In the middle of writing this piece in a Starbucks, I heard a loud thump, turned around, and saw a man collapse on the floor in convulsions, bleeding from the head. He was suddenly helpless, and in need. A woman bravely went to him, and used a handful of napkins to cradle his bleeding head. His convulsions worsened, and she asked for help. I grasped the man from the other side, and supported his head so that he did not further crack his skull. His eyes did not focus, but I consoled him, assured him, comforted him. Somehow, as the overloaded circuits of his paralyzed brain subsided, he relaxed a bit, but remained helpless. He seemed to breathe more easily as I told him “We’re with you. We’re here with you. Help is coming.” It was all I could offer.
The blood washed from my hands, I am back at my laptop now, and wondering: “How are we like this man? Are we also not preemptively torn from our predictable moorings by an overload of one kind or another? How do we navigate such sudden disasters? Who will be at our side? Who will dare to stand outside their comfort zone to enter our unwanted zones of sudden pain? It is very clear to me our journey was never meant to be neat, tidy, and predictable. I do not know the mystery of suffering, but I know that somehow we are made more useful to God and more connected to one another by it.
I am currently in an acting class, and I was assigned a monologue from the play “Shadowlands” which tells the love story of C.S. Lewis. Lewis gives a standard lecture on the “problem of pain.” He gives it three times in the play: beginning, middle, and end, and each time his circumstances are quite different. In the beginning he meets the one love of his life; in the middle, he is losing her to a terminal illness, and at the end, she is gone. The lecture changes as the man changes. He starts the lecture with his standard pronouncements, all good theology. As he gives the lecture at middle and end, the words coming out of his mouth surprise him. “I find it hard to believe God really loves her” he says in the depths of his pain. He cannot contain the need to share his true thoughts with the respectable British audience who has come to hear him.
Recently I suffered a loss of someone that I still love, and that is the pain I feel: to have a part of your soul ripped from you by an ending. Losses are often so sudden, while our gains seem to come to us by gradual measures. It seems to me that it should be just the other way around.
We are built to avoid pain. It takes a certain act of strong will and rational thinking to think that pain is sometimes good for us. Children will avoid the removal of a splinter, convinced that the pain they feel will somehow go away without the pain of a needle. We are like those children. Our calculations are so immediate and limited.
The challenge of accepting the loss for me is to understand “why?” There is no satisfactory or complete answer. Losses do not answer to arguments or reasons. They occur like changes in the weather. They are “natural disasters.”
Other more useful questions are arising for me: How do I run from pain? What strategies do I use to anesthetize pain or deny it? How do I use people, things, or experiences to dull discomfort? Oh, and the most important question of all: How do I either admit or exclude God from the truth of my suffering?
How can I use dishonesty or evasion to avoid hurting others with the truth? There is pain in the truth that must be shouldered. How do I turn a deaf ear to the truth that others are trying to tell me? How do I repeatedly hear only what I want to avoid pain?
Pain is meant to be expressed. If we try to carry our pain silently in isolation, we are almost sure to delay healing. We are social creatures, connected by common emotions and language. We are to embrace pain, and we are to embrace one another in our pain.
Sometimes the pain is simply not manageable. We have no framework for such pain, and simply go numb. This kind of pain washes over us in waves, collapsing us just as we seem to find our legs. We are like Job, crying out to a God who seems not to hear us. This pain lingers with us, maybe for a lifetime, like a wound that cannot completely close.
A friend said to me recently that our experience of deep loss is like the experience of the Jews wandering in the desert after their Exodus from Egypt. My friend knew of my recent tendency to grasp as a “quick fix” to abate my pain. I wanted to rush the healing process. My friend told me that like those Israelites, I was disoriented, not sure where to place my security: the certainty of the past, or the uncertainty of a promised better future I simply could not see. “Would I trust God?” he asked. Would I trust myself?
My friend knew that I had been emotionally knocked on my arse, and that my brave “It’s over, and I’m moving on” bravado was out of touch with the reality of how hurt I really was. “I don’t want you to abandon that man still prostrate on the ground,” he said. If you move on without him, he may never recover. That’s an interesting idea, I noted, that we can abandon ourselves. “We do it all the time,” he asserted.
I dreamed last night that I passionately kissed the woman who chose to end our love. It was a magical kiss. It was so powerful and intense that it was like an incantation that reopened her heart. When I awoke, there was no redemption or recovery. There is no magic. My short cut through the desert was just a dream.
But . . .there is a God who walks with us in the desert, and who invites us to cross the Jordan. [Joshua 1:9]. “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” [Psalms 147:3]. “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18.
This weekend, I cancelled all my plans. I just stayed in the pain. I stopped running for a while. I quarreled and pleaded with God. I lived in the disorientation and ambiguity of unanswered questions. I believe it was Marcel Proust who said: “Most of the ills of this world are attributable to man’s inability to sit alone in a room and do nothing.” Add that to the menu of standard choices: workaholism, alcohol, T.V., mindless chatter and activity, pornography, a new woman, a new purchase, food, movies, compulsive exercise . . . or an empty room. Is it any wonder the Israelites so quickly returned to a golden calf?
I never knew Michelle except as a comatose patient with a large part of her skull cap removed, and severely brain damaged. Michelle had been fine one minute, and the next, involved in a terrible intersection collision. I visited her only once in an extended care facility with several friends to pray over her. One of those friends was a cancer patient Michelle had treated as an oncology RN months earlier. On the wall of Michelle’s room were pictures of her recent trip to Paris, and her adventures parachuting from a plane. She was vibrant, happy, and eager to live fully. Looking at her now, I was overcome with sorrow, for her, for her family, for all of us.
It is now over a year ago, and Michelle is still on my mind. Why? That day, I felt not just my sorrow, but the sorrow of Jesus in that room. How could that be? I simply can’t get my mind around the mystery of how God “allows” such suffering, and also shares it with us. There is some “work” God is doing through our suffering. In some strange way, we “find God” in our suffering in ways that prepare us to be with Him forever. As C.S. Lewis points out, there are worlds other than this one. It is a dangerous illusion to think all is well in this present life, or that our satisfactions can be found in this present world.
Maybe, if we will but open our hearts to suffering, we will find Proust to be wrong. Maybe Jesus is sitting with us in that room.