Exodus 16:2-3; 17:14; Matthew 5:4
The Rev. Tom Herbek
August 14, 2016
Whenever we go through major change in our lives, there is at least a part of us that really wants to go back – back to where we were before. The children of Israel, escaping from their captors, those who kept them in slavery in Egypt, were happy until they realized that they would have to change dramatically and would have to face great hardship in the wilderness. Some have argues that one reason they had to wander for 40 years was that it was only the next generations that would be able to conquer and live in the new land. The generation that escaped Egypt were so used to the small life they survived in, each day in Egypt, that they could not expand their life into the new land of self-rule and the thrill and danger of being able to make the crucial decisions in their own land. Those who live in an abusive relationship and escape sometimes return for just these reasons. Becoming awake and alive to all of life is not easy. Otherwise, we would all make changes and choose to grow every time there is an opportunity to do so. In his new book that I mentioned last week, Mark Nepo comments:
The path of wakefulness is rugged and slippery every step of the way. And there’s always a part of us just waiting to turn back. When feeling weak or in a weighty place, it’s easy to think, “OK, so I wasn’t awake and maybe I struggled with some form of addiction. Maybe I was in an abusive relationship. Maybe I was in a job where I wasn’t valued and I was humiliated. Or maybe I never valued myself. But today it seems like that was easier, even though I know I shouldn’t go back.”
Since there will always be voices calling us back, a central part of the work of awakening is the need to stand firm in our newfound wakefulness. The beauty and challenge of staying close to what matters resides in the truth that once we’re awake, we can’t un-know what we know. The gift and work of wakefulness is to believe that life is always where we are, no matter what it holds.
- The One Life We’re Given
Many of you know that for 20 years, in total I taught a course called “Theory and Practice of Management” both at Monroe Community College and before that, at Thompkins-Cortland Community College. I used to have my students take a questionnaire called a Stress Rating Scale. It was originally funded by the health insurance industry to predict how often people would experience illness or injury, and a clear correlation was found between stressful events in the last 12 months. What shocked the students was that the rating scale not only included the “bad events,” such as divorce, separation, death of a loved one, bankruptcy, being fired at work, etc., but it also included the “good events” such as marriage, birth of a child, a promotion or new job, retirement, taking a vacation, becoming an “empty-nester,” and graduating from college, etc. The truth is that every change is stressful and we must allow ourselves the chance to grieve about the change. We talk about grief when it comes to a death in our family or of a close friend. We need to realize that any change also causes grief, though it may not be as evident. In order to make our way through grief, we must allow ourselves to feel with our heart and take the time to find meaning in our grief. Mark Nepo shares the following story about loss and grief and finding our way:
A troubled widower made his way to ask a wise old woman about his troubles. The old woman received him and they walked along a stream. She could see the pain in his face. He began to tremble as he asked, “What’s the point? Is there any meaning to life?” She invited him to sit on a large stone near the stream. She took a long branch and swirled it in the water, then replied, “It all depends on what it means to you to be alive” In his sorrow, the man dropped his shoulders and the old woman gave him the branch. “Go on,” she said, “touch the branch to the water.”
As he poked the branch in the running stream, there was something comforting about feeling the movement of the water in his hand through the branch. She touched his hand and said, “You see, that you can feel the water without putting your hand in the water, this is what meaning feels like.” The man grew tender but still seemed puzzled. She said, “Close your eyes and feel your wife now gone. That you can feel her in your heart without being able to touch her, this is how meaning saves us.”
The widower began to cry. The old woman put her arm around him, “No one knows how to live or how to die. We only know how to love and how to lose, and how to pick up branches of meaning along the way.”
Finding the meaning in our hearts, recognizing that it remains with us, is one part of healing from our grief and finding a way to re-immerse ourselves in life. And when we are ready, then we will find opportunities to live that we never saw before, never experienced before.
Mark Nepo shares something powerful from the tradition of another culture, a comment that could be very powerful for our own culture:
I spoke about a South American custom called E dai (ay-die-ee), which is Portuguese for ”And then?” Regardless of the story told or hardship conveyed, the custom is for the listener to ask three times, “E dai?” with a tone that implies: ”And so, what does this mean?”; “And so? What now?”; “And so, what is your next step?”
When we experience the grief of great change in our lives, perhaps it would be helpful if someone were to say to us, “And so…?” It is a very important question when we get to the point in our journey when we can consider it. As I look at what is happening right now in our society and in our world, I see a great deal of grief, a great sorrow in people who have lost a world that they thought they could count on to be there for their whole life. Many people today feel that they have been wounded by life and are in pain. They feel that the changes in our society and in our world have deeply wounded them. It is not possible to return to the world that we inhabited before the changes. And that would not heal our woundedness and remove our grief, even if we could. If we returned to Egypt, we would then notice and rage against the injustices of slavery. To heal from our wound, however, we must begin to interact with the larger world. As Mark Nepo writes, we become so preoccupied with our wound, we don’t allow ourselves to see beyond our grief, our pain:
The paradox is that the deeper the trauma, the greater our need to remember the world outside of our wound, in order to restore our sense of wonder.
When traumatized, our wound can become the entire world we wake in. We begin to think there’s nothing beyond the world of our wound: the sky is wounded, the water we drink is wounded, the silence we can’t bear is wounded. Once the all-encompassing wound takes over, we try to relieve the wound by reliving it, hoping it might turn out differently. This is how people return to those who have abused them, hoping against all logic that this time they will find kindness. All the while, we need a larger sort of remembering that reunites us with everything that is not our wound; so the larger Universe in all its mystery and splendor can heal us and restore our sense of safety and possibility.
This brings me to a law of emotional nature about what we want and what we need. When in pain, we want the company of those who understand what it is to be in pain. Yet in order to heal, we also need the health of everything around us that is not in pain. This is akin to how white blood cells rush to the site of a wound. Likewise, when in fear, we want the company of those who understand what it is to be in fear. And we need the safety of other life from beyond our fear to cure us of our fear. When broken, we understandably want the company of those who know what it is to be broken. And we need the foundation of everything not broken in the world to repair our brokenness. When experiencing grief, we sorely need the company of those who understand loss. And we need the kind outreach of those who are, for the moment, free of loss. We need both: heartfelt company and strength from beyond our pain to bring us back to health.
Hollowing out the sediment of our pain and sorrow so that compassion is possible is a personal reckoning each of us must undertake. We often mistake the journey of healing as one that covers over a wound. But as wounds need air and light to knit and heal, our pain and sorrow need to be brought out into the open so we can be healed by life.
Going back to Egypt is not the way to find healing. Returning to a time when our life was different is not a possibility. The only way to live life is to move forward. The most helpful question to ask is, “And so,…?”
There is meaning in every event, even the most traumatic ones, and the meaning allows us to continue to live, even with our wounds, our losses, and the changes over which we have no control.
And yet, the joining through the wildernesses of life is the only way to reach the promised land. Those who wish to return to Egypt in our society today must be helped to find nourishment and meaning in their wilderness journey. Jesus was very clear that those who mourn will be blessed and comforted. So let us take the plight of the mourners seriously, helping them to find meaning and to choose life in this new world.