Decline, Death, and Family Matters

Nothing brings out skeletons from any family closet quite like decline and looming or actual death of matriarchs, patriarchs, and those in the family who wish they were either. In truth, it doesn’t matter who is close to death and what our relationship to them might be, death brings out the worst in us. You might think that tragedy would lead to unprecedented cooperation and putting aside hurt feelings and personal interest. Sadly you would be wrong. I believe the primary reason for this is that we in the west avoid thinking about death at all costs, so when it shows up we have no idea how to respond. Spiritual leaders really need to shift our consciousness around death, but if you are confronted with a pending loss before that shift occurs you will need some concrete advice.

I have seen conflict arise in a few different areas. The first might be called misdirecting our pain into the physical. We are going to miss Grandma, but if we can snag that mirror that sat on her dresser we will always have her nearby. The problem is that Grandma wasn’t a mirror. Whatever physical item we decide we cannot carry on without isn’t going to help us with the loss of Grandma. Only time and healing will get us through our grief. We need to ask ourselves if we really want to damage our relationships with family members over a physical item or items when what we really need is to process our grief – and those family members we may go to war with over a mirror may well be essential to our grieving process.

The second conflict point I call I’m in charge now. The family patriarch passes and Uncle Ralph decides he is now the patriarch. The problem here is that our roles in a family system aren’t determined by proclamation, no matter how loud. Family dynamics are a much more complex process and take time to play out. In the aftermath of a loss, we would be better to focus on tasks than on roles because the new roles develop over time. In the short term, there are important papers to be found, a bedroom or a garage to be cleaned out, sleeping quarters found for out of town family. We will all be better served by focusing on what we need to do to facilitate our coming together as a family. Big decisions can, and should, wait.

The third conflict point is called Don’t say that! Times of loss or pending loss cause feelings to surface. Not all of those feelings will be happy and comfortable, and when they arise and people begin to speak about them we might be tempted to try to shut that conversation down. While we should always do our best to speak our truth appropriately and with sensitivity, difficult truths that arise in coping and grieving need to be allowed to arise. The experience of processing these thoughts, if handled appropriately, can actually build family cohesiveness. Trying to shut them down can create rifts that may be profoundly difficult to heal.

Finally, avoid the idea that We must do this perfectly. If you are human, you are going to make mistakes. The more difficult and emotionally fraught the situation, the more likely mistakes will occur. Forgive yourself for being human (imagine!), and forgive one another for the same sin of being an imperfect human being. This simple act can bring amazing amounts of grace into a difficult situation. Are you holding on to hurt feelings over relatively small conflicts? What better time to let them go?

Loss is never easy, and loss of loved ones is the most difficult of all losses. Learning to navigate these situations with as much skill as we can helps to make our journey through loss a bit easier. If we find ourselves seeming to over react, we may choose to take a few minutes or longer away from the most intense conversations around our loss. It is absolutely fine to admit that we need a break, a cup of coffee, or a hug. It’s always a good idea to practice effective self-care. The road through loss and grief is a marathon, not a sprint. We should do our best to be good to ourselves at all times.

Guns, Schools, and Selfishness

At a certain developmental stage, young children are appropriately concerned only about themselves and what they want. At that stage, that behavior is appropriate and we would be wrong (and ineffective) if we tried to hurry them out of that stage. We would interfere with their normal, healthy development, and they would suffer consequences at they moved into adulthood.

When we are adults, living in society, and presumably capable of understanding the world in a much broader way than a three year old does, we come to realize that some of the things we might want to do that we cannot do out of concern for the greater good. For example, we might want to drive through a school zone at seventy-five miles per hour, but children might be hurt. We pass laws to make such things illegal, and no reasonable person objects to those laws.

You might think that same logic would apply to questions of gun control given that high number of gun incidents in school zones. You might expect that reasonable people, seeing the danger inherent in the regularity with which shootings and near-shootings* occur at schools in America, would be willing to change our laws to restrict access to firearms even if such changes impacted their perceived right to own as large an arsenal as they might like. You would be wrong, however.

America is well past the point where there is any reasonable argument in favor of the status quo in gun control. What we have isn’t working. Any politician who argues against stricter gun laws is likely in the back pocket of the NRA and is corrupt and needs to be removed from office. Even the most rudimentary understanding of any of the world’s great religious and spiritual traditions tells us that nothing is more important than the health and safety of a child.

The truth is that when we encounter someone who believes that their need to own a gun is more important that a child’s need to life, we have encountered a moral midget who needs to be ignored. If we are to live in a civilized society, we have to do everything we can to ensure the safety of our children. If you feel you need to hunt, I’d suggest you buy a bow and arrow.

The Untimely Passing of Rachel Held Evans

As many if not most of you probably know by now, beloved conservative cum moderately progressive Christian author and speaker Rachel Held Evans passed away on May 4th at only thirty-seven years of age from complications of the flu and a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics. She is survived by, among others, her husband and two young children.

And the moderately progressive Christian world reeled.

How could this be? They were shocked, some even outraged, by the unfairness of it all. Not Rachel! Not her, of all people! Oh, there was weeping and wailing and gnashing of RHE bookteeth across the Twitterverse, the Facebookverse, and every other social mediaverse you might imagine. It seemed to me to go beyond what one might expect, even in light of the passing of such a young, talented, and gracious woman.

And then it dawned on me.

Deep inside, in places we don’t examine very often or very well, many of us believe that if we are good enough, or talented enough, or devout enough, or pretty enough – and most of all if we are all of those things – God will save us from adversity and at least untimely death. There’s only one thing wrong with that belief.

It doesn’t work that way.

Everybody dies. None of us are getting out of here alive. None of us knows when it will happen, although there is some indication that at least some of us will have a sense when death is close beyond looking up to see the grill of a bus as we cross the street. We all have different ways of dealing with it and different ways of explaining it. In fact, trying to explain it may well be at the root of most religion. The important thing is that not dealing with it is no way to deal with it. Denial never solved anything, unless the problem was not having enough problems.

As hard as this may be to accept, Rachel Held Evans died because we all die. Some die sooner, others later, but we all die. She didn’t do anything wrong and her death makes no statement about her life. The best thing we can say to the loved ones she leaves behind is, “I’m sorry.” The best thing we can do for them is simply be present. The best thing we can do for ourselves, after the mourning is over and the morning has come, is to come to a better understanding of the great teaching that is death.

Rationalism, Logic, and Reality

I-believe-that-not-everything-needs-an-explanatioMany people believe that everything can be explained. I reject that idea. I am willing to accept that all mechanical processes can ultimately be explained – but how much of life is mechanical? Is love mechanical? Is childbirth mechanical? Is death mechanical? Is the feeling we experience at a great concert mechanical? The current tendency to want to reduce everything to something that can be explained is little more than self-deception. It is a product of fear of the unknown.

The truth is that we will never be truly happy until we can make peace with the fact that there are many things we do not understand, and some of those things are the best part of life. In trying to explain them away, we reduce life to a two-dimensional misery that sends us in search of something (substances, sex, control, power over another) to give life a false depth that fools us into believing everything is within our control and understanding. Better to actually experience and live life than to miss it out of fear!