It Isn’t Pretty . . .

As I look back, I now see that she was grieving. It wasn’t pretty, but then grief usually isn’t.

We were living abroad when we traveled to a neighboring country for medical attention. As we were sitting in the clinic, an American woman entered with her spouse and preteens/tweens, and to be honest, that is when it became . . . well . . . interesting, to put it mildly. The waiting room was teeming with an angry presence—hers. We witnessed her verbally berating the reserved national behind the desk, which was eventually followed by disparaging speech about the culture as she departed from the clinic.

To say the least, it was not pretty.

I am only guessing here, but it would be my opinion that authors William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick would characterize this woman as a prime example of an “ugly American.” Their novel The Ugly American was a best-seller in the 1950s and was even touted by Senator John F. Kennedy who purchased copies for each of the U.S. Senators. The book’s content? A novel that was a searing critique. Of whom? Americans and how they behaved poorly overseas. But it was not simply a harsh commentary on the ordinary American. Instead, it severely criticized the educated diplomat, the one who represented America in foreign countries. The book denounced American representatives for their refusal to learn the local language and customs while insisting they had insight into what was best for the nationals.[1] In other words, The Ugly American believes American customs, perspectives, and standards are superior and shows disregard for other cultures.

And that is not pretty.

Having recently returned from a month of being overseas, I recalled this incident and wondered how loss/grief plays a part of the image of the ugly American. Each of us carries a particular perspective of how the world operates, which provides each of us with a certain amount of stability and predictability from which we derive security. However, our immersion into another culture can change all that. We may discover that much of what we know and understand is no longer successful in safeguarding us; thus, our anxiety rises when security is replaced by danger. We find ourselves floundering like a fish out of water as we become uncomfortable with an unfamiliar people, language, and local behaviors. That is, we are experiencing loss. Loss of how to communicate. Loss of how to conduct ourselves. Loss of understanding. To put it simply, we find it difficult to grasp the world around us. Our speaking English more loudly in a country that uses another language miserably fails. Our insisting on utilizing dollars rather than the local currency generates increased frustration. We may become quickly confused, anxious, and fearful, but not wanting to appear vulnerable, we may conceal it with anger. Anger is a common secondary emotion, then, that becomes a tool to shield ourselves from risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure. Perhaps we could say we become the ugly griever.

And that . . . isn’t pretty.

Yet, the ugly griever is not simply reserved for those who travel to foreign lands. It may appear whenever we experience any loss. I have been the ugly griever. As an ugly griever, I have been less understanding of others, easily hurt, and defensive. I have readily used blame, labels, sweeping generalities, and belittling in which I have turned the other into an object. No longer was the other a human being, who had inadvertently hurt me, but an enemy to be conquered . . . one who had to be proven wrong. In essence, I refused to genuinely see the other. To truly listen. To express curiosity. To learn through difference. To be empathic. No longer was the other simply doing the best she could with the resources she had. He simply just should have known better. I felt disdain for her. I felt contempt for his behavior.

And . . . it wasn’t pretty.

As I write, my mind is drawn towards my own nation, and I wonder, “How many of us inside our American borders have become the ugly American, or should we say, ugly griever?”

Let’s face it: right now, it isn’t pretty.

Consider loneliness, for instance. Grief and loneliness go hand in hand. Brené Brown notes that even though our nation has taken definitive sides with an us vs. them mentality (e.g., the liberals vs. the conservatives; the Democrats vs. the Republicans), disconnection is a common malady, and loneliness is increasing. Rather than feeling more connected because people nearby hold similar beliefs to our own, Brown notes that loneliness has more than doubled since 1980.[2] Grief is lonely. Furthermore, our inability to express empathy for each other, including those who hold the same values as we, is evident. We are . . . well . . . angry. It is difficult to be angry and be empathic, even towards those with whom we agree. If social media is any indication, our tendency is: when we find someone with whom we agree, we vent with each other, freely expressing our anger and protesting the losses. While this may be helpful to a point (protesting is a part of grief), we may become stuck at this place with no movement forward. In other words, simply venting does not necessarily allow us to be truly connected with the other. That comes through empathy. It is empathy that helps us make a connection which helps us to feel less isolated. Empathy also moves us toward reconciliation of the loss. If I can express empathy with myself and with others, it enables me to move towards reconciling the losses that I have experienced. Notice that I said, “moves us toward.” This is a never-ending journey of healing.

Grief counselor, Alan Wolfelt, speaks of the importance of reconciliation as it pertains to loss and grief.

For Wolfelt, movement towards reconciliation occurs as the griever integrates the loss into his/her whole life. This may mean striving towards healing the rifts between each of us as well as healing within ourselves. It may come as a choice to be empathic both with the other and ourselves. The learning how to be empathic (both with others and me) and to receive empathy (both from others and me) is what brings the most movement towards healing, or reconciliation, with my losses. It is what moved me out of being the ugly griever to the reconciled griever.

As a Christ-follower, I also am not unfamiliar with the word “reconciliation,” and for me, it has similar meaning with Wolfelt’s.

Let me explain. Theologian Ray Anderson speaks of reconciliation (healing) as that which transpires as the Christ-follower becomes more and more whole—that is, one becomes more of the person God has intended. Notice how Wolfelt speaks of integrating the loss, which is healing and movement toward wholeness.

The apostle Paul also speaks of reconciliation in a letter to the church at Corinth (2 Cor. 5). Paul is speaking about being reconciled to God in that God has reconciled the world to God in Christ. This is important because as one who is reconciled to God, Paul states he no longer sees anyone from a human standpoint (v. 16). He admits he used to see Christ in this way, a possible reference to his conversion on the road to Damascus. Paul was a persecutor, viewing Jesus and Christ-followers as the enemy, but now, since he is reconciled to God in Christ, he does so no longer. People, then, are no longer the enemy. Now, he understands that in Christ people are a new creation. This understanding points towards a theology in which he is being pulled toward a future, the eschaton (see also vv. 1-4), a time when all of creation will be renewed—that is, a time when God’s kingdom will have fully come. And that is pretty. This, then, is the lens  through which he now views others. As such, now he is a participant in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation (v. 18), of healing, in this world. His new lens pulls him towards this future so that now he is an agent of healing, not of harm, such as a persecutor. Now, he calls himself a representative, or ambassador, of Christ’s ministry of reconciliation (vs. 20). In other words, the one once unreconciled becomes the reconciler, or the unhealed becomes the healer.

This seems so current for us today, particularly in our nation. We live in a hurting nation where we are prone to see the other as the enemy. Whether it is male or female, Black or White, Liberal or Conservative, Democrat or Republican, we all know what it is to be blamed, labeled, belittled, and judged. We are wounded. As the wounded, we wound others. We blame, label, belittle, and judge. Such wounds, be it in the wounder or the woundee, point towards our grief, or our ugliness, which isn’t pretty. Yet, it is in this place of woundedness that we may become wounded healers, to use Henri Nouwen’s term. After all, is this not in one sense what Paul is saying? The unreconciled become the reconcilers? The ones who are being pulled toward a future that is pretty.

That is why I write this blog. I, too, have been wounded, and it is my desire to be a wounded healer.

“But [through] deeds of love and mercy, the heavenly kingdom comes.”[3]

 

[1] Michael Meyer, “Still Ugly After All These Years,” NY Times, July 10, 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/12/books/review/Meyer-t.html (accessed October 29, 2018).

[2] Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, New York: Random House, 2017), 50-51.

[3] Lyrics from Sara Groves, “Lead on O King Eternal,” Abide with Me, 2017.

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