The Song of a Sad Heart (Part One)
“ Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” (ESV)
I. The Downward Spiral: What Despair Feels Like
A few weeks ago I saw a Facebook cartoon making fun of Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s stages of grief. If you've read her 1969 book _On Death and Dying_, you know how she suggests that people in mourning go through denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, before coming to acceptance. But in this image, instead of a tidy progression of predicable emotions, wild, scribbling lines were drawn all over the diagram. I looked it over and I thought, "Yeah. That's exactly how it feels. Grieving feels like chaos, and you can give the process all the names you want, but in the end, it's still going to be messy, and it's still going to be brutal."
After C.S. Lewis lost his wife, he wrote an anonymous book about the grieving process. It's hard stuff to read, because all his walls are down as a writer. This is Lewis the human learning to sleep alone again, and perhaps the thought that he could write without being known for himself gave him freedom to speak as a trembling peer instead of as an iron sage. He tells his story from the middle of devastation, so honest, so articulate, naming how sorrow feels inch by inch.
“[I]n grief nothing 'stays put.'" he writes. One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?
"But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?
"How often -- will it be for always? -- how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, 'I never realized my loss till this moment'? The same leg is cut off time after time.”
If you have lost something or someone vital, you know that feeling of dismemberment. You're not just missing part of your body, you are trying to do life while being vivisected.
You do your daily routines in middle of guerrilla warfare. Triggers are everywhere. You take a shortcut through the diaper aisle after a miscarriage and sit in the floor and weep halfway through. Or a couple of months into your divorce you see a picture in the feed, an older couple holding hands, and for five whole minutes you are paralyzed, wondering how you lost everything. You're riding to chemo and you see another woman walking down the street wearing a tank top, with all her hair, with all of her body, and you lean your head up against the car window, begging the road vibrations to scramble your brain. You are in a restaurant and hear a laugh that sounds just like the laugh of the father you lost two months ago, and your chest threatens to collapse inside itself.
The world is primed with arrows pointed at the grieving, and healing takes four steps back for every three it moves forward because you never know when something is going to tear your wound back open again.
II. This Fallen House of Cards: What is God Doing With Me?
I was driving to the church a few days after my husband was dismissed from ten years of a difficult leadership position.
Our house is only a few miles away, but there is a point in grieving where motion of any sort is dangerous. I was there, volatile as a wounded animal.
In Act I Scene I of grief's trauma it's better not to speak with anyone connected to the injustice that has been done to you. I knew that from experience. I knew I didn't need to verbalize the toxic explosions churning inside me, and I knew I didn't need to be driving a vehicle 60 MPH down a highway.
In what I felt was a noble attempt to protect the flock, I lied. I wrote a letter supporting the men who had hurt my husband, asked that it be read to prevent dissension, and then I went home, lay on the floor, and cried until I threw up.
I wish I hadn't written that letter now, even if I had good motives. But I was terrified by the magnitude of my grief, and breaking up with an elder board is like a divorce. You feel an obligation to say good things about the other parent, even if you don't really believe them. You do it for the kids. I was scared of the power of what I felt, afraid that if I let the door of real truth crack open even an inch, that all the beasts of Pandora's box would come flying out, biting and stinging the children.
So I drove to the church alone, when I knew nobody was there. I wanted to see the building one last time. I wasn't strong enough to hurt a building. I wanted to put my hands on those bricks, and let my soul accuse them of what they had done, even though I couldn't ever go back inside the walls.
Wild surges of shame, fury, and fear were taking turns pulsing through my heart. The faces of people I had once trusted, lost friends that I now saw as traitors flashed before me. Their smiles distorted like images from a haunted house.
“God, what are you doing to me? I trusted them! They asked to hear how we were doing, and I trusted them! If I can't trust them, I can't ever trust anyone. I will never feel safe again. I will never let anyone know me again!"
My fists slammed the steering wheel and tears filled my eyes. I could barely find the road.
When despair comes to us, it doesn't just make statements about what has hurt us in the past, it makes damning declarations about our future. It shoves its hand down our throats, reaches around to our hearts, and rips out our hope.
I think that what happened to our family that summer was wrong, and yet, this terrible circumstance orchestrated by flawed human beings ended up being the very machine God commandeered to reveal infections that I didn’t know were inside me.
The first of those infections was that I didn't trust God. I didn't believe he had my best interest in mind. As people let me down over and over again over again during those ten years, I began to push questions about Divine love down inside me along with those human wounds. I started wondering if I was just the sort of person God didn't like protecting. Wondering if my mistakes were too gross, and if I was repulsive to him. Wondering if I was just one of the disposable ones, a jar of clay to be used and tossed away after a bigger story was written for other people.
Like Eve, I didn't believe God loved me enough to give me what I needed. What He withheld felt like a lethal loss. What He gave felt insufficient.
When all of life's pressure landed on the weak link of my doubt, despair blew me open. My invisible cracks widened. What I had never believed, not really, rose to the surface. There it was, in light and color, twenty feet tall, broadcast onto the sky. The whimper of doubt that I had once been able to smother broke free and became a scream.
God loved me enough to use a terrible circumstance. What was done to destroy me, he used to instruct me instead. The unfaithfulness of humanity was bent. He broke it like a wild horse, turned it around to show me a lie I was believing.
Lewis writes: “God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn't. In this trial He makes us occupy the dock, the witness box, and the bench all at once. He always knew that my temple was a house of cards. His only way of making me realize the fact was to knock it down.” (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed)
(to be continued in part two)