"I'm at the end of my rope!" Have you ever felt like this? Maybe you've experienced what David was feeling when he wrote, "I am poured out like water … my heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me" (Ps. 22:14). Being at the end, at the bottom, or feeling empty inside are common sentiments for us who live in a fallen, broken world. Loved ones die, marriages fail, and children rebel. We lose jobs. We lose friends. The terms "sadness" and "sorrow" seem too simple to label what we truly feel inside—nothing, numbness, void.
People in ancient civilizations needed something to represent nothing. That's why they developed "zero"—the symbol for nothing, none, nada, nil. For many people, zero represents an end, a stopping point. But what if zero could represent a new beginning?
In his book Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann uses the language of "zero point" to describe a certain type of nothingness that we can encounter in the wake of grief, that sense of sorrow or sadness that we experience after a loss. Sometimes our grief is more temporary and subtle, like the grief we feel over the loss of friendships when we move. Other times, our grief is more long-lasting and profound, like when we lose a marriage or face the death of a child. More than an emotion, grief is often a season or a process.
I experienced a difficult season of grief several months ago. I had been accepted into a doctoral program, and I needed a job to help pay my tuition. About 1 month before my first semester began, I started work on a curriculum development project that would last about 10 months and provide enough income to completely pay for my doctorate. The new company even paid for me to travel to their offices for training. After a long season of unemployment, I was excited about the work and the opportunity to go back to school.
The day before I was leaving for new student orientation, my boss called me. I had talked to him the day before, and he had complimented me on my work and asked how he and his team could better support me. I thought this would be another encouraging conversation, but I was wrong. He had called to tell me that the company administrators had met and determined that budget cuts needed to be made. Because of the cuts, they were no longer in need of my services.
Fighting back tears, I thanked my boss for the opportunity and hung up the phone in utter shock. I asked, "How am I supposed to pay for school now?" I called my husband to tell him that I had lost my job, and then I collapsed, sobbing on the floor of our living room. I was devastated. In a matter of minutes I had lost my job and my way of paying for school.
Moving to Zero Point
Even though I was sad and discouraged, I still had not yet reached the zero point. You see, zero point rarely happens simultaneously with grief. When we grieve, we often try desperately to hold on to what we've lost, believing that holding on will bring us relief or comfort. But the zero point happens only when we let go.
Brueggemann states that grief requires a rhythm of relinquishing and receiving. Instead of holding on to what we've lost, we have to open our hands and hearts to release it. When we no longer cling to what once was—the satisfaction of gainful employment, the ability to cover the cost of tuition, the life and presence of a loved one—we truly reach the end, the zero point.