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Turn My Mourning into DancingMOVING THROUGH HARD TIMES WITH HOPE
By Henri Nouwen
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2001 Estate of Henri Nouwen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFrom Our Little Selves to a Larger World
When I came to Daybreak, the community of ministry to disabled people where I have been pastor, I was experiencing a great deal of personal pain. My many years in the world of academics, my travels among the poor in Central America, and later, my speaking around the world about what I had seen, left me deflated. My schedule kept me running hard and fast. Rather than providing an escape from my own inner conflicts, my scurrying from speaking engagement to speaking engagement only intensified my inner turmoil. And because of my schedule, I could not fully face my pain. I carried on with the illusion that I was in control, that I could avoid what I did not want to face within myself and in the world around me.
But when I arrived, I witnessed the enormous suffering of the mentally and physically handicapped persons living here. I came gradually to see my painful problems in a new light. I realized they formed part of a much larger suffering. And I found through that insight new energy to live amid my own hardship and pain.
I realized that healing begins with our taking our pain out of its diabolic isolation and seeing that whatever we suffer, we suffer it in communion with all of humanity, and yes, all of creation. In so doing, we become participants in the great battle against the powers of darkness. Our little lives participate in something larger.
I also found something else here: people asking not so much "How can I get rid of my suffering?" but "How can I make it an occasion for growth and insight?" Among these people, most of whom cannot read, many of whom cannot care for themselves, among men and women rejected by a world that values only the whole and bright and healthy, I saw people learning how to make the connection between human suffering and God's suffering. They helped me to see how the way through suffering is not to deny it, but to live fully in the midst of it. They were asking how they could turn pain from a long interruption into an opportunity.
How do we make such connections ourselves? How do we make this shift from evading our pain to asking God to redeem and make good use of it?
Counting Our Losses
An early step in the dance sounds very simple, though often will not come easily: We are called to grieve our losses. It seems paradoxical, but healing and dancing begin with looking squarely at what causes us pain. We face the secret losses that have paralyzed us and kept us imprisoned in denial or shame or guilt. We do not nurse the illusion that we can hopscotch our way through difficulties. For by trying to hide parts of our story from God's eye and our own consciousness, we become judges of our own past. We limit divine mercy to our human fears. Our efforts to disconnect ourselves from our own suffering end up disconnecting our suffering from God's suffering for us. The way out of our loss and hurt is in and through. When Jesus said, "For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners" (Matt. 9:13), he affirmed that only those who can face their wounded condition can be available for healing and enter a new way of living.
Sometimes we need to ask ourselves just what our losses are. Doing so reminds us how real the experience of loss is. Perhaps you know what it is to have a parent die. How well I remember the grief I felt after my mother's illness and death. We may experience the death of a child or of friends. And we lose people, sometimes just as painfully, through misunderstanding, conflict, or anger. I may expect a friend to visit, but he does not come. I speak to a group and expect a warm reception but no one really seems to respond. Someone may take from us a job, a career, a good name.
We may watch hopes flicker through growing infirmity, or dreams vanish through the betrayal of someone we trusted for a long time. A family member may walk out in anger and we wonder if we have failed. Sometimes our sense of loss feels large indeed: I read the newspaper and find things only worse than the day before. Our souls grow sad because of poverty or the destruction of so much natural beauty in our world. And we may lose meaning in our lives, not only because our hearts become tired, but also because someone ridicules long-cherished ways of thinking and praying. Our convictions suddenly seem old-fashioned, unnecessary. Even our faith seems shaky. Such are the potential disappointments of any life.
Typically we see such hardship as an obstacle to what we think we should be—healthy, good-looking, free of discomfort. We consider suffering as annoying at best, meaningless at worst. We strive to get rid of our pains in whatever way we can. A part of us prefers the illusion that our losses are not real, that they come only as temporary interruptions. We thereby expend much energy in denial. "They should not prevent us from holding on to the real thing," we say to ourselves.
Several temptations feed this denial. Our incessant busyness, for example, becomes a way to escape what must some days be confronted. The world in which we live lies in the power of the Evil One, and the Evil One would prefer to distract us and fill every little space with things to do, people to meet, business to accomplish, products to be made. He does not allow any space for genuine grief and mourning. Our busyness becomes a curse, even while we think it provides us with relief from the pain inside. Our overpacked lives serve only to keep us from facing the inevitable difficulty that we all, at some time or another, must face.
The voice of evil also tries to tempt us to put on an invincible front. Words such as vulnerability, letting go, surrendering, crying, mourning, and grief are not to be found in the devil's dictionary. Someone once said to me, "Never show your weakness, for you will be used; never be vulnerable, for you will get hurt; never depend on others, for you will lose your freedom." This might sound very wise, but it does not echo the voice of wisdom. It mimics a world that wants us to respect without question the social boundaries and compulsions that our society has defined for us.
Facing our losses also means avoiding a temptation to see life as an exercise in having needs met. We are needy people, of course: We want attention, affection, influence, power. And our needs seem never to be satisfied. Even altruistic actions can get tangled with these needs. Then, when people or circumstances do not fulfill all of our needs, we withdraw or lash out. We nurse our wounded spirits. And we become even needier. We crave easy assurances, ignoring anything that would suggest another way.
We also like easy victories: growth without crisis, healing without pains, the resurrection without the cross. No wonder we enjoy watching parades and shouting out to returning heroes, miracle workers, and record breakers. No wonder our communities seem organized to keep suffering at a distance: People are buried in ways that shroud death with euphemism and ornate furnishings. Institutions hide away the mentally ill and criminal offenders in a continuing denial that they belong to the human family. Even our daily customs lead us to cloak our feelings and speak politely through clenched teeth and prevent honest, healing confrontation. Friendships become superficial and temporary.
The way of Jesus looks very different. While Jesus brought great comfort and came with kind words and a healing touch, he did not come to take all our pains away. Jesus entered into Jerusalem in his last days on a donkey, like a clown at a parade. This was his way of reminding us that we fool ourselves when we insist on easy victories. When we think we can succeed in cloaking what ails us and our times in pleasantness. Much that is worthwhile comes only through confrontation.
The way from Palm Sunday to Easter is the patient way, the suffering way. Indeed, our word patience comes from the ancient root patior, "to suffer." To learn patience is not to rebel against every hardship. For if we insist on continuing to cover our pains with easy "Hosannas," we run the risk of losing our patience. We are likely to become bitter and cynical or violent and aggressive when the shallowness of the easy way wears through.
Instead, Christ invites us to remain in touch with the many sufferings of every day and to taste the beginning of hope and new life right there, where we live amid our hurts and pains and brokenness. By observing his life, his followers discover that when all of the crowd's "Hosannas" had fallen silent, when disciples and friends had left him, and after Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" then it was that the Son of Man rose from death. Then he broke through the chains of death and became Savior. That is the patient way, slowly leading me from the easy triumph to the hard victory.
I am less likely to deny my suffering when I learn how God uses it to mold me and draw me closer to him. I will be less likely to see my pains as interruptions to my plans and more able to see them as the means for God to make me ready to receive him. I let Christ live near my hurts and distractions.
I remember an old priest who one day said to me, "I have always been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted; then I realized that the interruptions were my work." The unpleasant things, the hard moments, the unexpected setbacks carry more potential than we usually realize. For the movement from Palm Sunday to Easter takes us from the easy victory built on small dreams and illusions to the hard victory offered by the God who waits to purify us by his patient, caring hand.
As I learned from my friends at Daybreak, at the center of our Christian faith we perceive a God who took on himself the burden of the entire world. Suffering invites us to place our hurts in larger hands. In Christ we see God suffering—for us. And calling us to share in God's suffering love for a hurting world. The small and even overpowering pains of our lives are intimately connected with the greater pains of Christ. Our daily sorrows are anchored in a greater sorrow and therefore a larger hope. Absolutely nothing in our lives lies outside the realm of God's judgment and mercy.
What Happens, What Doesn't
One of life's great questions centers not on what happens to us, but rather, how we will live in and through whatever happens. We cannot change most circumstances in our lives. I am white, middle class, and I have a good education. I have not always made conscious decisions about these things. Very little of what I have lived, in fact, has to do with what I have decided—whom I have known, where I came into the world, what personality tendencies have taken hold.
Our choice, then, often revolves around not what has happened or will happen to us, but how we will relate to life's turns and circumstances. Put another way: Will I relate to my life resentfully or gratefully? Think of this example: You and I have crashed into one another on the highway. For me it might create not only serious injury, but also bitter resentfulness. I may drag through life, saying, "The accident changed everything. Now I am broken and life is hard." You may suffer the same hardship, but say, "Might this moment serve as a call to another way of life? Might it be an opportunity to master something new, a chance to make my brokenness serve as a witness to others?"
The losses may be nonnegotiables. But we have a choice: How do we live these losses? We are called time and again to discover God's Spirit at work within our lives, within us, amid even the dark moments. We are invited to choose life. A key in understanding suffering has to do with our not rebelling at the inconveniences and pains life presents to us.
Joining in the Larger Dance
Mourning makes us poor; it powerfully reminds us of our smallness. But it is precisely here, in that pain or poverty or awkwardness, that the Dancer invites us to rise up and take the first steps. For in our suffering, not apart from it, Jesus enters our sadness, takes us by the hand, pulls us gently up to stand, and invites us to dance. We find the way to pray, as the psalmist did, "You have turned my mourning into dancing" (Ps. 30:11), because at the center of our grief we find the grace of God.
And as we dance, we realize that we don't have to stay on the little spot of our grief, but can step beyond it. We stop centering our lives on ourselves. We pull others along with us and invite them into the larger dance. We learn to make room for others—and the Gracious Other in our midst. And when we become present to God and God's people, we find our lives richer. We come to know that all the world is our dance floor. Our step grows lighter because God has called out others to dance as well.
A friend wrote me a letter to recount his discovery. He had decided to spend the week following Christmas with his father, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. One morning, when he met his father at the day program in which he takes part, he found him very anxious and agitated. His father was worrying that his own mother, who had died long before my friend was born, needed his help. The worries were clearly an expression of a deep anguish that he could not express directly.
My friend took his father for a drive for more than an hour through the countryside. Very few words were spoken between them, but my friend noticed how his father's anxiety diminished and he became more relaxed. After not speaking for nearly an hour, the father turned, looked directly at his son, and said, "Well, we haven't had such a good visit in a long time." The son laughed and realized that his father was right. Anguish had become peace; loss had become gain. Even the silence between them held healing. So much of our movement through suffering has to do with such unexpected moments. Moments that come as gifts amid our waiting or struggling. Moments that often have much to do with the people God puts in our path.
We do not, then, attempt our movement from our little lives into God's larger grace by simple resolve or lonely effort. When our needs lead us to grab desperately for a place, when our unhealed wounds determine the atmosphere around us, we become anxious. But then we let our hurt remind us of our need for healing. As we dance and walk forward, grace provides the ground on which our steps fall. Prayer puts us in touch with the God of the Dance. We look beyond our experience of sadness or loss by learning to receive an all-embracing love, a love that meets us in everyday moments.
And so we wait patiently, if the situation requires it, watching for gifts to come where we are. Look at the wonderful, exuberant flowers painted by the famous Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh. What grief, what sadness, what melancholy he experienced in his difficult life! Yet what beauty, what ecstasy! Looking at his vibrant paintings of sunflowers, who can say where the mourning ends and the dance begins? Our glory is hidden in our pain, if we allow God to bring the gift of himself in our experience of it. If we turn to God, not rebelling against our hurt, we let God transform it into greater good. We let others join us and discover it with us.
Gratitude at the Core
Recently a friend left the Daybreak community to assume the leadership of another similar community. Her years of faithful self giving were marked by moments of great joy as well as moments of great sorrow. She had developed warm and deep friendships, accomplished many beautiful things, and assumed roles of leadership. She had also experienced failure and disappointment because some of those long relationships had been broken along the way and at the end. During the months before she left, my friend, together with other members of their community, were heard to say things like, "We are thankful for all the good things that have happened, for all the friendships we have developed, for all the hopes that have been realized. We simply have to try to accept the painful moments."
Listening to comments like these, I began to wonder just exactly what it would mean for my friend and for the community members to choose to be grateful for all that happened to them in their beloved fellowship. How could their gratitude help them enter more fully into a dance of healing and a celebration of joy? Perhaps nothing helps us make the movement from our little selves to a larger world than remembering God in gratitude. Such a perspective puts God in view in all of life, not just in the moments we set aside for worship or spiritual disciplines. Not just in the moments when life seems easy.
Excerpted from Turn My Mourning into Dancing by Henri Nouwen Copyright © 2001 by Estate of Henri Nouwen. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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