Monday, May 18, 2015

How Long is Too Long?

More from Learning to Walk in the Dark

Barbara Taylor Brown in her chapter on Dark Emotions draws from Miriam Greenspan's book Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair. Medically, the time allowed for grieving - not sleeping, sadness, crying, loss of appetite - is two months. If someone grieves the loss of a loved one for longer, they could be diagnosed with depression and possibly treated with prescription medication. Greenspan, a psychiatrist herself, calls this a low tolerance for sadness. The inability to bear these emotions often cause many of our problems she says, not the emotions themselves.

How long is too long to grieve the loss of your spouse, your child, your friend? How long is too long to grieve death in war, genocide, and violent crime? Two months the doctors say. Two months. If you don't move on, you might need medication.

I think I have grieved the death of my father for the eleven years he has been gone. I wish I could have done a better job with it in the first two months of his passing but it was too painful. Too confusing. For the past eleven years I have tried very hard to move on with my life, to not be affected, to not go through the world with an open wound in my being.

But you see, everything changed after my father died. I was 23, my mother didn't quite know what do with her grief so she leaned on me. And I had no one to lean on. I held her up but sank under the weight of her grief and mine. And so what should have been the prime of my life was spent caring for people who were ill, sad, lonely, and depressed. My aunt on her hospital bed said to me that it was not good for me. I was too young to be caring for sick people. It was not good for me. She knew - she had done it herself. She knew.

It is not the worst thing that could happen to someone - I know. Even now they are pulling bodies of parents out of the rubble left behind by the earthquake and little children sit in the streets of Nepal orphaned and weeping. They too must grieve. For how long? As far as I can tell, for a very long time. Two months will not be enough for them. Nor two years. They will have to grieve the loss of their parents, siblings and families. They will have to grieve the loss of their homes, and the lives they knew. And who is to tell what life will hold for them. Where this disaster will take them. Will they have to grieve that as well? Some of them will. And maybe some of them wont.

But how long is too long? Why are we so quick to clinically label people who feel intense grief, sadness, or sorrow with a medical condition? Are we blind to the world? Why, pray tell, don't we all go around grieving? Weeping and wailing? Not just for ourselves. But also for those who are losing their lives and homes in Syria and Nepal, for the refugees at the bottom of the Mediterranean, for the child sex-workers in Bombay, for the homeless in our neighbourhood, for every man, woman, child, and animal who will be affected by violence and abuse today. Now. This very minute?

Why don't we grieve for them, and for us, the "poor naked wretches" that we all are?

Greenspan says that our culture and societies have shut these emotions away along with everything else we find distasteful. So there is no room for us to talk about our sadness, fear or despair - for ourselves or for the world. And in doing so made it worse for us.

We need to learn to grieve. We need to learn to live with the Dark Emotions. They are part of us. They are what makes us human. Why are we only trying to feed half of ourselves and starve the other half? Why are we trying so desperately to only be half human? Is this wholeness? 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Maybe It's OK, to Not Be OK?

We read Barbara Brown Taylor's book Learning to Walk in the Dark for book club. I was first drawn to it because the description talked about the absence of God. I have long considered the idea that God is often absent - from our lives and the life of the world.

I don't fully understand what this absence means - maybe it is true that God is present in his absence. But it is good to hear people who validate the absence - whether God is, or is not present, we certainly don't always feel his presence.

There is more to be learned on this I am sure.

For now, I want to talk about sadness.

If you've read my blog you might have seen that I use the word a lot along with grief, fear, and despair. And of course, struggle. I have wanted very much to not feel these emotions. I have wanted very much to be happy, joyful, ecstatic even. These latter, lighter emotions don't come easily to me. Or maybe they are locked away somewhere so deep that when they come to the surface they are beautiful and precious that I want so desperately to hold on to them for as long as I can. Before they are taken away from me again. Before I have to let go of them for the heavier emotions, the more unappealing emotions.

I have always been a melancholic person. I'm not the life of a party but I can join one if I really like it. I like to have fun but I have always leaned more to the serious side.

I have always felt very deeply. Somewhere in the late 80s and early 90s we began to hear a lot about starving children in Somalia. I was about 10 or 11 then. I remember feeling so bad for those children and I often thought about them just going about my day. I might have been 7 or 8 when I watched a video about a young girl who died in a road accident. I didn't know her. I cried for her that night.

I cried for a week when one of my dogs was sent away.
I cared deeply. I loved deeply. I felt deeply.
I don't know why or how. I just did.

I didn't really know what to do with all this feeling and emotion and neither did my parents. Their standard response was that I carried the weight of the world on my head. And they hoped one day I would stop.

We don't know what to do with sadness, or tears, or angst. It's all a bit much for us.

There are no dark emotions, Greenspan says - just unskillful ways of coping with emotions we cannot bear. The emotions themselves are conduits of pure energy that want something from us: to wake us up, to tell us something we need to know, to break the ice around our hearts, to move us to act. 
- Learning to Walk in the Dark, p 78

We live in a world where we must think positively and be happy. Who wants to be around a sad and despairing person? Even I don't - it makes me feel worse that I already do!

But if you think of some of the greatest artists, writers and musicians of our world - many of them were plagued with despair. Some of the most beautiful poetry and music comes from people who constantly struggle with these emotions.

So maybe my struggle is not a bad one. It's just what some of us must do.

Maybe it's time for me to face these emotions. To see them as they really are and try to learn from them. Maybe it's time for me to stop trying to be something I am not and embrace who I am - melancholy and all. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

God is God

I came across Joan Baez's song, God is God last year. The song was written by Steve Earle.

I feel close to the song. It helps me put words to what I have come to understand and it carries me along in my journey.

Every day that passes I'm sure about a little bit less. 

One thing that has definitely happened over the years is that I cannot believe everything I was taught. A lot of the language of my early Christian upbringing doesn't mean much to me any more.

I remember telling my brother when he asked me what I believed that I was not very sure. All I knew is that I needed an open space. I needed to be able to breathe and be free. The Christianity I once knew put me in a box and limited me, limited my learning, limited my experience.

I don't like limits.

I have come to believe that I don't really need to be sure. I don't need to know everything and I am OK with saying that I don't really know much at all. And that it doesn't really matter. I don't need an argument or a miracle to convince me of the existence of God. Or one to deny it.

I believe that there is grace in the world. That there is goodness, mercy, wisdom and love. This I know from experience. Again - not the best argument I suppose - but I am not trying to convince anybody!

These are good gifts. Gifts that make us more human. Gifts that tap into our Spirit Space and nurture us. We can receive these gifts, and give them to others. They can be given to us in so many different ways - music, art, poetry, neighbours, friends, family, lovers... even just a simple hello from a stranger on the subway. Deciding before hand to only receive them in a particular place and from certain kinds of people limits our experience of the gift.

And there is more - much more that I do not know and probably never will.

God,in my little understanding, don't care what name I call. 
Whether or not I believe doesn't matter at all. 
I receive the blessings. 
That every day on Earth's another chance to get it right.
Let this little light of mine shine and rage against the night.

One Saturday - after months of personal struggle - I was listening to this song and I thought - maybe God doesn't really care if I am "following him", "reading my bible", "praying", "being his disciple"... maybe it doesn't matter whether "I believe". Clearly I have received the blessings. Clearly I have been cared for and loved. I have been shown grace and mercy. I have even experienced the divine. Why do I beat myself up so much?
Why do I judge myself so harshly?

The kind of  Christianity I was exposed to laid so much emphasis on what we did as individuals. Just as we tried desperately to win our parents love and approval - we did the same thing with God. And if we were not doing everything we should - being good, reading the word, going to church, praying, trusting - then God would do nothing for us.

Even now, even after realizing that this was a false way to live, I still cannot shake this idea. Now I don't do any of those things that I thought would bring me closer to God.
But I think that I am NOT close to God.

Maybe I don't need to actively be close to God.
Maybe God is already, actively, close to me.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Dark Night of the Soul

The past four months have been very difficult months for me. Things were worse than usual. I felt like I was sinking and was afraid I would not get up.

Then we read Barbara Brown Taylor's book Learning to Walk in the Dark for book club and she talks about The Dark Night of the Soul.

Like darkness itself, the dark night of the soul means different things to different people. Some use the phrase to describe the time following a great loss, while others remember it as the time leading up to a difficult decision. Whatever the circumstances, what the stories have in common is their description of a time when the soul was severely tested, often to the point of losing faith, by circumstances beyond all control. No one chooses the dark night; the dark night descends. 

When it does the reality that troubles the soul most is the apparent absence of God. 

- Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, p133-134

I have been thinking about the Absence of God for a while now. Thinking that I might just be able to accept that sometimes God is absent. It's a harsh concept to live with but apparently not a new one. Many have known this to be true.

From reading Brown's book it seems that the only you can do when you feel the absence of God is to wait.

You wait to feel the presence again. You wait for the dark night of the soul to end. The only way to do it is go through it. To face the sadness, anger, suffering, hopelessness, despair, and tears. To feel it all. To ask the questions. To rage and rant. To wish that you didn't have to feel these things.

You wait.