The healthiest, most wholehearted people I know are the ones who have suffered, who have lost, who have wrestled, who have pushed back up to the surface. I thought that getting fired from a job I loved was my reckoning — the thing that would break my addiction to security and control. It did and it didn’t. I thought that our interminable stretch of miscarriages and infertility would tenderize me in deep ways, forge in me a deep peace, even in suffering. It did and it didn’t.
You may be clinging to the past because it feels familiar and safe. But it’s gone, and you can’t go back. I’m sorry. I know. I tried too.
You may be heartbroken and lonely because the people you thought you’d walk through all your life with have walked away from you. I’m sorry. I know.
- You have to fight your way back up. There’s no other option.
I’m sorry about that too. You don’t have the choice you think you have — I know, because I wanted to give up and choose weakness about a thousand times, conservatively.
When we’ve experienced a great loss, often we say we’re sad — we’re grieving or mourning — but what bubbles out of us like a volcano is anger: hot, volatile, explosive anger. Anger is active, powerful; it buoys us along and gives us something to do and focus on and sharpen. Anger makes us feel like we’re in control again, because loss is, at its core, loss of control, or the myth of it anyway — I couldn’t keep that person alive. I couldn’t make them stay. I couldn’t fix our problems. I couldn’t save whatever it is that was broken.
Grief involves the terrifying sense of being out of control, and anger gives us back the feeling of control — it’s not accurate but it’s familiar, and it feels a whole lot better than the tenderness and emptiness of sadness. If anger is active and powerful, grief and sadness are tender, vulnerable. Anger puts us back in the power position, while grief lays us bare, like letting our- selves lie down on a sidewalk, knowing we could get stepped on, crushed. Grief gives up the pretense of control. It’s lonely and quiet and submitted to the enormity of what has been lost, like being underwater. For most of us, anger is more familiar — and much safer.
A question though: If you take a long look at your anger, might there be grief underneath it, like a small child hiding behind a warrior? When it comes down to it, it takes more bravery to be sad than to be angry, but anger is a way of self-protecting — an armor we sometimes choose when sadness feels too scary.
I have felt so much anger the last couple years, and it’s mostly anger that someone else has changed my life — I’ve had to make choices according to a reality that’s not of my choosing... and it certainly speaks to the enormous privilege of my life that this is a foreign feeling to me. Because of my privilege, I’ve been able to make my own choices, or the choices that have been made for me have benefited me tremendously. Until now.
So the anger manifests itself as fury because I feel out of control, but if I sit with the anger for a little while, if I let it teach me, if I get down on the floor with it the way you would a suspicious cat, over time the cat reveals itself to be not a lion but a kitten — brokenhearted, fragile, small. I find my fragile grief, masquerading as powerful anger. I’m sad that this is a plot point I have to incorporate into the story of my life. That’s the heart of it. I don’t want this part. I want to stick my fingers in my ears like a child. I want to lock the door against it.
You can’t be a part of my story.
Under the anger, there’s the soft belly of grief. Beautiful things have been broken, like the snapping of a branch. My heart believes in forgiveness — indeed, forgiveness has become increasingly central to my own spiritual practice and health.
One way you realize you’re healing: For a while, what you’ve suffered is the biggest thing you can imagine. In your pain and suffering, you twist reality around your own wound and you see the whole world through the lens of your pain. For a time, what you’re facing really is the biggest, ugliest, cruelest thing that anyone could ever be allowed to experience. And then over time, as you fight to heal, as you move forward, one foot in front of the other over and over again, you begin once again to see other people’s losses as weighty and real — as real, even, as what you’ve lost.
This is good. This is healing. Your pain is being rightsized — still real and still tender and still awful, but not the biggest, hardest thing in all the world. You start to have the emotional energy to offer to other people in empathy, seeing what they’re carrying instead of hoarding up all your resources for the cavern of your own loss.
- Empathy is a sister to compassion.
It’s a willing cracking open of the heart, over and over, an intentional tenderness of spirit. It takes discipline and bravery to practice empathy — it’s far easier to demonize the other when we focus on the differences and the distances, when we separate people into us versus them.
- Empathy is what allows us to be gracious with our kids in those quarantine moments when they’re driving us up every wall — because they didn’t choose this either, because their lives have been upended too, because they’re lonely and scared too.
- Empathy is when white people listen to the stories and experiences of their Black friends — without defensiveness, without trying to distance or absolve themselves from white supremacy or systemic racism.
- Empathy is choosing to see what connects us all — our common humanity. Our common resolve as well as our common fragility, our common grief and terror and exhaustion as well as our common hope and joy and delight.
- Empathy is when we see another person’s needs and longings as clearly as we see our own, when we feel another person’s wounds and scars as if they were wounds and scars on our very own body, our very own skin. Empathy stitches us together when a thousand loud things act as seam rippers, shredding the fabric of our connectedness. Empathy simply picks up a needle and begins stitching again — together, together, together.
When I read the Bible, I read story after story of love, of redemption, of subverting the status quo in order to love more deeply and powerfully.
Jesus is a surprising and almost shocking Person — one who breaks boundaries and rules in order to love people who haven’t been loved by the world around them.
That’s what it means to be a Christian — to model your life after Jesus, the One who embodies love. Jesus did not preserve boundaries and traditions at the expense of humans. He valued humans at the expense of previously held boundaries and traditions.
Christlikeness is, at its core, about love — a brave, muscular, boundary-breaking love for all people, a commitment to human thriving on every level. I believe that calling myself a Christian means living up to Christ’s example of brave, sometimes shocking love.
Excerpted with permission from I Guess I Haven’t Learned That Yet by Shauna Niequist, copyright Shauna Niequist.
* * *
You have undoubtedly experienced grief and anger over the last few years unlike any other time, right? It’s been an unprecedented period, hasn’t it? And yet, Jesus calls us to love others and empathize with them. How can we do that today? Come share with us. We want to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to you today. ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full