Today is September 12th. The day after. Twelve years ago on this day, people all over the world had to get out of bed, put feet on the floor and face a new reality. Life would never go back to the way it was. In their own time, wounds will scar over and fade but after a day like that, we as individuals and as a society will never be as we were.
In truth, every day is “The Day After” for someone. There is loss all around us. Today, someone woke up to face the first day after a loved one had died from a sudden illness. Today, someone stared blankly into a bathroom mirror brushing their teeth on the morning after their divorce was final. There are earthquakes, floods, fires, shootings, drug overdoses, runaways, kidnappings, murders and every other form of human calamity occurring every minute of every day. Without any notice, these things can happen to each of us and to those around us that we hold most precious.
When they happen, there is no going back and, whether we are prepared or not, the sun will set on that day and rise to reveal a new day, a new reality, a new unexpected life where each of us must make some decisions. Will I move forward? If I do, how do I begin? What does this new, unexpected life look like? How do I find happiness when, like Bruce Springsteen said, “…it’s like someone took a knife, edgy and dull, and dug a six inch valley through the middle of my soul”?
For me, it has started with simply putting feet on the floor when I wake in the morning. Even on average days with typical challenges, it’s this act of feeling the carpet yield under my bare feet that has always signaled my willingness to accept the new day. On more difficult days, I fear that contact. I sit on the edge of my bed, my feet dangling inches above soft, fuzzy acknowledgement that I’m willing to be a participant in my new life.
During the first days after a personal tragedy, this is sometimes the only step forward I have strength to take. Once I’m up, I walk through the rest of the day like a zombie caught unexpectedly after sunrise, blinking painfully in the harsh daylight. I stare at others as they talk and laugh, as they order ice cream with sprinkles and debate over cell phone ring tones. I simulate their actions, trying to seem normal. I feel as though these people have neither felt sorrow like this or even know it exists. How could such trivial things bring joy or even matter at all if they understood? If they had felt like I feel in that moment? I am a lone zombie, shuffling aimlessly through a world of happy, warm living souls. I want nothing more than for the sun to complete it’s arc, sink back down and allow me to go back to sleep.
I have never been drunk, never been high but it is in these dark, early days that I understand chemical addicts. I understand suicide. I have never become so unraveled from hope that any of those choices became conclusions within reach but I’ve been on those roads. I’ve felt the subtle, deceitful wind at my back pushing me toward answers that promised nothing but relief from the present pain.
“Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts...”
― C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
Many thanks to my kids' youth pastor, Carl, for bringing that quote to my attention recently. Right between the eyes, brother. You have no idea how much that helped me.
In my life, the gentle, soft slopes of that road are interrupted by the unrelenting love of my wife, my kids, my family and the close friends that share my burden with me. They serve as the milestones and the signposts to remind me that joy still exists even though my senses are dulled to its effect. They help re-engage me back into life. Ecclesiastes 4:12 says, "Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken." I thank God for the thick and durable cord of family and friends all over the country that He has given me to be a steward of. I have frayed it many times but it has never broken and sometimes, when I am especially blessed, those frayed ends heal.
It’s a good start but getting out of bed isn’t enough. Zombies can’t taste. They can’t feel. The small joys and micro miracles that permeate every moment of life bring them no pleasure. There is no satisfaction for a zombie in a glorious sunset or the smell of sudden summer rain. I have found that in order to shed my dead, zombie shell, I must force myself to seek these joys.
I love to cook and to bake. It’s a creative therapy to me. Even when I am tired, I feel renewed when I am in the kitchen. A few weeks into my most recent zombie experience, one I am still struggling with, I suddenly noticed that I’d stopped cooking. I’d let go of the joy of working with dough or watching expectantly as three pans of cake batter, adjusted for scale and altitude rise in perfect symmetry in the oven. It’d been weeks since the smell of pork smoking over apple wood had laced its way through our end of the neighborhood. Weeks since a braise or sauce percolated happily on my range.
So I made brownies. It was hard. It felt forced. I didn’t want brownies, didn’t want anything really but to go back to bed. Somewhere in the whisking and the melting of chocolate, though, a spark was reignited. That same night, I smoked a small beef roast. The sadness was still there but hints of simple joy had returned too.
Since then, there have been many milestones. Some involved food, others not. Writing this, in fact, feels like a milestone as I work to understand what has happened in my own heart, how I have changed and what this new life looks like. I have a San Diego vacation planned with my wife in a week from today and I find I am so excited about it, I can hardly contain myself. That’s a milestone too. I want to hear the waves, smell the salty air, feel hotel sheets on my skin, hold hands with my sweetie and relish in the simple joy of a perfectly made fish taco. Milestones, all.
I plan to leave my zombie out there on the beach. I grow weary of him and his gloom. There is too much to celebrate, too much to love, too much that has NOT been lost that deserves my time and my attention. I will cling to hope because my immense God inspires that in me. Frayed ends can be healed. Relationships can be restored. But whether they are or they are not, I will not be governed by the loss any longer. Life is too good. It’s time for me to get fully back to it.
As you read this, you may be going through your own personal disasters. You may have stumbled aimlessly on weak zombie legs to this post with no understanding, strength or ability to break free from the sorrow that has stolen the joy out of everything. If you are in that space, my hope is that these words have given you the strength to accept the love and help from an immense God who cherishes you and from the friends and family who, whether you realize it or not, have been following along with you, hurting with you.
Sorrow comes to us all and we are all zombies sooner or later. Let those around you that have already healed take your hand and encourage you. Resolve today to seek the small joys and micro miracles that surround you even now. They’re still there, I promise you.
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions, it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” – Ephesians 2:1-10 NIV