Thursday, April 22, 2010

Because Sorrow Enriches Us

More than once, I've had my heart shattered. In my late teens, my first love left me without warning. In my late twenties, I lost my former college boyfriend to a drug overdose. In my late thirties, I nearly lost my beloved husband to a terror attack. Since then, until most recently, I have been haunted by a recurring dream that my wonderful, loyal Greg would not marry me, despite the life we've built together. The shock of nearly losing my husband has echoed in my heart. Only now, in my late forties, do I realize that the sorrows I've carried have woven themselves into the tapestry that is me. A recent encounter with my teen-aged self taught me that my sorrow has been a helpful companion.

Earlier this year,  I received a phone call from my high school boyfriend. His mother, with whom I had been extraordinarily close for most of my adult life, had died after a series of illnesses. She and I had been out of touch only the past five years. Her son, with whom I had not spoken in at least 20 years, asked if Greg and I could please attend her memorial service. And so we did, to honor both her life and his request. This high school relationship had not ended well. I don't think many of them do. He hurt me; I never said a word to him about my sorrow. In fact, I had not spoken to him at all. I could not reconcile his behavior with the young man I thought he was, and so I determined to believe, in my self-righteous anger, that he simply was a person who lacked substance. Instead of embracing my sorrow,  I let it become a bitter knot in my heart that did not untie for several years.

When Greg and I went to the memorial service of this man's mother, I realized how very wrong I had been to demonize a then-adolescent boy years ago because of the clumsy way he ended our relationship. He stood before us, a grown man, happy in many years of married love. We could see that he is a wonderful father to his children. We learned from the eulogies that during his mother's illnesses, the son had spent days and days tending to her even though she lived more than an hour away. We learned that he works hard and is in the midst of a successful career. In short, he had grown into the kind of man I had determined he never would be. I felt such sorrow over the harsh judgment I had made in my youth. You see, I have learned that if I do not surrender to sorrow, it will bend into bitter anger.

As I matured through college and my twenties, I handled subsequent losses much differently. I stopped trying to step over them. I embraced sorrow as best I could. And the knot in my heart untied and I again had an open heart. And so in 2001, when Greg nearly died in the World Trade Center attacks, and we had to cope with the loss of so many dear friends and colleagues, I understood that this was something we needed to get through and not "get over," as some were advising us.

For thousands of years, people have reflected on the benefits of sorrow. The Hebrew Bible's Ecclesiastes, which some attribute to King Solomon, tell us:  "It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting, for that is the end of every man, and the living should take it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, because when the face is sad the heart grows wiser. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth." We need not fear suffering; they align us with the sufferings of Christ. The Holy Spirit can be our companion in our distress, if we allow ourselves to feel its presence.

The benefits of sorrow are not accidental. God designed our hearts so that when we are able to surrender to sorrow, we become better able to see the face of Christ in the sorrows of  neighbors.

St. Paul spoke to the Christians in Corinth about sorrow. He is speaking to us now. We sorrow "so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God. For as Christ's sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow. If we are afflicted, it is for your encouragement and salvation; if we are encouraged, it is for your encouragement, which enables you to endure the same sufferings that we suffer."