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BREAK FROM BITTERNESS

Jenny Flannagan photo Jenny Flannagan · 22 Sep, 2021

I wonder if you have ever felt so bad and so low that you felt that you've just lost the will to keep going with life. I'm not talking necessarily about wanting to finish your life, to end your life, but more about that feeling of having lost all hope or sense of meaning and purpose. Just feeling defeated by life can come from all kinds of experiences, can come from bereavement or loss. It's going through a big life change. It can come through so many small disappointments. It can come from exhaustion or feeling like we've been fighting too many battles for too long. I can remember a time in my life when I felt something like that. I went through a loss and for months afterwards, I just felt completely flat and defeated, and like getting out of bed in the morning was a battle. There's a story in the Bible that I've been thinking about as I've been reflecting on that experience and on what it is that gets us through times like that. How it is that we end up not completely defeated by experiences like that, which are normal and which are human. And the book that I keep coming back to is the book of Ruth. Now, when we talk about Ruth, we're often talking about Ruth herself. She's held up as a model of loyalty and faithfulness and kindness and integrity, but actually I've been thinking much more about Naomi. Naomi is actually introduced to us in the book before Ruth is. She's right there at the start of the story. And in the first two or three paragraphs of the book of Ruth, we just hear about this devastating amount of loss that Naomi has been through. She has left her people, the Jews back in Judah, she's moved to Moab. She has got married. She has raised two sons to adulthood, seen them get married. And then, her husband and both her sons have died and she is left alone, devastated, heartbroken, and also completely cut off from, you know, her origins. From her homeland. I find it hard to wrap my imagination around such an overwhelming amount of loss. I am married, I have children. And the thought of what it would feel like to lose all of that is, is completely terrifying and overwhelming. And yet that is the place where this story starts. In that devastating place of loss. And Naomi, at that point, does what I'm sure is a human instinct for all, if not most or most of us, at least in that plane at that place, which is to isolate herself. She pushes people away. So her daughters in law come and say, you know, we'll, we'll stay, we'll be with you. And she sends them away. She says, no, I don't want you here. And she sends them back kindly and with blessing, but she sends them back to their families, to their original families. It's like, it's too hard for her to be with them or to be with other people. It's too painful. She just pushes them away. But of course we know it doesn't fully work. One daughter-in-law goes and one, Ruth, stays and famously says, no, I will go with you to your land. And your God will be your, my God. And your people will be my people. And so they returned to Judah together so that they can survive the famine because that's the other thing that's going on as well. It's not like they're economically secure. There's actually this devastating famine that means they don't know if they're going to be able to survive. And in order to find enough food, they have to go back, make this huge journey back to Judah. And then they arrive in Bethlehem, which is where Naomi is from, and there are people who recognise her and remember her. And I imagine her maybe not wanting to be recognised or remembered again, it's too hard to be with people it's too hard to be, to be held by that community. And she says, don't call me Naomi. That's not my name anymore. My name is Mara, which means bitter because that's, that's my whole experience now. That's who I've become. Bitterness which is that experience of anger, of sadness, of grief, of resentment, of a sense of injustice about what's happened to her and she's justified, isn't she, in feeling bitter, having seen so much loss, having experienced what she feels like, God punishing her or being unfaithful to her or that God has sent this trial to her. Of course she's bitter. And that feels like it has just swallowed her up. That's all she is anymore. She can't connect with who she was or who they remember her to be. But amazingly the book of Ruth isn't a story about a kind of crushing of Naomi. That isn't where the story goes. We know that it goes in this hopeful direction. And so how is it that Naomi goes from that place where she feels like she's lost her whole identity? Her whole sense of herself has just been swallowed up in these feelings that she can't escape from, that she gets no let up from. How is it that she moves into, into a different experience? Because it is a story about, about redemption and how Naomi begins to find a sense of purpose again. And she does that through Ruth. And what she does to bring Ruth and Boaz together and in making Ruth's position in the community less vulnerable, less precarious. At the end of the story there's this child who's a symbol of restoration for her family and is going to be the grandfather of King David. So, so how is it that Naomi moves to that place? I guess before I get to that bit, I think that a really important part of the story is that is that there's an acknowledgement in the story of the depth of Naomi's pain and that she's allowed to be in it and swim in it. There's, she's not rushed out of it or told she has to be something else or do something else. She, is almost kind of acknowledged and she's given the space for that. And I feel that's something that maybe we need to hear, that we don't need to deny how overwhelming and crushing and demoralising the experiences that we might have been are. There's a space to acknowledge that and to have that validated and to, to sit in that feeling. You know, suppressing and repressing those feelings does nothing helpful at all and certainly doesn't get us through them. But what it is that gets Naomi through, I think, is her relationship with Ruth. That even though she wants to isolate, and even though she feels like she has nothing to give anyone, really what she needs most of maybe what we need most still is that loyalty, that relationship, that someone who will walk with us, who will allow us to feel the things that we feel. And when we are given over to busyness, will just stay there. Because that's the place where we start to discover some impulse towards life continuing in that relationship. I think back to my experience of feeling so low and honestly what got me through it too was this amazing colleague I worked with and her husband who were just relentlessly kind and didn't ask me to be cheerful and you know, great company, but would invite me over and just spend time with me and allow me to heal in their company. So I guess my plea is if this might feel theoretical for you in the moment, or this might feel like it's really life for you. But I think the story of Naomi shows us the power of friendship and loyalty in relationship. And even despite our impulses to push it away, I think that's what we need to most to do when we're in that place of defeat is just allow someone, it might just be one person, just allow them to stick around, allow them to stay place, allow ourselves to be befriended and supported because I think that's when new life starts to grow.

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