There are moments in life that tend to define us. Wrenching discontinuities happen to us after which everything changes — we see everything as “before” and “after” that one moment. Part of the pain of life is that you can have that “before and after” moment and go through the grief and upheaval it brings while all those around you are cruising along in their own little lives of continuity. True empathy is as difficult as it is rare in our fast-paced society.
It’s like when you walk up to a mom-n-pop business you visit infrequently, maybe a florist or a little curio shop you stop by every other month or so to get a little appreciative something for a friend, and you see the handwritten sign in the glass door regretting to inform you that the business has closed and thanking you for your patronage. You might feel a vague sense of loss, like one of the niceties of your daily life is suddenly gone, but you realize you are standing inside the grief of someone’s “after.”
You can imagine the very instant, maybe late at night over tears and stacks of bills, that someone, the wife perhaps, realizes “It’s over.” You can only imagine the pain of dreams dashed, the shame of failure, the “what if’s”. You feel only a muted sense of that loss if you can feel it at all. You might, if you’re trying to be thoughtful, struggle to connect with the pain of an unknown person’s acute anguish, but it’s a very hard thing to do. Especially if you’re not in practice.
I remember standing in my kitchen holding my keys trying to do just that last September on the 11th as I was watching the TV coverage of the WTC disaster. I remember the very moment I realized that the towers were going to completely collapse. I tried to connect with the anguish of all of those before and after moments being created that morning in New York, but I was just numb and in shock.
Each person in those towers had to have a moment where they knew for certain, “It’s over.” I cannot imagine facing the personal finality of such a moment. I cannot imagine being in the family of someone facing such a moment. Any empathy I could muster standing there crying in front of the TV felt like nothing. I felt helpless, useless, futile.
Sometimes someone else’s “before and after” moment becomes one for you too. This Wednesday we as a nation try to grapple with what the “after” part means to us as a nation and to each of us individually. It is the mystery of Jesus’ cross that every “after” is another “before” being born. It’s what we do with the “after” that counts.
So this Wednesday I’m going on a media fast. I’m not blogging. And I will try to spend an hour in meditation on the transforming pain of the “befores and afters” we all face and the particular defining moment our country is facing. I invite you to join me, if only to stengthen the collective voice we send up to God in the anguish of our collective “after.”