Thursday, December 31, 2009

Losses of Meaning

I was in a large store with our daughter, yesterday. I asked our check-out clerk how she was, and her response was "not good. not good. My baby girl ain't doing too well." She nodded her head toward someone behind me. I turned but didn't see a little girl. "Who?" I asked. "My baby girl - her cousin committed suicide on Christmas. She's right there at the next counter." (another nod) Again, I turned, and saw the young woman who was running the next check-out line was crying as she worked. Another store employee was hovering over her.

I told our clerk that I was a chaplain, and asked her if she thought I might be able to help. She immediately called to the young woman who had been relieved of her duty and was walking toward the Employees Only area, "Sarah, Sarah, come here, girl." She gave Sarah a hug, introduced me, and Sarah walked with me to a table nearby. She continued weeping quietly. My daughter went nearby to get lunch and ate at another table to give us quiet time.

Sarah (not her real name) told me about her cousin's suicide, her aunt's loss and pain and her own feelings of devastation, grief and anger, and questions why her cousin (only 17 years old) hadn't called her. "I've always been there for her, why didn't she call me? I thought she was doing ok. This came totally out of nowhere." We spoke for almost half an hour.

Many of her questions are impossible to answer. Why? Why didn't I see this coming? Why did she leave my auntie in agony because they'd just had an argument, and my auntie had left the house?

I've been reminded as I've prayed for Sarah, her aunt, and her whole family of the movie about Virginia Woolf, The Hours, in which Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep had leading roles.

The Hours began with one suicide and ended with another. In the character of Mrs. Dalloway, Meryl Streep, posed a question to Richard who was suffering with AIDS, which I recall as essentially asking: "Isn't that what we live for - one another?" Richard had been bemoaning the meaninglessness of all his life and his life's work, and was feeling life was all worthless and nothing. The disjuncture between her affirmation of meaning in relationships and his loss of meaning in his work is stark.

There are usually nuggets truth behind our trite generalizations. Men do find meaning in their work and women do find meaning in their relationships. That doesn't mean, however, that loss in one area can't be softened by presence of hope in the other! Loss of either or both can cripple our hearts and darken our lives and visions of hopeful future. I've noticed that in times of deep, personal pain and self-doubt, people may frequently throw off the ties of intimate relationships because those ties feel like bondage, instead of like hope and love.

This leaves the space of heartache & emptiness, or a space suffused with faith & hope in God. Let me be really clear, here, that space suffused with faith and hope in God doesn't FEEL good to us. That space may feel more despairing than good. It may feel like we're hanging onto hope in God and to one another "for dear life"! In fact, the dearness of life itself may be in question.

But, before giving up, I hope every and anyone of us will ask ourselves the hard questions of what we leave behind. From Sarah's perspective, her anger at her cousin's apparent self-centeredness & selfishness is really hard to bear. While recognizing her cousin's despair, Sarah struggled with deep anger that her cousin checked out on the family who loved her. Only God can enter that space of heartache and despair when someone is at that point of crisis. Will we turn toward God, hope, faith and future or damn those who love us to the present hell of doubt, anger, grief and pain? The saddest part of suicide is that we fail to be God-with-us to our families and friends, and we rob them of the opportunity to be God-with-us to us, too. May we live out what it means to be the Body of Christ in our worlds, today!

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