Losing and Finding, and Sometimes Just Losing

For a brief time when I was about five, my family had a dog. His name was Snoopy, which confused me because Snoopy was supposed to be a black and white spotted beagle and our dog was a solid brown dachshund. I was a fearful child, often irrationally so—among other things, I had a phobia of the number four—and I was afraid of Snoopy.

My memories of early childhood are like isolated bursts or blossoms—vivid, discrete units, often lacking context or continuity, floating in an amorphous plasma of not understanding what the heck was going on. I don’t remember petting Snoopy or pouring his dog food or watching him snuggle down in his dog bed, but I do remember swinging on my swingset while he ran back and forth on the ground below, under and around me, barking and barking. Given time, I would have realized that his barking was playful, not menacing; I would have stopped being afraid of him, picked him up, carried him around with me, kissed him between his eyes. But he lived only a short time after we got him. In another blossom-burst of memory, I am outside with my sister and her friends, and my brother is hurrying down the sidewalk towards us, holding Snoopy, who is bloody and yapping in pain. He’s been hit by a car. This is my last memory of him.

Snoopy never slept with me in my bed or cuddled with me on the sofa. I didn’t push him around in a doll stroller or dress him up or feed him treats. I hardly knew him. But his small memory stayed firmly lodged in my mind. As I grew older I thought about him a lot. I felt bad that I hadn’t played with him. I desperately wanted him back—not merely as he had been, but as he should have been throughout the years I should have had with him. For years after his death, I would sometimes lie awake, thinking about this dog I had barely known, and crying.

Some years later, when I was about ten, I lost a stuffed animal—also a dog, bafflingly named Tubels. Some classmates and I had put on a short play for reasons I can’t remember. It was set in a pet store, and I’d brought some toys from home to stand in for animals that weren’t being played by classmates. The play was a rousing success, a credit to me as actor, director, and playwright, and I felt triumphant as I left school, carrying my stuffed animals in a basket. For some reason I was being watched by some after-school babysitting lady that day, a thing which almost never happened in my entire childhood. And somewhere between school and the babysitter’s house, Tubels was lost.

I mourned a long time for that stuffed dog. For a while I actually hoped and prayed that he might somehow be found again and returned to me. Lying awake in bed (again), I mentally replayed the walk to the babysitter’s house. I imagined Tubels falling out of the basket and rolling into a gutter, and me walking away, distracted by post-play euphoria, not paying attention. Sometimes I altered the scene in my mind so that I noticed he was missing, turned back, and rescued him, or never dropped him, or got picked up at school by my mom along with all my animals, safe in their basket.

Maybe I was more obsessed with loss than is usual for a child. The memories of lost inanimate objects, even those of little intrinsic value, remained sharp with me for years. Usually there was guilt involved, as with the plastic ring I took to preschool after I’d been told to leave it at home. Another girl tried to take it and spuriously told the teacher I had stolen it, and the teacher confiscated it from me without due process and put it in a can on a high shelf, from which it was never returned.

Eraser-Mate pens, introduced in the late seventies, were the bane of my sixth-grade existence. I’d always had bad handwriting; my hand cramped easily, and the whole process of putting words on a page was so painful and frustrating that I made a lot of mistakes. By this point in my school career writing with a pen was mandatory, so Eraser-Mate pens seemed like a godsend to me for a time. Theoretically, they offered me a chance to fix my mistakes. In reality, the nonindelible ink smeared under my hand and the eraser didn’t so much remove the ink as smear it around, so my papers looked as bad as ever. Eventually I was forbidden to use the things. But for a while they were precious commodities to me. They were more expensive than regular pens; they had to be stowed securely or brought home after school, or they would be stolen by some dirty pilfering eleven-year-old. I knew this, and yet I could not keep those darn pens in my possession to save my life.

It’s amazing that with my near-pathological levels of anxiety about loss, I didn’t do a better job keeping track of my belongings. My young brain combined hyper-vigilance with extreme absentmindedness. At school, I repeatedly failed to secure the pens in a safe location; at night, lying awake in bed (I did a lot of that), I agonized over my carelessness. Nobody was abusing me at home or making me shovel coal to pay for my lost pens, but there would be an accounting to be made, and I dreaded it.

Loss terrified me, and yet I couldn’t seem to get away from it. Every so often something of mine would just slip into a void, never to be seen again. I always felt I should have been able to prevent the loss, to take better care of my things, but somehow I just couldn’t seem to do it.

Eventually I grew up, and my hyper-vigilance got the better of my absentmindedness. These days I rarely lose my belongings in the sense of mislaying them. I have designated places for almost all household items and I usually put them there. (Sometimes this actually works against me, because when family members can’t find their own misplaced belongings, they know exactly where to look for mine, which they may or may not return after use.) But I am still haunted by loss. Of time, property, money, opportunity, relationship. Of dogs, real ones, whose names and stories I don’t dare set down here because if I do I will never make it through this post.

Sometimes the lost thing is a period of time, an epoch, in which friends and work and opportunity and health come together in a wonderful synergy, a sort of golden age, and suddenly it’s just over, the laughter and the flow of ideas and the good fellowship, and it will never happen again. There will be other people, other good times, but never this particular precious combination.

In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis asks, “How often—will it be for always?—how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss till this moment’? The same leg is cut off time after time.”

Our family has lost a lot of things in recent months. A horse, some dogs and cats, a vehicle. A hard drive, with a full complement of irreplaceable photos we always meant to back up. Some people. Dreams that can no longer be realistically expected to come true. I am tired of losing things. I want another golden age, one that won’t end. I want lasting security. I want to know that the things and people I love will never go away.

The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are precious to me. “And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost” (Luke 15:9). Jesus is speaking in particular of the joy in heaven over a sinner that repents, but the stories wouldn’t resonate so deeply if they didn’t reflect our expansive joy over the restoration of other things. I know that joy, and it is indeed too great to be kept to myself. When the lost kitty, despaired of after going missing for a full week, suddenly turns up early one morning perfectly healthy and meowing for breakfast, my delight must be communicated. I must scoop up the kitty, take it quietly to the bedroom of my sleeping daughter, and put it on her bed, where its softly treading paws and tickling whiskers will make her awakening into a celebration.

The lost-and-found experience teaches me this joy, while the lost-and-still-lost experience keeps me looking forward to the glad morning when I’ll have the most joyful awakening of all. In the meantime, I wait, and hope, and sometimes ache. As C.S. Lewis said in Perelandra, “God makes good use of all that happens. But the loss is real.”

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The Intolerable Situation

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I was twenty-one when my first child was conceived. I approached pregnancy like I approach most unfamiliar things: I bought a book and read it cover to cover. I had that book down. I was going to rock this pregnancy thing, just as I rocked everything I put my mind to in a serious way.

Before long I was diagnosed with one of the complications from the book: hyperemesis gravidarum, which is Greek and Latin for throwing up like crazy. The quaint term “morning sickness” was completely inadequate for what I experienced. It lasted all day every day and all through the night. Whatever I ate, it was a toss-up (ha) whether it would stay down. The book advised eating small meals and nibbling crackers before getting out of bed. This did as much good as throwing salt over my shoulder at midnight. I didn’t just not gain weight; I lost weight. I got dehydrated. I was admitted to the hospital where I was given IVs and an anti-nausea medication that I later learned is also used as a tranquilizer. It didn’t make me feel tranquil. It made me feel slow, out of sync with time, uneasy. It also caused my arms and legs to jerk uncontrollably. Sometimes I inadvertently slapped myself in the face.

Later, after that hospital stay ended, we learned that our insurance would send nurses to our apartment to set up an IV there, so the next time I got seriously dehydrated we did that instead. At one point I was completely dependent on intravenous nourishment for two weeks, taking in no food by mouth.

There are some types of pain you can’t compartmentalize. A migraine headache is like this. So is nausea. You can’t just drink a cup of tea and lie down and rest or whatever. It’s a pain that infects everything. There is no escaping or mitigating it.

I was productive of almost nothing during this time—except of the baby, which continued to develop just fine. I couldn’t write or even read much. At first this bothered me. Once in a while I’d pull myself together, get out of bed, take a shower, get dressed in something I could have left the apartment in, and sit down and have some serious Bible study. I had an idea that there was some lesson to be learned from this illness, and that if I hurried up and learned it—studied the right passage in the right way, prayed hard enough, exercised sufficient patience, surrendered adequately to God’s will—it would end.

Guess what? It didn’t work. I went right on being sick. I stayed in bed for days at a time. I couldn’t think about anything other than nausea, pregnancy, and how long it would be till Greg came home. I would lie in bed with this tight, twisty feeling in my stomach—kind of a burning sensation, but also something like a clenched fist—and I would count. In theory I was counting the seconds and minutes till Greg would be off work, but I went very, very slowly, stretching the intervals far beyond actual seconds, almost as if I could fool myself and be pleasantly surprised when he turned up earlier than expected. Or maybe I was just reassuring myself that time was linear and that units of it were indeed passing, however slow the process seemed.

(This habit of counting is something I’ve kept for over twenty years. When I’m bored or stressed and have to sit still, I slowly count, sometimes tracing the numbers with a finger. I might start over when I reach sixty or a hundred, or I might not. Sometimes I start over in a random place. I also count the hours and days and months leading to and from certain events, repeatedly. The events themselves may or may not be significant; I’m just marking time.)

I reached a point where I simply could not take any more. I reached it a lot of times. That’s it! I’d think. I can’t take this any longer! This situation is intolerable! It must change! It didn’t. Nothing changed. I just stayed sick. I had taken all I could take and nobody cared. When I say “nobody cared,” I mean God didn’t care, or didn’t appear to. I myself was powerless to change things. There was no “final straw” action for me to take, no “that does it” plan to put in place, no scenario where I’d finally give in and spend more money or whatever and fix the problem. Only God could fix it.

I know now—know experientially—that people do reach this point again and again, or reach it and stay there: the point of Oh God I can’t take any more of this, this is the absolute limit, something has got to give—and nothing does. In some cases people truly can’t take any more, and they die. The rest of the time they keep going.

There’s a part in Perelandra, the second volume in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, where Ransom, a college professor from Cambridge University, finds himself on the planet Venus with a green lady, the Venusian equivalent of Eve. The green-skinned Venusian version of mankind is unstained by sin. But there’s another non-indigenous guy there on the planet who turns out to be no less than the devil himself inhabiting the undead body of Professor Weston, one of Ransom’s colleagues from earth. (I know how wacked that sounds, but trust me, it works. This book has to be read to be believed.) Devil-possessed Zombie Weston is tempting Venusian Eve. She hasn’t fallen, but she’s listening to his reasoning, and his arguments are good. Ransom argues back but feels woefully out of his depth. He is a well-educated, rational, thoughtful believer, but this is the devil.

This goes on for days and days. Ransom thinks, This can’t be allowed to continue. Something must be done. Reading the book for the first time, I wholeheartedly agreed with him. I actually felt that Lewis had a sort of authorial obligation to take narrative action—have Venusian Adam show up and give the devil what-for, have God speak from the heavens in an unmistakable audible way, something. But nothing like that happens. The temptation continues. Ransom finds some mutilated animals that Devil Weston has tortured but not killed. Their suffering is acute. Though the man and woman have not sinned, pain and cruelty have marred their world. Ransom is horrified. Again he thinks, Something must be done. Again nothing happens.

Ransom’s story takes a turn I did not expect. Eventually he realizes that, yes, something must be done, and he’s the one who must do it. He has no clear direction from God, no heavenly voice or prophetic utterance or anything, but he thinks things through and decides that he, Dr. Elwin Ransom, alone and unarmed, must kill the undead corporeal vessel of the incarnate devil. Two out-of-shape college professors, both naked, neither one experienced in hand-to-hand combat, must grapple to the death. The thought is both terrifying and repellent to Ransom, but he does his duty. It is all very difficult and awkward, and it takes several days. (You just have to read this book. It’s one of the darnedest books I ever read.)

The resolution to Ransom’s narrative is the exception rather than the rule; most of us do not have such a bizarre conclusion to our final-straw extremities. We just keep waiting, and getting loaded with more and more straws.

Paul’s metaphor of a thorn in the side is an apt one for certain types of suffering. A thorn is a constant irritation, an ongoing intrusion, different from an honest cut or scrape or puncture. It produces not only pain, but swelling, pressure, and inflammation. It doesn’t belong. The body wants to get rid of it, and over time healthy flesh can break down or expel a foreign body of manageable size and substance. But a thorn like Paul’s is either too big or too resistant to be worked on in this way.

When you have a thorn in your flesh, you just want it removed, and until it is you can’t really rest. Every movement of the affected area, every bit of contact whether accidental or intentional, is a painful reminder of its intrusive, maddening presence. You can’t feel truly whole or sound while it’s there. And once it’s removed, there is instant relief. The puncture wound remains, but the foreign body is gone. There is rest and release. You can heal now.

Some pain is like that. It may be physical, emotional, or psychological. While you have it, you are fixated on relief, and the relief you want is removal, cessation. The greatest possible good you can imagine is the absence of this irritant.

Why was I sick? I don’t know. There doesn’t seem to be much point to it. Eventually I got better, and delivered a healthy (though skinny) baby boy, but I didn’t become a better person or anything. Often suffering does have a point; often people undertake it willingly for some higher purpose, as with some over-the-top athletic achievements. More often, suffering is completely unasked for, and instead of making you stronger it weakens, scars, or kills you. Don’t mistake me. I believe in the sovereignty of God, and I believe that suffering, like everything else in our lives, has its purpose. But that purpose may not be anything we can ever realize in our lifetime. From our perspective, we are in pain for a long time, and then it stops, either because we get better or because we die. Of course there is the idea that suffering makes you more compassionate and better able to comfort others in their own suffering. This is a sound Biblical principle, but it will only satisfy us so much. So, the reason I am suffering now is in order to become able to help someone else who will suffer later. Well, why does that person have to suffer? Is it just for the purpose of comforting yet another person farther in the future? Why not just end the suffering and let people be? What is the meaning of this cycle? Is it an empty cipher, unending and void?

The official answer is that suffering exists in the first place because there is sin in the world. It just happens. It has to be simply as a condition of our fallen existence. And God is able to shape it to his desired ends. I believe this. But the desired ends are too complex for me. When I hurt, or when people close to me hurt, I just want it to stop.

The cycle of suffering and comforting is not an empty cipher. It is not just a matter of passing off comfort like a baton. When we comfort one another, when we suffer vicariously on another’s behalf, and pray or labor or just commiserate, God knits our souls together in a way that is not possible when we are sharing our happiness. Suffering can be a great social equalizer; it can humble us and strip away pretense. When you are in sufficient pain it becomes difficult to lie about it.

Outside of our homes, most people present a public image most of the time. It’s all very clean and positive. Projecting such an image is natural social behavior. It makes people comfortable. No one likes the person who reveals all the ugly personal shortcomings of family members, or even of himself, to any and all. We would rather emphasize the positive, not just to look good but because we want to encourage positive things. But sometimes we grow discouraged, comparing the public images of others with our own private failures. Sometimes we need counsel or empathy, but we are too ashamed to seek it.

More and more as I get older I understand that every individual and family has secret sorrows and patterns of sin, no matter how good they look on the surface. The community of grace should be open about such things, while still respecting personal boundaries. If just a few people within a given church community were to stop caring about appearances and authentically share their struggles, more revelations from others would probably follow. There would be a lot of surprises, and a lot of relief.

The church should be lots of hurt people helping one another, like a company of soldiers behind enemy lines, the wounded supporting the wounded—binding, medicining, carrying, dragging, encouraging, and also trusting and relying, all of us doing our best to make sure everyone makes it safe and sound back to home territory.

Does this sound like a tidy way to wrap up my thoughts about the apparent futility of suffering? It shouldn’t. There’s nothing tidy about it. It’s messy and irritating and hard, and it doesn’t make pain any easier to bear. But I am beginning to think that it is in the tension of pain that we truly draw near to those who become most dear to us.

We can do this because of One who suffered all things, and gave us a pattern for submission in suffering, and empowers us to follow it. He suffered and even died, and he overcame. He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger–of all the lines of all the Christmas songs I know, this is the one that most consistently moves me to tears. He has defeated the intolerable situation.

Showers and Sunshine and April Faces

There are few sights more beautiful than an April face, in which laughter and tears mingle. Pure, tremulous joy following on the heels of despair—seeing that is such sweetness. It happened a lot when my kids were small. They’d come to me with some calamity—a rip in the seam of a favorite dress, a dismembered toy—cradling the broken thing in their hands, weeping and appalled, without hope but instinctively turning to me in their grief. And often what seemed irreparable to them was something I could easily set right with glue, needle and thread, or practical knowledge. “Look, honey, that head’ll just pop right back on again. See? Good as new.” “I know it looks like a horrible stain in your gauzy costume skirt, but the fabric’s so thin it’ll rinse right out.” And just like that, all was well. My kid was ecstatic, and I looked like a genius. I liked that. I liked it a lot.

Besides mending the broken, I was also in the business of retrieving the lost. Many a mile have I driven back to various locales to search for stuffed animals and action figures that were left behind. Gwendolyn, Emilie’s furry little jointed stuffed biped of indeterminate species, was lost and found many times. So was Brownie Bear. With what anxious tension did we scan the area where the lost thing had last been seen, and how great was our rejoicing when it was recovered!

But it didn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, try though we might, we couldn’t get the lost things back. It was like they’d just vanished into a void, which was maddening because I knew they really hadn’t. They were out there, somewhere; I just couldn’t get to them. I am haunted by losses—Daniel’s beloved collection of model dinosaurs, a stuffed dinosaur of Anna’s, Emilie’s first rag doll that I made her for Christmas when she was three.

Do I take these things too seriously? I don’t think so. We’re not purely spiritual beings; we have to do with matter and space and time. God made us that way. And when a child becomes attached to an object, investing it with a history and a personality, he gives it an imputed value that exceeds its intrinsic value. The loss of a favorite toy foreshadows future losses of health, opportunity, innocence, and life.

Children grow older, and their problems get more complex. They stop toting stuffed animals around with them, but they don’t stop breaking and losing things, both tangible and intangible. And you can’t always fix that. Sometimes it’s not desirable to rescue them from the consequences of their mistakes; sometimes it’s not even possible. Some things, once lost, are lost indeed and can never be recovered. Some things, once broken, can never be made whole. You want to—God, you want to. You would give your life blood to make things right. But almighty as parents appear in the eyes of small children, we have our limits. Much as I wish I could, I can’t be that genius with the glue gun all the time. Truth be told, I haven’t been that person in years.

Many of my friends, like myself, are the parents of grown and nearly-grown children raised in an atmosphere of love and reverence for God and his Word. Sometimes I look around at all of us and wonder, do we even know what we’re doing? I think in many cases we’re making it up as we go, responding to situations we could never have foreseen when our children were small, praying desperately for wisdom. I say this as one who so far has been spared a lot of heartbreak. And I say it with fear and trembling, because the past is no guarantee of the future. You can’t confer some special immunity on your kid, and you can’t assume that because you’ve escaped major trouble so far, you’re all clear. You never reach a point of being all clear from earthly calamity until death takes you.

But there is hope. More than I ever was as the mother of small children, God is in the business of finding and mending things. I don’t say this in resignation, like those who sigh and say, “Ah well, it’s in God’s hands now. All we can do is pray.” God is the beginning of hope, not the end of it. He’s the one who formed the human body and breathed life into it in the first place, the only one who knows how it’s truly supposed to function in a state free from death and decay. Corruption of mind and body was never part of our original design. It doesn’t belong; it’s an alien parasitic thing whose presence grieves God even more than it does us. And he can defeat it. Those who have fled to him for the cleansing of his blood have access to the full power of his redemptive work. His desire is to restore all, and he can do it. I’ve seen him do it for people I would have given up on and discarded. His restoration defies all human understanding of how the world operates. It’s as if entropy starts working backwards. The new life he promises us isn’t some sorry halfhearted thing limping its way along, crippled by history and habit. New life pushes through in audacious vigor, refusing to be smothered by past failures, seeking light and air and open spaces, growing and blossoming and reproducing. The past is crowded out; there is no room for it.

Of course we shouldn’t forget the grief and failures of the past or what they’ve taught us. There is most certainly a place for genuine fear in the heart of a Christian—fear of real consequences to sin, set up by a just and holy God. But our lives should be characterized by bold joy because of the enormous scope of his mercy and grace and the power of the new life in us. We should have both together, and wear an April face as we walk with him.