From Hiraeth to Hope: Healthy Grieving

A couple of years ago I stumbled upon a wonderful Welsh word: hiraeth. It’s one of those impossible-to-translate words. Hiraeth describes a nostalgic longing, a homesick yearning, a painful ache – perhaps for a homeland or an era that no longer exists. The Welsh are quite insistent that it means much more than mere nostalgia for past people or things or places. It wells up from deep within our hearts, and may include grieving over a past that never was or a future that could have been but is now impossible. It seems to seek a true homeland whose grasp is elusive, one that could never fully be attained or sustained in this life. In that regard, hiraeth and hope seem closely connected.

Hope is a God-given virtue that increases in us a deep desire for fulfillment in Christ’s Kingdom. Hope allows us to be aided by the Holy Spirit so that we can renounce self-reliance and place our trust entirely in Christ and his promises, which will never deceive or disappoint. For he is Truth itself.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 1818) describes hope as elevating and purifying our own yearnings for happiness, bringing them all into subjection to Christ and his Kingship, ordering them towards their true fulfillment. Hope liberates us from discouragement and sustains us when we feel alone and abandoned.

How do we move from hiraeth to hope?

I am convinced that the process involves healthy grieving of one kind or another. Jesus tells us that those who mourn are blessed, and that they will be comforted. Every tear will be wiped away. But we must first pass through the dark places of our heart, our valleys of tears – preferably with all earthly and heavenly helps at our disposal.

Hiraeth is described as bittersweet – and not merely because one had something happy that is now gone. There is so much more. I believe the bitter ache is welling up from a much deeper place in our heart, a dark valley that most of us fear and avoid. The sweetness is welling up from an even deeper place, a place beyond the valley of tears, where God whispers our true eternal identity in our  heart.

Ecclesiastes describes an appointed time for everything under heaven: a time to give birth and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, etc. The author remarks that God has “placed the timeless into their hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Our deepest, truest self knows that all else is vanity and emptiness, and will pass away. That inevitable loss is sad indeed. But hope of our true destiny spurs us on, giving us the determination and the endurance that we need to pass through the valley of tears.

How do we grieve well? The ancients tell us that virtue is found in the middle course. One extreme is to be stuck in the past, paralyzed by nostalgia, incapable of letting go or moving on. At the opposite extreme some of us “rush ahead” into hope, pretending like everything is swell. In doing so, we are denying or minimizing our pain. It will come back with a vengeance. I think of the Pixar film Inside Out as a masterful illustration of our need for healthy grieving and the unhelpfulness of trying to mask over our pain with false joy or false hope.

Just as abiding in the Lord and bearing fruit is long and patient work, so also walking the path from hiraeth to hope will often be slow and arduous. It may require the hard work of clearing out obstacles or cooperating with God in removing toxic filth. It is not a “one and done” task. Therapists compare grieving with the process of peeling layers from an onion. We shed so many tears and receive so much healing that we think the process must surely be done now – only to discover more layers.

Our pain may come from various sources: death of loved ones, sudden tragedy, betrayal or victimization, childhood abuse or neglect, or the creeping realization of old age and human mortality. Often it is the oldest wounds, still unhealed, that cause the most pain. When we find ourselves “overreacting” to a situation in the present moment, it is likely a sign that the situation somehow poked at an old unhealed wound. Such moments are painful, but they are great opportunities to receive the healing balm of the Holy Spirit. Remember that “Christ” means “anointed one.” Therefore being a Christian means allowing ourselves to be anointed. Receiving ointment on unhealed wounds is painful, but is far better than leaving them to fester!

When life touches an old wound, rather than blame the person or situation that upset us, we can heed the invitation to return to the valley of tears. There we can receive strength and anointing from on high, which always happens so much better in healthy community than as an isolated individual. We can reach out to trusted friends, the godly people in our life who know better than to try to “fix” our problems, who will listen to us and give us the encouragement we need to persevere.

On this journey, I think of the wise men following the star together to Bethlehem. They experience a longing very akin to hiraeth. They don’t go it alone, but travel together. They are humble enough to seek and receive guidance from others. They support and encourage one another during their long trek. They have no idea where they are ultimately going, but they trust the deepest yearnings of their heart, and they recognize truth and goodness and beauty when they find it.

When it comes to healthy grieving, sojourning from hiraeth to hope, we very much need the support of others. In communion with them, we will be more open to receiving the healing balm of the Holy Spirit. We will be more disciplined in rooting out from the valley of tears the poisonous plants that block our path to our true homeland.

There are other hindrances and helps to consider. I’ll share more next time.

Not-So-Great Expectations (Part 2 of 2)

In my last post, I described our human tendency to impose silent expectations on others, rather than asking for what we desire or need. That behavior works well enough for everyday interactions. It becomes irrational or foolish when we are expecting others to make our pain go away or to fulfill the deepest yearnings of our heart.

I mentioned the book Seven Desires by Mark and Debbie Laaser. They identify seven universal human longings: to be heard and understood, to be affirmed, to be blessed, to be safe, to be touched in a meaningful way, to be chosen, and to be included. They also offer the image of an iceberg. What we think of as “the problem” is often just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, silent and massive, lurks a strong force in motion that warrants much greater attention. If ignored long enough, it will advance with unstoppable momentum.

As I read their book, I felt the scales falling from my eyes. I now recognize that I was sometimes unwittingly placing expectations on others and that I was letting others place them on me. I realized that I often felt anxious or unsafe, rejected or shameful, alone or misunderstood. It was not other people’s fault that I felt those things. It was okay that I felt those things. I was not trapped. I was not doomed to feel those things forever. I could do something about it. My heavenly Father, my Blessed Mother Mary, and my true friends were there, if only I would ask for help. Not everyone can help me all the time.

In fact, it is much more appropriate that they do not. It is so important for us ordained ministers to have a strong support network outside of the communities we serve. That allows us the freedom of heart to love and serve the people in front of us.

After years of downplaying my emotional and spiritual pain, I began seeking and receiving additional support in facing my wounds of fear, shame, rejection, and abandonment. One of my friends and I have been on a similar journey, and regularly encourage each other to stay on the path of healing. It’s tempting to turn aside! He and I like to quip, “The problem with facing painful emotions is that they’re painful.” It is no surprise that many of us prefer to avoid them.

I totally relate to the analogy offered by Sister Miriam Heidland in her book Loved as I Am. She describes the numbness we feel in winter if we come indoors with frostbite. Following the numbness comes an excruciating pain – which is a step in the right direction – and finally the recovery of normal sensation in our appendages. Like little children, we often need to be encouraged that coming in from the cold is good for us, and that the unbearable pain is only temporary.

Jesus modeled for us a willingness to depend upon others, to ask for and receive what he needed. The Gospels describe how frequently he withdrew to abide with his Father, and how he radically depended upon his Father. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus humbly asked his friends to spend an hour with him in prayer – perhaps knowing that they might not give him what he asked for. Imitating his Father, he respected their freedom. He was secure in his identity as God’s beloved Son and had full confidence that his real needs would still be provided for.

Above all else, Jesus modeled true freedom for us. I yearn to imitate that freedom: “No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely” (John 10:18). He offered himself freely as the spotless Lamb of God, but he never played the victim card.

I must admit that I still find it challenging to let my “yes” mean “yes” and my “no” mean “no” (cf. Matthew 5:37). I sometimes find myself saying “yes” grudgingly, and then needing to battle through resentment or self-pity. I sometimes experience irrational guilt or shame when I say “no” – even when my “no” is for very good reasons. Instead of a simple “yes” or “no” I often feel the need to justify myself.  My heart is a work in progress.

In my lack of full freedom, I can see that I am still struggling with unreasonable expectations – sometimes with those that others try to impose on me, but especially with the unreasonable expectations that I place on myself.

I’ve learned to listen attentively to my heart and lips, guarding against those words, “I have to…” In truth, I never “have to” do anything. No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely. There is always a choice. God always respects our freedom. Look at Adam and Eve. Look at the prodigal son. The Father allowed them to go their way. He allowed them to learn from the consequences of their choices. He never “makes” us do anything. We are always free.

I have to” is a lie. Often we believe it because we are avoiding a conflict or running from a challenging situation. Other times we tell ourselves “I have to” because we somehow believe that our self-worth will be diminished if we don’t fulfill this expectation of the other person. That’s a lie. We remain God’s sons and daughters; his Fatherly love never changes. When we can believe the full truth about who we are as God’s beloved children, then we can break free from the prison of fear. We can shake off the shackles of unreasonable expectations and begin freely giving and freely receiving, abiding in authentic human love.

Not-So-Great Expectations (Part 1 of 2)

Expectations are part of the human experience. Travelers expect their hotel room to be clean. Store owners expect the customers to pay for their purchases. Children expect their parents to feed them, calm them, and protect them. Spouses bring all kinds of expectations into their marriage relationship – some realistic and others impossible.

I have come to appreciate just how omnipresent expectations are. Much like the force of gravity, we tend to take expectations as a given without much reflection.

But unconscious or unspoken expectations can be explosions waiting to go off. Many workplaces experience preventable conflict as a result of not having accurate or realistic job descriptions. Many a marital fight erupts because husband and wife are bringing different expectations to a situation. Many a peer suddenly feels a flood of self-pity or resentment or loneliness because others didn’t magically pick up on their subtle hints or unspoken cues. I suspect that many of the racial and cultural tensions in our nation and in our world are also due to mismatched and miscommunicated expectations.

Not all expectations are equal. There are everyday expectations that help govern healthy human interaction: exchanges of goods and services, classroom rules, household tasks, driving etiquette, and so forth. Even in those legitimate instances, it usually helps to communicate the expectations verbally or in writing. Then there are our stronger expectations, the ones that tend to fester and fume. That is because they are propelled by a much deeper drive from within the human heart: our core human desires and our emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. When ignored, these (fundamentally good) desires and needs become unruly, even destructive forces.

We tend to be out of touch with what we are really feeling and with what our heart most deeply desires. Indeed, in God’s design, we only discover these personal truths in communion with Him and others. We are mysteries unto ourselves and need healthy relationships to be fully human.

Healthy relationships include communication, asking, receiving, and giving. The healthiest and holiest people I know have learned how to communicate with God and others about what they feel, what they truly need, and what they truly desire. They have learned to be vulnerable and trusting. They humbly ask for what they need rather than taking, manipulating, or silently expecting.

But are we attuned to our emotions, our desires, our needs? I know that I have not always been. Even though I was a man of prayer for many years, I tended not to pay attention to my emotional and spiritual health. Indeed, I spent much of my life brushing aside any sense of “emotional needs” as selfish psychobabble.

I was merely following the script that I learned long ago. As a child, I internalized certain distorted beliefs about myself: that my emotions could be put on the shelf indefinitely, that they didn’t really matter. I could just tough it out and life would go on. My job was to pull it together, to work harder, and to figure out a better solution. To most outside observers, my life was one “success” after another, so this plan seemed to be working fine – until it didn’t. I finally reached a painful awareness that I could not manage, could not cope, and could not figure things out by myself.

In my childhood home, we had one massive omnipresent expectation – at all costs we had to keep my stepdad from blowing up. Whatever feelings or spiritual needs that I had in those moments had to wait – some of them many years. When I finally became more in tune with them (with the help of God, the Virgin Mary, and certain wonderful friends) I was stunned at what powerful and deep currents were swirling in the depths of my heart. I have been learning to reach out and meekly ask the appropriate people for help and support. The more I do so, the more free I am to love and serve with an undivided heart in my calling as a shepherd of souls.

One book that has been life-changing for me is Seven Desires by Mark and Debbie Laaser. They make the claim that every human heart has certain universal desires: to be heard and understood, to be affirmed, to be blessed, to be safe, to be touched in a meaningful way, to be chosen, and to be included. If we feel a void in one or more of those desires, we can easily start placing expectations on others, and harbor blame if they fall short of those expectations. In truth, it is unreasonable to expect others to fulfill our own deepest longings. But we will slide into that behavior if we feel empty on the inside.

It struck me that Jesus and Mary themselves, the New Adam and the New Eve, experienced these seven human desires no less than we did. Indeed, God willed that they be fulfilled in those desires. Not everyone understood Jesus or blessed him or chose him – but certain key people did, not to mention God Himself. In the Gospels, Jesus and Mary were both unabashed in asking for and receiving help from others. They depended radically and constantly on the Father in all things. So there was in them no taking or grasping or striving for the needs of their heart. They freely asked and freely received. In the same true freedom, they gave everything on Good Friday.

I am still learning how to be free like them. More on that point next time.

To be continued…