Heaviness and Light


I'm not sure how to explain how I've been feeling recently except to say that it's been "heavy." My soul has been weighed down. I've been moving more slowly than I usually do, and I've been tired. And while I'm sure that I have felt this way in the past, in the past, I have eaten. Because it's easier and, let's be honest, more delicious than having to sit with the heaviness, the weight, and the emotion that I still am unable to adequately name. Today, though, I am sitting with it. And in my eyelids and my shoulders and my heart and my legs, I am feeling it.

So what's up? Two things, I think. One is, well, the stories. I have a colleague and friend who once reminded me that chaplaincy is hard. That, even when the work is life-giving and affirming, the stories that we hear and the conversations that we have with individuals on a daily basis are often those of loss, pain, and transformative change. We promise to be present with them, to witness to their hurt, and to carry their stories and their truths until they can bear the weight of them again themselves. It is an honor and a privilege to do so, but sometimes, it gets heavy. Good heavy.

And as I have begun to share my story, of my successes and my failures and my insights and my experiences and my failures, I have begun to hear the stories of others, too. Some have come from friends, good friends, with whom I simply have not been entirely honest until now and so who now, I suppose, feel comfortable enough to share more and more deeply with me, as well. Some have come from strangers, from acquaintances, and from people who I otherwise might have discounted as having meaning to only this or that specific period in my life. Regardless of their source, though, they have touched me. They have inspired me. They have moved me.

But while the very nature of my medium of choice – that is, a blog – insists that these stories continue to arrive via the written word, sometimes I wish, instead, that we – my story-tellers and I – could simply rest. That we could hold hands for a bit, or hug. Or share a good, long belly laugh or a glass of red wine. That is to say that sometimes, this gets heavy, too. But it's also good. It's the good kind of heavy that makes me sigh and smile and yes, maybe cry, but only the good, tired tears. It's the kind of weight that reminds me of the power of a group of smart, conscientious people and of the strength of a community. And I am so grateful for that.

But there's something else, too. Something that feels bigger than me, than us, and heavier than I want or am able to bear. Something that makes me want to get back in bed and pull the covers up over my head. What could happen? Sometimes I think that if I just open my mouth to breathe, all of the progress that I have made will escape, and in one quick inhalation I will be reinfected by the religion of thinness and quarantined in this culture of disembodiment, disconnectedness, and dishonesty. So often, I feel like a little girl, understanding that I must let go of my mother's hand to face the big, bad world, but knowing that my own innocence, my own optimism and idealism are but a fragile thing when up against society's onslaught of messages, images, and idols just begging us to believe not in ourselves, but in them.

Last week, the 19-year-old with whom I work rolled her eyes when I revealed that I would be eating a second piece of pizza for lunch. What that meant, I have no idea, but I wondered, and it pissed me off. Last weekend, I worked with a beautiful 21-year-old who ate grapes for lunch because, she said, she is trying to lose weight for spring break. And lest it begin to seem as though I believe it to be the young ones who simply know no better, I am, this week, visiting with a woman, Katherine, who is in her eighties and dying. And yesterday, as I brushed back her hair, she said with far more energy than I thought her capable, "Oh, I must look awful!"

In her next breath, honest to God, she said that she could see a light, "a rim around the room that is glowing." "Is it a good light or a bad light?" I asked. "It's a good light," she said. I told her it was okay to go there, but she started coughing and reached for her Diet Coke instead. She insists upon drinking "the sugar-free kind."

Heavy. Bad heavy.

I talked to my counselor some about this today. She responded with a question. "What is real?" she asked. Thankfully, she intended it to be rhetorical, and went on to tell me about Dr. Robert Thurman, professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, whom she recently heard discuss, most generally, bliss. According to Thurman, much about western culture and religion promotes the thinking that bliss is something that one finds after one dies, that the here and now is clouded by sin and that only in heaven will "the body of our humiliation" be "conformed to the body of [Christ's] glory" (Philippians 3:21). Thurman, though, suggests differently, arguing instead that bliss is in this world as much as in the next, and that the recognition and experience of bliss depends only on one's choice of it over the alternative.

At death, this choice is distinct and unambiguous. Unreality, for Katherine, is the unrelenting concern for appearances and calorie contents. Reality is the white light, the glow; "it's a good light," she said. To get there, she need only cross the threshold from life to death, which she will do very soon.

For the rest of us, though, distinguishing reality from unreality – or falsehood or inauthenticity – is a more difficult endeavor. The religion of thinness is alluring, at times, and the pursuit of perfection is intoxicating, and there is but a thin, blurry line between those ways of being and the ways of self-acceptance, cultural criticism, faith, gratitude, and authenticity. I like to think of it as the road less traveled, but also, as reality.

"It's a good light," Katherine said, and I wanted to climb in bed beside her. "Show me!" I wanted to plead. "Take me with you!" It seemed lighter there. And simpler. And so, so different. But if Thurman is right, and if there is indeed bliss here and now, then what would it look like for us to choose it? What would it mean for us to see a glowing rim around our own lives even amidst the onslaught and recognize it meaningful and life-giving and real? How would it feel for us to recognize the heaviness – the bad heaviness – and let it pass, not taking it on or making it a part of us or our own stories, but rather simply noticing it, naming it as unreality, and choosing differently?

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My fiance, Dan, always notices birds first. Whether we are on a walk, in the car, or sitting, as we are now, beside a window with a view, Dan never fails to point out geese, hawks, and eagles. I think it is his way of connecting with his bliss, with the reality that centers him – namely, nature – though his fingers flip the pages of a book on medieval political theology or the like.

So first, I think I will try to look up more. I think I will try to notice not the changing trends, but the changing seasons. I think I will try to compare myself not with the anxious undergrads, but with the clear skies. I think I will try to emulate not the gym rats, but the dancing birds – the geese, hawks, and eagles.

There will still be the onslaught, of that I can be sure. And there will still, undoubtedly, be days filled with a bad heaviness. But I will have the opportunity to choose.

And I can choose reality. I can choose bliss. I can choose light.


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