Forming A Fellowship of Light and Dark Through Loss
“La mucha luz es como la mucha sombra: no deja ver” ~ “Too much light is like too much shadow: it does not allow one to see” - Octavio Paz.
What Is There to Be Grateful For?
Let’s face it, just because the holidays are on a calendar does not mean that everyone is on the same schedule to feel the spirit of joy and celebration. Every person faces suffering. Here are four common shouts of pain that we don’t talk about at the annual holiday party:
Loss: For some, holidays are anniversaries of being without a loved one. Some losses are due to death. Other losses occur with work or relationship changes. Someone, for example, may face a holiday without a child or grandchild due to custody arrangements after a divorce. Loss takes countless forms.
Finances: For others, a career or life challenge has them lamenting how much less they have to spend compared to others or to their own capacity in years past.
Family: For still others, time with family may actually bring up anxiety, doubt and fear as they struggle with differences that become painfully obvious when gathering to share a meal.
Vitality: Then there are those with physical and emotional struggles. They search for the energy to get out of bed while they see that so many around them are celebrating. Struggling with chronic pain or suffering from any illness can become even more miserable when we add to it the expectation that we should not be feeling what we are feeling.
One Man’s Story: Life Felt Like the Sinking of Atlantis
As a young boy one famous author faced his mother’s death from cancer and saw his father drift into depression. Looking back as an adult, he found language to describe this experience:
“With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, pleasures and many stabs of Joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis.”
Don’t we all have our own version of this at some point in life of Atlantis sinking?
As this little boy grew into a man he turned his confusion and anger into being an atheist: “I was at this time living, like so many atheists and anti-theists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing.” As he matured his anger evolved into a more complex understanding of suffering as the pain of a child was turned into work as an adult that touched the lives of millions of readers.
Accepting That Life Is a Crooked Line
Shaped by loss this author wrote with a vulnerable heart about the death of his wife years later. His fictional stories represented the inner transformation that he experienced by also facing the horrors of World War I that included seeing many of his peers die. Leaning into all of this pain, he gradually came to a perspective that allowed him to hold both the light and the dark of life as a reflection of the inherent ups and downs imbedded in every journey:
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.”
His expectations turned to acceptance for the nature of life, rather than using his sharp mind to form judgements of how life should fit into the straight line of his own design.
The Power of Companionship and Imagination: Who Is This Author?
During his childhood he had a brother who was his constant companion and closest friend. They spent countless hours exploring the gardens, forests and fields around their country home. On rainy days, they climbed into an old wardrobe and told each other stories about talking animals, magic kingdoms, and the knights and dragons that inhabited faraway lands.
We are speaking, of course, about C.S. Lewis, who wrote a wildly popular series of children’s fantasy books, The Chronicles of Narnia.
Holding Both the Light and the Dark of Human Suffering
About human suffering C.S. Lewis also wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a dead world.” (The Problem of Pain, 93).
The mind at times turns painful experiences into either/or propositions. Something is either good or bad. It’s helpful to prepare for how grief and loss is a journey filed with confusion, complexity, paradox and mystery.
Why hold both the light and the dark of loss? Why not? Both are already occurring, whether we accept it or not. Why not have a good cry and then go to a holiday party? This isn’t pretending. This is being fully human and fully alive. This is being capable of experiencing and ALL that life has to offer. Here are three examples of friends who have taught me to do this well:
One friend would cry in front of the picture of her dead husband for five minutes each morning before she went out on adventures with family and friends to smile, laugh and enjoy lunch or a movie. Her calendar for the month had a different person’s name listed by each day. She had her Monday gal, her Tuesday chat with a cousin and so on. Her morning ritual with the picture gradually became less intense as her dates with different companions empowered her to balance feeling her inward pain with times that also connecting her with others. This was her way to hold the dual process of grief that allows the heart to experience both the light and the dark within each day.
Another friend took a different route. She felt all of the pain and sadness of her husband’s sudden death and then two months later attended a spiritual workshop where she was surrounded by people who all shared the same values and devotion. In the months to come she volunteered to help with this workshop when it was offered again and even hosted people in her home. While on the one hand her family decreased with the death of her spouse, she opened her other hand to see her spiritual family grow.
Yet another friend invested a gift of money, that she received from her mother who was declining in health, into realizing a life-long dream to live for several weeks in Italy. Was she happy to be in Italy? You bet! Did she also grieve her mother’s progressive decline? Yes, both experiences were felt by her at the same time while taking in beautiful scenery and adding several pounds of pasta and gelato to a belly that reminded her of how much she enjoyed her adventure abroad while also grieving.
These are just three examples of how people hold the dual process of both the light and the dark that comes with loss. Are you willing to discover your own way to hold both?
The Power of Fellowship and Gratitude
Since there are no simple answers to the mystery of pain, it is in the living example and presence of people like these three friends, where we find the grace to hold both the dark and the light of our own life. With companions by our side, we find ways to walk through the cold nights along the crooked line of life.
C.S Lewis found companionship and a story telling partner in the author of the epic Lord of The Rings series, J.R.R. Tolkien. Both men faced losses as children and also confronted the trauma of serving in the trenches of World War I. Together they created a fellowship with other writers that gathered around the fireplace at their local pub. Harnessing this energy of friendship they applied their innate gifts of imagination and humor to transform pain through the power of story. What if the global contribution made by these two friends was fueled by this simple act of forming a weekly fellowship? Their weekly habit of gathering around the fireplace was a safe place for them to explore both the brutal realities of their lives and their unique ways of creating hope through the medium of storytelling. With a little effort, aren’t we all capable of creating this kind of alchemy of support? Don’t we all crave our own version of the local pub of like-minded friends? Friends help us see and polish our own story with the power of laughter, tears and shared understanding. By being present in each other’s’ lives, the polarity of light and dark shifts from being a lonely burden into an experience of mutual discovery. In that sharing, we know we are not alone.
At the holidays we gather around the fire of friendship; sharing stories of the past year that include deaths, births, successes and failures. What dreams in the past year are realized and what hopes are unmet? Friends soften the stories we tell ourselves, alone in our heads. They offer perspective as we humbly face our human limitations. Feeling safe in the presence of those who love us, we come to see the beauty and truth of who we are.
It’s in these gentle, loving moments of embracing fellowship where the heart cultivates Gratitude. In an article entitled, Focus on Feeling More Gratitude Without Avoiding Your Real Feelings, yoga teacher, Susi Amendola says:
“Gratitude often arises naturally when we are feeling joy. Yet, gratitude is not the natural state of our minds. It is a conscious pathway we choose. It takes some mind training to awaken our sense of gratitude along with a healthy dose of patience to let gratitude become a habit.”
It is during this season when the nights grow longer, when we most need to be with others who understand the journey and who will gather with us around the campfire of gratitude. Walking with others, we stumble upon the gifts of intentional fellowship that are available to us even in a season of darkness. Even in the holidays.
About the Author--------
Patrick Davis is former hospice chaplain turned leadership coach who is authoring a guidebook for leaders and caregivers while living in Italy. Patrick holds a Masters in Adult Education and certifications in coaching and holistic health modalities. He serves as a consultant to leaders of causes that impact the health of their community and the sustainable wellbeing of the world. You may invite him to coach you at: firstname.lastname@example.org Patrick is also an adjunct teacher for various programs and the co-founder of: www.mindfulperformancesolutions.com
(Note: If you want to link to the article referenced by yoga teacher Susi Amendola: https://www.ornish.com/zine/focus-feeling-gratitude-without-avoiding-real-feelings/)