As a late-coming autumn swiftly transitions over to winter in central Iowa and the days become shorter, darker, and colder, I find myself sinking into a seasonal melancholy that always turns my attention to what I consider the deeper things in life. Perhaps it is the loss of daylight and warmth that directs my thoughts to loss in general. We have all experienced and survived the loss of a loved one, our own health, a friendship or other relationship, a job, a home, perhaps a dream we once had for ourselves. As much as we would like to avoid it, we simply cannot.
It is natural for us, then, as individuals and even as a nation or world to divide our life’s timeline into Before and After. Before and After 9/11. The War. The Economic Meltdown. The Death of a Grandchild. The Suicide of a Son. The Miscarriage. The Divorce. The Betrayal.
Sometimes we get stuck in our memories of that Before life and are unable to embrace the After and move past our pain and grief and longing. We don’t know how to accept the loss with grace. Maybe we fear that if we do accept it, we will forget that person or devalue that friendship or feel bitter or guilty or ashamed. The only way we can see to protect ourselves is to clutch the Before closely, because letting it go would mean emptying ourselves out and starting over with a new, blank-page After, and the thought of an empty self terrifies us. We tell ourselves that suffering is part of life. Better the pain we know than the pain we can only imagine.
For people of faith, getting stuck in the Before world can be a means of avoiding what Saint John of the Cross called a “dark night of the soul,” that necessary agony we must endure if we want to experience union with God. Make no mistake, God does not cause our suffering; it is a byproduct of being human. We all must endure hardship and tragedy, both physical and spiritual, as we struggle to overcome our attachments and grow in our relationship with God. Our souls long to be reunited with the One who made us and loves us, but we also long to hold on to those we love, despite the impermanence of earthly bodies and other material things. Letting them go is an act of faith and an expression of hope, a necessary loss.
Friedrich Nietzsche, a 19th century German philosopher famous for questioning nearly everything, said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Although this isn’t exactly Biblical, I think it’s usually true. Without struggle, we cannot grow. Several years ago my family had some trees planted in our yard. The person who did the planting staked the young trees to protect them from the fierce Iowa winds as their roots took hold. I wondered how long the stakes should stay in place, so I did some research. Turns out you should remove them after no longer than one year, because the trees need resistance from the wind in order to send their roots deep into the ground. Leaving them staked too long allows the roots, which are lazy without the challenge of wind, to grow in a shallow pattern, and once the stakes are removed the first big gust could just topple the tree.
We are like trees in that respect. Although we don’t seek out tragedy, if we lean into it and fully embrace it we can allow God to use it to strengthen the roots of our faith by growing them deep into Him. It is painful. It is difficult. It is often lonely. But until we can honestly say, “Your grace is sufficient,” we will never know what wholeness, what union with God, is like. We have to release the world Before and pursue with tears, with anger, with agony, and with joy the life After. It’s the only life truly worth living.