I hate leaving for trips, but I also—sometimes—hate returning. There is so much to do. There are all the things I didn’t do while away, and all the things I normally do when I’m home, and all the things my trip generates.
I returned home late last Friday night from a week long set of planning meetings. Sure enough, my “normal” things for last week didn’t get done by themselves; the planning meetings generated a huge list of terrific things to do; and I had my normal new week’s list just waiting for action.
I felt overwhelmed and weighed down, besieged by an army of action items. As I charged through my to-do list, the battle went downhill. Technology misfired, people were late, misunderstandings abounded, and phone interruptions ruled.
Instead of bleeding with a sword through my heart, I was dying of a thousand paper cuts; instead of facing the hulking, flying Nazgûl, I was surrounded by ten thousand blood-sucking mosquitoes.
But WHY was I overwhelmed?
I once watched an episode of Hoarders. A woman had collected thousands of items, ranging from her son’s childhood clothes to useless garage sale knickknacks purchased over the years. As a counselor helped sift through her “treasures,” the woman broke down and wept. She was overwhelmed.
It wasn’t the volume of work that overwhelmed her (she could have purged everything in a month). It was the emotional work. Each item represented the physical loss of a past reminder or a future hope. And her emotions overwhelmed her.
Likewise, my sense of besieged inundation arose more from an emotional content than from the volume of work. (I can usually catch up in a week or so anyway.) My issue was that I was hoarding. I was holding onto things. I wanted to help friends who were hurting; I couldn’t let go of that fact that I couldn’t “fix” things. I hurt for them.
But I didn’t just hurt for them, I also hurt for myself. While I didn’t want my friends to hurt, I also didn’t want to be “the kind of man” who let his friends down. While I didn’t want to finish projects late, I also wanted to be “the kind of man” who was organized.
My sense of overwhelmed-ness came in a large part—and to my shame—from a selfish sense of self-identity: I wanted to be this kind of man and not that kind. It was overwhelming. My paper cuts were somewhat—perhaps mainly—self-inflicted.
What about unbearable events?
You may have noticed this, but I have to face it: my circumstances were flea bites and my response was pathetic. No one had died, no one was sick, and I wasn’t going to jail.
I have a friend whose son just died, and another friend whose son is in jail, and another friend whose son has a terminal illness. They have a right to feel overwhelmed; they aren’t facing paper cuts, they are being skewered by a dagger in their hearts.
What do we do when overwhelmed by a dagger deep in the heart? Years ago my father-in-law died unexpectedly. The day before he died, he phoned me, but I was traveling and didn’t return the call. The next day he was dead. My grief was palpable. Why hadn’t I returned his call? What would he have said to me? What could I have said to him?
And my grief was small compared to my friend who just lost his son. It was merely a taste—a bitter taste—but only a sip of the cup of my friend’s anguish.
What can God say to this kind of agony?
Something moved me this morning when I read Mark’s description of the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus tells his disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34).
Why was Jesus so “overwhelmed”? Later, he seems so calm, during the trial, and while beaten, and even on the cross. Yet here he is “overwhelmed … to the point of death.” Jesus can’t have been using hyperbole or exaggeration (like I was doing about my life).
Just before this verse, scripture says, Jesus “began to be deeply distressed and troubled.” A friend once told me the Greek word for deeply distressed means to be astonished, stunned, and shocked; and the word for troubled means to be filled with a loathing, full of distress, overflowing with heaviness.
Jesus was stunned; every spiritual nerve was on fire; he was filled with a measure of distress with which only an eternal being could overflow. He was in torment in ways I could never imagine. A commentator wrote,
It was … the horror of the one who lives wholly for the Father at the prospect of alienation from God … Jesus came to be with the Father for an interlude before his betrayal, but found hell rather than heaven opened before him, and he staggered. (The Gospel of Mark, William Lane)
And he staggered
When I read these words, something shifted in my heart. Somehow, in some fashion beyond my imagination, Jesus did more than share every sorrow I’ve known or will know; somehow, in some way, Jesus took the brunt of the shock of the horror of an overflowing distress.
This could only come from a love for me—and for you—that is unquenchable, unbreakable, unbeatable, and unimaginable. Jesus voluntarily took on himself every pain, every sorrow, every shock, and every distress ever known to any one.
He is with me in every fire, not merely present, but absorbing the flames in his staggering person so that I can live.
I am beginning to feel overwhelmed. With his love.