When I did my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) course this past summer, the one required of all Episcopal seminarians, my fellow students and I talked about the condition of numbness that can set in after seeing a lot of deaths and a lot of grief. Chaplains minister to the dying and the grieving, and sometimes a certain numbness, perhaps a healthy protective mechanism, might set in.
I did not like the numbness at all; it made me feel inhuman. But I did feel numb when the first news of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan hit these Eastern shores. I avoided those news reports as much as possible. So soon after Haiti, I thought? Isn’t Haiti still reeling from the devastating earthquake of last Lent? Aren’t we still struggling to help Haiti? And shouldn’t there be a maximum allotment of major earthquakes, nuclear reactor meltdowns, and other devastating tragedies per, say, decade?
It seems to be too much for the human spirit to bear. Even the grief of a single death seems to be too much for the human spirit to bear, as I have witnessed many times on my chaplain shifts. The rational mind knows that we do bear it, some with more peace than others. But we do go on. Sometimes, grieving people will ask me what they are going to do now. Depending on the level of devastation, I might talk about what they can do the next hour, or the next morning, or the next day. You need to get some sleep, and then wake up tomorrow, and eat breakfast, and know that, as hard as it will be, your life will go on. This is what I tell them.
And I believe it. For the Japanese searching for their loved ones on the lists of survivors, they must be living by the minute now, not the hour. Pain “has no future but itself,” Emily Dickinson wrote. I thought about the Japanese often last night, while I was working as an on-call chaplain at Yale-New Haven. I thought of them discovering the dead when I was called to the bedside of someone who had just died.
The scale of death seemed so different–one death here, thousands of deaths there. I was here, and the Japanese were so far away. I am safe, warm, clothed, and dry. They are not. I couldn’t understand, at first, why my mind kept flitting between the circumstances at the hospital and the conditions in Japan. The hospital circumstances seemed to pale in comparison.
But then, I started thinking of Lent. It’s unavoidable, really. I am a second-year seminarian doing a church internship, so I will help out a lot during Holy Week at my internship site and preach on Good Friday. I am supposed to focus on the Cross, to make sense of the Cross–to find the Good in the Cross.
So, okay. There’s the textbook goodness of the Cross for Christians: that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross led to eternal life for all. While I don’t object to that textbook explanation and do find truth and comfort in it, that explanation does not help me to see the goodness and joy in these earthly losses of whatever scale, small or large. Having lived through the Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area years ago, I know how hard it is to rest in God when the ground beneath you keeps trembling with aftershocks, and you keep expecting the highway overpass to come down on you. Everything you trusted about the cosmos can no longer be trusted. The ground is not firm, and the border between sea and shore has been broken. It can rattle our sense of the Creator’s goodness.
However, I do find comfort and peace in a God who becomes one of us to teach us, to show us the way. This God who endures–or even embraces–death for us has something to say to us about death. And the God who grieves along with us and wants us to be healed and even to rise from the dead–this God is a solid ground that we can stand upon in trust and faith.
In times of tragedy, there is some joy in that grounding–a quiet, tempered sort of joy. There is some joy in the love we feel for the dead and our memories of them, as many family members at hospitals have shown me. And there is some joy in knowing that we do wake up tomorrow, gifted with another day of life. For me, it’s important to seek joy in all moments, not only in waiting for some future time when everything will be all right. If we wait for some perfect, loss-free moment to experience joy, then the ground of our joy is ever shifting.
But if we can avoid the numbness and desensitization, if we can find a quiet joy in the Lenten moments of our lives, then perhaps we have found the solid ground which can never shift on us. I pray that the Japanese find some relief, some solid ground in all their trials.
But first, we all need a good night’s sleep.