The Art of Being Alive in a Broken World

grief

I heard a wail coming from the back entryway.

When I got there, the scene quite simply broke my heart.

My nine-year-old son Quinn was on his knees on the floor with his backpack in front of him. The same backpack in which he transports a thick file-folder of his personal artwork to school every day—drawings, paintings, and writings he’d been working on for months. And this very same backpack was dripping.

There was water everywhere.

While inserting a water bottle into his backpack, the lid had flipped open and thirty-two ounces of water had poured over everything he’d created. Quinn had fallen to his knees in anguish. His cheeks glistened.

I know it’s just nine-year-old coloring and crafts, but I could feel the grief of it. After all, we can all recall some of our own losses, some of our own heartbreak and anguish, some of our own broken beauty.

Balloons pop.

Ice cream falls off the cone.

Sometimes, the dog really does eat our homework.

And lovers leave us and disease disables us and jobs get lost and houses burn down and violence explodes and accidents happen.

And age happens. Even if everything goes perfectly—and you live long and you prosper—the end is always drawing closer. Our bodies are frail and finite. Eventually, death opens up a big water bottle and pours out grief upon the life we’ve created.

Eventually, no matter what, there will be water everywhere.

We spend a lot of time fearing the inevitable flood of loss and mortality, resisting what is irresistible with our denial and anger and bargaining. And of course we do—grief hurts. So it is totally counterintuitive to move toward it and into it. But what if, like a little boy with a flooded backpack, we all just fell to our knees in mourning? And what if, in doing so, we discovered this:

True peace can only be found at the bottom of our deepest pain.

Quinn was going to be late for school, so we handed the puddle-that-used-to-be-a backpack to my wife and the puddle-that-used-to-be-a-boy got into the car with me. Twenty minutes later I returned home, prepared to throw away six months’ worth of creation.

But when I walked into the kitchen, there was art everywhere.

My wife had pulled each piece of paper from the backpack and laid them across the dining room table and the countertops. They were starting to ripple and warp, but the sunlight was streaming in and the drying had begun.

What if we laid our grief—about what we’ve already lost and what we will eventually lose—out upon the tabletop of our lives? What if love is any space in which this kind of lament is allowed? What if, for instance, we put so much pressure on God to keep everything perfect that we’ve missed the truth:

We can’t see God because God is too busy being the safe space around our sorrow.

When Quinn and his sister arrived home from school, the papers had all dried, and they went about sorting through the carnage, making a pile to throw away and a pile to save. He reached down and held up a picture of a lion’s face. Half of the picture was intricately colored and, on the other half, the colors had run together into an oceanic mixture of turquoise and purple. He looked at his sister and asked, “Should I keep this one?”

She smiled and without hesitation replied, “Yeah, I like it better that way. It looks like real art.”

He smiled back, and put the lion in the “saved” pile.

Perhaps the real art of being alive is coloring our lives the best we can—creating as much beauty as possible—and then embracing that, sooner or later, a mess will eventually be made of it all.

The art of being alive is realizing that fear is just grief waiting to happen. The art of being alive is entering into the necessary grief of an ordinary human life by choice rather than by circumstance. The art of being alive is grasping the gift of grief: as human beings, we are the only creatures on the planet that can grieve a loss before it happens, so we are the only creatures who can live our lives as an act of cherishing.

The art of being alive is knowing what you’ve got before it’s gone.   

Jason Isbell sings,

If we were vampires and death was a joke,

we’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke,

and laugh at all the lovers and their plans.

I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand.

Maybe time running out is a gift.

I’ll work hard to the end of my shift.

And give you every second I can find.

Maybe the art of being alive is crying now about the beauty that will eventually be washed away, so we can truly cherish before the flood.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Loveable is available in paperback, digital, and audio and can be purchased wherever books are sold, so you can also purchase it at your favorite bookseller.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Patricia

    Good morning, Kelly! I really like this concept and what a great reminder as to what’s important in life. My husband and I first felt this after our daughter almost died at the age of six due to a serious illlness. We kept that in our hearts and really learned to appreciate each day as a gift, until the mundane rhythms and routines lulled us back to a state of complacency. We again almost lost her at 10 and then at 22. Each time she recovered we changed our attitude and appreciation of the fragility of life. These experiences have changed us to the core. However, it’s a constant battle to keep cherishing life on the front burner of our minds and attitudes. We are an enigma among our friends who, although they supported us, don’t “get it”. Thank you for the reminder and making us feel like we fit in. You “get it” and your life will be fuller and richer because of it.

    • Patricia, I’m sorry to hear about what you’ve been through with your daughter and rejoice with you that she has recovered each time. What you say resonates with me so deeply. I’ve always struggled to maintain that perspective of attention and gratitude, because it feels like you always need a disruption to refocus you. Maybe that’s what I’m saying: life is always presenting us with something to grieve, if only small things, and if we are willing to receive them and grieve then life is also constantly sending us reminders to cherish it. Thank you for sharing, Patricia.

  • Kathi

    First, the art teacher in me is telling you that you can “iron” the waffly pages pretty flat again. Dry iron the page between slightly damp paper towels and it should take out a lot of the “waffles”. ;o) The “old person” in me is presently probably grieving the loss of my younger self and the places in my life that I could offer that ‘something’ to. Trying not to stay long in the mortality stage…it’s coming too quickly on it’s own. ;o) As always, thank you for the encouraging word.

    • Kathi, that is a great life hack, thank you! And may your life be a constant journey toward rediscovering that younger self that is still in you somewhere.

  • I go through these seasons with your writing, Kelly, where I don’t read the blog for several weeks and then when I get back to them, each one lines up with something I’m already contemplating. This week I can’t stop thinking about the Imagine Dragons song “Believer” (which my favorite songwriter, Jason Gray, covered recently. If you have 4 minutes, look for it on Youtube) and how pain plays such a big role in our becoming, how death is part of the life process, pruning part of the growth. Thanks for adding to the conversation in my head!

    • Confession: I do the same with yours. We’re spokes on a wheel, writing our way back to the same Hub. 😊 I’m going to listen to that song right now. His song, Remind Me Who I Am, has been one of my favorites for years!

      • Oh, that’s such a good one. My current favorite of his is “Learning to Be Found.” So much good stuff.

  • Shannon Sprague

    Holding my breath……… thank you………

  • Mike Gates

    Being who we are – fallible, mortal. What a concept. Happy Wednesday

  • Lynette Janneker Julius

    Thank you Kelly, I relish the time spent reading what God has put on your heart to share with us. On this coming Friday I have requested to assist at a ” Grieving discussion”. Yes, what if we laid out grief across the dining room table? What will we see? I have researched the topic appropriately for the audience and thought that this quote “The art of being alive is knowing what you’ve got before it’s gone. ” concludes what I have succinctly prepared . God continue to bless you on life’s journey.

    • Lynette, I’m so glad to hear that my post so nicely dovetails with what you are doing this week! Thank you for the very good work you are doing.

  • Ginny

    Yes, God is the safe place around our sorrow. What a comfort to know that.
    And from last week’s blog-I distinctly remember the time I admitted to the truth of a statement my husband said about me and I will never forget the freedom I felt. Seems counterintuitive, but it works. Maybe because once I admitted it, I could confess it, and God was there to be my safe place around my sorrow.

  • Ovidiu Radulescu

    Beautiful, thank you.

  • I just had a long conversation with a young loved one in a LOT of pain last night. I am sending this post to her with gratitude for your always on point thoughts that you express so, so well. Thank you!!

    • Thanks for taking such good care of your people, Donna. I hope this does indeed bring a little comfort into her situation.

  • Kitha

    Profound!!! Your writing has sort of become part of a continued conversation Father and I have been having for a long season now. A long season of fear trying to steal, kill and destroy faith, joy and peace. I know, I know, it can’t be done, fear has already been defeated….He can drop you to your knees sometimes tho….Quinn I know the feeling. What fear and every other evil spirit forgets, is that down on our knees is exactly where Father wants us to be! My heart felt what you wrote, “True peace can only be found at the bottom of our deepest pain”….healing words for me. Our loving heavenly Father never allows our pain to be wasted. He didn’t allow one drop of JESUS’ pain to be wasted. Without the pain JESUS endured, there would not have been a resurrection….no salvation….no safe place….no hope….and yes Dr Flanagan, sooner or later no mess, no beautiful redeemed mess! So I’d like to say two things to Quinn. Next time pain knocks you to your knees, stay down there for awhile and talk to Father, He will be right there on His knees with you, bringing something beautiful out of it all. And I absolutely loved your lion artwork!!! I’m an amateur abstract artist, and loved what the water did to your painting! It gave me an idea to try pouring a little water on my next painting and see what happens! Thank you Dr Flanagan for your faithfulness to your calling. Our Father is using you mightily to bless and encourage many!! All glory and praise and honor to our GOD!!!!!!

  • Susan Tjaden

    Beautiful, as always, Kelly. I hope you collect these posts to give to your kids one day when they are older. I love the way you derive universal application and insight through their everyday lives. It’s a gift for all of us.

    • Thank you, Susan. And speaking of gratitude, I need to find a way to adequately thank you for the important ways you shaped Loveable in the space of a very short conversation. I’ll take suggestions! 😊

  • Michele Bartlett

    I burst into tears at Caitlyn’s comment. And a little child shall lead them.

  • Tracy

    I need to read this several more times to absorb it all. Thank you for your faithfulness to delve into these tricky emotional places that keep us captive with their lies that “it’s all going to be easier if you just avoid this pain.”

    I’ve spent a lifetime believing that I had no pain because I skillfully avoided any hint of it. The truth has a way of catching up with you in mid-life, and I’m finding it so liberating to realize that the pretending is effort I never needed to exert. It’s a beautiful testament to life and love to have things to grieve…It’s so much better this way.

  • As an artist I sighed Oohh after the first paragraph. Salvaging and saving are often part of the redemptive creative process, as you so eloquently attest.

  • Rita Kerley

    Always, inspirational….😁🤙👣

  • A. Julie

    The sentence with the two puddles was a particularly good sentence.

  • Grace

    Amazing, since your writing is fresh, delightful and insightful…I never thought I’d day this…but I now have a favorite one :)!
    LOVELOVELOVE this :)!!!

  • Dori Anne Abbott

    Absolutely beautiful, my friend.

  • Melissa Kamrowski Karl

    Dr. Kelly, your words have always found a way to touch my heart, at just the right moment. Your message today, again, came at a time when I needed to share this with my dearest friend.
    Her husband was diagnosed with ALS within one year of their son’s death (20 yrs. old, hit by a car) and her mother’s unexpected heart attack. Her husband is now on hospice care, and we are all gathering to support their family during this time.
    She spoke with me two nights ago about how she is yearning for a time when she will have silence and peace from all of this tragedy, when she can find a way to redefine herself, and find joy after so much grief.
    She has been a devoted mother, wife and daughter, and now has the need to find devotion of self.
    Thank you for being a part of her strength and the support that she needs during this time.

  • Jomaine van Schalkwyk

    Hi Dr Kelly, Thank you for this post … it blends in beautifully with a book I am reading at the moment, “The Broken Way” by Ann Voskamp … Your writing is a gift … Thank You. Jomaine