Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, December 12, 2014

Christmas greetings from the insensitive

I do not have a son who committed suicide, but many years in pastoral ministry and many more years of just plain living have imprinted on my mind and heart the need for greatly increased sensitivity in relationships and interactions with people who have suffered terrible loss. Kay Warren, wife of pastor Rick Warren, writes in the new Christianity Today Newsletter of "friends" who send them the same jolly Christmas cards that they always send, full of their children's and grandchildren's pictures and doings. Her article is really impressive, written out of raw pain and yet controlled and well-expressed. There is much to be learned from it. It is entitled "Stop Sending Cheery Christmas Cards," with the subheading, "When you don't mention our son's tragic death, it only hurts more."

 I think Mrs. Warren has done a courageous service for us all. There is a widespread and fallacious notion that one should not mention the name or the death of a child or other greatly loved person. A friend of mine whose son was killed in an accident in his early 20s often spoke to me of the hurt she felt that so few of her friends ever mentioned it. It was as though her son had never been born. Another friend mused that people probably thought that mentioning her lost daughter would "remind her"--"as if I would forget her!" she exclaimed indignantly.

Here is the first page of Mrs. Warren's piece: there is much more as the article continues.

Christmas 2013 was our family’s first without our son Matthew. I could barely breathe. I stayed away from the grocery store and the mall, fearing I couldn’t hold it together in either. The Internet became my friend as I shopped late at night, without sentimental mall music stirring up memories of Christmases past—when all three of my children were alive.
But every day, the Christmas cards arrived.

When I opened the first batch of cards, shock washed over me. Photos of beautiful, happy, intact families cascaded onto my kitchen table. Most were accompanied by a greeting wishing me a joyous Christmas. Some had a signature and the message, “Hope you have a great Christmas.” Others included a standard family newsletter, listing the accomplishments, vacations, and delightful family moments that had filled their year. I grew astonished, then angry, as I realized that none of the cards mentioned that our precious Matthew had died violently six months earlier, leaving us definitely not having a joyous Christmas.

Eventually I left the card-opening to Rick. The cards remained unopened in the traditional iron sleigh that has held our cards through the years until after Christmas Day had passed. Weeks later, I tore through them, angry tears pouring down my cheeks as I separated them into three piles: ones that didn’t mention our grief, ones that did so with a short, “Praying for you,” and ones that included soothing, loving, and thoughtful words of compassion and empathy. The third stack was the smallest.
...Last week I wrote about this experience on Facebook. I asked readers to consider sending a plain card to grieving families (instead of an obligatory “happy family” photo). “Tell them in a few words that you are aware of how painful Christmas can be and that you are praying for them,” I wrote. “Yes, it’s inconvenient—it will take more time than your rushed signature, and it will require entering into someone else’s loss, mourning, grief, and anger.”
I ended the post on behalf of grieving parents everywhere: “If you aren’t willing to modify your way of sending cards for a while, please do us a favor and take us off your list.” Hundreds of folks resonated with my words and spoke of similar experiences. Others were deeply offended and let me know.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

For all who love language, poetry, and sentences

Annie Dillard was asked, "How do I know if I can become a writer?"

Her response: "Do you like sentences?"

In a feature called "Old Books, New Thoughts," The New York Times Magazine  displayed photos of handwritten marginal notes by famous authors (Philip Roth, Marilynne Robinson, George Saunders, among others) looking back over their work of decades before. The notes are arresting. I am going to type out what Robert Caro wrote about his famous, admired book about Robert Moses, The Power Broker.  I am going to type it out instead of giving a link because I want to have the pleasure of seeing the sentences come out of my keyboard onto the page. Remember, these are Caro's own thoughts about the writing of the Introduction to The Power Broker.
When I was writing, I kept hearing, year after year, that nobody would read a book on Robert Moses. For most of those years I believed that. I never thought The Power Broker would have any sort of mass audience. But Moses was a figure who had so great an impact on New York and in many ways shaped it for centuries. He threw 500,000 people out of their homes for his highways and "slum" clearance projects, and I thought it was important for people to know how he got his power. 
I wanted to write an introduction that would make readers see the scope of what Moses had done, and how many lives he touched. So I asked myself what I had read that really captured the scope of something titanic. In The Iliad, Homer lists all the kingdoms that are coming to sack Troy and all the heroes of Troy who are coming to fight them. These lists have a great rhythm to them. I thought that, if I could write well enough, I could do the same with highways:
"He built the Major Deegan Expressway, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Sheridan Expressway and the Bruckner Expressway. He built the Gowanus Expressway, the Prospect Expressway, the Whitestone Expressway, the Clearview Expressway and the Throgs Neck Expressway. He built the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Nassau Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway and the Long Island Expressway. He built the Harlem River Drive and the West Side Highway."
The change in rhythm in the last line, that's a dying fall.
Thus Robert Caro wrote. To appreciate the rhythm of the dying fall, that is to love language, poetry, and sentences.