December 10, 2020


Newspaper columnist Charles Blow wrote about the experience of attending his older brother’s funeral in Louisiana.  He was moved by the sensitivity of friends who came to comfort his mother.  One relative came to drop off food, but didn’t want to stay long and crowd the immediate family. As she put it, “We’ll be here when the stillness comes.”

It seems that the comforter knew about something that we don’t often think about.  That is, until it comes.  The stillness.

What could she have meant?  Those who have been hit by severe tragedy know that in the immediate aftermath there is likely to be a flurry of activity.  Facing the facts, answering questions, making arrangements, taking care of legal and business matters that won’t wait, showing up for events and ceremonies, meeting well-wishers, making necessary adjustments. Then comes the stillness. 

What can lead to stillness?

  1. Death of a highly valued person
  2. Loss of health
  3. Loss of activity that was the major source of meaning (job, child, reputation, freedom …)
  4. Errors in judgement that lead to unintended, perhaps irreversible consequences
  5. Stages of life that have meager appeal
  6. Long life (moving beyond stages of life that were satisfying, outliving people whose value has been irreplaceable, waning interest and curiosity about life)

An experience of this sort unmakes our world. It draws sharp lines marked “before” and “after”. The “before“ demarcates the comfortable world, the self that we knew. The ‘after’ is the devastation of a broken life-world that remains. (Anna Gotlibis, The Moral Psychology of Sadness, 2018.)

What happens in the stillness?

Aloneness. The flurry settles, sometimes disturbingly quickly.  All the things that pushed in and demanded attention – either finished or delayed.  All who asked questions and offered words of varying comfort – silent. All who brought food and offered to do mundane tasks – gone. Treasured is that person who moves through our fog and finds us.

Cessation of familiar routines, rituals, habits that have bestowed security. (Children listen to the same stories repeatedly because they enjoy the feeling of control in knowing the plot and the ending.) We savor continuity. Brains are inherently conservative and want to keep doing what has worked in the past.

Stillness that is sameness. Fear that I will always be who I have been; loss of hope that I can change enough to make an important difference.

Stillness that is solitude rather than loneliness. Relief from busyness that defined me. Space for newness. Who am I anyway?  Can I enjoy times of play and calm? Can I experience moments of insight? Can I find validation from within rather than from acting out the role expected of me? Can I finding meaning within joyful moments?

Stillness as a pause before a new start. We face the difficult process of world-repair through the restoration of meaning – through our work, our relationships, and through engaging with suffering itself. The earth-shattering experience is not a virus to be medicated away, nor a tale to be forgotten, nor a deep sadness to be replaced with reckless optimism. It can be a catalyst for different stories about who we are, what we value, and how we might live in the “after”. (Anna Gotlibis, The Moral Psychology of Sadness,  2018)

Thought Starter Questions for Sharing

  1. What kinds of stillness have you experienced following extremely disruptive crisis?
  2. What did the stillness reveal to you about you?
  3. What did the stillness reveal about other people?
  4. How did you deal with the stillness?
  5. What new stories about the various layers of self and world have you fashioned?
  6. What resources were most helpful?

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