by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM for October 29, 2017
Just how much can one human heart hold? I doubt we’ve heard anyone complain of experiencing an over-abundance of joy, but could the same be said of what happens when we carry overwhelming pain and loss? Where can one go, what can one do, when weighted down not only by one’s own significant sorrow, but also by the wounds and grief of others?
Many years ago, I viewed the film, “Ordinary People,” with a discussion group. The film presents a family torn apart by tension and tragedy. One son, the golden child, has been lost to drowning while out on the water in a sailboat with his brother. In the wake of this family tragedy, the surviving son is wracked with grief and bearing the guilt of his own survival. The parents are numb and walking around in a stunned daze.
There’s a memorable scene where the mother, so brittle she looks as if she might shatter into a thousand splinters of glass, has been holding her grief in a clenched heart. She retreats into aloofness and into creating the perfect place setting on the formal dining room table. Over and over she folds and re-folds the napkins, she straightens the silverware, she seems to ignore her family’s emotional collapse unfolding right in front of her.
When discussing the film in our group, we noted the seeming lack of affect exhibited by the mother in this scene where she tends to the details of the dinner table and seems unaware of the living, breathing husband and son in anguish right in front of her. One of the women in our group responded to that scene by observing, “Perhaps that’s all she can do. And perhaps it’s everything.”
Over time, we all experience personally and in the world around us the strange creature that is grief. How we carry it, sometimes named and sometimes unacknowledged. How we hold it in our bodies. How it can disorient us, cause us to misplace and forget, how it can sneak up on us in unguarded moments. How it can seem so supersized as to make a return to the ordinariness of life and the simple routines we once followed seemingly impossible. How it can transport us to a foreign landscape where nothing resembles the terrain we once knew.
In “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon,” Warsan Shire, a Somali-British poet, recalls her own response to seeing and holding the pain of others:
“later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
What happens to our heart when we accompany loved ones through many long, lonely hours of the night or on their journey away from us through cognitive losses? What happens to our heart when we assist and comfort people in the worst moments of their lives, the devastation of natural disasters, the abrupt loss of life through violence, the exquisitely painful and unexpected end of a cherished relationship?
At the sight of the brokenness of our world and at the prospect of our own heart’s breaking, the temptation might be to withdraw, to close the door and retreat into isolation. At such times, though, what we may most need is self-care and the affirming company of those who give our hearts a profound hearing. All living creatures benefit from air and water and sunlight and stillness to help them flourish and expand. We are no different, so why not seek out those who offer us these same gifts, those who can own their inability to save and simply be a presence, the face of love and compassion. Those who have felt the collective pain of the world, named it, and entered into the deep, inner soul work that invites their own hearts to become more supple, more open, more gracious, more whole.
What a grace and a gift it is at such times to discover in our world someone whose heart has been enlarged, someone who embodies David Whyte’s wisdom that, “The task is not to live a life in which we never have our heart broken. The task is to become larger with each heartbreak.”
With faithfulness and persistence, may we keep stretching and growing those tender heart muscles.
Sit in stillness and become aware of what your heart holds at this moment.
Return to Warsan Shire’s words:
“i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?”
What does the world say to you in answer?
Spend a few minutes sending healing energy to this place of pain, your own or others’.
What one thing might you do today to alleviate the dis-ease of someone else?
Carry this desire with you as you go through this day.
Give thanks to the Holy One who inspires this action in you.
Please hold in your prayer now all who will be part of “Praying at the Threshold,” an All Souls’ day program I’m leading at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth, Wernersville, PA on November 2.
Please also remember all who will be part of a day on Gratitude held at Our Lady of Grace Center, Manhasset, NY, on November 4.
And all who will be part of a retreat day for the faculty and staff of Our Lady of Victories School, Sayreville, NJ on November 10. Thank you!
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