I have had two moments of discovery in the last few days. One came from something I read and the other insight emerged from looking back on experiences of a couple of years ago.
Why try? I read something recently that touched a nerve. I am not exactly sure why it did. Guesses include the frustration of returning to last year’s unrealized first-of-year intentions as I look ahead to 2013 and then the seeming futility in trying to deal with society’s penchant for violence so horrifyingly displayed in recent weeks. What I read used the Artist Vincent Van Gogh as an example of someone with the resilience to endure in the face of the demons that persecuted him all his life, determined in his last years to rise above them. His life was filled with illness, physical and mental, episodes of depression. He was in and out of an asylum, seeking help to deal with those demons. At one point in frustration he cut off part of his ear to make a statement about friendship.
When looking at those later paintings, the Writer of the article titled “Choose Life” in the journal Weavings [Volume 28, Number 2] was struck not with darkness but light. She was struck with his resilience as he painted scenes with colors that seemed to celebrate all that is good. What kept him alive? What allowed him to endure as long as he did, producing painting after painting, only one of which sold during his lifetime?
He painted Starry Night while at the Asylum. He proclaimed, “For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”
In the article from Weavings, Sister Suzanne Mayer writes:
“In a probing exploration entitled ‘Van Gogh and God’ Cliff Edwards points to a sense of the divine that held the tormented Dutch painter close to the fire of life no matter what dismal circumstances surrounded him. He offers van Gogh’s in-depth theology of an idiomorphic God, a God who like van Gogh is an artist. The artist God, like van Gogh himself, fails in his creations, yet continues to produce.”
I am fascinated by the thought that God continues creating even though what has been created often fails to reflect God’s creative intentions. It encourages me to not to give up trying in the face of recurring failures to realize my intentions.
A friend told me about the sermon he preached on Christmas Eve. In that sermon he referred to this story:
Robert Lewis Stevenson, best known for his adventure story Treasure Island, was in poor health during much of his childhood and youth. One night his nurse found him with his nose pressed against the frosty pane of his bedroom window. “Child, come away from there. You’ll catch your death of cold,” she fussed.
But young Robert wouldn’t budge. He sat, mesmerized, as he watched an old lamplighter slowly working his way through the black night, lighting each street lamp along his route. Pointing, Robert exclaimed, “See; look there; there’s a man poking holes in the darkness.”
In the face of my recurring failures to realize my good intentions, in the face of societal evils that seem hopelessly entrenched, I am, we are free to at least poke holes in the darkness.
Who cares? The second discovery, the insight that popped into my mind last Friday morning was triggered to some extent by a friend’s grieving caused by a complex set of circumstances, circumstances not entirely unlike mine after retiring and then losing Mary Ann. One of the ways I dealt with the pain of losing Mary Ann was to force myself to venture out to be with other people in social settings. My reasoning was that I needed to learn how to be normal again. I needed to be with people who neither knew nor cared that my world had just been completely destroyed. Those settings forced me to pretend to be okay. I needed to pretend because I wasn’t okay. I needed to learn how to be okay again. The setting and the people around me forced me to learn faster than would have happened if I had sat at home waiting to become okay first, before venturing out.
What dawned on me as I thought about this on Friday was that a part of my healing was nurtured by people who didn’t care. That they didn’t care was a gift to me. Don’t misunderstand. There were lots of people who were kind and caring. But had everyone I encountered been understanding and caring, encouraging me to share my grief with them, comforting me, the healing would have come much more slowly. The fact that there were people who cared, who gave me permission to grieve long and hard without judgment, provided the balance needed to be able to manage being with people who didn’t care. Even those who cared the most couldn’t make the pain go away. It was important for me to recognize that the pain could not be carried for me, endured for me by anyone else no matter how much they cared or how much they loved me. The pain was mine and mine alone. Others had their own pain to deal with, my children, their spouses and children, those who had come to love Mary Ann as Friend.
One of the benefits of spending over a year with a Hospice Support group was that we could talk about our pain, listen to others talk about theirs long after anyone else cared to listen. The pain and the grief aren’t done by the time the people around us are done listening to us talk about it. Yes, it helps to have a place where we can express the pain openly and without judgment, but it also helps to have places where the pain needs not to be expressed openly, places where we have to be okay whether we actually are or not.
When I traveled to New Zealand and Australia by myself for two months a little more than a half year after she died, I had to be okay. I often mentioned to those I met that my wife had died a few months earlier. There was usually a moment or two of thoughtful compassion from them. After that, we got on with whatever was happening at the moment. We each had a history that shaped us up to the point of our encounter. The history we were making was at the center of our time together. The grieving I did on that trip happened during in private moments, but the public time was at least as healing.
The story about making holes in the darkness also fits the grief journey. There is nothing that can make the darkness of grief go away in an instant, at least nothing that allows for long term survival and ultimately health and wholeness. As I look back it seems that the journey was about trying to poke holes in the darkness so the light could peek though. It wasn’t so much that I chose life as it was that I rediscovered it.