Is there anything worse than a soft-spoken cliché when you’re in the thick of life’s chaos? When you’re limping from the disaster or when you’re lying on the mat, gut-punched and bleeding, wondering if the blow was fatal as you struggle for ragged breath, can anything ring more hollow in your ear?
“Grief is like the waves of the ocean,” she said. “You have to let it take you where it will.” Her eyes were sincere and empathetic, her voice tinged with the kind of wisdom that can only be born of experience. Her words might have sounded like copy from a Hallmark card, but the woman had survived the loss of her husband of fifty years. She had street cred. My ears perked up, my heart expanded.
I see us standing on the beach together, she and I. We hold hands and look at each other. Without saying a word, everything passes between us – things past, present and future. The waves had been tossing us around before, we’d had trouble finding our footing and staying together. Now the water draws far back and we cling to the sand, not wanting to be drawn back too. We know what’s coming. There’s no use denying it. When the water comes back there will be no use fighting, though we’ll want to. There’s no high ground to which we can run; God has provided no escape.
The water surges forward and we brace ourselves. I try to memorize the feel of her hand in mine before we’re both enveloped. The force of the water is so powerful that it separates us instantly and with finality. My little sister is gone.
After what seems like a lifetime, I feel solid ground beneath my feet and I scramble for the stability of it, desperately longing to feel the sunshine again. Almost as soon as I stand on wobbly legs, I feel a crushing force from behind and realize too late that another wave had been building behind me, this one carrying the weight of my security and the remnants of one of the greatest loves I’ve known on earth. My grandmother sweeps past me and I reach for her, but not in time. She’s gone too.
I stop struggling. My strength is spent, my fight consumed. I surrender to the waves.
“You have to lean in,” she explained. “When troubles like this come, there’s no way around them. The best thing to do is lean in to the pain and see what it has to teach you.”
How counterintuitive is that? Lean in to the thing that’s hurting you, that’s threatening to ruin you? Our intuitive responses are the opposite: fight or flight. We want to fight off the bad guy or run away, avoiding him completely. And those responses make sense most of the time.
Sometimes, though, the bad guy can’t be fought off or avoided. Death, for example, is an inevitability for us all. Broken relationships, unrealized dreams, personal failures, ruined reputations, stolen joys, stone-cold rejections – these are the great equalizers in life, sweeping over even the strongest among us, reminding us of our humble place on this earth.
Don’t let anyone tell you differently: there are some things from which the Lord will not deliver us; at least not the way we expect or at the time we want.
We can thrash around wildly, but to what end? The trouble has come. It is upon us. We didn’t want it, we tried to avoid it, but it’s here.
The key, the wise woman, says, is to see what the trouble has to teach us.
As much as we want to avoid this truth, it stubbornly stares us down: The only way our greatest pains and most troubling experiences can be redeemed is if we allow them to become our tutors. And a tutor cannot teach unless there is a willing and humble student.
“But I don’t want this lesson! To hell with this sadistic teaching method and this dysfunctional classroom!” we rail.
Yes, to hell with it indeed. One day pain won’t be a useful teacher, as every tear will be wiped away and all things broken will be made new. These troubled times will be ancient history and the best experiences will be before us.
Until then, we live in a world where death lurks and brokenness abounds. When the waves of life come, there is no escape.
And, with this, we’re left at a cross-waters of sorts.
One way is the path of resistance. Down this way, we will be forced to employ fight or flight. Fight will cost us every ounce of strength, joy and energy that we possess and the ever-powerful wave will never even have noticed our monumental struggle. We’ll drown after a futile battle.
Flight will lead to the same end, but only after we’ve wasted precious time searching everywhere for an escape only to realize each hope was only a mirage. Instead of having arrived at our destination, we’ll have gone off on a thousand other paths that have left us lost and afloat once more.
The other way is that of surrender. We’ll have to lean in to the waves and let them take us where they will, trusting in an unseen God to cocoon us, provide for us and teach us through every uncertain bend. Our strength will be conserved and though we’ll be out of control of the destination, we know we’ll get there eventually. The only guarantees are that lessons will be learned, we will be changed along the way and that all will work out for good at the end.
Perhaps one of the greatest rewards of surrender is that there is nothing left for us to do but to trust. While we float, we can ask the tough questions like: What kind of God are you? How can this be your plan? How is this the way of love? And, more importantly, our posture of surrender puts us in the perfect position to receive answers to these questions; or at least comfort that He is with us and the answers will one day come.
It may help to consider this time the ultimate attachment therapy between you and God. It’s an uncomfortable and often terrifying process; but with every twist and turn He becomes more a part of us and we more a part of Him.
Are you standing on the shore and watching the water pull far out and dreading the waves it will bring back? Or have you been hit by one tidal wave after another and you’re trashing about, panicked for relief? Are you like me, afraid to lean in, resenting that the only other option is futile struggle?
Perhaps it’s time to listen to the wise woman with the healing heart and the street cred for days. Maybe it’s time to take the brave way and lean into the waves, allowing them to teach us and to redeem every corner of our pain.