Sunday, November 20, 2011

This Holiday I'm Thankful for Family.. and Grace

I watched a documentary the other day, "Happy" A filmmaker's story of how we achieve happiness, what it means to be happy, and who are the happiest people alive. There was one particular piece of the movie that stuck out to me. A woman shared her story of how through tragedy she found light and happiness. When she was a teen and throughout her twenties, she was this very beautiful woman. She married and had children and spent her days being a super mom. She talked about how busy and demanding she allowed her life to be. I think she felt she was on show for the world to see. The beautiful wonderful perfect wife and mother. One day she was run over by a truck and her face was smashed into a dirt road. Her beauty was completely ripped away.. or so she thought. The images that followed were horrible. She had no nose, no lips, and her cheeks were completely ripped open. Awful. Her accident didn't only affect her physically. She suffered from flashbacks of being sexually abused by her father as a child. For years she hid her past behind her beauty and her determination to be a super wife and mother. But now she was forced to face the ugliness in her own life. She was helpless.. hopeless.. and her husband left her. Awful. How do you live life when everything is taken away from you? She didn't know and so she thought seriously about suicide. "After my children are grown and don't need me, then I'll kill myself" That was her plan. But you see, in the six months proceeding her decision to take her own life she realized that despite her physical appearance from the accident and despite her burdened heart from her abuse, she was still needed and she was still a super mom. Her children didn't need her because she was beautiful or because she was such a great multitasker.. they needed her because she was their mom. Her story had a happy ending. She found purpose to live, fulfillment in her life, and she met a new man who loved her exactly for who she was. She said she found happiness for the first time.

Some might say.. well everything happens for a reason. And in this particular story I'm sure that would be a common reaction, but I disagree. One interview with a psychologist in this documentary said, "You can't have pleasure without pain" You can't know happiness or reach contentment without knowing loss or suffering. But I don't think that means we have to face significant tragedy in order to pursue a life of happiness. But when we do face hardship if we allow ourselves to, we can find joy and purpose in midst of life's hardest situations. I can relate to this woman. I can relate to her preaccident life of work work work, do everything perfect, don't mess up, be everything to everyone... and then suddenly life smashes your face in and you have to really stop and see ugliness for the first time.

Maybe you know and maybe you don't, but my senior year of college I lost my little brother. Tomorrow, November 22, is Christopher's 23 birthday and on December 9 of this year it will be three years since he was killed. I've been thinking a lot about him lately, who he was, what his life meant, what our relationship was and what it wasn't. And then I've been thinking of his laugh. He had a very joyful laugh.. probably the best one I've ever heard. I never told him that nor did I ever appreciate it while he was alive. Christopher and I didn't have much of a relationship. He was a troubled soul and I never could allow myself to have patience or grace with him.. why couldn't he find happiness? Because of this bitterness towards him I rarely found happiness myself. I just decided that I had to compensate for his life by always being on top of my own game and doing as much as humanly possible.

When Christopher died I didn't know how life would continue on. How could someone be in my life for 20 years and then poof they're gone? What do you do with that? I found it hard to even remember that I had a little brother, that I spent the first part of life with him. But like the woman in the accident I found out that my work ethic or my talents weren't going to bring me happiness and didn't define who I was. Its been a long road, but I'm finding more happiness and contentment in life then I could have imagined. A lot of it has come from Christopher's story in my life. I've learned to slow down, appreciate and pursue relationships, accept grace, and pursue peace.

What got me thinking when I saw this documentary the other day was one man's testimony of how he found happiness. He started volunteering at a shelter called the Home of the Dying founded by Mother Teresa. He said he found happiness in carrying these men's burdens. He fed them, helped them move about, held their hand. That's what gave his life purpose. To carry another's burden. I think all too often we associate happiness with only sunny days and lots of money. But this picture of an old building full of sick and handicapped men being carried and fed by strong and healthy men was one of the most beautiful scenes I've ever watched. And in that I understood finally the happiness of being a part of a community. It's about carrying each other's burdens. It's about grace, patience, and love unconditional. Christopher's death, though tragic and hard to accept, has taught me grace, patience, and to love without conditions. It showed me that we're not promised perfect lives and everyone is on their own path, but in community and through grace and acceptance we can help each other find happiness. Not everything happens for a reason..

When I think about Christopher and I think of the life I have in my own hands I realize how happy I am for all that has come about. Again.. not everything happens for a reason.. I didn't need to lose a sibling.. But the above has happened and I am going to spend this holiday season and everyday from here on out in happiness, celebrating the wonderful family and friends I've been blessed with. I want to practice grace like I've been shown by those who choose to be in my life and like the grace Jesus showed us all when he came to carry our burdens. When he loved us unconditionally. I want to carry burdens of people I love so much and have patience as they pursue their own sense of happiness.

I do mourn the idea that in twenty years from now.. when we're much older.. my siblings and I will get together on the holidays (hopefully) with our new families and reflect on our younger years, but Christopher won't physically be there. I have a picture in my mind of what that will be like and I wish a lot that Christopher will be there. But he won't. But I'm still a sister to my other siblings. Just because tragedy happens doesn't mean we stop living. The woman in the truck accident was still a wonderful needed mother. And I can still be a big sister.

My happiness truly comes from the family I have. Both the family I'm
born into and the family I've found in my travels. And I'm thankful for my students for helping me to find happiness in teaching. I'm thankful for my friends who have helped me find happiness in who I am, and what I dream of doing with my life. And as I think of Christopher I find happiness in the memory of his laugh. I heard lyrics of a song the other night that said mourning is love. And this year I think I'm finally able to mourn and love Christopher and his life.

My favorite picture of Christopher Joel