good grief

I’ve just finished the final manuscript on a book about The Hobbit. I’ve also just finished a sermon on dealing with grief and loss. And oddly enough, the two intersect. (Although, finding a connection between anything and Tolkien isn’t really a stretch for me. I do it on a scarily regular basis.)

But this connection leaps at me without effort or expectation as I search one passage in the book. Tolkien’s party of dwarves, one hobbit, and a wizard, recovered from their second or third near-death experience, continue their quest. They pause on the edge of Mirkwood Forest, a dark, mysterious place they have good reason to fear, and Bilbo pleads with their departing wizard about the path ahead.

“Do we really have to go through?” groaned the hobbit. 
“Yes, you do,” said the wizard, “if you want to get to the other side. You must either go through or give up your quest.”
“Is there no other way round?”
“If you care to go (hundreds of miles) out of your way. And even then you wouldn’t get a safe path. There are no safe paths in this part of the world.”

There are no safe paths in this part of the world, either. Life takes us to scary places where pain happens and loss blindsides us from places we least expected it. A spouse is unfaithful, a child turns her back on you, a doctor tells you your mind or your body is going to fail, slowly but surely. 

We had a plaque on our wall when I was a little girl with a poem that said, “God did not promise . . . flower-strewn pathways all our lives through.” I used to stand over the heating vent and read that poem a lot. Because it was warm there, and I liked the poem. Now I realize, cheesiness aside, the author sure got that right.

We fear that path of pain, because we fear we may never get to the other side. We may just curl up on the path and end the quest right there. So, we try other ways, detours around, which end up taking us far afield. We pop pills; drink, smoke, or inject something; buy something new; or, if you’re Elizabeth Gilbert and publisher-financed, you escape on an around the world odyssey.

The thing about loss is, like the Forest, we really have to go through. We can’t circumvent it. We can’t ignore it. We can’t put on a happy face and pretend it didn’t happen. We dare not mouth Bible verses or insipid quotes off of Pinterest that make it sound like we’re on a higher spiritual level with the whole thing when we really are not. Those things work only until, having detoured away from the scary giant spiders in the forest, we find ourselves facing goblins and wolves hundreds of miles away and realize we’ve gained nothing and gotten much farther off the path.

Going through makes us healthier people. Wholer people. Better people. People who understand that life has an exquisite tenuousness about it we never valued. Who don’t waste time grasping at grudges or playing hide and seek with honesty. People who look for ways to hold out grace because we know other humans are as afraid as we are. Who realize that being afraid is an illusion that keeps us from completing the quest.

I hate grief. I hate loss. I really hate giant spiders. But I love the other side. 

not the happiest place?

Facebook is not the happiest place on earth. Two German universities have proved this.
This new study reveals that envy is rampant on Facebook. To be precise, “The spread and ubiquitous presence of envy on Social Networking Sites is shown to undermine users’ life satisfaction.”
In fact, we are so jealous of our social counterparts that we feel less happy with our own lives after spending our mornings with social media. We also embellish our own public lives. Just a little. Maybe. To keep up.
When I first heard that people were dissatisfied with their time on Facebook, I thought, duh, if I see one more post on a) the presidential election, b) gun control, or c) I Haz Cheezburger-style grammar, I might actually purchase one of those guns and go postal on my laptop. (After which, of course, I would post the video on Facebook.)

But no, the two sources of unhappiness surprised me. They were looking at other peoples’ vacation photos and checking how many times other people were wished Happy Birthday.
What? Someone actually sits around doing that? Counting birthday posts? I am beginning to see why those people might have life satisfaction issues. They have no life.
The interesting point getting less press is that envy and dissatisfaction were linked to how much the person actually interacts on Facebook. Lurkers feel more envy. A lot more. The more people simply look at your vacation photos without interacting with you personally, the more they envy you. The more they spend their time counting ‘Likes’ as opposed to talking to people they like, the more unhappy they are.
We did not need a German study to tell us this. Common sense should point us in that direction, though sense is far less than common these days.
Sense would tell me that it’s easier to compare myself to someone and envy them when I have never really talked to them, never discovered their hurts, dreams, and common threads. It has never occurred to me to envy my friends’ vacation photos and birthday wishes because I am genuinely happy when they are happy. I have made their happiness a part of my life. (Also because most of us, if we’re honest, are annoyed by 500 birthday notifications ringing through on our phones all day.)
If we choose to watch other people live their lives rather than living our own, we are unhappy. This is not new to Facebook world. It’s just more easily accessible.
Maybe rather than cause some people to tone down their vacation pics or others to ramp up their stories to compete, this study should call us to recognize that our happiness is in our own hands, not those of our “friends.” 

We can choose to compare lives or we can choose to make lives.
Making a life doesn’t mean streaking off to the Bahamas or Paris and then posting pictures. It means finding the richness we have where we are by interacting with life and with others rather than watching then live. It means to stop observing and saying “I wish” and start jumping in, saying, “I will.”
I will. What do you want to jump into today?

what if it totally bombs?

Can I make just one more mention of Christmas before we wrap it up? Yes, it’s February. Time to move on. But it’s kind of relevant to the rest of the year, too.

We did something different this year for Christmas. Besides being away from home, which has never happened other than visits to family. We spent the break on a mission trip to Costa Rica. But that isn’t the different thing.

The different thing is that we decided, in light of having to save money for the trip, we would not buy gifts for one another this Christmas. We would give only what we made ourselves. This also worked in light of the whole “the point of going on a mission trip is other people” thing.

We’ve thought about doing something similar before. It’s often seemed like a good idea to focus on what we have and not what we want.  To emphasize Jesus, given the invaluable gift he gave to us.

But it always ended the same, for me. I like shopping for gifts. (Well, I like shopping online for gifts.) I love seeing my family’s enjoyment of gifts. YES–I completely enjoy seeing a giant pile of presents under a tree and hearing the sounds of ripping paper and frustration over bows that won’t come undone. (I may purposefully cause some of that.) I like the knee-deep ocean of sparkly paper, tissue, and random lost cats that my living room becomes after a massive gift-fest has been executed. I do. Report me to Overdoers Anonymous. It doesn’t happen any other time of the year.

Plus, there’s the nagging fear. What if we try something different and it bombs, totally? What if the kids hate it? What if I hate it? What if instead of being the hap-happiest time of the year Christmas becomes a giant letdown laid at the feet of yours truly? Mom the usual Christmas machine epically fails. Since it’s only once a year, this really matters.

You know what? It didn’t fail. More than once I almost caved and started shopping. I really wanted to. But I think, inside, all of us knew it would feel so wrong to come home from working with people who didn’t have enough money to buy school uniforms and diapers to face a giant pile of glinting paper under a tree. (Not to mention that the cats would have torn it all to pieces by the time we returned and very possibly peed on more than one box. Plus, the tree was very not cheery green anymore.)

Instead, we savored everything someone had made for us. We appreciated the thought that went into another person pouring themselves into a gift. We valued the realization that someone created something personally for us. We felt we’d done the right things for the moment. It was, possibly, the best Christmas ever.

Why is this relevant for the rest of the year? Because we fear change. All year round. We hesitate to do something other than the way it’s always been done. Why? The same reasons I did. We like the status quo. It’s known and comfortable. We don’t like failure. We fear that if we try something new, everyone will hate it. We’ll hate it. We’ll have an epic failure at out feet with no one else to blame.

Is there something you really want to change, but you’re afraid? Something new you’d really like to try to see if it’s a better fit, but you’re terrified of launching out?

I read a Dear Abby column years ago that I just loved. A woman asked her if she should forget her dream of medical school because, “If I go, I’ll be fifty years old in four years when I finish!” Abby’s answer was so simple. “How old will you be in four years if you don’t go?”

Don’t let fear keep you from changing something today you really want to change. What’s the worst that can happen? And–what’s the best? Whichever way it goes, you’ll have the experience of knowing you did the right thing for the moment.