Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Refusing Comfort

I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he may hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.
Psalm 77: 1, 2 New Revised Standard Version

Not to be offered comfort is one thing, but to refuse it is entirely another. By the end of this psalm, the writer manages to crawl out of the Slough of Despond. Still, the writer does so by referring only to long-ago history of the people, not to any present comfort.
I’ve read this verse many times over the years, but this morning it stopped me completely and sent me looking at other versions. None of them offers a cheerful variation.
Only once do I recall trying to refuse comfort: when my father died. I was living a thousand miles from my parents, in my third year of teaching, all of 24 years old. The call came during first period—the school secretary came to get me out of class. I went into shock mode, staying dry-eyed and making plans until third period, when my seniors demanded to know what was going on. One of them moved to hold me, and I protested, “Don’t, Buck, I’ll cry.” But he held me and I did cry, aware that the girls in the class were crying with and for me. It’s a holy memory for me, and the last comfort I permitted in that city. I had too much vested in my image. When I returned a week later, I was “fine.”
Many of us have images to maintain. We’re the parent, who has to stay strong or the kids will get scared. We’re the spouse, trying to be strong for the beloved going through treatment. We’re the son or daughter suddenly called on to parent a parent in chemo. We’re the person who’s always had it together and can’t let down, fearing we will “flow in grief,” as Shakespeare put it.
And so we’re fine. Even in the chemo room. I watched one day as a woman admitted to chest pains and was whisked into emergency so fast it made me dizzy. When her husband stopped in later, he told the nurse, “You don’t see her at home, when she cries. It’s really hard for her, but she tries to put up a brave front here.”
Many of us did. We were ridiculously cheerful, cracking up the chemo nurse with jokes and antics. I saw a woman come in from work wearing a stylish wig, nylons and heels. I heard a woman facing recurrence say, “Well, I’ve had three good years.” And after my only chemo room meltdown, I’ve joined their ranks. I lie at church and tell people I’m fine, two weeks away from another outpatient surgery for my “nuisance” cancer. Why bother them, when this has become my way of living?
I need to think about whether this is my way of refusing comfort.

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