Every Monday night Rodney and I get together with several other couples to hang out, talk, and catch up on our kids’ antics and latest happenings at work and home. Eventually we make our way to a family room where most weeks we ask a question. Just one. Sometimes it’s light. Sometimes it’s reflective. Sometimes it’s challenging. But after each one, the floor is there for anyone to take. This past week we asked:
“What’s serving as a distraction in your life right now? What’s distracting you so much, it’s keeping you from the real stuff?”
We said the normal things. Some of us said TV. Some of us said social media. Some of us said a drink at the end of the day. Some of us needed more fingers to count all the ways we “check out” (I’m looking at myself here.)
After over three years of meeting together, this was one of my favorite nights. Because it allowed each of us to acknowledge what I think we all suspected, but rarely have the courage to admit or talk about openly:
Life is hard, so sometimes we look for ways to escape.
Life asks a lot, so sometimes we look for ways to avoid.
Life demands too much, so sometimes we look for ways to stop feeling as much.
The problem isn’t the social media, Netflix, glass of wine, or book. The problem is our unwillingness to expose our whole selves to the elements of a world that bars no punches. We weren’t talking about the distractions really. We were talking about the stuff inside of us we need distracting from. And it isn’t that we want to check out completely from it all. Just enough to soften the blows of life.
The day we met with our small group, I listened to a podcast called, “Terrible, thanks for asking”. It’s as depressing as you might guess—based upon the name. It’s hosted by a woman named Nora who lost her dad, her husband and a pregnancy over the course of a few months. Her goal is to engage with people who have the courage to talk about how not fine they are due to the hand life has dealt them.
The episode I listened to told the story of her dad, an ex-marine, Vietnam vet, who had a propensity for surliness and grumpiness on some days, and a quick temper and a complete absence of emotion on others. After he died, she wanted to uncover more of the man who for so much of her life felt like a mystery. So she went to a reunion to be with other Vietnam vets who had served alongside her dad on his Recon team, to get their version of the day that had shaped her dad’s war experience the most—the day he watched two friends die and wasn’t sure he would make it out alive himself.
In her interviews with these men, nearly fifty years after the events occurred, the same words kept showing up. Guilt. Shame. Fault. They wept remembering the details of death no one alive should have to witness, shouldering from that day forward, the burden of emotions these, in many cases, boys, were ill-equipped to handle.
Some coped like Nora’s dad—shutting down and lashing out. Others broke down mentally. But still, the guilt. Always the shame. Forever the feeling that the fault was theirs to bear. The fear that if they faced it head on, it would destroy them.
I grew up in a tradition of faith that talked a lot about the need to own up to our badness. This was so we could better understand why Jesus had to sweep in and save the day with his perfect sacrifice for us on the cross. A sacrifice that, when put in those terms, produced more feelings of guilt in me than feelings of gratitude—because the badness in me I was reminded of so often, was what caused Jesus to end up on the cross in the first place.
And I think an important part of faith is admitting where we have sinned. But the older I get, the more I think we don’t have to be pushed into acknowledging the shadowed side of ourselves. I think when we quiet the distractions long enough it doesn’t take long before we come face to face with the same sorts of emotions a generation of war veterans has tried to wrestle to the ground their entire adult lives.
I don’t need someone to talk me into feeling the weight of my own sins. If I get quiet enough and honest enough, I already feel it. All of us willing to engage the silence do.
Guilt over the people we’ve hurt—some by accident, and on our worst days, some on purpose.
Shame over our selfishness.
Fault in actions and inactions.
We lie awake at night and see them when we aren’t opening a book to silence them, pouring a drink to numb them, or turning on a TV to muffle them. But we’re afraid, like the survivors from a war half a century ago, if we face it head on, it will wreck us.
I think that’s why we’ve become masters at avoiding. Driving ourselves to disengage from the darkest parts of ourselves. Numbing ourselves to the darkest parts of the world.
Not because we don’t already know about the darkness in us and around us.
But because dealing with it brings a discomfort we’d do just about anything to avoid.
But what if this was something we talked more about? Spending less time trying to convince people of how bad they are, and more time coming alongside them to hear them say what they already
know about themselves,
hate about themselves,
punish themselves for, and
numb themselves against.
Distraction keeps us from getting honest.
Avoidance keeps us from doing the work.
Numbing keeps us from feeling it all.
But just as the survivors from a Vietnam War Recon team learned, you can’t out run the guilt. You can’t pass over the shame. You can’t let go of the fault. It’s there. Get us alone, get us quiet, we’d all say the same thing. We don’t want to be alone or quiet for fear we’d never make it back out.
Which is the real good news Jesus brought to the world. The news that he came to
bear the guilt we’re drowning under,
lift up the shame we’re crushed beneath, and
take the fault we’ve chained ourselves to.
The Good News isn’t the fresh realization of how bad we are. It is the fresh hope that we can be free from the self-inflicted consequences our self-loathing produces. And then, that we’re made capable of dealing with these broken parts of ourselves, head on.
The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC is visited far less frequently than the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument or the White House. It’s polished black stone, in stark contrast next to the white marble the other monuments boast. Maybe its because so many of the physical survivors of this war are still here, because it’s too hard to take in the flowers, notes and teddy bears left by the remains of a family a controversial war’s casualties tore apart.
Maybe it all hits a little too close to home.
Or maybe it’s because there are so few of us who have learned to do what those who go and visit have learned to do. Face their guilt. Be reconciled with their shame. Surrender their fault-finding. Maybe the mood is different there because those who go aren’t only the physical survivors of a far away war, but the spiritual ones. The mental ones. The emotional ones. The people who know avoidance, numbing, distraction will never do what dealing with all of it can.
Which is, free you.
The very thing Jesus came to offer. Freedom. Freedom from shame and guilt. And freedom to deal with shame and guilt. Freedom from our self-imprisonment and freedom for others still trying to find their way out.
Every week, after the laughter in the kitchen and the question in the family room, our small group, our platoon of sorts—though far different from the brave generation of boys who lost a themselves in a foreign land—stands up, takes each other’s hands, and prays together. We don’t always give each other answers or solutions, but we listen to each other. We give space to one another. We remind each other of the truest things about ourselves—that guilt, shame and fault are not the final word about us. That Jesus took care of that for us and that he invites us to more. Namely freedom. That the hardest work we’ll ever do is continue to show up in our own lives and engage the hard stuff and not mute it, avoid it, or numb it.
And then we will head out. Sanctified. Empowered. Resilient. Until next week. Until next time. When we’ll do it all over again.
Because the good stuff takes practice and the hard stuff comes back fast, and because the only way to learn the most valuable of lessons is alongside people fighting the same battles, the same war, you are.
So we head out, but always certain we’ll come back, refusing to be casualties of the war of life. And certain we’ll need each other in order to make it.