how to survive a shipwreck excerpt: survivor's guilt (hold on, let go)

“To let go is to lose your foothold temporarily.  Not to let go, is to lose your foothold forever.”

—Soren Kierkegaard

“Even as I hold you, I am letting you go.”

—Alice Walker

            When you are in a shipwreck, the first response is always to grasp desperately for someone or something to hold onto.  It is not calculated, but instinctive—a mad, almost flailing attempt to find something to grip.  There may be little left to cling to, but there has to be at least some kind of holding on—even if it is just a tacit agreement within yourself to simply keep on living.  In this case, it is not a holding on is not a metaphor or an abstraction.  It is a way of finding a reason, however strong or flimsy it might be, to survive. 

            Something inside of you wants this, even when you otherwise are altogether uncertain as to whether or not you consciously want to survive.  That part of you, that kicks and screams to still be here, is your soul.  The soul does not make a home, on the surface of things, so it has largely stayed out of sight, almost in hiding, the bowed head and quiet eyes of a nun in a convent.  You can cover up the soul under layers of duty and obligation—you can muzzle it—making only an occasional appearance in moments of joy or of ecstasy, before slinking back into the bottom of you, sleeping through her days—a creature of the shadows. 

            Until the shipwreck, when the soul reasserts itself.  You know it is there, because you can hear it scream, and because you cam feel it bleed.  You almost didn’t notice it at all, until you heard the sound of what seemed like your soul, dying.  And yet precisely because the soul bears the fingerprints of The Spirit, it does not need any reasons, to go on—it was no creature of reason, to begin with.  It needs no logic to fight back; it needs no will, in order to survive.  When everything else in and around you is dead or dying, the soul will yet not go quietly.  Your soul is not dead yet, just because it decided not to be; it claws its way back up through all the grief, without your consent, like some kind of animal. 

Survivor’s guilt

          “But why am I still here at all?” I hear you ask, somewhere in the wind between us.  The first thing overboard when your ship wrecked, were all the reasons you ever had for sailing.  And when the life you knew is a life you know no longer, and the ship that took you on a thousand adventures before can no longer even keep you afloat, you are right to wonder if there is anything left worth having.  

            There used to be so many things, that we could not live without!  How could you live, without this person?  How could you live, without this job?  How could you live, without this relationship?  How could you live, without this house?  How could you live, without your dignity?  How could you live, without your good reputation?  And then death came to someone you loved, or you lost the job, or you sabotaged the relationship or felt your love sabotaged you, or you suffered public humiliation, or you lost your all-important sense of honor.  And you thought you really would die. 

            There was a part of you, maybe even a really large part of you, that really did.  There are some losses, that in their way mark you forever, and some things you never get over.  And because you loved this person, or this life and career you built, or valued your dignity, when the bow broke, everything in you screamed.  While the sails were ripping and the boards splitting, you heard the sound of your spirit dying.  The life you had was over.  But to your own shame, you were not over, as much as you may have wanted to be.  Maybe like a proud samurai, it seemed the best thing you could do on the other side of the shipwreck was to fall on your own sword, and stage a protest against anything that you once found beautiful.  Because you were so sad.  Because you were so guilty.  Because you were so scared, that in the loss of something outside yourself, that you lost your own heart to the sea’s black rage. 

            And then came what might be the worse discovery: you didn’t die, not really.  You walked away from the accident, whether you think you or God or the devil or the fates are somehow responsible for it.  You knew that you would die, and whole chunks of you did, still tangled in the debris scattering the shore.  But not YOU.  Not all of you, anyhow.  Can you remember the first time after the funeral, after you could not bear to eat or drink, that the pangs of hunger overwhelmed you?  Did you feel incredulous at yourself, at the animal part of you, that still wanted food after such a thing?  What about when there was a particular taste you wanted, because it was a taste that on some level you actually desired?  However much fog, however much sorrow, however much grief—the experience of loss may have altered your taste buds forever.  But it hardly killed them.

            You watched dreams you cradled in your arms with the strength of all your tenderness descend into the sea.  All that animated you, all that moved you before, could move you forward in the world no longer.  The water filled your mouth and your nostrils, and you choked at the taste of them.  But when the grief or the guilt or the loss recedes into the night, and your soul sets sail again, you still dream—despite yourself.  There is still a kind of music that you will here, that stirs within you an unspeakable longing.  There is still an ache, not just for all that you lost, but to see and know and be seen and known still, to explore and imagine and create.  However much the longing for the past may assault your senses, it is not the only longing that remains.  There is still a part of you, that wants to make love, to feel yourself somehow connected.  There is still a part of you that yearns, for something outside yourself.  You felt yourself out to sea, and yet some kind of desire, for something or another, bears you along, and you find yourself still somehow here—almost against your own wishes.  And even in the moments when anything that felt like conscious desire went out with the tide, there is still some kind of near morbid curiosity, of how your life and story are going to turn out yet—even if you are lost enough to only behold what’s left of your life as a kind of bystander. 

           Somewhere between your body’s animal refusal to go down quietly, your mind’s refusal to stop imagining and your heart’s refusal to stop dreaming, in the tangled mess of synapses and memories and impulses, there lies God.  In whatever remains in you that wants to create, to make, to birth something new, in whatever corner of that longs for some kind of resurrection on the other side of death, something divine quietly snaps, fires, clicks, flickers.  This is the Spirit of God, lurking in your own broken spirit. 

           You may find that your grief and loss at the world you once knew may seem endless.  And yet there are possibilities and potentialities within you, that are more endless still.  What is this unseen force that carries you forward despite yourself?  Why can you not seem to choke, always and forever, your own irrational yearning, this buried but still breathing hope for more?

            This ache is God’s fingerprint.  The stirring to create, to love, to live, to give of yourself when there is no self left to give—this comes from the Spirit.  You were created in the image of God.  Before you knew anyone or did anything, everything was in you necessary to live at home in divine love.  However buried that image of God is within you, that part of you that knows what it is to be perfectly loved and held and known—it is still very much there.  There is a part of you that does not need anything else or anyone else in particular, to be alive.  There is a part of you that knows this—part of you that has always known this—but long since forgot. 

           The God who sustains all created things with love, sustains you.  The God who created the world not to be exploited, dominated or needed, but to love and to enjoy without clinging, is awake in your belly.  And so in you is the capacity to love and to live without needing the world to work out a certain way, in order for you to be okay.  Your life, your existence, is contingent on that Spirit.  But it is not contingent on anyone else, or anything else.

           This is the liberating, terrifying discovery of life on the other side of the shipwreck.  That while you are a creature—humble, dependent, small, in need of love and food and shelter—you didn’t need anything else as much as you thought you did.  That the things you knew would kill you don’t actually kill you.  That the fire in you the sea should have drowned out, burns within you yet, if you do not let yourself smother it (and maybe even if you do).  So much of the world you have known is no more.  But if there is any truth in any of this at all, the shipwreck that threatened to destroy you utterly may be the thing that saves you yet.  It may not drown or burn you, it may transfigure you. 

           And if there is something truthful, something larger, about this irrational lust for life that is forged in the fires of death, it says something too about the people you lost.  For if there is a God who not only creates, but sustains and resurrects, then there can yet be life on the other side of death for all things.  Then there is hope not only for the yearning in you to drive you into union with God, but to be realized in union with those others.  If death is not the final word, and chaos produces creation rather than destroys it, then many of the stories of the life you thought were long over are far from over yet. 

             Believing this won’t mean you won’t still feel the weight of deep, sharp, piercing grief, or that you should feel guilty when you do.  On the contrary, people who don’t experience deep pain have not experienced deep love, and are not to be envied.  That doesn’t mean they are shallow—all of our souls surely have something of the same depths, they just may not be aware of their own yet.  That day will come for them.  But when you feel your own deep capacity for passion, compassion, mourning, even rage, you are glimpsing something of your soul’s own infinite capacity to know, to feel, and to become.  Within the depths of all you feel the most deeply, something of the Spirit’s own immortal depths are reflected in you.  We have a capacity for love and hope and beauty seemingly too big for our heads and hearts, because we are created in the image of God. 

Cling to nothing…but hold on

            After the shipwreck, when the ship is still going down, and all you have left are bits of it still floating in the sea all around you, it’s nearly impossible to tell at first what will actually hold you up.  The ground that was once beneath your feet, is now scattered all around you; and you know instinctively that much of what has gone before, you can’t take you with now.

            So the attempt to find something to hold you up, is often a very high stakes kind of trial and error.  Some of what was holding you up was built on lies, spin, and youthful delusions.  You must let them float away.  Some of the childish notions of how the world works, the illusion that you were ever truly in control of your life to begin with—you must let it sink.  Some of them made for a helpful enough vessel, at the time, getting you from point a to point b, moving you forward.  Some of the relationships, that cannot and probably should not survive the storm, served an invaluable function for a while.  But the shipwreck has made new demands of your life, and much of what carried you before cannot carry you now—and you sure as hell are in position to carry much of anything with you now. 

            After the shipwreck, you may have little left to hold onto.  And yet, you must find a reason, to hold on.  This is much more difficult than it sounds, because surviving the shipwreck, in general, has much more to do with letting go, than it does holding on.  You are now trying to simultaneously trying to find a way to hold on, while learning to live with open hands and an open heart, to not resist the wind, or the Spirit you find in it.

            Growing up in Pentecostal churches, I spent a lot of my childhood attempting to chase down the Holy Ghost.  The preacher would give an invitation, for people to be filled with the Spirit—which we would know occurred when we let go of the ordered world of rational speech, and God moved on us to talk with unknown tongues.  Even where I parse some of these things differently now, there is still a way it makes some kind of soulish sense to me.  Aren’t we all, in some way or another, looking for an experience that will transcend the pale and paltry words we know?  Isn’t there something inside all of us that wants to howl, that wants to rumble, that wants to talk in unknown tongues?  The letting go of mind, and of ego, the sense of being acted upon by something larger, older, truer—surely there is something of this that the soul has always wanted, whether we can acknowledge it in our minds or with our words, at all.  

            I remember going down to the altar, wanting the gift of the Spirit, but being confounded by the sweet old saints who tried to help me “pray through.”  I would be down at the front of the church, my eyes squeezed tightly shut and my hands raised like awkward lightning rods, praying to receive the power.  And I’ve have some dear old sister in one ear, shouting,  “HOLD ON, BROTHER!”  And there would be some dear old sister in the other ear that would shout, “LET GO, BROTHER!”  That is the Pentecostal version of paradox.  I wasn’t ready to explore many others, but that was one I got baptized into early.  How is it possible to simultaneously hold on…and let go at the same time?  I don’t know that I can even answer that question now, but I do know that life with God exists somewhere at that intersection.  That somewhere between holding on and letting go is where you are liable to stumble into, or perhaps even collide into, resurrection.  The old-time Pentecostals may have been even more right than they knew. 

            In the shipwreck, you find yourself smack dab in the middle of having to let go of everything you thought you knew—and yet still trying to find a reason to hold on, when you don’t feel like you’ve got anything to hold onto.  

One small plank

            One simple detail of Paul’s shipwreck captured my imagination when I was trying to survive my own, and I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.  When the storm comes, it swallows up the ship Paul was traveling on, the same way the storm swallows up your own.  The structure that carried them from the port will now carry them no longer.  But even the old vessel is far from wasted.  All the men and women on board grab a hold to a plank of the ship, just some small piece of the wreckage that will keep them afloat until they can make it to shore.

            In the shipwreck, you may feel like you lost it all.  Everything is in pieces.  But in the fragments, there are planks that remain—pieces of desire, of dreams, of hope, of imagination, of longing, that rise to the top of you even now.  They are no longer attached neatly together, but they are still afloat in the swirling chaos of you.  You may not need all of them. Perhaps you don’t need many of them.  But you almost certainly need one of them.  Wherever and however you feel your soul still adrift, grab a hold of one of them.  Don’t cling to tightly to it, let the weight of it hold you up, rather than the other way around.  Anything that’s survived by now, surely has something of Spirit’s power in it, surely.  It may be a plank that is older than you, a plank that might outlast you. 

            It does not have to be anything big enough, or strong enough, to hold you up forever.  Just something you can reach out for, lay your head against and rest, when the night falls.  Not enough to rebuild a life, but enough to get you to shore.   You may think you will not yet survive the waves, but Spirit comes in the wind—to guide your giant soul and your tiny plank to a place called home.  

            You only need one small plank, one reason not to give up, one reason to stay alive…today.  At the very least, your life itself is a sign and a sacrament for someone else, a light in someone else’s darkness.  There is not a thing in the world wrong with staying alive—for now—for their sake, more than your own.  That was what I found going to an episcopal church in downtown Charlotte after I left the church, that largely became that small plank for me.  The simple liturgy, week-after-week, did not remove all my pain, but gave me a reason to keep going—from one Sunday to the next Sunday, until the next, sustaining me somehow then in the days between. 

            It is always good and right in a time of shipwreck, to cling to a community.  It is good to cling to friends, too, though part of what makes the shipwreck so intense it that is by nature a time when friendships are largely being renegotiated.  And of course then, it is the best possible time to cling to God. 

            And yet even that does not come quite without qualification.  It would seem like this might be the easiest, most universal statement—“well at least you can still hold on to Jesus.”  The trouble with holding onto God, is that often we cling to an old idea about God—perhaps one that we needed to let go all along, rather than God Himself. 

             Holding on to Jesus surely is always be the right thing to do…unless you are Mary Magdalene, when Jesus appears to her first just after rising from the dead.  Her world has been eclipsed by the storm.  Days before, she watched the man her heart burned for be tortured and killed.  Now, the dead man is standing before her.  Which is more disorienting?  What is for certain is that her world is topside.  Desperately, instinctively, she lunges for what is familiar—the body of Jesus, impossibly standing in front of her now, only a few feet away.  “Don’t embrace me, Mary.  I have not yet ascended to the Father,” Jesus says.  It is not that Jesus was no longer there for her.  It is that Jesus cannot be there for her in the ways that he was there for her before; she would have to come to know him in a different way.  Resurrection had not yet finished working out its terrible implications yet.  There would be no time to cling to a form of Jesus, an idea of Jesus, a vision of Jesus that she used to have.  She would have to know him now on the other side of the trauma that is resurrection, so that even “clinging to Jesus” was not going to work in the ways it had worked already. 

You can’t even cling on to the God you knew, only the God you can know now.