Dancing with Suffering

Dancing with Suffering

Anne Lamott is one of my favorite writers. Mostly because her writing is like the Brazilian martial art Capoeira that combines elements of dance, acrobatics, and music. Lamott seems to be dancing on the page, doing a handstand, posing, shuffling her literary feet, and generally not really talking about anything until, like Capoeira, a sentence lands in your gut like a swift kick to the face. Now you may be thinking this doesn’t sound like a pleasant experience, but I would argue that this is the type of writing we need more of these days. So much writing, especially writing on leadership or faith, takes itself way too seriously, and in doing so, doesn’t take itself seriously enough.

Stitches by Anne Lamott

Stitches by Anne Lamott

This is why Lamott’s book on, of all things, suffering, needs to find its way onto more ministers’ and pastors’ bookshelves. Lamott doesn’t pretend to be a theologian working out the intricate details of theodicy in Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, [1] and that is a very good thing. Because frankly, most ministers and pastors and church leaders shouldn’t do that either. Rather, what they will more likely have is the opportunity to sit alongside someone in the midst of suffering and be a conversation partner. In that way, Lamott’s book is the beginning of that conversation. She dances through several essays on suffering, but it is her ability to sum up a grand truth in a few words that stay with you. The kind of truths that are worth sharing in the face of hurricanes, when hope seems to have taken the day off and joy missed their flight. For that reason, Lamott’s book is a literary dance lesson for pastors, ministers, and church leaders [2] in how to talk about suffering and worth sharing in a few smaller steps here:

“So when hardships and terror appear in our lives, we first ask ‘Why?’ I usually add, ‘Would it have been so much skin off Your teeth to cut us some slack here?’ But then I remember that ‘Why?’ is rarely a useful question” (8).

“But when something ghastly happens, it is not helpful to many people if you say that it’s all part of God’s perfect plan, or that it’s for the highest good of every person in the drama, or that more will be revealed, even if that is all true” (9).

“What I resist in not the truth but when people put a pretty bow on scary things instead of saying, ‘This is a nightmare. I hate everything. I’m going to hide in the garage’” (9).

“I asked a wise friend, ‘Is there meaning in what happened in the slaughter as the Sandy Hook school in Newtown?’ He said, ‘Not yet’” (9).

“My understanding is that we are not served by getting away from the grubbiness of suffering, Sometimes we feel that we are barely pulling ourselves forward through a tight tunnel on badly scraped up elbows. But we do come out the other side, exhausted and changed” (10).

“We live stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky. If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching” (13-14).

“There can be meaning without things making sense” (18).

“Any healthy half-awake person is occasionally going to be pierced with a sense of unfairness and the catastrophe of life for ninety-five percent of the people on this earth” (27).

“But what if the great insider-trading truth is that you don’t ever get over the biggest losses in your life? Is that good news, bad news, or both?” (39).

“Part of me understood that my hold on it had to do with the excruciating mess and weirdness or my family: how only a handful of people in your lifetime help redeem this mess, so that when one of them dies, hope dies. You never fully recover. You can’t” (44).

“We rarely think our way out of these tight, dark places. Sometimes as a community, though, we take an action together, and somehow something gives. I love the pun in that” (59).

“The secret of life is patch patch patch. Thread your needle, make a knot, find one place on the other piece of torn cloth where you can make one stich that will hold. And do it again. And again. And again” (63).

“Most of the time, love bats last” (65).

“They taught me that being of service, an ally to the lonely and suffering, a big-girl helper to underdogs, was my best shot at happiness” (75).

“This is all that restoration requires most of the time, that one person not give up” (78).

“Without stitches, you just have rags. And we are not rags” (83).

“When we agree to (or get tricked into) being part of something bigger than our wired, fixated minds, we are saved. When we search for something larger than ourselves to hook into, we can come through whatever life throws at us” (91).

“We, too, are shadow and light” (92).

“Darning is to send parallel threads through the damage in socks and sweaters, in and out, in and out, back and forth, over and under, and somehow you have a piece of fabric again—such as the heel of a sock, that’s good enough again, against all odds. This is sort of a miracle—good enough again” (94).



[2] As is her Ted Talk, which you can watch here.

The Loneliest Number

The Loneliest Number

God, Glory, Giving, and a Natural Disaster

God, Glory, Giving, and a Natural Disaster