The Great Terrible Thing

The Great Terrible Thing

The Pacific Northwest has a reputation for getting a lot of rain, but volume-wise it doesn’t rain that much more here than a lot of other places. It’s just that the rain is spread out over so many dark, cloudy days during the fall … and the winter … and the spring … and the early summer. I grew up and went to college in the South, and when I moved here it was the persistent gloom that took getting used to more than the rain itself. But July, August, and September are usually sunny, not too hot, very low humidity—and late July is the absolute peak. In fact, it was a gorgeous Saturday morning in July 2019, not a cloud in the sky, when my wife told me she didn’t want to be married to me anymore.

We hear and read so many words every day that it’s possible to forget the power they can have. The words I heard in the living room that day hit me with physical force, and my body responded as if I had been in a car accident. My ears pounded. I felt oddly detached, like I was observing the scene from somewhere else in the room. I started to worry that I wasn’t quite in control of my limbs, so I sat very still, maybe the stillest I’ve ever been, with my blood beating its way through my body like a marching band.

While I hadn’t expected my wife to ask for a divorce, I had known something was wrong. She had been away at her mom’s house for the previous six days, and she came back to discuss what to do next. Before she arrived, I was anxious but hopeful. I thought maybe we would make some changes, go to counseling, and after working at it things could be better than before. I was ready for the tough road I thought was coming, but not the road I ended up on. I’m not going to talk here about the reasons she gave for wanting a divorce; that’s her story to tell. I will only say that, while she had been thinking about it for a while, it hit me like an earthquake.

Shortly before she got to the house that morning I texted my friend Jeff and asked him to pray. A few hours later, after she left, I texted Jeff again in my typically understated way:

“It did not go well.”

Trauma and Temptation

The trauma brought on by the experience, what I’ve started to think of as the Great Terrible Thing, continued over the next weeks as I struggled to come to terms with the trap door that had opened beneath me. I felt helpless. I had been totally committed to our marriage, and had never considered divorce as an option. I believed that, no matter how bad it got, things could always turn around if both people were willing to work on it. My own parents split up when I was twelve, so I also had the memory of that earlier trauma to bolster my commitment. I always thought that if my marriage were in serious trouble I would have the chance to do something, but I ended up not knowing it was in trouble until it was too late.

I spent a lot of time in a fog, not completely detached but not quite present either—a satellite that has winked out but is still in orbit. Time felt like it had stopped, so it seemed appropriate to let the clock in the house run down. I did not wind it again for months. I lost my appetite and dropped ten pounds in a few weeks, then another ten over the next few months. I’ve never had much trouble sleeping, but each evening I now began to dread the prospect of lying in bed with my thoughts. Being in the fog meant I didn’t cry as much as I would have thought, but tears did leak out at times—like in the grocery aisle when I caught sight of something she used to buy for me, or at a game night with friends when Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” came on the playlist and I had to go to the bathroom and compose myself.

I continued to go to work, because sitting in an empty house would have been worse. I was surprised that I was able to get some things done. I mentioned this to my dad, a psychologist, and he explained that even in the midst of severe inner pain, work can offer temporary relief. It’s connected to who we are, but isn’t always central enough to the self that our inner turmoil spills into it. After about a month or so I could even do work that required deep concentration again, but there were also stretches where all I could do was sit in my chair, my mind a blank.

In the fog, I came to understand why it is that some people’s lives go off the rails when they are going through a divorce or other major trauma. When people are in such incredible pain, it can be tempting to engage in damaging and risky behaviors just to try and alleviate the pain a little bit. In other words, I could see the allure of despair—of the loss of hope.

There’s a scene in the movie Groundhog Day where weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is in a diner with his producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell). Phil, who has been repeating the same day over and over and doesn’t know why, has an enormous spread of food in front of him. As he samples it nonchalantly, Rita looks on in disgust:

Rita: “Don’t you worry about cholesterol, lung cancer, love handles?”

Phil, puffing on a cigarette: “I don’t worry about anything anymore.”

Rita: “What makes you so special? Everybody worries about something.”

Phil: “Well, that’s exactly what makes me so special. I don’t even have to floss.”

Then he stuffs a whole piece of cake in his mouth.

At that point in the movie, Phil has succumbed to despair. He feels helpless to have any effect on his circumstances, and instead of trying anymore he engages in self-destructive behavior. In my own helpless state, I tried to make sense of things, figure out what I could have done differently, but I also had moments where I just didn’t care about anything and felt tempted to do whatever I could to end the pain. More than once, when driving down the road, I had the frightening thought, “What if I just steered into oncoming traffic, or off a ledge?”

Despair becomes attractive when the alternative is facing the steep mountain of your own pain and helplessness. In spite of its allure, despair is what Kierkegaard called the “sickness unto death,” and is a temptation to be resisted. The opposite of despair, according to Kierkegaard, is faith, the formula for which he described like this: “In relating itself to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.”

Having been so suddenly rejected by the person closest to me, I found myself unable to care about a lot of things, but I wanted to resist despair and embrace faith. I wanted to be myself as God created me to be, and to rest in him. Over time, the not-caring became an oddly freeing sensation. The opinions of most people suddenly ceased mattering, so I decided that I wanted to use this freedom to take good risks, not risks rooted in despair—risks for the sake of resting in God and in growing and connecting with people.

This decision affected my entire approach to life. As one example, I signed up for improv classes at a local theater. I ended up taking two, one in the fall and another in the winter, and was scheduled to perform for the first time when COVID shut everything down in March.

I also committed to going through this season in such a way as I could look back without regrets. Even if I wasn’t able to save my marriage, I could emerge from this season without being ashamed of how I acted toward my ex-wife. The crucial struggle in acting without regrets is against despair. In moments of despair, I found in my heart that I would rather do evil than suffer, but in moments of faith, I would rather suffer than do evil.

Lord, Have Mercy

I said just now that I recognized despair as a temptation to be resisted. Maybe that made it sound easy, but in fact there is no harder thing than recognizing temptation for what it is and resisting it. If it didn’t seem plausible on some level, it wouldn’t be tempting. David Foster Wallace described this dynamic well in an early short story called “The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing,” where the Bad Thing is depression:

The way to fight against or get away from the Bad Thing is clearly just to think differently, to reason and argue with yourself, just to change the way you’re perceiving and sensing and processing stuff. But you need your mind to do this, your brain cells with their atoms and your mental powers and all that, your self, and that’s exactly what the Bad Thing has made too sick to work right. That’s exactly what it has made sick. It’s made you sick in just such a way that you can’t get better.

This is what despair feels like. When you’re in despair, you want to feel better, but you’re not inclined to do the things that will actually make a difference—like exercising, connecting with people, praying. No, you’re tempted to do the very things that will lead you deeper into despair, like isolating yourself and deadening your pain with TV, alcohol, drugs, porn, or even just scrolling through social media for hours.

Sometimes when you see art depicting Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Satan is visible, but that takes something away from the drama of what goes on in temptation. I think if a camera were there it would just have shown Jesus, hungry and exhausted, sitting by himself. All of a sudden a thought pops into his head: “Hey, what if I just turned these stones into bread?” As Jesus later told the story to the disciples (because, of course, it must have been him who told them), he made clear that it was Satan suggesting this to him. But in the moment, temptation can look like just another thought.

I found the temptation to despair had to be recognized as not just a thought, but as something untrue. But in the moment, how can it be recognized as untrue when everything about your circumstances makes it seem so plausible? There has to be, I think, a commitment to knowing God and his Word, and to remaining connected to other Christians. That probably sounds glib, so I’ll add that unlike Jesus, there were many moments where I gave in to despair-induced temptations to try and relieve pain. There were times where it seemed like there was no end in sight. In those moments, I had to humble myself, talk with other people about it, repent, and receive Christ’s forgiveness. It was only over time, as I desperately tried to stay connected to God, Scripture, and other people, that I slowly came to see the world and existence as a good gift again rather than through the lens of despair.

In traumatic circumstances, sometimes people wonder where God could possibly be in their situation, and their faith falters. I can understand the feeling that God is absent when he is not intervening to stop a horrific thing from happening, but this was amazingly not a struggle for me. I never thought he was absent, even when I couldn’t feel him. I decided a long time ago that I’m ride or die with Jesus (an idiomatic translation of John 6:68), and we’ve been through too much together for me to give up on him now. I never asked where he was; I knew he was right there. But I did ask, so many times, “What are you doing?” and “Why won’t you put a stop to this?”

Beyond these semi-articulate cries, I found it hard to pray much, so I started to rely on the Psalms. In my senior year of high school, I put Psalm 34:18 (“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit”) under my yearbook photo, which is about as emo a thing you can do in a small Christian school. But the truth is that, aside from a few verses, I never really embraced the Psalms as my own prayers in spite of a lifetime of Bible reading. They were too foreign to my experience for me to really “own” them. But that changed last summer and fall.

That’s right, ladies of my high school, I am Brooding and Serious

I also used the prayers of others to help me when I couldn’t pray my own words. In the very early days after the Great Terrible Thing, I was on my way to a meeting with her. I was still hopeful that maybe things could turn around, though I was not at all confident in my ability to affect the situation. On the way, I stopped at a park to try and calm my nerves. With my mind unable to formulate much of anything, I prayed the Jesus Prayer over and over: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” There have been many other times like that, where I have not known what to pray besides the Psalms, short repetitive prayers, and “wordless groans” (Rom 8:26).

Without Love, I Don’t Exist

Also significant during the past year have been the prayers others have prayed for me. In the weeks after the Great Terrible Thing, I wrestled with how to talk about it with people. I didn’t want to wait for people to contact me, since in times like these so many people just don’t know what to say. So I lined up conversation after conversation with friends and family, telling and retelling the story like I was rehearsing for a play, answering questions, praying, crying. To preserve my energy, and to escape innocent questioning regarding my wife’s whereabouts, for months I spent my day-to-day life only with those friends who knew what had happened. We have all experienced a shrinking of our social circles during the COVID pandemic, but mine shrank long before that. A couple of these friends gave me an open invitation to come by their house any night and drink bourbon with them. I have taken them up on it more times than I can count. It was good to process what was going on, but it was also good to talk about something else and feel normal for a little bit.

I also had to navigate church. Leaving church altogether, while it might have saved me from some awkwardness in the short term, I didn’t see as an option. These were my people, and I was committed to them. I couldn’t handle the full Sunday morning experience for a long while, though. Walking into the church building was an anxiety-inducing experience: What would people say? What would they ask? During the late summer and fall I would sometimes skip, and other times show up late, sit in the foyer, and watch the service through an open door. Sometimes, someone who knew what had happened would come sit with me. Other times I would be alone, but occasionally someone would pass by and give me a hug or say “I’m glad you’re here,” or “I’ve been praying for you,” or simply “This sucks.” After many months, I finally felt comfortable enough to sit with a couple from my small group and participate in the service again.

Church was further complicated by the fact that, at the time, I was the chair of the leadership team (what might be called the elder board at another church). At the beginning of our August meeting, I shared what had happened and offered to resign if the rest of the team thought it was best. A couple of them who I’d already spoken with had tears in their eyes as I began to share, and when I was done they didn’t hesitate to affirm that they saw no reason for me to step down. Serving out the remainder of my term, which ended in February, was a welcome distraction as the divorce proceeded and my personal life was dismantled. In this and so many other ways, my church family met my shame and embarrassment with love, grace, and wisdom.

I have been carried by others for the last year, and am only here now because of them. I have learned time and time again, after all that has happened, that I am loved and accepted by God and by my small tribe of people, and that is enough. While I am growing again in my eagerness to make new friends and to listen to people who are not currently in my orbit (hampered, unfortunately, by COVID), my sense of identity is anchored in the love of God and the love of my people.

Falling Down Without Regrets 

Rich Mullins has long been a favorite musician of mine, and even now, over twenty years after his death, I return to his music often. I think it is because so many of his songs are packed with raw, honest faith in the teeth of disappointment and longing (for example, no matter how many times I’ve listened to it, it’s hard for me to get through this one—demo version only, please—without tearing up). A number of them were influenced by a broken engagement. A few lines from the chorus from one of these, “The River,” have stayed with me these last months:

And I may lose every dream

I dreamt that I could carry with me

But I have failed so many times

And You’ve never let me fall down alone.

I’m now forty-one years old. By this time of my life, I had dreamed that I would be married with children, and that dream has turned out to be one that I could not carry with me. I didn’t lose that dream slowly over many years; I lost it in the six months between last July and the day in January when I got a call from my wife’s lawyer’s office saying that the court had processed the paperwork and I was now divorced. But even in this year of failure and dream-loss, I can still say I have not fallen down alone.

More than once last fall a friend commented to me, “I don’t know how you’re still walking around.” At the time, I didn’t know how to respond. I was just muddling through, and didn’t really know either. But it has now been a year since the Great Terrible Thing, and I think I have an idea now.

The vague answer, which is no less true for being vague, is “the grace of God.” But more specifically, this grace has been mediated to me through commitments. When I was a child I committed to faith in Jesus, and as an adult I committed to a community in which to live out that faith, to work that I find useful, to a place—and, yes, to a marriage. All of those commitments have been God’s means of communicating grace to me. When one of those commitments ended, as gut-wrenching as it has been, my life was kept from spinning out of control by my other commitments. Making these kinds of commitments is scary because there is no guarantee that they will work out well: marriages break down, jobs are lost, church communities don’t always behave in a Christlike manner. But I still believe that it’s important to enter into these commitments—making the wisest decision we can at the time, while not ignoring red flags—even though we don’t know what the future holds, and sticking by them. Making commitments and sticking by them has not saved me from rejection, but it has saved me from regret. I don’t regret making any of them—not even the marriage.

The commitments I’ve made have shaped my identity. Losing a marriage has felt like part of me has been lost, because it has. I am still fumbling toward finding out who I am without it, without her, without us. It has only been in the past month or so that I’ve been able to go beyond putting one foot in front of the other and lift my eyes toward the future (maybe it would have happened sooner without a global pandemic, but who knows?). Yet my other commitments have preserved enough of my sense of identity that I have not felt completely adrift (not for long, anyway).

Make Commitments, Resist Despair

I hesitate to give anyone advice on how to work through their own experiences of trauma and loss. I admit that if my personal history or brain chemistry were different, things could have gone a lot worse. But I can point to two things that I hope will help. First, you may not have to endure a Great Terrible Thing—a divorce, a diagnosis, a death—where your life changes in an instant. But you will most assuredly have to endure small terrible things. There is no way around suffering in this life; the only way is to go through it. So do what you can, now, to make commitments that will help you weather it. Yes, some of those commitments will fail you. At some point you’ll be disappointed at best or traumatized at worst. But in spite of the risks, I don’t know of a better way to navigate life than by boldly committing yourself to God, to people, to place, and to work.

Second, resist despair as much as you can. Grieve, but do not grieve without hope (1 Thess 4:13). You might have moments, days, weeks, even months where you’re just stuck in despair and can’t get out, but please, please don’t resign yourself to it. Even when your despair-soaked mind wants to give up, I hope that you can say to yourself, “This is not normal. This is not permanent.” Hang on to hope however you can, and “do not move from the hope held out in the gospel” (Col 1:23). In moments of despair you will lack the energy or awareness to preach the gospel to yourself, but I hope and pray you have someone in your life who can preach—and embody—the gospel to you.

Despair can feel like it will last forever, but it passes. My overtaxed brain couldn’t have gotten enough thoughts together to write all this down even at the beginning of June, but here I’ve written an essay that is probably too long. I still have moments and days where I hear the siren song of despair, but the volume has decreased over time. Instead, I have a growing sense of gratitude for the mere fact of existence. I am not where I dreamed I would be. I have lost so much. But having lost so much, the fact that I get to experience anything feels like a gift. In spite of everything, it is a blessing to be alive—to be back from the dead and walking around in God’s good world.