Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself: When Tragedy Brings Clarity

Inside the carefully packed cardboard box was: soup in Tupperware, homemade salad dressing, mixed field greens and a frozen apple crisp.  The package was really a box full of concern and caring for a family in the neighborhood who had experienced more than their share of tragedy in the last few years.  The latest misfortune being a serious car accident involving the husband/father.

I struggled to close the service door on our garage because my arms were too short to reach beyond the box and grab the knob.  I precariously pressed the box against the siding with my chest as I reached out with my hand to secure the door.  The soup in the Tupperware is one of those simmer-all-day recipes that I make once in a blue moon.  I said a little prayer to help me avoid spilling the precious cargo all over the driveway.  Catastrophe avoided.

I cut across our lawn and headed toward the neighbor’s house. I glanced up into the dense grey sky.  Beneath the melancholy clouds and to the right of my destination, another disastrous scene took my breath away.  Only two weeks ago, a home in the neighborhood had burned down.  No one was hurt in the fire, but the house was a total loss. The remaining jagged black ruins both reached for the sky and crumbled toward the earth. I remembered how my seven-year old daughter had half-jokingly said, Our neighborhood is cursed.

Air Bags, Security Systems and Tax Shields Can’t Protect You from Personal Pain

As I approached the tall and elegant front doors of the house where the soup was going, I noted the perfectly tasteful fall wreaths hanging from copper hangers on the doors. Five or six pumpkins graced the lawn, perfectly spaced between the landscaping.  From the outside, all was well.

Tragedy seems incongruous in a subdivision where everyone has it all. Nuclear families live in custom homes with manicured lawns and hybrid SUVs.  This is the end of the rainbow, the jackpot, and yet it is still completely vulnerable to misery.

What is the purpose of suffering?  Why is it so indiscriminate and widely distributed?

Getting to the true self or soul is so very difficult.  We have to be cracked open to allow our vulnerable heart to be exposed.  The two most direct ways to the soul?  Love and suffering.  Love appears to be the easy route with its inspiring lilt and joyful expression, but love and suffering are two sides of the same coin.  Who has not been hurt by a loved one or felt heartache when someone we care about is in pain?

The soul is prompting us all the time with gut feelings and risk-taking urges but most people (me included) ignore it by giving in to distraction, telling themselves they should be content with what they have, and doing external work.

Suddenly, tragedy strikes and all the things on the outside don’t matter. There is internal work to be done.  Pay attention.

I’ve read about cancer patients who never felt more alive than after they were diagnosed with the disease.  Suddenly, What do you love? became the only important question.  They were free of conformity and fears.  Cancer allowed them to remove the static in their existence and tune in to a clear channel of love and freedom.

The truth is, if you asked me to choose between winning the Tour de France and cancer, I would choose cancer.  Odd as it sounds, I would rather have the title of cancer survivor than winner of the Tour, because of what it has done for me as a human being, a man, a husband, a son, and a father.

                                       ~ Lance Armstrong

  Moving On

The day after the house burned down in our community another neighbor mentioned that the family had barely made it out of their home before the windows exploded from the heat.  The fire took place in the wee hours of the morning so the family escaped with nothing but the pajamas on their backs.  No material goods to their possession.  I pondered that for a while.  I wondered what they would buy first besides clothing.  Where do you start?  What is vital and what is significant?  What do you love?

In his book, Kinds of Power, James Hillman discusses a framework for finding your true self.  One of the five different areas to be included in personal growth is shedding.  Hillman says shedding takes place after the worst catastrophic life events.  Divorce, death, illness, loss of job all qualify.  These events are painful to say the least, but what happens afterward is life-changing.  Those individuals who are able to shed the event; move on with an enhanced love and care for themselves and all those who are in their lives, are the ones who avoid depression and embrace the day-to-day gift of living.  Their lives have a deeper honesty and vitality.  A truth.

Shedding is extremely difficult.  It is much easier to suffer.

I’ve felt despair and know how deep and dark the hole is. I would never want to trivialize either sad event.  Both the fire and the automobile accident will not be forgotten or justified.  But there is a hope that the families will be able to move on with a deep love and care for themselves and the precious others in their world.  May life seem even more poignant.  May they listen to the soul and consistently ask themselves, What do I love? 

The Human Connection 

I turned over the box of goodies to the grandma of the family whose husband/father had been in the car accident.  We held hands for a bit as we discussed how the family was handling the upheaval and stress. In that physical touch a transfer of sadness, strength and knowing occurred.  A knowing that emotional pain cuts you to the quick, forces you to ask for help, and could happen to you.  Grandma and I were two strangers connected by suffering and caring.  We spoke softly and discreetly about the accident. The four-year old daughter stuck closely and quietly to Grandma’s legs.

We spoke of the extended support from friends in the area.  Like many in our neighborhood, this particular family is a transplant.  They have no relatives in the area.  The call for help came over Facebook and frantic texts.  Many, many answered the call.  We all were a little cracked open by their tragedy.  We were all asking ourselves, What really matters? Who are we behind our wreath-covered doors?

A Poignant Reminder

When I returned home I easily maneuvered through the garage service door, hung up my jacket and walked straight back to my writing space.  On the desk burning a steady peaceful flame was the candle I had lit an hour before I left to deliver the food.  The fire was contained within the candle’s glass jar but could have been another unfortunate disaster if I had not returned when I did. Catastrophe avoided…for now.

What have you learned from times of trouble?  How has personal pain changed you for the better?