Before and After
A few weeks ago, I read a blog post written by Glennon Doyle Melton, well known to her fans as the driving force behind the website Momastery. She’s a best-selling author (whose book got the thumbs up from Brené Brown!), gave a Ted Talk, started her own non-profit and blogs with honesty about her life’s struggles and how hard she works to overcome them and to heal. She shares her truth to let others know they are not alone and to build community. She wants us to know we’re perfect just the way we are and that we are enough—messages I aspire to share and to believe, every day. (Check Momastery out here.)
Usually, I agree with everything Glennon has to say, which often surprises me, given the heightened “sap” factor of some of her subject matter. She writes about love and how we belong to one another and what a pleasure it is to serve, sentiments which, in less skilled hands, could make me roll my eyes. She writes about God, a lot, and on more than one occasion, I’ve imagined Glennon and God holding hands and skipping through a garden. This is weird, but what’s weirder is that this image makes me happy. Her combination of sharp humor and blunt truth makes it possible for me not only to enthusiastically read her blog but also to believe that maybe she is right, that love will—at some point—save the world.
When I read her July 8 post, though, something stuck in my craw.
Glennon’s having a tough time in her personal life, and she’s writing about it, putting it out there because that’s when we need each other the most, when life is at its hardest. Here’s part of the post I read,
“So often, people’s lives are presented to us as before and after stories. It’s always: “Look! My mess is fine because I’m ALL BETTER NOW! Ten steps to FREEDOM! Look at me, I’m FREE!” Sometimes it feels like it’s only okay to talk about your Cinderella story when you’re at the ball. When the tough, ugly parts are over. When everything is shiny and happily ever after, promise!!
But there is no ball. There is no point in which you stop working and just brush your long pretty hair and flit around, untouchable. Done. All Better. There is no before and after. Most honest folks with food/body/God/shame/etc issues will tell you that it’s just the same damn thing, over and over. That you just fall down seven times and get back up eight.” (Read the full text here.)
I read her words, nodded and thought, Right on. Life is no fairy tale. There is no happily ever after. The journey to becoming, the journey into BEING, is just that—a long fucking journey—a hike up or a tumble down the side of a mountain almost every damn day. Once in a while, if we’re capable of taking advantage of it, we stumble upon a grassy meadow, rest for a spell and tend our wounds, maybe feeling the warmth of the sun against our cheeks.
But then my eyes immediately returned to one particular sentence: There is no before and after. I know Glennon was writing about her personal journey, her growth, the ongoing nature of the work she has to do to reach her full potential, and to love herself unconditionally. I get it. I’m living the ongoing nature of my struggle to become a better person every day, too and it’s hard work. But here’s one thing I know for sure: There’s more than one kind of before and after.
All of us experience typical sorts of befores and afters—before and after the birth of a baby or the death of a parent. These occurrences are the stuff of life, emotional to be sure, yet standard. We know what to expect because we’ve been expecting it for thousands of years. But there’s another type of before and after, the type that happens when someone we love chooses not to have an after.
I learned this lesson the hard way a couple of years ago, and I learned it again in full force over the last month when the son of a woman I know jumped off a roof to his death; the next day, I learned about two more recent suicides that happened in families I know of. Most people don’t think about the decision to stay alive as a choice, we don’t consider the option to say, No, thanks to life, but some people do. These are the befores and afters that change everything.
Two years ago my thirteen-year-old daughter told me that she didn’t want to have an after, that she wanted to die. I hadn’t understood the depth of her suffering and that it was more than she could bear. Her life had become hell, the blackness of her depression insinuating itself into the synapses in her brain and spreading throughout her body. One day, her big blue eyes looked into my hazel ones and I saw desperation. I saw pain so profound that I don’t know how to name it. Her body shook from it. She couldn’t stand the idea of staying here for one more minute and saw no way out, no possible relief. There was only one cure. She begged me—begged me—to kill her. Please. You have to kill me, Mom. Get a gun. A knife. I don’t care. There’s something wrong with me.
The after is where I learned that part of my soul could die. The after is where I crumbled in terror at the prospect of life without her if she took matters into her own hands.
There most definitely is a before and after.
She didn’t take matters into her own hands, but ever since my daughter’s fight against severe depression, I’ve tried to make sense of why life is the way it is, why we work so hard and sometimes seem to get so little or nothing or worse in return. I don’t have an answer for why, but I do know that each time we fall down, get up, brush off and say, “Fuck. That hurt,” we’ve also said, Yes to life. We think we’re alone in this, but we are not. Each time we confront a nemesis—be it addiction, devastating mental or physical illness, whatever ails us—and say, I’m not going to let you keep me down, we feed the collective energy that surrounds us all. We learn how to help someone else find those same words and stay alive. Each time we wake up and get out of bed, whether we want to or not—even if we drink a gallon of wine or eat a family dinner for four by ourselves or cut our skin or pop some pills or smoke or gamble or shop—we say Yes and we make it more possible for someone else to say, Yes too.
I have no research on this topic, no irrefutable evidence to show you to prove the veracity of my hypothesis. As I started to write, I wondered how on earth I would be able to make my idea—that we each can contribute hope to this difficult world of ours—make sense. If you read my piece about the book Women, Food and God (full text here), you know I struggle with the concept of God, so to say that life is the way it is—good or bad—because it’s God’s will doesn’t work for me. So I set an intention and asked the universe for help to explain my point. I asked the universe for guidance on how to explain to you why we’re capable of impacting each other the way we are, and this is what I received in return (via Facebook!), a quote from The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell:
“There is a definition of God which has been repeated by many philosophers. God is an intelligible sphere—a sphere known to the mind, not to the senses—whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. And the center is right where you’re sitting. And the other one is right where I’m sitting. And each of us is a manifestation of that mystery. That’s a nice mythological realization that sort of gives you a sense of who and what you are.”
I love this quote (and this photo.) In and of itself a sphere is not inherently positive or negative, but I choose to focus on the positive, to see us as being encircled by goodness, grace and light. The sphere explains how we can influence others—how we are conjoined, or, if you prefer, held in His loving embrace.
Those families who lost loved ones need us. They’re left only with “what ifs” and “whys.” People struggling with mental illness or fighting addiction, around the world or right down the hallway, feel alone. We can’t stop trying to help them; we can’t stop working to feed the good energy; we can’t stop connecting. When we say, “It’s okay. I’m good enough and so are you. I’m here for you,” a tiny bit of our strength flows into the sphere. When we help save someone close to us, the energy helps someone else, and so on. This is how we fill the center of our sphere with hope. Eventually, the centers will expand and the sphere will fill and hope will be available to anyone who needs it.
“I don’t know where I found the strength, I just did,” a friend may respond down the line, when asked how he made it through his pain.
I know where—from all of us. Right now, during the before, little by little, we are filling up our spheres with hope and with love. That hope and love will flow out of ours and into his, so he will have the strength to say Yes to after.
Come to think of it, Glennon is right about this: Love will save the world.
That's my two cents. What's yours? Do you think we can fill up the world with love and hope?
this is your voice, Tracey
I love the idea of how putting out the positive deeds adds to the health of the world. It's like paying it forward. Help when you can, and someday, if you are the one in need, your prior actions lead to someone being there for you.
Kindness is a good choice. Even when, or especially when, there is no expectation the recipient will be kind back to you. It doesn't matter. Being kind and helpful is a way of approaching life. Put out goodness, and it spreads. To everyone.
Can we fill up the world with love and hope? I'm not that optimistic with all the hatred, insecurities, jealousies and violence, etc. that exist. But what's our alternative?
We need to set the example because we feel love and hope and joy in our hearts. We can only hope more and more people will get on the same bandwagon!
Great post, Tracey!
Thank you Wendy!
You are certainly right Susan. There is so much negative out there combating the positive. It feels insurmountable at times, like we're Atlas with the weight of the world on our shoulders and simultaneously rolling boulders up mountains. That's why it is so important to notice and pay attention the the little things, to carry kindness with us and to remember to practice gratitude…every little bit counts! Thanks for reading and commenting.
Ever since we became Facebook friends (and cousins by marriage before that) I have been continually amazed by your courage in speaking out about mental health issues. So let me take a moment here and now to thank you sincerely. Your efforts will no doubt help others as they have helped me.
I just read your last blog post and I have to say, in my near lifelong struggle with depression, I have never found my voice the way you have. Yes, social stigma has something to do with that, but for me, talking about it has never made me feel any better. Only more vulnerable and isolated because unless you suffer from depression, it's very difficult to comprehend how profound, complex and relentless it can be.
I completely agree with your thesis of contributing joy and positivity to the world as a force for healing. They do make everything better! Every day I live with a high degree of awareness of how my personal decision to be kind, patient and respectful with everyone I meet makes my corner of existence better for me and everyone else. This idea is not my struggle.
My struggle comes from the concept of what I call I incurable suffering. Two years ago, my sister-in-law, Lauralyn committed suicide because her mental suffering felt incurable to her. And frankly, it felt that way to me, too. Despite my best efforts at being her loving friend, medications, hospitalizations, therapists, support from other family and friends, she was hounded 24/7 by relentless anguish and unbearable pain. She chose to end her life with pills and alcohol. I was left to deal with the coroner, police and planning her funeral. Her husband, my brother, also suffers from mental illness and was not able to help her.
Two weeks to the day after she died, my sister Mary died in front of me and my kids from a brain aneurysm. Ten days after that, a student at my daughter's school jumped off the roof of the school and died. Five days after that, my best friend's nephew was found in the Santa Monica mountains dead from an intentional drug overdose. He had been there for three weeks before they found his body. He had a long history of mental illness and simply could not suffer any more.
As you might imagine, these events changed me forever and have left me with my own version of incurable suffering. They made me question so many things!
If we are held in the sphere of love that is God, then why doesn't he/she/it intervene in the endless and near indescribable suffering of humanity? I'm talking about those whose suffering is, in fact, incurable. How precious is life if all you know is pain? And why do we insist these people stay here with us and choose life if that means they will only know agonized suffering?
Speaking as someone whose efforts at curing my depression have failed, these questions haunts me. Over the last 30 years I have tried more anti-depressants than I can remember, consulted six doctors, three psychiatrists, five psychotherapists, three acupuncturists/doctors of Eastern medicine, three nutritionists, became a certified yoga instructor and have done every exercise program out there, and STILL, my depression persists.
Sometimes, it is much better, but never for long. In my mind's eye, I see myself attached to a very long bungee cord. One end is depression, the other encircles my waist. With tremendous daily effort, I can walk far from the depression. But invisible triggers unexpectedly snap me back with a violence and speed I can rarely predict. The triggers are numerous and some make no sense whatsoever. They also change unexpectedly like some bizarre, incomprehensible algorithm.
All of which gives me empathy and compassion for those who choose suicide. And please be clear, I am NOT contemplating this for myself. I am only saying that I understand how some people loose hope and the will to live.
The other side of this coin is the burning anger and sense of betrayal I have for the god-awful mess Lauralyn's suicide left in its wake. It was like someone took a flamethrower to my family. The aftermath was was as ugly as it was complicated and wretched.
This is some complicated stuff! And my objective at this point is to seek out small moments of respite and light. That is all. Because I know there are no answers to the big questions I pose. Only meaningful connection with fellow seekers of healing and peace like you.
This is a wonderful piece. It is completely in your voice. I hear you speaking when I read it.
I agree, there are a million before and afters, even in one day. You have to accept your victories. I'm so proud of how you are helping others. I love you. Hearing someone say I love you can make your day, and yes I believe it will save the world, hate is what is destroying it.
Dearest Evelyn–I cannot thank you enough for your courageous comment here. I have printed it out and will be taking it with me tomorrow so I can contemplate a thoughtful response. You have said many important things from a perspective that I can only attempt to understand. Thank you so much. More soon. Love to you and the family…
Thank you so much Jillian for reading and for your comments…I love you too and I agree. Hate doesn't only bring down the haters, but love can prevail. xoxo
In my humble opinion, you are a fantastic writer !!
Very obvious you spent a lot of time thinking about and then writing "Before and After" piece.
Much to think about. Here's what really resonated with me:
"Those families who lost loved ones need us. They’re left only with “what ifs” and “whys.” People struggling with mental illness or fighting addiction, around the world or right down the hallway, feel alone. We can’t stop trying to help them; we can’t stop working to feed the good energy; we can’t stop connecting. When we say, “It’s okay. I’m good enough and so are you. I’m here for you,” a tiny bit of our strength flows into the sphere. When we help save someone close to us, the energy helps someone else, and so on. This is how we fill the center of our sphere with hope. Eventually, the centers will expand and the sphere will fill and hope will be available to anyone who needs it."
I've come to say, "There is no 'Before' and 'After.' There is 'Before.' And there is Now." Because what happens to create the line of demarcation between the two is very clear. Before the accident. Before I got married. Before Before Before.
But after…well, that's harder. Because After is not a clear line. After is not an event. We live in After. It's present tense. After is every single day – be it of joy, or be it one in which sorrow lingers. Most of our After is a weird mix of both. But we indeed have to keep on keeping on, as the old saying says, and mix it up into our own stew called life.
Here's the trick, I think. Or one trick. Look for the good. Even if you're not a religious-y person, you might agree with this little bit from the Psalms: "Seek peace and pursue it." I love those verbs. Peace doesn't just arrive at our doorstep. We have to seek it out. Pursue it. Go after the things that bring us to a place of peace. Or try. You know the moment when you capture peace, and it can be elusive and short lived. But the moments of peace, or contentment, of gratitude…those can indeed be a kind of fuel that keeps us driving forward….along the road that is After.
Jillian, your comment brought tears of gratitude to my eyes. Thank you for your compassion.
Thank you so much Richard, for taking the time to read and to comment!
Thank you very much Lynn for your comments. I think we agree. To me After = Now. I am very present minded and agree with you 100%. After is every single day. After is right now. After is every day that comes after the before. It is now. To me, it is a clear line…it is the line that extends every day from the minute when before stopped. But either way, now is now to be sure. I couldn't agree more that we have to look for the good. I think that's the point of this piece. I'm a huge Brene Brown fan, so my lingo is wholehearted living. That's what I seek to find every single day–in the now, because that's the only place we can find it. Not yesterday and not tomorrow. right now and only right now. Peace doesn't arrive at our doorstop and like gratitude it is a verb, not a noun. Thanks for your comment.