I have come to the somewhat obvious but long-coming conclusion that I can’t outrun sadness. I can’t leave it behind moving 2,000 miles away; I can’t convince it by doing all the right things that I am no longer deserving of its presence.
I am struggling to accept both the inevitability of sorrow and the necessity that it be limited. When I spent an afternoon at my silent retreat in tears, my spiritual director asked what my soul was telling me. Without thinking, I said: “This is what it feels like to breathe.” This is what it feels like to feel the limits of your humanity, this is what it feels like to know where your edges are, this is what it feels like to join with others in the Bible and ever since who grieve deeply but not without end, this is what it feels like to touch the edges of the mystery and the suffering of Christ. This is what it feels like to breathe.
Perhaps a measure of my habit in wanting to be “fine” or writing happy endings is that when I considered how to tell about this I right away wanted to say “Since I’ve learned to embrace my tears, my life has been great.” The fact is since I’ve tried to embrace my sadness, I have cried a lot, sometimes without anything like hope. I have asked questions with no answers and the pain of it feels nearly impossible to live with. But what has also happened is I have shared more of myself with others, I have prayed perhaps more authentically, realizing that if God can’t take my questions, no one can. I have experienced more of myself—having wept my way all the way to the edges of who I am. But still, it hurts. A lot.
At the same time I worry about endlessly indulging in a kind of morose recitation of my sorrows. Because then what happens is the dark things take too much place in my life and I am no longer able (or even willing) to fight them. A friend suggested I read something Eugene Peterson wrote in Five Smooth Stones about Lamentations. In it, Peterson talks about the need for limits to grief:
“Let the tears flow, but let them also cease! … Evil is not inexhaustible. It is not infinite. It is not worthy of a lifetime of attention…. Suffering assumes its place as one among other things. It is not everything. It is not the whole world” (pp. 123ff).Without limits to the suffering, without locating it in place and time and naming it, the sorrow is not open to grace, which Peterson notes operates in history in the actual details of specific events. This has given me words with which to name both the exact things that cause me sorrow and also to name the seemingly irresistible darkness that threatens to overtake me at times. When sorrow is specific, when it is shared, it is not infinite, not everything, not the whole world. And when it is shared, it saves me from mercilessly blaming myself for its presence—something I do so completely and from such deep habit I hardly realize it. I need all these truths so much: accept the tears; name the sorrow but know its limits; it's not your fault.
I don’t know if these scattered words are enough to explain the deep effect this has had on me—is still having on me. I am trying both to be sad and at the same time to not be overwhelmed by darkness. The prayer of my heart comes best from Frederick Buechner in The Hungering Dark (p. 125):
“Lord Jesus Christ,
Help us not to fall in love with the night that covers us but through the darkness to watch for you as well as to work for you; to dream and hunger in the dark for the light of you. Help us to know that the madness of God is saner than men and that nothing God has wrought in this world was ever possible.
Give us back the great hope again that the future is yours, that not even the world can hide you from us forever, that at the end the One who came will come back in power to work joy in us stronger even than death. Amen.”