It all started with a question:
“Mom,” my 5-year-old asked, “how long are umbilical chords?”
I showed him with my hands and he went silent. Then he said, “Couldn’t that be long enough to wrap around a baby?”
“Yes,” I said. “It is.”
“Well does that happen?”
“Yes. It does sometimes.”
“And then what?”
“Most of the time nothing. It’s normal for that to happen.”
“But what about the other times?”
(Ah, son. You are my boy.)
“Sometimes it can go around a baby’s neck and make it so blood can’t flow to the baby’s brain.”
“And then what?”
I spoke gently. “Sometimes babies die when that happens.”
“Die?…” His voice trailed off. “They die before they’re even born?…”
His chin began to quiver.
“I think that’s very sad,” he said.
“It is, love. It’s very sad.”
He laid his head on my lap and wept for a long while. I joined him a little bit, too.
The next day both kids and I were a-buzz with a new stack of books from the library. We made it through one, I think, before Dr. Seuss’s Lorax was placed in my hands. I hadn’t read this one before, but soon learned it’s the story of a businessman whose lust for money destroys an entire ecosystem – trees chopped down for their soft, leafy tops, waters filled with factory sludge, surviving animals mournfully migrating in search of food.
It finishes with a teensy drop of hope – the last literal seed of the trees that were destroyed, held by an altar inscribed with one word: Unless.
You might guess my son’s next question.
“Does this actually happen, Mom? Like for real?”
“Yes, love. It does.”
“People do this to our earth?”
He looked out beyond our windows to the green on the hills nearby. And he wept.
(Lest you wonder, there was much discussion about this book and the still-birth questions the night before. We cry, but we process things verbally, too.)
So the next day, when one of our chickens disappeared, Eli’s heavy heart sunk through the floor.
“WHAT IF SHE’S LOST?” he panicked. “What if she gets cold tonight? She always sleeps next to Scritchy. Scritchy is going to be SO SAD to not have Scratchy next to her tonight. Mom, what if another animal tries to EAT her?”
The chickens are cooped up every night for warmth and protection, so all of us knew Eli’s fears could come true.
Eli cried himself to sleep that night, holding on to the tiniest, spider thread of hope that maybe – just maybe – Scritchy would find her way home.
I spent the next while combing through the yard again and my husband through the neighborhood, hoping for some lifting of the weight that Eli’s heart had come to bear.
“If Scritchy comes back, wonderful,” my husband concluded after our unsuccessful search. “But if she doesn’t, maybe that’s good, too. There ARE huge losses in life, and maybe it’s a mercy for the kids to be able to process some of them together like this, in safety, and at a time when they can learn to let the tears flow.”
Yes, I thought reluctantly. That’s right.
But in the morning, when Scritchy was calling on the outside of the coop’s closed door, half-crazed with hunger but every bit as well as all the days we’ve known her, something dove deep into my heart, past the joy and celebration, to a place where I hold my life’s greatest gold.
Life IS suffering, I thought. But that’s not the whole.
And that, right there, is one of the biggest boons to trust that I know.
Trust and fear start with innocent questions always, don’t they? How old are people when they die? Will I get what I really want? Is this owie going to get better?
And as we grow, the questions multiply. Will I ever find a mate? Can I ever land a job? Can I move past my blocks? Will my kids turn out alright? If I show you who I really am, will you still love me?…
We ask our questions and watch for life’s answers and since life really has a lot of suffering in it – hands down – we conclude in some private, inner place that expecting the suffering, assuming it’s most of what there is, is a lot safer and less disappointing than any other choice.
We wear this conclusion on our sleeves, sometimes, consciously checking ourselves when joy gets too close or big or hope grows too robust. We pull out a “See? I knew it would happen” when things go wrong.
But maybe just as often we wear it underneath a layer of optimism. A mask of, “Life is GOOD!” or “Things will be alright!” that sometimes feels to those around us like a threat, or an impenetrable shield they can’t reach or hold or hug our tender hearts through.
But here’s the thing. Those innocent, spontaneous questions that start our fear-cycles rolling in the first place? They can take us down a different road.
They can take us to Scratchy coming home.
And in light of that return (and all of your own equivalents), they can call into question the deep-down assumption that this new challenge that you’re facing or that new calamity or that other imminent change or likely loss – that any or all of it – will end or unfold in a way that’s inevitably tragic.
Tending trust, for me, is a lot about asking new questions in the face of life’s up-and-down game. Questions that sometimes feel like spider threads of hope in the face of sure awfulness. Questions that sound less like, How can I cope when things inevitably go poorly? and more like, What if this (this life, this tragedy, this unexpected fork in life’s road) unfolds into more beauty, more wonder, and more of what we really want than I could hope to imagine?
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Sometimes tragedy really does strike, and I want to honor that deeply and even devote the next whole article – another lesson learned from a chicken – to exploring what trust tending means in the midst of great suffering.
In the meantime, though, if you’d like to read more articles related to the angle explored by this one, here are a few from past months: