“He who does not weep, does not see.”
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
I have recently been listening to an audiobook of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. I’ve been mesmerized by the storytelling and gripped with anticipation and amazement as I hear the protagonist, Jean Valjean, escape from harrowing circumstances over and over. Jean Valjean is constantly on the run from his inescapable past, relentlessly hounded by the law and unscrupulous individuals. My heart leaps with joy and my head buzzes with excitement as he uses his masterful strength and prison-honed skills to make his escapes. I am rooting right alongside his every turn. As I’ve been listening to this book, I’ve begun dwelling on an escape of my own. It’s not an escape from pursuers, or even an escape from a place. It’s the much less dramatic, emotional escape from my inescapable present.
In the constant assault of Johanna’s illness on her body, days seem to follow a cyclical pattern of pain, monotony, and failure. After cooking for hours in the kitchen and bringing food into Johanna’s space, I can often see the pain in her face and in her swollen joints. Her disease turns every moment into a Herculean struggle against events which would otherwise be done effortlessly. Amidst her chronic illness, the basic actions of life become giant mountains to climb. As her husband and caregiver, I get a front row seat to all of this. Knowing she bears these burdens in a much heavier way than I do, I nevertheless feel collateral grief wash up on the shores of my heart. In these moments I feel my emotional self clandestinely backing away from my circumstances, leaving a numbed shell of myself in its place. I make an escape by not dealing with it.
Not feeling the emotional weight of suffering numbs me from the pervasive pain of illness. It helps me ignore the emotional burden of Johanna’s struggles and of caregiving for someone in chronic pain. I flatten my day into a series of to-do’s just to get through the hours. If I can’t avoid difficult situations, then I protect myself from the troubling feelings they bring. This is a dangerous habit for my heart. I have been seeing and wrestling with this tendency for the past couple months, and have been asking myself the question, ‘What would it look like to properly interact with my painful circumstances?’ I don’t have a complete answer, but I know it would look a lot less like avoiding the feelings which rise from seeing suffering every day, and a lot more like engaging them instead. As I’ve been reading the Biblical Psalms over the past few weeks, I have been constantly bombarded by extreme expressions of emotion, poured out to God.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” – Psalm 42:8-9
Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground. Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love! – Psalm 44:24-26
As I read Psalms like these, I’m reminded of the incredible lengths I take to avoid my own painful feelings. As I’ve experienced many times over the past years, keeping my emotions buried under busyness and distractions is like damming a stream with my hands. Things seem peaceful for a moment as I stay productive, busy, and distracted, but emotional burdens keep piling up. When these waters finally burst forth, I am overwhelmed. Often in the moment, the only feeling I can clearly recognize is anger. Anger at my circumstances, and anger at myself for feeling overwhelmed. Instead of benefiting me, escaping from my feelings robs me of the chance to pour out my heart to the Lord. Unlike the Psalmists, I’ve blindly run from my emotions.
This pattern of escaping and numbing is lethal. I wish I could wake up and express my feelings just right, celebrating the patches of joy and lamenting the stretches of sorrow. Instead, this battle against emotional numbness requires daily activity. It means I need to shatter the false belief which says ignoring and running from painful emotions is way out of them. Knowing I am very susceptible to ignoring the hard things in my life, to minimize what is painful, and to press on like nothing painful has happened, I need to constantly assess the state of my heart, and see the emotions I find there. Then, like the Psalmists did, I need to pour these emotions out to God, expressing their fullness and trusting that God can deliver me from each one. I’m still a long ways from learning to be present in the moments of suffering and trouble I encounter each day, but God is teaching me the power of resting in Him. More and more, I can see why the Bible is full of images of God as a rock and a fortress. Fortresses are for those resting, not those running.
The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. – Psalm 18:2