Posted by: lavieimaginee | February 2, 2014

Some long (probably belabored) thoughts on love and suffering.

A week ago, I caught a flight home to Chicago after a few brief but precious days in San Diego. I had been visiting one of my dearest friends, as I’ve done a handful of times in the past year and a half since his mom passed away from a short but debilitating battle with cancer. We had enjoyed a lovely few days together, marked by sunshine and salt water, laughter and glasses of tempranillo. But as my plane stalled on the tarmac, waiting for clearance to take off, I curled into the window seat beside a stoically polite German boy, and wondered why my chest felt like it was being crushed beneath some invisible weight. It took me a few moments to realize that I felt like crying. Not the quiet, prepossessed kind of crying that involves a single tear and a delicate hand to the nose, but the anguished, ugly, lung-emptying kind that happens when every sense is overwhelmed by some incomprehensible grief.

I should know to expect this by now.

I am an unusually, perhaps excessively empathetic person; when my friends grieve, I feel and adopt that grief as if it were my own. Austin is perhaps not actively grieving any longer. His position in the Navy doesn’t exactly allow him to spend much time in the echoing halls of loss, and his own innate strength, resilience, and determination wouldn’t let him dwell there even if he had the option. But where Austin’s life experience and constitution have shaped him into a container, mine have perforated me into a sieve. Despite my best efforts at containment, whatever I feel has a tendency to just leak out… all over me and anyone in proximity to me.

Since life in the military has not given Austin adequate time or space for the full expression of his grief, I desperately want our friendship to be a place where he can continue to work through its many iterations, as they arise, episodically. I make a point to ask him about his mom and his own grief as regularly as I can, so that he knows that he always has that permission to process. The tricky part about trying to create this sort of sanctuary in any friendship, though, is that my own “leakiness” has a tendency to hog the emotional space. If we talk about Austin’s mom and I start crying, Austin will be pushed into the role of comforter instead of grieving son. And I don’t want that.

So, when we talk about his mom, I breathe in sharply. I blink a lot. Sometimes I bite my tongue. If he ever needs to cry, I want that emotional space to be available to him. But that means that when I’m sitting on the tarmac waiting to fly home to Chicago, all my un-cried feeling rise up and demand my attention.  So far, I can only manage to postpone my feelings for a short period of time; I can’t yet repress them indefinitely or eradicate them by sheer force of will. I suppose this is probably a good thing, although it rarely feels like it.

Recently, some friends of mine lost their two-year old daughter when she succumbed to a sudden, nearly inexplicable illness and then flat-lined on the hospital’s operating table. I remember calling my mom, nearly drowning in my own tears, and telling her that I didn’t want to be this empathetic anymore. “It hurts to care this much,” I sobbed, “And it never changes the ending of the story. It accomplishes NOTHING.” I wanted to only care a normal amount, I said, and not be so undone by the grief of others. My mom (bless her) immediately invalidated my use of the word “normal” and reminded me that compassion is a gift.

She would know. My mom currently works as someone hired by tight-knit families to provide extra TLC and end-of-life care to their terminal loved ones. Her two most recent assignments were much shorter than anyone anticipated, and because my mom is a tender soul, both losses caused her significant sorrow. She recently described herself as “a wimp and a warrior in a sushi roll,” a beautiful and apt description of what it means to live in this broken world as a soulful, connected person. She is someone who is deeply, poignantly familiar with her own emotional fragility… and simultaneously, she is someone who goes plunging back into the combat zones of fear, loss and grief in order to lavish love on those who are gradually being untethered from this world.            

Our deepest hearts (hers, mine, yours) are like muscle, like soil. Both must be broken to allow for growth. If muscle fibers were never torn, and the earth was never tilled with a hoe, we could look at that muscle or that swath of earth and perceive it as being “whole.” But the reality is that the lack of tearing or tilling leads to withering, to atrophy, to fallow fields. If we manage to stay emotionally safe, to develop the heart that C.S. Lewis describes as being unbreakable and impenetrable, we might have the luxury of looking stable, of seeming whole. But for its health and growth, the heart requires exposure. It requires vulnerability and sometimes, often, even brokenness. The biggest-hearted people you will ever meet may also be some of the messiest. They won’t ever have it all together, but that’s because they are constantly being broken and remade and experiencing all kinds of cosmic growing pains.

About eight months ago, a local pastor encapsulated this idea in a way that I found deeply resonant. He said: The form that love takes in a broken world is suffering. This echoes the famous C.S. Lewis quote, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” One of the beautiful things about my religious tradition it takes this harsh, often devastating reality and turns it into a sacred calling. We are instructed to weep with those who weep, to lay ourselves on the line emotionally and to love sacrificially. We are not told to resist this Suffering Love, but to embrace and cultivate it. This is a counter-intuitive, subversive calling; it flies in the face of our self-preservation instinct and deeply felt need for protection.

In communion, we echo Jesus’s words: This is my body, broken for you; this is my blood, shed for you. In recent months, I have thought of my own participation in communion as an act of identifying with Christ in that archetypal moment of suffering. As a Christian, I follow the story of a suffering God who was spilled out with love for others; and in communion, I stand up and say that I am determined to be an imitator of that suffering God, that I am determined to live into an incarnational rhythm that involves loving to the point of brokenness because I was first loved in this way… and because I still believe in the redemptive, life-giving power of that love.


  1. I am glad you always find room in there to love yourself, too. Stay happy. And blog more.

    • I think blogging more and staying happy are probably two sides of the same coin. So thank you, and yes. 🙂

  2. I love you, dear. Your open heart is a gift.

    • I love you too, Ruth! And I miss your insight and presence. When are we getting together to make our mosaics?

  3. Thank you for writing and sharing. I needed this.

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