Why does it always feel as though my faith has to be challenged for it to grow? Is there no other way? Can’t there be an easy route—or is there one and nobody has told me about it . . . and I keep taking the long way? Sometimes I want to scream, “Didn’t we already cover this one?” Why is it that the same lessons seem to repeat themselves for me? Obviously I still have room to grow in all of the areas of my faith, but sometimes I fail to see why the same challenges come up over and over—why couldn’t I learn all I needed to the first time around?
The perpetual lessons of faith have been the catapult for my growth, but the pattern of their reoccurrence has also been a trigger for my fear. If the lessons of the past have been what have taught me to rely on my faith in God—if there has always been a pattern in these lessons coming up again to make sure I fully comprehended their magnitude—will I one day have to face every pain of the past all over again? If every obstacle I have ever crossed seems to be accompanied by a follow up lesson. . . what on earth do I have to look forward to?
This has been one of my greatest battles since Emmett was killed: to let the past be in the past, and to have faith in the future. For these two things have come to define my thoughts and challenge my peace as they have battled each other. My pain of the past has caused me to hold onto fear in an effort to protect myself from obtaining any more of it.
Some days have been a unique rollercoaster of holding on and letting go and surrounding myself in a wall of fear—always hypothetically prepared for the next storm to hit . . . but somehow this way of living has been the one thing keeping me from doing so.
I remember a day at the murder trial when I had become so numb it felt I was no longer hearing about Emmett. I felt like I was genuinely learning about facts from a movie. Specialists were being marched off and on the stand; I saw many hold up their hand and swear to tell the truth. I don’t even recall what types of experts they each were, I just remember they came and went more rapidly than normal that day.
The afternoon was progressing well, and I hadn’t even had to pinch my arm to keep from crying all morning. I felt strong; I felt reassured that I was capable of making it through without causing a mistrial by my own over reactions to the facts.
A new witness was brought to the stand. The prosecution went through all of their questions smoothly. As the prosecuting attorney took her seat, the judge invited the defense to take a turn questioning the expert. He rustled around in a bag before standing to face the witness. As he arose from his seat, he pulled from his bag an oversized picture of Emmett—one I had purposefully never seen before.
Every detail I had tried to avoid for so long flashed boldly in my face. I could see Emmett’s bluish purple shirt— I had washed it just the day before he died. I could see his dark thick hair—I had cut it every month since the day we met. I could see his hand—with no sign of a wedding ring. I could see his face, and his skin, and his big eyes. All the parts of him I loved were captured inside that picture—but all over the body that was lying on the ground . . . was blood. He looked broken, and empty, and haunting—because he was dead. For the first time since he was killed, I had a view of what I had not seen.
Instantly my mind whirled through every detail of the moments after his death: to the viewing where I tried to see through the makeup that covered his wounds, and find the man who I had shared my dreams; to the funeral where thousands looked to me to find peace; to the burial where my children screamed at me to let them open the box and say goodbye.
I could not breath. Before my screams hit the air I ran into the hall. My panic attack was stronger than any I had ever felt. The hallway was long, and each step I took felt full of all the pain I had been bottling inside. Finally I reached a door I could hide behind—I pulled it open to find stairs leading up and down. With no knowledge of where either of them would lead me, I threw myself onto the window’s ledge and hugged my knees tight to my chest.
I sobbed like I have never sobbed before. It was real. It was all real—these facts about bullets and blood—they were not just stories and words and percentages . . . they were real. Emmett was the man in that picture. He was the man we had been talking about for days on end. He was the man who had written all those emails, and made all those phone calls, and slept with another man’s wife. He was the man who angry bullets had caused to fall to the ground. He left me here. It wasn’t a movie. This was all real. Emmett was really dead—and he died fighting for HER.
My chest pounded as the sobs finally found their freedom from the prison they had been hiding in—my head throbbed as my tears burned holes in my cheeks.
Soon, the victim witness coordinator found my hiding place. As she walked through the door my emotions finally came out in words. I sobbed, “Do they not know he was a real person? Do they forget who sits behind them every day? Do they not care that this changed our world? Does anyone want to know how this all felt for me . . . or for the kids? He was a person . . . he was ours. He was their dad . . . they act like this is all just a movie we are critiquing . . . but those bullets . . . they . . . they killed a man. That angry gun was fired at a father . . . and they silenced a husband. I won’t ever get to hear ‘I am sorry’. Do they not understand that? He was a man . . . not just a bloody body on the ground. Are they going to show a picture of him when he was alive? All we talk about is the body . . . do they even know he was real? These aren’t just facts—this isn’t just a story—that gun changed our life. This is all real . . . Emmett is dead because of that gun, and that gun was fired because of that man. ”
My heart gaped open wide and the wounds inside were exposed for the first time in a long time. The tears continued to fall and the sobs did not cease. Each breath I drew in was like a desperate plea for someone to care I was alive, or at least remember that Emmett once was. Each sob that forced itself into that empty stairway—a lonely song that felt as if no one would ever really hear. Each tear that fell, a hope for someone to remember the life that was taken that brought us all there.
It felt freeing to release all the emotions that had been eating me alive, and to have an ear to hear them. She didn’t say much; she just let me get it all out. Soon my body calmed down and my breathing became more consistent. Then she began to speak.
I don’t remember everything we talked about in that stairway, but I do remember she sat by me for some time. She told me about her baby boy, just a few months younger than Tytus. She told me about his Halloween costume and their holiday plans.
She told me about her memories of the times we had spent together, and our conversations on my couch the night Emmett died. I remembered her being pregnant, but not much of what we had said to each other. It was strange to reflect upon that raw moment of finding out all the truths. What a blessing it was to know she was sitting with me all those months ago—and she was right by my side again, symbolically holding my hand through another broken moment. My heart was filled with gratitude that I had been blessed with a friend who had, in a small way, been where I had been.
I have always said there is a glimmer of hope in every day. This day, during a long murder trial full silent despair, my tender mercy came in the form of an unexpected friend. In a time where I felt so alone and like no one cared how all of those facts had felt for me—she did.
The hard thing about glimmers of hope is the moment when they fade away. That night the hope had faded into fear: fear of the future; fear of loss; fear of love; fear of everything I had seen and felt coming true again. I lay in bed—with Shawn by my side—unable to separate the pain of the past from the fear that raged inside of me about our future. I didn’t look at him, or touch him, for fear I would love him . . . and lose.
So many of the nights during the trial went just like that. The new details to add to my remembrance of the past were like an open flame to the fears that burned in my heart. Some days it was hard to find hope, or remember any of the tender mercies I had been blessed to see. Most of the time if hope had shown its head during the day, by the end of the night my mind had twisted it into fear—taking those facts and putting them into the hypothetical scenarios for my future.
In life, sometimes it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I promise I understand! Every day seems to present itself with a new angle to challenge our faith—and cause our hope to cease. I am starting to accept the fact that I will never arrive—because whenever I feel like I am almost there, I am thrown a new curve ball or blindsided with a flash of the past—igniting my fears at the drop of a hat.
Not long ago I was sitting in my therapist’s office. I was stuck in the pain of my story and fearing the future. Like a roller coaster, I kept spewing out all of the fears that had consumed me that week. I told him about all of the possible scenarios that played out in my mind in my weakest moments of fear about what was to come. I hashed over the past, and cried about my paranoia of it replaying in the future.
The therapist finally slowed me down and said, “Ashlee . . . I want you to look around this room and name twenty things you see.”
I looked at him dumbfounded, questioning in my mind: Now how the hell is this going to help me figure out my struggles today doc? Reluctantly I began. I said, “Well, I see a clock. I see a telephone. I see a box of Kleenex. I see a book shelf . . .” And so on and so on.
When I was done I waited silently for the moral of the story. It finally came. He said, “Ashlee what were you thinking about when you were telling me your list?” I replied, “Well . . . nothing really. I was just trying to find my twenty things. I was just trying to focus on what you asked me to do.” He said, “Exactly. In that moment you were focused on what is going on right here and now. You were not worried about the past, and you were not fearing the future, because you were focused on what was right in front of you in this moment.”
My light bulb finally turned on. He said, “Ashlee, your story has been hard. The past has tried to destroy you in ways not many of us will ever understand . . . but you have to let it free, because the more you hold on to it and fear that it is duplicating itself—the more you fear moving forward. You fear your fate because of the past . . . but if you don’t start living in today—you are not going to have a future.”
Today? Was that really the answer to my fear? Living in the moment? It all made sense, and it was so clear how true that statement was. My fear of the past was destroying my view of the future.
Fear is toxic, even more poisonous than the pain. Our pain is what we try to protect with our fear—but ultimately we just cause more of it. We become control freaks, not because we want to make everyone do things our way—but more because we don’t ever want to lose the things we love. Letting go of this fear is really just accepting the fact we do not own the control.
Life is so hard. It is scary, the unknown—all the possible scenarios that might play out tomorrow. What if someone I love dies? What if I lose at love? What if someone hurts me?
I guarantee those scenarios will someday come tomorrow, but I am finally starting to have a testimony of the truth that no matter how much I worry about them today—it isn’t going to change the outcome tomorrow.
I didn’t know when I was a young girl that so much pain was ever going to come my way. I had fears like any young child, but the actual fears that try to destroy me now were created by actual pain I have felt in my life. So I guess you can say they are mine to own—they were creations of my own mind. But one thing is for sure—if I created these fears, I guess I am the only one who can overcome them.
Easier said than done—I know these truths, I have learned them over and over . . . but I still get scared. I fear because I don’t want to feel the pain I have lived ever again. This fear tries to break me, and every glimpse of the past is a trigger for it to ignite. Every single day holds a reminder of the past, but in my experience dwelling on protecting myself from it only causes intense fear. And no night spent in it has destroyed the pain . . . it has consistently created more.
We cannot control tomorrow, now matter how much we worry about it today. With that knowledge, I am fighting hard to live in the moment. When I am present—I do not feel the pain of the past, or the fear of the future. And that is a freedom worth fighting for!
Take a moment wherever you are to look past the pain, to push away the fear, and to see the little glimmers of hope that are right in front of you. Maybe it is an unexpected friend who wipes your tears when a picture of the past flashes in your face and tries to slap you off the track of hope you have been clinging to.
It’s going to be different for each of us each day. Maybe today it is a warm hug from the autistic son who rarely shows affection. Maybe it is a phone call from your mother you haven’t spoken to in years; or maybe it is merely the sun shinning on your broken heart.
I can’t promise every moment of every day will bring you joy—in fact a lot of them are going to be dang hard—but I have a testimony of living in the moment, seeing the beauty in the beast, and searching for a glimmer of light in the dark.
So when you get blind sided by the pain of the past, don’t let your fear cause you to forget to see the friend who is wiping your tears, or the hand that is trying to hold yours through your lonely sobs in the night.
Avoiding pain is more than controlling the future—it is living each day to its fullest. When we are living in today, we are not consumed by tomorrow or stuck in yesterday. I believe it is then that we get to heal from the pain of the past and we are blessed with faith for whatever is to come.
Look around the room. Name twenty things you see.
Look in the mirror, past the pain and the broken heart—and into the perfect soul inside yourself. Deep down inside each of us is a spirit rejoicing to just be alive. That spirit has a perfect knowledge of why we are here. We each have a mission—a unique plan designed to refine us. So one day we can become as perfect as the spirit that urges us to seek for hope in ourselves. We each have our own personal broken pathway to our faith.
Fear is the lack of hope. The only way to fight fear is to find hope—to have faith for things we cannot always see, and live today for a future we don’t always know. God is near. In fact—for all the things we do not understand—He will one day help us see how it was all part of His greater plan. Turn to Christ when the road gets dark and the fog too hard to make it through. His hand is never far from yours. Reach to Him for the lack of faith that keeps you from overcoming your fears. Through His grace all things are made whole. With His love, even the broken roads that brought you here . . . can be made your pathway home.
Whatever hand you have been given, don’t let it stop you from playing the game. Live for today, and let go of the yesterdays that are holding you back from smiling tomorrow. Maybe your road to faith has not been paved in gold and your pathway to heaven has been hard—me too! We are all part of that same club—our very own earthly fight club.
All the roads that lead to faith are broken—the difference between the outcomes has more to do with what we do with our fear and how we develop our faith. Pain is real, fears run deep . . . but faith is greater than them all. So that moment when fear is planning your fate—pray for the truth to know how to see yourself as you really are.
May this moment be enough to remind us just how near we are to Him. May every broken road bring us hope for things we cannot see, and faith to live each day . . . for a future we don’t always know. Not all yesterdays are worth living for, so live today like you almost forgot just how broken it has been. This moment—right here and now— is the one worth fighting for.
The broken road to your faith is perfectly imperfect, and so are you.