Between light and shade

The other day I picked up the mail to find my third unrequested “Readers Digest” (I’ve “unsubscribed” from my non-subscription three times already).  Although I don’t plan to pay for the magazine, I glanced at the cover as I aimed it for the trash bin, an odd title caught my eye: “In Praise of Sadness.”

Besides the obvious irony of the title, it snagged my gaze because it’s been a concept I’ve thought of (irregularly) over the last decade or so, and more frequently in recent months.  I hadn’t meant to dwell on grief after my last post, but this particular topic merits an address.

The author of “In Praise of Sadness,” Hugh Mackay, advocates for sadness.  Not choosing it for ourselves, that is, but fully experiencing it and recognizing the worth of times of grief in our personal growth.  He goes so far as to say that when we fail to fully address our sadness, we become more anxious, stressed out, powerless, and insecure.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Several years ago, on one of my “big” birthdays, my hubby took me on a spiritual retreat (I was like, “Great, no music, no party, no friends, happy birthday” – but it ended up being a fairly pivotal and beautiful weekend for me during a disheartening and disappointing time in my life).  In their library – a beautiful, dark, curl-up-on-the-couch-in-front-of-the-fireplace library lined with a vast array of delicious books – I kind of fell upon a little book called “The Lost Virtue of Happiness” (JP Moreland) and the first few pages really challenged my thinking.  Moreland presented the discrepency between our current definition of happiness and the classical understanding of happiness.

According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, happiness is

1. good fortune,

2. a state of well-being and contentment and

3. a pleasurable or satisfying experience.

Moreland likened our current definition of happiness to the excitement and exhileration of a sports game or a party, the kind of emotion that swells, crests, and disappears.  Then we jump from happy experience to happy experience, never satisfied, and glum or depressed in between times.  This resembles a lot of my spiritual life as a teenager and young adult – seeking “mountaintop” experiences with God and believing, when I was in the valleys, that I must not be where he wanted me to be.

The classical definition, at least the one coming from Aristotle, teaches that happiness was our ideal goal in life, but happiness was not this kind of sensory, experience-based emotional state.  Rather, eudaimonia more closely resembles our idea of the word wholeness, which is about living “in accordance with reason; fulfilling our sense of purpose; doing our civic duty; living virtuously; being fully engaged with the world; and especially, experiencing the richness of human love and friendship” (Mackay).

Moreland compares this state of being to dinner music in a restaurant.  While you eat, regardless of your company or conversation (stressful, loving, romantic, friendly, intimate, conflicted, etc), the music in the background is comforting, peaceful, and steady.  Aristotle defined happiness as “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue” – connecting the difficult choices to follow virtue rather than vice to this kind of happiness or wholeness, and that this state of happiness is a totality of our lives rather than just found in the moments of delight.

This kind of wholeness does not exclude sadness or times of despair, which are just as genuine and meaningful as our joy.  In fact, times of grief and sadness often develop in us the ability to live courageously, compassionately, even nobly.  Most of us, when we look back over our experiences, can see that the valleys we have faced have often led to deeper understanding of God, of ourselves, of the world around us; and that those experiences have, indeed, been some of the greatest teachers in our lives.  Turns out the apostles of the Bible knew a thing or two here, as well: “…we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 3:3-4)

So, after all that, I have to think of my children.  I do wish I could choose the sorrows they will face – and indeed wouldn’t choose some of the sorrows that they will face – but that is beside the point.  My deepest wish for them is not that they are happy as our world sees it, but rather that they find wholeness by plumbing the depths of all their experiences – those joyful and those sorrow-giving – that they make the choice to do what is right by God and humanity regardless of the cost; that they allow themselves to hurt when they need to and celebrate when life calls it out of them.  I pray that I can teach them that sadness is not the enemy, but an instructor of perseverance, character and hope; and that true, pure, and boundless joy can be found in those dark valleys too.

~~~

“One swallow does not make a summer, neither does one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.
Aristotle
“The richness of life lies in the interplay between light and shade.”
Hugh Mackay
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Grief: Not for the Faint of Heart

Warning: a little bit of raw honesty bleeds into these “pages.”  I believe I have not crossed the line of being too personal – and there are definitely thoughts, ideas, the specific sources of heartache, that belong between me and God, or between me and those closest to me.  Those things I shall not share.  But I know I am not the only one who has ever grieved, and I daresay I hope there is something small in here to encourage someone else who is also aching. As Jean Vanier (I quote him later) says, “I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.”  May it really be so.

*******

For three things in my life have I grieved.

For something precious lost.
For something deeply desired denied.
For something painful given.

And in each case, the grief is profound, shattering, and, oddly, empowering.  Cyclically.  I don’t at the moment feel empowered.

When I took Aliyah to the hospital with the flu recently, expecting to be admitted for the night (and, thankfully, being released with her positive electrolyte results), I recognized all of the nurses I saw on the unit.  And to my surprise, they recognized me.  One of them said, “You were the couple that were so independent and coped with everything so well.”

Hah!  I thought.  Clearly, she did not see my red eyes every time she came into the room, hear the thickness of tears in my voice when I asked questions or clarifications, recognize the utter weariness that burdened my heart and my body.  Clearly she did not recognize grief.  Or so I thought.

I think back on those weeks in the hospital with both heaviness and hope.  I remember feeling overwhelmingly thankful – for the hospital, for the incredible staff, for the family and friend and church support we received, and for the very blessed fact that I believed in hope and that all things could be redeemed.   But also, well do I remember the unknown and unnamed fears that beat down my thoughts and dominated my dreams.  Well do I remember the dread with which I approached the computer and the barriers that prevented me from reading anything about what was to come, knowing I was not ready to bear it.  Well do I remember nights alone on that window seat where I slept next to my baby, attempting not to give in completely to the earth-shattering heart-wail that threatened.

Grief can be surprising in its approach.  Just when you feel you are coping effectively and you have it all under control, someone says something.  Or pats you on the shoulder.  Or looks you in the eye.  And then that tentative control shatters, and it feels like every cell in your body is going to shatter into a million broken, aching pieces.  So you can either dam it up, plug it up, swallow it, deny it, put it aside for another day – or you can take a moment (because sometimes a moment is all you can bear) and stare in the face of all that you (or as in our case, the ones dearest to us) have lost, and scream.

Figuratively or literally, take your pick.  I prefer the latter.

Back to the hospital nurses.  Their comment about how we coped revealed to me another facet of grief: that truly, to grieve is not a weakness, but a strength.   That coping does not mean not grieving.  Sometimes putting aside grief in order to survive effectively, to make it through changes, is necessary, but at some point it becomes equally necessary to really look at the reality of our pain.  Sometimes we can only do this, once again, in moments and tiny bits, because the entire picture is too big for us to face at one time.  But those tiny moments of weeping, of intense reality, are part of giving us wisdom, endurance, and understanding.

If I look back on past heartaches and remember the grieving, I recognize a few things.  A) Nothing has ever broken my heart like watching my child hurt.  I could never have imagined this kind of sorrow.  B) The grieving process for anyone and any pain –  the aloneness, the fear, the physical-ness of pain – although perhaps varying in intensity (but never in validity) is the same.

Jean Vanier, a Canadian humanitarian who lived out his deep Catholic faith, wrote often and beautifully about loneliness and aloneness, and I’m finding (in my lucid moments) that it applies profoundly to my own grief.  I can’t remember the exact quote, and so will paraphrase, in a far less poetic way than he.  In his book Becoming Human, Vanier discusses loneliness as essential to the human experience; when we recognize that indeed, no one shares or feels our pain and we truly are alone in it, we can recognize that all people feel the same loneliness – and this aloneness that we share, we can understand.  This has been a revelation in my life.  I can see now that no one can fully grasp what I am going through – and just as truly, I cannot fully grasp what others are going through.  But that does not mean we do not know or cannot share the grief of another, or that someone cannot share in our own.

I suspect some of you have expected me to share about how my faith in God has encouraged or sustained me in this time.  After all, I have been a Christian for over 2 decades and have many times felt that I walked closely with God.  But – and here’s the brutal, honest truth – my faith has taken a significant beating these last months.  I am limping along spiritually, weakly attempting to understand this God whom I have loved and his ways with which I have not yet come to grips.  My questions are far, far bigger than any answers that I previously would have spouted off (unfortunately, have spouted off), and far more numerous than the answers I did have.  Platitudes and empty promises mean very little in the reality of pain.

I can say this: I have hope.  I have hope that God, in his grace, will meet me somewhere along this dark road.  That the intense joy and beauty of life will outweigh the burdens and pain.  That somewhere in this heartache there is a healing more intense and more beautiful than mere physical healing.

Even if I have not yet encountered any of these things.  Or rather, even if my eyes have not yet recognized that which I have encountered.

We are in the beginning of this process.  It has only been a little over four months since our reality shifted under us and we have so much to learn.  I know tears are not finished yet, and probably there will be more moments when none of this “good stuff” registers.  But I have to be okay with that because it is our life.  It is my little girl’s life.  And God is not finished with us yet.

Psalm 42:7 Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have washed over me."

WOH and SAH: the debate

So I am trying to make a momentous decision.

One that will influence my entire family, my entire future, my entire life.  But mostly, my kids.

In another life, I had a career.  With five years of university education under my glossy, pride-shined belt buckle, I became a professional in the working world – and I loved it.  I was an educator, with about 120 junior high students under my influence every single day, teaching subjects about which I had great passion (language arts and social studies), developing professional relationships with my colleagues in which we discussed all manner of academic/education related issues, and filling up my bank account with happy dollar signs (in Alberta, teachers have it pretty good.  I do realize this is not the case everywhere and am grateful to be part of a province that values its educators).

Then came my wee blondies.

And now my life is filled with, like most SAH’s (stay-at-home moms) and, dare I say it, WOH (working-outside-home moms) too – though not to the same extent, perhaps – poopy diapers, tantrums, pop-mommy’s-head-off hugs, arts and crafts (blech!  there’s a reason I didn’t teach elementary school!), tickling tummies, giggles and laughter, discipline issues, nap times, and meds (okay, that one’s not normal for everyone else, but it’s just routine over here).

And suddenly, my stay-at-home, homeschooling mom future is shattered by one phone call.  And I have to choose between staying at home daily with my children and taking the perfect career opportunity for a wannabe stay-at-home mom (team-teaching, which can be beautifully flexible and allow for the best of both worlds).

So I’m starting to engage in this debate.  HOW do I decide?

It’s an interesting debate to hop into, incidentally.  Most stay-at-home moms, myself included, feel strongly that staying at home is the best choice for our family (some of us believe it’s the best choice for every family, but that’s a discussion for another day).  I know there are so many, many incredible pros to staying at home.  Such as:

  • Remaining primary influence over my kids for as long as possible
  • Keeping the home less busy (instead of using weekends, valuable time with kids, we can clean during the week and have family time on the weekend.  Ideally.)
  • Time to cook healthy meals/snacks
  • Witnessing first-hand most of my kids’ aha moments, tragedies, triumphs
  • Doing what I totally love – being 100% there for my children and my husband, showing them they are the most valuable “things” (you know what I mean) in my life

Okay, I know there’s a million more – those on this side, send’em my way.

And there are incredible pros to going to work (part-time – at least, in my case):

  • Advancing my career – so when the kids fly the nest (‘cuz they will) I am still involved in something that gives me joy
  • Influencing tons and tons of kids (hopefully for the good)
  • Making some money (okay, I’m not a materialist, but you have to admit the draw)
  • Doing what I totally love – and showing my children how to choose a career they take delight in, and that Mommy is a person with skills and strengths outside of the home

And I know there are more to this side too.

What do you think?  Why did you choose to be an SAH or WOH?