Expert on the etiquette of perilous times.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m a member of a writer’s group called The Guild. Long time readers know that we host an annual writer’s conference called Breathe. My friend, Andrew, blogged about planning for next year’s conference and I liked how he compared it to writing in general.
Here’s the link to Andrew’s post.
I had the study one week. We had shuffled around the bedrooms to create room for it. The girls moved in together and Paul and I traded with them, moving into a smaller room that had been Lydia’s and changed Eden’s into the study. All the bedrooms we redid, repainting the walls and replacing the floors. Everything was fresh and new. The week before the fire Paul and my brother-in-law, David moved in my old oak desk, that was a little too big, but I was using until I found something I liked better. Days before the fire they moved in the sofa that I knew would be a place for Paul and some of the kids to lounge.
The day before the fire I was planning the bookshelves for the hundreds of books that were stacked in the hall and dining room, waiting to move in.
There is a small study, also on the northwest corner of the new house. Since we moved it has been the dumping ground of all our records, supplies for Eden’s home school and everything related to the build. A few months ago I made some semblance of order but during the holidays it became the gift staging area and a new mess.
One of my excuses is that I have been homeschooling Eden and need to find a desk or table big enough for both of us to sit beside each other. I haven’t found one that pleased me, so we’ve been doing school at the island or the couch, which is fine, but we’re constantly schlepping her books and notebooks around.
Today was the breaking point. It wasn’t dramatic, I just hit a wall. I’m working on a new project which means a new proposal and I need to spread out some papers and make room for a stack of books. I need a desk. I have a small, antique library desk that my brother-in-law lent me, but it’s not comfortable and doesn’t afford a lot of space.
Never mind that.
I cleared it off and Christopher helped me move it in front of a window. There are still baskets full of records that need to be sorted and piles of papers too, but this is it. I’m claiming this space. I’m writing in and through the mess.
For so many of us, our lives skim the surface. We’re busy with the day to day, caught up in the rhythms of normalcy and (depressives, philosophers and poets excluded) we don’t ponder what lies beneath.
And then, without warning, the world cracks open and we or someone we know slips into the chasm of what cannot be, what should not be, but is.
Before June 27, 2010 I lived in a world where no one could burn my house down, where my house couldn’t burn, period.
In my world you could get cancer as a child, someone could embezzle all your family’s money and you might need to quit school to help out, a parent could take his own life, another could die far too young after a long, excruciating illness and, despite a million prayers for health and wholeness, you could have a child with a multiplicity of challenges and needs. All of these things have happened to Paul and to me.
There is a tension in suffering. There is a stress in its very existence, even if it’s not my own cup of sorrow. When something terrible happens to someone I know, for a moment, this terrible thing becomes possible in my world too. And that’s scary. For a time the veil is rent and we see the fragility of life, we face our mortality and – worse yet – the vulnerability of our loved ones.
When something terrible happens, perhaps it’s more like part of a continent breaks away and those affected are bobbing on a little island of tragedy In suffering it can be so easy to feel adrift in your circumstances.
The things we say and what we do for those in need should be a bridge to keep them connected, but too often we say things, to cover our own discomfort and to distance ourselves from the pain and then it’s only about us and not the person in need.
I am inviting you into a big conversation. I want to talk about how we support each other, and how we fail. It’s embarrassing, because we are all, or have been at one time (or fifty) stupid people with good intentions.
I will be telling you several of my own cringe inducing stories including my ridiculous responses to others’ heartbreaks and, sadly, I was trying so hard to do and say the right thing.
It’s a big conversation. And I really want it to be a conversation, if any of you are willing. Through a series of difficult experiences I have been given a strange education in how to be supportive in various hard times but I am not an expert and we’re talking about people so it’s going to be subjective anyway.
Yesterday I said, in most cases, nothing needs to be said in the face of suffering. I intended to say more and decided to save it for another time, so I realize now I did say something I didn’t intend, by not saying it fully. A friend commented:
All of us can use encouragement at one time or another. If it’s someone you don’t know intimately, it’s hard to know how to give encouragement so that it won’t be taken amiss. We struggled with infertility for a number of years. Lots of friends and family meant well…but their words to us didn’t always mean what they hoped it would. They tried because they knew we were struggling. I would have been disappointed had they not even tried to encourage us.
Jeremy is so gracious, “…their words didn’t always mean what they hoped…”
I can imagine.
And he makes an important point. A friend of mine was devastated when a close, close friend said NOTHING after the death of my friend’s father. She kept waiting and it really became a big thing for her that her friend said NOTHING.
So there are errors of omission and commission.
And I really hesitate to say errors, because that just sets up the whole performance aspect and I want to deactivate that bomb. And yet that desire is really at the heart of it.
So I want to talk about intentions. I am being charitable when I say “good intentions” since my assertion is that, many times, our intentions aren’t good enough. Mine too, which is where the humiliating stories come in and you can see what I thought my intentions were, the actions I took and what I know now. Blech.
Ultimately it isn’t about what we say or even what we do. It’s how we are.
When my father died, one of my sister’s school friends dropped off a meal for our family. When I came to the door, he handed me the food and we briefly spoke. I don’t remember what he said or what he brought us. I can’t tell you if he actually articulated, “I am so sorry for your loss” but everything about him did. And I’ve never forgotten that.