Advent Reflection – To Love is to Hurt

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” CS Lewis – The Four Loves


It’s early Monday morning and the house is dark and quiet. I wake up slightly anxious with what I know to be a Monday morning dread. I turn our Christmas tree lights on as watchful cats curl up on the couch, nocturnal beasts carefully observing all around them.

It has been a full weekend. Baking, cleaning, readying our home for an annual open house to reconnect with friends from our different worlds; introducing dear friends to Eritrean food; connecting with our younger daughter over delightfully shallow Hallmark Christmas movies.

It all crashed down on me well after I was supposed to be in bed and asleep. Despite the full weekend of connecting, I’m caught in a vice-like grip of worry for those I love. Crashing against a tired body was a tired heart, a heart lost in tears that quickly dried leaving salt on my cheeks, only to come again with more force.

And it came to me again, like it has thousands of times in the past, to love is to hurt. To love my kids is to hurt for their pain, to rage at some of their choices, to delight in their successes, to weep at their tragedies. To love my adopted country means to weep that terrorists attacked a church, killing and wounding the innocent. To love my dad means to hurt that he is gone. To love my friends means to share in their trouble, to laugh in their joy. To love means to get tired from caring, to feel weary from listening. To love is to hurt.

During my childhood, I often heard about the disease called leprosy or Hansen’s Disease. This disease is not well-known, but growing up in Pakistan, I knew that there were places called leper colonies – places to quarantine those with leprosy. The disease carried a huge stigma and much was unknown about both causes and treatment of leprosy. The main thing I knew about leprosy was that the nerves were damaged and affected people’s ability to feel pain. Since they couldn’t feel pain, they would end up with sores and burns on their bodies, particularly their feet and hands.

Even as a little girl, through knowing about leprosy, I knew that pain was a good thing. Pain was a signal that the body’s nerves were working. 

I think about this as I think about the pain that I feel when those I love hurt. I think about the pain that God feels when his creation suffers and hurts.

Despite the tears, despite the inability to ‘fix’ things, despite the paralysis that often comes with these feelings, I will pick the pain of love every time, because I know the numb apathy of an ice-cold heart and ultimately that is far more damaging. This pain I feel is proof that my heart is alive, alive with God-given feeling; proof that my life is full, full of people and places that I love.

This pain is proof that I desperately need God. God, who reaches through pain and worry with a promise of redemption. God, who takes sleepless nights with tears and turns them into joy in the morning.

This pain is proof that I need Advent, I need the coming. I need the incarnation. I need to know that God became man to walk where we walked, to know our pain, to comfort us in the dark of night and in the light of day.

I need to know that my tears are heard, my heart is known, my pain is valued. 

On Friday, I read this from Ann Voskamp, and on this Monday morning when reality bites a little harder than it did yesterday, I leave it with you:


“You are not forgotten. You are not abandoned. You are not alone. 

Because he says to everyone with their unspoken broken: Come. 

He says to the unlikely: Beloved

He says to the weary: Rest

In a brokenhearted and beautiful world, His grace is the only pillowed relief for the tired soul to rest in this season — making all broken things into resurrected things.”Ann Voskamp

Information Overload and the Cost of Caring

 

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Confession – as I read or listen to the news I am not feeling much of anything besides tiredness and incompetence. I am embarrasingly disconnected as I watch flooded streets and homes in Texas.

My husband and I were talking about this over the weekend, about our inability to care about everything we hear about; about our ability to self-select newstories and situations that we care about and dismiss the rest. As I filter through news stories I want to care about every tragedy, but it turns out I don’t have the emotional capacity to do that and remain sane.

In the 1950’s a new word made it into our lexicon of trauma related diagnoses. The word was “Compassion Fatigue” and was first seen in nurses. As a nurse, it makes sense to me that we were the people who first displayed a tendency towards these symptoms.  The symptoms included negativity, lessening of compassion, tiredness, and feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and inadequacy for the job at hand. It was the ‘cost of caring’.

The word has evolved over time and is often called ‘Disaster Fatigue’. Used by the media and donor organizations to describe the response to tragedies and world events over time, it gives an accurate picture without having to be explained.  Events that have such massive implications that our brains can’t quite take it in and our responses show a disconnect between what we see and hear and how our hearts and bank accounts respond.

If I list off the events that have happened even in the last month, I know immediately why I have compassion/disaster fatigue. News and events transport us from Syria to Charlottesville to Houston and back again. Every aspect of human need has been affected. The need for shelter, security, food, safety, and the list goes on so that self-actualization seems laughable. The pain and shock of people and nations are felt across oceans and continents creating a sort of secondary trauma zone. How much am I capable of caring about before I move into the disaster fatigue zone? Not very much, it turns out.

Added to this are the things that might not affect the world, but they affect me and my extended family. Family tragedies and crises that make me cry out to God in the night, begging for strength and help for those that I love.

We are overloaded and our minds can’t handle the overload. This in turn leads to apathy, despair, and callous hearts. To compensate, we often update our social media status, just to prove that we really do care, and we expect others to do the same. It’s like wearing a badge of honor; a status symbol of caring.

In the book Amusing Ourselves to Death, the author Neil Postman describes what he calls the “low information to action ration”. He links this concept back to the invention of the telegraph. Before the telegraph people received information that was relevant to their lives, information over which they had a measure of control. After the telegraph, people received information from miles away, information that they could do nothing about. News of wars and tragedies from across the world began to take central stage, while local news took a back page. “the local and the timeless … lost their central position in newspapers, eclipsed by the dazzle of distance and speed … Wars, crimes, crashes, fires, floods—much of it the social and political equivalent of Adelaide’s whooping coughs—became the content of what people called ‘the news of the day'” (pp. 66–67). So a “low information to action ratio” refers to the sense of helplessness we have when faced with information that we can do nothing about.

As Tish Warren says in an excellent article We are small people who, for the most part, live quiet lives, but we have access to endless stories of pain and brokenness.” 

I have been learning something about information overload and the cost of caring over these past years. I have found that I have to exit the noise. I cannot sustain the information overload. It renders me useless in every day life.

despite my huge limitations, a quiet place of contemplation and prayer are far more valuable than distraction and overload

When I give myself permission to exit the noise, when I allow myself to move to a place of quiet, I become healthier and more compassionate. In that quiet space I become far more able to see that despite my huge limitations, a quiet place of contemplation and prayer are far more valuable than distraction and overload.  “Think about it, Mom” says my son “prayer is the highest form of empathy, the greatest act of compassion.” He is wise beyond his years.

Prayer leads me to a reliance on a God who “will not grow tired or weary, and whose understanding no one can fathom” and in the comfort of those age-old words, I can lose the guilt and rely on a never-ending resource of compassion and strength, available to all in crisis.

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. Isaiah 40:28

On Lost Cats and Lost Kids

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“Tigger! Tigger!”

It is around nine at night and I am half way home when I hear the call. A mom is slowly walking up the street, two mournful kids trailing behind. Every few steps they call out “Tigger! Tigger!”

“Oh!” I stop. “Are you looking for a kitty?”

“Yes,” the mom replies. “She seems to be missing.”

“I’m so sorry. What does she look like? I’ll keep my eyes open for her.”

The little girl’s eyes fill with tears.

“She’s black with white paws and a white patch on her body.”

This cat is clearly a beloved part of the family. And she is missing.

I find myself unreasonably affected by this sorrow; this grief associated with a missing cat, a stranger’s missing cat no less.

But I know exactly why. 


I am returning home from watching the screening of a film called I Am Jane Doe. 
This film is a documentary that exposes the world of underage sex trafficking and tells the courageous (and ongoing) story of mothers and daughters who have come forward to take on the big business that supports online trafficking. It a legal battle against wealthy men and a misinterpretation of a law that protects freedom of speech on the internet at the cost of the lives of kids. The law was created in 1996 when the internet was a baby, and no one would conceive of the evil and exploitation that it could and would generate. At one point in the film the statement is made that it is more difficult to sell a motorcycle online than it is to sell a kid.

The film is gripping and poignant. One moment I find myself in a rage against the evil of both the industry and the justice system; the next moment I tear up as I listen to a teenager talk about being raped over and over again.

The statistics are profoundly disturbing. There are over 450,000 entries for missing children in the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children data base. Of those, one in five are likely sex trafficked. Approximately two-thirds of these children are trafficked online, primarily through a website that sells furniture, instruments, and bicycles. Young girls and boys are manipulated and forced into the nightmare of sex trafficking by men and women who are masters at deceiving and recruiting. It’s horrifying and it’s nauseating. And it is happening in a city near you. I guarantee it. 

I leave the theatre deeply disturbed. The statistics and stories wake me up to an area of which I have only a peripheral knowledge. The lives of those in the film are forever changed because of actions of evil, greedy people. Yet, for all the evil present, there was the profound hope represented in all those who had come forward to fight against this wrong. From brave parents to lawyers that will not give up, there is a fight to end this wrong.

Lost cats and lost kids in a world that repeatedly chooses exploitation and money over humanity.Tweet: Lost cats and lost kids in a world that repeatedly chooses exploitation and money over humanity.

I have all this on my mind when I hear the low call of a mom and her kids looking for a lost cat. It is dark and the streetlights seem dim. Sounds of a summer night in the city are all around us.

It feels poignantly connected. Lost cats and lost kids in a world that repeatedly chooses exploitation and money over humanity. I feel a bit silly connecting the two. A lost cat is nothing compared to the agony of a lost kid. I am well aware of this, yet still I feel sad. It’s all too much.

I remember the beginning of the beautiful book The End of Suffering. The author, Scott Cairns, is grieving over the death of two dogs, and this is his starting point for writing about suffering. His words poignantly describe what I’m currently feeling.

The graves of two dogs may seem to some to be a relatively poor starting point—maybe even, to some, an insulting starting point—for this sort of inquiry. I hope not. I would never mean to equate the loss of a dog—or even the loss of two very good dogs—with every other occasion of human suffering. 

Still, I will not discount how hard, how sharp, even this loss remains—and how puzzling. It’s the puzzlement, frankly, that makes even this current, specific grief remind me more generally of other grief, of other painful occasions, and of our overall predicament. 

In any case, as I shovel and as I weep over my big sweet dogs, I wince off and on, a little embarrassed that in a world where each newscast and newspaper brings new images of heart-wrenching human tragedy, I continue to be so broken up over losing my dogs. 

My only defense for the moment will have to be that these really were extraordinarily good dogs. And they loved me. 

They were Labradors, no less. 

Big yellow Labradors. 

Innocent as rain.*


I am nearing my own home. The sparkling white lights on the porch that glow all year round, challenging conventional wisdom that says they are for the Christmas season alone, beckon me to warmth and safety; beckon me to the haven I call home. I sigh as I walk up the stairs. I think of the mom grieving her lost girl; I think of the little girl on the street, earnestly looking for her lost kitty. I do hope they find Tigger.


*From The End of Suffering by Scott Cairns

“Just Your Presence”

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A beautiful article in the Boston Globe today tells the story of a woman who is dying. She invited her friends over for a luncheon, a chance to celebrate while she still had life. One of the friends verbalized her feelings of awkwardness and helplessness in the face of her friend’s suffering. As she did so, the woman who was dying looked up at her and said this:

“There’s only one thing we really want,” she said gently. “We just want for you to be here with us. Just your presence.”*

Through the years, I have thought a lot about a theology of suffering, and the ‘fellowship’ of suffering.

Most of us struggle awkwardly in the face of pain and suffering. We don’t know what to do. We are afraid to say the wrong thing. We feel embarassed, don’t want to make the situation worse. And so we avoid suffering; and when we avoid suffering, we avoid those who suffer. Because there are many things that cause suffering, we sometimes end up avoiding the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the displaced.

We subconsciously reason that we can’t do anything anyway. We can’t change the situation, and we don’t want people to feel worse, so we avoid them all together. C.S. Lewis in his classic and beautiful book A Grief Observed talks about becoming an embarassment to his friends.

“An odd by-product of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t.”

A few years ago, as I was thinking about suffering and a theology of suffering, I wrote the following:

it’s too much for you to bear, but I will sit with you, I won’t leave you alone.

There is something about suffering that longs for someone to sit with us, to sit with us through the pain. It’s the fellowship of suffering. It’s the words ‘you are not alone’ put into action. The sitting bears witness to our pain. More than a card or a casserole the familiar, patient presence of another says to us “it’s too much for you to bear, but I will sit with you, I won’t leave you alone.”

So often we want to move people through the process of pain, suffering, and healing at our own pace, on our own terms. We want to impose our own schedule on the process of pain in another. We want to make pain and suffering controllable, manageable. Why is that?

Perhaps we feel helpless in the presence of the pain of others. We are not in control. We would do anything we can to make it all okay. But we can’t. We can’t make the pain okay. We can’t explain away suffering, and when we try, we tend to make up reasons for suffering. We end up forcing bad theology on people. A theology of suffering that has to have answers, instead of a fellowship of suffering that simply needs the presence of another. We speak too soon and our words are the salt in an already terrible wound.

Like the doctor or midwife that walks a woman through labor, not hurrying it along, aware that the body has to move through each stage to have a successful outcome, so it is with suffering.

The fullness of our presence can offer hope and comfort, and so we must not leave people alone. This is the fellowship of suffering. 

“If your friend is sick and dying, the most important thing he wants is not an explanation; he wants you to sit with him. He is terrified of being alone more than anything else. So God has not left us alone. And for that, I love him”**


If you are interested in reading a post that speaks to what not to say to people who are suffering, take a look at Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis. 

*Cancer Brings it Home

**from interview of Lee Strobel with Peter Kreeft, Boston College

Loneliness and the Jesus Prayer 

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I lay on my back in a sterile room, a fancy xray machine above and around me. I am with complete strangers, entrusting myself to their care and expertise. The burgundy hospital gown I wear is a shapeless piece of cloth, fashioned not for beauty but for practicality.

I am alone and I feel vulnerable. While I trust the strangers in the work they do, they know nothing about me other than my name, my age, and my insurance carrier. Other than that, I am an anonymous body in a big system.

They don’t know that I woke up this morning thinking about my beautiful grandson and the daughter who is his mom; they don’t know that I am thinking about my parents and how aging is not for the weak, not for cowards. They have no idea that I have five children whom I would give my life for; that not a day goes by without me thinking about them and praying for their hearts and souls.

They know nothing about me beyond this procedure.

These strangers are kind, they try and make me as comfortable as possible. They explain every step of what they will do and try and buoy me with their confidence.

In the big scheme of things, this whole procedure is small. The pain is nothing in comparison to other pain that I’ve felt. It’s just that the feelings it evokes are big.

Somehow, it feels like this pain represents the pain of my world, the pain that so many I know are experiencing. It represents physical and emotional pain. It represents the deep loneliness that many live in every day. It represents the isolation within which so many live and die.

Sociologists claim that social isolation is now endemic in American society. The number of adults who claim they are lonely is double what it was in the 1980s. This affects the overall health and wellbeing of millions of people. Both physical and emotional pain are intensified by loneliness. We are hard-wired for human connection and when that is missing, we suffer.

All this I think about as I lay, watching a stranger busily prepare for a medical procedure.

I’m alone in the room now. They say they will be back soon. The Jesus Prayer is on my lips: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. 

There is something about this prayer, something that reminds me that all this loneliness and pain I am feeling for the world is not my burden to bear. It is too big and it would quite literally kill me. I slowly release it, offering it up to the unseen but fully present God that I trust.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on me. And so it is.

Depression and the Third Culture Kid

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Six years ago I entered the office of my primary care doctor and burst into tears. I sobbed until I could not sob anymore. I sobbed until all that was left was a broken soul and no more tears. When I left the office that day, I left with red eyes, a red nose, and the exhaustion that comes with absolute honesty. I also left with a prescription for an antidepressant.

It was my friend Carol who finally insisted that I go. Carol knows what it is to be sad. She also knows what it is when the sadness goes one step farther than it should; when no matter how good life is and how sunny the day is, you still cry. She saw all the signs in me that told her I was not okay.

I had moved two years before from a beautiful home in Phoenix, Arizona to a crowded apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The move was one of the hardest I have ever gone through. Not as difficult as moving from Cairo to a small town in Massachusetts, but almost. I moved less than a week before Christmas and that Christmas saw all seven of us huddled around a tree, with me trying to push aside my feelings of loss and  isolation. I had done moves before, of course this one would end up being fine – at least that’s what I kept telling myself.

But there was something about moving back to a place that held such pain in the past that burrowed into my psyche. I wasn’t okay, only it would take me a long time to figure it out.

It wasn’t that Phoenix was perfect, it was just that there was something about the visceral response I experienced to the hot weather and the desert landscape. Even on my difficult days, my body felt at home. While I missed extended family in the Northeast, I felt more at home in the Southwest than I had ever felt in other parts of the United States. I don’t know why, it just happened. In Arizona, I no longer felt the pressure to succeed, to “pull up my bootstraps, and make it.” Instead, I was able to relax and somehow “become.” For the first time, I felt that I might be able to adjust to life in the United States.

All that changed as we headed back to Massachusetts. Suddenly, I was a little third culture kid again, a kid who was insecure and didn’t know how to live and make her way in her passport country.

I have never spoken openly about my depression. In fact, this piece is the first piece I’ve ever written about the dark feelings that threatened to consume me. But I can’t help believing that there is an intersection between being an adult third culture kid and the sadness that led me to seek help. I think other things played into it as well — the accumulation of all the moves that I had navigated; the slow release of my children into the world as adults; the sense of inadequacy as a parent who could no longer kiss away tears, who instead spent sleepless nights of prayer that her children would be okay. But along with that was the ever-present “Where do I really fit? Who am I? How long will it take before I actually function well in this country?”

No matter what else was going on, those last three questions were floating around, never really answered.

I was not aware at the time of the complex grief, the convergence of multiple losses, that is a part of the TCK experience. I was not aware of the frozen sadness of ambiguous loss that was a part of me. I would dismiss my feelings, angrily casting them aside as unimportant. After all, I reasoned, I know hundreds of people in far worse circumstances than me and they are coping, they are living well despite those circumstances.

This was singularly unhelpful. All it did was add guilt to my feelings, making them even more complex.

When I walked out of the doctor’s office that day six years ago, I felt a sense of relief. I was finally willing to admit that I couldn’t do this alone, that there was a chemical imbalance that threatened to undo me.

Three weeks after beginning treatment I felt like a new person. It was still winter, it was still cold, and the reasons for my sadness were still present. But I had a new found ability to cope and work through some of my grief. A few months later, I began writing and found yet another way to express and face past grief. I began seeing some of the beauty that surrounded me, began experiencing life in the cities of Cambridge and Boston with joy and thankfulness.

Slowly, I began to heal. There is some pain in our bodies that takes a long time to heal. Burns take a long time. Surgery takes a long time. Bad wounds take a long time. Physical wound healing is a dynamic process. It’s a process that involves a series of  stages or phases – and it’s not necessarily straight forward. We don’t take great strides toward healing, we inch toward it.

This is what I have found in the emotional and spiritual healing that I have needed as a third culture kid. As much as I would like to have pain erased and memories not ache my soul, this does not happen quickly. I did not take leaps and bounds toward healing, I inched my way forward until one day I realized, I was in a better place.

Why did it take me so long? I don’t know the answer to that. What I do know is that I had a misguided theology and view of pain. If I admitted the pain, I reasoned, than I would no longer be the advertisement that I erroneously thought I needed to be as a well-adjusted adult third culture kid. I would no longer be able to sneer at the naysayers, telling them I didn’t know what they were talking about: My life was fine, thank you very much.

What I have realized is this: My honesty is a greater gift to the third culture kid community than my false illusion of wellness. My ability to write truth, grateful for the good, struggling with the hard, but being so glad for the experiences I’ve had and the places I have lived, is a much better connector then my false advertising ever will be.

I don’t know who you are, or what drew you to read this today, but what I do know is this: Help comes in many different ways. Sometimes it’s a person with whom you can share your soul; sometimes it’s a counselor with whom you can work through the hard; sometimes it’s a parent who can guide you and hold you; sometimes it’s a priest or pastor who can direct you to spiritual truth. And sometimes, it’s a small purple pill that a brilliant medical researcher discovered that helps you achieve chemical balance in your mind.

And for all these, I am grateful.

Resources: 

Shards of Glass


  
Last Monday, after a lot of thinking, I wrote a post to Franklin Graham. Graham had made a public statement that I felt was deeply hurtful and out of line. I wrote it in defense of many of my friends. It ended up being shared far more than I anticipated, largely because some kind friends with more influence than me passed it on.

The more it was shared, the more comments I received, and the more I had to screen the comments.

I was up for it – after all, I had written it, published it publicly, and I needed to take ownership of what I had written. That’s what grown-ups do.

But grown-ups also need to know their boundaries. They need to know that a personal web site is not a democracy. Everyone doesn’t get to have their comments published. So when comments were rude, when they were ad hominem attacks toward me or my Muslim friends, when they simply criticized and did not add to the discussion, I deleted them from my email. They never saw the blog site. They were extinguished.

I thought I was doing well. We had a blueberry pancake breakfast as a family. I began cleaning a kitchen cupboard, with hopes of ridding our kitchen of some pesky moths.

And then a can fell onto two of my favorite wine glasses that were resting on the counter, and suddenly I was a mess. Shards of glass were everywhere, and tears blurred my vision. I loved the wine glasses – they were purchased during our last trip to Egypt, a time when Egypt was deep in the stress of a post uprising chaos. But my tears felt way more powerful than grieving a mere material thing. As I swept up the shards, I suddenly knew why.

I realized that those comments felt like shards of glass to my soul, to my heart.

My son came to help. “You okay, mom?” He asked the question with compassion.  This child is child of my heart. He knows these things. I nodded my head but kept my face down.

Shards of glass at the ready. Shards that cut and hurt. Shards with potential to destroy. That’s what we are like – ready to attack with shards of glass when we disagree, instead of  grace and careful words. We humans are a passionate people about our own views. All of us, whether we choose to comment or not. And our passion can be good, but when it contains shards of glass, we intend for it to hurt. We want to destroy with our words.

So we swept up shards of glass together, and I said the Jesus Prayer. Because in truth, that’s the only thing preventing me from piercing others with shards of my own.