It was a similar story. A similar event with different characters. Similar emotions with different relationships. As I listened, I was reminded that any loss (be it a dream, a person, a thing, ability, identity, etc.) does funny things to those who are around those who are grieving.
I was facilitating a grief support group when someone mentioned that a person with whom she had frequently conversed prior to her loss had cut off communication. And just like that, a close relationship became a distant relationship when grief had interrupted her life.
Loss does funny things to people.
As a facilitator, I inform the group that with a loss, we need to prepare ourselves for other losses. One way this appears is in the area of relationships when those we think will be our strongest supporters are not. This unexpected additional loss intensifies our loneliness, striking us when we are already down. Since this is loss upon loss, we respond to this loss like other losses, that is, with feelings of grief, such as shock, anger, depression, or disappointment. For many, this unexpected change of the other’s behavior is interpreted as abandonment. There was an expectation of support, but they were greeted with silence. They expected presence, but they received absence.
Abandonment. It is the lack of the presence of someone when it is most needed, which points toward our need for relationships. This, in turn, indicates our own finitude, our own limitations to handle all things by ourselves. It implies our deep longing for companionship and connection, particularly when we are hurting. When we perceive that someone has abandoned us, we are also reminded of our own vulnerability. We are vulnerable when we enter into relationships in that we are taking a risk that the other will not be there for us when we need him/her; thus, we enter into a relationship with uncertainty about the relationship’s future as we leave ourselves wide open to be hurt. Yet, here is the catch: we are created to be in relationship. We need others, and suffering bears this out.
Suffering is a time when we desire our pain to validated and normalized; therefore, we do not want to be completely alone. Regrettably, the unforeseen unmet expectation of support ends up increasing our loneliness. Where we are anticipating the listening ear of a trusted confidant, we are greeted by the silence of a dark void. This is an opportunity ripe for feelings of shame. Shame communicates that our pain does not warrant the attention of the other, and more significantly, it conveys we are not worthy of the other.
As Brené Brown has argued, shame is ubiquitous in our culture while it is at the same time unacknowledged. It screams in silence, “You are not good enough.” It seeps into the crevices and cracks of our lives like a stealth predator. When it is unrecognized and unnamed, it seems to intensify in its power. It proclaims, “You are not acceptable. You are not affirmed. Your life does not matter. You are not important.” It travels to the core, to the heart, of who we are. It focuses not on our actions or behavior but on our very being. The I. The me. The very essence of who we are.
Abandonment can indeed be very powerful.
Its power may have been implied during research that was conducted by John Bowlby during the 40s and 50s. Bowlby and his colleague discovered the power of separation from a key caregiver by observing children between the ages of 1.5 to 4 years of age who had been hospitalized or placed in nurseries for a minimum of one week. Unlike current hospitals’ policies, this research was conducted during a day and age when parents could only visit their hospitalized children for one hour a week. What Bowlby witnessed after these children returned home was the children passing through three phases, particularly in relationship to their mother: protest; despair; and detachment. These phases began with crying and screaming which was followed by hopelessness and finally a lack of happiness of being reunited with their mother. This research was so compelling that it influenced the change of hospital policy as Bowlby demonstrated the need for an attachment figure to provide security when a child is frightened and anxious.
Attachment theorists note that the lack of availability of a caregiver may appear as abandonment to a small child. The child is hurting and anticipating someone stronger and wiser, the mother, to be physically present, but she was not. Thus, for some children who experience separations like these, they may be fearful of not receiving comfort during times of anxiety and/or pain for the remainder of their lives, illustrating the power of perceived abandonment.
The fear of abandonment and the perception of abandonment are very real, particularly when we are hurting. Yet, its potency also implicitly informs us of an opposite power: the power of presence. If abandonment can emotionally transform a person, what can presence accomplish? In a hurry-up-and-fix-it society, I believe we overlook the power of presence, of simply being with someone rather than attempting to fix them.
I believe one of the more significant characteristics of presence is the strength we draw from another’s presence. This is what I appreciate about my Pentecostal church tradition: it emphasizes the presence of God. When a Pentecostal experiences the presence of God in a service, she may frequently describe the love of God and the strength that she draws from that presence. Even if her circumstances have not changed, she many times describes her perceived experience with God as being filled with peace with an additional empowerment to carry on. This experience of God’s presence by Christ-followers is also evidenced in Scripture, particularly in Philippians 4.
Verses 5–7 read:
Let everyone see your gentleness. The Lord is near! Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
As we read this text, it is significant to remember that the Philippian congregation is suffering and in need of encouragement. In the midst of three short imperatives Paul writes the phrase, “The Lord is near.” There is some discussion as to which imperative this phrase is connected. Does it correlate with, “Let everyone see your gentleness” or the phrase, “Do not be anxious about anything”? Or both? While it may be referencing the eschatological language of the Lord’s coming again, it also may be a word of encouragement that God is present, close to the original suffering congregation; thus, the Philippians would be able to draw strength from the Lord’s presence, so as not to be not anxious and fearful (see Pentecostal Gordon Fee’s Paul’s Letter to the Philippians). Granted, the Philippians circumstances had probably not changed after Paul wrote this letter, and it may be the case they wondered where the Lord was in the midst of their difficulties. Like many of us, it is possible the Philippians were questioning if God had abandoned them since their difficulties were unchanged. Thus, Paul was attempting to encourage them to draw strength from God’s presence, which would provide them with peace (vv. 7, 9). I do not believe Paul is merely stating a platitude, but this epistle seems to imply that this, too, was Paul’s experience as the Philippians are to do what they saw in Paul (v. 9). It stands to reason, then, that for Paul, God is present, and I believe he drew strength (v. 13) from this presence for it was the Lord’s strength that enabled him to be content no matter of his circumstance, whether in want or in plenty.
I opened this blog with a discussion on abandonment, the lack of anticipated presence of someone when it is most needed. While God is present with us in our suffering, as Paul reminds the Philippians, I believe we as believers may participate in God’s ministry of presence (and maybe even validate God’s closeness) with the hurting by our being present to others. While not the focus of Philippians, I believe we see hints of how Paul drew strength from the Christ-followers of Philippi. In order to develop this thought, I refer to Fee, who asserts that this letter centers upon the friendship between Paul and the Philippian church. Paul and the Philippians seem to carry each other or walk with each other in the midst of difficulties. Rather than a “patron-client” or “patron-protégé” relationship, this is a pastor-friendship model. Granted, as Fee underscores, Paul does petition the Philippians to follow his example, but only as he is also a follower of Christ (3:4-14; also 1:12-16; 4:14). In the final verses of this epistle we specifically see the pastor-friendship model when Paul testifies how the Philippians shared with him in his trouble, expressing concern for him (vv. 10, 14). Thus, in a manner similar to God being present to the Philippians in their troubles, the Philippians participate in God’s ministry of presence by sharing concern for Paul. From this, Paul is strengthened and encouraged.
In a world and maybe even in a church tradition (pentecostalism) that emphasizes the pragmatic (a theology that works), this is an invitation to perceive the power of presence. Its formidableness is demonstrated in its absence, as seen in perceived abandonment, which persuades me that it is a power that we cannot underestimate. People experience loss and grief when presence fails to appear. How much more, then, do we draw strength from presence, as testified by Pentecostals who experience God.
Lord, today, may I draw strength from your presence, not being anxious. May I then participate in your presence by being present to others.