When Softening into Fear leads to Softening into Compassion

I sit on a stool in my kitchen with three of my husband’s closest friends leaning against the counters, drinking coffee, and waiting for Bryan to wake up. We talk casually, about work and aspirations, about life and new babies about to be born, about writing, and hopes for the future. I smile to myself through much of the conversation, grateful for the men who grew up with my husband, who helped him to become the man he is today, and who continue to be good friends, even if they don’t talk often and are separated by distance. They are good men, good husbands, and they will be great dads one day too. 

Someone makes a comment about some piece of news in the world, or maybe something about world war two, the specifics of the comment fade quickly from my mind, but the trigger remains. It hits me suddenly and without warning, that heavy panicked feeling in my gut. My heart starts to race, my breath catches in my throat. I can see it in a moment. I can feel it, feel what it would be to watch these brothers - not by birth, but by laughter - going off to war. I can feel what it would be to never have them stand casually drinking coffee in my kitchen again. 

There are some days when another world war feels close, when the world we live in feels heavy.

I take a sip of coffee and tell myself that I’m being ridiculous. I tell myself I’m panicking over nothing and there’s no reason to think that war is coming. I tell myself that we’ve learned from our past, that we won’t make those mistakes again, that the kind of war our grandparents fought won’t come for us. But my heart still races and my breathing feels tight. “Please, Lord, not another world war. Please, Lord, not another world war. Please, Lord, not another world war.” I repeated the prayer as a mantra in my head. 

The conversation moves on and I stuff the panic down. But it rises up again, different this time, more close to home; it comes, not by way of global concerns, but by way of an immediate personal battle. 

Today is Bryan’s birthday, and every birthday since he was diagnosed with stage four cancer comes packed full of emotions and questions. Will he make it to another one? Every year I ask the question, with the same amount of uncertainty, and every year God has gifted us with yet another birthday. Here we are. Bryan is 34 today and starts another year of life. 

But, in this moment, I don’t know what this next year will bring. I look around the kitchen again and a new weight settles in my stomach. What if this is the last time my husband and these three friends get to be together? 

They have come to visit us about once a year for the past four years and every time I wonder the same question, will they see each other again? Will Bryan make it to their next visit? Each year I ask the question without answers. I wonder if I will ever be able to celebrate one of Bryan’s birthdays, or a trip with these friends, without the question hanging over me. I wonder if there will ever come a time when I can stop asking and trust that the next year will come, same as the one before. 

Later, I stand in my yoga room fighting the anxiety that threatens to steal my breath again. I force my breathing to lengthen, as I listen to the slow rhythmic music blast out the speakers. “It’s alright, it’s alright…” the voice croons and I try to believe it. 

Suddenly, I am right back to the feeling of the morning, feeling the fear for my husband, for our brothers, and then sobs brake from my throat as another realization comes crashing over me.

There are wars being fought in the world right now. There are those for whom this isn't a fear, it's a reality. There are women saying goodbye to their husbands and brothers and sons, not knowing if they will see them again. There are refugees fleeing for their lives, leaving their friends and family behind, not knowing if they will see them again. And there are other spouses saying goodnight to husband’s far more ill and closer to death than mine, not knowing if they will see them in the morning. All the heaviness of separation and goodbyes, war and illness, comes crushing down on me in one wave. And I crumble. 

I recover myself and my breath, and then brake down in sobs again. I recover and crumble, recover and crumble again. Eventually, Bryan and his friends get home from their afternoon out and I pull myself together to prepare dinner. Slowly, words form in my mind, “This is the work of softening.”

And I think of words from the ebook I released just this week, words I wrote more than a year ago:

A friend recently expressed to me that she wants to get softer, and wiser, as she ages and she’s starting to realize that it doesn’t just happen. I’m realizing that too. I used to think that age meant wisdom, but I’m starting to see that is not necessarily the case.
More experiences mean more pain, and pain always invites us to chose between two options: to get hard, or to get soft…
I want to soften as I age, with each new hurt I face and feel. I want to create things that soften me and soften others, but I’m not always sure how to do that.
I think part of softening is developing compassion and empathy, the ability to put ourselves in another person’s skin…

As I cut zucchini and break the stems off asparagus, I realize that this is exactly what was happening when my own fear lead me to tears over the pain of others. This is softening. 

“Make me soft, Lord. To the fear, to the pain, to all of the world. Keep me soft in a world that is crushingly heavy. I don’t want to get hard trying to hold it all up and out at arms length. I want to crumble. I want to get soft.” 

I whisper the words to myself as I place the vegetables in the oven and then go back to hanging out with my husband and his friends. I hold the fear, softly, lightly, with open hands, as we laugh and play games. And I hold something else too, a new compassion for myself and others, a deeper openness, a fragile hope for myself and my world. 

Grace and peace,

PS - it's not enough to simply cry over the hurt of the world, and I'm not trying to say that it is, but letting our own hurt make our hearts wider and more open to the hurt of others can be a start, small though it is, a start, all the same, to something more. I hope there will be more thoughts on these things and action steps coming soon to this space, or at least to the hours of my own day.  Grace and peace, friends, grace and peace to cover all our tears and prayers and actions. 

Bethany Stedman