When life on this earth results in tragedy and loss – personal, communal, international – we are immediately faced with choices we did not anticipate nor plan for. An untimely death, an assault or abuse, financial ruin, a health crisis, relational trauma, anxiety: the list is endless. What do we do? Most of us want to just turn and run while we also know there is no place to run to or to hide from the turmoil within. So how do we take the next step forward when everything in us doesn’t want to and we are facing a challenge we have never faced before?
We remember that we all have choices even when it seems there are none. It is what makes humans unique. Referring back to my blog “Darkness & Light” and the thoughts from Jerry Sittser in his book A Grace Disguised, when we choose to move towards the darkness knowing we will eventually see the sun rise, we find gifts along the way that we could have never imagined. But we also find more choices. Sittser cites Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, reflecting on his time in a Nazi death camp and how “the prisoners who exercised the power to choose how they would respond to the terrible loss and darkness of their circumstances displayed dignity, courage and inner vitality. They found a way to transcend their suffering…and so grew spiritually beyond themselves…they learned that tragedy can increase the soul’s capacity for darkness and light, for pleasure as well as for pain.”
Just like Corrie Ten Boom related in her similar story, The Hiding Place, they found meaning in their suffering as they focused on the essence of who they truly are, a spiritual being. And also in knowing that pain, loss and suffering are part of life – and there is meaning in life. As I’ve written before, Sam Quinones discusses how this relates to addictions in Dreamland and our society’s increasing pursuit of a painless and pleasure filled life: a pursuit that is a dead end because it is not attainable by any method. We can delay, postpone and evade pain but ultimately it will still be there to be faced and dealt with. When we are trapped in any addictive behavior, even if it brings temporary pleasure and relief, there will always be a day of reckoning when the money or substance runs out, when whatever our addiction is becomes exposed, or when the consequences are unavoidable.
The pain from loss does not have to diminish our souls unless we choose to allow it. It can expand us in ways we are not able to imagine as we head into uncharted territory. Sittser explores this concept of our souls being able to experience both sorrow and joy, weakness and strength, despair and hope at the same time. Again, this all depends on our choices. One result of these choices he discusses aligns with what John and I have experienced as we embraced the pain of loss in our lives. That is, we have found that while we actually felt the darkness and despair of living in an imperfect world where our 25 yr old son died all alone, we have learned empathy for the spectrum of pain others are living with and we are able to not only feel compassion but to look for ways to help ease the pain and offer hope. This is a good thing for which we are thankful.