The Tenderness of Being Human
“Didn't you say you were a believer? Didn't you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn't you ask for grace?” —Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Didn't you say you were a believer? Didn't you ask for grace? Yes. And again, yes. It's another season of calamity and chaos, but I've been blessed with an immense and mysterious peace within a storm that feels larger than life. I have to tell you, though, as the world crashes in on itself these recent years, and a storm crashes into my body, I've sometimes felt ashamed of having peace. I don't know if I'm apologizing for being ashamed of it, or apologizing for actually being at peace, as if my peace could take something away from you.
But I do know what it's like to be afraid. I know what the cold steel of fear feels like, of being so afraid of world events and being deceived by the antichrist that I would shake in my bed and cry hot tears into my pillow—at age seven. My formative years were devoted to an incredibly fear-based approach to life following a flavor of theology that taught I would likely, someday, be tortured for my faith. Possibly burned alive, boiled in oil, or at least ripped away from my family and sent to a concentration camp run by Nazis, the Illuminati and the devil. This fear helped reinforce an unconventional way of life: become as self-sufficient as possible, follow a legalistic interpretation of the Bible, live off the grid, be undocumented (and therefore untrackable), learn exactly how to think and what to believe, and much more. I learned to be rigorously judgmental on the stand against evil. Daily we scrutinized and judged anything and everything.
Of course one paragraph can't begin to describe the depths and intensity of a fear-based religious lifestyle, especially as lived by one who tried hard to get it perfect, like she did with everything—miles of hand-stitched hems, sister-mothering nearly a dozen younger brothers and sisters, keeping the faith, and being afraid. I embodied fear like I was made of it, and I can wholeheartedly say by the grace of God I am healed now, but the memory is still there. It's like being forced to hug someone who has tobacco-stained teeth, what's left of them, and foam on the edges of his mouth, and who likes to tickle young girls and inform you that you'll live with him when you turn eighteen, because God said so. And now you can't get the smell off you, you can still remember it, the musty smell of his hug, the probe of his fingers between your ribs and the rotten flush of those words. It's the taste. The smell. The sweat. The way panic turns your body cold and then floods it with heat, the stay-and-fight. No, run. No, wait. Freeze. A million neurons firing in the brain. Eyes darting, looking for a way out. Despair, cornered. Scalding fury. Blind, burning rage which eventually simmers down into a nice, manageable sort of doubt.
My prayer, oh Lord: let fear become praise in my veins.
We can withstand storms of all kinds and intensities and durations rooted on the rock of a gentle and loving Lord who richly supplies his grace. I know this now. Hearing the sober tone of my doctor, scrolling through newsfeeds and social media updates, witnessing international horrors and seeing with my own eyes what happens when simmering undercurrents of hatred and evil are at last brought to light, and the world recoils in shock—I am looking terror in the eyes and saying simply, “I am not afraid.” I am saying this to the little girl within who would have crumbled into the depths. Perhaps I would not have known how healed I am if it wasn't for this, and perhaps without it I wouldn't need to know. But when the world as you know it shatters and you recognize the language and memory of clammy skin, paralyzing fright and tobacco-stained teeth, grace is something to hold onto.
I've come to believe that, through grace, huge emotional and spiritual pipelines chiseled by fear can become overflowing tributaries of peace. It's how our heavenly Soul Artist works with the shards and slivers of things. Are you afraid? All of that fear-space will one day hold immense, unfathomable love, if you allow the redeemer to redeem. The bigger your anxiety, the deeper your capacity for peace. Those grooves are well-worn. You who are stretched out, sagging and exhausted by the intensity and depth of your fear, can one day hold so much love you wouldn't even believe it now. Be brave. Stand upon the rock. Grace is waiting.
Our hollowing becomes our hallowing: we are made empty like a womb, a well, a sacred space, a field that will one day hold roots and stems and living things. We can be like glimmering Tibetan bowls—holding emptiness and holding song.
So, what to do with this peace? I'm still finding my way, fumbling for sensitivity, humility, and praying for wisdom in all things. I do not take the blessing of peace for granted. I am well aware of how panic, fear and anxiety overtake the ones embodied with it.
I know, because that was me. What would have helped me then? What could've been said that I would actually hear? Already suspicious and faithful, not much, so I was way beyond mainstream platitudes—have faith. Trust. It'll all be okay. In fact, sometimes words are too much. I've been guilty of it; you want to help, you don't know what to say, so you ramble and ramble searching for phrases that give hope. Inside you think, ugh why did I just say that? And yet if you don't say anything at all, others won't know where you stand. They will think you don't care. It's messy and intricate, this being human. This being human with other humans. It's messy, intricate, and beautiful.
I'm trying to be more intentional about the warmth and healing nature of in-person presence. I'm awkward most of the time, but I leave my little nest and venture into the world with more tenderness and more hope, looking for eyes to meet mine, savoring simple pleasures, noticing soul-connections in the ordinary and mundane:
“This is the best pie!” exclaimed the cashier at Trader Joe's. “I just had some in the back!”
“Sorry, ma'am,” said the woman walking the dog who was jumping all over me.
I could have stayed at that table for hours, sipping old coffee, because the wind was soft and the light just perfect.
And then, the conversations. Oh my heart. The reaching out. Reaching in. Making me laugh. Making me cry. Meeting others in the messy intersection of grace and grief, all awkward and beautiful—me, clumsily articulating; you with your YES; and you with your warmth; and you with your courage and tender truth; and you with your heart so kind and soft.
So I'm holding on to these words by a sweet friend who texted me in a moment of my distress—
“Every silent and tearful prayer, every anguished cry—is evidence that we are not alone, and are all doing the best we can. Retweets, and tender smiles to strangers in the grocery store—that is activism. That is love. That is change. There is great power in embracing our humanity. Being willing to see, to love, to care, to encourage is an infinite reservoir of power that can fuel catalysts for change. Without these, humanity loses. Not only for those around you, but those who see your witness. Who notice your smile, your caring & your respect.”—Cassandra Aswani
Could it really be as simple as this? Reminding one other of our humanity. Through tender courtesies and earnest prayers that say “I see you and you are worthy.” Living bravely. Defiantly, even, choosing to trust that love and gentleness still matter and make a difference. Being honest and hopeful, in spite of everything, because grace is here, and God is with us.
I think yes.
This writing has been resurrected from the archives and updated a little. Thank you for reading.