Susan's Thursday morning note August 20, 2009
A Grace Disguised by Gerald Sittser
Grief (death of family members in an auto accident)
Good morning! I read a book this week called A Grace Disguised by Sittser. He writes on the choices we make after loss in our lives that are irreversible. There is no way I can make this short and write even a fraction of what has given me more encouragement to fully live than any other book yet on loss. He had his 4-year old daughter, wife, and mother all killed in an accident, leaving him a single father with an injured 2-year old, and two elementary children. This is his writing on how to live even through extreme pain. He describes loss as anything irreversible that affects us greatly….
What has happened to me has pressed me to the limit. I have come face to face with the darker side of life and with the weakness of my own human nature. As vulnerable as I feel most of the time, I can hardly call myself a conqueror. If I give the impression I think myself heroic, perfect, or strong, then I give the wrong impression. My experience has only confirmed in my mind how hard it is to face loss and how long it takes to grow form it. But it has also reminded me how meaningful and wonderful life can be, even and especially in suffering.
Chapter 1: The End and the Beginning (You know as well as I there’s more…There’s always one more scene no matter what. Archibald McLeish) He tells here the story of the accident where his mother, wife, and 4-year old daughter were killed.
Chapter 2: Whose Loss is Worse?
Loss is loss, whatever the circumstances. Whose loss is worse? The question begs the point. Each experience of loss is unique, each painful in its own way, each as bad as everyone else’s but also different. No one will ever know the pain I have experienced because it is my own, just as I will never know the pain you may have experienced. What good is quantifying loss? What good is comparing? The right question to ask is not, “Whose is worse?” It is to ask, “What meaning can be gained from suffering, and how can we grow through suffering?” (He discusses irreversible loss as death, suffering, divorce, change in relationships….all are loss)…
Chapter 3: Darkness Closing In
…the quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise. I discovered I had the power to choose the direction my life would head, even if the only choice open to me, at least initially, was either to run from the loss or to face it as best I could. Since I knew that darkness was inevitable and unavoidable, I decided form that point on to walk into the darkness rather than try to outrun it, to let my experience of loss take me on a journey wherever it would lead, and to allow myself to be transformed by my suffering rather than to think I could somehow avoid it. I chose to turn toward the pain, however falteringly, and to yield to the loss, though I had no idea at the time what that would mean.
We do not always have the freedom to choose the roles we just play in life, but we can choose how we are going to play the roles we have been given. Choice is therefore the key. We can run from the darkness, or we can enter into the darkness and face the pain of loss. We can indulge ourselves in self-pity, or we can empathize with others and embrace their pain as our own. We can run away from sorrow and drown it in addictions, or we can learn to live with sorrow. We can nurse wounds of having been cheated in life, or we can be grateful and joyful, even though there seems to be little reason for it. We can return evil for evil, or we can overcome evil with good. It is this power to choose that adds dignity to our humanity and gives us the ability to transcend our circumstances, thus releasing us form living as mere victims. These choices are never easy. Though we can and must make them, we must make them more often than not only after much agony and struggle.
Victor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning (from the concentration camps)…It was this power to choose that kept the prisoners alive. They directed their energies inwardly and paid attention to what was happening in their souls. They learned that tragedy can increase the soul’s capacity for darkness and light, for pleasure as well as for pain, for hope as well as for dejection. The soul contains a capacity to know and love God, to become virtuous, to learn truth, and to live by moral conviction. The soul is elastic, like a balloon. It can grow larger through suffering. Loss can enlarge its capacity for anger, depression, , despair, and anguish, all natural and legitimate emotions whenever we experience loss. Once enlarged, the soul is also capable of experiencing greater joy, strength, peace, and love. What we consider opposites – east and west, night and light, sorrow and joy weakness and strength, anger and love, despair and hope, death and life – are no more mutually exclusive than winter and sunlight. The soul has the capacity to experience these opposites, even at the same time. In choosing to face the night, I took my first steps toward the sunrise.
Chapter 4: The Silent Scream of Pain
Chapter 5: Sailing on a Sea of Nothingness
Deep sorrow often has the effect of stripping life of pretense, vanity, and waste. It forces us to ask basic questions about what is most important in life. Suffering can lead to a simpler life, less cluttered with non-essentials. It is wonderfully clarifying. That is why many people who suffer sudden and severe loss often become different people. They spend more time with their children or spouses, express more affection and appreciation to their friends, show more concern for other wounded people, give more time to a worthy cause, or enjoy more of the ordinariness of life…
Chapter 6: The Amputation of the Familiar Self
…So with the background already sketched in by circumstances beyond my control, I picked up a paintbrush and began, with great hesitation and distress, to paint a new portrait of our lives….Can any person look forward to a life that falls so far short of what he or she had planned, wanted, and expected?
Chapter 7: A Sudden Halt to Business as Usual (Discusses the “gradual destruction of the soul” or “the death of the spirit” as the worse kind of death after loss…the death that comes through guilt, regret, bitterness, hatred, immorality, and despair….The first kind of death happens to us; the second kind of death happens in us. It is a death we bring upon ourselves if we refuse to be transformed by the first death.)
Chapter 8: The Terror of Randomness (He discusses the question of where was God? Why didn’t I leave five minutes earlier or later…what if….why that moment? What is God’s role in “fate”?)
Chapter 9: Why not Me? (On the gifts God has given him throughout his life, including the gift of his own life….My confidence in God is somehow quieter but stronger. I feel little pressure to impress God or prove myself to him; yet I want to serve him with all my heart and strength. My life is full of bounty, even as I continue to feel the pain of loss…I have slowly learned where God belongs and have allowed him to assume that place – at the center of life rather than at the periphery….
Chapter 10: Forgive & Remember…(Forgiveness of many situations…divorce, children, parental pain…forgiveness of who was responsible for an accident…forgiveness of self for not doing what could’ve been done to prevent the loss (health issues in the spouse, etc.)
Chapter 11: The Absence of God
I would have to wrestle with this most complex of issues. If God was really God, where was he when the tragedy occurred? Why did he do nothing? How could God allow such a terrible thing to happen? My suffering forced me to address the problem of God’s sovereignty. I knew I had to make peace with God’s sovereignty, reject God altogether, or settle for a lesser God who laced the power or desire to prevent the accident….Loss may call the existence of God into question. Pain seems to conceal him from us, making it hard for us to believe that there could be a God in the midst of our suffering. In our pain we are tempted to reject God, yet for some reason we hesitate to take that course of action. So we ponder and pray. We move toward God, then away from him…We wrestle in our souls to believe. Finally we choose God, and in the choosing we learn that he has already chose us and has already been drawing us to him…We approach him with hearts that can feel sorrow as well as joy, and wills that can choose against God as well as for him. We decide to be in a relationship with God. And then we discover that God, in his sovereignty, ahs already decided to be in a relationship with us.
(Another great book I read was called Nielse Lyhne by Jens Jacobsen – which follows the life of a young child to his death where sorrow crushed him, and he did not turn to God or walk into the darkness to enter the sunrise after pain…)
Chapter 12: Life Has the Final Word
He discusses here how death is unavoidable (and pain). Sometimes I sink into a sadness that makes me think we will never experience life again. My despondent mood casts a shadow over everything, even on my faith…But then I gain perspective. I remind myself that suffering is not unique to us. It is the destiny of humanity. If this world were the only one there is, then suffering has the final say and all of us are a sorry lot. But generations of faithful Christians have gone before and will come after, and they have believed or will believe in the depths of my soul. That Jesus (therefore resurrection, heaven (where God shall wipe away all our tears) is at the center of it all. Then light gradually dawns once again in my heart, and hope returns. I find reason and courage to keep going and to continue believing. Once again my soul increases its capacity for hope as well as for sadness. I end up believing with greater depth and joy than I had before, even in my sorrow.
Chapter 13: A Community of Brokenness (how we help each other)
Chapter 14: Heritage in a Graveyard
The supreme challenge to anyone facing catastrophic loss (or he defines earlier any loss that is irreversible) involves facing the darkness of the loss on the one hand, and learning to live with renewed vitality and gratitude on the other. This challenge is met when we learn to take the loss into ourselves and to be enlarged by it, so that our capacity to live life well and to know God intimately increases. To escape the loss is far less healthy – and far less realistic, considering how devastating loss can be – than to grow from it. Loss can diminish us, but it can also expand us. It expands, once again, on the choices we make that the grace we receive. Loss can function as a catalyst to transform us. It can lead us to God, the only One who has the desire and power to give us life.
I have already taken out part of what I knew you would like to read. I highly recommend this book for you to give those you know that are going through life changing situations that are irreversible and for yourself….for hope and examples when you experience deep pain. …So with the background already sketched in by circumstances beyond my control, I picked up a paintbrush and began, with great hesitation and distress, to paint a new portrait of our lives….Can any person look forward to a life that falls so far short of what he or she had planned, wanted, and expected? How will we finish our portraits? What painting will we leave for others in our life that are watching us paint? It’s a choice where we lay our paintbrush….our willingness to even pick up the brush…to set it in the colors that give light…to find our sunrise. No matter the darkness….there is a sunrise. You know as well as I there’s more…There’s always one more scene no matter what. (Archibald McLeish). Thank you for letting me type so much for you….I hope you find your sunrise, whatever your story. Drop one foot to your knees, or look up to the heavens…the sunrise is there. I hope you can come into the store anytime you need a place to go – we will have the coffee, water, and quiet. But be careful, you’ll probably leave with a book! Have a great rest of the week. Susan
Latin for this week:
minima maxima sunt - The smallest things are most important.
Francl, Viktor. Man's Search for Meaning. Boston. Beacon Press. 2006.
Jacobsen, Jens Peter. Niels Lyhne. Whitefish, MT. 2004.
Sittser, Gerald. A Grace Disguised. Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan. 1995.