I have a clear memory from my family’s house on the coast of North Carolina, when I was somewhere between six and eight years old. My tiny hands had gotten hold of some sort of newspaper clipping, story, or photo. I’m not sure what it was about, although at the time my heart was particularly sensitive (maybe overly, if one can be overly sensitive) toward animals, so maybe it had to do with abused puppies or sick horses. I remember gazing at this clipping that touched my sensitive soul and I felt a pang in my chest; a physical weight or ache right there where our physical hearts are, or so adults had told me. Our blood-pumping organs. When faced with sad news or a very difficult situation, I’d heard adults use the phrase, “my heart hurts.” I was sure I’d finally experienced that phenomenon, too. “That must be it,” I thought. I felt the pain in my chest, in my heart. My heart hurt.
I found my dad and asked him what it means to say that your “heart hurts.” He explained to me that it’s an expression and describes the sadness or weight we feel when we know something very sad or have an experience that touches us very heavily and deeply. So that was a little confusing for little me, because I had just felt my heart hurt physically.
Now, a grown person, I understand that it’s an expression and I appreciate it, because I love words and phrases. But I can still feel the physical ache in my chest. I believe the expression is rooted in a very tangible reality. The expression did not come from nothing. I know tears flow out of our noses and eyes, but I’m convinced they originate in the chest, the heart, the soul. I can feel them welling up there. I’ve felt them a lot the past few weeks.
One mid-morning last week my parents and I loaded suitcases in the car and drove to South Louisiana, reminiscent of what my family did many times when my sister and I were kids. When I was a kid, we left for the drive at the butt-crack of dawn.. and you’d better have been ready at the designated departure time. Landry-family code required that you be prompt! Each year my sister and I picked out one new beach or pool toy, which felt like winning the lottery. We packed those toys as well as swimsuits and goggles and sunscreen. We loaded up with car games and movies to watch on our miniature tv, awkwardly and painstakingly plugged into a converter and then into the cigarette lighter. The tv alone was what made the long car trip bearable. And thus we went to the beach, on the way to be united with our extended family for a long weekend of fun, my sister and I singing a chorus of “are we there yet?” all the way. I have many, many sweet memories from these annual family beach trips which included all the cousins, aunts and uncles, and my grandparents.
Last week, at 23, I finished packing my suitcase the morning of the trip, and this time my suitcase included a black dress and no swimsuit. Thanks to years of Landry-family training, I was ready to leave at 7:00am on the dot, but my parents and I left the house around 7:45am, whenever we got ourselves together. My sister had to stay behind this time because of adult things like work and a baby girl. And so us three adults headed to South Louisiana to meet up with our extended family at a funeral, a reunion to honor and say goodbye to the patriarch who started this large family and made possible all those days of playing in the ocean after the long car ride.
So last week we arrived, bumping along rhythmically on the Louisiana highway – the first thing that reminded me so poignantly of the state. The South Louisiana, Cajun culture is unique and special and I love claiming it as my heritage. Everything that reminds me of it came flooding back: sugar cane fields stretching far, humidity that makes your eyes sweat, sweet Cajun accents, pick-up trucks wherever you turn, Cajun food, and kisses-of-greeting on the cheek. We saw a sign in the yard of a South Louisiana family: “You loot, we shoot.” The angry battle cry of a gun-laden, ragin’ Cajun or the cry of a heartbroken, vulnerable, and defensive family, recently stripped bare?
While we were preparing for the funeral of my grandfather, the rest of South Louisiana was still reeling from the recent flooding. While we were there my mom and I sat over coffee with a friend whose home was laid bare by the recent flooding in Louisiana. Truly a natural disaster, truly a tragedy for many families. We sat together and her heart hurt and our hearts hurt. Like the “you loot, we shoot” Cajun (and thousands of others), her home had been ruined by the flood. That week we drove by house after house with piles of furniture, bedding, decorations, family heirlooms, and insulation sitting by the road.
At the funeral, my whole family stood in a single-file-receiving-line, filling half of the aisle of the beautiful church (what I would call a cathedral), saying “hello” and “thank you” to everyone who came to pay respects. A lot of what I said included, “Hi, I’m a granddaughter, my name is Rebecca,” or “Yes, I’m Greg’s youngest daughter.” My very identity was intertwined with how I am related to the family, to my grandfather and my father. In that moment it was a beautiful thing to be reminded where I come from and to be reminded that I am part of the bigger narrative of my family tree. Introducing myself and meeting (or re-meeting) second-cousins and great-aunts connected me and my life. Life can feel disconnected at times, can’t it? Like the person I am now doesn’t have much to do with the 9-year-old beach-going me. Meeting people who knew me then, even if I didn’t remember them, bring more continuity to life. I am changed, but still the same Rebecca, the same daughter of Greg, and granddaughter of Douglas. And even one step further than that, we were all connected and part of one story.
I felt the pain in my chest, the hurt of my heart, and the tears that originated there and journeyed up to and out of my eyes. I also felt delight and amazement, as person after person filed into this church where my grandparents were married and now my grandfather is buried. His community told us how the original father of our family was also a legacy within the community. People came who were taught by him in the school, mentored by him at work, and friends with him for a lifetime. One said that my grandparents, both educators and administrators in the local school, have been the “pillars of education in this parish” (in South Louisiana, counties are called parishes). What a legacy to witness.
Maybe only sensitive people like myself feel a physical hurt of the heart. If you don’t feel it, I’m not sure whether to be sad for you or happy for you. I’ve felt it when I see people I love suffering. I’ve felt it for other people when I see the brokenness of the world. I’ve felt it for myself – although sometimes I think the hurt of my heart is valid and sometimes it seems to me like I’m hurting over something silly. But I am determined not to ignore heart-hurt whether it’s mine or another person’s. Wallowing in self-pity and making a problem out of everything is unhealthy, but sweeping our heart-hurt under the rug is also unhealthy. Even if it feels petty or silly or illegitimate, if it hurts, it’s real. Rod Dreher, also from Louisiana says, “But if you find yourself in a dark wood, telling yourself that you have no right to your pain and confusion because others have it so much worse does not get you very far.” (How Dante Can Save Your Life)
Some people advertise their dark wood in order to draw attention to themselves. But other people need to be more honest about their dark wood and their heart-hurt. Helping others can make us look good and valiant and holy. But what is incredibly human and incredibly honest, but makes us look like we do not have our lives together? (spoiler: none of us have our lives together) To be helped… to acknowledge heart-hurt and be humbled enough to acknowledge your need, and then to let others in to do for you what you simply cannot do for yourself… to allow others to see your junk, your secrets, your tear-stained face. That is the necessary flip-side of serving others. If we are unwilling to be served we have no business serving others. So we move through heart-hurt as we move through life, but I believe the more deeply and fully we process the hurts, the more genuinely and fully we will experience the joys.