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Grief

I have been thinking about grieving, especially when it concerns death.  This isn’t a normal subject for my old communities.  I don’t know why, we just didn’t talk about it much, and if we did, it was very ethereal and fluffy.  But I now live and work with people who know death in a much closer and familiar way.  They are affected greatly when someone close to them dies, no matter how old or how long that they have been sick.

This has had a profound affect on me as well, as a counselor as well as trying to be more human.  I have sat with many people this year as they grieved the loss of someone who died many years ago.  I have sat with a few who grieved children and spouses who died this year.  Some of what I said or didn’t say was helpful, much was not.  I have tried to listen and give space for their experience, I have tried to promote grieving and say how important it is.  But just because I am a counselor doesn’t mean I am a good listener.  I have to work at it.  And it definitely doesn’t mean I have anything profound to say when I am sitting across someone who is grieving.

I just finished “A Grief Observed” by C.S. Lewis, about the death of his wife.  He writes about how many people say trite things to him, how many others avoid him altogether, not knowing what to say.  He says he hates it all, all the advice he gets, all the looks he gets, all the pity, all the misunderstanding, all the work he has to do to make sure someone else feels okay.  I have never lost someone so close like this, and I can’t imagine how hard it would be, even without having to deal with everyone else.

But Lewis hates the loneliness as well.  He says that a sad person will look for anything to distract them from their grieving.  But a lonely person will live in their suffering, more willing to live in the memories of what they lost than the real world.  So why grieve?  As a counselor I will tell you many reasons, how grieving is moving toward the pain and acknowledging it, while everything else is a failure to deal with it, and there is no healing without reconciliation.  But it gets much trickier when you are in the midst of it.  I know how to grieve when I feel safety in other areas of my life.  I don’t know how to grieve when even God seems silent.

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As a counselor, and even more as someone practicing community care, and even more as someone working with an abused people group, it is often my job to work and think as an advocate.  I have a different voice, with a different power differential, and I can be heard in different ways than many of the people I work and care for.  Advocacy is a very necessary thing, because many people have had their voices taken away, and need someone to speak for them, to work for their rights, their point of view.  Abolition is a good example of a people group (Slaves) needing someone else standing for their cause because their rights were taken away from them.  Advocacy has a great history and those working for advocacy have changed the world.

But their must be a careful balance to advocacy.  I have seen advocacy be an excuse for hostility, and I have seen people put their anger towards a cause when their problem is much more personal.  Stephen Karpman, a Transactional Analyst, came up with what he calls the Drama triangle.  The three points of the triangle are the Victim, the Abuser and the Rescuer.  All three have to be there for the dynamic to happen.  The problem is that sometimes the rescuer needs to rescue someone so badly he makes a victim and abuser.

“The relationship between the victim and the rescuer can be one of codependency. The Rescuer keeps the Victim dependent on them by playing into their Victimhood. The Victim gets their needs met by having the rescuer take care of them.”

The Abuser can feel put in a box, labeled all-bad when their motives were more fluid, the Victim can feel helpless and dependant and the Rescuer can feel like they have to take care of others and never get their needs met.  What I find most interesting is that when this dynamic happens, someone always ends up feeling bad.  Often times someone will try to rescue a victim, only to see them get defensive and label their abuser as “not that bad” or “misunderstood”.

What I am trying to say is I am having a hard time doing my job.  There is a lot of injustice happening, and there are a lot of people who have been harmed.  This pulls out of me my desire to protect.  It also makes me want to see some as good and others as bad, and to put me in the category with the good people.  Not stepping into this drama triangle, or any other dynamic that labels some good and others bad, means that I have to see the humanness in the abusers.  I think that is much of my fear, that seeing it from the abusers perspective, and not labeling them all bad, will let them get off the hook.

Stacy is in the states again this week.  The last little kids left on the boat yesterday morning and summer camp is officially over.  Esperanza is silent by comparison.  I miss the thump, thump, thump of the trampoline, and the shrieking that comes from the ball swing, or the zip-line, or from the dinning hall, or really any where that little kids can fit themselves into.  I have found myself wanting to get back in the woods, where I can not only find silence, but let the beauty and pains of this time sink in.

I have been reading and meditating about the words of St. Theresa of Avilia.  She talks about the times where the soul is awakened as if by a “swiftly flashing commet, or by a clap of thunder”.  This causes great pain in the soul, but she says to count it a blessing.  This pain comes from the secret closeness of God and has no earthly explanation.  She calls this “signal favors” and sees this as the Lord preparing the bridegroom for marriage.

As I thought about this, while wandering through the woods, I ate some thimbleberries.  I only discovered them 3 days ago, or at least that is when I started eating them.  Before that I just eyed them and figured they must be poisonous because they were too perfect looking.  I figured that anything that perfect could not taste good, and might even get ya.  But thimbleberries taste like jam.  Sometimes God makes perfect things and they are perfect, end of story.  I have been blessed by finding out something I called bad was actually meant to be enjoyed.

Theresa knows something is from God when it has no other explanation.  When she hears of a vision that someone else received, she doesn’t ask what God said or how sure they were that God was speaking.  Instead she asks if they suffer from melancholy, or have a wicked past, or are prone to emotions, or any other means that someone might naturally be lead to strong emotional feelings.  If the Lord we to speak to you, she writes, He would use supernatural means that could not be explained any other ways.

We now know that St. Theresa probably suffered from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, which is one of my favorite topics, but I won’t go into it to much now.  Simply, TL epileptic seizures are known to induce emotional experiences, visions and feelings that line up with religious visions.  The pain she was experiencing she saw as blessed because it brought along great visions of God.  These seizures, of course, happened out of spiritual context for her.  They didn’t happen every time she prayed, or every time she talked to someone, or even line up to what emotions she was feeling that day.  So it makes sense that since she didn’t know of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, she would understand her visions as to not have a pattern or context, and for it to be of God it must happen outside of anything she did or experienced.

And I believed God spoke to her in seizures, or whatever she experienced.  And God speaks to me in my melancholy, and my being prone to emotions.  Theresa was looking for God to prove Himself by appearing outside of understanding, by showing Himself outside context, interior of the body.  I am looking for God to speak through my emotions, in the context I live, through thimbleberries and trampolines, conversations and emotions.  Theresa found the way to build a soul by looking inward, by removing any potential sin from her “Interior Castles”, finding God in the places where nothing else could be.  I am looking for a way to build my soul in “Exterior Windows”, looking out and seeing where God already is, begging me to notice.

Wish me luck, and if you hope to enjoy thimbleberries with me, you better come to Esperanza soon.  They might all get eaten.

Summer in Esperanza

Stacy left Sunday to go to Alabama to be in Rachel and Will’s wedding.  But not before she left me her cold.  Which means I have been inside most of my time here.  I have been sick since, but they have been the best sick days of my life.  I decided to embrace my illness and enjoy my time.  I have eaten lots of soup. I have stayed nice and warm, cuddled up in blankets reading.  That much of my reading is “the Encyclopedia of counseling” I am basically memorizing for my upcoming licensure test is totally fine.  I have taken breaks by reading two other books, one fun, one serious, The Girl with a Dragon Tatoo, (recommended and insisted upon by Josh Sandos, and Josh, I have to say, not bad for being written by a commie) and The Life You Save May Be Your Own(Recommended by Shannon and already is making be want my life to be more Monk-Like).  We have finished two weeks of camp and Tomorrow is Teen Camp, which means I will need prayer that I will like high schoolers again.  I used to love high schoolers.  At least I thought I did.  That will probably mean more studying for me, which is probably a good thing.  It is beautiful here and I the few moments I have been feeling better I have been walking and praying up in the woods and I have loved ever minute I haven’t been coughing or blowing my nose.  I can’t think of a better way to spend a summer.  That is if one is sick and has to cram for a giant test.

Loneliness

“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”

Kurt Vonnegut Jr

I have been thinking about loneliness a lot this past month.  Not just personal loneliness, the kind that creeps into everyone’s life at times, but communal loneliness, the type Vonnegut is talking about.  So many of the people we know have no real community.  They might know people at work, and keep in irregular contact with extended family, but basically their family lives in physical isolation, reaching out usually through their phones and computers, and often only to stem the tide of seclusion they feel.

I am not bringing this up to highlight how sad people’s lives are.  I bring it up because of the difference I have seen here in Vancouver Island.  Most of the people in our Family Sessions are First Nation’s, and Stacy and I have been convicted by the stories they tell, and how much they miss their family.  What we noticed from the First Nation’s people was their interconnectedness.  Despite so much trauma and evil they have had done to them, they stay in relationship with their friends and family and they don’t generally write people off.  They do this because they have no other choice.  Stacy and I realized that we have chosen to avoid difficult relationships, limit our time around family because of the difficult feelings and most of all protect ourselves from being affected deeply.

I think so much of this comes down to the myth of choice.  Barry Swartz, in his excellent book Paradox of Choice, (watch at TED here) talks about how most westerners value choice over everything else, to our great detriment.  Our societies and families are isolated because we choose to live this way.  We avoid difficulties and write people off because we can.  We choose to live where we do for a huge number of reasons, from jobs to liking the city to appropriate distance from family.  Many of my friends have talked about wanting to be just far enough away from family, like if they were a 3 to 5 hour drive it would be perfect.  What if we couldn’t make choices like this?  What if we had to solve our relational problems instead of running away from them?  What if we stayed in relationships for the long haul, not leaving when a convenient reason/excuse comes up?  I think we would find that our societal loneliness and isolation would start to fade away.

There is nothing like working with kids who are going through Trauma right in front of you.  When my client said this statement to me, he wasn’t remembering, he was living it.  His walls are still shaking.  And I had no profound answers for him, I had no words that brought comfort.  I told him I heard him, I got tears in my eyes and said I was sorry.  I felt so inadequate, but knew that no matter how much experience I had I would still feel inadequate.  What do you do when his parents, the people who he is supposed to go to when he is afraid, are the ones who are causing the trauma?  I went home and cried with Stacy.  Somehow I was hoping my tears would do this young boy some good.  I was crying because he doesn’t get to cry, he is too afraid.  I was crying because I wanted his parents to know how bad it really was, how this was a big deal.  I was crying because I was hoping God might notice…

Why Esperanza Works

We left Esperanza a few weeks ago and have had many conversations about it ever since then.  In our conversations we are always trying to communicate why Esperanza is different from anything we have seen before.  Esperanza isn’t perfect, but we have seen miracles happen there, and we have often been amazed by how much change, growth and reconciliation we have seen.  These are some of the things we think make Esperanza such a unique place for healing, rest and growth.

1. The History.  Esperanza opened in 1937 as a hospital in its present location and has been there ever since.  Some of the people connected to Esperanza have been in ministry on the coast for over 50 years.  They have worked very patiently in showing a kinder, more loving face to Christianity than many have seen in the residential schools and other places.  When anyone serves at Esperanza they are working with borrowed relationships, and that is a blessed and humbled experience.

2. The Location.  Esperanza is incredibly beautiful, and everywhere you look you see the wonder of God’s creation.  Living in beauty isn’t just a nice thing to look at, it is essential to our spirits.  I believe we are created to receive and experience nature, to take it in and be amazed by it.  If we let ourselves be open, God can change us through nature.  Beauty can slow us down, show us our priorities and give us space for the Spirit to work.

3.  The staff.  Esperanza doesn’t just give lip service to mutuality, it actually lives it.  Esperanza is different than anywhere else I have seen, where there isn’t a staff-patient relationship.  We are all here for healing, and we are all changed when we share our lives together, both the good and bad.  It is much harder to work this way, as the roles are trickier and it is impossible to separate our personal lives from our professional lives, but the outcome is definitely worth it.  Change at Esperanza happens not just with advice, but in communion, in the day to day shared lives, caring for each other in our struggles and celebrations.

This last session Stacy and I both had aunts die, and we weren’t able to go home to see family during that time.  But we felt so loved and cared for by the people up there, who just sat with us as we shared stories and tears.  I couldn’t imagine a better place to grieve, surrounded by people who know loss so well, and who patiently live with us, never asking us to get over it and move on.  We have seen so much change happen this way, as we all love and care for each other.

4. Stories.  Esperanza is built on stories.  We tell the story of the founding of Esperanza, the story of how each staff member came to be here, the stories of how God changed us, and many stories of how we were wrong and God used us anyway.  Telling stories is the primary way of communicating for many people on Vancouver Island, and it is ingrained in everything we do.  We tell stories when work groups come, during family sessions, during summer camps and holidays, and we ask others to tell their story every chance we can.  I am still learning to tell a good story, and have along way to go, but Esperanza and the people up here have truly shown me the importance of telling and living a good story.

For any of you who have been to Esperanza before, please tell me your reason as to why it works.  I would love to hear more thoughts.

Jeremy