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Features

A rude awakening

Judy Hirst

A combination of unthinking busyness and well-worn habit can make it feel as if we are sleepwalking through life. That's why, as Judy Hirst discovers, it sometimes takes an unexpected or even painful surprise to wake us up.

 

To be awake is to be alive. I have not yet seen a man who was quite awake.1

These words from Henry Thoreau ring bells with me. I am uncomfortably aware of my own unwillingness to wake up to life. I often holiday with childhood friends who are impossibly early risers, having walked to the boulangerie for our bread and possibly swam and read a book before I emerge. It is amazing that the friendship has lasted so long, for I always struggle into the new day. When I wake up I often feel anxious, vulnerable and easily overwhelmed, not yet ready to face the world. My temptation is to rush into being busy and into my known routine, to distract myself from what I feel on well-beaten tracks. But I think this mode of living is a kind of sleepwalking.

I do not actually sleepwalk but I know some people who do. They tell me that they have no awareness of what they are doing until they jolt into being awake. Then they can find themselves in some pretty disorientating and scary places - one friend in a cupboard, another in a boiler room, and one hanging over a highup banister in a Georgian farmhouse. They wonder: 'Where am I? How did I get here? What am I doing here?' And it's scary!

It can sometimes feel like that for us in life, as if we are waking up in a strange disorientating place, no longer seeing clearly where we are, who we are, how exactly life turned out like this. Yet all life's experiences have the potential to be life-giving, even - and perhaps especially - those which hurt and scare us. Moments which wake us up from our sleepwalking are like unopened gifts on the journey. We need to learn to pay attention if we are not to miss them.

 

BEAUTY & PAIN

The sky was blue, the sunshine warm, and the breeze gentle upon my face as I drove along, window wide open, among golden wheat fields full of bird song. Yet the purpose of the trip through this perfect landscape was to bury a man in his early forties. He was a wonderful person who had struggled long and hard with cancer, and was leaving behind a grieving wife, four distraught teenage children and bemused parents.

What sort of world is this? It is a world shot through with matchless beauty yet witness at the same time to intolerable pain. The thread of suffering runs so deeply through the fabric of our existence that were it pulled free the remnant would unravel beyond recognition. However, in our culture of affluence and entitlement we are encouraged to believe and behave as if suffering is somehow extrinsic to human life, an aberration, an accident which somehow befalls others and not us.

And yet deep down we know that this is not our reality, and suppressing this truth is at least one reason for the depression which is endemic in our society. It takes a huge amount of energy to evade the truth of suffering all the time and such an evasion will finally, inevitably, fail us. When suffering comes it stops everything dead: 'You're fired!' 'You only have three months to live.' 'Your child has cystic fibrosis.' 'I do not want to stay married to you.' Suffering arrives, shattering and unravelling our world: jolting us awake.

 

TURNING THE PRISM

This is an awful, painful place, yet somehow we recognise that it is at these moments when we can in fact move forward, with our eyes open to all the contradictions and suffering. We see clearly in Jesus' life, as Henri Nouwen points out, that 'real joy and peace can never be reached by bypassing suffering and death but only by going right through them.'2 Jesus, in other words, takes up his cross because there is no other way.

So how do we learn to deal more creatively with suffering? At one level it just happens to us all. When suffering grips us it takes over and nothing else really seems to matter. It changes our priorities and transforms our world. I sometimes imagine that we live our lives looking through a prism which is slightly out of focus. And that when we suffer it is as if the prism shifts bringing everything into sharp focus, making priorities clear.

Several times when I was faced with what could have been life-shattering medical issues, all confusion fell away. For me the simple priority of people was absolutely evident and the neglect of them totally unjustifiable: suddenly when you hear that a friend died young, you stop worrying about the new kitchen. When you are called back for more tests, the status in which you are held seems less pressing. When your child is being bullied, that much-sought-after promotion seems less important. Suffering exposes our vanities and our hollowness and can challenge our assumptions about life. The turn of the prism makes things crystal clear for the first time; we find we are awake and face to face with ourselves.

 

CHANGED PRIORITIES

I tried many times to write this reflection on suffering, often from a position of relative competence and confidence, and I failed. I am now writing this during a time of great pain for my family and an experience of great powerlessness in the face of injustice. I am struggling with this more than I can say, but it has woken me up in a way which has allowed me to express what I feel is true.

What do we learn? Suffering turns our priorities on their heads, and we learn something crucial about living in the present moment. Perhaps above all we learn that we are not in control. Despite all our best efforts to protect ourselves and our families we are in fact vulnerable.

But is this learning worth the price? Well, I would not sign up for it! I would not voluntarily 'take up my cross', and this makes me even more amazed and grateful at what Christ has done for me. A few years ago I had surgery on my sinuses. When I came out of the anaesthetic I could hardly breathe through my nose or my mouth and I had the experience of feeling I was suffocating. I panicked and it was absolutely terrifying. This feeling was, of course, very short lived because as my panic subsided I realised that I could in fact breathe through my mouth, though that was difficult because I had not had anything to drink for many, many hours.

Soon after this short but intense experience of real physical and mental suffering I was invited to speak in a service in Durham Cathedral in Holy week. I found myself overwhelmed that Christ was prepared to suffer for me; it now had a whole new meaning. I knew that I would never have been willing to suffer voluntarily in this way. I felt humbled, profoundly moved and deeply grateful.

 

SURRENDER IT ALL

We have limited control over the circumstances of our lives and that is the hard truth. What we do have, though, is the choice in every circumstance of suffering to shape our attitude to it; to hand it over to God or to withhold it from him. To trust him with it or to give up hope.

Sheila Cassidy, an English doctor working in Chile during the military coup, was arrested and tortured for treating a wounded revolutionary. Her first instinct was to scream out to God for help, but then a curious idea came to her, that she would hold out her hands in offering. In her book Audacity to Believe she writes, 'in my powerlessness, suffering and captivity there remained to me one freedom: I could abandon myself into the hands of God.'3

When we suffer we feel terribly out of control and this can only be transformed by giving it to God. Of course, this prayer did not bring an instant change in her attitude but gradually helped her to find the necessary courage and strength to deal with her horrendous circumstances, to enable her to take up her cross rather than to be crushed by it.

Later, as a doctor in a hospice, Sheila Cassidy found that her experience in Chile had given her some common ground with her terminally ill patients. She discovered that insights drawn from her own encounter with suffering might apply to anyone in desperate circumstances, circumstances which they are powerless to alter: 'in suffering we can spend our energy in bitterness and despair battering our wings against the cage or we can come alongside God in prayer and take up our cross.'4

When we are woken from our sleepwalking, we may learn that there is meaning and a truth at the heart of life which suffering is ultimately powerless to destroy.

This article is an edited extract from A Kind of Sleepwalking by Judy Hirst, published by DLT.

 

NOTES

1 Henry Thoreau, Walden (New American Library 1960, p65)

2 Henri Nouwen, Can you Drink the Cup? (Ave Maria Press 1996, p134)

3 Sheila Cassidy, Audacity to Believe (Darton Longman & Todd 2011)

4 ibid