Where we live, the breathtaking, colorful part of fall is winding down. The leaves have all but gone, crushed to nothingness under rakes and compactors and the tracks of dogs and children.

We can “hold each other up” because of another fragile gift God gave us as humans: love.

I was struck recently by a line in Ted Swartz’s memoir of two years ago, Laughter is Sacred Space: The Not-So-Typical Journey of a Mennonite Actor (Herald Press, 2012). In the book, Ted writes of the loss of his acting partner, Lee Eshleman, when Lee died suddenly. This affected Ted’s personal and professional trajectories profoundly. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s a moving, tender, and insightful memoir that also manages to be hilarious. Ted writes

Healing is about “getting back in the boat” and voyaging through the stages of grief and loss. It is an amazing paradox. We are made with wonderful capacities to love. We need to be loved, and—just as importantly—we need to love. At the same time, we are created so fragile—both mentally and physically fragile. It seems unfair, then, to know we are set up to experience profound loss. We all have the potential to become experts on grief. But we also are capable of holding one another up. (Laughter is Sacred Space, p. 264)

I’d like to focus on this fragility—physical and mental. The appearance of the word itself looks fragile, don’t you think, with a string of tall, skinny letters? It does not look like the opposite word robust, for instance, with mostly short, rounded letters.

I was never hit so hard with the fragility of our bodies as upon witnessing—close up and painfully—the death of our beloved dog, June Bug, nearly 15 years ago. On the road. She bounded out joyously to greet me after I came back from a business trip. It was dark. A pastor from a nearby church was heading down our road, and somehow the dog, in her excitement, went out on the road and was hit. I can still hear the pitiful yelp. The pastor, a woman, stopped, came back and mourned with us. I assured her it was all my fault.

This huge, mostly German Shepherd dog lay dying in the road, her majestic body just crumpled. Thankfully, she soon died, out of her suffering. I thought how fragile all of our bodies are as mammals. I prayed never to see such a sight with my loved ones. Humans (and animals) are so vulnerable as they venture near roads to jog or bike or even motorcycle, it’s frightening. It behooves all of us to be extra cautious driving, and for joggers, walkers, and bikers to do their part, too, in staying safe by riding only single file when cars pass or when on greenways, walkers and joggers can help protect themselves by using the correct side of the road, or even stepping off road if necessary.

So our physical vulnerability is one thing. Frequently families talk also about the increasing fragility of their parents as they age (maybe in hushed tones). Especially when adult children don’t live nearby, they go home for a visit and notice each pound lost, each half inch shrunk from mature height. It makes us face our own mortality and, as Ted Swartz says in the quote I used earlier, reminds us that the love and human connections we feel—and need—are also what give us pain and grief as those connections go away—whether slowly or suddenly.

Mental fragility is another thing and just as real as the physical, but perhaps even harder to understand because we can’t always visualize or see it. October has been mental illness awareness month. In the last 20 years, there has been much awareness of mental fragility as an illness that often can be treated and lived with, even when not cured. I’ll be forever grateful that I had the opportunity to work on a documentary on mental illness, Shadow Voices, produced a few years ago. My research included interviewing and talking to a variety of people about how they were first diagnosed and their treatment, and how they live with their illness. It was eye opening. A true mental illness is more than “just in the head”—it has chemical and sometimes genetic and environmental roots as well.

Thankfully there are many helpful treatment programs and drugs that enable people to live pretty good lives. One of the women I interviewed for the program, who is my own age, has now bought her own home and is living independently—something she thought she would never be able to do. Another man in the program has also successfully lived with his bipolar illness for over 10 years now—which is very encouraging. Ted’s acting partner was not able to do that—a fact of life, that, as Ted says, we mourn, grieve, and try to understand the best we can. We can “hold each other up” because of another fragile gift God gave us as humans: love.

For more information on Shadow Voices, go to the website You can also write and request a free, helpful pamphlet for families dealing with mental illness. I’ll also send along information on the Shadow Voices documentary. Send to me at Another Way, 1251 Virginia Ave., Harrisonburg, VA 22802 or.

Posted 10/30/2014 7:00:00 AM

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