As I’ve sat down to write and reflect over the past few weeks, most of what I’ve mustered has been deep sighs and hollow complaints – ‘I don’t even want to be thinking about this’ has been a common refrain. Such is the current state of reflecting on the disappointing realities of Johanna’s health, and my life as her primary caregiver. To place myself in front of my computer and to prayerfully reflect is to face the disappointing realities of my life over and over again. Like a prisoner’s ball and chain, the deeply troubling problems of my life go with me everywhere, and I’m getting tired of even thinking about them. A family member recently asked me, ‘Do you miss teaching?’ ‘Of course I miss teaching,’ I replied, but in my head I was thinking, ‘I don’t even think about teaching anymore. Why revisit one of the painful losses of Johanna’s illness – having to leave a job I enjoyed and loved? I try not to dwell there anymore because I’ve already grieved this loss. Why revisit it?’ It was the discouraged thinking of one truly resigned to disappointment.
I like to think I have good reasons to be disappointed. A simple perusal of my day would find it filled with difficult routines. I deeply long for Johanna’s healing, to end the night without having to help lift my wife into bed. I wish the work of the day, the medicines, the caregiving, the morning until night vigilance, was leading towards progress, instead of barely maintaining a sliver of health. I long for a semblance of normalcy in our marriage, for Johanna to lay her head on my chest, to open the front door of our house and go on a walk with her. Amidst these discouraging days, I have felt so burdened. Each day feels so similarly painful, so bleak. Even in joyful moments, such as spending time with my nieces or nephews, or reading a story to Johanna, I feel the heavy burden of Johanna’s suffering, her isolation, and untreated illness. My days are chronically disappointing.
A few weeks ago I had been reading The Return of the King, by J.R.R Tolkien, to Johanna, and came to this passage, where the protagonists, Sam and Frodo, were on a perilous mission in a faraway enemy territory.
“The land seemed full of … noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the Mountains in the West the night-sky was still dim…. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.“
When I finished reading this section, both Johanna and I began to cry. Johanna’s disease so often feels like a terrible fate, and to hear the hope of Sam, even in this made up story, reminded us of the longing for healing each of us feels each day. This passage has been on my mind ever since, and recently I’ve been thinking about it more, in light of Advent this year. Like Sam, I long for my own moments of relief, relief from fears about Johanna and the future. I yearn for the ‘ceasing of trouble’ that Sam felt as he cast himself into an untroubled sleep. In light of Advent, I’ve felt the dissonance between my desires of momentary forgetfulness and escape from troubles, and Christ’s willingness and vulnerability to enter into these very troubles.
Yes, as I have thought about what the coming of Christ means for me this Advent, I have felt a somber admonishment. Though I have little power and seek momentary relief from my daily struggles, Jesus had supreme power, yet made Himself present in the greatest troubles. The beauty of Advent is not in the momentary forgetfulness of life’s greatest disappointments, but the profound realization that it was the magnificent entrance of God into these very disappointments. The beauty of Advent is not in an abstract ‘light and high beauty’ like the one Sam saw, but rather in the light that came down as a helpless child. As I long, like Sam, to put away all fear and sleep untroubled, I need Advent to remind me that Jesus came into my troubles, not to take them all away, but to make a way through them. I need Advent to remind me I can enter my own deep discouragements and disappointments with hope and expectation. In doing so, I will be following the footsteps of the Great Light who came down, so many years ago.