“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
Blessings on you as you struggle with this, a very real thing. To be able to use that muscle of emotion you try once, then again, and the muscle grows stronger with repetitive use. And fear recedes the stronger the muscle grows.
Very true Rebecca! I’ve noticed it does feel like an exercise of sorts at times!
I so appreciate your writings Scott. Thank you for sharing so openly and honestly. Johanna is so blessed by your deep love and care for her and I know it is excruciatingly painful to watch her suffer.
Thank you, Jacy. You, too, have supported and encouraged Johanna from afar! Your prayers have helped both of us through these trying times.
Thank you for sharing your journey with us. I am learning so much about God and suffering but I can not seem to express it in words like you can. Know that we hold you up to God often. Love Terry and Janie
Thanks for your kind words and continuing to pray for us, Jane (and Terry). We are daily in need of God’s sustaining help!
It is hard to read and understand what you two are going through.
Thank you for being that honest with us and with yourself.
Last year my boyfriend had to care for me because i couldn’t walk, even sitting in a wheelchair was too painful for many months. Now it is getting better although i still need the whellchair for longer ways.
It took me over a year to understand what he is going through – so much struggle olthough i was the one who had to fight at the front. And it took long for me to understand that his pain is not my fault.
Feeling helpless although we were helping each other the best we could.
Keep in mind that you both are doing the best you can.
And Scott: What i learned from my boyfriend: he had to have a life besides my illness. That made him happy and relaxed – like going out with friends. Being happy gave him the strength to be with me and help me and to be funny and encouragingly.
Think positiv – that’s easy to just say, i know. But think positive. That is something everyone can learn and i am still learning it every day.
I didn’t read a lot of your blog-texts yet.
Is there a one with a title like: That’s what im am thankfull for.
Or: What we have achieved
Or: What i have learned
Or: Goals and hope
Thinking like that helped my boyfriend and me a lot.
Sorry for my enlish, im not a native speaker.
Thanks for sharing about your own experience with chronic illness. It is challenging to the one suffering and the one caring for the sufferer. I’m glad you had help from your boyfriend during this time. I can’t say I always think positively, but I do always have hope. God does not guarantee a future of health and healing on this earth, but he does guarantee his presence through suffering. He has been with us through every valley, sustaining us each day. I don’t have any blog posts with those exact titles you mentioned, but the first five posts on this blog are about some basic things I learned through caregiving for Johanna. Maybe you’ll find something you were looking for there? I hope you continue to heal and endure your illness with patience, Laura. May the Lord bless you and keep you while you wait.
Last year I read for the second time (after 15 years) “Les Miserables”. It is a beautiful book! These are my favorite quotes:
“It was preferable to enter the labyrinth, trust in the darkness and entrust ourselves to Providence for the exit”
“The pupil dilates in the darkness and concludes by perceiving clarity, in the same way that the soul dilates in misfortune and ends up finding God in it”
“The only witness of that immense pain was the Being that sees in the darkness”
Thanks for being honest and vulnerable, Scott. Thank you for taking the time to share with us what happens in your life and Johanna’s and thank you for telling us about what the Lord is teaching you through suffering and pain.
I know it is easier to “escape” from situations with distractions or “think positively” … but that is not the will of God, on the contrary he has arranged our suffering so that we can run to Him, who is our High Refuge!
Thanks for writing about this. Thank you for reminding us of the need we have to lament before our Father trusting that He hears us and resting in His love, goodness, wisdom and sovereignty.
I always pray for you and for Johanna! Every time the crises of pain overwhelm me I remember your beautiful wife and you, and I feel encouraged to persevere trusting in the Lord!
I absolutely love the quote you mentioned, “The pupil dilates in the darkness and concludes by perceiving clarity, in the same way that the soul dilates in misfortune and ends up finding God in it”. It’s one of my favorite lines from the whole book. What a great mystery that suffering can have this effect on our lives. What a great joy that the Bible shows us that suffering is more than a speed-bump to fellowship with the Lord. It is one of the means of deepening fellowship with our suffering Savior. Thank you for your continued prayers!
Hey I’m an old student from mrs Watkins 1st grade class and your 2nd grade class. My name is Gabriel Cortez Perez, I’m so happy that you have this blog because now I get uptakes on your guys life
Gabriel! What a wonderful surprise to see your comment here! I shared it with Mrs. Watkins and she was overjoyed. It feels like just yesterday you were in our classes. We hope you are well!
I am praying for your healing Johanna! May God richly bless you both as you remain faithful to Him, it is inspiring to see your love of the Lord.
Thank you, Irene. God continues to work through the prayers of many!
Lo siento, no hablo inglés 😞 espero que puedas traducirlo.Pero he visto su historia, me conmueve mucho saber por lo que pasan los dos cada uno con su carga. También soy una persona creyente, y sé que gracias a que Jesucristo ya sufrió por todos nuestros dolores, ahora él puede tener compasión de nuestras propias cargas. Dejo un video, en otro comentario, esperando que pueda darte esperanza, de que la paz volverá. Un abrazo desde México, sé que Dios no los olvida.
No problem, Yazmin! Yes, Jesus has been our help and comfort each day. We would not have the hope we do without Him. Thank you for the link to the video!
Tonight I’m grateful through your words to be pointed to the raw psalms as an example to bring our own painful emotions to the Lord. Some times I’ve been encouraged away from these “darker” psalms by other Christians. Perhaps it’s their way of escape from facing the very real grief which comes in suffering. I not sure, but I believe that it’s good to embrace the sorrow with the joy we have in the Lord. Even throughout the New Testament grief is noted along side the call to share in the sufferings of Christ. It’s help me to let myself feel and express my emotions to the Lord as I see Jesus do in his own times of weeping and deep sorrow. I know that my emotions are much more likely distorted when they start to surface because of this sinful nature we are putting to death as believers. Yet, this is the very reason we need to bring them to God. for him to do this this amazing work of sanctification by the grace he has granted us! As one who has a similar ailment as Johanna, my heart is drawn to pray for you both with similar pleas as for my own need. At times because of the brain fog & exhaustion that comes with reactions, I plead for the Lord help me intercede. I’m grateful for the promise that when we don’t have the words to pray, the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf.
Diana, thank you so much for your wise comments. As you noted, there is a pervasive, distorted view of grief that drives many people to avoid it. Instead, like you said, we find comfort in the Lord as we lament our troubles. May you continue to find comfort from the Lord amidst your own troubles.
I think you’re doing a really great job. Try writing those difficult feelings out more often to help give perspective to the things you feel.
Thanks for your encouragement Vanessa!
I have been following your family’s journey for a few years now. You have a true gift of writing, and through it, during a time that I needed it the most, you have taught me to believe a little more in the power of faith. I thank you for that. You and Johanna are in my prayers. I pray that your faith remains strong, and that they find a cure for this horrible disease quickly.
As someone dealing with a sick parent, I relate so much to all you’ve said here. What would we do without God’s Word, which often expresses what we feel (and what we need!) when we have no words of our own?
I don’t know either of you at all. But I think of you often and pray for your strength.
Scott, I’ve never met you or Johanna in person but as a Hope member I’ve heard a lot about it and met Bekah. I have followed your blog out of sympathy and for prayer purposes for a long time.
Recently however, I’ve started on a journey of my own intense grief and seemingly insurmountable mountain. The blog posts I used to read sympathetically thinking “I can’t imagine,” I now read as a comfort to my own grieving soul. I feel camaraderie and a sense of relief that someone else understands and can articulate the feelings i haven’t been able to put words to as eloquently. I felt that deeply while reading this post, and I’ve already shared quotes from it with friends to try to explain what my experience is like. Thank you for writing your feelings. It is a blessing to those traveling different circumstances but the fundamentally similar muddy swamp of grief. I can now say with empathy (rather than sympathy), I’m so sorry for what you’re going through. It’s not fair, it’s maddening, it’s isolating, it robs you of so much. But it also brings us to different plains of faith and understanding of our humanity and purpose than we previously could have imagined. Keep writing. Praying for you and Johanna.
Lindsay, thank you for talking the time to read and comment. Though it’s been a while (and things are harder as Joanna’s health remains poor) I’m thankful you found this piece helpful. I’ve used writing for a lot of my own processing, and I’m thankful to hear you found it a comfort. May the Lord walk with you through your own suffering.