Saturday, April 4, 2015

Resurrection, Comfort and an Old Shoe

When my daughter Abigail was three years old, we
left her in the care of a babysitter so we could go out to dinner with friends.
That normally would have been fine, but on this occasion we were traveling
through Colorado and staying with friends so, not only was Abby in a strange
home, but, as far as she could tell, her mother and father were gone, perhaps
forever. So she reached for familiar things that could bring her comfort: in
this case, her pacifier, pillow and one of my shoes. We arrived home to
find the scene captured in the picture below and, as I recall, I smiled and
felt a wisp of regret but mostly laughed off what surely would have
been a traumatic experience for her. (Nearly a quarter of a century later,
her anguish is far more understandable to me now.)

Recently, I spoke to a group and made a
comment in reference to my daughter, Esther, that she had ultimately become the
real teacher as we learned much from her about coping with pain. I said that,
“The child had become teacher to the parent.” After the speech, a parent of a
child with Tay-Sachs disease approached me and
repeated my words about her own, two year old daughter, who was there beside
her. Tay-Sachs is a genetic neurodegenerative disease typically recognized
within the first year of life that eventually destroys the nerve cells in the
brain and spinal cord. Sufferers are eventually paralyzed, rendered deaf,
blind, cognitively impaired and typically die by age four.  I carefully
got down on my knees and took her daughter’s hands in mine and spoke for a
few moments to her child. This mom, who had come to our presentation looking
for hope, expressed deep appreciation for the thoughts we had shared
that morning about suffering and loss in our own journey with Esther. But to
this grieving mother, I really only said two things: “I’m so sorry for all the
pain” and, “Your daughter’s light is bright and beautiful and clear.”

Suffering? No thank you. As many have noted, if we
live long enough, we will all experience suffering and -like wrinkles- its
marks will certainly lengthen and deepen with age. Such is the cost and terror
of this thing we call life; it comes with joy abounding and pain endured, an
earned beauty that defiles soul and skin, a cutting that displays our
inner anguish and the overcoming of it. To attempt to avoid grief is like trying
not to breathe, the end of which is to render one unconscious. And what of
detachment as escape or coping tool? It’s quite possible that many
of my maladies of spirit and body are attempts at evading the gods of
pain. But there is no escape. Even the dominant religious idea of our time, the
received doctrine of redemptive suffering –the crucifixion/resurrection story,
celebrated by a billion people this very weekend- is predicated on the
need to address our deepest sorrow. As troubling as this narrative
might be for some, there is a simplicity in such an attempt to put all our trauma and
sadness in a single box of mysteries, as if we could somehow wrap a bloodied bow
around all our agonies with one answer to suffering.

Shoah writer and survivor, Elie Wiesel, wrote in
his book, Hope, Despair and Memory, “Because I remember, I despair.
Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.” This is one of the most
powerful statements that I have ever read about the responsibility we have to
never forget atrocity, lest reborn genocides reattach and defile again. What
this witness to the Holocaust is saying is that to reject despair is to embrace
hope. Though many of us live with, and sometimes even revel in despair, I
think most would agree with Wiesel that it is ultimately our duty to
reject it. I must not forget that others have suffered, or my heart might
harden in a vain attempt to somehow lessen personal suffering. I must resist
such temptations to timidity in my calling as a witness, which may well be the
only link in another's chain of remembrance.

But what if I cannot reject despair? What if it
swallows me whole, or slowly dismembers and devours me piece by piece? If I
resist the tearing, there is no cowardice in that. (It appears that for some
deep-sufferers, there remains a hope in surrender, in letting go, even when
-perhaps especially when- one can no longer bear up under the weight of the
press.) Intermittent desperation for air is on the agenda for every one of us
from the moment of physical birth forward, but still we thrash about, trying to
escape or minimize the panic which inevitably confronts us, enveloping us in
varying degrees of intensity, stopping only when all evidence of decomposition
is complete. Because despair is the suffocation of hope, it is reasonable that
we would attempt to retreat from it in order to inhale exclusively from the
oxygen of some restored, future goodness. This may be because hope itself
functions in our lives as a life-giving organism.

Perhaps there are degrees of despair that serve us
in ways that are also life-sustaining in their work, acting as a kind of
spiritual immune system? One summer during college I worked as a lone lifeguard
at a large indoor swimming pool. I saved a few swimmers then who'd gotten in
over their heads and it was deeply satisfying to know that I was there and
capable of saving them. Now, I'm sure they would have been rescued by another
had I been asleep or unavailable, but I was alert and did what I needed to do
to deliver them from the void. It's possible that the only real deadly pathogen
in life is apathy.

Elie Weisel, along with that beautiful little girl
I met a few days ago, remind me that the world needs others to volunteer, rise,
and become the remember-ers of what our fellow sufferers cannot finally overcome.
I believe in the courage of an enlightened humanity, one that will stand
together in spite of personal, excruciating grief. I've seen such unbroken and
unstooped witnesses, especially among the young, these brave, vibrant and ready
heroes to an otherwise unremembered suffering, who offer proof that hope
endures in the presence of our deepest losses. I am much encouraged by the
presence of the many, and mindful that a drowning man has hope if his rescuers
number but one. Suffering is less every time an injustice is addressed, any
time there is a kindness or recognition of clear light, wherever it is found,
however dim.

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday and if that celebration
of triumph over the Ultimate Loss means anything, perhaps it has to do with a
tenacious fixing of oneself at the door, clinging desperately for deliverance
even though we are entirely spent, bathed in a pool of our own tears -maybe
even our own blood- exhausted by too much longing. One evening long ago,
the hope of resurrection looked a lot like a pacified and poured out toddler,
eyes wet, yet Masada-like resistant, barricaded in a forgotten doorway,
comforted by an old shoe.
Our daughter Abby, age three, waiting for her mom and dad.