We tell stories because we can’t help it. We tell stories because they fill the silence death imposes. We tell stories because they save us. — Madeleine L’Engle, Rock That is Higher
I read a story today that filled my own silence. Another person’s story can overwhelm our own story, reach down into our despair and loneliness, and haul us out. Even for a few glorious moments of fresh air, we are removed from our cocoon of fears.
Hers is the stuff of nightmares: terror, murder, isolation. Most of us simply cannot conceive of this form of darkness. As a resident of Djibouti, a country in the horn of Africa, Rachel Pieh Jones mourns the recent tragedy of 148 killed in Kenya, where two of her kids attend a boarding school.
In 2003, she fled with her family from Somaliland, an independent state not far from where they live now, after western aid workers were killed. She lives surrounded by poverty, unemployment, and refugees who continue to arrive, fleeing from Yemen. She manages to function in spite of an ongoing state of fear that today will be her last day to live.
Stories are able to help us to become more whole, to become Named. And Naming is one of the impulses behind all art; to give a name to the cosmos, we see despite all the chaos. — Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art
By telling her story, she allows not only us, but herself, to see through the chaos and to the beauty of the cosmos. She doesn’t do this without some serious help; without the help of a hero, our Greatest Hero, she admits she’s a coward.
“I am the woman cowering behind Jesus, clinging to the edges of his robes, trembling. I’m the one saying, ‘I want to be with you. I want to go with you. But are you sure you want to go there? You really want to do that?'”
Do You, God? Do You really want to put us at risk? Bring us to the edge of our sanity? Drag us through unbelievable pain? Force us to witness unspeakable violence and unfathomable hate? Endure the quiet torture of loneliness?
Like Rachel, and the psalmist David, we can take comfort in Psalm 56:3, “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in you.” If we are going to live our story despite the chaos and fear, we can try to live it like David. He was brave enough to admit that he was afraid, but weak enough to admit he needed Jesus.
When Rachel admits she fears a lot of things, and lists loneliness among them, I stop to give her silent thanks. Here’s a woman who must worry about the lack of armed guards outside the church on Easter Sunday saying that she fears loneliness.
Our story is never written in isolation. We do not act in a one-man play. We can do nothing that does not affect other people, no matter how loudly we say, “It’s my own business.” — Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art
Thank you, Rachel, for giving me a gift of consolation. Knowing I’m not alone in my fears, that my fear is real, makes me inexplicably less frightened. Shared fears, like shared grief, lightens the load. I may not know you, nor you me, but you know my fears.
Perhaps that is part of the Naming that Madeleine L’Engle speaks of when we tell our stories. As we give Name to our deepest fears, as we share this part of our story, we free ourselves from its clutches. Loneliness won’t go away, but it will begin to have meaning.
My husband calls it confronting the ugly. As my steadfast anchor in stormy seas, he never fails to supply me with a more practical perspective. When the boat feels like it’s about to go over, he reminds me that it’s seaworthy. When the waves are too much to handle, he asks me, “What are you going to do about it?”
Most of the time, the answer is the same. I will put my trust in the One Who Is Bravest of All, like David did. I will Name my fear, face my fear, and trust that God will give me what I need to carry on.
Therefore I would like to voice loudly and clearly what might seem unpopular and maybe even disturbing: The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift. Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief. But perhaps the painful awareness of loneliness is an invitation to transcend our limitations and look beyond the boundaries of our existence. The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain. — Henri Nouwen, Wounded Healer