The Familiar Abyss

“What are you scared about the most?”

It was a question that cut to my core. Innocuous, it would seem, as something that we all ask of those that we know; but given the right context and timing, it cut to my core.

“So, what are you scared about the most?”

It’s a pretty normal question, a conversation starter, or a “getting–to-know-you” group question, but this time, because it was asked the evening after I had received the diagnosis of the presence of a moderately active cancer in my prostate, it was particularly pertinent. That I received this news two days after we commemorated the first anniversary of Ngaire’s passing wasn’t lost on me either.

After the initial blow subsided, the clouds cleared and I, again stood looking into this seemingly bottomless abyss of the unknown and unfriendly. It seemed strangely familiar and not quite as fearful as I remembered it. In fact, as I talked to a friend about it later in the day, it dawned on me that there was actually treasure to be found here. However, I will have to climb down into this hole; at some point, I will have to leap across the gap, and I will get to the other side.

There is a pretty good success rate with this type of cancer. For the sake of those who love me, I’ll do all I can to make sure that I’m in the positive percentage. Nonetheless, it is quite sobering knowing that I have “the worm” inside me: that which could end my life is resident within.

The reality that we tend to ignore rather well in our society, is that we are all terminal and, as C.S. Lewis said, “Death has a way of focussing one’s attention.”

So, what am I scared about most? Oddly enough, it’s not that I might die, or the numerous unpleasant procedures involved; it’s my mental health.

Since a couple of years before Ngaire died, I found myself gradually sliding from being my normally robust, buoyant self into being frequently depressed, anxious and fearful, particularly through the long hours of the night. To even contemplate the possibility of entering that darkness again, having been free of it for many months now, is more frightening than anything else.

As always, there is tremendous strength drawn from the love of my friends and my boys; I am grateful beyond words.

Well over a year ago, I committed to document Ngaire’s journey towards a lung transplant; within a few months she was gone, having never made it that far. The documented journey became the path of grief and so many aspects of relationship and love lost, all the way through into the open space.

So now it’s time to head off into the woods again – pop on the boots, tighten the belt and strike up the hiking song……whatever. I may not be the Happy Wanderer, but I hope to walk this path with a great degree of peace. Thank you to those who are walking with me.

Stay tuned for updates.

Tell Me When….

This piece has been a long time coming, with lots of revisions and changes, because in it, I’m not just talking about me and my feelings and experiences, but also of the feelings of those around me – at least to some extent. I want to treat them gently and with respect. So here goes:

I was talking to a close friend the other day about this whole process: grief and healing, loss and recovery. He said something that I had been suspecting but as I have never been through this before (at least not at such an intimate level as having lost my wife) have been wondering if I should expect something more.

He said that he thought that the way I had engaged in my grief, embracing the great variety of issues and emotions, then processing them through my writing, had expedited the whole experience. That’s how I feel.

Another friend told me that I had “grieved well.”

“Processing” is a clinical word for such an organic, spiritual progression; and progression is what it is, as I look back over the months. I am now at a place where I can look at Ngaire’s things with a sense of love and gratitude rather than heartache. I know that there will always be moments that will overwhelm; I’ve seen that in others, sometimes even after many years.

As you’ve probably deduced from reading these blogs, I talk to people a lot; I like to have “sounding-boards”: people whom I trust to not only reflect back to me what I am saying – to help me see it more clearly – but people who will also give me another perspective that I may be missing.

In a different conversation to another friend, I said that I felt that it seemed much longer than the nine months since Ngaire died; in looking back and reading my blogs again, it really felt like years. In fact, if I had to put a number on it, I’d say, about two and a half years.

I have started going through her things now, to pass them on to the people that I know she would love to have them, to keep some for my boys and their prospective partners, and to keep some myself. I have had help, but it has been an almost pleasurable experience.

I am a little surprised at how quickly this time has arrived. There is none of the dread that I had been anticipating, none of the melancholy or even grief. I have some sadness, but also some joy in knowing that I will be sharing some of her things with those she loved.

I have heard stories of spouses who never address these things, who are perpetually in a state of waiting for their loved-one’s return, so the slippers, the dressing-gown, the favourite shirt, dress, jacket, earrings….whatever, remain for the owner to come and step back into them. What I am saying is that I now know that she is not coming back. I referred to this in my last blog regarding dreams and how they were an indicator of me coming to terms with her not being here. Now that I know, I will be doing what needs to be done.

 

As usual, I have been doing a lot of pondering; I have wondered about this whole epoch of “moving on” i.e. stepping into the next phase of life, as it were, whatever that looks like. These are words that run through my mind: newness, uncertainty, promise, apprehension.

In my last blog I wrote of the cost of being in this place now, to me personally, and to my family. Of course, I realise that it is not helpful to stay in that headspace.

Some years ago, Ngaire and I invested significantly in property in Brisbane. Rather than an investment, it turned out to be a massive burden that we carried for years, which ended up costing many times more than what we had invested, just for us to eventually be free of it. But, we couldn’t stay in the pain and loss of that experience. We had to move on and leave it behind.

While the analogy is inadequate, I feel that there is a clear sense of moving on now; that it is not helpful to remain in grief and loss, nor do I want to any more.

I have even noticed a difference in my response to others when they ask how I am. Normally, it will be something like, “I’m doing fine, thanks,” or “OK.” Now, I actually find myself saying, “Good.” I’m pretty happy about that.

This whole process has, however, been intense; those of you who read these posts regularly will know that I have embraced the grief, engaged in each issue and experience and not let go until I have wrung every last drop from it.

I spoke of conversations earlier. Some folks that I know who are church pastors in New Zealand were part of a recent weekend away with my church community. Hamish told me about a lady in their church whose husband had died some time before. She had met another guy whose wife had also died under similar circumstances. They ended up together and, as part of their commitment to each other, gave permission to have their own individual “space” around birthdays, anniversaries, etc., that related to their lost partners. I thought that that was beautiful and showed a depth of understanding and love that can only be appreciated by someone who has walked the path; someone who is not intimidated by the intimacy that you had with another, who is brave and loving enough to allow such freedom.

So, sitting in this classroom of life, looking out at all the students who are parts of me and my questions, I can see a boy about three rows back, with his hand up, a quizzical expression on his face, along with a slight sense of embarrassment as I give him permission to talk.

“Sir, does that mean you are moving on?”

“Good question, young man,” I cautiously respond.

This is an area that Ngaire and I touched on, though not in any depth. She recognised that, should she not make it through, I was still young enough to consider life with someone new.

Her illness lasted over many years, and the possibility of her death was never far from my thoughts; in my own heart, I had made a commitment long ago, that if Ngaire died, I wouldn’t even consider a relationship with someone else until my boys were out of school; that would have been an unfair stress that young hearts may not have been able to cope with. As I’ve mentioned before Eddy – our youngest – finished up at school just a few days before Ngaire died.

Since then, I have laid out the journey on these pages: the various aspects and issues associated with the path of grief and loss; I have wrestled and wept, struggled and somehow come through. Now, I stand here on open ground; the cloud has parted, the sun is shining and there is hope on the road ahead. I feel good, not just OK. I don’t doubt that there will be moments which will still overwhelm from time to time, but generally I feel strong and at peace. There is, however, a consideration that I find a little unusual, possibly even perplexing.

I have noticed over the years that part of this process of “moving on”, specifically about beginning another relationship, is almost a taboo area, about which many people have strong opinions. I have seen people, including myself, who have been hurt and angry when someone close has begun a relationship with another, sometimes within a time-frame that may be considered too soon. From my pondering, I throw out a couple of things to consider:

In looking at my own judgement of others in the past, I realised that, even though it may not have been conscious, I had made an assumption of, “How can they just forget their wife/husband like that?” It is almost as though I had felt them to be discarding or cheating on their spouse.

One thing I hadn’t allowed, is that the journey of the bereaved person is one of which I had no context to help me even remotely understand. The depths plumbed by a grieving spouse are simply beyond those who haven’t been there. Plus, how that person deals with and processes the pain of their life is entirely their business and I have no right to judge them.

For me personally, I know that I will always carry my love for Ngaire with me and, like the couple of whom I spoke earlier, hope that this love be respected in any future relationship.

Of course, people who actually have a right to be concerned or emotionally jarred are those who are closely related e.g. children and siblings of the one who has died. A father or mother beginning a new relationship can be hurtful to a child, if not handled properly – even years down the track. So I think that it is reasonable to expect, particularly if close relatives or friends are involved, that there be sensitivity and lots of conversation.

My boys for instance would and should be the first to know; in fact, I would not consider moving forward in another relationship without them being OK about it themselves. Which brings me to my next deliberation: perhaps some people may be upset or judgemental about a bereaved person moving on, because they have not been able to process their own grief, or have avoided visiting the pain. I suspect that some reasonably close to me may be in that situation and, in my pondering have realised that, apart from a gentle conversation, there is nothing I can do about it. I cannot process their pain for them, nor do I believe that it is my responsibility to wait until they can cope.

It’s a weird, new world and in some respects, this whole process is a metaphor of life, which teaches me that even if I walk in love, there will be pain for others, no matter how sensitive I am. We are each responsible for our own lives, and often our judgement of others hides a deeper need within ourselves.

If all of us are to move on, we have to deal with the pain gently, but thoroughly and leave it behind. Coincidentally, I read this quote last night:

“Don’t get rid of the pain until you’ve learned its lessons…hold the pain of being human until God transforms you through it. Then you will be an instrument of transformation for others.” – Richard Rohr

For that to happen requires us to look into the pain, not as our enemy, or something to be shunned, but as that which will help us to live more fully, more alive. I am convinced that those who walk through the pain are those who know true joy. I think that that is why, when someone asks me how I am, I can now say, “Good.”

Life, but not as we know it…..

On the 15th March, 1991, after much revisiting, renewal and rebirthing, Ngaire and I were remarried. We had been separated for over five years and divorced for three of them.

After the first six months of our separation, the dust began to settle. We found that a kind of civility grew between us because of our desire to have a unified approach to the parenting of our son, who was only two and a half when we parted; we needed to agree on many things.

One of the things that was important to us both was that neither of us use Jordan, our son, in a manipulative way in order to push our own side with respect to the breakdown of our marriage; we purposed to make him feel as loved as possible, and to do this would require us to keep our “issues” for private conversation; it also meant that we needed to do our best to resolve them so as not to have ongoing tension between us.

After some time it dawned on us that, of all our friends and family, we were the ones who supported each other the most. Of course, there were friends who were brilliant. I can think of a couple who stood by me closely; Ngaire also had a couple of friends who loved and supported her; but many others only had opinions or advice; many simply didn’t know what to do – particularly with me, as I was the “bad boy” in the break-up, having dissolved more or less into a jellyfish, numbed by alcohol, totally lacking in self-belief or vision and carrying the full weight of responsibility for a broken marriage.

Ngaire was deeply hurt; for years she had felt that she didn’t know who the stranger sleeping next to her was. When she discovered that I had been unemployed for over a year and had spent most days drinking, it all made sense.

In retrospect, for a couple as broken as we were to make any kind of positive decision about parenting, borders on the miraculous. I guess the thing that I think is really significant, is that our desire to have a unified approach in our love for our son was the catalyst in our communication.

Love rears its head again. What a powerful force; or are we wrong to even think of is as a force? Perhaps it is that which holds everything together.

However, even though Ngaire and I were civil to each other, that was a long way from getting back together. Whenever anyone asked either of us if we had considered that we might do that, the answer from both of us was always an emphatic, “No!”

It was occasionally followed by the qualifier, “Well, unless God does a miracle.” But neither of us really believed that; in fact, after a couple of years we met for a coffee and agreed that the marriage was dead, so what do you do with a dead thing? Bury it.

The divorce was amicable in every way; but I do recall a tremendous sense of loss as I sat in the courtroom and the judge brought his gavel down.

Shortly afterwards Ngaire decided to pursue some art opportunities overseas. She took Jordy with her. I stayed and worked, putting life back together.

When Ngaire returned with Jordy after eight months, she wanted to meet with me. I cooked dinner for her one night and she began to tell me the other part of her reason for going away. She said that she had always heard that it takes two for a marriage to break down, so she wanted to do some searching of her own heart, to see how – or if – she had contributed in any way. She asked God to show her.

Incidentally, I know that I am not sharing any more than she had always been comfortable to share; in fact, I think that in a lovely way, she was proud of the way her desire to be “clean” had born fruit.

I remember that night so clearly. She went through the things that she felt had been as instrumental in bringing our relationship down as my actions. Then she asked my forgiveness.

I had asked her forgiveness many times, and she had graciously given it; but when she asked forgiveness of me, I recall a moment of bewilderment, as if something completely loud, irrational and irrelevant had happened in the room, then a light shone on a deep hidden pain within me, that I hadn’t even recognised. By this time, Ngaire was in tears and asking me again to forgive her, and as I did, the pain surged up and out of me in a rush of tears.

There were many tears that night and much healing. The freedom that followed for both of us was amazing, as if chains had fallen off; and the love that was dead and buried had been suddenly and astoundingly resurrected, but not in some second-hand, band-aid way. It was new, exciting and fresh.

We spent a lot of time in counselling over the following couple of years, getting some understanding on our own and each other’s motivations, rebuilding our lives together on a solid foundation.

That night of forgiveness was almost exactly twenty-five years ago. It was miraculous, replete with healing and resurrection, and from it new lives were created. Jordy was seven when we remarried , and was an integral part of our wedding service. Our vows were said to him, almost as much as to each other, because his family was coming back together too.

Though we had hurdles and differences to overcome, our lives were rich and full; we were blessed with restoration in every way: two more beautiful boys and another twenty-two years of marriage that never saw us short of love.

Because one person chose to sacrifice self for the search for truth, so much beauty was born. I will always be indebted to her for that and for the fact that she was ruthless in the search for personal truth; I am convinced that this was how she loved so well.

I am publishing this now, rather than on March 15th, because the days and weeks following our night of forgiveness were the newly plowed and sown field from which the rest of our blessed lives were harvested. As I said, it was at this time of year.

A final word: to ask for and extend forgiveness is an acknowledgement from your heart that love is the ultimate yardstick for life. If we choose not to forgive, we limit our ability to truly love anyone, ever. If we want to live in peace, forgiveness is not an option.Image

Stages

February is always the most humid month in Sydney; days and nights enervate. I think of those who suffer with depression and wonder if these humid nights are a greater burden. I am so thankful for my ceiling fan.

As I said last time, my sense of loss is no longer as painful; grief has modulated into a very specific loneliness for which no company or friendship can quite provide adequate balm. Having said that, the proposition of nights alone is often daunting and much easier in the company of loved ones.

In looking back over my notes on this journey, I spent a bit of time looking at the “Stages of Grief” as outlined by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her book, On Death and Dying. I thought it would be pertinent to see how much of my last seven months has mirrored this framework. It should be said that these are not strict, chronological stages; some may be revisited, for example, Stage 4, which is depression.

 

Stage 1 – Denial: The shock of losing a loved one usually hurls us into denial, a state that helps us to survive the loss. It is not so much a denial of what has happened as numbness to the impact of what has happened. In Kübler-Ross’ words, “There is a grace in denial.” That grace allows us to regulate – pace – our feelings of grief; we simply walk, or stumble, through the basic commitments of each day: getting up, showering, having breakfast, etc. This disconnection, if handled properly, will see us gradually begin to ask questions in order to begin the healing process.

For me this process was very real. I could not really write or do much else other than go through the motions, where numbness ruled, apart from the occasional electric jolt when a thought or association would shock into life the monster of grief.

Stage 2 – Anger: Apparently this is the stage where one recognises that denial can’t continue and the questions begin, such as, “Why did this happen to me? Who is to blame?”

I can’t recall being angry. Although I had anticipated Ngaire’s death for many years, hope had arisen in the form of a lung-transplant. When she died, possibly within days of lungs becoming available, the sudden shift from hope to hope shattered was staggering in its finality, like a guillotine-blade through the soul. I had, of course, considered that Ngaire might die; we had to face that very real possibility, as part of the process in preparation for a transplant, not to mention that for her to have a terminal condition was a perpetual reminder of her potentially imminent mortality.

I actually felt that, if she died, I would be angry at God for callously allowing us to hope, only to rob us at the final hurdle (especially after so many hurdles that dear Ngaire had already jumped). However, I wasn’t angry; instead, in the midst of the pain I felt a great peace and an abiding understanding that God is good. I actually don’t get that.

Immediately I hear my own voice saying that this is just another form of denial. Maybe. It could be that this whole process of the last seven months has just been a little padded cell in which I have put myself, protecting that self from hard truth – an extension of denial that is shaded and coloured by the need to fool myself that God is in control and that I am engaging truly in grief and loss; or maybe there is another reality.

Maybe there is a reality – the real reality – that says that I am not fooling myself. I quote from my post-Christmas blog: “Here is the point I grasp: we are all terminal; our time here is finite, whether it be for two years, fifty-six years or a hundred years. In the vast scope of eternity, our time here is less than a breath; too short to waste on self-importance and anything less than what is real.”

Maybe God is good and there is an eternal perspective that exists well outside the confines of my egocentricity, a perspective in which the oneness of creation is paramount and is not particularly ruffled by my need to have answers. I have no other explanation for why I mostly have this peace.

Stage 3 – Bargaining: I think this is more an issue for the one who him/herself has been given a death sentence. The individual bargains with the Higher Being for an extension in years, in exchange for a reformed lifestyle, or some such. I do remember in passing, a comment that I made to Ngaire, after she went, that I would give everything I had to hold her and kiss her and laugh with her one more time.

Stage 4 – Depression: It is during this stage that the grieving person begins to understand the certainty of death and may ask questions like, “My loved one has gone and is not coming back. What is the point in going on?” I recall my father being in depression for an extended period after the death of my mother, despite our best efforts to stand with him and reintroduce him to relationship with his grandchildren after years of being “locked-in” as carer for a wife with Alzheimer’s. One night, as he was leaving our house, having had a great night with us all, he sat in his car, in tears, before he left, and said to me, “I guess I have realised that a lot of people would be very sad, if I wasn’t here.”

He needed to understand, as do we all, that we have value in the lives of others. One of the most significant things that have given me the impetus to work through this whole painful process is that I know that I have almost immeasurable value in the lives of my boys.

I have referred in my blogs to the dark places that I have visited over the last year; it has only been in the last month or so that the frequency of these visits has diminished. Nonetheless, it sometimes doesn’t take much. Just a couple of weeks ago, as I was going to sleep, my mind went to one of the few times that Ngaire cried in fear that she might die; I remembered her saying through her tears, “I don’t want to die….”. I hadn’t even thought of that before, but instantly the rug was pulled out from under my soul, and depression and sleeplessness was my lot for the rest of the night.

According to Kübler-Ross, depression could be referred to as the dress rehearsal for the “aftermath”; feeling sadness, regret, fear and uncertainty is natural at this stage. These emotions show a beginning of acceptance of the situation.

Stage 5 – Acceptance: I guess this is pretty much where I am now. It’s the understanding and attitude of heart that there is a future, and that everything is going to be OK. It is simply what it says:  acceptance of the situation.

Now a number of my friends are facing very solid journeys themselves. One thing that these Stages of Grief don’t account for is that, for those of us who recognise a connection with God, there is always an underlying hope, no matter how hidden it may seem at times.

God’s way is the way of love. His way may include healing; I know more than one person who has been miraculously healed of deadly types of cancer. But, to hark back to a couple of blogs ago, the love of God, in which we trust, is transcendent; that is why we have an underlying hope, because it is not only good for this life but also beyond.

“Neither death, nor life…the present nor the future…nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God…”* and love means hope.

* Romans 8: 38-39

Alone

For those who have only started reading this blog or are reasonably new to it, I am documenting the journey of grief, so if it seems self-indulgent, forgive me; there is method in the madness, in the hope that some may find it helpful.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last wrote and, to be honest, I have felt a little exhausted and daunted at the thought of looking at another aspect of this journey. I thought that there may be time to pause and go through the motions of getting used to routine in this new, unfamiliarly-shaped life. No such luck, I’m afraid.

A dear friend was prompted to send me a text message the other morning, to ask how I was. I’m normally a fairly buoyant person, even through everything that has been going on over the last six months, so I normally present fairly well in work and social contexts. But because of the relationship that I have with this friend, I took some time to think of my answer. I allowed the busyness and short-term attention grabbers to slip away and thought honestly, “How am I?”

The question began to swell in me as I looked into the chamber within that held what I was feeling. I opened the door that day-to-day life had kept reasonably hidden and was suddenly flooded with the realisation that I was incredibly lonely, in fact, it dawned on me that I was never more lonely. I didn’t cry, but the sudden awareness had tears quietly trickling down my face.

Although I recognised that I had been feeling this way for some time, it was still a shock to be confronted by it. I spend time with people every day – friends, family – all of whom are kind, loving, even affectionate in their love. We often speak frankly and share things of our hearts, and yet there seem to be foundational elements of who I am deep inside, that seem to have had their life in communion with Ngaire and only with her.

You could probably think that this is just a convoluted way of saying that I really miss her. Of course I do, but this isn’t the same. In truth, I think I am managing the “missing” reasonably well. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, the pain of losing her is no longer sharp, and I am far more at peace in that regard. No, this is more about the loss of companionship, the communion that was potent and real, even without words. It is the fellowship of spirit that doesn’t exist with another, no matter how much I love them, or they me; the closeness is never matched; the companionship is not soul-to-soul.

Perhaps this is part of the vulnerability of those who have lost a spouse; some quickly hook up with another, presumably to try and reconnect those nerves of the soul that are exposed and unprotected. Maybe it is for other reasons completely and I am just waxing lyrical. I suspect not.

Speaking of waxing lyrical, here is a poem that I wrote for Ngaire two years ago. I did not know how prophetic it would prove to be:

As she sleeps

 

I can only hear her

As she begins

Each gentle exhalation

And yet, her stillness surges,

Her spirit soaring through

The blazing empyrean of the night.

 

Will I close my eyes and meet her –

As if my choice

Or yearning bears a part

In joining another’s destiny –

Her utter all-but-silence

On this plane

Is terrible and beautiful?

 

I cannot pass,

Only move

Cautiously to feel

Her breath’s vital warmth

On my cheek,

Only wonder

At her singular pilgrimage

Across the heavens,

Only hope

That she will be pleased

To wake with me again.

 

The Transcendence of Hope

You will have read that we were just in California for Christmas. Eighteen months ago, Ngaire and I visited Bethel Church in Redding, Northern California. For Ngaire, it was her third visit. Many thousands of people have experienced healing through visiting this place; of this I have no doubt. Ngaire herself, as I have mentioned before, after her first visit to Bethel, went from being highly symptomatic to symptom-free for the eighteen months following. However, after the two subsequent visits, there was no difference. In fact, it was after our last visit that she began to require oxygen therapy twenty-four hours a day.

So why wasn’t she healed? I don’t know. That’s not what I’m writing about today. I will share some thoughts in the future, though.

As the trip was a kind of pilgrimage, it was, almost entirely, contemplative; we read much, talked much, absorbed much, stepped across the “physical divide” much and listened to music, some of which we had just bought.

There was a palpable sense of otherworld-ness as we left the town, escorted down the long driveway of Bethel Church by a bald eagle floating parallel to our car. The new music that we had playing filled us with a sense of hope and seemed to confirm our feelings that healing was imminent.

Yesterday I played that same music for the first time. Instead of melancholy, it again filled me with a sense of hope. Part of me thought that that was quite bizarre. After all, didn’t that hope disappoint? Not only was Ngaire not healed, but she became rapidly worse and continued so until she died, twelve months later.

I think that like many of us, I have had a belief that hope is what you do, so that when something happens to us that is contrary to what we had hoped, our hope is therefore diminished, not to be trusted, or even destroyed. Ngaire died, despite our best hopes; but I think I’m starting to see that our hopes are not Hope.

What if Hope has a life, strength and potency all of its own? What if Hope is something on which we draw, rather than something we whip up or project onto our future as a kind of semblance of our faith?

A few blogs back I spoke of some of the things that I have learnt about faith. One of them is that faith is not about having an expected outcome. While we were away over the Christmas period, I heard a young man say that there is no such thing as an unanswered prayer. His statement got me thinking again about how we have made so much of what we believe into a set of mantras so that we can put God into a manageable framework that helps us to keep things under control and to bring us, hopefully, an expected outcome. If we don’t do that, then God dwells, at least partly, in the unknown and mysterious; this doesn’t work for us.

So our theology becomes a series of “therefores” e.g. God wants to give me good things, and he is a loving father, therefore there is no such thing as unanswered prayer, because he’s just busting to bless me – a little simplistic perhaps, but the problem with so much of what I have learnt is that it is part of this derivative system of belief: the great therefore.

The real issue here is that, depending on what form of logic you use, you can make virtually anything mean what you want it to mean, rather than necessarily what it is saying; just read Plato. But I digress…..kind of…because I was talking about hope.

In the oft-quoted chapter thirteen of the letter to the church in Corinth – a favourite for virtually anyone’s wedding – Paul talks profoundly about the nature of love, that it is, in its purest form, entirely selfless. He then wraps up the chapter with, “These three remain: Faith, Hope and Love, but the greatest is Love.”

He might as well have said, “When everything you believe is boiled down, this is what you’re left with: Faith, Hope and Love.” And it seems that Love is what makes sense of it all.

When I have thought of love, it has usually been associated in my mind and heart with a feeling, something that comes from within, establishing and/or confirming an emotional relationship with another person. But what if those feelings are simply the “exhaust” of a far greater engine? Of course, this is not a new thought with regard to love; greats have shared their wisdom for thousands of years, and the great commonality is that love – real love – is entirely selfless. It is not about what I get; it is about what I willingly lose for the sake of another. In a marriage or life partnership, the beauty in that mutual sacrifice is the gateway to oneness.

Love then, is a way, not a feeling.

So, as I ponder Hope and how it still makes its presence felt in my life after being so disappointed, it really doesn’t make sense unless seen in the context of the way of love.

Maybe people could say that I’m trying to find reasons why my beloved Ngaire died thirty or forty years before her time.

Possibly, but perhaps there’s another way of looking at it. C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed, said, “Nothing will shake a man…out of his merely verbal thinking and his merely notional beliefs. He has to be knocked silly before he comes to his senses. Only torture will bring out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself.”

It is no longer good enough for me to believe a self-serving theology of heaven and prosperity – which, one would think, includes the ongoing presence and love of my life partner – no matter how worthy, if God is not on the same page.

Again, as Lewis says, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered from time to time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?” And again in the same vein, “I need Christ, not something that resembles him.”

I guess this means that I’m discovering the transcendence of hope, because the way of love is transcendent, and that is what makes sense of hope; it is not only superior, but outside of space and time, with a strength and nature of its own that is not dictated by the whims of our desires, no matter how strongly we feel, no matter how painful the path.

 

1. All C.S.Lewis quotes are from A Grief Observed – First published by Faber and Faber 1961

What would she think?

Sometimes it seems that I’m trundling along the railroad of life when a friend, up ahead, pulls a lever that shunts me off onto another line. The other day I had lunch with one such, whom I hadn’t seen since before Ngaire went. He started by saying, “I guess you must be over people asking how you are….”
There is a kind of celebrity attached to being the “other half” of one who was so well and widely loved. It is not the kind of fame that one seeks. But I do appreciate when people ask how I am; mostly I answer with, ”OK”, and then search the eyes to see if this is someone who is able and willing to listen to something deeper.
In a similar way, whenever I start to write, I second-guess myself. Wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve is a saying that, in our society, carries a weight of impotence. You hear it often, usually used in a derogatory way about someone sharing his or her feelings or life issues. Most often, in the political arena, it is used to denote – ever so carefully – a sign of weakness, or of someone not being adequate for the task (but, the qualification is that they’re a nice person). If he is a man, then he is certainly not acting like a man. A man does not express his true feelings; we are taught to cover them up.
I don’t doubt that most of the women who are reading this whole-heartedly approve of a man making himself vulnerable in this way, but I suspect that a lot of the guys might feel pretty uncomfortable. If that’s the case, then I’m sorry guys; I have discovered on this path, that the only way to effectively love and be loved, is to make oneself vulnerable.
So, what is vulnerability? I’ve been tossing this around for a while. Put simply, it is openness, being willing to be known for who you are, warts and all. Within a community – a group of friends, club or church – vulnerability can be our gift to one another. In many respects, it is the only way we can connect with another person, soul-to-soul. When we protect ourselves and don’t allow others in, we are often betraying the fact that we are hiding our shame or sense of inadequacy that if others saw what was within, we would in some way be diminished, humiliated or not accepted. I suspect that machismo mostly hides frightened little boys.
A couple of weekends ago, my dear friend, Mick, talked to a group of us on this very subject:
“Let’s open ourselves up to the gift of vulnerability; start with one or two. Begin to open up; build trust; let down your defences; take some risks….”
Our vulnerability connects with others in a way that no teaching or opinion can because it connects with another’s heart. This is how we read stories and watch movies. Usually the storylines we love the most revolve around the characters that we can most relate to – connect with. Every superhero has a flaw. Why? Not for the sake of the story, but so that the audience can relate to their humanity; otherwise we wouldn’t care about them.
This has been the failing of a number of “competition-type” lifestyle shows. It’s not the format that people care about so much, but the characters. The successful ones don’t build their audience around the competition itself, but around the characters involved, their personalities, feelings and vulnerabilities. Once you can relate to a character, you’re hooked on the show, because you care about what happens to them. Conversely, if the characters are nasty or “stand-offish”, we quickly lose interest and don’t care about what happens, ratings drop and the show is pulled off air, if we’re lucky!
Vulnerability – openness – is also the way that you give others an opportunity to connect with you and give them the chance to be open with you. Your vulnerability creates a “safe place” for others to be open themselves.
So, why go there? Why does it matter? What is so good about being vulnerable with one another?
The way I see it working is, as a two-way street, but usually that will mean someone has to take the first step. Remember that your openness creates a safe place for others to be open themselves, and being vulnerable is the first step towards emotional healing. I am convinced that we wouldn’t, as a society, spend a fraction of what we do on psychologists and counsellors if we practised openness in our close relationships. It is also the entry point for going deeper into life and love; the more open we are prepared to be, the deeper we can go; and there is treasure to be found in the depths.
Are there dangers in practising openness? Sure. Others can perceive it as weakness or that you are “using” openness as a means of getting sympathy or attention – which you may well be. You also make yourself vulnerable to being hurt emotionally, should others take offence at or criticise you.
That’s why it’s important, like my friend Mick said, to start small, just one or two close friends whom you already trust. Open the conversation; start talking about the beauty and depth to be found in openness and vulnerability. Gossip is the enemy of trusting relationships, so be a safe place for your friend and ask them to be that for you. Most close friendships are already at that place, so explore the path together. Open yourself up to the gift of vulnerability.
To some extent, I didn’t mean for this blog to be about this subject, as you can probably tell from the title, so let me be open with you.
I was driving to work the other day, listening to some old music from my youth that pushed all the right “feel-good” buttons (Chicago – Saturday in the Park, for those who need to know). I had the windows down and was singing along, actually feeling a real sense of joy. But even as I contemplated that, my thoughts turned to Ngaire; would she be hurt that I was having a “happy” moment; what would she think?
I began to feel a little guilty, almost ashamed that I could allow myself this indulgence. But, we had walked the deep roads together, and I knew that she had no doubt of my love for her, and I certainly had no doubt of her love for me. Our mutual happiness was one of her greatest desires. So I turned up the music and sang along.