suffering

Travel, loss and memory

by Steve Brock on August 3, 2016

Panting GingerWhat I’m about to write is unfinished business. I likely should not even share these thoughts until they are better formed and understood. But because I’m wandering in the realm of emotions here, I fear that by the time I gain a more complete intellectual understanding of it all, I will have lost the deeper power and meaning of the experience.

*******

Four days ago, we had to put our beloved Labrador Retriever, Ginger, to sleep. I always thought that expression – putting an animal to sleep – was a euphemism: no one wants to own up to what you’re really doing. But after stroking Ginger’s head as the vet gave her the injection and she gently closed her eyes for the last time, I realize how appropriate the phrase is.

All during the almost 13 years that we’ve had Ginger, whenever a family member would project human emotions or perceived understanding on her, I would say, “C’mon. She’s just a dog.” But as any pet owner of good will and generous spirit learns, that’s not really true. Ginger wasn’t just a dog. She was our dog. And now part of us is gone.

Ginger

*******

Today I ran into a friend I see every few months. My wife and I have been praying for her husband who has been battling cancer for the last few years. I found out today that he recently passed away.

I think the tears that came unbidden mattered more than any words I could say to her. Tears that flowed easier for me due to my own sadness. If grief were a game of comparisons, I would lose. But it’s not. Grief is instead something we simply share. Something we stumble our way through…together.

My friend said how hard it is now to be only a person, not a couple. To find a task at home that required her husband’s strength. To see an object of his and remember. And then she wondered if that will last: Will she reach a point where she ceases to remember? She worried that she might forget him. I have wondered the same thing about Ginger. But then I assured her she will not. And here’s how I know.

*******

GingerYesterday I walked through the park where we used to let Ginger run free to retrieve a thrown ball or stick. If I had to convey in one single image of what pure joy looks like, it would be Ginger running toward me, stick in mouth, full throttle in undiminished, exquisite happiness.

People refer to “a stab of pain” when a memory hits hard. But it’s more, to me, like a constriction. In your throat, your lungs, your gut. That’s how it was there in the park. The memory came and then a wave of sadness washed over me even as I was beginning to reassemble the pieces of that memory. And slowly, amidst the sadness, the happy time came into focus only to have that overshadowed by the realization I will never see Ginger run with such joyful abandonment again. Pain. Tenderness. Loss. Delight. Repeat.

As I thought about it, the moment reminded me in a very small way of that bittersweet feeling you have when traveling. Where you encounter people and places that move you in ways you didn’t know you could be moved. And then, even as you are wanting to stay forever in that moment, you’re not. You are the one moving. Away. Beyond. Back to a life so unlike what you have just experienced.

I realize that longing from a trip and the death of a loved one aren’t even close in impact and importance. But they do share this: They are feelings, conflicted ones. And both are forms of loss that have taught me something important: how to nurture a memory.

I know how to stay in that moment of deep pain or mere discomfort long enough for it to settle into something more. Something redemptive. Something that, while hard, will eventually reinforce and clarify what is good. And I believe my friend understands this as well.

But if she does not, I will share that with her. For it is in sharing and reminding, of laughing together at the good memories and being there for each other during the hard ones, that we hold onto what we have lost. We will, on our own, eventually lose some of the details and fine points in what we remember. But through each other and the artifacts of life – objects, familiar places, photographs and stories – we will be reminded. Of a sweet smile, a tender touch or in my case, the sheer joy of a dog running with a stick.

We won’t forget.

Ginger and Connor

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The most dangerous places on earth

by Steve Brock on January 7, 2011

Last time we looked at  traveling more adventurously, perhaps even more dangerously, recognizing that how you do that will be different for each of us.

Some of you have commented that traveling – or living – dangerously may not be the most appropriate goal. The concern is that seeking danger for its own sake isn’t beneficial unless you’re a thrill seeker.

Here I am in Bosnia after the war there naively smiling before a burned out Serbian tank and an active minefield. But that wasn't the real danger of such places...

I agree. The meaning here, however, isn’t to travel dangerously just for the adrenaline rush or to make adventure itself another idol to serve but instead to break the idols of comfort and so-called security that most of us unwittingly bow down to. And few things are as iconoclastic in freeing us from our grip on comfort as travel.

Still, even with travel, we can play it safe. So let me share some comments that a friend of mine, Tom Getman, made a few years ago. I worked with Tom at World Vision and among his many other roles there, he headed up World Vision’s office in Jerusalem near the end of the first Intifada (the Palestinian uprisings). He’s also spent time in other places of conflict, in particular South Africa during and after apartheid.

When I asked Tom about meaningful travel, particularly to difficult locations, he noted that war-torn countries and places of great suffering are the most dangerous places on earth.

I naturally assumed he meant because of the risk of getting killed or injured but he went on to explain: Places of conflict are dangerous not because of the physical harm you’re likely to sustain unless you do something stupid. Most of us are wise enough to avoid active battle situations unless we’re there for that reason.

The danger, particularly to Christians but really to anyone who is sensitive to the plight of others, is that you will experience suffering in ways you’ve never seen before. And once you experience that, it gets to you, gets inside of you. It can even haunt you. The danger isn’t to your body or health. The danger is to your status quo and your comfort. Traveling to such places will disrupt your life and change how you engage the world, if you let it.

If we’re open, God can use what we experience on a trip, particularly one to places of great suffering, to change us so that we, in turn, become agents of change in a broken world.

And that can be very dangerous indeed.

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The journey ahead

by Steve Brock on December 31, 2010

The end of the year evokes reflection much like the smell of sautéing onions induces hunger.

The end of the year is a good time to look back and also look forward to the coming year. But how you do that makes all the difference...

The turning of the calendar from one year to the next is a marker we’ve been conditioned to note, sometimes with joy, sometimes with melancholy. But as we saw in the last entry, as we look forward to the next year, we have, in reality, no way of knowing how it will turn out.

That can be frightening to some of us. But I’ve learned something from traveling to different parts of the world that may be of use in this regard.

In Africa, Latin America and Asia, I have noted something different about the way people pray. I’m not referring to the difference between how a Hindu prays versus a Muslim, for example. You’d expect substantial differences there. In fact, what has surprised me more are the similarities in prayer between people of different religions.

The difference I mean is between the way Christians here in the US pray versus Christians from other parts of the world, particularly in less developed countries (a phrase I find particularly ironic in this context).

Here, if we’re confronted with some challenge or difficult circumstance, our prayers tend to be something like, “Oh Lord, please remove this burden from my life.” In places where people have far less material possessions than we do, their prayer is different. They are likely to pray, “Lord, give me the strength to bear this burden.”

Same God. Same core beliefs. Same challenges in many respects. But a vastly different perspective. Here, we see suffering and anything that disrupts our comfort as something to avoid or have removed from us faster than that pair of embroidered socks we received from Aunt Mildred for Christmas. There, they maintain the perspective that suffering is part of life, often – though it doesn’t seem so at the time – a very beneficial part because of what it does within us and the subsequent joy that comes afterwards.

We miss out on so much life when we seek to avoid our challenges and we definitely spend way too much emotional energy in that pursuit.

So today, as I look forward to the coming year, I will try and apply what I have learned from traveling and from praying with my brothers and sisters in Christ from other parts of the world. I will try to pray as they do and to embrace all that comes my way. That’s easier to do on a trip when so called “real life” seems many miles away. But in this coming year, I want to treat my daily routine life more like I do a trip and incorporate more of that “real life” into my trips.

And who knows? Maybe this year both my trips and my prayer life will be the richer for the effort.

Happy New Year.

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