Recently I read an article by seminary professor Kate Bowler that had me staring wide-eyed at the computer screen, alternately barking bursts of laughter, fist-pumping the air, and feeling tears sting the corners of my eyes.
She walked up to the elephant in the room, reached out, touched it, gave it a treat, made friends with it, and sat down next to it.
Which, as it turns out, is not so far off from her conclusion.
After all – have you ever been the elephant in the room?
If you’ve gone through a divorce or a painful church circumstance or you switched political parties or you finished a round of chemo or any number of things, you probably know what I mean. Conversation becomes forced, or usual warmth is dimmed to clipped small talk, or eyes are busy looking elsewhere.
Americans are uncomfortable around pain.
We don’t like it. It doesn’t fit well with our post-polio, shiny marketing, Dow-skyrocketing dreams. This is a seismic shift from a generation ago. People born in the late 20’s or early 30’s remember the Depression, pre-vaccine life when outbreaks could wipe out tens of thousands, the Dust Bowl, and the generation of young men mowed down in World War II. They remember the last few public lynchings, the Japanese internment camps, the Negro Motorist Green-Book.
Simply put, illness, bad crops, segregation, disease, and war all had a different effect on daily life. My great-grandparents first entered a church after the church members had brought food to their house when it was under public quarantine; there was disease in the house. One great-aunt I never met died of scarlet fever when she was young. I saw an old photo of her once and realized it was she to whom I bear a striking resemblance. My grandmother named my mom after this sister who had died so young.
In other parts of the world, the proximity of death is different; whether from cholera, or falling bombs, or a bad crop season; whether from polio, or women dying in childbirth, hours from a clinic or hospital. And just a few minutes ago on the American clock, the proximity of death was nearer, too. Now we are shocked or surprised by its indecency of showing up uninvited. If someone is suffering, we look for a cause, because suffering makes us uncomfortable.
As a friend put it recently, people are uncomfortable with their lack of control; if Bad Thing A can happen to you, then maybe it could happen to me – so let’s find something you did that caused it. That way, I feel safe again.
But pastors and churches are distinctly called to reach out a hand to people hurting, or contagious, or dying. (Recently my own congregation has been bringing in meals as my husband goes through a health crisis, and I mentally pray into sainthood everyone who walks in the door and feeds us, though it’s been a learning curve for me to feel at ease receiving help without yet being able to give it.)
So what can we do to walk up to the elephant in the room and make friends? What can we do to force ourselves not to avert our eyes at other peoples’ pain?
Kate Bowler has a few ideas. The thirty-something seminary professor was diagnosed a couple of years ago with Stage IV colon cancer. She lives, as she points out in her recent article in the New York Times, “What to Say When You Meet the Angel of Death at a Party,” three months at a time, from one scan to the next.
But being a seminary professor hasn’t shielded her from a wide array of responses to her illness. (To learn this was comforting.)
“We all harbor the knowledge, however covertly, that we’re going to die, but when it comes to small talk, I am the angel of death,” she writes. Yet sometimes when people talk with her, suddenly their own stories of loss come pouring out. However uncomfortable it is to Bowler personally, she says, “I remind myself to pay attention because some people give you their heartbreak like a gift.”
“What does the suffering person really want?” she queries. “The people least likely to know the answer can be lumped into three categories: minimizers, teachers, and solvers.”
Bowler continues to explore the internal dynamics and social settings in which these impulses emerge, with sharp humor not lacking patience with the well-intended. After all, we all fear saying “the wrong thing,” which often almost guarantees we will.
Her words of guidance? Simply acknowledge the loss a person is going through; a person with a bad diagnosis or life upheaval may just need to hear their upheaval named and acknowledged. That acknowledgment, she says, creates space. Then, love.
There is tremendous power in touch, in gifts, and in affirmations when everything you knew about yourself might not be true anymore. I’m a professor, but will I ever teach again? I am a mother, but for how long? A friend knits me socks and another drops off cookies, and still another writes a funny email or takes me to a concert. These seemingly small efforts are anchors that hold me to the present, that keep me from floating away on thoughts of an unknown future.
Through these reflections, Bowler gently affirms what we all want to know when we’re hurting: she is a person, not an inconvenience; she has value, whether she is contributing in her normal way or not; her suffering is not contagious, as if those who come near her will also be cursed with misfortune; and she is seen, not forgotten.
None of this threatens the sovereignty of God, or deconstructs the notion that, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” But it does draw from the stories of Jesus, who noticed a short man perched up in a tree; who sat and chatted with a woman collecting water; who sobbed with Mary and Martha and the other Jews grieving Lazarus, and grieving death itself; who picked up a severed ear of an enemy and silently put it back on its owners head, healing it into place.
Jesus saw; Jesus stood with; Jesus ate with; Jesus bumped up against; Jesus listened in the middle of the night to troubled people; Jesus cried; Jesus cooked fish and fed his friends.
It all starts with, Jesus saw. He saw and did not look away.
“Everything Happens for a Reason: and Other Lies I’ve Loved,” will be available February 6th.