Carrying Sorrow and Finding Joy

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).

How indeed?

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.

Psalm 56:8

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.

Tell Me Your Story

I am a hypocrite.  Although I have stood on my soapbox pointing out injustices and crying out for equity, I am a prejudiced person.  I’m racist. I’m classist. I’m sexist.  And that’s only the beginning of it.  I’ll judge a person based on one Facebook status.  I’ll incriminate a whole group of people for their stance on whether they think athletes should stand for the National Anthem or not. I’ll sort you into a group so fast, it’ll make your head spin.

It’s embarrassing, actually.  I’ve lived my professional life encouraging students to write narratives – to tell their stories of defining life moments — their parents’ divorce, the death of a sibling, a betrayal of friendship, a proclamation of love. These stories cross all lines of race, class, gender, political affiliation, music preference, and lifestyle choice.  Our stories reveal our humanity; they bind us to one another.

In my classroom I have made space for students to laugh with one another, cry with one another, challenge one another, and embrace one another.  I, too, have laughed, cried, challenged, and embraced.  I have revealed my humanity to an audience of twenty or so students at a time.  I have met and loved kids who are rich, poor, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, Arabic, Christian, atheist, Jewish, Hindu, male, female, gay, straight, fat, thin, extroverted, introverted, funny, serious,…

It’s not hard to love someone – anyone – once you have heard his or her story.  But you’ve got to take the risk of getting close enough to hear their story.  That’s the challenge for me, because I’m prejudiced.  Before I even hear your voice I have made all kinds of assumptions about you.  I have looked at your hair, your clothing, your skin color, and your car. I have seen who you hang out with, what you share on Facebook, and what you retweet on Twitter. I know who you are, I think to myself.  You are ‘that kind’ of person.  I sort you into a clump and make assumptions about you before I have even asked you one question.

Last week I returned to a job that I left about two and a half years ago.  Since I left, my former supervisor, who I loved, had to leave her position for health reasons.  I had had a couple interactions with the woman who took her place, but before I had even worked with her one day, I had decided that since she wasn’t my previous supervisor she would be not as amazing, not as on top of things. I pre-judged her.  The other day, for the last hour of a two-day-long training, the new supervisor partnered with me for some role-playing activities, and I got my first up-close glance at her personality and heard the first few lines of her story.  My prejudices were confirmed but they were also dashed – She isn’t, actually, exactly like my previous supervisor; rather, she has her own unique personality and gifts. (Shocking, I know.)  I wasn’t anticipating laughing out loud with my new supervisor as she pretended to be a rather precocious nine-year old to my role of reading instructor, but there we were – giggling like close friends lost in make-believe.

Brené Brown says in Braving the Wilderness, “People are hard to hate close up.  Move in.” From a distance, even the length of my arm, I can keep you handily sorted into a category – liberal, conservative, educated, ignorant, friend, or foe.  However, if I take the chance to ask you, “what’s your story,” everything can change.  My beliefs can be challenged, my assumptions destroyed, my heart opened.

Years ago I picked up my first Jodi Picoult book; I believe it was My Sister’s Keeper. It’s the story of a girl who was conceived by her parents in the hope that she would be a donor match for her critically ill older sibling.  Gasp!  One glance at that premise and I formed an opinion.  How could they?  What kind of parents….? However, Picoult, I soon learned, is a master at using narrative to bring her readers in close to see issues in their complexity – issues that most of us find ourselves firmly positioned on – euthanasia, gun violence, infidelity, and the like.  She weaves her narratives, often from multiple points of view, to expose these issues as more than dichotomies.  She can move me from my Gasp! How could they? to a Wow! I can’t even imagine what kind of love that is! in 400 pages or less!

Real-life stories are no different from fictional narratives – they are full of complexity and factors that don’t appear on the surface. If I judge someone based on her skin color, clothing, language choices, or friends, I am missing out!  I am missing her story – all the characters and plot twists that have led her to today.  Not only that, I am diminishing her humanity – I am relegating her to a category rather than appreciating her individuality. Most importantly, I am denying the connectedness that she and I share as members of humanity – children of the Creator.

On Sunday (Jan 7, 2018), our pastor, Gabe Kasper, spoke about the necessity for genuine relationships in the church (read or listen to the full-text here).  He said that genuine relationships are characterized by vulnerability, empathy, love, and the willing of good for the other person.  Often we don’t enter into such relationships because 1) we are afraid of getting close to people, and 2) we don’t want to take the time.  However, if we are willing to take the risk to move in just a little closer, to ask others to tell us a little piece of their story, everything — EVERYTHING – can change.  Story has the power to transform us – our understandings, our experience of life, and our relationships. Imagine the impact of a couple hundred people who have chosen to be vulnerable, empathetic, loving, and supportive of one another. Intentionally and consistently. What ripple effect might that have?

Are we willing to, knowing better, do better.  Are we willing to call out our prejudices and stereotypes?  Are we willing to set those aside, move in a little closer, and take the time to hear the stories of people who may not be just like us?

Consider this: Because I am a 51 year old white woman who has been a teacher and a pastor’s wife, you may draw some assumptions about me.  You might be pre-disposed to believe certain things  – that I’m Christian, heterosexual, pro-life, Republican, and financially secure. You might believe that my family is immune from tragedies such as chronic illness, sexual assault, alcoholism, eating disorders, family conflict, depression, or anxiety.  Some of your assumptions may be right; some would certainly be wrong.  How will you know which is which? You will have to lean in and listen to my story.

Some of the things you learn about me might be confusing.  They might challenge you.  You might not agree with me.  You might choose to walk beside me anyway, and in that walking, I might learn some things about you that are confusing and that challenge me.  I picture us taking lots of long walks together, learning about one another and growing together.

I am picturing that if we are willing to take the chance to move in close and learn the stories of those who we might have previously sorted into categories, our assumptions will be destroyed, and we will never be the same again.

Romans 12:10

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.


You’d be amazed

You’d be amazed to know what happens when you sit down, shut up, and pay attention.

You notice things.  You finish writing a confessional blog about sitting with your grief, walk a few steps to your bed, lie down, open the book you have been reading on and off for over six months, and the very next words that you read are these:

Maybe grieving over plans changed is part of the plan to change us.*

Then, after sleeping for just a few hours, you hop in your car and turn on a podcast** to hear two women discussing shame and vulnerability.  You’re stunned because as they share their failures,  you feel somehow drawn into the discussion like you’re a member of the sisterhood of the fallen.

As the podcast finishes, you arrive at a restaurant to meet a  woman for lunch — someone you’ve never met before — she offhandedly mentions her struggle with autoimmune disease,  and before you know it, you’re choking out something like, “It’s so frustrating because I like to be a positive fun person, but right now, I don’t feel like that person.”

Then, a couple hours later, in a session with your therapist, you hear yourself recounting the most mortifying moments of your week when your child brought her friend to your house ahead of schedule to ‘surprise you’ and you made them leave so that you could finish cleaning and you weren’t joking. When the therapist says, “so we’re going to work on your need to be in control and your ability to be kind to yourself,” you sit in stunned amazement that 1) you actually confessed the story out loud and, 2) she gets you and this is only the second time you’ve spoken to her.

You leave your session, drive through Starbucks to buy a tall lemonade before picking up your four-year-old great nephew and taking him home for dinner.  After dinner you chat about serious things like whether or not a four-year-old can actually run faster than a race car, then hear your nephew, the four-year-old’s daddy, say “you are such a blessing to us” as he walks you to your car.

You drive home, wiping tears off your cheeks because you are overwhelmed at the richness of the day, walk into your house, plop down on a chair next to your husband, and try to give him some snippets that can somehow convey the way God spoke to you all day long, but you are so exhausted from the last twenty-four hours that you can barely make coherent sentences.

After a total knock-out sleep, you wake up and eat a bowl of oatmeal on the way to your physical therapy appointment. Then, the angel who is your therapist places her hands directly on the exact spots that have been screaming for attention.  She just barely touches you, but the warmth and intention radiating from her hands moves from your skin through your joints and directly into your heart.

It’s several hours later, after you have baked banana bread, prepared chicken curry, drank tea with a friend, choked up at the opening chapel service on your school’s campus, talked with three out of four of your children, made major financial decisions with your husband, cried over a minor miracle, started crocheting a new afghan, and laughed at the Weekend Update, when you realize that for the last two days God has been placing His hands directly on the exact spots that have been screaming for attention.  He has just barely touched them, but the warmth and intention radiating from His hands has moved directly into your heart.

That’s what happens when you sit down, shut up, and pay attention.

I think I might try sitting with this a little longer.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Matthew 5:4

*Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way.

** Jen Hatmaker’s For the Love, “Episode 2: Brenae Brown”

Sitting with it

I literally have to sit here with it.

I would rather run from it, but I don’t have that option any more. I have to sit with it.

In my soldiering years, I was continually in motion. Dawn ’til dark.  I was picking up, dropping off, buying, cooking, cleaning, planning, teaching, grading, and when I could squeeze it in, I was literally running.  Though I was acutely aware that I had four other humans living in the house with me (who else was I picking up, dropping off, buying, cooking, and cleaning for?), I rarely sat still very long to actually look at them, listen to them, watch them, hear them.

I have to sit with that now.  I’d much rather be running.

When one got migraines, went off to school, and then developed an eating disorder, I didn’t stop what I was doing.  No.  I drove to emergency rooms, packed boxes, drove miles, dropped off, made appointments, picked up, and kept moving.

When another joined the military and started jumping out of planes, I didn’t sit down and think about what that meant.  No.  I bought supplies, cooked farewell dinners, drove to a bus, dropped off, and kept moving. I can’t even remember if I wrote letters.

When another was brutally assaulted, I was so busy moving I didn’t even realize it had happened. For almost two years. And when I finally found out, still, I didn’t stop what I was doing, sit down, and grieve.  No. I grabbed broken pieces, dropped them in the passenger seat of the car, and drove them to someone who I thought could put them back together again.  And I kept on moving.

I have to sit with that now.

I didn’t choose this.

No.  Even when disease started crawling into my joints, I tried to keep moving.  I trudged through long days trying to manage responsibilities and ended up collapsing at home at the end of each day.  All my good hours were spent in hot pursuit while my hours at home, with the ones who needed me most, were spent in a daze of pain and fatigue.

It’s been over three years since I admitted the need for change. In those three years I have tried again and again to return to my former ways, but I can not. This disease is literally slowing me, sitting me down, and forcing me to face the things that I have not wanted to face.  It’s forcing me to learn new ways.  And, still, I resist.

I try, futilely, to keep busy.  I have crocheted a hundred scarves, hats, afghans.  I have put together probably a million puzzle pieces. I have read thousands of pages of print.

But, without fail, fatigue comes, and I must stop the busy-ness and turn to stillness. And even when I am exhausted, as I am right now, it’s as though I fight against rest.

The past several nights I have limped to my room lugging heated packs that I drape on my neck, hips, back after I’ve awkwardly lowered myself into bed.  Then begins the battle of shifting and moaning and repositioning that sometimes lasts several minutes but tonight lasted so long that all the images kept playing out over and over on the HD screen that is my imagination. Finally I groaned myself out of bed.

Come on, Kristin. Sit with it.  Admit that you missed so much. Acknowledge that the ones you love have hurts that you haven’t wanted to see. Grieve that. Cry.

Acknowledge that you couldn’t do it all.  You couldn’t soothe all the hurts.  You sometimes didn’t even try. You can’t undo what was done.

And the hurts keep coming.  The car needs servicing. The dog is aging and ill. A laptop isn’t working. Can’t a girl get relief from some of this pain?

And then comes the realization that the physical pain is a symbol. A tool.  A gift.

Man, I hate to admit that it’s a gift.  But without it, I would still be running. I would still be accumulating regret.

The illness hasn’t solved my problems, but it has revealed some.

And as I see them, I am finally taking the time to sit with them and cry. And lately my tears seem to have no end. They keep coming as though they just have been waiting for the opportunity.

I’m trying, really trying, to sit with that.  I believe the healing will come in the grieving. So, I’m going to take some time to grieve.  Soldiering me wants to schedule the grieving for Mondays at 10am for the next three weeks and be done with it.  Sitting still me isn’t in a rush.

I’m trying to sit with that, too.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.