woman sitting, thinking, looking at her journal

Dare to make a sound

There’s an old philosophical question, ”When a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Last week, I received an email from a longtime friend, asking for help with a medical issue for a young man halfway around the world. A small group banded together to pay for his travel to get treatment, but he didn’t survive the journey.

The intensity of my own reaction to the young man’s death surprised me. I never met him. I didn’t know him. But his situation triggered many more stories and injustices collected over the years.

I’ve not been faithful to journaling lately, but I couldn’t leave this story alone. I wrote, then kept coming back to it all morning. Kept grieving. Kept writing and revising, finding just the right words for a story no one would read but one I had to write.

Even though I have three big projects going, with deadlines drawing close, I struggled to get on with my day. I felt guilty for not being productive, and then felt guilty for putting productivity above grief. Jesus wept, after all.

Maybe you’ve been there. Crying in silence because you’re the leader and you have to be strong.

As ministry practitioners and nonprofit communicators, we are often called to sit with difficult stories of human suffering and injustice. And, even though we are storytellers, not every story is for sharing. Our words are also meant for remembering, exploring, questioning, and hoping.

“Prayerful lament is better than silence. However, I’ve found that many people are afraid of lament. They find it too honest, too open, or too risky. But there’s something far worse: silent despair.” ― Mark Vroegop, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament

I want to encourage you to use writing and storytelling privately. Allow yourself to make incomplete sentences and drip tears onto a perfectly good notebook. Journal, scribble, type, doodle–whatever works for you. No one is grading this. No one ever has to see it, unless you need someone to bear witness with you, which is also quite a release.

For me on that day last week, the words needed to land somewhere; I needed someone to hear the proverbial tree fall. I finally called a fellow communicator (one with a pastoral heart).

“Not for sharing,” I said, “but I need someone to read this.”

Some time later, I received a simple, compassionate text: “I’m in tears.”

There. Boom. The sound has been heard.

We all need people with whom we can share our laments. Not as a writing exercise, or for critique, but people who can bear witness, especially for those stories we can’t share publicly. I pray you have those people in your life.


Kay Helm


P.S. If you’d prefer the podcast version of this: https://lifeandmission.com/hard-stories-writing-for-yourself/

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