The Farewell

L to R: "Jiang Yongbo, Aoi Mizuhara, Chen Han, Tzi Ma, Awkwafina, Li Xiang, Lu Hong, Zhao Shuzhen." Courtesy of Big Beach.photo credit – https://variety.com/2019/film/festivals/the-farewell-review-awkwafina-1203117966/

Saying goodbye is one of the hardest things we have to do as humans, especially when we don’t want to do it. Even if the separation is just for a few days, weeks, or months, when we love someone, we don’t want to let them go. We want them to be part of our lives, to share our joys and disappointments. When we are facing saying goodbye forever, the pain can be almost unbearable. The recently opened movie, The Farewell, explores these deepest feelings of having to say goodbye. Rapper turned actor, Awkwafina, stars in this dramatic role, based upon a real life event from writer-director, Lula Wang. The movies begins with this sentence on a blank screen, “This story is based upon a actual lie.” Real life normally seems to inspire the best stories..

Awkwafina plays Billi, a struggling young New Yorker who as a child immigrated from China with her parents. Her grandmother, Nai Nai, remains in China, along with the rest of the family (with the exception of Billi’s aunt and uncle and cousin, who have resided in Japan for a number of years). Nai Nai is dying from cancer, and as was a common practice in China, the family has decided not to tell her. The family gathers from their various homes for the wedding of Billi’s cousin, Hao Hao – simply a ruse to come home for the final time before Nai Nai dies.

Billi’s Western mindset and emotional connection lead her to believe that telling Nai Nai the diagnosis is the right thing to do. Certainly, we here in the West believe it is our right to know what is going on with our own bodies. Not knowing such information would seem like a betrayal from those we love the best.

Billi listens to her family’s rationale behind such a decision, and learns that Nai Nai didn’t tell her own departed husband of his fatal diagnosis years before. One family member tells Billi that the community is more important than the individual, and that the family “carries the grief” for the dying member so that the one dying does not have that burden.

Carrying another’s grief is such an incredible, beautiful image. In this society, filled with rampant individualism, we don’t want to carry our own grief, much less another’s. We just want to anesthetize pain with food, alcohol, ignorance, or means of escape. As much as we try to ignore our own pain, we do an even better job ignoring other’s. We want to blame people who are experiencing difficulty, instead of sitting with them in the dark days and working with them to find some better path or to change systems and structures which create pain.

I am so thankful for loved ones who have wanted to carry grief or pain with me. I hope I can at least do that in part for others – to carry what I can that might help relieve the burden.

Without giving away the ending, the movie does tell us that Farewell is never really a permanent goodbye. One of the most beautiful (and entertaining, as real life often is even in the midst of pain) scenes comes from the family visiting the gravesite for Nai Nai’s departed husband. They give offerings (a common practice in many cultures), and celebrate his presence with them, even if his physical presence is gone.

I pray that we in the West can better understand what it means to be community and to carry another’s pain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The road to Hurt

hurt va

I have driven along Highway 29 in the heart of Virginia several times in recent years, but somehow that exit sign to a place named “Hurt” had eluded me. As I drove past in recent days, I tried to remember the circumstances of the times I would have driven by previously. The last time had been with a good friend and co-worker, and she and I were probably talking energetically. Before that, I had been in a van with my parents and family, so it makes sense that I would have missed the road sign. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if it were my state of mind, and not the fact of being by myself in the car, that allowed me to see and remember the exit clearly.

I was in the process of contemplating what it was like to be hurt when the sign suddenly loomed before me. I don’t mean physically hurt, but emotionally. As a college chaplain, I work with students continually who are hurting and in pain from what life has to offer. We all wish to avoid hurt, and I was wondering how I might do that myself, but it was a fruitless line of thought. Life would offer more hurt, and pain, and grief, and I would once again have to figure out how to meet it.

And I will, when it comes, and it inevitably will.

It doesn’t mean I will like it, or that I will calmly believe this is a part of life and look for the good that can always come out of our hurt. I will cry, have a drink, talk to my closest friends, watch a couple bad movies – and then put one foot in front of the other and keep walking.

I will say that the past few decades have given me more perspective on how to encounter Hurt. I vividly recall my mother stating – in the midst of my junior high pain – that the best laid plans of mice and men are often gone awry. (A phrase adapted from the beloved Scottish poet Robert Burns, and incorporated in the novel Of Mice and Men written by one of my favorite authors, John Steinbeck.) That didn’t keep me from trying to make plans to avoid hurt. If anything, it intensified my desire to arrange my life so that it would be the best life imaginable. I had already known great pain in the loss of my grandfather when I was age 10, a man who was essentially my spiritual father. Even while there were some things I knew I couldn’t avoid, I was ready to tackle life head on. I refused to make a pit stop in Hurt – I would barrel right past that exit as fast as I could.

But the best laid plans…

I have had great joy in life, especially with my children, my dear friends, my parents, and my vocation. Yet, there have also been many days when the hurt was so much that it physically made me ill, and close friends had to prop me up so I could go through the motions of life. Sometimes life had forced me off that exit, and sometimes I drove myself there.

One thing I have learned is that no one has to stay in Hurt permanently. It’s a stopping place. Sometimes the visit is longer than we would want, but we need to turn the key in the ignition and take the unknown path to a different town. It might be Joy, Peace, Fun, or just Good Enough. But that stay in Hurt will help us appreciate the next town all the more. No one ever wants to stay in Hurt (of if they do, then they really need to work with a good therapist), but good can always come out of the visit – even if it takes days or weeks of more driving.

The Size of a Mustard Seed

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          “It’s about this size.” The doctor held her thumbs incredibly close together over a strip of paper. “You can see 4 millimeters isn’t much, but I know it can cause a whole lot of problems.”

             I could barely see the space between her hands, my eyes still glazed over with tears of pain. The morphine drip had been set up about half an hour before, but my right hand continued to press into the left side of my stomach, my body curled on the hospital bed. Kidney stone, was the first thought that popped into my mind a few hours earlier when the sharp pain woke me. I spent an hour debating whether or not I needed to go to the hospital in the middle of the night, but when the doctor finally confirmed my amateur prognosis, I was certain I made the right decision.

             The subsequent days were filled with debilitating pain – definitely worse than the 20 plus hours of natural childbirth I had endured many years before. All the terrible things I ever heard about kidney stones were true. How could such a tiny thing cause so much agony?

             Through the haze of pain, naseau, and prescription meds, I continually remembered the doctor demonstrating the size of that tiny stone. The average kidney stone is the size of a mustard seed. Jesus famously said, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20) I have preached on this scripture several times over the years. Growing up in the mountains it was hard to imagine how such a gigantic chunk of land could be moved. Even with dynamite, it was no easy task. Now, I think Jesus enjoyed exaggerating on occasion – but he used extremes to make a point. Something so tiny that it can be easily missed can have a tremendous impact for the good.

 It seems far easier to think of negative impacts than positive ones. The old glass half full – half empty illustration. Complaining about life is far easier than thinking of the things for which we are thankful. Yet, just a tiny 4 mm of thankfulness can turn our lives around. Replacing a small amount of complaining, worry or fear with praise, hope, or belief can truly be life-changing. Spending just a few minutes a day in prayer, sacred reading, meditation can impact the entire rest of our 24 hours each day for the better. A minute pebble can turn our lives one way or the other. Let’s take those miniscule irritants in our lives, and instead of allowing them to fester and take control, turn them into a force for good. Just 4 mm can change our lives, and it can change the world.