The sky is grey and close today, pressing down on us as like a thug seeking some kind of repayment for the rain it has begrudgingly given us. Thunder rumbles discontentedly from time to time, deep and oddly disconcerting after the months of unblinking summer skies. The ominous sky blots out so much of the view from my window that I can almost believe there is nothing else out there but the heavy-handed clouds and their ceaseless spitting.
And yet, below me on the sidewalk, umbrellas move in chorus like the backs of shiny beetles hard at work. There is life out there, yes, even under this murky, parasitic sky.
I've been watching out the window all morning, trying to be one of those people who cheers for the rain and says what a blessing it is and all that, but instead thinking of the sky as an allegory and wondering how many of those umbrellas are covering the heads of humans whose minds are as grey as this sky.
It's funny, when you work on a college campus, you spend your days with people in such disparate situations. You have teenagers being dropped full force into sudden adulthood, the smell of childhood still fresh on them no matter how hard they try to cover it up with cologne and beer and lipstick. You have the working weary, donating yet another decade to a desk just to keep the electricity on and a gallon of milk in the fridge. You have the countless, all-too-often-unnoticed workers who scrub the floors beneath those desks, who fry batch after batch of the french fries students will later blame those for the "freshman fifteen" they gained. And you have the academic elite, who publish papers in journals most of the rest of us have never even heard of, who have long titles and framed pictures on their desks of the time they met the president.
Each of these groups are full of people being stretched tighter and tighter every day, just trying to make the grade, to make ends meet, to get that promotion or finally get tenure. All of these people are sandwiched together in a strange powder keg of competition and stress and too much closeness and not enough contact. And not one of these people is exempt from the danger of the grey-ness that can fall over us.
Yesterday I sat through a meeting on campus safety, the kind of thing I find myself doing from time to time. It was a PowerPoint extravaganza of how hard we are trying to keep the fragile dam of one person's frailty and confusion from erupting and sweeping away all the rest of us.
Halfway through, one of the speakers was pointing his finger like a gun and walking us through the sequence of events that happened at Virginia Tech, firing his words and popping his finger at us out in the audience, probably never dreaming how disturbing the image would appear on our end of the discussion. He talked about those who survived at Virginia Tech, and what they had done to get out in time. He talked about the shooter on our campus three years ago, and the bomb threat on our campus last year. He talked about what happened at the Navy complex in Washington on Monday. He talked about Newtown, and I tried not to let my mind walk the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary and imagine the horror of that day, though the stories of Newtown have burrowed their way into my conscience like no other tragedy I have ever known.
Next, we heard from the desperate triage we have assembled here, the counselors and helplines and hotlines, the people who reach out to those in times of distress, all the numbers to call if you are falling hard and fast into the current of despair, or if you fear that someone near you might be. I listened with a bit of fragile hope at how much we all want to help, but I also heard the unspoken part about how we can't help anyone unless we know they need it. I remembered, from the times I've been there, how hard it is to know that you need help, even when it's clear that the current is rising and you aren't sure you can keep swimming much longer.
Later in the meeting, when the room was opened up for questions, someone asked about the part on our glossy, color-coded handout that said sometimes in an emergency, when all the other options have been exhausted, you may have to work together to take out an attacker. For a few minutes, we talked about throwing trashcans, books, anything we could find at a gunman. We talked about splitting in two groups, one to surprise and the other to disarm the suspect. We talked about hiding in closets and barricading doors.
And the whole time, I was looking around the room and wondering who was afloat and who was quietly sinking. Not perhaps into the despair that rips open and tears through the lives of everyone around you, but at least into the kind of grey that tangles up your mind and gets you thinking there's nothing beyond that impenetrable cloud of sadness.
I don't know how someone gets sad or confused or angry enough to take the life of another person. But I know what it's like to get so sad you question the validity of your own life. I know what it's like to get so sad it feels like you are living in quicksand and every step is so hard you're not sure there will be a next one. I wish I didn't know what that feels like, but I do.
And I know what it feels like to come through it, slowly and painfully through that mire, until you find yourself on the other side.
Sometimes, on days like today, I am so keenly aware of how many people are living through the grey that swallows up everything in its sight. I am so aware of how many people are watching the grey-ness of others turn to black and explode out on the lives of others, painting them grey, too, in the aftermath. I think of the people I walk by every day, never knowing just how thick are the clouds building behind their eyes. I wonder how many of them are believing there's nothing on the other side of that grey but more grey, and if they're really unlucky, the terrible black that can't be contained.
Days like today I want to scream from my window at all the umbrellas down below me, "Don't worry, it's okay! It only seems to go on forever, but that's just another one of its tricks! There is an end. There is another side. Just keep walking, keep going, keep telling yourself there is another side!"
The city is praising this rain today, though perhaps cursing the traffic it breeds. We are a state of blue skies and sun so hot it burns right through the springtime green by mid July. We know there's a big, round sun just on the other side of this rain.
And let me say to you, if you are mired in a time of grey that you can't see past, a sadness or a pain so thick you can't imagine there's an end to it anywhere in your future, let me promise you that there is more than this grey for you. I hope you will take the word of someone who has come right on through to the other side. I hope you will hear me shouting that there is hope, there is relief, there is joy to be found still in your life. Tell someone now, right now today, that you are overwhelmed. If they can't help you, tell someone else. Keep telling people until you find one who can help you plot a path out of the worst of it.
These storms, they run their course eventually. They always pass in the end. Be brave and patient. Be honest and accept help when it's offered. Be shameless in fighting the clouds when they gather; use every resource at your disposal.
And remember, when you come on through to the other side, to watch for the others who have not made it through yet. Watch for them and keep a hand out to steady them as they go. Give them the good word of life on the other side.
Safe travels out there. Mind the rain, and the grey that comes on us sometimes. Be a light if you've made it through, or look for one if you haven't yet. Godspeed.