Today happens to be November 7th. Tomorrow is Tuesday, November 8th. People are freaking out. Every presidential election for which I’ve been aware enough to grasp what’s going on has felt momentous and people on both sides have framed the decision as good versus evil, right versus wrong. Us versus them.
This election has intensified that message to the breaking point.
I don’t want to talk about the election. I’m anxious. I wish I weren’t. I do believe the decision is critically important for the US and, to a certain extent, the world. I hope you vote(d) your conscience. I hope God speaks (or spoke) to you to direct your conscience.
I don’t know if this election is life or death. I fear it may be, for some people. I can’t see around that corner. Maybe it’s better that I can’t. I have enough trouble sleeping as it is.
Yesterday I got reminded again of the difference between “Oh, that’s life,” and life or death.
Most of what happens to us, good or bad, we sort under the heading of “that’s life.” We may not say it that way. But what you had for dinner last night, the difficulty you’re having at work that’s causing you stress, the conflict with your spouse or parent or child or neighbor or friend, those are not the end of the world. As my friend JV says, they’re not even the end of the week. They’re just life. The day to day. Happy things and sad things and shows you get addicted to until you’ve watched every episode and then you find a new one. You read great books (and spend time with friends. Life. Good stuff. You live it and you just go along and you may pay careful attention or maybe you don’t and it rolls by.
People die every day. So many people die every day it’s hard for us to wrap our minds around how flimsy and slight our own mortality is. Children die of starvation. Adults die of heart attacks. Strangers die and you read about it, or maybe you don’t, and your life goes on. Because that’s what life does: it goes on.
Then it doesn’t.
Then it comes screeching to a halt.
You look at the broken glass and the cuts on your arm and then at the blood on your shirt and then, slowly, at the car that crashed into yours and you realize, before anything else, that normal life just stopped. It may start up again. You may get that luxury again later. But right now normal life feels like a daydream you just got yanked out of to face this.
It isn’t always death. I had an accident last May that I survived, thank God for mercy, and didn’t sustain any permanent injuries. But it could have been my last day to walk. It could have been my last day to think clearly. It could have been my last day to see my kids.
Last night, I had one of those shattering glass moments. Not every one of these can be shared. Sometimes they happen and the world keeps plodding along and you look at the blood on your shirt and the cuts all over but they’re invisible to almost everyone else.
I’ve watched friends die. I’ve held my son as he died. Sometimes the world shatters, never to be whole again, and everyone sees. When our boy died, it wasn’t a wound that heals. It was an amputation. You may learn to live without your arm, but it never grows back. You don’t get “better” after that; you figure out if you can live without what you’ve lost. Some can but some don’t.
You may have had your world shattered, too. If you haven’t then, I’m sorry to say, it’s coming. Sometimes the pieces go back surprisingly clean–my ribs healed, I’m running again, I have no permanent injuries from what could have been a fatal accident–“fatal accident” still sounds too removed and distant–from what could have ended my life and everything I’ve tried to make of my life. But in other cases, life afterward bears little resemblance to life before.
As I keep hearing the noise of this election, as I fall to temptation and read people’s debates in the comments–and most people commenting suck at debating, I must add, because debating does not actually consist of name-calling, mocking, belittling another’s intelligence and character, and claiming moral superiority–the message that keeps coming through is that this is life or death.
It might be, but as I’m facing life or death again right now, I’m not convinced. Today is November 7th and tomorrow is November 8th and if, on November 9th, you are living the same way and doing all the same things but you may be really pissed off and discouraged about the results, then no, it wasn’t. Not yet, at least. As I say, it may become life or death for some people. President George W. Bush’s election and subsequent choices to go to war against Afghanistan and Iraq became life of death for many people, US and Afghan and Iraqi.
Life or death is disorienting. It’s vertigo that doesn’t stop. It leaves you feeling disconnected from everyone or nearly everyone else. When our beloved sister- and brother-in-law suffered the death of their baby girl, God in his providence gave me a lot of time to walk with them through the first weeks of grief. People say stupid things, trying to help. But what feels worse is that other people get over it, even though they love you and care and grieve with you, they get over it because it’s not their arm that got amputated. They are sad for you, they may even know some of your grief, but their lives didn’t shatter. That isn’t their fault, it just is. Their life goes on. For the most part, it goes on the same way it did before. The best among us can grasp that, can empathize from their own shattering, and carry a little bit of the pain. I don’t know if that carrying reduces the pain of bereavement, but it matters that someone is willing. Because the other option is when they get over it, you feel even more isolated in your grief. People can even convey, usually unintentionally, that you should get over it, too. The pain is shocking and the isolation is shocking, and people still talk to you like life is normal. Theirs is.
Life or death. How literally do you take that? Many things can shatter us. Divorce. Chronic illness. My dad suffered severe asthma and emphysema (what we now call SARS) and it both robbed his physical capacity and induced him to become embittered and depressed. He was never the same. Being physically debilitated exacerbated his mental and emotional struggles. Chronic illness hit and shattered him…and his pieces never really went back together. And I loved my dad.
Permanent injury, abuse, loss of mental capacity, mental illness, clinical depression. Rape.
I’m using the term “life or death,” yet I believe all these experiences are exactly what I’m describing. In a sense this term is hyperbole, but our lives are made of core parts beyond simply our physically being alive. They shatter lives and leave people to bleed and try to learn to walk again. Or, sometimes, symbolically their spinal cord is injured and they will not walk again. Ever.
I don’t have answers. I do have thoughts.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
― C.S. Lewis,
The best way to protect yourself, to minimize the possibility that your life will be shattered, is also the worst way to live. Some things are life and death, but there are things worse than death. Failing to have lived is one.
For me, the shattering event, Isaac’s death, broke my faith. I had to choose between giving up having faith and finding a faith that could encompass and endure my infant son’s death and God’s not healing him when I begged.
The answer was not to stop loving my children, but to learn to live in the reality that any of them could die at any time.
It sounds like a cliche to say, “Remember what’s truly important.” Then again, “”Until you know you’re broken, the Gospel will seem cliche.”*
Here’s how my friend described it.
This is the sort of thing that reminds you of relative importance. This election is really important, don’t get me wrong…but we have limited control of that and worrying as much as I have about it is not productive, it’s damaging, and in the grand scheme of things, less important than other things. I am so bad with this, forgetting.. When family and friends suffer injury or disease etc, I finally remember again the relative importance of things, only to forget and have to be reminded again.
When you’re life is blown apart, you don’t forget. There’s no losing perspective, because in that moment everything is clear. It’s when we are in “that’s life” mode that we drift.
My friend Fred, when he was dying of cancer, said something to me I will never forget. He was describing how close he felt to God and how he could tell the difference between trivial things and the few that mattered:
“I wish you could experience this without having the cancer.” He wasn’t romanticizing; he was dying and fighting for every single day. But he was also changed and he could see more than I could.
By saying these things, I’m not suggesting that other things, the ones that are less than life or death, don’t matter. Quite the opposite. Our two temptations are to blow them out of proportion, which causes us to respond to them poorly, or to be lulled by them into not paying attention and sleepwalking through our lives.
The wisdom we pray God gives us teaches us how to measure. I think we learn to carry that mental yardstick, to pull it out and hold it up against the things that come our way. When we’ve faced and survived shattering events, we’re able more accurately to size up events that are not.
The final measure–and this is not a cliche in my life, but the reason I’m still here and sane–is resurrection. Because even life or death does not get the final say if resurrection is true. Resurrection–Jesus’, and through his, ours–becomes the piece that will not shatter when everything else resembles shards and rubble. Life after death, life from death, means we don’t have to make the pieces go back together. God might let those pieces go and make something new. If that sounds too simplistic or fanciful or poetic (don’t I wish), I mean this: my son’s death ended my life as I knew it but I didn’t kill myself or get divorced or renounce God forever, though at the time all three made more sense than ever praying to or trusting God again. God made something new of me and a lot of the old pieces that I thought were me were just left in the wreckage.
So when life threatens to shatter again, I see even that differently. Though he slay me, yet will I trust him. I can’t give that to you because it required coming through my own dark places and figuring out my way to trust God on the other side. That doesn’t make me unbreakable now, but I know I will be whole again. Maybe more so than I’ve yet been. I hope.
*Mike Adams, http://www.chiefsinner.org/