How can you be utterly heartbroken and overwhelmingly full of gratitude at the same time? It seems impossible. But this is how so many West Virginians from my home state feel right now after the recent devastating flooding.
Many people lost their homes, everything they owned, and not just replaceable items like refrigerators and couches, but handmade Christmas ornaments their children made in second grade and scrapbooks full of memories and their grandmother’s wedding band and so much more.
Some lost their loved ones, their beloved pets. The heartbreak they feel is almost unbearable. And yet many of these people are the same ones overwhelmed with gratitude. But why? And how? How could anyone feel gratitude in the midst of such heartbreak?
I first heard about the flooding while on vacation. I was sitting on the bed of a small apartment, which looked out onto the calm waters of a turquoise blue ocean. I read the stories online with tears rolling down my face.
One of the rivers that flooded was the Elk River. I worked for 13 years on that river at two different schools affected. Some of my closest friends grew up along those banks. These were my former co-workers and students. These were my friends and their families. How could I be in this beautiful place while people I loved were in such an ugly one, full of dark swirling water, mud, and heartache? And yet I was-in this beautiful place unable to do a single thing for anyone, except send love across the ocean.
When I returned home, I drove some donations to the areas affected. The evidence of the flooding was everywhere: piles of debris in a school parking lot as tall as a two-story building, many many smaller piles in front of houses, piles representing the day to day collections of someone’s life, tall lines of dirt on buildings showing evidence of how far the waters rose, roads connecting people to the few stores in the community completely washed out. Once again the tears came.
But I saw something else as well. I saw church parking lot after church parking lot filled with mountains of donated supplies. I saw as many people volunteering their time to sort and distribute these supplies as people who needed them. I saw people cooking food, directing traffic, and dropping off supplies. Online I saw pictures of friends with shovels digging each other out of the mud, crying together, hugging each other. I heard those not affected promising to lift up prayers, to send love to those you had lost so much. I saw people, all over the country, the world even, clamoring to see how they could help, what they could do, how they could ease the burden of those flooded, even if just a bit, even if for just a moment.
So here is the silver lining to an otherwise tragic situation. Most of the time in our culture we walk around believing we are separate from each other. We are in our own little worlds, dealing with our own stuff.
Thomas Merton, the twentieth century Trappist Monk, called this our “illusion of separateness”. But during these times of tragedy and crisis, something sacred happens. The illusion drops, the lines of separation become thin, and we recognize our oneness. Our differences don’t matter anymore. We finally see that we are all part of the same source, the same God.
This happened to Thomas Merton in 1958 as he was standing on a busy street corner in Louisville, Kentucky. He later wrote, “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.” And it happened to us in West Virginia on June 23, 2016.
The silver lining is in people using their hands to do the work of God, their hearts to love as God loves. The silver lining is that though people are devastated, they don’t have to experience it alone, they are surrounded by love. The silver lining is experiencing gratitude in the middle of heartbreak, of having hope in the midst of despair.
The silver lining is that, at least for a little while, we wake up from our “dream of separateness”, we know our oneness, we feel our oneness, we believe we are all connected in a sacred and divine way, we know that we are in this together, that we are created to love and support each other through the hard times, through all times. The silver lining is that we can hold people up in their sorrow and later they can hold us up in ours.
The silver lining is in us. Our connection is the silver lining. God’s love shining through us is the silver lining. Love is our silver lining. Remembering what we have long forgotten, that we are all one, that’s our silver lining.