The Great Family of the Heavy-Hearted


wheelchairI read about a young man paralyzed in a freak accident. The story gave a glimpse of his grief and sorrow. It’s been just a year since his accident. The terrible prospect of permanent disability is beginning to sink in and it’s breaking his heart. He told the reporter, “It’s really, really hard.” And so it is. Life with catastrophic disability is a hard journey. I know, I’ve lived with degenerative multiple sclerosis for 30 years.

At the deepest point of grieving, life can seem like an endless series of disappointments, accommodations and compromises, lost opportunities, and inexpressible sorrow. One can feel totally alone, even in a crowded room.

Disability is a lonesome journey. As the old song says, It’s not that friends are unkind — just hard to find. Then there are those dreaded moments at the end of each evening and one must make his way to the terror of the bedroom. It’s in there that the darkness awaits to engulf a grieving person in fitful sleep-wake torture. A chorus of despair, self-doubts and fear whisper, “You are alone. Nobody understands.”

It is there, in the middle of an endless night, lying wide awake staring into darkness, that a bed can become a rack. The horrible truth of life’s misfortune can seem too great to bear. A human soul lays open like a gaping wound. Whimpers break into sobs of raw, pulsating grief.

Grievers beware! Emotions are unreliable, they are apt to intensify the feeling of isolation out of all proportion. Tears obscure vision and grief distorts perceptions of reality.

There is no such thing as an endless night. It only seems that way. The longest night must eventually give way to dawn. It is only fear and grief that tell us otherwise. Even the pitch black of arctic winter days will, in due course, transform into a peculiar summer midnight sun.

Many people with profound disabilities have risen above their predicaments and abyss of intense grief to incredible spiritual heights and human achievements.

Perhaps the most famous example is Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827). Most of his vast contributions to the world of music were written in either partial or complete deafness.

George Frederic Handel (1685-1759) suffered from manic depression. His beloved Messiah was written at the end of a depressive bout.

John Milton (1608-74) was blind when he wrote Paradise Lost (1667). Paradise Lost is generally considered to be the greatest epic in the English language. (Remember that John Milton also wrote Paradise Regained.)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was an “invalid and a recluse” to use the phrasing of one biographer. There was nothing invalid about her – her gift for lyric poetry is with us to this day.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was physically crippled from polio at the age of 39, yet as America’s 32nd president he led an entire nation through most of the Great Depression and Second World War.

Grief, sorrow and fear are not unique to people with disabilities: they are common to the human experience. Everybody is acquainted with sorrow. Everyone is afraid.

The “No Fear” T-shirt that was so fashionable a number of years ago was not true. With the exception of babies and small children, everyone has fears from the past and fears of the future.

Most people are afraid of serious self-examination lest they come face to face with inner demons, character flaws and emotional handicaps. They might be challenged to go through a difficult process of change. Some people fear being forgotten while others fear being remembered.

We are afraid of committing ourselves wholly to love yet afraid of being unloved. Many people are afraid of committing themselves to lives with purpose — yet despise those who do.

Some people are afraid of dying outside God’s grace yet they are afraid to truly live within it. We may be afraid of being seen as extreme yet afraid to venture outside mediocrity.

Helen Keller (1880-1968) went deaf and blind before she was two years old. In an era when society restricted the lives of people with disabilities (not to mention women), Keller overcame monumental obstacles to rise to international stature advocating world peace, women’s suffrage, human dignity and civil rights for people with disabilities. She said:

“When it seems that our sorrow is too great to be borne, let us think of the great family of the heavy-hearted into which our grief has given us entrance. Inevitably, we feel about us their arms, their sympathy and their understanding.”

That’s my point. All humanity longs for affinity and the understanding of others. All humanity is longing for belonging. The young man grieving his paralysis may not yet know it but his grief has given him entrance into the “great family of the heavy-hearted.” Those of us who are full-fledged members of that “great family” have the Passion and cross of Christ as our chief example and inspiration.

It is to Christ we can ultimately turn with the knowledge his sufferings dwarfed all human pain and sorrows. There is no grief Jesus does not understand. Christ is the ultimate affirmation. He is the ultimate over-comer. He can change us, if we allow it, from victims to victors.


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