Sunday, August 12, 2018

One Coin, Two Faces: A Sunday Rumination

     Among the greatest challenges of life is the struggle, when one is beset by tragedy, to remember to be grateful. Loss tends to make one close in upon oneself. Grief, especially, has an emotionally isolating effect. These effects can even cause one to forget what it is one is grieving about.

     We must therefore classify the grief that follows loss as a selfish emotion. It seems counter-intuitive, but a dispassionate examination of the phenomenon confirms that assessment. Consider, for example, the oft-heard wail of the recent widow: “He was everything to me. How am I to go on without him?”

     This is not a condemnation of grief. It’s built into our psyches because we need it. Nearly everyone who ever lives will suffer grief at some point – and nearly everyone who ever lives will emerge from it, probably to a state of relative peace. For after grief has passed, gratitude can return, and with it a perspective we seldom associate with grief: humility.

     Coarsely stated, humility is the recognition that “it’s not all about me.”

     Allow me to tell you a true story.

     Jack was an Irish immigrant to these shores. He’d come here as a married adult, with a wife and two children. Like many Americans of Irish descent, he was a Catholic. He and his wife raised their children to be Catholics as well.

     Shortly after their arrival in America, Jack ‘s wife presented him with a third child: his daughter Meghan. Meghan grew to become a bright and beautiful young woman. She remained a practicing Catholic lifelong. Going away to college didn’t change that at all.

     It did change one thing: she met, fell in love with, and agreed to marry a young American of Irish descent: a Protestant. When she brought that bit of news home to Jack, he was beyond furious. He absolutely forbade the match. When she informed him that the wedding had been scheduled and pleaded with him to escort her down the aisle in traditional fashion, he refused.

     Meghan and Jack never spoke again.

     Some years later, after Meghan and her husband had relocated to California for his job, Jack suffered a severe heart attack. His prospects for survival were bleak; his doctor didn’t think he’d make it through that night. Jack’s wife called Meghan to give her the news. She was horrified that her father might depart this world while the two were still estranged. She immediately boarded a red-eye flight to Newark, the only one she could get on short notice. At Newark airport she rented a car and, despite the lateness of the hour, immediately headed back to Long Island.

     She never made it. On the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, a drunk driver heading the other way crossed the median and killed her.

     Jack did recover from his heart attack, but he never recovered from having turned Meghan aside, nor from losing her before they could reconcile. To the end of his life he was a broken man.

     Incidentally, shortly after they’d relocated to California – well before Jack’s heart attack — Meghan’s husband became a Catholic.

     It is our shortfall in humility that leads us to do what Jack did. It is our recognition that we should be grateful for what we have – everything we have, from our bodies to our loved ones and friends to the most frivolous of our possessions – that makes it possible to recover from a grief such as his. His realization that he had created the very situation over which he grieved by asserting the primacy of his preferences over Meghan’s choice of a spouse was a classic failure of humility: a refusal to be grateful for his daughter and happy that she had found love.

     Gratitude is not possible without humility. Humility automatically engenders gratitude for our blessings. Without those paired virtues, the endless losses and lesser tragedies of life can immure us in a grief that never ends.

     We cannot feel loss without first having known value: the value we placed in the person or thing we’ve lost. It can be hard, in the throes of grief, to remember that. But to value something other than ourselves is an implicit recognition that “it’s not all about me.” When the worst has passed and we are able once again to think of the lost person or thing as it was, gratitude for the blessing of having known and enjoyed that value can return.

     And there was a day when his sons and his daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother's house:
     And there came a messenger unto Job, and said, The oxen were plowing, and the asses feeding beside them:
     And the Sabeans fell upon them, and took them away; yea, they have slain the servants with the edge of the sword; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.
     While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said, The fire of God is fallen from heaven, and hath burned up the sheep, and the servants, and consumed them; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.
     While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said, The Chaldeans made out three bands, and fell upon the camels, and have carried them away, yea, and slain the servants with the edge of the sword; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.
     While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said, Thy sons and thy daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother's house:
     And, behold, there came a great wind from the wilderness, and smote the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young men, and they are dead; and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.
     Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped,
     And said, Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.

     [Job 1:13-21]

     May God bless and keep you all.

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