The Interruption of Kindness
Or, How Romania Broke My Heart
There’s this part in the Pixar movie Inside Out, when the character Joy takes the character Sadness and draws a chalk circle around her. Then she says,
“This is the circle of sadness. Your job is to make sure that all the sadness stays inside of it.”
If any film scene embodies my life, it’s that one.
I never really wanted to live in a narrative full of pain, sorrow, and desperation. I have always wanted to be in the kind of story that’s plentiful and abounding with joy, and only joy. That’s not real life though. Real life is messy and wild. Real life hurts. Real life is terrible. Real life is broken.
I’ve been broken before. It’s only now that I’m figuring out how to share that with people though.
Here’s the thing I’ve been learning. If you want to love people–tangibly, honestly love them–you’re gonna have to remain in a narrative of brokenness and desperation. You’re gonna have to try to write it towards grace and hope, but it’s gonna hurt. It’s gonna make you cry. It’s gonna break you too. But that’s okay.
Bob Goff once wrote,
“Give away love like you’re made of it.”
I don’t think I really knew what he meant till I got to Romania. Cause we’re not made of love. We’re just human beings, and choosing kindness costs something. But you still get to decide whether or not you want to give those things away.
You still get to choose whether your love is boundless or has an asking price.
I arrived in Romania at midnight, my face still wet with the tears from leaving my France after so many months of building a home and a life. It was dark. It was cold. It was foreign. It wasn’t France. And I wasn’t sure if I liked it. When I tried to smile at the passport control officer, he didn’t smile back. He didn’t even welcome me. In my bleary-eyed state, carrying two backpacks and not having had coffee for the past six hours, despite my best efforts, I interpreted this entrance into a new land with foreboding and worry. What if I didn’t belong here? What was I even doing here? Would I even be of use?
Could I even love people the way I thought I could?
I clutched my cranberry hat to my chest and pulled my jacket tighter, so certain that this was a mistake and I should have just gone home instead.
I was wrong.
I realized I was wrong just outside a monastery near Hunedoara, after five days in Romania. I knew in my spirit and bones long before that, but that was the moment I actually acknowledged it. It was the second day of an overnight excursion exploring the countryside. There were eighteen of us, nine orphan children and nine adults. Four languages spoken, countless hours driven, a multitude of tears wept, but even more laughter laughed, and I realized I was wrong about not belonging in the midst of all that in the parking lot of a monastery.
It was right before we went in. I was standing there, struggling to get my coat on, clutching both my scarf and a shrieking Paul who was nuzzling up against my neck and had one shoe off, and Claudiu came to my aid. No questions asked. He helped me into my coat and then put my scarf around my head, just like the orthodox women wear, and then said something in Romanian about how it was perfect. Then he put Paul’s shoe back on his foot and kissed him on the forehead and went to gather his own charge before we entered some holy grounds. I stood there for a minute after that moment, a small boy with his hands pressed over his ears crushed tight against my chest, surrounded by a forest and a tiny village, wind softly whistling, the smell of candles all about, and I knew. A high school kid having my back told me with his actions–that team of people, those children, we all belonged together then and there, looking out for one another, enjoying each other’s companionship, sharing cultures, getting to know everybody’s belly laughs.
I was loved and I was loving people.
How can you not belong in a place where that happens?
Paul and I trekked up to the priest at the top of the huge hill together that day. He walked slower than everyone else. Because he can’t hear, I think there was so much more for him to see. He had a lot of wonder in his eyes. He gripped my hand tightly and my scarf kept slipping from my head. In such a religious place, surrounded by so many religious people, my mind wandered to my God and what exactly it was that He was calling me to do. I had only been in Romania for a short amount of time, but I had done and seen so much already. There I was, nestled in the hills of the countryside, holding the hand of a little orphan child, and I thought to myself, What next? What comes next in this narrative? And then I thought, How do I love even harder? How do I love even better? When we returned home that night, I was overwhelmed by the experiences I had just had, and I sat on my bed for a while journaling.
And that was when I let the sadness in.
Here’s the thing, I am not made of love, but God is.
My feet hit the ground running in Romania. Quite literally. The first day I was there, I paraded through the streets wearing a small cowgirl hat and a red nose with dozens of children for the special olympics in Bistrița. The air was thick with sunshine and Romanian chatter and I was far too busy to be overwhelmed or frightened. Smiles abounded. People pushed wheelchairs in races, twisted balloon animals for hours, and painted faces in the shade of a gazebo. Children personified words like glee, elation, and life. Empathy was abounding, intention ever-present. People cared, and it showed.
The special olympics of Bistrița were the perfect start to my hesitant arrival in Romania. I was suddenly thrust into this world of joy and excitement and everyone seemed so passionate and driven. We were changing the world. We were having fun. We were rallying. I felt so capable of loving people that day. And all the days after. And then came the belongingness. I felt needed and cherished and loved and was love. I was helping make food for gypsy kids, befriending them, speaking English with them. I was holding the hands of children who would be left behind. I was having important discussions about faith and grace and planks in eyes with wonderful people. I was rubbing the back of a little boy till he fell asleep on my lap. I was speaking French and making friends and volunteering and filling cameras with incredible moments. I was in the sunshine daily.
Truth: Some days you push wheelchairs in the sunshine in a sprinting race, but night still comes later on.
That fifth night on the edge of my bed, I felt the joy drain out of me like the ink from my pen as I scribbled the memories that were still fresh in my mind. I suddenly found myself weeping as I wrote about all the orphans and this culture and the beautiful places and the desperation here.
It was then that I realized that I can’t fix all of this. It’s too big. And that hurts.
Here’s the other thing, you can’t draw circles around sadness. You have to share it.
The narrative goes on. It kind of sucks to say that, but it’s true. I mean, you get to choose to step outside of it, or you can remain. You can try to write a new page in a narrative that is so destitute you can’t even hardly describe it to your friends, or you can leave.
If you choose the first, if you choose to stay, that sadness is gonna spill out.
There’s no way to keep it inside. That’s what I’ve been realizing as I’ve been catching up with my friends and trying to answer their questions and hearing their voices. This isn’t a grief that can be buried. The state of this place is real and raw, and it affects people. It shovels itself into your spirit and makes you, for lack of better expression of an emotion, sad.
So I’ve been telling people the truth. This place makes me sad.
I’ve used words like heartbroken, distraught, torn, sorrowful, overwhelmed, and incapable. All of them are good descriptors of my life right now. Because this is a sad place. I don’t know how you could come here with a heart and not get sad. I don’t know how someone could be a part of this narrative and not cry. I also don’t know how to be here and not love. I think that’s just as important a realization as this sadness one. You can’t put your sorrow in a circle, but you can’t do that to your happiness either. Everything just brims over.
I just want you to know, it’s okay to tell people about that. It’s okay to feel all of that too. Things are really hard all over the world, and things are really beautiful all over the world. It is not a sin to feel more than one emotion on a daily basis. You’re a person. You were designed to feel things.
On the heart being rent.
This place is really heartrending. Some mornings I think I can’t make it out of my bedroom here. I wake up to a dimly lit room and turn over to read my Bible and Chambers, trying to gather the strength to learn even more and split my heart all over again. Chambers actually talked about my heart this morning in His Utmost. He wrote the question that’s been aching in my bones since day one here.
“Can God’s love continue to hold fast, even when everyone and everything around us seems to be saying that His love is a lie, and that there is no such thing as justice?”
The answer is yes, but answering yes to that while in Romania is really difficult. So I had a meeting with Jesus this morning, and asked Him how I was supposed to do the impossible and where the heck He was in all of this? And He did what He always does. He gently reminded me of His promises and purpose. I’m right here, He said. Well I don’t see you, I replied, my blanket falling off my shoulders as I shrugged up at the ceiling in the middle of my prayer. I’ve been looking, and I don’t always see You. I didn’t see You in the countryside, I didn’t see You in the orphanage, I didn’t see You on the bus, I didn’t see You in the street… I went on and on, like I always do, but then He stopped me and whispered, But you, daughter. Remember why you’re here? You’re the one bringing Me. You were in all those places, and that means I was too. It was one of those forehead slapping, oh yeah God is right, kinda prayer meetings. He’s present always, but even more so when I illustrate Him.
God’s love holds fast. Justice happens. Even in the places where His love seems like a lie and you can’t contain your sadness in a chalk circle. He’s even in those places too.
How to give away love like you’re made of it:
Wake up. Smile. Help people. Feed people. Joy with people. Grieve with people. Repeat.
I thought I knew how to be kind to people before I got here. I think I was wrong. I used to think kindness was just being nice, but it’s actually more intentional than that. Kindness is an interruption in the narrative of despair. It should shake things up. It should change things, even if it’s only for two minutes. It should be obvious and evident. It should be remembered. It should be something we work towards.
A lesson: Don’t draw circles around your sadness. It won’t help anyone. Sadness cultivates compassion and empathy, and those lead to action.
There is injustice. There is awfulness. There is desperation. There is poverty. In Romania, there are all of these things and more. But there’s also me, and there’s also hundreds of others here carrying the Maker and His interrupting kindness and compassion.
We’re in this narrative, and we’re choosing to stay, no matter how hard or impossible it gets.
If anything looks like giving away love like you’re made of it, it’s that.
9–12If you get rid of unfair practices,
quit blaming victims,
quit gossiping about other people’s sins,
If you are generous with the hungry
and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.
I will always show you where to go.
I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places —
firm muscles, strong bones.
You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
a gurgling spring that never runs dry.
You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
make the community livable again.
My hat is still hanging on the window in my attic bedroom here, and will be there till the end of May. I am documenting and asking about what the needs are in this place, and I have a growing list. I encourage you to love on people where you’re at, but I will also tell you that sometime in the near future, I may ask for your help in loving on these people here. Ready yourselves. Who knows? maybe one day you’ll be running through these hills with a child slung over your shoulder too. Maybe one day you’ll belong as well. It’s heartbreaking, but man is it worth it.