Friday, August 25, 2017

Three Joys for Every Sorrow

A wise person once told me that I should look at life as containing three joyful experiences for every one sorrowful event. This is relevant in that, as of next week, I will have lived in Quincy, Massachusetts for exactly ten years. I have never lived in any one place as long as this! In my Eeyore-like way of thinking, it’s been a long 10 years filled with much sorrow and little joy. I have some pretty strong evidence to support this pessimistic view: we came here once upon a time -all the way from the south of France- not because we wanted to, but in order to treat Esther at nearby Boston's Children's Hospital. And she died seven years ago, today

I used to feel a deep sense of pride that my life and vocation were transient, or "interim" and I often gloated that I was not like others -the common people- who lived their entire lives essentially in one place. “How dull that must be, how boring!” I thought. I was grateful that I had chosen a more exotic existence, perpetually, “on the road” with a suitcase at the ready for the next adventure. I regret that boasting now. Former Massachusetts Representative, Tip O’Neil famously quipped that, “all politics is local.” He was right, and perhaps the most meaningful relationships are local, too. Imagine a marriage where you met up with each other just once a year! 

I’ve lived in dozens of cities sprawled across three states (and four countries!), and these experiences have enriched my life in ways I still cannot fully appreciate or understand. But I’m finding that this view of things has also stunted my growth in some ways. When I am feeling depressed, to whom do I turn? Who do I feel comfortable with calling when I need someone to help in an emergency with the kids? And then there’s this thought experiment: You are near death and know the end is soon. Who do you want to see in these final days? Which people in your past and present life do you desire to grant access in these last days, as you lay dying? 

As I reflect on this personal decade of running in place, I am encouraged by three faithful and true friends that I have not been able to shake (though I have tried to lose them at times through neglect, impatience and/or resentment!). Still, relentless, these mostly joyous ones have weathered my bad moods, my multiple indecisions, and poor decisions, and through it all have been ever near at hand, ready to cheer, to comfort and to guide. There are dear-hearts whom I consider my closest friends and still others who could have changed me for the better had I let them in, but these three have a place in my soul.

The first traveling companion is the well-known, Mr. Faith. Faith is a slippery thing! Some say he gets stronger through use, others that this visitor is a divine gift that not everyone gets, and a few others remain convinced faith is a reward for some high achievement in pleasing the divine. I think Mr. Faith's message is basically the idea that everything is going to be okay even if it’s not. Esther died seven years ago, which is far from okay. Tragically, my sister in law Charlene died this past spring from liver cancer. She was 46. She leaves a devastated husband and three adoring teenage daughters. Definitely not okay. 

Such losses can be toxic and also deeply injurious to ones sense of justice and goodness in the world. Bitterness is a pill that some relish, but it is a lie and it will finally rot the spirit bones. In contrast, Mr. Faith has helped to transform my cynicism and despair into something more transcendent, though without a promise of immunity from suffering. In fact, faith makes special note of it: “In this world you will have trouble…” Faith’s focus seems to be found in the momentum of simple trust and purposeful appreciation of all the wonder and mystery that surround us. This life-long friend has helped me navigate many an anxious state, and many a depressive episode, whether measured in hours, days or weeks.

A second helper, a certain Ms. Hope has also been a gift to my life. Although she can be the deliverer of either joyful tidings, or awful, and verily, sometimes both at the same time, she has always been nearby, listening, waiting. Of course, life is all about hope and many have observed that we keep having babies as if to prove it! The cynic in me responds that the idea that some better future awaits, is but the daydream of fools –and it may well be. (That Hope can be a nasty thing, there is no doubt; think Pandora’s Box.) Hope gets its hope up, can be dashed, and can flat out make us sick. “But a desire fulfilled...” now that, that tree of goodness is something worth staying around to see! 

I have felt hope-less and seen such bereavement in the faces of strangers and even up close among those I care about most. Joy is a cousin of hope and she can surprise even a committed skeptic like me. For example, just last week I got to see a black and white picture of one baby-on-the-way. Not any baby, you see, but our first grand baby! (Just what is the feminine form of Wayne anyway?) New does not always mean improved, but in this case, I like to think so. My friend Ms. Hope has often been a pain in my side, but she’s mostly kept me honest, and sincere, and when I listen to her advice, she's definitely inspired me to be a more interesting and less grumpy person to be around.

The last of these (though not the least), is Love, which is a mutt-of-a-thing. At once overwhelming and distant, serene and passionate, it remains the one life force and source we cannot live without. We are one and the world we have known is many so that we can never equal in the giving the love we have known in the receiving. Love never fails, never gives up, but is it really the greatest idea we have been able to locate on the map of our hearts? What about compassion and justice? Are they not powerful allies in the mission of loving and being loved? And love has its limits, or, as the poet said, “Love is Not All.”* 

I do not know if my faith has gotten stronger through hard times and good, nor do I know if hope grows taller as it ages, but I am certain that love enlarges the heart, a lesson I learned from one Mr. Grinch, another dear friend. Still, I have made peace with these three precious life-guests, though untamed, master beings they may be! In this ridiculously brief ten year span, I have been learning to let these and other locals in, along with sundry annoying, boorish commoners (who are very much like myself.). This has happened mostly in the doing of the thing, by putting into practice the lessons they have been teaching me. 

I am not unique and am acutely aware that pain and place and blessed companions for the journey are a crucial part of each human story. I know that I/we will not get over this but that I/we will go forward in spite of this. Although I remain embattled by the personal traumas I have known and will continue to witness both in my private life and public vocation, I am positive that life has been, and will continue to be, a local event, more heaven than hell, and served up with three joys for every sorrowThat’s what this happy grandpa-in-waiting is gonna teach his grand-kids, anyway.

Our house is a very, very, very fine house...
Charlene E. Earl, a leader's leader, a champion of children, 
a lover of family, a faithful friend.

By yourself you’re unprotected.
With a friend you can face the worst.
Can you round up a third?
A three-stranded rope isn’t easily snapped.
 ~Ecclesiastes 4:12

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The War of Love

RIP 2016. Overall, it wasn’t a happy year, this one. It has been for many an entry into a bitter land. I am a person of faith and a meaning-making animal, so I am determined to count my blessings, foremost among which is the knowledge that I am loved by many and that I am not alone in the griefs I have experienced over these 12 months. In addition, in May our daughter Evangeline graduated from college and we also got to visit with our Californian transplant, Abby three times in one year! Tragically though, along with everyone else, we have been witness to much chaos as the terrible, catastrophic, cultural blood and greed wars continued unabated both here and abroad. This past year I also experienced the biggest health scare of my personal life and then in December both of my beautiful, but aging, parents were hospitalized for different, though mutually serious reasons. There has been abundant anxiety, there has been anguish of soul, there has been angst in the body. If any of this sounds familiar, then please do consider the following thoughts a hopeful dispatch, or encouragement to stay strong, from a friend out here on the front lines of our mutual, ongoing war of love.

Long before our daughter Esther died in 2010, I was aware that any new experience of grief would have the potential effect of reminding me of any and all past losses. Somehow I thought this knowledge alone would help to insulate me from any future despair, but it really hasn’t. Every loss carries in its impact a singular pain that is as unique as the individual loss itself. For example, as the recent presidential election evening wore on, I felt a slow and steady gallop of panicked grief press down upon my chest. Eventually, I could bear it no more so sought to escape through the solace of sleep. I tossed and turned, and as I did I dreamed that my daughter Esther was locked up far away in a frozen place, kept from me by oppositional powers in a kind of abandoned warehouse or hospital. I struggled to be reunited with her, feeling overwhelmed with sorrow and guilt as I imaged in my dream that I had not been to see her for several days. I then started to feel overwhelmed with worry as the obstacles in front of me appeared increasingly impossible to overcome. I did eventually arrive onto the gray hall leading to her room though at that very moment something lodged in my eye, which had the immediate effect of ruining my vision, at least temporarily. “So very close!” I thought, only to be delayed due to the physical discomfort and agony I felt. My dream ended there and I awakened again into this world, a new and fresh grief now birthed, firmly wedded to the memory of a former ripping.

Many years ago, I experienced a wild and dramatic conversion that lead me to make a home within what I later came to know as Evangelical Christianity. This event changed my life! In the long decades since that day my faith has continued to grow richer and deeper, though it has also fundamentally changed. I am no longer the biblical literalist that I once was. This has concerned many of my friends and family members, some of whom remain convinced that I buried all evidence of any, “true faith” the day my middle child descended into the earth. However, though many things are now different, I am in most ways still the same person, having spent my entire adult life as an ambassador of hope, a reconciler, bridge-builder and dedicated wall-breaker. It is true that since Esther's death a perpetual sadness has mocked my attempts at happiness, often wearying me with the addition of new griefs, which have become linked to former losses like some discarded necklace that nobody wants to wear.

I understand that some voted for Trump because they were fed up with politics as usual. They were hurting in many ways and sincerely wanted to see change, which was clearly understandable. However, for many people with a sincere faith practice like mine, a Trump presidency may eventually come to be seen as a journey of diminishment, a nightmarish passel of insults, and one long term of dis-endearment. Let me be clear, I do not believe that Trump is a villain any more than I believe that Hillary is a monster, but I do feel outrage that his incredibly inflammatory rhetoric and unacceptable behavior were largely overlooked while at the same time, she was so consistently and hatefully demonized. In the end, I remain convinced that our cultural-wide and deeply enshrined belief that powerful women must somehow be corrupt had much to do with the final outcome of this election (think The Fall). This is a terrible injustice, not only to Clinton, but to women in general, and I can only hope that going forward every citizen of this great country will work tirelessly to undo this ridiculous and hateful doctrine. I am mostly disappointed in myself, though, for my gullibility and overall naiveté, for having been so easily seduced by the false hope that good and reasonable people would somehow control things exactly as they wished, no doubt a wistful remnant of my earlier ignorance.

From my viewpoint, as 2017 dawns, we have entered a frozen place. Though chilling, I am trying to be grateful for each of these new, though unwelcome visitors and for any familiar, long settled ghosts that I understand to be made up of present sufferings, bitter memories, or past, beloved losses. But I cannot fully despair, for though my vision may become temporarily blunted at times (and with such beauty so close!), I have seen that a short life can have an enduring purpose, and that it’s possible for the hopeful and the courageous to live fully into any weakness, to stay warm into deepest winter, and to thrive even in the midst of chaos. Friends, that's what the war of love is for.

Why do we never get an answer
When we're knocking at the door?
Because the truth is hard to swallow
That's what the war of love is for.

~From the song Question by The Moody Blues