Talking about mental health and struggles has at long last become less hidden, stigmatizing, or taboo. Where the denial of negative, or awkwardness with depression, and many tough human conditions was better worked out behind drawn curtains. We are finally embracing the reality that life is a very mixed bag of stuff. Even in the arena of faith the same discomfort and denial too often has squashed down hard, to the point of downright cruelty. God is love and cares deeply and passionately for every human being, but for many of us that reality is not always clear, apparent, or experienced.
The same struggle with life, hope, fairness, God, and finding victory, has blanketed the world through Covid, and now even under the dark cloud of a senseless war Russia (or Putin) is inflicting upon Ukraine and the wider community. How do we make it through? I don’t think there’s a one size fits all answer. But surely it helps to provide room and space to express sorrow and fear, to share pain and despair, without fearing a negative backlash or a rebuke that we must trust God and believe? Perhaps life is more akin to a hospital where people are in various stages of struggle ranging from terminally ill, recovering, and even new birth. It is a place where all of those realities are being tended to with kindness, compassion, permission to hurt, and companionship along the way.
I guess this little article is merely to encourage permission and admiration for every human predicament and the myriad of emotional journeys to be accepted and facilitated in the company of friends. We all have seasons where perhaps we’d rather not be exposed, to be known to be struggling; and yet that’s precisely when we need friends the most. Those who can listen, drink coffee, walk, not have answers, embrace and reassure, have no expectations of us, and love us anyway. Those who initiate more than one conversation, and who will return again and again because they contend beside us. Those who are not afraid of mystery, who don’t have God smoothed out over life in the neat and tidy glib answers of bible verse platitudes. Those who won’t take every word we utter literally or personally, will cut us slack, see and hear beyond the surface.
It takes courage to choose to live in the greyness of life where faithfulness, compassion, and kindness nurture more deeply than mere facts, logic, and spiritual truth. I’ve noticed how hard it is for most people to sustain long conversations when life is messy. Perhaps it’s because we’re uncomfortable without neat solutions, when ‘the other’ won’t take our advice, or cannot hear. Sorrow and grief take time to process, embrace, and accept. For some, it’s years, for others not so long. There is no ‘right way’. What worked for me may not work for you and vice versa. What matters most is that friendship and wasting time together continues. Misery loves company because it needs something beyond itself to make it through the valley.
To someone in desperate pain, or who is frightened by the announcement of cancer, the presence of a doctor to guide them through is a gift beyond expression of gratitude. Kind friends can be like that when life is hard. I suspect once we have endured our own struggle it becomes easier to be empathic to others. Quite a few years ago a famous study on grief and dying was conducted by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. When interviewing doctors she struggled to even have the conversation because doctors were mostly in denial about death. Death was failure and their task was to heal the sick. Fortunately those days are mostly behind us and the reality of grief, death, and dying, is addressed in more helpful ways today.
I’m not writing this from a place of anger, negativity, or despair. Merely with an awareness that these are challenging times. I have such a list of questions for God. What I do know of him is that he welcomes my asking, he is lovingly alongside us in our struggles, more than we are aware of. I’ve been through many ups and downs, depression, hope and encouragement, despair, isolation, community, and wilderness wandering. I’ve discovered that it is no cliché, the older I get the less I’m certain of anything (not faith in God, but certainly how it is lived out and experienced). I’ve loved the institutional church with conviction and passion, and at times despaired with tears of disillusionment at its fickle hypocrisy.
I have discovered God to be most real in the darkest of times… in the lament, the sorrow, and the unknown. I believe that the richest people on earth are those who have traversed the darkest times and emerged with hope intact. I wrote this lament over Jerusalem many years ago as an expression of sadness for the broken divided church. It could be sung over the world around us today. As I gave expression to the sorrow I once again discovered Jesus in the midst – empathy, light, sacrifice, hope. The silver lining only makes sense as it embraces and acknowledges the dark cloud (all of it) – and refuses to let it go. It’s ok to believe and to question, to limp and to laugh, to grieve while moving on, and to worship through tears. Caring enough for one another is the key.
Nightbirde’s song was so widely embraced – I suspect because it encapsulated this struggle with hope while staring the reality of terminal cancer in the eye. Remarkable, refreshing, courageous. Her source was rooted in Jesus, humbly demonstrated in her life, so short lived yet abounding in hope.