Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Thought for the Day: Sorrow

I've been reading the book of Lamentations in the Bible, alongside a book by Eugene Peterson called Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. The first four chapters of Lamentations are acrostics - each verse starts with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The fifth is not an acrostic but it has only as many verses as the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Whatever we might learn from the text of Lamentations, according to the wisdom of Peterson we can learn this from the format the writer chose: It is right to grieve, to give time to sorrow. It is also right to look for the end of that grief, that sorrow. Once you start a chapter in Lamentations, you know that the grief will last only until the last letter of the alphabet. There will be an end.

This has been my practice for a long time. I remember the practice about 80% of the time. When I am angry, and it threatens to take over my life, I set a time limit. I give it five minutes of all out anger, having declared to my anger that at the end of five minutes its time is up. I do the same for sorrow, and situational depression. It works for me. In fact, the anger/sorrow/fear/whatever seldom lasts the entire time I have given it to have free reign. I honor myself by honoring my feelings. I also honor myself by setting boundaries around the feelings that tend to derail my day or my life and my joy.

There is a time to cry; there is also a time to stop crying, to give yourself a rest. Peterson goes a step further: In times of great grief (i.e. the Babylonian captivity type of grief and loss), when the grief will be with us a long time, he advises making a regular date with yourself to grieve - i.e. today I will honor my sorrow for a time and I promise next week at the same time I will give my sorrow the honor of another visit.

When my father died, leaving us kids adult orphans and me the head of the family, my grief was so great that when I returned to seminary after the week of the funeral, I found my ability to function in classes and studies getting harder and harder. By day five, I shared with my friends that it felt like my brain was getting slower and slower. I just couldn't get it to function. They told me to take time off classes, write my instructors, delay papers, and just take a full seven days off. I did. I made a seven day appointment with my grief, and even when it felt like I could function again before the seven days were up, I still continued the full seven days. I spent a lot of time crying in the shower. I also spent time public. I laid a blanket out on the lawn of the garth at Seabury-Western in Evanston, Illinois (it was spring, but still chilly!) and a friend checked out about twenty murder mystery novels for me from the library, and before God and everyone I vacated for seven full days.

My grief at the death of my father continued, but having truly honored it for a season, it no longer derailed my life. Whenever it came back, I stopped and gave it my time.

I am not a therapist. I'm a priest, a theologian, an artist/poet, a scholar. I have only the scriptures and my own experience from which to draw. When a person asks me, I share my experience of setting limits. I'm also not shy about referring people to a therapist. You should have a choice.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

I like the time limit idea. I can sure use that. A LOT. thank you.