Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Walking Wounded

"Fountain of Tears" in Granada, Spain
I have something strange going on.

This “something strange” has happened a few times recently, two instances I can remember with some detail.

It goes something like this: I’ll be clicking through my day, minding my own business, thinking my usual random thoughts (“Concrete was a great invention.”). I’ll be in a public place like a big box store and my path will cross, for a fleeting moment, with someone who has apparently spent his or her entire life overcoming a major physical challenge. They’re on their own at the moment in this busy arena, and seem to be doing fine.

It brings me to immediate tears.

The first instance that I noticed this becoming a trend was a few months ago while riding on an airport tram. I was probably doing some internal kvetching about airport life. I had noticed a man a little younger than I carrying an equal amount of travel bags—an over-stuffed roller bag and a heavy-laden back pack over a shoulder. (This probably sparked the random thought, “I wonder if the 50-pound baggage limit was set by the chiropractor lobby.”) The tram made a stop. The doors opened, my fellow traveler stood from his seat, gathered his bags, and with considerable effort, drug his barely functioning leg with his maximum-stuffed roller bag through the tram door onto his next destination. He exited as if he’d done it hundreds of times, maybe thousands.
I stayed on the tram, awaiting my next stop. With tears streaming down my cheeks.

The most recent instance of this “something strange” was at one of Jessica’s concerts in Miami, Fla. She was singing Maria in excerpts from "West Side Story" with the New World Symphony under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, a world-renown conductor who actually worked with Leonard Bernstein, composer of "West Side Story."

When I arrived at my row before the concert began I had to ask a patron seated on the end to stand in order for me to get to my seat. She was seated by herself and politely, even enthusiastically, obliged. Her movements were noticeably labored, but confident. I could sense she had a challenge of some sort. But it wasn’t until the end of the concert, when she applauded with her wrists, that I could see the extent of her challenge, perhaps a type of palsy.

Applauding. With her wrists. With a huge smile. And then, before the applause was over, she turned to walk with a limp up the aisle to exit, no doubt to beat the crowd—something she had done hundreds of times. Maybe thousands.

I kept clapping. With tears streaming down my cheeks.

At that moment my applause took on more meaning than celebration of the transcendent moments I had experienced through the music, but I began to feel myself as a cheerleader. First I was cheering how anyone, no matter their situation of life, can enjoy beautiful music. I was also cheering how my wife Jessica was able to, with her gifted voice, reach into the spirit of my applauding neighbor. And of course, I was cheering how my neighbor, despite her challenges, or maybe even because of her challenges, was able to enjoy beautiful music.

Later that day, after the concert, Jessica and I were walking down Lincoln Road, a famous pedestrian mall in South Beach. We happened upon my seat mate from the concert, sitting at an outdoor table enjoying a nice dish of frozen yogurt. I introduced myself by saying “I enjoyed listening to that beautiful concert with you!” After a couple of confused seconds she said, “You changed your clothes!” Which I had, going from diva-spouse afternoon concert attire to shorts and a t-shirt. And then she said, “That was so beautiful.” I introduced Jessica as one of the singers. Our friend asked “Which one?” to which we replied “Maria.” You could see gratitude come over our friend as she seemed privileged to share how beautiful the experience was to her.

As we walked away, I cried again. Now I had to explain my tears. “She touched me,” I said to Jessica, whose gift of tenderness may actually surpass her gift of music. She always lets me cry, and enters into the cry with me.

I have been around folks with physical challenges my entire life, whether challenges since birth or brought on through accident or disease. I’ve done my best to help when I can, to empathize as best I can, and mostly to not let the challenge define the person.

But something is now different. This is a new look for me, this immediate, spontaneous crying thing.

I want to pay attention to it.

It seems that in one instantaneous moment the journeys of these folks, with all the dynamic moments on journeys like these, wash over my heart like a rogue wave.

Those moments when they realized their condition, whether gradually from a birth abnormality or all at once through an accident or disease (Was it shock? Was it surprise?); the struggle behind the acceptance of the fact that they don’t have it as easy as others; the whipsaw moments of weakness with every intention to throw in the towel, followed by moments of sheer resolve and determination, and then the cruel reverse of that sequence. But here they are: functioning in mass public—a busy airport, a packed concert hall—with aplomb.

I’ve been trying to assess the crying. Why the immediate well-up of tears? Later that evening in Miami I dropped Jessica off at the hall to practice for her next gig and I made the 25 minute walk back to the apartment where we were staying. I tried to get a handle on this. I’m sure it’s related to the journey of loss, the experience of a broken heart. But could it be something more specific? And then I was prompted by a memory.

Dana had been on chemo for about a year with her recurrent breast cancer (BC round 2, as we would call it) when we were driving on Breiel Blvd. in Middletown and happened upon a fender bender. But it wasn’t two cars. It was a car and a deer. The deer was badly wounded but was still alive and trying to pull itself off the road into the safety of the nearby woods. Dana immediately began to cry , and she couldn't stop crying. This was more than her usual soft spot for all things animal and “all the kitties in the world.” As we drove she expressed that she was identifying with the deer. She and the deer were both wounded. They were both fighting to survive. They were both longing for safety and the familiarity of normal. That event stuck with us for days.

And it came flooding into my mind and heart on that walk in Miami.
I am wounded.

I can identify with the challenges of these folks whose paths I’m crossing. I can empathize with the rapid-fire whipsaw of resolve vs. despair, denial vs. acceptance. I know what it’s like to walk with a crippling hole of hurt and loss, laboring to function in a world that caters to normal.

But here’s the thing: We’re all wounded.

We all carry something.

And I think that’s what my visceral reactions to the walking wounded around me are tapping into. My journey of loss has reworked my emotional DNA and I’m just now beginning to realize to what degree this has occurred. Yes, my heart is more generally moved these days (I tear up at some point during every episode of “Blue Bloods,” a new series on ABC that Jessica and I have locked into; and I don’t think it’s simply sleep deprivation), but connecting with those who have visibly pressed through insurmountable obstacles provides a window into just how re-worked my emotional DNA is.

The phrase “world of hurt” comes to mind, with new meaning. We’re all carrying something. We’re all asked to overcome something. To borrow the words of a new friend, Leneita Fix, who does urban youth ministry near New York City, “All teens are urban. It doesn’t matter where they live or what their circumstances are; given today’s teen predicament, they’re all trying to survive something.” (As a side, you may want to check out Leneita’s book, “Everybody’s Urban.”) The same is true for all of us. In some cases the striving to survive is visible: exiting a tram with a debilitated leg, applauding beautiful music with wrists. In other cases the striving to survive lurks behind the masks of our stoic faces as we navigate our daily routines of waiting in lines, paying bills, meeting deadlines.

I’m reminded of something written in 2 Corinthians 1:4, that “[God] comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”

That’s pretty cool, and I think it describes why I’m having such a strong reaction to “those in any trouble.” This verse, perhaps more than any other, paints the picture of redemption that can emerge from “our troubles.” We are naturally and organically drawn to the wounds of others. And it’s good to react.

For now, I’m reacting with tears. I’m going to keep paying attention to this reaction, grabbing tightly to this thread, watching hopefully to see what fabric of redemption God might be weaving together. I’ve felt compelled to share this point in the journey. While it’s certainly a work in progress, I’m sensing there are more of us who have hidden wounds needing to heal, or healed wounds needing to be shared with others.
Maybe we can all cheer and applaud for each other—with our hearts, with our hands, and even with our wrists.