A different take on before and after. . .
A few weeks ago, I read a blog post written by Glennon Doyle Melton, well known to her fans as the driving force behind the website Momastery. She’s a best-selling author (whose book got the thumbs up from Brené Brown!), gave a Ted Talk, started her own non-profit and blogs with honesty about her life’s struggles and how hard she works to overcome them and to heal. She shares her truth to let others know they are not alone and to build community. She wants us to know we’re perfect just the way we are and that we are enough—messages I aspire to share and to believe, every day. (Check Momastery out here.)
Usually, I agree with everything Glennon has to say, which often surprises me, given the heightened “sap” factor of some of her subject matter. She writes about love and how we belong to one another and what a pleasure it is to serve, sentiments which, in less skilled hands, could make me roll my eyes. She writes about God, a lot, and on more than one occasion, I’ve imagined Glennon and God holding hands and skipping through a garden. This is weird, but what’s weirder is that this image makes me happy. Her combination of sharp humor and blunt truth makes it possible for me not only to enthusiastically read her blog but also to believe that maybe she is right, that love will—at some point—save the world.
When I read her July 8 post, though, something stuck in my craw.
Glennon’s having a tough time in her personal life, and she’s writing about it, putting it out there because that’s when we need each other the most, when life is at its hardest. Here’s part of the post I read,
“So often, people’s lives are presented to us as before and after stories. It’s always: “Look! My mess is fine because I’m ALL BETTER NOW! Ten steps to FREEDOM! Look at me, I’m FREE!” Sometimes it feels like it’s only okay to talk about your Cinderella story when you’re at the ball. When the tough, ugly parts are over. When everything is shiny and happily ever after, promise!!
But there is no ball. There is no point in which you stop working and just brush your long pretty hair and flit around, untouchable. Done. All Better. There is no before and after. Most honest folks with food/body/God/shame/etc issues will tell you that it’s just the same damn thing, over and over. That you just fall down seven times and get back up eight.” (Read the full text here.)
I read her words, nodded and thought, Right on. Life is no fairy tale. There is no happily ever after. The journey to becoming, the journey into BEING, is just that—a long fucking journey—a hike up or a tumble down the side of a mountain almost every damn day. Once in a while, if we’re capable of taking advantage of it, we stumble upon a grassy meadow, rest for a spell and tend our wounds, maybe feeling the warmth of the sun against our cheeks.
But then my eyes immediately returned to one particular sentence: There is no before and after. I know Glennon was writing about her personal journey, her growth, the ongoing nature of the work she has to do to reach her full potential, and to love herself unconditionally. I get it. I’m living the ongoing nature of my struggle to become a better person every day, too and it’s hard work. But here’s one thing I know for sure: There’s more than one kind of before and after.
All of us experience typical sorts of befores and afters—before and after the birth of a baby or the death of a parent. These occurrences are the stuff of life, emotional to be sure, yet standard. We know what to expect because we’ve been expecting it for thousands of years. But there’s another type of before and after, the type that happens when someone we love chooses not to have an after.
I learned this lesson the hard way a couple of years ago, and I learned it again in full force over the last month when the son of a woman I know jumped off a roof to his death; the next day, I learned about two more recent suicides that happened in families I know of. Most people don’t think about the decision to stay alive as a choice, we don’t consider the option to say, No, thanks to life, but some people do. These are the befores and afters that change everything.
Two years ago my thirteen-year-old daughter told me that she didn’t want to have an after, that she wanted to die. I hadn’t understood the depth of her suffering and that it was more than she could bear. Her life had become hell, the blackness of her depression insinuating itself into the synapses in her brain and spreading throughout her body. One day, her big blue eyes looked into my hazel ones and I saw desperation. I saw pain so profound that I don’t know how to name it. Her body shook from it. She couldn’t stand the idea of staying here for one more minute and saw no way out, no possible relief. There was only one cure. She begged me—begged me—to kill her. Please. You have to kill me, Mom. Get a gun. A knife. I don’t care. There’s something wrong with me.
The after is where I learned that part of my soul could die. The after is where I crumbled in terror at the prospect of life without her if she took matters into her own hands.
There most definitely is a before and after.
She didn’t take matters into her own hands, but ever since my daughter’s fight against severe depression, I’ve tried to make sense of why life is the way it is, why we work so hard and sometimes seem to get so little or nothing or worse in return. I don’t have an answer for why, but I do know that each time we fall down, get up, brush off and say, “Fuck. That hurt,” we’ve also said, Yes to life. We think we’re alone in this, but we are not. Each time we confront a nemesis—be it addiction, devastating mental or physical illness, whatever ails us—and say, I’m not going to let you keep me down, we feed the collective energy that surrounds us all. We learn how to help someone else find those same words and stay alive. Each time we wake up and get out of bed, whether we want to or not—even if we drink a gallon of wine or eat a family dinner for four by ourselves or cut our skin or pop some pills or smoke or gamble or shop—we say Yes and we make it more possible for someone else to say, Yes too.
I have no research on this topic, no irrefutable evidence to show you to prove the veracity of my hypothesis. As I started to write, I wondered how on earth I would be able to make my idea—that we each can contribute hope to this difficult world of ours—make sense. If you read my piece about the book Women, Food and God (full text here), you know I struggle with the concept of God, so to say that life is the way it is—good or bad—because it’s God’s will doesn’t work for me. So I set an intention and asked the universe for help to explain my point. I asked the universe for guidance on how to explain to you why we’re capable of impacting each other the way we are, and this is what I received in return (via Facebook!), a quote from The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell:
“There is a definition of God which has been repeated by many philosophers. God is an intelligible sphere—a sphere known to the mind, not to the senses—whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. And the center is right where you’re sitting. And the other one is right where I’m sitting. And each of us is a manifestation of that mystery. That’s a nice mythological realization that sort of gives you a sense of who and what you are.”
I love this quote (and this photo.) In and of itself a sphere is not inherently positive or negative, but I choose to focus on the positive, to see us as being encircled by goodness, grace and light. The sphere explains how we can influence others—how we are conjoined, or, if you prefer, held in His loving embrace.
Those families who lost loved ones need us. They’re left only with “what ifs” and “whys.” People struggling with mental illness or fighting addiction, around the world or right down the hallway, feel alone. We can’t stop trying to help them; we can’t stop working to feed the good energy; we can’t stop connecting. When we say, “It’s okay. I’m good enough and so are you. I’m here for you,” a tiny bit of our strength flows into the sphere. When we help save someone close to us, the energy helps someone else, and so on. This is how we fill the center of our sphere with hope. Eventually, the centers will expand and the sphere will fill and hope will be available to anyone who needs it.
“I don’t know where I found the strength, I just did,” a friend may respond down the line, when asked how he made it through his pain.
I know where—from all of us. Right now, during the before, little by little, we are filling up our spheres with hope and with love. That hope and love will flow out of ours and into his, so he will have the strength to say Yes to after.
Come to think of it, Glennon is right about this: Love will save the world.
That's my two cents. What's yours? Do you think we can fill up the world with love and hope?