We are starting a series at church called “Storytellers,” focusing on the stories we tell ourselves about the past, present, future, ourselves, and others. Inspired by Brad Paisley’s song, “Letter to Me,” and later struck by the eerie symmetry of the last 12 months, I wrote this piece and recorded it in a video that played at church today. I’ve processed enough internally to be comfortable sharing with the world, and like many times in the past, the thought that it might help someone else in their journey is a great source of solace when I look back on the time of darkness.
I know you can’t hear me from where you are, but I write this for future reference, because I know we are going to go around this same track again at some point, not because I won’t learn your lesson, I just need to learn it more deeply next time. You are not expecting to come full circle in just a year’s time, and part of me wishes I could stop you from leaving Columbus at all. But I can’t stop you, and even if I could, I’m not sure I would, because you’re going to grow despite, or perhaps because of, the adversity you’ll face.
I speak, of course, from the comfort of retrospect. There will be many times this year when you feel like you’re dying, when death might feel like a mercy. Beneath your smiles and optimism lies the great dark void that has been growing for several months now. You’ve tried to fill it with work, empty it along with the food from your body, and cover it with a veil of control and competence. So far that charade has worked for you. You think that somehow you will outrun your past; that for once you will get to leave instead of being left behind; that you get to forget instead of being forgotten. But the void will grow if you do not confront it, if you keep trying to run and hide. You will find yourself a seedling washed up on bare rock, struggling to find a foothold where there is none, starving for community as the light dims and the sea rises around you. The work for which you left your home behind will be difficult and often unsatisfying. Your students will disappoint you again and again, and you will start to question why you are here at all. You will lose students to violence and poverty, colleagues to illness, friendships to distance, and the losses of the past will replay themselves over and over because they have never been truly heard. You will realize, once again, that you are not a princess and life is not a fairy tale; the job and the relationship you think will save you are merely salve for a mortal wound, and too costly a salve at that. As you stumble forward on broken legs, your gaze will drop inward and you will lose sight of God’s call and of God himself as you bind your heart with fear and isolation.
But then you will choose to stand, to walk forward, to seek a way out, and you are going to fall a hundred times before you finally regain your feet. You will do what you think is right, but second-guess yourself again and again as the pain worsens instead of getting better. But don’t be scared: this is not the pain of rejection, of loss, of defeat, of death. This is a birthing pain, the pain of a surgeon’s incision to lance an infected boil, the pain of a butterfly splitting its chrysalis. And like any infant, this reborn self needs safety and nourishment to grow, and so I have come home at last: to rest, to repent, to release, to renew. I remember your suffering but do not hold onto it; I am more than my problems and more than my past. Thank you for making mistakes, and thank you for seeking help to correct them. I see you: you are special, but you are not alone.
Love and hope,