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.
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.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.