Kindness/Despair

“Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things.

feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
* * * * *
“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.”

excerpted from “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye,
from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems (1995)

despair“Despair is strangely the last bastion of hope; the wish being that if we cannot be found in the old way we cannot ever be touched or hurt in that way again.  Despair is the sweet but illusory abstraction of leaving the body while still inhabiting it, so we can stop the body from feeling anymore.  Despair is the place that we go when we no longer want to make a home in the world and where we feel, with a beautifully cruel form of satisfaction, that we may never have deserved that home in the first place. Despair, strangely, has its own sense of achievement, and despair, even more strangely, needs despair to keep it alive.”
excerpted from “Despair” by David Whyte, from Consolations, 2015

Last fall my friend Lila killed herself.  She was a member of our congregation.  She lived a life I might have had: she was my age, never married, took care of her two beloved cats.  She probably heard that she had such a pretty face, if only she would lose some weight.  She was generous and kind and hilarious and lived with bi-polar disorder until she decided she didn’t want to live with bi-polar disorder anymore and she ended her life.

The other night my daughter and I were cuddled in the comfy chair and we started talking about people she knew who had died.  The list is short, and I am grateful for that.  But being the child of two pastors, my daughter hears about death more than the average eight year old.  She knows that sometimes we rush to the hospital, or are called away in the middle of the night.  She knows that sometimes she has an extended playdate on a Saturday because Mom and Dad are at church for a memorial service.

So we were talking about the people she knew who had died, and Lila was mentioned.  “Mom,” my daughter said, “how did Lila die?” We hadn’t told her.  Maybe at the time we were too bruised to try to explain to a child why someone so lovely would not want to live any more; maybe we didn’t have the courage or didn’t want to face the sadness.  But she asked, and I answered.  “Honey, I’m so sorry, but Lila killed herself.”

Sigh.

“Why?”  “Well, her brain didn’t always work just right, and sometimes her brain made her so wildly happy she couldn’t keep it to herself, and sometimes her brain made her so sad she didn’t think she would ever stop being sad.  I think one day she decided she didn’t want to be sad like that anymore.  I think it hurt so much and she didn’t want to hurt anymore.”  I did the best I could to explain despair to a child, all the while hoping and praying that my child will not ever know it.

This week two different friends on Facebook posted poems/essays, one “Kindness” and the other “Despair”.  They showed up in my news feed the same day, the day I would later have the conversation with my daughter.  I found deep wisdom in both and in a way, they were companions to each other, acknowledging the depth of these things, the paradox of them.  To understand kindness you must first understand sorrow.  Despair is the last bastion of hope.

I don’t want to diagram these words or exegete them but neither do I want to toss them away like last Sunday’s sermon.  They feel heaven-sent in a way, so thank you, Carol and Ken, for being angels in sharing them.

And I wish I knew what Lila would say about them.

“We take the first steps out of despair by taking on its full weight and coming fully to ground in our wish not to be here.  We let our bodies and we let our world breathe again.  In that place, strangely, despair cannot do anything but change into something else, into some other season, as it was meant to do from the beginning.”

“Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then it goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.”

elephant mettha

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Some things take a long time to heal

Some things take a long time to heal

hip_labral_tear_avulsionWe were talking about health and mental health the other day in staff meeting, and I asked why mental health issues couldn’t just be called health  issues.  After all, many of the diseases that affect one’s emotional life are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, a physical thing.   And then I commented that physical health issues take their mental toll too, and confessed, I think for the first time, that I have been in pain every day for the last year.  That takes a toll.  I get down about it, I get frustrated and angry and discouraged.

We were talking about health because a member of our congregation – a beloved, vivacious woman – committed suicide a few weeks ago, and we are all pretty wrecked about it.  She lived for years with a bi-polar disorder that she chose to hide from many who knew her, and so her choice to end her life came as a shock to most of the congregation.

To say she was vivacious only begins to describe her: vivacious, hilarious, organized, fun, friendly, kind, thoughtful of so many.  That was what she chose to show the world, and that was her authentic self.  But I want to honor the fullness of who she was, and say that the withdrawn, sad parts were her authentic self too, but a part that she chose not to show most of the world.  When she went into the valley of the shadow, she stayed home and hunkered down.  A few of us knew that, and tried to support her as best we could.  She left a note – organized person that she was, of course she left a note – and her sister read part of it at the memorial service.  She assured us that there was nothing any of us could have done to stop her, that her decision had been made, that she knew how much we loved her and how much her death would hurt us.

Some things take a long time to heal.  I still have moments of utter disbelief that she is gone, that next year on July 3 we won’t celebrate our birthdays which were exactly two weeks apart.  I keep expecting to walk into the office and hear her ask what we have for her to organize.  But deeper, I am still so very bereaved that she took her own life.  I do wonder what I could have done.  I do doubt that I told her often enough how much I loved her.  There is a hurt there, a wound of sorrow and guilt and profound loss, and the scar that is left some day will not be subtle.

Sometime about eighteen months ago, I tore the labrum tissue in my right hip – it’s the tissue that lines the hip and is like the meniscus of the hip.  It’s been eighteen months of pain, x-rays, an MRI (aided by lots of Valium), conversations with surgeons who tell me surgery is not an option for me, physical therapy, chiropractic help, and exercises.  I limp and I cannot hide the limp.  On Sunday mornings when I walk down the aisle, everyone sees me limp.  They comment that I’m still limping, a year later, and I say yes I am.  They ask if it’s getting better, and I say yes, it is healing and it is healing slowly.

People like to hear that I’m healing, but they don’t like the slowly part.  Maybe it’s hard for them to see me in pain, although I try to hide it.  Maybe it reminds them that their pastor is not a spry thirty-year-old.  Maybe they’re being empathetic, because I’m not the only one around church who walks with a little wobble.

It has been an interesting journey these last eighteen months, one of the body-mind-soul journeys that contains lessons about patience and honesty and good humor, about frustration and hope, about pain and tiredness.  In the last two months I have made peace with the fact that this will take a long time to heal, that some wounds – however invisible to the naked eye – are not easily mended.

Broken hearts and spirits don’t mend easily or quickly.  It is possible that some never mend.  But some will, over time, over months and years and decades.

May we be patient with each other in the mending.

 

mended-heart

Too Soon

There are certain things that are not supposed to happen while on vacation.  It is not supposed to rain (which it did.)  When visiting a quaint beach town, one is not supposed to encounter protesters at the local post office who want to impeach the president and make their point by drawing a Hitler mustache on the leader of the free world (which also happened.)  And young adults whom you once knew as teenagers aren’t supposed to kill themselves.

As much as we might pretend to vacate the world or our own little realities from time to time, life presses on.  Good things happen while we’re away, and tragic things too.  I shouldn’t be surprised.  I am not Queen of the Universe; the world doesn’t stop because I have set aside a little sabbath time.  But some things are hard no matter when they happen, like the death of a person you still remember as a bright, crazy-talented, slightly pimply teenager in your church’s youth group.

I served that church ten years ago, and have since lost touch with so many of the folks there.  I was a bit of a tertiary staff person to the youth program, but when the youth went on a retreat and they needed a pastor to celebrate communion, I was on deck, so I got to know these kids.  “These kids” – they are now adults, holding down jobs, finishing grad school, getting married and starting families and starting careers.  When I hear about them through the ecclesiastical grapevine, or one of them friends me on Facebook, I am so glad and so proud.  I have no reason to be proud, but I am.  They are on their way, and doing great, or at least doing as well as any of us might hope to, given our flaws and foibles and the general human condition.

But this kid.  This kid.  My heart aches for his parents and his sister.  For his friends, too, because I know that particular class from the youth group was tight.  Maybe they knew what I did not, that mental illness was a burden he carried, along with his talent and friendship and handsome gawkiness.   I picture his parents – devout, faithful, loving, possessing a patience and concern I never realized.  I picture his friends – the one who worked at Starbucks and made me a latte at 7:00 on a Sunday morning as I made my way to church.  The woman who was smarter and more beautiful than she ever realized.  The guy with the crazy hair who got ordained and now wears tabs on Sunday mornings.  The one who went into the Peace Corps.  The one who’s a doctor. All of them, tonight, grieving.  Grieving the death of a peer, a friend, maybe someone they would even call beloved.

This is about all I know tonight:  that he left the world a little more beautiful because of the talent he shared.   That he left the world a little more fragile because of that cusp of anxiety and depression that he teetered on.  That he woke us all up to the present, to the gift of right now, the gift of old friendships,  and the gift of community.

My prayers are with that community tonight.  Rest in peace, all.saugatuck