This week I’m looking at grief and my discovery of an ocean of tears in my self. I hope this honest essay is encouraging. Thanks as always to the subscribers who make this work possible.
Yours with love,
I want to remove my armor and share something with you that feels frightening and shameful but, I believe, has power to liberate and heal. As Jesus said, “The truth shall set you free,” and confession simply means telling the truth with others. Receive this essay, then, as a confession.
In my essay “Burnout,” I wrote about looking beneath the gums of my soul into the holes growing inside me, often in places where I’ve denied my limits as a human being and injured my self. As I’ve done this soul work, I’ve noticed that there are tears just beneath the surface of my eyes, ready to flow out from deep in my heart. If I talk about the death of a loved one or children suffering in the streets of Addis or people losing their homes in violent conflict or a friend’s experience of abuse in her marriage, my tears begin to flow.
I have observed this pattern in my self for some time, and I’ve started to follow my tears upstream like a river-way into my own heart. Where do these tears come from?
This journey has led me to face a difficult truth within me: there is an ocean of grief inside of me, and it flows through these holes and spills out through my eyes.
I told an older, wiser man named Duane about this inner ocean of tears, and he patiently listened to me talk about my story. He then said something in response that I wasn’t expecting to hear: “Wow, Andrew. You’ve experienced a lot of loss and grief. Grief doesn’t evaporate.” I was caught off guard when a therapist at the University of Chicago said almost exactly the same words to me a few days later.
Consciously and unconsciously, I have told myself that my life is too “blessed” – too “privileged” – to experience real, wounding grief. I’ve never been forced to go hungry or live in the street. I grewup in a mostly functional family with a lot of love. I’ve received a rich education. I have deep friendships and a passionate sense of purpose. Incredible people are walking with Lily and me. I’m too privileged – and secretly too proud – to be “wounded.” In honesty, facing my grief makes me feel guilty and ashamed of my self.
But this man’s words went straight into my soul, and again the tears flowed: “Andrew, you’ve experienced a lot of loss and grief. Grief doesn’t evaporate.”
Duane then encouraged me to find a few quiet moments and make a list of these places of pain in my life. So I did it.
I stopped, reflected, and started making a list of losses and sorrows in my life, which have carved out this ocean of grief in me. I sobbed my way through this simple exercise, as each item I wrote down felt like another watercourse opening into my heart.
I saw the faces and heard the voices of people I cherish who have died – starting with my best friend Matt whom I saw lifeless on that hospital bed hours after his car smashed into a tree when I was seventeen. I remembered places and situations where violence and terror occurred – machine gun fire and a massacre, being strangled and beaten in the darkness by three men. I remembered friends who committed suicide or got dangerously close and my own suicidal fevers in the past. I observed lost relationships, deep disappointments, and spiritual abuse that cut into my soul. I saw a little girl, laying in the middle of a street in Addis, covered in dust, with cars nearly running her over and no one stopping to help her, as if this were normal.
And my tears flowed. Or rather they burst from of my eyes, like rain from a thunder-clapped cloud, splashing over me as I sat and listened to my life speak things I was afraid to hear.
At first, my list had sixteen items. But then another item randomly came to my mind days later. And then another. To date, my list of grief has grown to twenty-five. I’m sure there’s more to be discovered.
A few days after making my list, I decided to set aside some time to reflect, pray, and journal about five or six of these places of grief. I made it through one, and it was not too overwhelming. I felt some relief. Then I turned to the next and largest place of agony in my soul, a swirling darkness of fear, sorrow, and anguish. As I started writing a prayer to God about this shadow, my arms began to tingle intensely. My ears started ringing loudly. My chest became heavy and my stomach dropped. I began to sob and felt like I was going to blackout. So I simply stopped, visited my parents, and wept and prayed with them.
As I stop and look inside, I’m surprised that there are so many roads into my grief, so many river-ways into this ocean of tears that flows through my soul and spills out through my eyes. Somehow I knew but didn’t know my own life. I had never let my self look at the map into my heart crisscrossed with these sorrows.
Perhaps for some they are small or large, few or many, trivial or terrible. But I’m starting to admit that they are real and they are part of me. I’m starting to stop and listen honestly to my life and what my body is telling me with its tingling, tightness, and tears.
I certainly haven’t found a “quick fix” or “life hack” for my grief. I don’t believe there is any. But I’ve started to invite God into it, and I’m slowly learning to be patient, gentle, and kind to my self. (How crazy that I thought I could sit down and face six places of intense pain in my heart – one after the other – in an hour or two.)
I’m learning to speak new, simpler, confessional prayers to God: “When I looked in Matt’s face on the hospital bed, you were there. When I was strangled on that dark road and was haunted by chronic nightmares, you were there. When the voices said, ‘Kill yourself!’ you were there. When mom nearly died from her stroke, you were there. When Jess died a month later, you were there. When the children are on the streets, defenseless and subjected to violation, somehow you are there.”
Rather than denying or suppressing my grief and the tears that well up from it in my eyes, I’m learning to acknowledge it and talk with it: “I see you. You don’t need to hide.” And I’m learning to invite God into it: “You are there. I invite you to be present in that terrible memory and the pain it causes me. I unlock that room for you and your presence.”
I’ve also started allowing myself to share my grief with friends who have the heart to listen. Jean Vanier articulated ten rules for being more human, and the second was, “Talk about your emotions and difficulties.” I’m slowly allowing myself this freedom to be a human being.
After a deep depression, Parker Palmer wrote, “We need to ride certain monsters all the way down, explore the shadows they create, and experience the transformation that can come as we ‘get into’ our own spiritual lives… Inner work is as real as outer work.”
Richard Rohr wrote, “We are given permission to become intimate with our own experiences, learn from them, and allow ourselves to descend into the depths of things.”
In the middle of the Second World War, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “For me the idea that God himself is suffering [with us] has always been one of the most convincing teachings of Christianity. I think God is nearer to suffering than to happiness and to find God in this way gives peace and rest and a strong and courageous heart.”
I’m slowly beginning to learn these deep truths, not just as brilliant words on a page but as realities written in my heart – to let them sink into me and become part of my soul.
This work is precious and important to me, not because I want to “get better” or “optimize my performance.” For me, this work is part of a spiritual quest. I want to live an honest life, a life that is radically open and surrendered to God to the deepest depths of my inner ocean. I want to cultivate a soul that is transparent to God, with more windows opened, more doors unlocked, more roads pilgrimaged, more of the ocean poured out to God with simple words of confession: “You are here. Here I am. I am yours. We are all yours.”
The voices in my head tell me that doing this “inner work” is self-indulgent and shameful – certainly not “as real as outer worker” as Palmer claimed. But like the lies I wrote about in “Burnout,” that is a deceptive accusation to keep me from facing what is real in myself and thus growing in the faith to trust God with the oceanic, sometimes embarrassing and overwhelming realities that flow within me. There is no truth, freedom, and healing without this.
It is strange to me how slow and difficult the work of honest confession is – learning to listen and speak the truth. I started outlining an eight-chapter book about living an honest life fifteen years ago when I was twenty-one. And yet it feels like I have only just begun now. I don’t need to be afraid and ashamed; I can be liberated and healed – slowly, patiently, gently, with God and others.
Perhaps you also have waterways of grief in your soul. I invite you to join me in traveling them, welcoming God into them, and sharing them with others you trust.
“You are here. Here I am. I am yours. We are all yours.”