doing it all wrong.  

Not just the prayers of the people, but this theology of parsing the real from the ordinary, the needy from the privileged, and of course, the praise from the pain.  It makes sense to me now that as much as I’d seen and experienced God in China, China itself had become a hollow idol threatening to separate me from the real people in front of me.

Sacre Coeur at night.
Sacre Coeur at night.

This Sunday there was a family in front of us who’d lost a mother and a grandmother and there were painful tears shed as they asked for prayers of comfort and support from the church.  But there were also their arms draped around one another’s shoulders, and deep, heartfelt prayers of praise to a God who they know to be real, powerful, and present because they have each other, their friends, and their church community.

As Evan and I joined the church, nearly every member of this tight-knit family came and congratulated us, personally welcoming us to their community.  How people show that kind of hospitality and peace and love in the midst of loss is the best testimony I have to a God who is real, and who embodies hope and holism and life over death!  It’s that honesty in which people lay their hearts before community, but also the practice of hope and resurrection that’s healed me and freed me even though the people in the pews didn’t particularly understand my struggle or my pain.

Atop a grave marker in a Paris cemetery.
Atop a grave marker in a Paris cemetery.

Thank God they didn’t draw lines around their community.  Thank God there is room at the table.  And thank God for great, audacious hope in the midst of suffering.

Amen.