So often, we find ourselves standing in the space between joy and sorrow and feel bound to dance between the spaces, not wanting to be labeled guilty of one or the other. As we encounter others, we recognize our story in their story. In meeting a sorrowful servant assisting at a social service agency, we identify with their humility and the moments when we have willingly given of ourselves. In meeting with a joyful recovering addict journeying through life, we identify with the sobering reality that, at times, we have been self-indulgent and lost in the limitless addictions of life. Yet, in this dance, we feel shame in admitting to one or the other for fear of being seen for who we truly are, because in reality, we are both joy- and sorrow-filled. To put it theologically, we are not dancing between heaven and hell; heaven and hell are our dates.
To be human means to be imperfect. We cannot be gods, yet we are made from God. As we strive for the “more,” we continually accept the “less.” In my own imperfections, I have drank too much, smoked too much, said too much, and done too many shameful things. Yet, at the same time, I have prayed, served, loved, and cried over some of the most blessed and sacred people and places. I am greater than the worst thing I have ever done and worse than the greatest thing I have ever done. I am not wholly the imperfect man ladened with shameful embarrassments. I am not wholly the perfect man blessed with joyful moments. I am both, wholly shameful and joyful, wholly sinner and saint, wholly blessed and broken.
To emphasize this point more clearly, I offer two stories.
The first. Holding hands before dinner at the Healing Place, I met a man, who I will call Tim for the sake of anonymity. In our conversation, we discovered that we both graduated from high school the same year and knew many of the same people. He was from what I would consider a middle-class family like myself, and for the most part–just like my own story–steered clear of drugs and alcohol for most of his high school career. Upon entering college, he began joining clubs and attending parties in an effort to make friends. Week after week, as the “party scene” became more frequent, he found himself attending the parties and actively partaking in them. Consumed by the allure of the moment, Tim identified more frequently with his relationship with the bottom of a bottle than with his relationship with others. Over time, with the help of friends, family, and the starch reality of his situation, Tim found support at The Healing Place and is now a mentor in the same program. While this is an over simplified version of his story, it offers insight into his narrative, a narrative that, as it was unfolded to me, resonated with my own narrative.
Tim, like myself, grew up with a loving and supportive family. We were both generally successful and popular in high school and ended up at a good college. Over time, our desire to feel connected led us to join clubs and attend parties. While my road did not lead me along the same path as Tim’s, I know his road because I also went to bed some nights attempting to dust off that very same dirt. I, too, hoped to polish the same blemishes in an attempt to put the best foot forward, hoping no one would notice how thick the varnish was plastered. I, too, seek help in others and offer support to others in need. I, too, am Tim. While our roads may differ, our journey is the same, and in a joking banter shared between the two of us one evening, he jabbed, “Watch out, it might be your face I see when I walk into Detox.” Our shared humanity is more apparent than it may seem.
Another story. After a long week of playing with children, I found myself tired and hoping for a quiet lunch where I could collect my thoughts and recharge for the second half of the day. With a tray full of food in hand, I retired to an empty table in the corner of the St. Vincent de Paul open-hand kitchen. Helplessly cutting into a tough piece of meat with the dull side of a flimsy plastic fork, a group of gregarious men soon filled the remaining seats. My hope for solitude dissolved. As the group laughed and I shoveled macaroni and cheese into my mouth, they soon noticed my meager disposition and invited me into their cohort. Asking why I was here, I responded honestly as I swallowed, “I’m hungry.” Taking note of what they presumed my discomfort in the situation, they switched gears offering a litany of jokes to lighten the mood. After a few minutes, we soon became the loudest table in an already noisy room. As lunch continued and trays emptied, the conversation carried on, eventually returning to its original point of origin: my place at the table. Before I could even offer an answer, the men began sharing their stories and offered wisdom about life at St. Vincent de Paul. Without hesitation, they welcomed me into their lives and invited me into their gregarious gang.
So often, the thing we see in others is our own struggle. The quality that annoys us about another person is the same quality that we are fearful we embody. The wound we witness is the same wound we bear. The same band-aid we wish to share. The men at the open-hand kitchen recognized my lonely disposition because they recognized that in themselves, and therefore offered the support of laughter to recharge my spirit. As they unfolded their band-aid of laughter, I shared in the company of new friends and the need we all share to connect, for, after all, I was there, like them, because I was hungry.
The more people we encounter, the more stories that unfold into the fabric of our lives, and the more companions we meet along our journey, the more we recognize our shared humanness. As we encounter the addict, the doctor, the homeless, the priest, the student, and the teacher, we are meeting mirrors that reflect our own realities and windows that unveil our own potential. As we encounter the stranger, we encounter the self.
As the dance between joy and sorrow continues, both of these stories offer insight to the limitless possibilities of humanity when we no longer deny our brokenness but rather integrate both dance partners into our whole self. In this spirituality of imperfection, this dance with joy and sorrow, we discover what it means to hurt and what it means to be healed.1 By recognizing that we are blessed and broken people who are in need of mutual healing, in need of mutual communion, in need of mutual connection, and in need of knowing that we are both joy- and sorrow-filled, we recognize our whole humanity. In meeting more people, we recognize that we are simply meeting another person, another shared and sacred story. In recognizing the humanity (the imperfection) in ourselves and others, we recognize the divinity in the relationship, in the communion of the space. In doing so, we recognize each other’s divinity and the blessed and broken dance we weave each day.
1 Kurtz, Ernest, and Katherine Ketcham. The Spirituality of Imperfection: Story Telling and the Search for Meaning. New York: Bantam, 1992.