As the year winds down we always get a few weeks of retrospectives covering everything from TV’s most shocking moments to the biggest news stories to the most popular tattoo designs of 2013. We like to do a quick round-up of the last twelve months before moving on. Earlier this week I caught a few minutes of one of these, a special profiling “The Most Inspiring People of 2013” on cable, and it got me thinking about a conversation I had a few months back.
“I have no interest in being an inspirational story.”
I was going through a hard time a while ago, and these are the words I heard coming out of my mouth between ugly crying and staring blankly at my living room wall. I was sitting next to some of the dearest and most wonderful people I have ever known who just loved me and hugged me and let me cry it out as they tried to reassure me that everything would be ok. It would get better. I was strong enough to get through this. What a kind sentiment from people who are unwaveringly and unquestionably with me and for me! So when I blurted that out, I was a little shocked by how harsh it sounded. I didn’t mean it to be rude or ungrateful. I didn’t mean to belittle their show of support, but I didn’t quite buy into the whole “light at the end of the tunnel” thing yet either. It’s not that I didn’t want it to be true, it’s that I wasn’t entirely sure that it was, and I didn’t want to be responsible for letting them down if it wasn’t. I wasn’t saying that I didn’t want things to get better or I didn’t want to overcome; I was saying that I didn’t want to be reduced to a tidy little tag line.
This terrible thing happened, but she came back from it, and in the end it all worked out for the best.
Have you noticed how easily “It’s ok. It’ll be ok” slips out of our mouths in times like these? It’s our go-to phrase in a crisis. It’s a nice thought–and it may ultimately be true– but we don’t know that. And my concern is that acting like we do, even if it’s just because it’s what you’re supposed to say, may be an unconscious excuse not to get involved, not to be there in the uncertainty of healing in those fragile moments when it really could go either way. These hopeful assurances can be an excuse not to disrupt our lives for the victims/survivors of tragedy in whatever scale it occurs. It can lull us into being content keeping our distance until we’re proven right in hindsight when things are all worked out. I was so adamant about not being an inspirational story because I was afraid these platitudes were parting words. I was afraid that, secure in the knowledge that I would make it through, my people would leave me to go it alone. I was also afraid that these words would become an excuse to be comfortable with the systems that make our tragedies possible. The implicit lesson I though I heard under the surface here was that it can’t really be all that bad if you’re gonna come through it alright.
After all, I heard about this person who went through it, and he turned out just fine. People are resilient. They bounce back. Why dwell on the past if it’s all worked out now? Let’s not think about it anymore.
Not actually getting down in the muck of life while it’s still mucky can be terribly damaging. Only allowing people to tell their stories one way and from one vantage point hurts them and us every bit as much as just silencing their voices altogether. It’s desensitizing. It allows us to forget how bad things can really be for one another, and it isolates people who desperately need someone to talk to about it. If we only let people talk about what they’ve been through as a past event contained in a prescribed inspirational script, we don’t give them the time and space they need to deal with their pain authentically. But we’ve got to. We have to allow each other room to go off-book and be honest about the hard things.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with being inspirational. Rooting for each other and sharing one another’s strengths is such a beautiful and heartwarming thing. I was incredibly moved by the story of Zach Sobiech that’s been in the news lately. You may have heard about Zach, a teenager who faced a terminal cancer diagnosis with heart-breaking grace and wrote a beautiful song for his friends and family to remember him by before he passed away this past May at age 18.
His story is a treasure. His willingness to share his experiences and perspective is powerful and humbling, and I sobbed like everybody else as I watched the short documentary about him online. He truly is an inspiration, and that’s wonderful. But he and his family consciously and actively chose that. They decided as they were living that story that this was when and how they wanted to share it. They wrote their own template and have lived into their story of strength and hope and faith in a way that has touched–and continues to touch– millions. But that’s not the only way to tell a story about tragedy. There’s room for brokenness and confusion and anger, too. There’s room for bitterness if that’s all you’ve for right now, if that’s all you think you’ll have for the foreseeable future. Your voice is no less valid just because it isn’t cheerful.
If you’re dealing with some dark days right now, I want you to hear me on something. You don’t have to be an inspiration. You don’t owe anyone a hero. You just hold on and trust that God is with you and loves you and we, your people, are with you and love you whether it all comes together ok or not.
If you’re not struggling at the moment but someone you love is, can I ask you a favor? Don’t abandon hope, but don’t abandon the hopeless either. Let’s not let our vision of a better ending and our fierce desire to cling to hope crowd out the real live people who don’t always fit into that vision and don’t know if they ever will. Remember that people are more than characters in a story. People don’t always suffer and heal in the ways we (or they) want to or think they should. Sometimes it’s ugly. Sometimes it’s uninspiring. Sometimes it’s not fit for print, much less a millions-strong YouTube sensation. But it is always, always valid. And people who are hurting always deserve loving ears and hearts and hands to hold them in the midst of it.
I am positive that 2014 will bring stories that inspire us, and I hope we can rejoice together in sharing them. But it will also bring uninspiring ones, and I hope that we can hold those well too. The bottom line is love my dears, in every mood and every season. Let’s live together in love this year.
“If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Corinthians 12:26)