Once Upon a Time in the Days of Awe

A few years ago, I wrote these words late at night in a chilly September. They still seem true to me. Tomorrow will begin Rosh Hashanah,a spiritual new year, and I am thankful for another reminder that after long dark seasons of awful, Days of Awe can still dawn…

“When tragedy entered my life, the losses began to stack up. Gone was my health, my marriage, my dream of more children, my job, my house, my independence. Logic says that loss should bring grief, but I was given no room for grief.

Modern American culture gave me no pattern to mourn these losses. No funeral for my dead marriage. No black crepe or sack-cloth-and-ashes to wear. No set ritual for stepping apart from society to grieve. Even if there had been, how as a sick single-working-mother could I have participated?

Instead of giving me room to mourn, my culture did what it does best, encourage. Family, friends, church members, and casual acquaintances all lined up to say something encouraging, something that would stem my grief. I knew that these fellow humans were offering me their best. They wanted to show me some measure of kindness in words that might prove helpful. I appreciated all of their sentiments individually and accepted them in the spirit of good will that they were all intended, but over time the collection of these statements slowly built up in my mind. With repetition, they combined to become something that they didn’t seem to be on their own.

Everything happens for a reason.
This will all work out for the best.
God is going to use this to make the world a better place.
You are such a great example of courage and faith.
Count your blessings.
Keep your chin up.
Pray believing and your prayer will be answered.
Have a positive attitude and things will turn out well.

None of these phrases were new; I had heard them all before, sometimes from my own mouth. Taken alone they each had a warm fuzzy surface of consolation about them. Certainly these people were merely repeating words considered helpful. Apart they were just a commonplace collection of words offered in a crisis, but taken together they began to sound different to me. Heaped on each other in numerous subtle variations, these consolations slowly melded into something heavy and harsh. They became glued together by silent underlying ideas. Hearing these phrases, over and over, made me slowly aware of the unspoken implications behind each one of them.

There was a pre-planned reason why I was suffering.
My suffering was required for the good of the world.
If I had doubts about that, I was not faithful.
If I spoke about doubts, I would be letting others down.
The only way to be faithful is to feel happy and act happy.
Mourning a loss means you aren’t grateful enough.
A sad face and tears will upset others.
My prayers for my health and marriage were not answered because I did not believe enough.
Things in my life had clearly not “turned out well” so my own attitude must have been at fault.

Likely, everyone who said those fuzzy-sounding consolations would have been shocked and dismayed at the underlying statements I was hearing beneath their words. I accept that they intended the best, but I must honestly say that I believe these implications exist, whether they are intended or not.

As time wore on, these messages piled up like a weight on my shoulders. I could not at first see the invisible implications and so I didn’t understand why these well meaning words made me feel so bad. I felt guilty for being hurt by these good intentions, and yet I had no one safe to talk to about the problem. Most of the time when confronted with such consolations, I felt too vulnerable to express my real mind.

Only one day in a closed car with no means of escape, when a family member told me, “This is going to make you a really strong person,” I just snapped back. “Look at what I’ve already been through in my life! I am already one of the strongest people I know. I didn’t need this to be strong. Come on, how strong do you think I really need to be?!” Most of the time though, surrounded by people of faith who I believed were expecting a “faithful” response from me, I just took every hurtful saying with an obligatory smile, even though there was a scream inside me.

Then one day I met a stranger.

I was being consoled by a well-meaning acquaintance with some of the usual faithful statements when a woman walked up to give this mutual friend a brief message. When I was introduced (name, age, and type of cancer mentioned), this woman said something totally different than anything I had heard to date.

She said, “That sucks! That is total BS! Life is just not fair, and you don’t deserve this. Well I’ll tell you what… Fuck it! Fuck the cancer! You just go and beat it.” Then she smacked me on the shoulder and walked away.

That was the sum total of our interaction. I didn’t learn anything about her, and I’m sure that as she walked away she had no idea that she left a changed person behind her. I felt like a weight had been lifted off of me. I laughed, really laughed, for the first time in days.

When I could not curse, a stranger cursed for me, and it felt better than all the prayers, blessings and consolations combined. All these “faithful” sayings made me feel drained and dismissed, but this woman gave me a moment of clarity that encouraged me more than all the platitudes.

Life is not fair. I did not deserve this. I did not cause this. Bad things had happened and I was suffering. I felt cursed and that was worthy of cursing. I deserved to honestly and openly grieve, because only then would I be able to act…because things don’t happen for a reason. We humans are creatures of reason and things, oftentimes bad things, happen to us. At these times, we seek to create reason, and when we work hard enough, humans almost always can. That doesn’t mean that this reason caused the pain and darkness, but rather that humans need to create healing and light. If ‘the best’ were to come out of this situation, I was the one who would have to make it happen, and to put myself in that position I needed a time of grief.

Keeping your chin up only helps the people looking at your face. Sick people scare the hell out of healthy people. Divorced people scare the hell out of married people. Suffering people scare the hell of happy people. We encourage a suffering person to be optimistic. We say it is because we believe it will make the person better in some way, but down in the depths of our souls don’t we all know it really is because it makes the non-suffering people around them not have to join in the suffering process? Optimism helps others to feel less guilty. A smile creates the illusion that suffering might not happen at any moment to anyone. A positive attitude reassures others that if such adversity were to befall them in the future that it wouldn’t be so bad and they too could “take it well.” We don’t want people to grieve because we crave light, healing and reason too much to allow ourselves to just grieve with them.

When I could not curse, a stranger cursed for me, and I loved her for it.

I felt so much better when one person in a tiny genuine way accepted a piece of my sorrow. What if I had been around someone who could have actually handled all of my grief? I can only imagine how wonderful it would have felt to have had someone say, “Give me all your sadness. Pour every tear you have out into my lap. Throw your anger at me… I can take it. I won’t hold up my palm to you and tell you ‘It’s ok, You’re ok,’ when you know that it isn’t and you aren’t. I won’t shove a Kleenax in your hand and ask you to calm down. I can handle all the hurt in your heart. I don’t expect anything from you… I just accept you as you are.” I know the love that I feel for that stranger. I cannot really imagine the depths of love I might have had for someone who could have handled all the cursing that I wanted to do.

Maybe there is no person on earth who can handle all of any other person’s grief. Maybe the best this world could offer is the passing kindness of a stranger to give hope that somewhere, somewhere, complete acceptance does exist. Hope. In this hope is where faith may really begin. Not in words of consolation or in all their religious implications and spiritual intentions, but instead, in a single small hope that dwells, silently, in the midst of a heart so broken that no fellow human being can handle it, and whispers the most powerfully healing words ever imagined, “I can take it.”

If God is near to the broken-hearted, then perhaps it is best to slump my shoulders, and let myself be broken, and listen.”

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