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Living in Tension

Living in Tension

This morning I made coffee, as I do every morning, and then fetched the morning paper, which tells you that I have not entirely adapted to the paperless internet. It was still dark outside. Walking toward the mailbox, I glanced at the eastern sky to catch a glimpse of the first morning light. I spotted the planet Venus, the last light of the night still shining in the sky. It was so big and bright that it seemed almost out of place, far more brilliant than any star.

I paused, stared, and smiled. Venus is showing off, I said to myself. She is strutting her stuff, contending with Jupiter and Mars as the first among equals in the firmament. Gustav Holst would be pleased.1

I returned to the warmth of my house, settled into my Amish rocking chair, and sipped my first cup of coffee as I prayed over the day in the stillness of the early morning. At that moment life was peaceful, the world beautiful, and the silence as fresh as the morning air.

I talked with my sister, Diane, later in the morning. She reported that her grandson Jude — my grandnephew — was just diagnosed with osteosarcoma, the technical term for bone cancer. He is eighteen years old. He had just begun his first year at Whitworth University, the school where I taught for thirty years. He was planning to play football. After hearing the news, his mother — my niece — came to pick him up. He is now a patient at Seattle Children’s Hospital, facing months of chemo and at least one major surgery. Even the best prognosis promises less than a return to normal life, at least as he knew it before. His life hangs in the balance, unutterably and irreversibly changed.
Every day I live in this tension — Venus in the early morn- ing sky and the diagnosis of cancer in a young man. Beauty and pain. Glory and agony. Transcendence and terror. Hope and sorrow. It fills me with wonder, confusion, and fear. I can hardly make sense of it.

In the first months and years after the accident, it felt like I was standing at the base of a huge mountain of pure pain. The sheer magnitude of it threatened to crush me, as if it were about to collapse on me at any moment and bury me under a landslide of despair.

But I discovered over time that the threat never became reality. Instead of cowering — a natural and understandable impulse, to be sure — I decided to explore the mountain, however imposing, and to discover what I could. I learned a great deal about myself over the months and years that followed.

Now, thirty years later, I still see that mountain. It is the same size, same shape, same height — just as big as it was before. My experience of loss and suffering is the same too. It is no smaller than it was before. But the mountain is farther away now, which means my eyes see more. That one mountain, once so foreboding and intimidating, is situated in a larger landscape of experience and memory. I see so much goodness around me; I also see so much agony. I relish the goodness; I tremble before the agony.

So much beauty and so much pain. Neither has lessened in intensity. If anything, the opposite is the case. Shock no longer dulls my senses and erodes my sensibilities. Life keeps coming at me, like snow flying at my windshield while driving on a winter night.

I am learning to live in that tension and embrace the paradox. Beauty is all around me. I am training my eyes to see it and my soul to absorb it. Yes, life is good. My kids are adults now, all married and with children. I see them often, and I enjoy our shared life together. I remarried ten years ago. I treasure Patricia, the woman I married. She is pure gift to me, as are her two daughters, their husbands, and their children.

There is beauty in this world. It is everywhere.

But suffering is all around me too.

Every day I see it or hear about it and sometimes experience it firsthand. It never goes away. Since the accident, I have known countless people, many close friends, who have died of cancer, who have grieved over wayward children, who have endured the pain and shame of divorce, who have faced the horror of a loved one’s suicide, who have broken the law and now languish in prison, who have left or lost jobs and have not been able to find new ones, who have struggled with mental illness. The list is endless. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn.”2 The verb is not in the past tense. Mourning has become a way of life for me.

There is pain in this world. It, too, is everywhere.

Beauty and pain. I live with both. I live in both. I am not sure there is another way. This tension is true to life. God created the world good. But something has gone terribly wrong. Human rebellion set off a chain reaction that led to brokenness, alienation, betrayal, and suffering. Such is the world in which we live. Such is the tension in which we must live.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke captured this tension as well as anyone in “Go to the Limits of Your Longing”:

God speaks to each of us as God makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.3

1. British composer Gustav Holst (1874–1934) is best known for his orchestral composition The Planets. The work consists of seven movements, one for each planet, except for Earth (Pluto had not been discovered yet). He tried to capture the essence of each planet according to ancient mythology—hence the movement devoted to Mars sounds warlike, the movement to Jupiter is kingly, and the movement to Venus is rapturous.
2. Matthew 5:4.
3. “Geh bis an Deiner Sehnsucht Rand/Go to the Limits of
Your Longing,” from Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, translation copyright © 1996 by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (p. 119). Used by permission of Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

Excerpted with permission from A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser, copyright Gerald L. Sittser.

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Your Turn

Don’t miss the beauty! Yes, we live in the tension. It’s all around us. But, in the middle of the hardship and suffering, there is also loveliness, and joy, and moments of sweetness that we can miss if we’re not watchful and careful. Don’t miss them! Embrace them! Come share your thoughts with us. We want to hear from you. ~ Laurie McClure, Faith.Full