Brené Brown says in Braving the Wilderness says we “can lean into pure joy without denying the struggle in the world” My husband says, “two realities can coexist.” In other words, a person can simultaneously be devastated by a school shooting and cheer loudly at a basketball game. We can hold two things at the same time.
This is hard for me to wrap my mind around. If I am really hurt, I want to really be sad. I want to grieve, mourn, and wail. I want to go all-out Old Testament and rend my garments, put on sackcloth, and smear my face with ashes. I want to fully commit to my feelings.
I remember a time in junior high when I felt betrayed by a friend. I ran through the front door of my house, flew up the stairs to my bedroom, flung myself on my bed and wailed — audibly wailed. My mother came into my room, heard my tale of woe, rubbed my back, and commiserated with me. She tried to get me to shake it off and laugh a little, I’m sure, but I would have nothing of that. I needed time and space for my grieving.
Of course as is true of most middle school devastations, my grief was short-lived. In fact, in the words of my great grandmother, “everything looked better in the morning”. I likely laughed with my friends at the bus stop the next day.
However, life doesn’t stay as simple as middle school. Some devastations don’t right themselves overnight. Some griefs have staying power. I am thinking of the families of this week’s school shooting victims, for example. They will carry grief with them for the rest of their lives. I’m thinking of sexual assault survivors, too. That kind of devastation does not go away when the sun rises. And, I’m thinking of the kind of aches that many of us carry with us every day — the pain of childhood abuse, the darkness of abject poverty, the burden of overwhelming debt, the brokenness of divorce, and the cumulative scars from years of neglect and unintentional hurts.
What do we do with that kind of grief? How do we simultaneously hold that kind of pain and still find moments of joy?
Years ago we were very close with a family that had suffered great loss. The mother and father had had four children — their oldest child was killed in a motorcycle accident in his early adulthood and their youngest child died in an early-morning car accident during her senior year of high school. We met this family years after these devastating losses, and I can remember listening in stunned shock to the recounting of the stories. I felt the ache of our friends’ loss, yet I also noticed, as we spent more time with them, that the members of this family were often initiators of celebration, of gathering, of laughter. In fact, the patriarch of the family, the father of the four children, was known for his practical jokes and for his annual elaborate Easter egg hunts. The mother was one of the sweet grannies of the church where we belonged — she was a smiling presence in the kitchen for every function from Vacation Bible School to funeral luncheons to holiday gatherings. The remaining two sisters (mothers and grandmothers themselves) often hosted huge gatherings at their homes — hayrides, pool parties, picnics, and the like. The family embraced and even cultivated moments of joy, yet certainly they still carried the sorrow of loss.
Ann Voskamp says “There isn’t one of us not bearing the wounds from our own bloody battles.” It’s true. I forget that sometimes, especially when I am walking around in figurative sackcloth and ashes. I look at the people around me and I think, “look at that perfect life. Certainly they are not suffering.” But everyone carries pain. Everyone. We don’t often see one another’s brokenness because we like to keep it under the thin veneer of Facebook profile pictures, Instagram images, and the other public faces and masks that we wear.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, pain can be paralyzing. Some losses seem so devastating that we are tempted to lose hope. We are tempted to stay on our beds wailing at the top of our lungs. Most of us don’t. Usually we find the wherewithal to wash our face, comb our hair, and get back to the business of life — work, school, groceries, and laundry. However, not all of us find a way, like my friends have, to simultaneously hold sorrow and experience joy — the joy of a birthday party, of a new baby, of a basketball win.
Even if we do find a way to be happy for a season, “old scars can break open like fresh wounds and your unspoken broken can start to rip you wide open and maybe the essence of all the questions is: how in the holy name of God do you live with your one broken heart?” (Voskamp 15).
I’m not entirely sure. I have my own unspoken broken and the only remedy I’ve found is a moment by moment lifting of it. It’s as though I’m a small child and I’ve just fallen with my most prized treasure in my hand. It has been marred beyond recognition and I am inconsolable. I cry. I weep. I wail. And then, in exhaustion, I hold it up as high as I can as though to say, “See? Do you see what happened? Can you fix it? Can you make it better?”
When I was a little girl, I would hold broken items up to my dad. He was over six feet tall and very calm. He didn’t react in anger or disappointment when something was broken. He quietly took it from my hands and said, “Well, let’s see.” I knew if it could be fixed, my dad would find a way. He would bring the situation in close, examine it thoroughly, and determine if indeed the item could be restored. He might grab a pair of pliers or some crazy glue. He might take off his glasses to get a better view. And usually, after a few moments, he would had back my treasure and ask, “how’s that?”
I can still feel wonder at my dad’s ability to make things whole again.
But, as we’ve all learned, some broken things can not be made whole.
And so I’m standing here holding my unspoken broken in my hand. I’m reaching up as high as I can and I’m saying, “Do you see this? Can you fix it?” And in the moments that I calm my desperate cries, I can almost hear a still small voice:
Behold, I am making all things new.
I cup my hand around my ear and listen:
Sorrow may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
“But what about right now?” I yell.
Fear not, I am with you.
Yes. Yes, you are. You have never left me nor forsaken me. I’m sitting here trying to be strong and courageous because you are with me wherever I go, but this is a pretty dark and miserable place, you know?
I know. I see. I’m here.
And for that reason, today I will try to cultivate some joy.
You keep track of all my sorrows.
You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
You have recorded each one in your book.
Brown, Brené . Braving the Wilderness. New York: Random House, 2017.
Voskamp, Ann. The Broken Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016.