The Price of Finding Depth

Today is my seventh session of counseling. It has been three months since my cousin shot himself on Christmas Day. He would have been my age—twenty—in sixteen days.

I’ve grown comfortable in this room, in this red plush chair—enough so that I don’t always have to cross my legs or clutch my own hands in my lap. When I don’t stare at the counselor in the same rocking chair across from me, which is most of the time, I stare at the full bookshelf to his left, the books with spines listing every disorder and mental ailment imaginable, the window next to me that looks out of the reverent, red-brick Nazareth Hall, my view framing a corner of Lake Johanna, the cold and gnarled oaks twisting across gray water.

We always meet on Friday’s, during what the college calls “praise chapels.” It’s a weekly event most students flock to, leaving the century-old campus quiet and deserted.

The first praise chapel I went to after Christmas, I stood and listened while a peppy worship leader belted out a Hillsong ballad about “victory over death,” the whole auditorium on their feet and clapping. I fell into my seat after about five minutes and wept, my hair like a curtain, my face in salt-soaked hands the rest of the hour. I haven’t been to a praise chapel since.

My counselor and I don’t always talk about him—sometimes we talk about poetry and art, or we discuss blogs and books we’ve read. But he always comes up. I try not to be surprised by the fact that I always have more to say.

I tell my counselor the question that I asked my roommate last night while she was sprawled on the thinly-carpeted dorm-room floor doing theology homework, clacking on laptop keys, the white Macintosh apple glowing in my direction.

Are you satisfied with your life?

She did not hesitate when she said yes. When she asked me the same, I responded that I don’t know whether I’ve ever been truly satisfied by anything. That I am always seeking, always trying, always groping for something more. And it’s exhausting.

My counselor looks at me quiet with focused eyes, waits while I feel my face wrinkling up in frustration, my palms sweating in this blanketing room that smells of the red hard candies on the desk. All my life, I tell him, I’ve always seen the worst fate possible as feeling and experiencing life shallowly. But what I’ve forgotten until now is that the deepest depths of the ocean are the darkest and loneliest places on earth.

It is saying these words aloud that makes me crush a plush Kleenex against my eyes, stop while I try to control my voice and breath. My counselor tells me I feel isolated from people because I feel and experience things in ways that most twenty-something college students do not. He says I am “burdened by insight.” His statement flattering and lonely all at the same time.

When I walk outside, it is April and it is empty and it is snowing—light, gentle flakes, not so much falling but rather chasing themselves around my head and the mass of steely sky. I walk through a world in slow motion. The air is fresh and spills down my throat like ice water, settling somewhere deep inside of me, cleansing me. I can smell the water stirring in the lake behind me, the weather-worn dirt that is finally exposed. I tip back my head, stop on the walk overlooking the campus courtyard, stand utterly still.

Later today I will have classes, and I will read books, and I will think thoughts about all kinds of things different people want in my brain. But in this moment, my thoughts are mine and God’s. I am my own. I am being laced in white, and I am healing in the only way I know how.

The Eternal Heart

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…”              ~ Ecclesiastes 3:1-4

It’s painful for me to say that this post, in addition to this last week in general, has held nothing that I would have even dared to expect, and somehow, though I would rather write about anything else, nothing else seems acceptable to address.

Over Christmas, my family experienced incredible tragedy in the form of my cousin’s death. For the sake of our family’s privacy, I will not go into details, and I’m here to say not only that this post is not that story, but also that it is not my story to tell. I can only tell my own. And this happens to be part of it.

Until Christmas morning, I had never had to face death in this degree of closeness. Never had to experience grief in those circumstances or to that level. I’m afraid I’ve even caught myself in the past saying that I doubted whether I had experienced enough, known enough darkness to pursue the world of writing. Was this what I was asking for?

Shock is an emotion (if you can call it an emotion) that dulls and blurs all others. My mind has been thick with it and has left little room for me to feel anything else. I feel pressure to mourn, to grieve, to undergo a process that acknowledges these things, but I am utterly lost in what such things look like, let alone how to go about them. It’s easier for me to act strong for others, whether siblings, parents, or friends, ask how they are, but not nearly as willing to seek an answer for myself. I’m not always sure how to respond, and as a result, I’m learning my own process for coping. And it turns out that all I know to do is what I’ve done for the majority of my life, and that is to write it down.

So here I am. Two poured-over journals, fifteen pages of handwritten scrawls, an open Bible, and four hours in the loft of the town coffee shop have gotten me to this point, though I’m still not sure exactly what that is.

The first few days proceeding the news, the same thoughts kept replaying in my head, over and over again.

My cousin’s dead.

My cousin’s dead.

My cousin’s dead.

I kept repeating them with some hope that they would tie me to reality, make the truth of it stop hovering in the air and sink beneath my skin, keep me from drifting off into the world inside my own mind. When I felt myself slipping into normalcy, and saw how easy it is to do even in the midst of such turmoil and tragedy, I kept snapping myself back, trying to force something I don’t understand.

But I’m beginning to realize that seasons run together even more than we expect. Not only do we have seasons of weeping and seasons of laughter, but we experience them together, despite how unnaturally they feel. I am learning to mourn death and loss, but also allowing myself to laugh at my sister dancing around our room in her Batman pajamas. I will give myself these opportunities to reflect and grieve, to spend hours journaling by myself, to cry with close friends, but also appreciate the moments of my family gathered around the living room, making fun of the old Star Wars special effects. Treasuring the life, the moments, the continual and constant support and empathy around me.

I’m witnessing first hand that our souls hold more than we can measure, and our hearts are capable of greater suffering and greater joy that could ever be imagined or contained. Even the depths of suffering tend to make room to hold an even deeper love and a greater degree of life. We are creatures with eternity placed in our hearts, and like death, like anything of great permanence, we do not know how to understand it, but the thing is that we don’t really need to.

I may not know how or what to feel at times such as this, but I am determined to continue feeling despite my lack of understanding. We continue to live in the presence of death. We continue to laugh in spite of tears. We allow ourselves sorrow, and we make room for joy. We love in a broken world because the broken does not take away from the beautiful. And it is the encounters with the beautiful that I keep my heart open for.