A former teaching colleague of mine suffered a miscarriage during her second pregnancy about a year ago.
Although I was not one of the first people Kay had told when she became pregnant a second time, she gave me the good news before she made it public. We had grown close working together, and Kay always let me interrupt her fifth grade class so I could say hello to my former second graders.
So I felt honored when Kay had invited me into a special time in her life and in the lives of her family.
When I stopped by my former school to visit the faculty and staff during a teacher work day, I asked Kay how she was feeling. She told me of the miscarriage matter-of-factly. It had been only about a month since it happened, but she demonstrated unusual strength and grace.
Shocked and embarrassed for asking, I apologized profusely. How awful to add to her pain and to make her re-experience it by telling me.
Generous as she always is, Kay assured me there was no need to apologize. I listened as she shared her grief, depression, and struggle to get back into the classroom. Hearing it was difficult, but not nearly as grueling as it was for her to experience.
Just as I had felt honored to share in her good news, I felt privileged to partake of her sorrow.
When she finished, Kay asked me about my health condition. She knew I had been on leave due to the symptoms of a rare neurological disease; however, she was unaware that directly before visiting her I had submitted paperwork so that I could begin retirement disability.
This had been a weighty decision for me. I love teaching, and my students and colleagues were more like family than pupils and coworkers.
When I had informed my principal a few minutes earlier, I cried in his office. My heart was broken. I did not know how the future would unfold. What would my days be like now that I would no longer have students to teach, lessons to prepare, and assignments to correct? And what about finances? Disability income would be less than half of my usual pay. The illness would prevent me from holding down any meaningful employment, so what would I do from now on? Would I always live in severe pain?
Uncertainty hung over my life like a dense fog. I had been a teacher. An educator. A respected person in my community with significant responsibilities. A leader of 27 seven- and eight-year old children. Nominated by my colleagues for the Teacher of the Year award in my school. Who would I be now that this period of my life was over?
While my disability caused nowhere near the level of suffering and loss as Kay’s miscarriage, being forced to retire due to a painful illness felt like a profound emptiness.
Kay had made herself vulnerable to me, so I felt safe and strong enough to tell her. She asked several follow-up questions and listened with empathy.
Time seemed to stand still as we shared our anguish and doubt with one another. At some point, Kay reached with her left hand, touched my right arm, looked into my eyes and said, “It’s a time of wandering. For both of us.”
Kay understood that, like the Israelites in the wilderness, she and I were journeying to an unknown destination. As pilgrims, each of us was unsure of where we were, where we would end up, or how we could go on.
Neither of us knew when we would reach our Promised Land — or even if there was a Promised Land. As wanderers in an unfamiliar place, we could not rely on our knowledge to lead us. Instead, we had to depend on faith.
During their time as pilgrims in the wilderness, God led the way in an unusual manner.
“The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.”
Kay trusted that God would lead both of us as we wandered. Faith as a pillar of cloud would lead us through tortuous days and as a pillar of fire would show the way through desperate nights.
It seems like a lot of people are in a time of wandering these days. Social uncertainties and political unrest make us question what comes next. What steps should we take? Where are we going? How will all this turn out?
Kay and I didn’t know. Maybe none of us really do. But in faith we trust and continue living, even when we don’t want to.
Talking about the intersection of physical pain, depression, and an abject sense of loss that has made (and some days still makes) me want to die is onerous. I’m not eager to share my fear, suffering, and hopelessness that I still have not overcome — and maybe never will.
However, all of this has been part of my wandering.
Wandering isn’t easy. Bouts of depression and anxiety arise, sometimes out of nowhere. Worry, frustration, and apprehension threaten any sense of lasting well-being. Nevertheless, faith causes me to get up in the morning, brew coffee, take my medications, and pray so I can keep wandering.
These words of St. Paul in 2Corinthians 4:8–10 reassure me and reinforce my faith in my daily wandering.
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”
Just as Jesus underwent true suffering, my pain is real. The torment is actual. The thoughts of quitting are frequent. That’s what makes the time of wandering legitimate.
But with faith I follow the pillars of fire and cloud.
Be sure: faith is not some magical formula to take away the grief and uncertainty. Neither is faith the will to power yourself into feeling better. Instead, faith is a disposition that has an eye toward the future even when acknowledging the future may be impossible. At those times, the pillars of cloud and fire are the people who care for you, love you, and want you in the future.
For me, faith has involved reaching out to family and friends and trusting their advice and encouragement. Getting medical treatment from my physicians, psychological support from my therapist, and spiritual aid from trusted clerics has been essential acts of faith.
Faith has also meant welcoming help from people when I’d rather not. But I have faith in them because through them God continues to lead the way. They are my pillars.
Since my talk with Kay, she has become pregnant again. Kay’s wandering has kept her oriented in faith to the future, and that gives me hope.
No one finally reaches the Promised Land in this lifetime. St. Peter describes us as strangers and pilgrims, aliens and exiles, migrants and wanderers. Perhaps knowing that we’re all roving can increase our faith as we accompany one another, wandering in faith together.