After 13 years of marriage, it is a joy to reflect on the growth that has occurred since the experience I share below. I remain deeply grateful for the beauty that such broken times can become; and this reflects one of the most redemptive, restorative and valuable experiences of my life.
“That counseling ain’t gonna help no one,” the speculation rolled off Marco’s sorrowful lips, no hint of their familiar bitterness. “We’re still gonna think the whole day about how he died. The driver was stoned—ran right into Dennis on the side of the road while the mother of his unborn child watched from their car. It just wasn’t fair, you know. All he ever did was smile.”
My teacher-self paused slightly, there in the hallway, to ponder the meaning his words held. Just a week before, I’d sent Marco, once again, to the vice-principal for lack of respect. I’d never really bought into his tough-guy shell; nonetheless, he’d pushed the limit too far that day.
Yet through his words today, my original suspicions were confirmed—his heart was breaking, life was unfair, and he wanted more than what these days offered. With shrugs of “I don’t care” and “none-a-yo-business,” he liked to pretend he was hopeless. But in the few words he shared, I suspected he was closer to hope than he let on.
As Carl says in Willa Cather’s O Pioneers, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” This simple commentary seems haunting when one of the human stories repeats itself to those who have not yet experienced it.
Grief is always new. Strange how it is not something to which we comment, “Been there, done that, movin’ on.”
Loss paralyzes us. The world appears to stop, as all that was seemingly urgent and important fades away.
A son loses his father and we all stop to weep. A mother loses her hopeful companion and our hearts sink in pain. After all these years here on earth, one would think we might be used to death and pain by now.
All these years here on earth, and I would think I’d be used to some death and pain by now.
No chance for me either.
When one of Willa’s human stories repeated itself, fiercely, in my life for the first time, it sent me reeling. While I knew this story had been told over and over for generations, it still caught me off guard, still snatched my breath away.
We had been married for only a few months, and each month of marriage had grown more difficult than the last. In short, the intimacy of such a relationship had forced us to face the depravity of our true selves. Truly, the heart is deceitful above all things; and it was in marriage that we finally were forced to face our long denied deceit of stubborn habits, selfish expectations, and unrealistic dreams. Disappointment surged as I grappled with the reality of truly knowing and loving everything about another despite his flaws.
Flaws, I chuckle, such an understatement of the tears, the fights, the misunderstandings! And yet, to overcome this trial, I had to allow our intimacy to become far more ugly, painful, and revolting than I had ever anticipated.
We entered the counselor’s office with some trepidation, fearful that if we acknowledged our struggle aloud, it would destroy us. But in that small room, a gentle, observant soul with a white board and a marker set us off on a journey toward a deep, no-holds-barred intimacy that is taking a lifetime to develop—far from Hollywood’s fluff-of-the-month romance story.
This intimacy became the microscope through which I was examined without relent. It smooshed me flat on its viewing slide, no cell left unseen. I was humiliated to be seen for what I truly was—yet also relieved to finally come out of hiding. In the past, such transparency had appeared quite appealing to me. To know and be known beckoned as the pinnacle of human experience. Yet now that it was actually happening, it felt like it was the inferno. Put simply, I did not want my happily imagined knight-in-shining-armor-husband or Disney-princess-self to be tarnished.
My starry dreams melted to realistic faults as I learned that, in marriage, we live with human beings, not human dreams. My high hopes crashed to humdrum expectations as I faced the reality that even I myself could not measure up to my own standards of perfection. In the pit of my stomach, I had discovered both the deep disappointment and the great hope in life.
Sometimes I was tempted to sugarcoat my disappointments and pretend that life was just plain peachy, that I had no problems or sore emotions. Yet in more sacred moments, I would speak solely from the disappointment in that pit of my stomach, from my own personal tragedy of life, “I so wish this story of pain and disappointment weren’t repeating itself on me,” and silently let my long withheld tears fall.
Through my tears, unexpectedly, I read another’s story of tragedy with an odd hope: “We can use any tragedy as a stumbling block or a stepping stone,” comments Glyn, a Lou Gehrig’s patient very near to death. “I hope [my death] will not cause my family to be bitter. I hope I can be an example that God is wanting us to trust in the good times and the bad. For if we don’t trust when times are tough, we don’t trust at all.” (In Max Lucado, The Applause of Heaven, Word Publishing, 1990, 5).
On encountering these words, hope emerged from that same pit of my stomach. While the nature of my current tragedy stemmed from an entirely different experience than Glyn’s, I had caught an oh-so-slight glimpse of those who faced their own failures and disappointments and pain. I caught a glimpse of why it had come to me.
In one fleeting moment, a glimmer of hope shone onto the shadows of my disappointment.
In slow and small moments, the glimmer grew to a beam and illuminated all that I was. It illuminated my fear to trust, to believe that hope may still be there even when all I saw were shadows. It melted away the sugarcoated lies in which I had buried myself and shamelessly exposed my fear of transparency. In one slight flicker, it changed the lens through which I had been viewing hope.
The counselor put her marker down, and grinned subtly at the realizations I was making. Through tears, I looked beyond myself to see my husband for the first time—a broken but redeemed soul encountering the story just as fiercely as I was.
From pits of despair, the psalmist often proclaims variations on the theme of “My hope is in you, my savior, my Lord” (e.g. Ps. 25, 42, 130). It is difficult to imagine that the psalmist’s picture of hope as a romantic sunset and trouble-free life. He does not allow for this misinterpretation when he speaks of his enemies attacking or his heart anguishing within him or his body wasting away. The hope of the psalmist stems from a view of his savior that outlasts his own tragedy. His hope stretches to a life beyond his own.
It is with this view that my own disappointment began to mingle with hope. No longer are the recurring tragedies I encounter – both big stories and little ones – characterized solely by their shadows.
The light has shown itself, and I am stepping, albeit slowly, toward it. It may be that many remaining steps will hold great sorrow, struggle, and pain; I have no way to know. Yet when I face the light, the shadow is now cast behind me rather than leading the way.
What I do know is that Marco was right: hearts break, life is unfair, and we deserve more than what these days give us. It is only when I allow my disappointment in this life to surface, when I actually hold it in my hands and look it in the eye that I catch a glimpse of how “hope does not disappoint us.”
When God comes to us at our most powerless moments, who among us is able to stand (Rom. 5:4-6)?
Who among us even wants to?
Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard
“We sleep to time’s hurdy-gurdy; we wake, if ever we wake, to the silence of God. And then, when we wake to the deep shores of time uncreated, then when the dazzling dark breaks over the far slopes of time, then it’s time to toss things, like our reason, and our will; then it’s time to break our necks for home. There are no events but thoughts and the heart’s hard turning, the heart’s slow learning where to love and whom. The rest is merely gossip, and tales for other times.”