Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia by John Dunlop MD, Free for CAPC Members
Dunlop’s book tackles a subject that few of us would care to read about in a way that encourages, informs, and relieves fear.
A few days before Christmas of last year, my wife, children, and I loaded up the enormous U-Haul truck with all our belongings and began to drive back to the United States. We had been living in Canada for the previous two-and-a-half years, where I was serving as the youth pastor for a large evangelical church. With nearly a decade of pastoral ministry under my belt, a large youth group, a healthy marriage, and two incredible children (with a third on the way), it made little sense for us to be packing up and leaving everything behind in order to move in with my wife’s mom. Yet there was the truck, stuffed with our burdens and little room left for any hope. In a very real sense, I was now jobless and homeless; our temporary resident status meant we had to leave the country with the dissolve of my job, prompting us to move into my mother-in-law’s house. As I crossed the border into Washington, I couldn’t help but wonder, Was this all a waste?This experience of loss and the subsequent recovery is laden with paradox. It is highly personal and necessarily communal; it is deconstruction and renewal; it is external and internal; it is painful and healing.
Three years before the border crossing, we were financially secure and living in a fantastic house in a trendy neighborhood, raising our kids in comfort and convenience. I had a growing influence within our local church in Arizona, as well as my first book to be released, which would hopefully open greater doors in the Christian ministry world beyond (I was thinking speaking gigs, more book deals, and plenty of Twitter followers). By all appearances, this was a successful life. In the midst of this success, we had discerned God’s leading for us to take the new job in Canada, and we trusted Him for the wisdom and grace to live in a new country and context. We were hopeful, and I anticipated the next season to be the next step toward greater success. But by the time I was crossing the border again—this time with no job, no finances, no home—I felt defeated. The role in Canada was not a good fit, and a culture of programmatic busyness and unclear organizational identity led me to life-draining years trying to meet everyone else’s expectations, striving to keep up the image of the successful pastor. Add the stress of immigration and the incredible expense of living in British Columbia to a life of overworked churchiness, well…the burnout and depression was inevitable.
We left because I couldn’t handle it any more. We left because I was drained of life and love and joy and hope. We left because I had lost something vital—my own sense of self. We were returning home to where our marriage and ministry had begun a decade earlier, only this time my entire identity and vocation were unclear.
In Paul Harrill’s quietly haunting film Something, Anything, the opening title is a poem from Christina Rossetti:
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.
With this brief meditation on the power of invisible spiritual forces in our world, Something, Anything sets the contemplative tone for its narrative, a story of personal loss and the journey toward healing and wholeness. While she doesn’t say much in the opening scenes, we can tell that Peggy (Ashley Shelton) is, by all accounts, successful. The scenes flash before us as snapshots of her wonderful life—a marriage proposal from a handsome man in a trendy setting; a beautiful wedding surrounded by friends; the enormous and well-decorated house in the hills of Knoxville, Tennessee; the joyful news of a pregnancy. Harrill chooses to tell Peggy’s story in near-silence, and she rarely speaks throughout the film. Quiet piano music accompanies the beautiful, intimate cinematography, eliciting comparisons to Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue in its affecting and melancholy portrayal of a woman walking through a season of grief. Peggy experiences a terrible loss early in the film, the painful and often-unspoken incident of a miscarriage. Her tears elicit pathos and empathy, and she is clearly deeply wounded by her loss. Yet those wounds do not define nor defeat her as she navigates the unfolding season of reconstructing her very self after such a loss.
As I watched Something, Anything, I found an unlikely partner in my own loss. Here was a fictional story about a young woman who experiences a miscarriage; I was a pastor and husband without a job or direction, a man experiencing a crisis of vocation and identity in the midst of depression. Our stories couldn’t be more different, yet I found myself weeping on the couch in my mother-in-law’s living room, deeply moved and comforted by Peggy’s spiritual odyssey and her process of healing.
I am learning that the loss of self and self-awareness are paradoxical partners in the process of healing and spiritual formation. This loss of self is not a spiral into an existential void or spiritual despair. It is more like the painful-yet-redemptive removal of artificial layers we construct for ourselves in order to hide the shame and brokenness underneath. It is the removal of planks from our eyes and fig leaves from our naked selves, a painful and awkward alteration, to be sure. In the months following my border crossing, I had to lose the identity I had created as “successful pastor,” the one who could preach and counsel and disciple with incredible results, whose significance was directly tied to his ability to influence others. This would mean the death of my old self and allowing Christ to resurrect a new life, a new Joel. The words of Paul in Colossians seem appropriate here: “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Col. 3:9-10). I had to stop lying not only to others, but also to myself, allowing the Creator to renew my self-knowledge.
This is where the paradox comes in—I could not lose my false self without also becoming more fully aware of myself. By peering into my soul, I began the process of subsequent transformation beyond the loss of self. I had to truly see myself in order to lose myself. Strangely, the awareness only came about due to reflection after the loss of self had begun to occur. It’s difficult to know which comes first, loss or awareness, but they have clearly embraced in their desire to transform my whole life. It required a season of burnout and depression to awaken my true self to the false identity I had created. This awakening wasn’t instantaneous; it was gradual, the slow blinking of eyes that are used to being in a darkened room and suddenly shoved into the light of the sun, adjusting from blurred vision to clarity.
Peggy, too, experiences the transformation from false self to new self. The opening scenes show moments of Peggy putting on makeup and jewelry, dressing up her false self in all its east-Tennessee glamour. The makeup and jewelry mollify any sense of doubt or discomfort she may have about this lifestyle. For Peggy, she has everything anyone could want: beauty, marriage, a social network, a big house, nice clothes, and the personal security that comes from achieving the pursuit of happiness.
Yet these external trappings are more like traps for Peggy, confining masques hiding her true self and its desires. She is unsure who she really is or what she wants, but she’s also unaware of her own unawareness. It is only through the painful loss of her first child through miscarriage that she is confronted not only with personal suffering, but also with a spiritual crisis. The miscarriage hurts not only because she lost the baby, but also because she has lost everything. The house and clothes and friends and marriage—these have all been revealed as shams, previous comforts that hid the pain below. For Peggy, the miscarriage was the first loss; the second would be her entire false self, the identity she had constructed in order to avoid the lingering questions of meaning and faith.
In seeing Peggy’s story unfold, I am learning that a season of loss can be a gift, for in the loss I am subsequently found, freed from the false identity I had constructed and slowly brought into the light of self-awareness and vocational integrity. In my loss, I am found.
There is another important paradox we experience with loss: each person’s journey toward healing needs a community of supporting friends, yet is also a deeply personal and individual journey. In our culture of Western individualism, the common Christian response is an exhortation toward community. Listen closely enough to the language of the Christian subculture and you will hear this emphasis on community: building relationships, joining a small group, having accountability, being intentional, and so on. Community is certainly essential for spiritual formation and growth, as God has created us in His Trinitarian image as social beings. Yet in all this emphasis on community, we can often miss another necessity for healthy spiritual formation: the deeply personal disciplines of solitude, silence, and simplicity. These are individual exercises, personal endeavors in spirituality that empower us to be in community, but are practiced in the context of being alone. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about the value of solitude in relation with community in Life Together:
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community…. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone…. Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.
In every loss, the pain and recovery is distinctive for each person. Every individual’s journey is unique and different; it has to be walked by them alone. Like Job’s friends, sometimes other Christians can do more harm than good for a person who has experienced loss. Their well-meaning intentions and supposedly comforting words end up being salt in the wound or detours and distractions on the journey toward wholeness. They offer simplistic platitudes or encourage the person struggling with loss to join a program, get into a small group, and certainly not skip attending church services.
Without falling into an unhealthy individualism, perhaps we need to recognize the importance of individual paths and processes for healing. I was talking with a friend recently, who commented on a difficult emotional situation in a family and each family member’s particular response. “They each have their own story, and their own way of dealing with the situation,” she said. “Some will be ready in six weeks to talk about it. Others might take a year or more. But every individual person, and every story, is important.” I think she’s right. For me, attending more church services and programs was exactly the reason I was in burnout and depression; I was an overworked, overly burdened pastor who didn’t have a healthy sense of Sabbath rest or boundaries. It was freeing and life-giving to not attend church for a season, to be alone to walk with Christ through my pain. I didn’t abandon the church community altogether, but a season of loneliness in the wilderness may be just the unexpected cure God has intended for our betterment.
In Something, Anything, Peggy’s friends and family simply do not understand her response to her pain and do little to encourage or support her as she heals. After the miscarriage, she leaves her husband and home, moving into a tiny apartment to live alone. She writes in her journal what she is seeking: “To be alone. To live for something. And escape.” I have written similar words in my own journal as I traveled through my valley of depression, but others’ words are often less than helpful in the healing process. Peggy’s parents offer to pay for a European vacation so that she can get her act together and move back with her husband. They intend to be encouraging, but their words clearly have the opposite effect on Peggy’s heart. When Peggy gives up her realtor job to be an assistant at the local library, her boss cannot fathom her decision—why would you give up the paycheck? “It isn’t about the money,” Peggy insists. “What is the point of work if it’s not about the money?” her boss asks, betraying her own materialism. Peggy’s friends try to console her with shopping excursions, but their consumeristic coping mechanisms only accentuate the void Peggy feels inside. When her friends tell her to get back with her husband and try having another baby, Peggy wonders aloud if there’s something more than just having babies and making money in life. Her friends only stare incredulously until one “encourages” Peggy by stating that she thinks Peggy is being selfish. Her husband later tells her that he wants everything to just go back to normal. “I’ve changed,” Peggy replies with quiet humility and a tinge of fear. It’s almost a confession—she knows her worldview has dramatically shifted in this season, and she is increasingly unwilling to go back to the way things were.
Peggy’s journey is one she realizes she must walk alone, which may be why she is drawn toward the monastic life. The practices of monks fascinate her, and part of her spiritual exploration leads her to visit a monastery in Kentucky. She begins reading Thomas Merton and takes copious notes on the teachings of Jesus she reads in the gospels. She starts to practice a form of asceticism and simplicity, giving up her phone, her car, her clothes, her makeup—all the elements that created her previous false self, tossed aside in the pursuit of freedom. She even gives up her name, switching from Peggy to her full name of Margaret, signifying a new identity in the taking off of the old self. She is not wholly alone in this—she makes a new acquaintance in her co-worker at the library and seeks out a friend from high school, Tim, whose life in a monastery has a captivating effect on her. There is also an invisible, spiritual presence moving in and through Margaret, healing her heart like the wind passing through and leaving her trembling and with head bowed in adoration and comfort. Margaret is on a pilgrimage to find her true self, a spiritual quest for meaning that is quite the opposite of similar tales like Eat Pray Love in its emphasis not on indulgence and manifesting one’s own meaning, but in earnest simplicity and receiving meaning outside of oneself as an identity and vocation given as a gift from the divine.
Sometimes a loss may isolate a person for a season. But rather than loading guilt trips or quick-fix solutions upon those experiencing such loss, perhaps we need to encourage them to find some peace and quiet, to begin practicing silence and Sabbath, alone.
I wonder if loss is more than a random chapter in our stories; I am beginning to believe it is an inevitable stage in life for young adults. Between the identity formation stage of adolescence in our teenage years and the “midlife crisis” that comes with the onset of middle age, there seems to be a relatively new occurrence in Western culture, one that happens during what sociologists have labeled as emerging adulthood (late-20s to mid-30s). It seems that nearly every emerging adult I know has experienced a significant loss, both externally and internally.
Externally, this looks like a divorce, a miscarriage, a job loss, foreclosure, financial disaster, or some other outwardly painful experience. For Margaret, it was miscarriage and a mis-marriage. For me, it was burnout, depression, and essentially starting over in my career and finances. The external loss becomes the birthing grounds for the internal loss as the experience triggers a journey of discovery to unearth the image of God buried deep in one’s heart.
Internally, this loss is the deconstruction of the false self and the spiritual re-creation of a new, truer self, a death-and-resurrection experience. The interior loss is like hitting the reset button for an emerging adult, a deconstruction of the hopes and dreams they’ve always expected while also reconstructing a new vocation. Without this loss, the emerging adult continues wearing the false self, stagnant and unaware of being in its captivity. Perhaps this is partly what Jesus meant when He said, “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). As emerging adults, we may need to experience the painful humility of loss in order to find the true life and identity that Christ offers us. I am still unemployed and living with my mother-in-law, but through this journey of loss and healing, I am learning who I truly am in Christ and the new path He has for me. By the final cathartic scenes of Something, Anything, I believe Margaret experiences the same joy of being given a fresh self and a new start. Neither she nor I have arrived yet. That’s okay. We’re still on this journey, but with new eyes, seeing the loss of our selves through the lens of hope as good gift from God.
This experience of loss and the subsequent recovery is laden with paradox. It is highly personal and necessarily communal; it is deconstruction and renewal; it is external and internal; it is painful and healing. Something, Anything reminds us that deep loss of self does not amount to spiritual failure. Instead, it is an invitation to embark on a pilgrimage of self-awareness and to draw closer to the Christ who emptied Himself on our behalf. Alluding to words of Paul in Romans, the suffering and loss we experience does not necessitate despair, but in Christ gives us profound hope as it shapes our character and gives us perseverance. In the economy of God, our loss and suffering ultimately leads us back to into the winding path toward hope.
In a tiny book no bigger than a pamphlet called Spirituality of the Psalms, theologian Walter Brueggemann explains that the psalms reveal a spiritual lifecycle in our relationship with God. The loop-like progression is three-fold: orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. Orientation is the sense of being at home with God, like the Israelites dwelling in the promised land of blessing. Disorientation is a painful season of exile, feeling far away from the presence of God and having a longing for the joys of home. These are times of lament and frustration, offering honest prayers of pain to the Lord, wondering how long? New orientation is the return from exile, the homecoming of the prodigal, the entering into the kingdom. I think both Peggy and I experienced this spiritual cycle, a pilgrimage of freedom that has brought us right back to where we’d begun, only with a remarkably new perspective and identity. Having gone through the wilderness, we are forever changed…until the next cycle begins, and the Spirit of God takes us on a journey through the wilderness once more. We lose. We gain. Then we repeat.
There is a brief conversation in Something, Anything between Margaret and a young couple who are selling their home. The reasons behind the sale become clear—the entrepreneurial magazine they started went under after three years, and they can’t afford their house. The wife admits they live with her mother while the husband sits with arms akimbo, defeat on his face. “I understand,” Margaret says. “It’s nothing to be embarrassed about.” Behind her comforting eyes, she says what I need to hear in my loss: I know what the spiritual cycle of loss and gain feels like. And it will be okay. There is still hope.
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