The Sadness Beneath

mattsadSadness is so easily pathologized.  When it pops up unexpectedly or has no obvious reason, it can be quickly explained away as lurking depression or rejected as misplaced emotion.  Sadness, however, may also be spiritual.  Sadness is a regular, even healthy, part of life and companion of grief.  Grief can be all around us in hurt relationships, lost values, declining communities, stress, elusive success, or deep-seated heartache from the past, which haunts our everyday life.

For me, the hard part of deep sadness is not the idea of embracing or exploring it.  It’s finding the right environment – meaning the right relationships – to let the grief or sadness unfold with dignity.  There’s also the simple challenge of the time it takes.

Sadness and grief are not efficient.  They demand their own way and their own time.  The path grief takes is not always predictable.   Therefore, it often seems easier to repress sadness and push it away.  It’s certainly more efficient and rational in the short term.  In the long run, however, suppressed sadness can haunt one’s sleep, daily interactions, and consume one’s creativity.  This is when the spiritual aspect of sadness and grief makes itself known.  Sadness, when it lives inside of us, has a nagging, even irruptive, quality; it seeks not only its way and expression, but the connection it needs to see light of day.  Sadness and grief integrate us, and make us human.  They remind us of our essential relationality, and seeks the blessings of community.   It’s a reminder of our inescapable humanity, and humility.

Lamentations is a book of the Hebrew bible that we usually spend little time with.  It’s a five chapter poem of grieving before God over the fate of Israel.  Interestingly, in Lamentations, the prophet makes clear that both God and Israel are to blame.

What’s also remarkable about the text is that its writer – attributed as Jeremiah – doesn’t give up on Israel or God in the face of absolute ruin.  Rather, God remains his  interlocuter, i.e. his audience, in his grief.  It is a long song of sadness, laced with dark visions of death and desolation, that instigate complaining and pleading over the absolute loss.  Following the covenantal theme of Israel as bride and God as bridegroom, Lamentations laments the broken relationship of God and Israel – and its effects – in personal terms.  Here are the last four verses:

19 You, Lord, reign forever;
your throne endures from generation to generation.
20 Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?
21 Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return;
renew our days as of old
22 unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure.

Lamentations doesn’t end with, “And they lived happily ever after.”  Because of that, I find solace and company in the prophet’s words.  Sadness is its own spiritual place.  It exists to have its way…and show the way.

While we modern folk look for a way out of grief and ways to mitigate the trouble and heartache of sadness, I find comfort in knowing that profound sadness and grief lie at the heart our relationship with God.  Sadness and grief reveal our humility and helplessness, and this ultimately is what makes us human.  Moreover, they draw us into a spiritual journey of surrender that is best lived in relationship to others.  This restores a sense of our common humanity.  For the prophets, it was precisely out of such sadness and grief that hope sprang forth for the Kingdom of God.  It was out of ruin that they imagined God’s return to human affairs.

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dark moments and ways forward

It has been a hard 36 hours.   Margo and I learned something a couple of days ago that potentially halts important plans that have been months in the making.    The news was not a bump in the road; it was a deal-breaker.   It could halt everything and potentially change the direction of our next few years.

The bad news involved circumstances and realities that are completely out of our control.   Hearing the news made us all of the sudden feel very vulnerable, victims of an impersonal world and other people’s bad decisions.  I wish I could share more details, but they are both complicated and personal.  Suffice it to say, what’s important here is that our very sense of security and self-determination was completely undermined.  It created a feeling of insecurity and dread that I feel still. The outcome is unsure and the feeling lingers.

I know others have been here.

We experienced this kind of loss of control over our lives before when Margo was first diagnosed with TTP in 2007.  We spent 30 days fighting for her life in an out-of-state hospital, racking up a bill we didn’t know would get paid.  This time, the circumstances were different.  But, the feeling of helplessness and insecurity were the same.  Emotionally and mentally, it was debilitating.   Everything was up in the air.  We felt trapped.  This was one of those moments when the flow of life, itself, was disrupted and you can question everything.

Everyone, I think, experiences these situations from time to time.  It can be from a death, unforeseen bad news, an innocent but bad decision, loss of work, break-up of relationship, loss of control.   Some live with the dark feelings of these situations chronically.  We live in a world where more and more of us are seemingly less and less in control.   Economic crisis, unemployment, divisive religious issues, shrinking churches, strained friendships, loss of security, increased isolation, hostile politics – no wonder we live in a culture that seems to perpetuate and profit from depression and escapism.   No wonder the airways are full of angry talk about security and freedom.   Along with trust and sanity, both seem to be so scarce these days.

Dark moments can hit from out of the blue or haunt us seemingly incessantly.  Few things can shake the foundations of faith like a loss of control in your life and an inability to see a way forward.  I’ve experienced that myself lately.  When this happens, many people either try to lose themselves in the busyness of immediate demands or others’ needs: going to work, hitting deadlines, focusing on getting kids to practice, keeping schedule, and making lunches.  Others lose themselves in other things: eBay, day trading, internet outlets like facebook, gaming, and online communities.  Not all are bad or destructive.   Connecting with others and healthy outlets can be a salve for getting through difficult feelings.  The ways to escape and channel the energy of dark times and their feelings of anxiety or insecurity are as many as the people who feel them.  Sometimes the darkness and feelings pass.  Circumstances change or we make our own adjustments.  Sometimes, the darkness lingers and is difficult to escape.  In either case, withstanding the difficult loss of control, helplessness, and insecurity is a passage of its own.  Faith, I think, plays an important role in keeping both our mental sanity and emotional flexibility, as well as strength and sense of peace.

One way people use their faith in dark times is to use faith, itself, as an escape.  This isn’t all bad.  It’s easy to suppress or counter dark feelings and chaotic circumstances by telling us God is in control or God will make a way.  This can be incredibly important.  But, it can also be a short cut and follow an incomplete understanding of God and faith in our lives.

In my view, the problem with turning to faith for escape is that it does not provide a new way forward.  It becomes an alternative – rather than a reason to face – reality.  The dark moments and feelings are real.  The situation that causes them are often real.  But, God and faith offer more than merely surviving dark moments by waiting out the situation in a bubble.  Again, this path forward isn’t always bad and sometimes necessary.  The difference is a matter of spirituality.  A simple way to make the distinction between an escaping kind of spirituality and using faith to move us forward into reality may be the difference between faith as belief versus faith as how we choose to live.

Of course, the distinction is real, but it represents a false choice.   Spirituality can mean separating beliefs from actions.  But actions usually aren’t separated from beliefs, conscious or unconscious.  Nevertheless, the distinction is helpful.  If faith is simply a matter of what we choose to believe, then believing God will turn things in our favor, restore our sense of control, or take care of us becomes one way you use faith.  We believe something despite our feelings and circumstances.  But, this kind of spiritual approach is very different than one that uses faith to face immediate reality, take it in, accept dark moments of insecurity and our shaken sense of things.  Faith can be power in and into these moments of helplessness, not just go around them or survive them.

When the bad news came to Margo and I, at first I was extremely frustrated, even angry.  Because of my feelings, my thoughts raced.  Without thinking, I began to rant and blame.  I also immediately felt helpless.  “What are we going to do, now!?!?”  This question haunted me.  As long as it haunted me, a feeling of despair and helplessness set in.  In all reality, there wasn’t alot I could do except be patient and come to peace with alternatives I could not control, but I could face.

As I faced what might be, my difficult feelings compelled me to pray.  They were so real.  The loss of power and choices made me feel abandoned.  The situation reminded me of how much our sense of wellbeing and security in this world is based on our ability to make decisions, control the outcomes, follow our desires and seek (what we think is) our best interest.  When these are taken from us, the darkness of the loss is total and can feel equally unjust and debilitating.

Instead, however, I faced my feelings and my options.  I didn’t do it with cool confidence or grace.  I just refused to believe what my feelings wanted to say.  I was not abandoned; God does not abandon us.  I also knew faith wasn’t about being in control.  With all the tragedy and injustice in our world, God also may not be in full exacting control.  But, God’s power is also not a power we understand.  I know and trust God’s presence in all things – even darkness and tragedy.  Looking and expecting God in these concentrated moments of loss and seeming darkness is difficult, but also transforming.  It brought a peace the ways of the world couldn’t give me.

Prayer was a passage into humility, something my modern sense of power and control could not provide nor fully understand.  Nor, could it help me escape.  Accepting and taking in the humility, even humiliation, of my situation all was a profound feeling that helped me embrace what was happening.  All was not lost.   Salvation, whether here and now or in the hereafter, is not based on my own power to control my life & circumstances.   The substance of God was in present reality, not escape from it.  That’s where I found both myself and myself with God.   Together, I was able to find both peace and possibilities if things didn’t go our way.  The experience was transforming for me, and the future I was dreading.

I want to be clear about this.  This wasn’t a moment of “let go and let God.”  It was a moment of embrace, not letting go.  It was based on a spirituality and faith that God is in and amidst reality – not in flight from it.  The humility of it all was deeply grounding.  I emerged from the bad news and negative possibilities somehow more grounded, capable, alive and complete.  It’s something that is difficult to put into words.  It wasn’t just resignation or a change of mind.  But, it was also an experience that was incomplete without bearing my experience in testimony.

I’ve always been led to believe, by the Spirit I trust, that God’s passage in Jesus Christ is a passage of God from heaven in, to, and through our reality – not around it.  Jesus, on the cross, did not commit the great escape.  The only way we can believe he was the messiah, that we die with him and in him (like Paul), and that all creation is changed because of him is if we also believe that, somehow, Jesus came into the world and into its darkness.  All human reality came to a head and a turning point in his death on the cross and its humiliation.   In this passage, God, in Jesus, teaches us how to die and live.

I can only conclude that when Jesus says, “Bear your cross” and “Follow me,” Jesus does not point the way out of or around this world.   Discipleship and the cross are not a path or way around reality or escape from its dark moments, but a path to go through them – not alone.

In scripture, that’s where we find Jesus, Immanuel.   The only way to tell God’s passage from heaven to earth – for our sake – was to tell of God in sufficiently human terms.  Jesus was that human, who’s ministry and death bear all the marks of a real human life – birth, parents, temptation, struggle, calling, moments of embrace as well as betrayal, eventual humiliation and tragedy.  The point of the story is that God triumphs.  Jesus did not overcome to escape, but embrace and change reality.