On Not Turning On the Light
Of all of the kinds of grief that I have experienced in my life, and there have been a number, I think possibly the most difficult for me to deal with is the grief of watching my children suffer.
As a person with Major Depressive Disorder, I have a lot of strategies for dealing with my own pain.
I have a therapist, and the gift of medication, and a strong support network, and decades of trial and error with different coping mechanisms.
Less helpfully, I can also get comfortable inside my own sadness.
It’s familiar, like an old, comfy sweatshirt with lots of stains and fraying cuffs… something I don’t really want to be seen wearing, but something I’m still tempted to pull on and hug around myself as a numbing insulation when the world is all just too much.
It doesn’t make me feel good, exactly, but it doesn’t scare me either.
But when my children are hurting… that is a deep, cutting grief that does scare me, because it activates all of my momma-bear instincts to fix things, even though I can’t.
Not anymore. Not now that kissing the boo-boo, or singing away the nightmare doesn’t make the pain go away.
Not now that my efforts to fix things – to strategize solutions, or volunteer to intervene – is often more likely to INCREASE the tension and just make everything worse.
This stage of parenting had made me eternally grateful that I spent a lot of time reading the work of Brene Brown when my children were younger.
Brene Brown is a self-described “researcher story-teller” who has dedicated her life to studying vulnerability and resilience in various contexts.
I have committed to heart a lot of her wisdom, but I think the insight that has had the greatest day-to-day impact on my life is one specific phrase:
“Don’t try to turn on the light.”
This advice is shorthand for her description of the challenge we face when someone we love is in emotional pain.
When we see them hurting, our instinct is so often to try to make everything better.
We want the find a solution. We want to say the thing that will make them feel better. We see them curled up in the darkness of their pain, unable to see a way out, and we want to turn on the light.
But Brown’s research about what people really need from their loved ones when they are hurting shows that those instincts are wrong.
Trying to metaphorically “turn on the light” – whether we endeavor to devise a solution or offer a more positive perspective – it just leaves our loved one feeling alone in their pain.
Because it feels like we are refusing to share their pain with them.
We are defining their pain as a problem, which means that as long as their pain is real for them, they are a problem too.
What they need – what we ALL need when we are hurting – is someone who is willing to sit in the dark with us without trying to turn on the light.
We need the unconditional love expressed by a willingness to stay with us even when we are drowning in sadness, and to show us that we don’t have to protect our loved ones from the discomfort of our pain.
This wisdom is, for me, the most profound significance of the opening section of John’s gospel.
There’s lots of Christological claims about who Jesus is, and how he relates to God the Creator as well as all creation.
But more significant than all of that, for me, is the statement that he “became flesh and made his home among us.”
It’s a claim that Jesus – who is, himself, light – was willing to come and sit in the dark with us.
Jesus became flesh.
He took on our incredible vulnerability: our fragile bodies, and our limited abilities, and our helplessness under the relentless march of time.
He BECAME all of that.
He BECAME vulnerable to hurt. Knowing that the hurt would happen.
That he would know physical exhaustion,
and – finally – an excruciating death.
He became flesh, and he made his home among us, deciding to stay with us in all the brokenness, and fragility, and pain of human being.
The LIGHT of life came to live with us in the darkness.
And he did not insist on flooding the darkness with light. He wasn’t overcome by the darkness, but neither did he overcome it.
He made a home in it. With us.
The gospel’s claim that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness doesn’t extinguish it” used to strike me as a pretty weak claim.
I mean, if we are talking about the One who was from the beginning with God, co-creator of the universe, “life that is the light of all people,” surely this One ought to be able to manage more than the barest survival.
But when I am barely surviving, only this subdued, self-limiting kind of light can reach me.
When I am buried in the dark insides of my familiar depression sweatshirt, a dimly flickering light is really all that my eyes can handle.
And when one of my children is hurting from a disappointment, or a rejection, or an overwhelm that I can’t fix, a glaring spotlight would probably only make us both feel more like failures.
When the reality of pain or grief is all that we can see, we don’t need the God whose light can blaze all the way across the Universe….
We need the God who will take on flesh and make a home with us just where we are.
So, if where you are tonight is a dim shadow that can’t handle all the glittering lights of the Christmas season…
Or if it a heart-home darkened by grief, or pain, or longing…
Or if it just an exhausted corner where you want to rest your eyes for a bit.
May you take comfort in knowing that the Light of the World has taken on flesh to come near to you… and he doesn’t insist on turning on the light.
He loves you exactly where and how you are. And he will stay there will you as long as you need him to.
Thanks be to God