Friday, June 6, 2014

All OK

If I could tell the world just one thing
It would be that we’re all OK.
- Jewel

When I was 4 years old, my mom, two older siblings, and then-infant brother were in a very serious car wreck.

When they got home from the hospital after a day where I waited scared with my 2-year-old sister and a babysitter, my mom and my big brother (who had both sustained serious injuries) settled down to rest. The big brother I hero-worshipped my whole childhood was laid out on the couch in the living room, vivid stitches tracing his forehead in long dark lines, still and quiet as I rarely saw him. My mom rested in her bed, her face black and blue, her arm in a cast.

At the time our rapidly growing 7-person family was living crammed into a tiny house little bigger than your average apartment, so there was just one corner to dash around to move from one invalid to the other. With a deep sense of urgency, I dashed back and forth around that corner, breathlessly asking one question over and over: are you OK?

I didn’t understand how to help, but I was incredibly determined to try. I brought my big brother coloring books and crayons, I brought him some favorite toys, I sat at his side and anxiously watched to see if they would make him better. He seemed grateful, and also tried in his own way to reassure me. I watched him try to engage the things I brought him, but really he just needed rest, so eventually I lapsed into silence and stillness, broken occasionally by the same question all over again: are you OK?

It’s been just about two years shy of two decades since I was that kid. But the more I come to understand myself and the events that are significant to me, the more I understand that I’ve spent a very large portion of the past eight years of my life doing the exact same thing: running back and forth from one person I love to the next, knowing they’re wounded (everybody is in some way), desperate to help, earnestly asking over and over again if they’re OK.

The things that have caused me the most grief in my adult life have not been people who wronged me or betrayed me. Those are things I honestly barely remember more than a moment most of the time. Instead, I have felt the most heartache when I see someone suffering and can’t stem the flow of their tears or bind their ruptured heart’s arteries, when I ask if they’re OK and the lump in their throat makes it so tight they can’t even answer, when nothing I bring them seems to help them get well.

These things haunt me. I want to love people, to be kind, to be a conduit of the compassion I find in Christ. And yet half the time I feel like the 4-year-old dumping coloring books on the lap of her brother with a severe head wound. What can crayons do against wounds such as these?

When I was a teenager, I had to learn how to be OK with myself not being OK (a lesson I will likely spend a lifetime re-learning). Now I am having to learn how to be OK with the fact that the people I love won’t always be OK right away, and maybe sometimes it’s not my fault-- because honestly it’s not about me at all.

There is a kind of self-absorption to thinking that the only chance for a person’s life to be made whole is for it to be made better by me. I vividly remember a night many years ago now when a friend I’d tried desperately to help was nevertheless in a lonely psychiatric ward under suicide watch, and I felt beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was because I’d failed to love her adequately. One of my dearest friends sat with me late into the night, and at one point she told me very softly I don't mean to be harsh, but it’s arrogance to believe you have that much control over someone’s life, that it’s entirely up to you whether they live or die.

I suspect to some people that would in fact sound harsh, but to me it held unbelievable freedom. It gave me freedom to grieve with and for my friend without feeling the burden of belief that her fate hinged on me.

So I’m learning it’s OK to wait with people, to sit in the silence, to get comfortable in the chaos, to cry over the phone with them without needing to offer a these are five incredibly wise steps towards fixing all this mess. We’re people in process. We’re not there yet. And that’s a beautiful and hopeful thing in itself, if I allow it to be.

And sometimes maybe showing up with coloring books isn’t a bad idea-- although now for me instead I usually show up with cups of coffee and rock song suggestions and a few awkward hugs. And something I’ve learned is that even if I express my caring so imperfectly, the fact that I’m trying to express it at all sometimes is what matters.

While I wait for the smoke to clear,
you don't even have to speak.
Just sit with me in the ashes here
and together we can pray for peace.
- Jason Gray

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