I remember a discussion in one of my graduate theology courses about how having a child is, in a way, our first brush with mortality. When a child comes into the world we realize that our time will pass, and we will hand over the business of living, of creating and of stewarding the earth to a new generation. The child is a gift and a joy – and a reminder that we are not made to live here forever. I have a similar sense as I enter into my second year without experiencing a menstrual cycle. I’m reminded that life is precious and it is fleeting, and that we neither own time nor possess it in unlimited amounts. I, a woman who has never been able to conceive a child, am acutely aware of my mortality, of the realization that others will carry on after I am gone, but what they carry will not come from me.
A life… my life…a child; none are owed to us or within our control. When one’s life is shaped by infertility this realization is painful, and freeing. It is desolate, and full. It is a paradox whose meaning would have escaped me were I not childless. It is a bright sadness that shapes my world and has become the way in which Christ embraces me.
In the Tradition of the Christian East, the Great Fast (Lent) is understood as a season of bright sadness. There is sadness because we turn our gaze inward in a more intentional way, reflecting on our sinfulness and the unimaginable suffering and brutality of the death Jesus willingly submitted to for our sake. But our sadness is clothed in light, because our sins are not indelible marks forever separating us from God’s love, and our suffering is not pointless cruelty inflicted by an impersonal god. The paradox of bright sadness is that both can be true, both can be a blessing, and both can be transformative and make us whole.
Last night my cousin called with the wonderful news that his wife is expecting their second child. The news was (to continue resting in the mystery of paradox), an “expected surprise.” I knew such news would eventually come, and yet hearing the words struck a chord in my heart that had been silent for some time. The strings of my heart are, as it turns out, still out of tune, not quite yet ready to make a joyful noise in celebration of new life; certainly not as ready as I’d thought they were. Our conversation made me aware that I’m much farther along in grieving my infertility than I was a year or two ago, but I’m also not all-the-way-healed. The difference I see in myself now versus a year ago is that I know God is working in me through the grief and sorrow, and that this is a process. Each new realization, each new pull on the heartstrings is a milestone along my way; a sign post to mark not the distance I have yet to go, but how far I’ve come. How far He has brought me. Many times I’ve asked God “why” He’s given us this particular cross, why He sometimes seems so far from us. I’ve tried to figure it out, as if it’s a brain teaser whose prize will be…what, exactly? God is showing me that the “why” is not what is important. If He spoke to me now and clearly and firmly gave me the reason why we never conceived, do I really think that would satisfy me?! More and more I am finding God in the mystery and the grief. I find Him in my tears. God has embedded Himself in my heart, He is absorbing my pain as His own and with it writing a song on new strings, with notes of gratitude, blessing, and sometimes even peace.
The bright sadness of this Lenten season is penetrating my whole being.
It’s one thing to explain it using theological terms, or trying to sound profound when incorporating the term into a blog post. But to let that bright sadness sink into my bones rather than just pretend I’m fine, or dwell on the pain of unfulfilled longing, is strangely freeing. I am grateful that I’ve ceased shutting Him out of my grief. Fighting with Him is exhausting and goes nowhere because it is only me who is engaged in battle. But falling into His arms, letting my wounds become His, truly is a bright sadness that allows me to feel the real pain of a real loss (the possibility of conceiving and birthing a child), while rejoicing in the multitude of gifts I so easily allow to be hidden in the darkness of sorrow.
Life and death; suffering and joy; motherhood and infertility; Cross and Resurrection. For now I live in the thick of the paradox, and the experience of the absolute loss of fertility is one that lives in my body alone. And yet, not alone. My husband, my family, my friends, everyone reading this– we rest together in the bright sadness of desires unsatisfied, but promises yet to be fulfilled.
For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was proclaimed to you by us…was not “yes” and “no,” but “yes” has been in him. For however many are the promises of God, their Yes is in him; therefore, the Amen from us also goes through him to God for glory. 2 Cor 1:19-20