What else is a heart for?

So, it’s going to be Rachel Held Evans week here at On the Banks blog.

I have never been a person to get super invested in celebrities. I remember at the end of 2016, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds died within days of each other. It was so sad, but it was not something I grieved over. I appreciated and admired these women, but I was not broken up by their deaths, and I’ll be honest, I didn’t really get it that there were people for whom this was a thing.

But, as with many things in life, if you give it time, it will make sense.

Rachel Held Evans is famous to me, and so relateable — she married her college boyfriend, had two young children, wrestled with her faith, lived in a small town in the South. She wrote things I enjoy reading.

Now she is suddenly, tragically and inexplicably gone. Much too soon. And I feel a familiar feeling. It is as though my heart has a thousand cracks in it, and when I think of her, her unfinished work, her family — my heart breaks.

Is my grief like that of her husband, her babies, her parents or her close friends? Of course not.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a kind of grief.

I am comforted by the outpouring of stories from other internet people. (Search twitter for #becauseofRHE or #prayforRHE and you will be moved, I promise). And Sarah Bessey for her strength and comfort to the community of people who loved Rachel Held Evans as she faced the loss of her own dear friend and colleague.

If you are not well-acquainted with grief, my first thought is that  Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant should be required reading for you (and possibly everyone). In it, Sandberg gives an account of the sudden and heartbreaking loss of her beloved husband Dave. She uses her own experience as a kind handbook for the rest of us to find our way through life’s difficulties.

And, as it turns out, the Option B website has a treasure trove of resources and specific tips for how to be there for someone else who is grieving, which is wonderful.

Second, GQ did a remarkable profile on Stephen Colbert just before he went on the air as the new host of The Late Show. Colbert was one of seven children, and his father and several of his siblings died in a tragic plane crash when Colbert was 10. He said the most remarkable thing in his interview: “I love the thing I most wish had not happened.”

Here’s the whole section of the interview:

“And the world,” he said. “It’s so…lovely. I’m very grateful to be alive, even though I know a lot of dead people.” The urge to be grateful, he said, is not a function of his faith. It’s not “the Gospel tells us” and therefore we give thanks. It is what he has always felt: grateful to be alive. “And so that act, that impulse to be grateful, wants an object. That object I call God. Now, that could be many things. I was raised in a Catholic tradition. I’ll start there. That’s my context for my existence, is that I am here to know God, love God, serve God, that we might be happy with each other in this world and with Him in the next—the catechism. That makes a lot of sense to me. I got that from my mom. And my dad. And my siblings.”

He was tracing an arc on the table with his fingers and speaking with such deliberation and care. “I was left alone a lot after Dad and the boys died…. And it was just me and Mom for a long time,” he said. “And by her example am I not bitter. By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.” Maybe, he said, she had to be that for him. He has said this before—that even in those days of unremitting grief, she drew on her faith that the only way to not be swallowed by sorrow, to in fact recognize that our sorrow is inseparable from our joy, is to always understand our suffering, ourselves, in the light of eternity. What is this in the light of eternity? Imagine being a parent so filled with your own pain, and yet still being able to pass that on to your son.“

It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering,” he said. “Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness.” He smiled in anticipation of the callback: “ ‘You gotta learn to love the bomb,’ ” he said. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10. That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it. So that’s why. Maybe, I don’t know. That might be why you don’t see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It’s that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”

I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.

I asked him if he could help me understand that better, and he described a letter from Tolkien in response to a priest who had questioned whether Tolkien’s mythos was sufficiently doctrinaire, since it treated death not as a punishment for the sin of the fall but as a gift. “Tolkien says, in a letter back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” Colbert knocked his knuckles on the table. “ ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’ ” he said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

He was 35, he said, before he could really feel the truth of that. He was walking down the street, and it “stopped me dead. I went, ‘Oh, I’m grateful. Oh, I feel terrible.’ I felt so guilty to be grateful. But I knew it was true.

“It’s not the same thing as wanting it to have happened,” he said. “But you can’t change everything about the world. You certainly can’t change things that have already happened.”

I found myself looking for this today as a number of unanswerable questions came up for me about this death, life, prayer, and basically everything.

I admire Colbert’s word and attitude. I don’t know if I’m there with any of the griefs I carry with me. But I appreciate the way he owns his grief. In another instance, Colbert says:

“I’ve always liked that phrase ‘He was visited by grief,’ because that’s really what it is. Grief is its own thing. It’s not like it’s in me and I’m going to deal with it. It’s a thing, and you have to be okay with its presence. If you try to ignore it, it will be like a wolf at your door.”

For those of us who are left with the gift and burden of remembering someone who left us, even under the best of circumstances, our grief is something we carry with us. It is the love and care that we still feel for a person who is not here to share that love. And it is important. It is an important part of loving and an important part of being.

I also think that as a group, we can be kinder to those who are grieving. Grief is something we get used to, perhaps. It is something that we can accept. But, as Colbert describes, I think a loss will always leave us broken in some way.

Finally, I’ve heard several interviews lately in which women (from Melinda Gates, to Alice Walker, to Joanna Macy) offer the advice that in the face of the world’s suffering, we simply must let our heart break.

Macy says: “It’s OK for our hearts to be broken over the world. What else is a heart for?”

If we try to push through, ignore, or tune out the pain — we will break.

Joanna Macy’s On Being interview finishes with this quote, a reflection on the death of her husband of 56 years and also her grief over the health of our planet:

“You’re always asked to sort of stretch a little bit more. But actually, we’re made for that. There’s a song that wants to sing itself through us, and we’ve just got to be available. Maybe the song that is to be sung through us is the most beautiful requiem for an irreplaceable planet or maybe it’s a song of joyous rebirth as we create a new culture that doesn’t destroy its world.

But in any case, there’s absolutely no excuse for making our passionate love for our world dependent on what we think of its degree of health, whether we think it’s going to go on forever.

Those are just thoughts anyway. But this moment, you’re alive. So you can just dial up the magic of that at any time.”

Today, I’m taking comfort in the knowing that grief is a part of love, it’s a part of living. And oddly, being broken is a vital part of being whole.

 

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