Thursday, April 1, 2010

Bern, Switzerland

When I was 15, I spent the summer in Hungary helping build an orphanage. It was truly a life changing experience for so many different reasons and was a pivotal time of shaping who I am as a person today. At the end of our summer, we took trains and buses to Switzerland, where we stayed in the mountains for a two week "debriefing" period before heading back home to the States, our families, and the drastic change privileged American life is to what we had lived those two months.

During that 2 week debrief, I remember walking around Bern, Switzerland, and being struck by how perfect everything was. It is a perfectly beautiful city with perfectly beautiful window boxes out of which perfectly groomed red geraniums bobbed their perfect little heads. I vividly recall being initially impressed that I never saw one stray piece of litter or graffiti and yet something kind of nagged at me in the back of my head until it hit me: Perfection is boring. I was startled to realize that I much preferred the grit and dilapidation of parts of Hungary that we passed on our morning walk to our work site to the post-card perfect scenes in Switzerland . In Hungary, I couldn't stop staring at the deep lines in the faces of elderly men and women who hung about the cafes, and I wondered what suffering they had lived through. Democracy had overthrown communism in their government just a few years prior, but things outside of the government, where the real people lived, were still very impoverished and broken down. Roads were full of potholes where they weren't non-existent. Foundations had deep cracks running up the sides of buildings. There was a lot of work to be done. And yet, those men and women who had seen and lived through so much, seemed very serene and at peace with their corner of the world and what "life" had doled out to them.

I was thinking about all this the other day because the honest truth is that my life, from certain angles, actually, from most angles, is anything but perfect. I don't want to go into it here as it is too much a public forum, but we've been through a lot as a family the last few months. I, personally, have been stripped of much that I hold dear, and I've been thinking a lot about suffering and how it's our natural response to push against it, and yet, without this thing called suffering, I know I wouldn't be the (read: awesome, amazing, wonderful, i'm joking here can you tell?) person I am today. We went through a lot several years ago, too, and I would tell people who asked that the best thing to do when faced with uncontrollable situations is to submit to them, and here I am wrestling with the same thing myself. It's difficult to acknowledge that we don't (not really) have control and that the things we do have control over maybe aren't the things we should be focusing on. But I digress.

What I want to say is that Switzerland really is a beautiful country, with notably clean cities and sparkling water (literally and figuratively). But underneath it all is a country that enables criminals, con artists, arms dealers, and Jason Bourne with its banking system and neutrality. When you look at Switzerland a little closer, it's actually not a very nice country at all, despite all superficial evidence to the contrary. And if I really do believe that there is beauty in broken things, in brokenness, in being broken, and I do, then I have to look at a country like Hungary circa 1992 and see beauty in the rebuilding, the restructuring, the reinvention, despite the crumbling facades and the dirt and grime. And I have to look at the brokenness in myself and in my family and learn to see beauty and hope there too. And it's hard not to when you wake up to the grinning, happy faces of four beautiful boys, full of hope and expectancy. And you come downstairs to your best friend, who also happens to be your husband, who has made you coffee while you slept in and greets you with "pancakes are on the way." This same man who knows you inside and out, has walked through the last 10 years of life with you ("for better and for worse"), been at your bedside while you birthed the children you share, and who is still excited for whatever lies ahead. And the outpouring of love and support from all our dear friends who love us and love our family. It really is a beautiful life.

This was not meant to sound like a Hall Mark Greeting Card found under the "Feel Better About Your Life" heading, but I do hope that any readers facing their own difficulties and disappointments, and maybe even injustices in your life, will find solace in looking at things from a different angle. And if it's any comfort at all, our dear friend Jeremy Bryan reminded us the other day of the Beatitudes, which seemed fitting in light of all the suffering worldwide that we see and hear about and feel helpless sometimes to do much to relieve:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit;
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Happy Easter!


  1. Thank you for this. It is timely and beautiful.

  2. this is probably what you were referencing in paragraph three anyways, but here is what i was thinking towards the end:

    ...What we choose to fight is so tiny!
    What fights us is so great!
    If only we would let ourselves be dominated
    as things do by some immense storm,
    we would become strong too, and not need names.

    When we win it's with small things,
    and the triumph itself makes us small.
    What is extraordinary and eternal
    does not want to be bent by us...

    -rilke (from the man watching)

  3. beautiful, by the way! thanks so much for sharing!

    love love love

  4. This is very true, and spoken from a place I think we all understand. I hope there are cracks and dust and broken lines in heaven. As you say, perfection, at least in our broken context, is indeed boring.

  5. sweet lady. love to you. ps - jill, i love rilke

  6. Amen...precisely timed thoughts for my Good Friday.

  7. beautifully written.
    Jill..I too adore Rilke and what an apt poem.

    Thank you for sharing this.
    I miss you.