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'There's still work to do'

“There’s still work to do,” I heard him say on a video screen.

His words were faint, soft, broken. Norberto, a Paraguayan missionary who had lost his wife and only son in a car accident months before, who was in the middle of his own dark night of the soul, had uttered five words that would travel 5,000 miles and settle deep in my heart. How could he possibly believe what he said? Maybe he didn’t. But just by saying them, he was choosing to try to believe them; to somehow trust there was good worth doing in the world even if God no longer seemed good. I remember looking up at Norberto, deep into his empty eyes, and hearing those words again, There’s still work to do.

That was almost ten years ago. Norberto and his family’s story was so moving to me that I wrote a book about them. His words remain seeded in my heart, taking on new meaning over time, this year more than any other. In the wake of my own family’s tragedy (which in no way compares to the horror he experienced), his words have become a grounding force in my life. Just about everyone I know is grieving in some way this holiday season. I know this ought to be a joyful time—and the optimist in me tries to leave my heart open to possibility—but I ache for many who will have voids in their living rooms this Christmas.

What do we do in the face of despair? What do we do when our reality, like Norberto's, feels cracked at the core? As Holocaust survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl once wrote, what do we do in the space between stimulus and response, that space where our “power to choose” resides?

Most of my articles in recent years have, in some way or another, been more about being rather than doing. Contemplation is a necessary offset to our performance culture where we tend to place our identities in our performance or our perception of it. But this year I’ve learned that doing can often lead me back to being. That willpower and self-autonomy can often guide me back to my values. That sometimes I have to intentionally start the car before I can hear a beautiful song on the radio. That there is a difference, as my therapist says, between natural suffering (grief) and unnecessary suffering (avoidance in unhealthy distractions that cause more suffering). Yes, there is such a thing as “spiritual bypassing,” where the messy truth gets masked by spiritual practices. But submitting myself to a sense of purpose—to working hard in the face of despair—is often the only prayer I can muster.

When Norberto said those five words, I saw a man engaging the grief process while also pushing against despair. I saw a man grappling with reality while simultaneously rooting himself in values he knew to be true, even if God seemed far away. I saw a man determined not to become a victim, even if he had every right to be. I saw a man beginning on a path of grief that would last a lifetime, yet refusing to give up on purpose, even if part of him had given up on God or he felt God had given up on him. As Thomas Merton wrote in his book Thoughts in Solitude, “This, then, is our desert: to live facing despair, but not to consent. To trample it down under hope in the Cross. To wage war against despair unceasingly.”

There have been days, weeks, months this year when I’ve struggled to believe Norberto’s words, when despair has pulled me under. Many mornings when I’ve laid in bed for hours, “zombie-scrolling,” dreading another seemingly purposeless day. Many evenings when the darkness invades and I spend the next day discouraged and aimless. Many canceled plans not wanting to burden others with my mood. But that is not what I’ll dwell upon as I move into the new year. I’ll think about how, when two of my favorite things—reading and writing—had lost their enjoyment, I went back to grad school where I’d be forced to do both…and loved it. I’ll think about the girls golf team I coached this fall—the laughter on the bus rides and the joy on their faces when they made a birdie or par. There’s nothing like being a coach. I’ll think of the times I dared to write until I enjoyed it, not necessarily because I felt like doing so.

For each of us, our work in the face of despair will be different.

When St. Francis of Assisi was approaching the end of his life, when he was likely decrepit and ill, he once told his brothers, “Let us begin again, for up until now, we have done little or nothing.” That had to have been shocking to hear! The early Franciscans were literally changing the church and the world. Yet for Francis, as long as he was breathing, in following the Christ who “left it all out there,” who became radically humble and obedient through the Incarnation, there was still work to do. Always, always more work to do.

When despair intrudes, I invite you to receive Norberto’s words, to make them your own, to perhaps ruminate upon this declaration of hope that rose from a place of nothingness, the purest place of all.

There’s still work to do.


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