We live in a terrifying world of madness and uncertainty. In the last century alone, we’ve witnessed the Holocaust, the atom bomb, and the bloodiest wars in human history. Today when we watch the morning news, we hear of events as heinous and as horrifying: another senseless act of terror, another school shooting. Catastrophe is served regularly with our coffee.
So how do we forge meaning when the world is so often incomprehensible, sustain hope when our lives are so routinely wrecked by loss and tragedy? How do we find the strength of spirit to go on?
How we bear the unbearable is what Anne Lamott, cherished prophet of the human spirit, ponders in Stitches– her consoling sermon on salvaging hope from the wreckage of despair. A comforting hearth where we can warm ourselves during the soul’s bitter winters, Stitches explores how we begin again after devastating personal loss, how we maintain our sanity in a world that so often seems senseless and cruel, and how we persevere when it seems the only thing to do is give up. With astonishing humility and wisdom hard-won, Lamott admits she doesn’t have all the answers— but suggests there is solace to be found in each other:
“It is easy to sense and embrace meaning when life is on track. When there is a feeling of fullness— having love, goodness, family, work, maybe God as parts of life— it’s easier to navigate around the sadness that you inevitably stumble across. Life holds beauty, magic, and anguish. Sometimes sorrow is unavoidable, even when your children are little, when the marvels of your children, and your parental amazement, are all the meaning you need to sustain you, or when you have landed the job and salary for which you’ve always longed or the mate. And then the phone rings, the mail comes, or you turn on the TV.
Where do you even begin in the presence of evil or catastrophe— dead or deeply lost children, a young wife’s melanoma, polar bears floating out to sea on scraps of ice? What is the point of it all when we experience the vortex of interminable depression or, conversely, when we recognize that time is tearing past us like giddy grey-hounds? It’s frightening and disorienting that time skates by so fast, and while it’s not as bad as being embedded in the quick sand of loss, we’re filled with dread each time we notice life hotfoot it out of town.
One rarely knows where to begin the search for meaning, though by necessity, we can only start where we are.
That would be fine, when where we find ourselves turns out to be bearable. What about when it isn’t— after 9/11, for instance, or a suicide in the family?
I really don’t have a clue.
I do know it somehow has to do with sticking together as we try to make sense of chaos, and that seems a way to begin.”
Meaning, Lamott contemplates, is easy to decipher when our lives are as comprehensible as books but how do we make out meaning amidst ISIS and Rwanda? Hurricane Katrina and Sandy Hook? In a lyrical moment of lustrous grace, Lamott plays with the possibility that meaning and solace are one and the same:
“If we’re pressed for an answer, most of us would say that most of the time we find plenty of significance in life as it unfurls in front of us like a carpet-runner— at least when it goes as expected, day by day, with our families and a few close friends. We have our jobs and those we work or play or worship or recover with as we try to feel a deeper sense of immediacy or spirit or playfulness. Most people in the world are simply striving to feed their kids and hang on. We try to help where we can, and try to survive our own trials and stresses, illnesses and elections. We work really hard at not being driven crazy by noise and speed and extremely annoying people, whose names we are too polite to mention. We try not to be tripped up by the major global sadnesses, difficulties in our families or the death of old pets.
People like to say that it— significance, import— is all about the family. But lots of people do not have rich networks of hilarious uncles and adorable cousins, who all live nearby, to help them. Many people have truly awful families: insane, abusive, repressive. So we work hard, we enjoy life as we can, we endure. We try to help ourselves and one another. We try to be more present and less petty. Some days go better than others. We look for solace in nature and art and maybe, if we’re lucky, the quiet satisfaction of our homes.
Is solace meaning? I don’t know. But it’s pretty close.”
What’s incredible about human beings is we survive the unsurvivable, endure what can’t be endured. A husband’s diagnosis with a rare, incurable degenerative brain disorder. The dissolution of a thirty year marriage. The loss of a six-month old. No matter how truly terrible life can be, we persist, we persevere. Or, as Janet Fitch affirms, “The Romans were right. One can bear anything. Whatever pain we can’t bear will kill us outright.” Much like Pema Chodron, who is of the opinion that pain broadens our hearts and stretches our capacity for kindness, Lamott believes suffering has the power to transform us— often for the better. Marveling at the irrepressible resilience of the human spirit, she writes:
“My understanding of incarnation is that we are not served by getting away from the grubbiness of suffering. Sometimes we feel that we are barely pulling ourselves forward through a tight tunnel on badly scarped up elbows. But we do come out the other side, exhausted and changed.”
It is a paradox of the human condition that living can be both unbelievably beautiful and unimaginably cruel. But what’s wonderful about life is that after death, there is rebirth; after damnation, deliverance; after brokenness, healing; after disrepair, renewal. Day follows night. Or, as the Mamas & the Papas reassure us, the darkest hour comes just before dawn:
“Yet no matter what happens to us— to our children, to our town, to our world— we feel it is still a gift to be human and to have a human life, as long as….we understand that we and our children are going to get knocked around, sometimes so cruelly that it will take our breath away. Life can be wild, hard, and sweet, but it can also be wild, hard and cruel.
The bad news is that after suffering, we wait at the empty tomb for a while, the body of our beloved gone, grieving an unsurvivable loss.
It’s a terrible system.
But the good news is that then there is new life.
Wildflowers bloom again.
That’s it? you ask. That’s all you got?
No. I’ve also got bulbs. Well. They’re both such surprises. Wildflowers stop you in your hiking tracks. You want to savor the colors and scents, let them breathe you in, let yourself be amazed. And bulbs that grow in the cold rocky dirt remind us that no one is lost.”
Lamott’s philosophy on life bears a startling resemblance to her philosophy on writing. In much the same way we surmount writer’s block by breaking up daunting tasks into short assignments, we recover after loss by focusing on the next right stitch instead of the whole tapestry:
“…most of us have figured out that we have to do what’s in front of us and keep doing it. We clean up beaches after oil spills. We rebuild whole towns after hurricanes and tornadoes. We return calls and library books. We get people water. Some of us pray. Every time we choose a good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice. The equation is: life, death, resurrection, hope. The horror is real, and so you make casseroles for your neighbor, organize an overseas clothing drive, do your laundry. You can also offer to do other people’s laundry, if they recently had any random babies or surgeries.
We live stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky. If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching. And maybe the stitching is crude, or it is unraveling, but if it were precise, we’d pretend that life was just fine and running like a Swiss watch. This is not helpful if on the inside our understanding is that life is more often a cuckoo clock with rusty gears.
In the aftermath of loss, we do what we’ve always done, although we’re changed, maybe more afraid. We do what we can, as well as we can. My pastor, Veronica, one Sunday told the story of a sparrow lying in the street with its legs straight up in the air, sweating a little under its feathery arms. A warhorse walks up to the bird and asks, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ The sparrow replies, ‘I heard the sky was falling, and I wanted to help.’ The horse laughs a big, loud, sneering horse laugh, and says, ‘Do you really think you’re going to hold back the sky, with those scrawny little legs?’
And the sparrow says, ‘One does what one can.’
So what can I do? Not much. Mother Teresa said that none of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love…So I showed up to teach Sunday school two days after the Newtown shootings.”
Recalling Cheryl Strayed’s soul-affirming assertion that our “useless days will add up to something,” Lamott argues loss is an integral part of our becoming:
“Periods in the desert or wilderness were not lost time. You might find life, wildflowers, fossils, sources of water.”
But what do we do before we reach the other side of loss? how are we to live for the days, the months, we’re stranded alone in the desert? When a scorching sun seems to stretch across the forsaken landscape forever, all we can do is hope to find water. For Lamott, the little things offer consolation and comfort: good friends, a regular schedule, a daily walk. Such simple rituals are an oasis amidst the desolation of the desert:
“Sometimes after a disaster or great loss, when we are hanging on for dear life, we struggle to understand how we will ever be able to experience safety and cohesion again. The aspects of life that we treasure and have gathered over time, because they are lovely and go together, are gone. We may feel as if we’ve been handed ugly patches for our quilt that clash with one another— brown Hawaiian print, say, along with orange Rob Roy tartan and three squares of vomitous sea-foam upholstery.
At this point, a reasonable person can’t help thinking how grotesque life is. It can so suck, to use the theological term. It can be healthy to hate what life has given you, and to insist on being a big mess for awhile. This takes great courage. But then, at some point, the better of two choices is to get back up on your feet and live again.
There is the tired-and-true method of ‘Left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe.’ Or you can become a fundamentalist, perhaps Opus Dei, or Ana-baptist. Or you can start to sew around the quilt squares with the same color embroidery thread. This unifies your incompatible patterns, textures and colors. It’s grace as an unexpected bond, grace as surprise.
Stitching with the same color thread might mean regular contact with a few trusted friends, the three people you can currently bear who don’t make your skin crawl. Daily rituals, especially walks, even forced marches around the neighborhood, and schedules, whether work or meals with non-awful people, can be the knots you hold on to when you’ve run out of rope.”