I have been waiting on this a long time. Mulling over when and how to express something so lofty. So precious as life. Like holding a bird in your hands. Cupping them firmly enough so he doesn’t fly away but gently so as not to harm him. I think the truth is often misused this way. Sometimes we don’t hold it firmly enough, and sometimes we don’t hold it gently enough, risking choking it. Life, real life, is hanging in the balance. We hold it in our hands, often unknowingly.
In the first Hunger Games, when Peeta and Katniss are on the train back home to District 12, after surviving the nightmare of the arena where kids are forced to kill other kids, Peeta asks Katniss, “what do we do now?” She responds, “I guess we try to forget.” Peeta looks away, considering this, then looks again at Katniss, “I don’t want to forget.”
Though the games were terrifying and incredibly painful, something good blossomed for Peeta. A relationship with Katniss. Maybe even love, though Katniss may have not realized it or thought she was only pretending. It was a beginning of a relationship for her too. Forgetting all the suffering and death meant forgetting all the life and love. This truth was clearer to Peeta possibly because his feelings for Katniss were stronger, but I would say also because he had less he was coming home to. His family relationships were strained. He knew goodness, regardless of how it came about, must be held onto. Relationship and love must not be forgotten. Katniss had her sister Prim, her mom and longtime loyal friend, Gale. Though still little, she had them to come home to. In the second movie, Catching Fire, Peeta gives Katniss a gold neckless with pictures of her mom, Prim and Gale. He tells her she has to live, for them; they need her. When Katniss asks him, “what about you?” He responds, “nobody needs me.” I think this is the moment Katniss realizes the depths of her feelings for Peeta, admitting, “I do. I need you.”
Is pain and suffering necessary to experience the fullness of love and relationship? Does love foster pain or pain foster love or both? Can one exist without the other?
Will Smith features in quite an interesting movie called Collateral Beauty. He plays a man who lost his six-year-old daughter to a rare form of cancer. His character, Howard, talks of three abstractions, death, love and time, that connect all people. After his daughter dies, Howard writes letters to all the abstractions expressing his feelings of grief, anger and injustice at the involvement they had in his daughter’s death and his now meaningless life. At the hospital, right after the little girl dies, an elderly woman sitting next to Howard’s wife tells her, “just be sure to notice the collateral beauty.”
Not gonna lie, dad, if someone told me this after you died, I probably would have nodded and politely smiled, but under the surface, rage would have been pulsing through my entire body. If I hadn’t practiced hiding my emotions so much before this, it would have been an ugly moment. What did this person think they knew about me losing you? How could I see beauty while disappearing into a fog of grief? I wanted so badly to slip into the shadow. To forever be numbed like living under anesthesia. I wouldn’t have thought it then, but I do believe there is truth in the idea of collateral beauty, just not the fullness of it. Collateral as an adjective means accompanying, additional or secondary. We more often hear of collateral damage. I think rather than beauty being additional or accompanying a painful situation, it is actually still primary. It remains within the sorrow and grief. A wedding is a beautiful occasion. It is a clear expression of love and goodness. Death is also a beautiful occasion but not because it is a clear expression of it. Obviously, there is great mourning, as there ought to be in loss. However, residing within death, there is beauty. It often just takes more time, space, intention and revelation for us to see it. The beauty of a wedding is apparent the moment of and many moments after the actual ceremony is over. The beauty of death gradually reveals itself if we open ourselves to seeing it. The layers of pain and sorrow are shed to uncover light and life.
I now see the beauty within your death, dad. Peeta saw the beauty within the awful experience of the hunger games in his relationship with Katniss. I tried to forget the pain of losing you. I wanted to forget just as Katniss did. And I did in the beginning. All the energy and time I spent forgetting now means all the more reliving and unraveling to be able to remember and know the beauty in the loss. To know the truth that there is love within everything. This is the fabric through which all is woven. The original condition and state of being. Love has always been. Beauty is more than collateral; it is foundational.
As an athlete, I know an injury can reveal unnoticed or hidden wounds the body has sustained and compensated for. Maybe the wound was sustained and intentionally let alone for specific reasons or maybe it was incorrectly cared for or maybe it was the result of natural conditions. Regardless, with the help of other members, the body finds a way to continue functioning as close to rightly as possible, despite the injury. This ability aids survival but also can foster dysfunction.
When it comes to injuries, I am the person who avoids bringing any attention at all to them. I know I should go get an injury looked at, hesitantly and begrudgingly go to the doctor or athletic trainer, after being convinced it is bad enough and out of my power to heal, and then do everything to hide the extent of my pain. If I can hide it and play it cool well enough, it is not a big deal. However, I could not do this with a recent bout of tendonitis in my hamstring. I tried everything I had known to do in taking care of my body. I resorted to asking an athletic trainer. Her evaluation revealed weakness in my glute and tightness in my hip extensors. Turns out my hamstring had been taking on a load it was not designed for and thus became dysfunctional due to the weakness and tightness in adjoining members. Maybe I let the conditions of my glute and hip go in previous injuries, thinking they weren’t too bad. It wouldn’t matter. Maybe I thought I would be okay. I could live with the wounds and make do with the dysfunctions. I would rather live with the pain using whatever means I had myself to subdue it than to make it known and ask for help to be truly healed. To let it be known I was broken and wounded. Funny enough, the tendonitis I actually asked for help with revealed these previously ignored and unhealed wounds in my body. Funny enough, tendonitis in my hamstring also revealed previously ignored and unhealed wounds in my soul. Not a coincidence.
The body reeducates the soul. Just as the body compensates and hides harmed members, so does the soul.
For a long time, my mind has been compensating for my wounded soul. I have tried to intellectualize feelings and emotions. The wounds sustained by my soul have remained hidden. My mind tried to explain your death, dad. Crying out to God how I could make sense of losing you. Of Him taking you. My mind tried to reason or explain the pain, though it cannot. How can I understand loss and suffering? I cannot wrap my brain around it. Reasoning with my mind just keeps the pain at bay, keeps it hidden from healing. This has robbed me of any sort of intimacy in relationship. If I avoid intimacy with my own wounds, I avoid any sort of real relationship with others, fearing their wounds as well. Pain must be felt in the soul. Only when it is felt and connected in relationships can it be healed. Maybe it is only when the pain is acknowledged and felt in the soul that love can be revealed and bring healing.
I don’t want to be just a brain. I do not want my mind to compensate for the wounds of my soul. Just delaying the inevitable flaws and dysfunctions that accompany hidden pain. The oncoming tendonitis. The building soul-itis: “inflammation of the soul.” I used to think wisdom could fulfill. I would eventually be okay when I finally understood the purpose of your loss, dad. I argued with myself that the good fruits and beauty I saw from your suffering and death were enough to explain why you had to die. But they were not. This did not subdue my anger or bring peace to my grief at all. If anything, it brought more anger and confusion why these good fruits could not have been sown and reaped some other way, any other way, besides your death. Wasn’t God omnipotent? Isn’t this something He could do? I had to know the reason for pain and suffering without feeling it. If only I could just fully intellectualize it, I would never be touched by sorrow and grief again. Knowledge was the key to unshackling enslavement to feelings. Knowledge is good and helpful, of course, but I was wrong. I could not intellectualize the pain and forever protect myself from feeling sorrow. Attempting to do so would also mean hiding from love and leaving unhealed parts of my soul to remain choked and eventually lost. To do so would mean shunning intimacy. Coming naked into the light is hard (Chris Renzema “How To Be Yours”) but staying hidden in the dark is tragic. Love is to be most coveted. Loving is to be most practiced. Love brings healing to the soul.
I think this is why there is truth in collateral beauty but still more to be had. The fruit of suffering doesn’t make the suffering good or worth it. Jesus felt the fullest extent of suffering on the cross. The God Man Himself asked why He had been forsaken. The God Man Himself wept when Lazarus died. He was moved by compassion for the suffering of His people. Suffering is hard and sad. Rather than the omnipotence of God being Him intervening to give us band-aid after band-aid or a bubble to live in in a fallen and broken world to just get us by unscathed on the outside, He heals us and loves us from within ourselves. He became Man to give us His life again. Something we had perfectly in the beginning. God made us in His image. This is the foundational beauty. It is not collateral. Suffering is the collateral to us forgetting we are already like God. It is the collateral to choosing everything else in the world to define us. Does this mean we can escape it if we simply remember who we are? No. We cannot perfectly live in this identity ourselves nor expect those around us to. We have to ask for help to gradually become closer and closer to who we really are. To gradually be healed.
Because God is God, life can be had through suffering. Because beauty and love are foundational, there can be good in the most painful and terrible circumstances. Not to justify or make sense of the suffering but to redeem it and renew it. To transform it.
Forgetting pain and suffering means forgetting life and love. Ignoring wounds means fostering dysfunction and hiding from healing. Peeta and Katniss felt the pain and endured the sorrow as it was being transformed in them. Not forgotten. Howard faced the unexplainable and befriended the grief as it was being transformed in him. Not ignored. I let go of my brain and loosened the grip on my soul. Allowing healing and life to the parts I was holding onto too tightly and choking. Not avoiding feelings.
Lord, let us not forget the foundational beauty and love in which You created us. Let us not forget the suffering we have endured in a time of ravaging disease and injustice. Help us to see what is being uncovered and revealed. Help us to hold onto the hope that life is within. Trusting in the goodness of Your design and the sovereignty of Your will, so we may doubt our doubts, not our beliefs. Though seemingly gripped by death and destruction, twenty twenty remains in Your hands. It belongs to You, Lord and King. You have already defeated death. Living in this enemy-occupied arena, help us remember who the real Enemy is. Not Covid. Not each other. Not even injustice or racism. It is the Thief who comes only to steal, kill and destroy. To choke the truth of who we are. Beloveds.
Thank you, Father, for redeeming, renewing and transforming us from the inside. May we cling to You when the sorrow and pain is thick around us, knowing You give life always.