For this, my last blog from Uganda, I thought I would actually let y'all read some of my final paper for a class here. It pretty much sums up much of what I have learned this Semester. Of course, if I were to try and say all I have learned it would take years, it will take years. So here is a small part.
I am wholly broken. People are broken. Humanity is broken. It has been this way since at least the fall of man, though sometimes I wonder if we were created broken. The beginning of our brokenness is beside the point, however. The point is we are broken. It took me a long time to come to this realization, and once I did I hated it. This semester I have again and again been confronted with human brokenness and each time I have hated it. My instinct in the face of brokenness is flight; turn the other way and run far and fast from it. There have been so many times when I have wanted to run from brokenness this semester. Even as I write this I am fighting a massive urge to run away from a broken reality I have been confronted with. However, if I have learned anything this semester it is that there is a third option. Though they are my instincts, fighting or fleeing are not the only options. The third option is patience; sitting through the shit, letting it wash over me as the grace of Christ, in the hopes of coming out on the other side a new creation.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote a blog on patience in relation to the chapter on patience in Compassion. In my blog, I reflected on what patience actually means and how it is an active discipline, not a passive virtue. The authors of Compassion state, “Patience means to enter actively into the thick of life and to fully bear the suffering within and around us. Patience is the capacity to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell as fully as possible the inner and outer events of our lives” (93). Patience is the third option. Patience asks me to stay in my brokenness and in my family’s brokenness, to experience it fully and with every sense allow it to wash over me. This is terrifying.
In Rwanda, after visiting the Nyamata memorial site (a church were 10,000 people were slaughtered over 3 days), wanted to flee. I didn’t even need to hear the story to feel this pressure of explosive emotions and itching need to run. It was enough to see the bullet holes and piles of clothing, to smell the rotting bones and know deep in me that brokenness was the cause. It took a great deal of restraint mixed with a touch of numbness to remain in the church and hear the blow-by-blow account of what happened. For days after that experience I wanted to flee back to the U.S. and hide from one of the most horrific accounts of human brokenness I have come into contact with. Brokenness scares me and sends me into a panic. Why? What is so terrifying about it that I need to run from it?
My first real encounter with human brokenness happened when I was 17 and my parents split up. It took years for me to finally be able to accept the broken state of my parents. In fact, I still have a hard time accepting this. What has been hardest to accept is that it is a permanent condition; while on this earth, my parents will never be unbroken. This means it will always be challenging to be in relationship with them.
Growing up, I lived in what I thought was a perfect family. I also thought I matured early and was pretty good at being in relationships with people. My life was whole and unblemished, or so I thought. I didn’t know until later in life that this isn’t a possible reality, nor was it ever my actual reality. In the words of Switchfoot, “My world is wrong / My world is a lie that’s come true.” The world I lived in was a lie. It was a world of perfection. My perfect world blew up in my face, though, and brought me abruptly into reality. Reality meant not only seeing my family’s brokenness but my own as well. I saw my lack of maturity, host of insecurities, and many shortcomings in relationships. This terrified me because I had no tools to deal with brokenness, nor was I prepared to live in a broken world. I was scared of being broken myself and of never feeling whole and complete.
I had reached a point before this semester of feeling able to sit in my brokenness and not flee in panic. I thought I was through the labor of learning to live with it, but I was wrong. In a sense I had done this, but in reality I had only learned to resist the temptation to literally flee. I still found ways to flee from brokenness within myself. In Dan Allender’s book, To Be Told, he says, “To turn away from, rather than embrace and learn from, tragedy is a double loss. We lose not only in the original harm, but we add to that harm by closing our heart.… If we face our tragedies with an open heart, we will become more tender toward ourselves and others” (87). I was still facing tragedy with a closed heart. I thought it was the only way to survive tragedy, because if I left my heart open it would mean fully experiencing the tragedy I found myself in the midst of. Fully experiencing the sorrow, anguish and injustice of what had happened to my family, to Rwandans, meant death in my heart and mind. I thought it would kill me.
However, while reading Compassion, I started to wonder if this was the case. Would I actually die if I let myself be fully immersed in the present sorrow? Or is it my desperation to escape the sorrow that causes me to fear it in such a way? I started to wonder what would happen if I instead chose to stay in the tragedies of my life and of other people’s lives. Would this be life-giving or life-taking?
Surrounding all of these thoughts is the ever-present tug on my heart that I think is my calling. The tug is towards knowing, naming and feeding. I ache to be known fully by those close to me, and this ache has been translating into a passion to really know people. Not in a share-your-life-story way, but more of a what’s-in-your-heart way. In being known people are restored and life is given.
Naming goes hand-in-hand with being known. In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door, Naming is a calling given to people. The role of a Namer is described as follows: “A Namer has to know who people are, and who they are meant to be” (97). A Namer fights against Un-naming, that is, taking away from a person everything that makes them uniquely them. Knowing a person is vitally important to naming them and helping them see everything that makes them uniquely who they are.
In relation to both of those is feeding. I love cooking and I love feasting with people. I also believe that in feasting around a table life is given and shared; literally in the food, but metaphorically in the trust and love passed around. Feasting with people requires a certain level of trust and often vulnerability. I find no greater satisfaction than sitting around a table with my family or close friends eating warm and colorful food and relating the events that have shaped our lives in recent days.
Each of these callings requires me to be present: present with myself, with those in my life, and with God. This is fine when I am content, happy and have a full stomach. But what happens when the cupboards are empty, the family is in shambles, and the world feels like it will literally crumble around me at any moment? Those are the moments when fight or flight takes over, and you do what you must to survive. In those situations what happens if I take the third option: patience?
The authors of Compassion say, “But what really counts is that in the moments of pain and suffering someone stays with us. More important than any particular action or word of advice is the simple presence of someone who cares” (13). Shortly after finding out some hard news, I sat behind IMME quarters (where off-campus students hang out), playing guitar, hoping the song I was singing would somehow take away the grief and remove me from the brokenness staring me in the face. Drew Duffy wandered back there and sat down. He hadn’t brought a computer or a book or a notebook. It was just him. And he sat with me for a long time; sometimes we would talk or play a song, a lot of it was sitting in silence. I was wrestling with the tragedy in my heart and soul, and he was present with me.
Similarly, on Ssese Island, I was again in a place of extreme vulnerability, puking and shaking with fever. This time it was Brian who stayed with me; for a long time, as I tried to fall asleep but couldn’t, he read A Wind in the Door to me. I have rarely felt so completely cared for than in these two moments of tragedy and suffering. Drew and Brian both chose patience in those moments. They knew I was suffering, and they could have run from it. Pappa God knows I wanted to! But they sat with me, not trying to fix it or take it away, just sitting with me and letting the shit wash over me, leaving me a new creation. That had more impact on my heart than a cliché phrase ever could.
In my life, I will be faced again and again with brokenness. I see that now, and I still hate it. I hate knowing that “each person living in a fallen world will encounter abandonment, betrayal, and shame” (Allender 76). My heart sometimes breaks with this knowledge. However, I have learned that I do not have to flee or fight in the face of brokenness. I can stand in it, be it my own or another’s, and patiently face the horrors of it in solidarity with my brothers and sisters in the world, letting the love of God mix in with it and create a bittersweet bath of life.
See you on the other side!