I have carried these words for months, waiting to form them into something meaningful. They are words that wanted to march onto the paper themselves at times, to storm the blank pages and tell you things, but I held them back, and quietly sat with them to know if they were meant for good. Words like: dark, grief, hollow, and dead. There are no ways to make them shiny or soften them. They are naked words that can't be hidden behind. But they are honest and true, no facades, in a world full of fake and phony, they became my teachers. They save me from the shaky ideals of presentation and perfection and show me the merit of living on my knees.
Over and over this year, I told a lie- That I was “Ok”. My lips and my tongue spit it out until I had enough and was sick of it myself. Admission is key. It does not imply a public meltdown, just plain self-awareness and truth-telling.
I recently read this from Instagram writer David Gate:
"What are you going through?
is a better question than
How are you?
because we are able to answer it truthfully"--
Our signature answers to this question are “good” “ok”, “fine”. I can’t remember the last time that I was actually fine. Hard things have visited in a tremendous capacity, knocked on my door unexpectedly, like they often do, come inside and made themselves comfortable. The problem—I didn’t know how to entertain them. They came one after the other, after the other, and left me exhausted and hollowed-out. Of all the emotions that I have felt in the last few years, the most alarming was the absence of emotion—not feeling anything at all. This is what made it easy to say I was fine because I had closed off my heart-- caution tape and all. I was too fragile to feel anymore. In short, I traded vulnerability for apathy because it was easier. But, life is meant to be felt, whether it hurts or whether it makes you cry giant, happy boo-hoos, it’s meant to be felt in that sacred, beautiful space inside of us: our heart.
When the feelings compound, especially ones that are messy and ambiguous, light becomes blocked out little by little, leaving us in the dark. Darkness was thick and palpable in a year like 2020 when our people weren’t within reach--the ones that would hold us and keep us, our inner circle. I heard murmurs of the virus on the heels of a year that I spent slogging through a valley—dodging shadows. Worn out and empty, I limped from one battle to the next.
My Covid year is marked with anger. Any sweetness in my temperament, all the parts of me that learned the virtue of forgiveness had become clouded with my resentment. It was triage again before I even had a chance to catch my breath. I put my grief on hold as the kids came home from school. Next, I was making decisions about whether to visit my family and dearest friends. The world seemed to stop turning and time became irrelevant. The only answer I knew was that I didn’t know-- anything. I was blindfolded, then spun around and around until nothing made sense. If putting it in these terms seems too dramatic, consider those that weren’t even able to say final farewells to their loved ones during the time of limited visitation and mandates. My heart can’t begin to fathom their pain. But I do know my own and you know yours. Everyone has a story. If I curated or manufactured a narrative that left out my reality, it would be full of holes. I try to write without pretense because of living here in this very imperfect place. If you want only pretty stories, please look in the fairytale section.
I won’t recount all the events of the past two years. They are numerous and some topics remain too sensitive for this place, but with each national crisis that moved onto the front, came more feelings. My tender heart couldn’t process all the heat. Facebook was way too dicey for me. I had to walk off the scene to salvage my peace of mind and create a space to heal. Without the added angst and frustration, I leaned in closer to the cross and began handing piece after piece of my severed heart over to the One who could mend it. Mourning clothes are worn for a time, but eventually, we have to come face to face with the grit and work through it or else we will be a tribe of crippled people who manifest our pain into everything that we do.
This should never mean that we immediately call in the cheer squad when someone is having a bad day (or year). It is perfectly acceptable to grieve. *“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." Perhaps more than trying to dismiss difficult emotions, it means that we sit with them and are willing to sit with those who are walking through a hard spell. Actively wrestling with our feelings is part of growing and healing. The space we walk between how we may feel now and the way that we will feel farther along is a place to welcome God into, even if it feels like being torn apart.
Late last winter, I took my older boys to Maine to visit my aunt and uncle. For those four days with them, I laughed, something that I hadn’t done in a while. I had nothing to do there and no one that I had to be, in fact, they took such good care of us that given the opportunity, I may have stayed. I might have even worked through the layers of loss and heartache on the farm, out in the woods, running the dirt roads, laughing myself back to life. But life doesn’t work that way, and I don’t believe that God works this way.
He brings us back to the dark and leads us out himself.
Running away is not an answer. Healing resembles nature and seasons in this way. A seed falls to the ground and dies before it becomes what it’s meant to be. There are no prospects to short-cut this. In reckoning an empty heart, it feels a lot like a kind of death, like a tomb. I am beginning to answer the question: “What are you going through?” —taking my time, walking this dimly lit road, while my heart gets carefully mended back together. Sometimes this feels like peace, sometimes it feels like wrestling an angel, and sometimes it feels like a grave.
Two short months ago, a dear friend from our church passed away suddenly, and I was deeply sad. This and so much heartbreak had culminated like a rain cloud that holds the water. Except, I didn’t know how to release the sadness. It was saddled up inside, strapped to my heart like a bomb waiting to explode. Two days after she passed, Jason and I were with her closest, dearest friend. As we were leaving, she and I hugged for a long time, and in a sob, my tears came. It was communion, it was holy. It was the cup and the bread--the body of Christ broken for me and for her--a balm slathered over our wounds, and even the gentle whisper of hope.
In her book “Learning To Walk In The Dark”, Barbara Brown Taylor poses this question:
"When we run from darkness, how much do we really know about what we are running from? If we turn away from darkness on principle, doing everything we can to avoid it, because there is simply no telling what it contains, isn’t there a chance that what we are running from is God?"
God created light from the dark, but He didn’t eliminate the dark altogether. He is there, just as present in the night as the day. If we run from everything that hurts and brush off pain or tell our loved ones to get over it when they are stuck in a dark place, then quite possibly we are shortchanging one another. God is so much > than us. Maybe you will shake your fist at the sky, scream into a pillow, fall apart, call someone, write letters, start filling notebooks, begin talking, go in the closet and cry until your head throbs. See what happens when you loosen your grip on that pain and let it go bit by bit. Healing a heart is slow and steady. It only knows the long way home. Pull a companion beside you in your dark night. Walk arm and arm with a community that gathers with you without rushing you through the stages of grief. I am tired of hearing the excuse of 6 feet apart. There are so many ways to reach that don’t require physical proximity. We may be out of the thickest part of the woods regarding the Pandemic, but there is still work to be done in us.
Let’s rephrase the question: “How are you?” into “What are you going through?”, “How is it going?” or “Was this week hard or easy?”. Let’s discipline our tongue to be honest. Let’s learn how to let darkness descend without hiding from it. I have changed my theories about shadows and gusty winds, I am learning to bend my limbs and lean into them. We are resilient people. When we embrace hard stuff we allow our hearts to be patched with the elastic so they can stretch, creating in us empathy and giving us a way to breathe when trouble comes, instead of holding our breath. I dare you to leave your vices that only coddle the pain, and instead wrestle with it, face it head-on. We all may have a different way to walk in the dark, but ultimately God’s intentions for us are good. He is still good. If I wasn’t holding His hand, I might be tempted to run, but He is so much > me, and I have every confidence in a God who can mend me back together, better than I was.
*reference to Matthew 5:4 NIV
I highly recommend the book I mentioned “Learning To Walk In The Dark” by Barbara Brown Taylor and also for navigating grief with children “The Rough Patch” by Brian Lies