Keeping the Hope Alive through Trauma

The following series of essays have been written while teaching ESL classes to adult students from all corners of the world (this writing exercise began in late January, and continues to be a part of my classes). Each morning, I required the first class – which was what inspired this project – to answer one of two questions. At first, I was the one to ask the questions, but I quickly turned it over to the students. Their questions ranged from simple, everyday things, like “Why are you studying English?” to complex philosophical questions, such as “What are the limits to freedom?” The class would write for an hour, and I would join them. We would listen to the Gypsy Kings, U2, Coldplay, Tango, and much more. Once we were through, we would read our responses aloud, and then have a conversation about each person’s analysis. It was humbling to hear from people from Saudi Arabia, Korea, Thailand, Turkey, and elsewhere. All our answers were motivated by a desire to convey an honest, open response, and everyone had an earnest desire to share with the others. A mentioned already, I continue to carry out this exercise with my new classes. It is a thrilling experience, and when I am away from the classroom during the weekend, all I can think about is this: “I can’t wait to be back at work on Monday, so that I can write with all of my students, and then share!”

No one who lights a lamp hides it away or places it [under a bushel basket], but on a lampstand so that those who enter might see the light. The lamp of the body is your eye. When your eye is sound, then your whole body is filled with light, but when it is bad, then your body is in darkness. Take care, then, that the light in you not become darkness. If your whole body is full of light, and no part of it is in darkness, then it will be as full of light as a lamp illuminating you with its brightness.
—Luke 12: 33 – 35

She used to believe that total self-sacrifice and the absolute commitment to another person was the right way to live. She did her best every day to hold up others, and as a result, she stopped tending to her own needs. She loved people so much, but she began losing herself. Day by day, it worsened. It was subtle, so it was hard for her to truly perceive the self-destructive path that she had determined—for complicated reasons—to traverse. Even worse, the person she tried to care for the most didn’t even see how much effort she put into tending to him. This lack of attention, and willful ignorance, made her very frustrated. In attempting to win his affection, she even became aggressive and had angry outbursts. These types of reactions were befuddling, and the more often they occurred, the further she got away from her true identity. Although he didn’t deserve her love, she clung hard to the idea that she needed to simply care for him even more, at the expense of everything else. As the path became bloodier, and her mind and body more battered, she had lost almost everything. Any semblance of self-respect and dignity were nearly eviscerated. She lost the world, and all of its loving inhabitants. Even though she loved all people deeply – as already mentioned – she found it increasingly difficult to do things for them, because she was devoting all of her energy and time to a person who did not notice her care. Sadly, this person couldn’t love himself properly, so her efforts to tend to him made him even sicker. She found herself trapped in bed a lot, too. Her life, once wide open and filled with endless possibilities, became enclosed. A small room became her only world – it smelled of animal urine and feces, and was infested constantly with tiny ants (they crawled all over her bed and her pillows), spiders (they clung to the corners of the poorly repainted room), and large roaches (they lived in the floorboards and registers). The only gifts she received were actually for him, from another woman. She foolishly thought that the plants this woman sent to her were a gesture of goodwill. Unfortunately, she would later learn that that was not the case. In any event, she thought that, since the person she cared for the most was there by her side, she should be content. So, even though she was trapped in this room, which she later realized was an actual prison (the only place of her own was her car, where she would often go to cry and ask God for help), she told herself that she should be grateful.

The man also told her the same. One day, when she was inconsolable, he said to her, “You should be grateful to be here. If you weren’t here, you wouldn’t have a place to live.”

This remark hit her hard, and the guilt was nearly unbearable, just like the living situation.

Besides, all she wanted to do was care for this one person, a person to whom she’d agreed to devote her entire life. Selfishness—the way he ultimately acted, not the mention the secrecy and betrayal occurring—would eventually lead to a better life, she thought. Yet, the more she cared for him, the worse her life became. Once filled with bright colors, good smells, and lovely sounds, the world—the good world, that is—disappeared from her view. Her new world was drenched in black rain and onyx-colored clouds. One day, those clouds nearly killed her and this man, when they began to swirl and became a tornadic vortex. Luckily, the tornado skipped over the dilapidated home, saving both her and the unloving man.

Eventually, the world became totally black. Luckily, she still had a small lamp that cast a bit of light into the blackness. She left this light on. It was a reminder of the good world that had all but disappeared.

Where had it gone? She often wondered. Even though the world had become black, she continued to care for this man, but things just continued to go downhill. Even worse, the world wasn’t just black, but it had become terrifyingly viscous. All the darkness stuck like greasy oil to things around her and to her body.

One day, she discovered that this man had tried to extinguish the light from her lamp while she’d been away on a long trip. (Incidentally, she’d take trips to the old places that used to make her happy – but once the trips were over, she’d return to this person and the syrupy, ever-expanding stain of blackness). After she discovered that he had tried to kill the light from the small lamp, after she’d listened in on an intimate conversation he was having with another woman, she asked him with great earnestness, “Why did you do that? Why would you do that, especially since I was gone, and wouldn’t have had a choice in the matter?”

“I don’t know,” he replied.

“Well, why couldn’t you have called and just asked me, told me that you wanted to extinguish my little light? I wouldn’t have minded. All you needed to do was pick up the phone and call. That’s it.”

“I didn’t think to call, because I’m very busy, and I am busy all the time.”

“I know! That’s why I am here for you, or trying to be, because I know that you’re really busy.”

He was flummoxed, and his face reddened.

“I need . . . I have needs, too!” he exclaimed.

“What are your needs, sweetheart? I can’t tend to your needs, unless you tell me what you want. What do you want? I only want to care for you,” she said, tearfully.

He walked away, very far away. Eventually, he would walk so far away, across the entire land in which they lived, that she could no longer find him. Even worse, he told her, “I don’t want you to find me. Goodbye.”

So the person she cared for most, the person she’d sacrificed everything for, was gone, gone, gone. Just like that. And now, she was left alone, almost entirely broken, lost, and hopeless. Once he had disappeared from sight and she no longer even heard a faint voice on the telephone, she rushed to her little lamp and cried out, “Oh, God! Why can’t I care for him? I devoted my life to him!”

Somewhere, ever so faintly, she heard the answer: “You must tend to your garden before growing flowers, plants, and vegetables somewhere else. If you don’t care for your own garden, and then plant things in a foreign place, you won’t know that the earth outside of your own spot could be poisoned. This is why we must plant, water, feed and finally harvest our own garden first.”

At first she couldn’t understand God’s word, and she quickly hung up the phone on him. All she could do was cry. And that she did – she cried and cried and cried. In fact, it would’ve taken centuries for her to realize what God meant, and she would have had to watch thousands of hummingbirds zigzag across a huge sky before coming to a complete understanding of those words. For the time being, she could only look at the faint light from the lamp, the little lamp that the man had nearly extinguished. But as she sat quietly, watching the small flame flicker, something subtle happened. She couldn’t quite see it yet, at least not clearly, just like she had great difficulty appreciating the joy emanating from the cheerful, busy hummingbirds.

Nevertheless, she began to notice something somewhat hidden deep within the flame, at the heart of the flame. It was there she could see, at the center of the flame, rich flecks of gold. Eventually, she would do something with these flecks of gold, but for the time being, she had to sit, listen, and watch the hummingbirds, and feel all of the pain.

—Cryn Johanssen

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