“The deep truth is that our human suffering need not be an obstacle to the joy and peace we so desire, but can become, instead, the means to it. The great secret of the spiritual life, the life of the Beloved Sons and Daughters of God, is that everything we live, be it gladness or sadness, joy or pain, health or illness, can all be part of the journey toward the full realization of our humanity. Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved
I recently returned to Henri Nouwen’s powerful book Life of the Beloved. Here are some of my reflections on that book.
There are 2 Kinds of People
There are 2 kinds of people. People who divide the world into a few categories, and people who don’t.
(I think I got this idea from Brene Brown, though I haven’t been able to find the quote)
Even though saying so makes me one of the over-simplifiers, People fall into two general groups.
Group 1: The cynical. Suffering defines them. They try to deny it, suppress it, or eradicate it, but in the end, anger at pain is etched in the lines on their faces, dead looks in their eyes, and sharp retorts on their tongues. No one sets out to become that bitter person. How do they lose their way and become someone they never wanted to be?
Group 2: The broken. These people embrace pain, cry tears, feel confusion, but don’t wind up mired in self-pity or worry. Though they hurt deeply at times, underneath the pain is a firm identity. They identify themselves as ones the good God loves. Life is dark sometimes, but no evil circumstance is so dark that the light of the world cannot shine there.
Here is my question: How can I be sure I will always be a group 2 person? How can I become the kind of person who is not undone when pain strikes?
We might not know what form it will take but no one gets off this planet without experiencing trouble.
My husband’s coworker’s recently received the kind of phone call no one wants. Her son was critically injured in a motorcycle accident. One minute she was fine, then the phone rang and her life had changed forever. He died 2 weeks later.
My heart broke for her. As I wrestle through how to deal with pain well, I want to be careful not to paste small Band-Aids on deep wounds and devastating pain. People in the throes of grief need friends to sit with them in silence, not someone telling them that it will be OK.
Thinking about the accident and the grief that followed shook me a bit. The reminder that terrible things sometimes do happen, mixed with a list of worries gnawing at the edges of my soul, and left me feeling frayed.
What if? What if the adult children I love so much struggle and experience long-lasting, painful brokenness of their own? Do I believe that brokenness is a tool in the hand of a loving God so much that I believe it for my kids? Trusting that God’s love and grace are sufficient for my kids has always been harder for me than trusting God for myself.
Do you have a list of what ifs of your own?
What if my current season of relative isolation doesn’t end?
What if people I love deeply are not treated like welcome and valuable members of our country?
What if things don’t get better? Do I really believe that God loves me? Am I just spouting sweet comforting Christian jargon that doesn’t hold up when a real brokenness sets in? Will I end up bitter at life or better for my pain?
Worry is clearly not the way to prepare. Redefining reality is. (More about worry in this post)
Evil tries to convince us that we are doomed. We are trapped. Our problems are insurmountable. We must spend our days, weeks, whole lives, building up protective walls made of deep financial resources, self-protective habits, and emotional distance.
God redefines that reality. He revamps our way of approaching life so that we live vulnerably because we are protected by God, “the one who loves us.”
(Read this post on a related topic)
What did Nouwen mean when he said (quoted above) that human suffering can be a means to joy and peace? What does it mean to “journey toward the full realization of our humanity?”
More next time on Nouwen’s thoughts about befriending brokenness. In the meantime, enjoy this clip of Nouwen speaking about being both loved and broken.
I read Life of the Beloved with the Renovare book club. A new book begins soon. Join me!