I don’t have anything smart or life changing to say about the attacks in Paris on November 13th, 2015. But these words by Elizabeth Gilbert says it all.
« Dear Ones –
I woke up yesterday in joy, and went to bed in sorrow.
I woke up yesterday to the delightful news that my book was a #1 bestseller, and went to bed heartbroken and shaken by the awful news of yet another mass-shooting in America.
I won’t be writing a political message here today. The internet is filled with outraged people arguing with each other this morning, and I can’t bring myself to contribute more argument to the world right now.
This morning, I’m just writing to say: I don’t know.
My heart is broken, and I don’t know what to do about it — in the same way that I don’t know what to do about the plight of the Syrian refugees, or the rise of ISIS, or the deterioration of the Sudan, or the stubborn endurance of racism, or the onslaught of climate change.
I don’t know. I don’t know how to fix any of it.
I do know this, though: I know that great joy and great sorrow have something in common, which is: they both cause us to overflow. Joy and sorrow are emotions that make us SPILL — because they are too big for us to contain.
I always know what to do with my overflow of joy — that’s easy: You dance it out, you laugh it out, you celebrate, you cheer, you pop the champagne.
I don’t always know what to do with my overflow of sorrow. Last night, alone in a hotel room, I lay awake for hours, overflowing in too much sadness to handle. I found myself saying again and again to God, « I don’t know what any of this is for, but please help us. »
I also found myself thinking about a beautiful young woman at one of my speaking events recently, who asked me how — after a recent devastating personal loss — she is meant to go on. She asked me what God intends, by making her suffer so much? I don’t know what her loss was, but I could see by her face, it was very bad.
What was that loss FOR?
The answer is: I don’t know.
I don’t know what suffering and sorrow and injustice and brutality and loss are FOR.
It’s so easy to know what joy and happiness and love and grace are FOR — they are to be celebrated and shared. Joy and good fortune seem to be proof of our divine blessings — proof that God is smiling upon you, proof that you are being looked after, proof that your angels are protecting you, proof that life is fair.
But what is suffering for?
I always hate the simple, reductive answers people often offer up about suffering — because I feel like those answers sometimes only bring more sorrow to those who are in pain.
To blithely say that « This is God’s will, » in the face of terrible events, seems cruel to me. (Or worse, to say « This is God’s punishment! » — Lord help us, what a brutal and inhumane statement.)
To tell a mother whose child has died, « God must have wanted another angel, » is almost too awful to bear.
To say, « Well, that must be karma », is also terrible and dismissive. You might as well just shrug at someone’s unbearable pain and say, « Hey, shit happens, man. »
To say, « Someday this will make you stronger, » to someone who is at their weakest? No. Don’t ever say that.
To say, « Maybe this tragedy will open up people’s eyes about what’s going on, and so your child’s death won’t have been in vain! » is to use another human’s life as a political tool. Which is just monstrous.
To say to someone who is being asked to endure the worst sorrow of their lives: « God never gives us more than we can handle! » is so outrageously hurtful, I don’t know how anyone ever got to the end of that sentence without being punched in the face.
People seem awfully confident at times, speaking on behalf of God’s agenda.
I don’t where people get their confidence, to say that they know what God is up to. I don’t make such presumptions. In the face of outrageous sorrow, I can only say, « I don’t know. »
And once we have said that — « I don’t know » — then we have reached the end of ourselves. Then, maybe all we can do is sit in silence with the person who is suffering, or with the people who are suffering, and just say, « I will stay here with you. »
That’s easier to do on the intimate scale than the global scale, but I feel like that’s what the great compassionate souls have always done. They say to a sorrowful world: « I don’t know why this is happening. But I will stay here with you. I will sit beside you. I see your pain, and although I don’t know how to solve it, I will be here with you. »
The great compassionate souls always take their overflow of sorrow and turn it into love.
I don’t have any answers for anyone today. This is one of those days for me when the world overwhelms, and I feel very small.
But when the world starts to feel overwhelming in its sorrows, I always ask myself to look around me — to narrow down my focus — and to notice somebody who is nearby me, who is suffering. I can’t help the millions, but maybe I can help one. You never have to look very far to find a suffering soul. Life is hard; there is always someone going through great pain. I tell myself: Go sit with that person today for a while. Don’t try to solve their life, or answer for God, or offer dismissive « reasons », or try fix the whole world. Just say, « I don’t know. But I will sit with you through this. »
Turn your overflow of sorrow into love. That’s the only thing I know how to do sometimes.
Image by Jean Jullien