Over the past ten months since B passed there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of prayers offered up on our behalf. For those that don’t pray, thoughts and consolation have been extended routinely. Food has been offered, people have been gracious to watch the kids for a moment or two–or a several hours. Others have helped clean up a bit, as cleanliness is one of the most difficult things to get a grasp on. The help from many goes hand in hand with my gratefulness for people who have felt a calling and desire to just extend a hand.
Of course, though, for most people who extend a hand, their hand then turns back to the normalcy of life: families, jobs, hobbies, friends, and so on. I don’t fault anyone for it. Even on the day of the accident I finally had to tell my friends to leave my side and go home and be with their wives, all the while knowing that I could never have that again.
But what is virtually impossible, I have found time and again, is trying to find continuity from before to now. And this is not something I am sure people who haven’t stood in The Valley really get. “Normal” exists for a lot of people because their lives have, by and large, avoided tragedy. There of course are hiccups, inconveniences, and deaths that people face. We all face that from an early age. My last grandparent passed a little over a year ago and it was a gut wrenching experience. But there is nothing that will disrupt that continuity or, indeed, completely destroy it like sudden loss of somebody that defines you day in and day out. Normal will never exist for us again–at least any semblance of what that normal was.
I often hear (usually once a day), ‘You look like you’re doing well’ as if my ability to dress myself and give myself a haircut is an indication of spiritual and emotional health. In this world that moves on, though, people see my mask. The reality is, I look like I’m doing well because I have to look like I’m doing well. How else can one function in this world in post tragedy? How else does one take care of the mass amount of responsibilities this life requires? I must carry on because lives depend on it, not because–contrary to what some seem to think–I’m getting over it. There is no getting over it!
The mask helps me stay far away from people. It’s only those closest to me–and indeed, only in my weakest and most vulnerable moments–who see brief glimpses of me without the mask. They are the ones that don’t commend me for my faith but are honest enough to tell me that I sound like a Calvinist or an atheist when I’m depressed. They are the ones who know that I still wake up expecting her to be there, that I see a car that looks like hers and just hope that I’ve been delusional. They are the ones that know that for all the hope that I have in redemption, I still doubt, I still am angry and bitter, I still cry myself to sleep at night. But no sooner do they see this in me that I must put the mask back on and enter back out into the world that makes me feel ill.
I don’t mean to focus this in on me, for one of the things that I’ve realized through this is that there are numerous people find themselves right in the center of tragedy at any given moment in any given place. As the Vicar of Baghdad noted to a group of us a week ago, “1,097 people in my congregation in Iraq have been killed in the past five years.” And it occurred to me that all of those 1,097 people are part of somebody’s story and somebody’s pain. It occurred to me that I am part of the broader history of people where tragedy was not an if but a when.
And that’s exactly my point in writing this–not to focus on how I’m not doing well but to remind those who live fairly normal lives that you are an exception! The normalcy that you are used to is simply not normal. What if we realized that most people–now and in the past–walk around not feeling like life is quite alright but feeling rather dead inside? How does that change things?
- Currently 27 million people are stuck in slavery, many of them children forced to work for little or no pay and many of them women being tossed around in a sex trade, used and abused by the highest paying bidder. A quarter million Americans are raped or molested each year, one every two minutes.
- Currently there are hundreds of millions, if not more, that are stuck in countries where they stand in total fear of their government, where fathers or mothers are ripped out of homes and murdered because they said the wrong thing at the wrong time.
- Currently one out of every three people are starving to death (11% in the US), a total of 1.5 million people annually.
- 100 million people live in this world without a home and have to bear the abuse of weather, starvation, and victimization.
Who is homeless around us? Who can’t afford food? Who has been molested and has forced themselves to live with a secret that eats away at them daily? Who is stuck in slavery or an abusive relationship that they paradoxically hate but can’t bring themselves to leave? What child is being hit or neglected or screamed at by their father? Who around you has lost a child or had a miscarriage? Who struggles with their sexuality, feeling as if they were made broken or diseased? Who has lost their only friend or their spouse in tragedy? Who just lost a parent? Who wonders if their spouse loves them anymore? Who is tired and exhausted of being addicted to things they can’t get free from? Whose faith is eroded or shattered by life?
Do we know these things? Do we pay attention to the people around us to know whether the smile on their face is a facade, a mere attempt to “function” while life eats away at their soul?
If there’s one thing I have learned in my grief, it is how to put on a mask. Rarely do we seek what lies beyond the mask of people and instead we presume to think, given our exceptional lives, that the world really isn’t in a terrible place after all. Why do we buy into the masks that most people wear on a daily basis so that they can simply function and simply assume “they’re doing well”? Because I can tell you, just because somebody looks like they’re doing well doesn’t mean that they are. This world is filled with masks that makes everyone else reticent to really ask the most necessary question: “How is it with your soul?”