April 17, 2012

Other people's heartache

Several years ago I kept up with the forums on a home schooling web-site.  One woman there, particularly literary and articulate, already had her own blog, which I visited from time to time.  I got to thinking this morning about her, and her mothering and writing journeys, and I thought I'd check in with her blog.  I googled its name, and the helpful search suggestions included this:  "[blog name] son death."  What?  This woman is a complete stranger to me apart from her writing, but I know that she has -- had -- a son and two younger daughters.  My heart was in my throat.  I had to know what had happened.

I remember reading about her son, who was so bright and curious.  When he was yet a young teen he was studying Shakespeare deeply.  His life seemed to hold such promise.  I could not believe he could be dead.

And the mother.  Her grief.

I cried.

I want to believe I'm crying for her, but really, I'm afraid I'm crying for me.  What gripped me was this:  If it happened to her, it could happen to me.  This is the thing that, of all possible things, I least want to confront.  One of my children could die before I do.  I can avoid the thought much of the time, but here it was, before my eyes.  Her child died.  Mine could too.

I think this is why it's tempting to avoid other people's heartaches.  Someone loses a loved one.  I send a card, maybe even go to the funeral.  A week passes, then two, then four.  I'm done, and I want my friend to be done too.  Move on.  Let's get back to living.

But grief does not work that way.  Not at all.  My own experience is that it comes and goes for years, probably forever.  I was shopping for a birthday gift for my son last week. The woman behind the counter said, off-handedly, "My daughter turns 44 next week." I turn 45 this week, and my mother is nowhere that she can tell a stranger. I didn't expect it, but suddenly, there I was, with a catch in my throat and tears in my eyes, although this will be my 12th birthday since my mother's death.

In truth, it is easy for me to cry along with somebody else, easier than it is for me to cry for myself.  My kids will tell you that I can scarcely get through reading aloud without something choking me up, whether it's Wilbur's goodbye to Charlotte or Harry's noble speech to Voldemort. 
But I know that my own private sympathy is not enough.  I could cry for this mother and her son and their family this morning and move on with my day, get back to living.  They become for me an outlet for self-satisfaction, reassuring me that I have a heart.  I don't know for sure, but it looked to me like this young man died a soldier's death.  I hate to admit the relief I felt, because now I can see his death at a remove from my life.  I don't have a soldier son.

This is not entering in but holding myself apart.

A lot of people see God as dwelling at this same sort of remove from our griefs.  God sits in some faraway heaven, looking on, detached from our suffering.  It's the basis from which people ask how a good and omnipotent God can allow humans to suffer so.  And if it were not for the incarnation and the cross, it would be a very good question.

In Jesus, God demonstrates once, for all, that he does not nor ever has sat apart from us in our suffering.  He does not wipe away a tear and then move on.  He enters in.  Our grief becomes his grief.  He takes on our life entire. 

Second Corinthians 5:21 says, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."  I often try to grapple with what that means.  What I know is that it is a direct rebuttal to the idea that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.  All is clearly not right, which is the evidence that sin is still at work.  And God did not stay in his heaven, but instead immersed himself entirely in our condition, which is to be battered on all sides by the suffering that sin produces.  The consequence of all this is that sin itself and the suffering that attends it is transformed. 

By means of the Spirit, we are called to participate in this saving work.  Am I willing to go all the way with you in your sin and your suffering?  Am I willing to stand by you not just for days but for weeks and months and years?  Am I willing to remain when it hurts me, because your suffering becomes my own?

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