Saturday, March 07, 2009

Doing the Hard Work

Irish humor writer Marian Keyes (Sushi for Beginners, Watermelon) is someone whose prose throws me into fits of hilarity, as her m.o. is generally to recount her ongoing foibles through a lens of amiable self-deprecation.

So I was surprised to find myself pausing at the end of a sentence in an essay on feng shui this morning not in order to laugh, but rather because I was struck by the profundity of it.

"I love the idea that you can heal your life by doing something outside of yourself," Keyes writes.

Now, I am not interested in feng shui specifically, but I think Keyes is right in tagging it as one more way modern society has tried to heal itself of its ills (even though feng shui itself has been around since about 4000 BCE), all of which are actually internal issues and therefore can't be solved by rearranging the bedroom or painting the front door a different color.

Keyes continues, rather hyperbolically, "To that end, I have self-help tapes. I don't listen to them, mind, but I have them. I hold with aromatherapy. I know someone who had a chakra healing done, and I wanted one too. I've had my aura read and I have plenty of truck with horoscopes and tarot readers.
"But with feng shui," writes Keyes, "they've just pushed me too far. It's one worry too many in a world where they're always inventing new things for me to fret about, and I usually do my best to obey - I've stopped drinking tap water, I don't go out in the sun without being smothered in Factor Eighty, I feel guilty for drinking fizzy drinks because they allegedly cause cellulite, I don't take my makeup off with toilet paper because it has wood shavings in it, I rarely brush my hair when it's wet and I've stopped my daily asbestos rub."

Unfortunately, I have a few things in common with Marian Keyes. I buy organic, avoid trans fat and high fructose corn syrup like they're the plague, wear sunscreen, refrain from microwaving anything plastic, and so on. But I don't make these choices as a means of healing myself emotionally or psychologically by doing something external, either. They're just actions geared toward physical healthy living.

Healing oneself via external means - whether yoga, feng shui, having one's palm read, going on a diet, redecorating the house or buying new shoes - is, unfortunately, the modern way. Note that as a larger culture, the industrialized world has not had much success at being healed of its internal woundedness through any of these practices. And yet, collectively we keep trying. Just take a look at the magazine rack the next time you're in the checkout aisle at the grocery store.

I'm of the opinion that inner healing has to be done in partnership with God, and that it takes a lot of work. By work I mean time spent reflecting, processing, thinking, all with the goal being to figure out why we are the way we are, how we can become better versions of ourselves, and what we have to do to make that happen.

A close friend of mine went through a disastrous (for her) breakup about 16 months ago. She really, really liked the guy, and they appeared to be getting quite serious. He dumped her very suddenly, and she was left with a lot of unanswered questions, statements that didn't make sense to her, and virtually no closure.

A common assertion among my contemporaries is that however long you date someone, it takes twice as long after breaking up to get over it. This holds true in my friend's case, as 16 months later, she has at last entered a state of peace and contentment. She is over the breakup. But make no mistake - she didn't just wake up one morning 16 months later and say, "Wow, I'm finally over it. Cool." She did a lot of hard work to get there.

Most of us, upon being dumped, head for the hills for at least a little while. My friend, on the other hand, refused to abandon her community and stuck it out. Her ex-boyfriend, having just entered a leadership role in an organization in which she is heavily involved, was - unfortunately - everywhere she went. Week after week, she was compelled to see him in relatively close quarters. Her closest friends, me included, tried to talk her into going elsewhere, into taking a break from her commitments. But she was adamantly against it.

Leaving, she said, would be far more painful. She was invested too deeply in the organization and in its people. Were she to leave, she would then have the pain of losing community, on top of the pain of the breakup. she was determined to work through it without sacrificing

And so, rather than going on a shopping spree, rearranging her furniture or getting her hair done in order to make herself feel temporarily reinvented, she spent the next 16 months working to actually reinvent herself on the inside, hammering away steadily at why the breakup was so painful for her, trying to figure out what God wanted her to take away from the relationship and what he wanted her to learn about herself. It has paid off. She is stronger, has a healthier self-image, possesses greater self-awareness, has a clear picture of the mistakes she made, and plans not to repeat them nor to go back to being the girlfriend she was in her former relationship.

I'm not so sure about him, however.

He is the guy we used to tease about being a "serial dater," the man who managed to stay in a relationship just until things started to get serious, who bolted at the first sign of attachment from a girl, who moved from one relationship to the next with barely a breath in between (I don't know why we expected him to change all of a sudden, although, to his credit, he didn't move on to someone else after dumping our friend). I once heard him profess that when something is over for him, he focuses on moving forward. After all, he said, what's the point? When something is over, it's over. No use mooning about a broken relationship.

There is something to be said about not wallowing oneself into a depression, but the end of a relationship is due proper reflection. And proper reflection involves processing the how and why behind a breakup. It involves taking a good look at oneself and one's role in both the relationship dynamics, good as well as bad, and in the breakup itself.

Moving on too quickly, without pause enough to allow for true reflection, prevents authentic healing.

There are plenty of reasons people seek to move on at breakneck speed. They may not want to feel the pain of loss, and may think they can outrun it, figuratively speaking. They may not be ready to admit responsibility. They may not want to have to do the work of digging deep into themselves, their childhoods, their past relationships, to figure out how they contributed to their own dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and loss.

Of course, I have plenty of opinion about why my friend's ex-boyfriend dumped her, and about what deeper issues lie behind both his abandonment of their relationship, and his apparent ability to move on without missing a beat. But I won't try to psychoanalyze him here - that wouldn't be fair, and I could very well be completely off-base.

Suffice it to say that he looks okay from the outside, but something underneath just doesn't seem right to me.

Sixteen months after their breakup, it is my friend, the dump-ee, who can look at him, the dump-er, with a genuine smile. It is my friend who is able to be genuinely supportive of his leadership in their mutual organization, and to express that graciously in writing, while he can barely compose a friendly e-mail thanking her for her volunteer service. It is my friend who is able to open the door for communication about their mutual service to the organization, and he who is unable to walk through that door.

Perhaps he honestly just doesn't want to work alongside his ex-girlfriend, and therefore, he's going to avoid communication as much as possible. If that's the case, I want to say, "Oh, grow a pair. You're in leadership, buddy." If anyone has the right to be practicing avoidance, it's my friend.

My hypothesis is that he hasn't done the hard work, and thus, he is unable to meet her eyes without discomfort. He hasn't done the hard work, and thus, he is unable to speak to her with anything other than stilted politeness. He comes across as awkward and uncomfortable and even a bit fake, and to that, I say that he hasn't done the hard work. He may think he has, but if he had fully and authentically engaged in processing the deeper hows and whys behind his breakup with my friend, I think he would radiate peace and goodwill, the way she does.

I have another friend who has been through much worse - divorce after several years of marriage, and a child he only gets to see every other weekend. Those two things are enough in themselves to justify an angry, bitter view of life and relationships. But he, I think, has done the hard work of processing and reflecting. He radiates wisdom, self-confidence and spiritual peace, and expresses deep love for his child and for the joys of fatherhood. Being divorced myself, I can appreciate something of what it must have taken for him to get to that place. I have no idea how he accomplished it, but I doubt it was by avoidance, denial, or seeking external means of healing.

Granted, many of us have to try the external means before we understand that we have to go deeper in order to truly heal and move on from something painful. I am not saying that engaging in healthy lifestyle choices like making new friends and doing yoga aren't good for us - they just aren't going to heal us. After a difficult breakup of my own long ago, I looked for external means of making myself feel whole - partying, shopping, and so on - but nothing really helped. I had to confront what was inside me. And later, things like traveling, going back to school, losing a ton of weight, becoming a competitive runner, and the adventure of moving to Chicago increased my self-confidence and thus helped strengthen me as I did the hard work of dealing with my internal junk.

A decade later, I know why I got into an unhealthy relationship that ended badly, I can identify factors from my childhood that played into my decision to be there, and I am equipped to make different choices in the future. I have confidence and self-awareness, as well as a healthy level of self-love, and I am solid in my identity as a Child of God, all of which I lacked before doing the hard work of self-examination.

And while God wants us to self-examine, to reflect, to process, He doesn't want us to do it without Him, or without the help of community, whether that community be one Christian friend, a church small group, or a Christian counselor. We are called to do the hard work of knowing ourselves, identifying our weaknesses, and overcoming our struggles in community. Looking back, I can see that I had community all the way. The people changed as time went on, but often that change was a result of someone new entering my life because of geography, circumstance, or simply because God sent that person to help me through the next season of self-examination.

The reward for doing the hard work is this: God's grace. We do not find complete healing, peace, and contentment just because we engage in self-examination. The view when we dig deep into ourselves is sometimes ugly and often painful. But God is faithful in that He gives us the ability to both become more like Christ, and to see ourselves in a better light. It is by His grace alone that we achieve true peace.

So we can take one of the two modern culture-approved paths to healing - the path of yoga, feng shui, and shoe shopping, or the path of avoidance, denial, and "I'm over it." But we will not get far until we take that more difficult inner road, with God as our navigator.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Dealings with Death

Someone I love died this morning.

The sky is blue and the sun is shining, and yet someone I love is dead. I feel like there should be rain sheeting down miserably outside my window. But no.

She was my mother's sister. She was feisty and full of life. She called me "Grits" (a pun on "hominy grits") which embarrassed me and endeared her to me by turns. She is someone with whom I walked the beaches of Anna Maria Island through the years, someone at whose table I heard countless stories of family foibles and scandals, someone who never ceased to surprise and delight me. She made the best Christmas cookies (haystacks - the kind made out of chow mein noodles and melted butterscotch chips). She was one of the few people who could call my mother out on something and get away with it.

I want to cry, to mourn, to weep, to lament the loss that I feel. At 33, I should know how to do this. Yet here I sit, with a pain in my belly and a lump in my throat, and hot, dry eyes.

Just yesterday I finished an essay on the lament, following a sermon by Rob Bell on lamentation. Rob mentioned funerals in his message - he pointed out how state funerals in America are somber, stoic affairs. No tears. By contrast, funerals in the Middle East are marked by unrestrained weeping and people throwing themselves upon the coffins of the dead. Public mourners, who usually did not even know the deceased, are hired to attend, weeping and singing. These practices are customary. They are expected.

My first experience with death was at age nine. My mother's second husband, who was only 26 years old, was injured in a rollover car accident on Thanksgiving Day. My mother, herself only 32, had to sign the papers to cut off life support when it became clear that his injuries had left him with no brain activity. I wasn't present for that, thank goodness, but I remember the aftermath clearly. The next three days were divided between my grandmother's house and the local funeral home, and everywhere, everyone was constantly crying.

Every adult in my nine-year-old world had lost all semblance of stability. I felt frightened and insecure. At the funeral home, I tried to stay out of sight or, at the very least, to stay as quiet as possible so that no one would notice me. Every time someone new caught sight of me, it would set off a fresh bout of weeping, and that person would feel compelled to squeeze me and pet me out of sympathy. To be frank, it was terrifying.

Because of that experience, I think, I have never grieved any loss openly. It generally takes months for a death to "hit" me. In the face of grief and loss, I am stoic, composed, unemotional. My mother and I have actually fought about this - she accuses me of suppression and denial, of not facing my feelings. She may be correct. But I don't seem to be able to do things differently. I wish it were otherwise.

I would like to cry and scream and lament the loss of my aunt. But I simply do not know how to make it happen. And I am not sure it is something that can be learned.

Lauren F. Winner, one of my favorite authors, writes in her book Mudhouse Sabbath, "[The Jewish] calendar of bereavement recognizes the slow way that mourning works, the long time it takes a grave to cool, slower and longer than our zip-zoom Internet-and-fast-food society can easily accommodate. Long after your friends and acquaintances have stopped paying attention, after they have forgotten to ask how you are and pray for you and hold your hand, you are still in a place of ebbing sadness."

"Church funerals," writes Winner, "preach the gospel--they proclaim that Jesus is risen, and insist that those who died in Him shall be risen too. What churches often do less well is grieve. We lack a ritual for the long and tiring process that is sorrow and loss."

The Jewish mourning process lasts about 72 days, and is divided into three cycles. Aninut is comprised of the days between death and burial, during which "mourners border on death themselves." Shiva are the seven days following burial, during which the bereaved do nothing but sit with their grief. Shloshim is the next 30 days, in which mourners edge their way back into daily living. There are many rituals that mark these three cycles, upon which I will not elaborate. Winner summarizes their function well when she writes, "Mourning plateaus gradually, and the diminishing of intensity is both recognized and nurtured by the different spaces the Jewish mourning rituals create."

I am not the kind of person who would find the aninut or shiva easy or natural to engage in publicly, but I deeply appreciate what they were designed to provide. Mourning for me is a slow burn. The rabbis would not approve--they would say I "sit sackcloth" for far too long. But grief for me is not constant, neither is it a full disruption of the activities that comprise daily living. I grieve in spaced-out moments. I return to a place I once visited with the person who is gone, and I find it difficult to breathe because the absence is so acute. I hear a song that reminds me of my loss, and I have to change the radio station. I grieve in moments when memory is triggered naturally.

Perhaps one point of the Jewish mourning cycle is to help us engage our memories, engage the fact that there will be no more memory-making, all at once and from the get-go, so that we get used to the idea right away and can move on without all the spaced-out grieving going on for years and years. Perhaps that is the better way.

I think it is also better to balance the joy of eternal life with the truth that loss hurts, that loss is hard, that we do not welcome death as it comes to steal away someone we love. There is nothing wrong with grieving, with crying out to God that even though we know we will be reunited in heaven, we are crushed at the separation we are experiencing now. Throughout the Bible, people grieve when someone dies. It is part of being human, and Judaism seems to honor that a little more realistically than the Christian church. The whole "She's in a better place" thing makes me want to hurl. It is okay to lament the loss of a loved one.

At my grandmother's funeral seven years ago, I gave the eulogy. I chose a reading by Henry Scott Holland I'd found quoted in a Rosamunde Pilcher novel. Looking at it now, in the light of what Lauren F. Winner writes in Mudhouse Sabbath, the reading seems very Christian in its rather anti-mourning stance that hints at denial. And yet, there is a warmth in it, and a sense of continuity that is comforting.

Death is nothing at all.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
Nothing has happened.
Everything remains exactly as it was.
I am I, and you are you,
and the old life that we lived so fondly together
is untouched, unchanged.
Whatever we were to each other,
that we are still.
Call me by the old familiar name.
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it ever was.
Let it be spoken without an effort,
without the ghost of a shadow upon it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolute and unbroken continuity.
What is this death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you, for an interval,
somewhere very near, just round the corner.
All is well.

I do not agree that death is a "negligible accident," or that there is "unbroken continuity," but something of this resonates with me: the idea of someone continuing to be a household word, of laughing at the same old jokes. Eventually, when the mourning period is over, that is the place where we hopefully end up.

I know that for the rest of my life, every time I visit Anna Maria Island, or eat haystack cookies, or wear the lavender beaded bracelet she bought me, I will think of my precocious, engaging aunt, and I will miss her. I will wish we could have one last walk on the beach, one last chat, one final meal together. And I will feel all over again that life has changed interminably.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Shedding the Shame of Desire and Reclaiming the Lament of Singleness

The Lenten series at Mars Hill this year is a study of the book of Lamentations, and Rob Bell began this morning by explaining to the congregation just what it means, exactly, to lament.

To lament is to voice one's suffering, to grieve aloud, to express loss. Lamentation cleanses and heals us. It sets us free.

Lamenting is neither whining nor wallowing, mind you. It is an authentic expression of what Bell calls, "dangerous truths that we're inclined to suppress." Dangerous, perhaps, because freeing them empowers us, and when we are empowered, we become strong.

According to Bell, we live in "a culture of denial," in which we suppress our pain and stuff our grief deep down inside where we don't have to deal with it, adopting instead a stance of stoicism and apathy. He quoted Judith Lewis Herrmann, who said "The typical response to atrocity or trauma is to banish it from consciousness."

I can relate: the pain I do not lament is pain that weighs more heavily by way of its hiddenness.

A little over a year ago, two of the key women in my life experienced two of life's biggest milestones within just a few days of each other.

My best friend got married.

My sister gave birth to her first child.

The day of Amanda's wedding, I did her makeup and zipped up her white satin dress. I carried a bouquet of bright fall flowers as I preceded her down the aisle. At the reception, I gave a toast in which I jokingly took the credit for her marriage (her husband, Jeff, is a longtime friend of mine). And I thanked God that she was marrying a great Christian guy who would love and take care of her.

The night Jack was born, I talked to my sister on the phone as she rested between contractions in her hospital room in faraway Oklahoma City. I slept fitfully until seven a.m., when my brother-in-law called to say my nephew had arrived. And I thanked God that both Carla and her baby were safe and healthy.

And then, a few days later, after the excitement attached to these two monumental events had waned a little, I looked around at my own life and felt...well, a lot of things.

Sadness. Loneliness. Anger. Frustration.

I was certain that if anyone knew what I was feeling, they would think me...envious of the happiness of people I love? Dissatisfied with my single, childless state?

The former would not have been true. I never felt jealous of Amanda's marriage or of Carla's motherhood. I was happy to see my best friend married. I was filled with love for my baby nephew. My internal battle was not about covetousness.

The latter, however, would have been accurate. I was dissatisfied. And that dissatisfaction was closely followed by a sharp, cutting sense of guilt. The mantra "God is all you need, and if you feel like there's a hole in your life, it's because you're not as focused on God as you should be" has been drummed into my brain to the extent that the healthy human desire for marriage and children has been corrupted into something to feel bad about. I felt that my emotions were unacceptable. 

On top of that, I didn't feel permission to express any of it - not to my friends, not to my small group. I did not feel free to lament my pain, my grief, my emptiness. Instead, I felt ashamed that I was longing for something at all. Looking back, I am angry about this, and about the church culture that encouraged me, albeit unintentionally, into a place of responding to my own vulnerability this way. I had been taught to suppress and even invalidate my suffering. I should have been taught, instead, to lament it.

"The power of the lament is to speak the pain our culture would have us suppress," Bell said.

And sometimes, being single is painful.

As a single Christian adult, I've spent years reading Christian books and listening to speakers who have exhorted me to "embrace my singleness," to view it as "an opportunity to serve God as no married person possibly can." I've had the apostle Paul held up before me like an icon, his single state something to aspire to, something far holier than marriage and motherhood.

A colleague and I recently discussed the upside and downside of Christian singleness. He asserted that single Christians have a choice: devotion or selfishness. Singleness can be self-serving, or it can be sacrificial. I exist somewhere in the middle (hopefully a few degrees nearer the sacrificial end of the spectrum).

I enjoy the benefits of my singleness. I come home at night to a peaceful apartment arranged to suit only my taste, devoid of the messes and hodgepodge of others. I go where I want when I want. I spend my earnings the way I see fit, without having to consult anyone else. I cook whatever I feel like eating. I take off for weekends whenever the urge hits me. I'm pretty spoiled, to be honest. Sometimes, it feels ugly. Daily, I would trade it in.

I'm also free to volunteer a lot of time at church and for charity. I have plenty of uninterrupted quiet available to pray and study Scripture. I am able to serve my housechurch by hosting our weekly gatherings, because I have my own place. I can invest in others to a degree my married friends cannot. These are all good things.

But marriage is also holy and God-honoring. 

My colleague put it like this: "[In a marriage that is God-honoring,] people do give of themselves, but they also receive...marriage will not cost you freedom in an unpleasant way or make you less of a servant."

In Genesis 2:18, God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone." God made Adam, and God was with Adam in the Garden of Eden. Adam had a relationship with God that was sounds like it was akin to the disciples hanging out with Jesus, going fishing and all that. And still, God decided Adam needed someone else - someone human, with an earthly body like his. And you know what? God didn't just go ahead and make another man, a pal, a hunting buddy for Adam to shoot the breeze with.

He made Eve. Not only that, he made her out of a part of Adam's body.

What, I ask you, is more holy than that? What is more reflective of God's desire for intimacy with us? What is more indicative of His vision for the church, for community? The first relationship was a marriage.

Jesus likened his own relationship with the church to a marriage.

We were created, from the first human to the last, with the desire for community, for intimacy, and for family. And that desire was first fulfilled by the provision of marriage.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not constantly miserable. I'm actually pretty happy and content. I trust God with my life and my future (He's proven Himself more than capable of handling it). But at the same time, I long for the man who will be my best friend and my spiritual partner. I long for a family of my own. It is a longing that is deeply rooted and acutely painful. And waiting for that longing to be fulfilled is very difficult sometimes.

And so I live in the "grace place." My friend Jen described to me a sermon she heard once on God giving us a "holy discontent," when we are about 85 percent content, because we've been given the grace to deal with a situation that is not the fulfillment of our heart's desire. We only get to 85 percent, Jen said, because God doesn't want us to "set up shop" in that partially contented place - He actually wants us to lament and cry out to Him for the desires of our heart because He has given them to us.

I believe the passage of Scripture that says God wants to give me the desires of my heart. And I don't believe that my longing means that God is not enough for me. I don't believe it means I am weak or needy or pathetic. I believe it means that I want something He designed, something that is holy and good.

I'm tired of hearing "Embrace your singleness" to the degree that it implies, "Your desire for marriage and family is selfish and weak."

Rob Bell said we, as a culture, need to reclaim the power of the lament. So, on behalf of myself and the others I know who will occasionally whisper their pain, but who have yet to feel permission to fully lament it, I am. Here, now, fearlessly and without apology.

I hereby lament the pain of my longing for this holy, holy thing, the deepest, most vulnerable desires of my heart and soul. I give myself permission to cry out to God, to the people who love me, to anyone who will listen.

Rob is right. It feels good, this act of lamenting. It feels free.