“Two men looked outside between prison bars. One saw mud. The other saw stars.”
My mother often shared that story with us kids to remind us that perspective matters. She said every circumstance in life has a both/and. It’s a mixed bag of sadness and joy, suffering and gratitude, pain and compassion. If we can recognize and hold the two tensions within us and bring them to God to help sift and sort through, we’ll discover the underlying wisdom we’re invited to integrate into our lives.
Today, I’m holding the “holy” tension of anger and gratitude. We’ve just learned our twelve-year old retriever, Riley, has cancer. The softball size lumps in his abdomen are growing and will likely take him to the “other side” in a few days or weeks. He’s not in pain. But, there’s nothing we can do for him but maybe give him ice cream—and love him.
I don’t know how to reconcile my conflicting emotions of anger and gratitude. I’m grateful for the gift of Riley’s life. We call him “goddog” because the word “dog” is “God” spelled backwards and Riley’s unconditional love and beautiful smile embody what the Creator’s pure love looks like.
But I’m sad beyond words. Riley owns a piece of my heart and watching him slow down, stop eating, and lay peacefully at my side as he walks this death march overwhelms me with waves of sorrow.
I just want to flip the switch in my brain and become an instant star-gazer—focus on the love and joy Riley has brought to our lives, but the mud-digger in me is sloshing in the quicksand of negativity, anger, and sadness.
So, how does one dig themselves out of the prison of negative thinking when life hits us hard?
The Art of Lamenting
Perhaps the answer is found in the art of lamenting.
In the Psalms, David provides us with a simple pattern to handle the conflicting elements of life. He teaches us how to lament.
When confronted with the dangers and despair of life, such as Saul trying to kill him, David cried out to God. He let himself touch his feelings and express his anger and fear. He shook his fist and vented his frustration.
After releasing his emotions, David cried for help. He asked God to show him the way out of his perilous circumstances—and his negative attitude. Today we might call it a “help” prayer.
Then David waited. Listened. He opened his heart and let God speak to him.
Eventually, the answer came, the path unfolded, and David discerned the wisdom he was being invited to understand and incorporate into his life.
David became a great king and loving servant by discovering the three-fold art of lamenting:
Venting by feeling our feelings and expressing them;
Crying out to God for help; and
Listening for the Holy Whisper.
Lamenting vs Whining
Lamenting differs from whining. Lamenting acknowledges our suffering and allows us to release the pent up emotions with which life chokes us.
But lamenting doesn’t stop there. Like star gazing, lamenting looks up and reaches out to God for wisdom and understanding. Then, having lifted our eyes to the heavens, we see the shooting star of God’s guidance.
The star-gazer admits the problem, and looks upward to focus on the solution. He never denies the sadness and suffering part of life, but transforms it with the Creator’s help into wisdom and understanding. This on-going transformation leads to joy and gratitude.
Avoid the Mud Pits
The mud-digger focuses on what’s wrong with life—what’s wrong with him and what’s wrong with the universe. He allows negativity to drag him down like quicksand into the depths of despair, anger, and frustration. He whines and joins the unhappy mob of prisoners slinging mud at others and becomes stuck there. He stops at the problem, unwilling to seek Divine Assistance to progress into the solution.
Henry Nouwen in The Return of the Prodigal Son, says we have a natural reflex to move toward negativity. It draws us like a magnet into hopelessness. Therefore, we must shove against that tendency, so we can cast off the darkness, and live in the light.
In my quiet time this morning, I took my lament over Riley’s impending death to God. I shook my fist. Told the Creator, I’m angry at him and the universe. I asked him why he allowed death to be part of creation. Tears shook my heart as my eyes burned with sadness.
Then I asked God for his help to understand what I’m supposed to be learning as I walk alongside Riley and my family through this time of letting go.
And in the quiet, I heard the Creator’s voice say, “Be compassion. Feel the sadness. Cry. Let the pain out. Be compassion for yourself, Riley, and your loved ones who also grieve.”
“How can I be compassion,” I asked God, “when the loss of Riley feels like wolves grinding their teeth at my heart ripping a piece of it away with their fangs?”
“I am Compassion.” I heard the Silent Whisper. “Let me hold you in my heart and grieve with you. Together we’ll transform the sorrow so that it swells your heart with Divine Compassion.”
The Creator’s words reminded me that I have a choice. I can let life’s hardships embitter or better me. My heart is not being torn, it’s being expanded. By embracing the both/and of suffering and love, God’s grace allows me to “Be compassion.”
Gerald Sittser in A Grace Disguised explains it this way: “I did not get over the loss of my loved ones; rather, I absorbed the loss into my life, like soil receives decaying matter, until it became a part of who I am. Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”
Reach for the Light
I wonder if my mother’s story about the two prisoners and King David’s wisdom about lamenting are pathways toward becoming the star-gazers we’ve been created to be?
In the movie Balto, Steve Winwood sings the theme song, which highlights the true story of how a brave half-wolf half-dog dug deep into his soul and, against the odds, delivered a vaccine to save the citizens of the remote town of Nome, Alaska, from a deadly diphtheria epidemic.
Perhaps the words of the song invite us to check-in with ourselves and consider whether we’re mud-diggers: focused on darkness—or star-gazers: willing to let the Light of Christ transform us through lamenting.
Like Balto, we’re invited moment by moment, day by day, to discover who we are—whose we are.
Balto and Riley are teaching me to reach for the light, be compassion, and become a star-gazer.
As I lament and listen to the words of Balto’s song, which you can click on with this link, Reach for the Light, I hear the call of the star-gazer.
Can you hear that call too?
—brian j plachta