‘Forty Days Til’ 40, Day 23: Remembering “Hope Shows Up”
While driving into work recently, I heard a story on NPR about the linkage between weight and the presence of junk food. The story cited that adults who left snack foods and sugary beverages out in plain sight weighed around 20% more than those who did not store those items within view. On Halloween I made the proclamation that I would not eat any candy which I nearly managed to do. After all the trick-or-treaters were gone, I couldn’t resist having one piece; two days later, however, when my kids were sampling their sweet loot, I ate, not just one but two, three and, well, you get the picture. Feeling as though I had deprived myself of the annual candy-binge, I scarfed down a few from my son’s stash without him noticing. It was true! I would be in big trouble if that candy remained on the top of my refrigerator all year, within sight, just barely out of reach.
Grieving after a divorce is an animal in itself. There is the loss of not only the relationship, but all the plans and expectations that were made within the framework of that commitment disintegrate as well. Add to that the complexity of feelings that can follow, depending on your circumstances, and recovering and regaining ones footing can feel tentative. Resentment, anger, sadness, regret are like emotional undertow. I am often surprised by how accessible those feelings are even when I’m feeling really good. They are right there, within reach.
Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) is gaining some attention lately, perhaps because it is less focused on changing the inevitable, our feelings. Instead, the focus is on accepting and acknowledging our reactions, choosing a course that honors one’s values, and then taking action. Instead of dwelling in the negative feelings that resurface, through the ACT approach, we can become more objective of our reaction. This practice has been empowering to me as I’ve continued to pursue growth and healing following a painful divorce.
Up to now, my coping skills (exercise, prayer, journaling, self-care) helped me survive throughout a season of loss that broke my heart. More recently, though, I realized that somewhere along the way, I had also expected that I would eventually not be sad or brush up against uglier feelings. I’ve begun to recognize that the tension between grief and moving on to new-and still-good-but-different things may quite possibly always remain. When sadness or anger drift in like unwelcome houseguests, I acknowledge them but don’t make room at the table. They can stand ,or better yet, just get out. But I don’t beat myself up for knowing them.
Gratitude, creativity, and faith satisfy the apatite. Instead of reaching for regret, we can celebrate our strengths and hopes for tomorrow and satiate ourselves with food that brings real comfort. But we must take care in what we leave out on the counter, with life-giving choices in view and reach for the good stuff . . . love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness.
Slamming the door to ensure it was closed tightly, I secured the lock and sat back in my velvety, maroon-colored seat. I was humbled by this responsibility, palms sweating at the tiniest bit of daylight that occasionally made its way through the sealed door. Dad shouted, “ALL CLEAR!” just before firing up the engine to get the propeller spinning on the front of the plane. We all sat in our usual spots; Dad in the pilot’s seat; my oldest brother up front as the co-pilot; me facing my youngest brother; who sat next to my mom, facing my middle brother who sat next to my right. We were boxed in and ready to go wherever Dad had planned–a business trip to Boston, New York City, a stop in Pennsylvania to see Grandma and Grandpa or one memorable journey crossing the expanse of water between the tip of Florida and the Keys.
The air plane was fodder for memories of childhood friends throwing up due to air sickness not previously mentioned before we took flight and the science of determining whether a winter coat doth a good barf bag make; for hypothetical ponderings about the harrowing landing I could pull off in the case of a mid-flight emergency; and the cold winter night, just before Christmas my dad let me have the controls as we descended into Tennessee to pick up my grandmother so she could come spend Christmas with us.
From one summer to the next, we packed our soft-sided luggage and flew from Missouri to Montana, Maine, Minnesota, Canada, Tennessee, Georgia, Illinois, and so on for fishing trips, family camps, beach vacations, and, in the case of my family, many golf outings. And while I’ve received some degree of hassling over the years from my club-wielding family about my disdain for golf, one thing wasn’t lost on me.
Only a year or so prior to the purchase of our infamous Cherokee 2174 Sierra, as I remember it being called, my second brother had suffered from a near-fatal brain tumor that brought our family all too close to the edge of what could have been a tragic loss. For my parents, this would have been a third hit, in the wake of losing their first child just weeks before she was to be born and their second to a tragic drowning three weeks before his third birthday. My parents were all too familiar with such heart ache.
And much to the chagrin of the kids in my neighborhood who hailed us as being “rich,” the airplane was more of a way to shake our veritable finger at the suffering that life brings than any show of wealth. My Dad decided to seize the day; to be grateful for the resources that enabled us with the opportunity to do so by flying across the country on family vacations that we would not have otherwise taken and to live a dream that he had to be a pilot because, after all, each of us only has today. As life would have it, he sold the plane on the heels of losing his job my freshman year of high school, but the memories had already been made, good memories.
I was thinking of this mid-lunch today with a dear friend as we talked about life and the meaning of suffering, how basically, there is no meaning to be found in suffering alone. Instead, we impose meaning upon it–to get through it, over it, beyond it. We keep living in the face of pain and death, heartbreak and loss because life is still there to be lived even in loss, even in struggle.
She shared of the power we have to change our story as she had done herself. When facing the declining health and death of her brother in a way all-too-familiar to how she had lost her own father at a young age, she chose to change the story and the inner dialogue that she’d known the first time around. No longer was she a victim of life’s circumstances but, instead, a cancer-survivor herself who could lovingly support her nephews as they faced the loss of their dad. She recognized the power to change her story and re-wrote her response to the hardships that life was throwing her family’s way. Even recently, in her own recurrence of cancer, she shared of the presence of God with her when she had good reason to feel very alone.
There is no meaning in suffering, no meaning that arises alone. Meaning is made. Meaning is found by looking, not by passively letting grief and life’s disappointments settle in around us to take captive our dreams. We find meaning in reaching out to others outside of our pain to meet them in theirs. We rally for beauty to rear its head in the aftermath of our agony. We rally for joy to follow in the wake of our losses. There is light. At the end of the tunnel, there is still life. Everything doesn’t happen for just any reason. We are the reason for which everything happens, to awaken us to life in all its forms, even the life we find in death, in hardship, in loss and disappointments.
All of this circled right back around to the memory of my dad buying that plane, not your everyday purchase. We can each make a gesture, be it large or small, to live outside of our pain, to recognize the gifts that are right before us both in relationships and resources, to live life regardless of our circumstances. And in the moment we do this, we open the door to opportunities we cannot know until they are had. But they are endless; and they are beautiful. Rally for them.