In spite of a friend’s deep suffering, the death of an elder neighbor, a loved one’s diagnosis of an advanced cancer, life rolls on straight through my son’s 13th birthday, and keeps going through my worries for my father, my sadness for an acquaintance grieving a too early death, and despite my own need for rest. The last several nights I have slept deeply, my body and mind tired from intensity in my work and pain in so many parts of my social circle. Although the season is changing to autumn –just this week there’s been crispness in the morning air—there is no beauty yet. In fact, right now, the earth is dry and everything looks a little down at the heels and sad.
I feel parched too. Tapped out, stunned by the suffering that seems to be around every corner. (And this is in the personal realm – don’t get me started on the suffering being perpetrated in our collective, national life.) A few days ago I was walking with a friend. We get together every couple of weeks and almost every time, we have to give each other what we are now referring to as “the horror report.” The list of awful things that have befallen people we know: friends losing parents, colleagues diagnosed with grave illnesses, aquaintances experiencing the sudden loss of a spouse. Not to mention, because really who can bear to, the soul crushing losses of a child to drugs or a friend to suicide. As we talked two days ago, we were both a little overcome by how many of these events we had to process. How to make sense of it…
At almost 55, my father’s long-lived genes not withstanding, I am well into my own autumn. A season that has always been my favorite and yet, as I am now realizing, a season in which loss and grief will be constant companions. I remember this happening to my mother probably 25 plus years ago. I would call home for a chat and she would tell me about someone that was sick, a funeral she had to attend, a comfort meal she was planning to deliver. I think I said the appropriate things, but asked very little about her experience of it all, and thought about it even less. Her words echo now: “It’s so hard to lose your friends. No one ever tells you how hard it is.” Over time, I realized none of the people she was regularly spending time with were the family friends I had known growing up. She wanted me to get to know her new friends and at first I was hesitant. Why did I need to know these new people she and my dad were so good at incorporating into their lives? Eventually, I gave in and of course my life is richer because of it. And, what’s more, in so doing, she taught me the importance of continuing to incorporate new people into my life, so that the circle can continue and not collapse.
But what she didn’t teach me is how to deal with these other characters that seem to want to worm their way in? How do I welcome Grief and Loss into my house? How do I acknowledge the pain they escort in, honor those experiences when they come fast and furious, without numbing out via one of the 30-wonderful flavors: alcohol, shopping, religious platitudes, busyness? Hmmm… Perhaps the first step is to stare down that complicated cousin they bring along, the one called Regret.
Regret is what makes any sorrow unbearable. And even as regret may begin with specifics of any particular situation, once it takes hold, it goes systemic: Did I say what I should’ve said? Was I kind enough, patient enough, giving enough? Should I have kept the china cabinet that was my grandmother’s? Did I clear out my father’s things too soon? Why didn’t I pay more attention to my mother’s suffering as she lost her friends one by one or two by two? Why did I say yes to that relationship, but not to that other one? What if I’d kept travelling that summer instead of coming home to summer school? What if I’d called the one I left behind? What if I’d married the one my parents’ hoped I would and stayed in my hometown? What if I’d gone overseas and not come home? What if I’d mastered the second or third language? Called the visiting professor/New York newspaper editor that gave me his card? Regret over some of it, becomes regret over all of it. There are only so many roads we can travel. We have to choose. And no matter which one we choose, Autumn comes and as we watch other’s lives being over too soon, we revisit our own, spending at least a moment at each cross-road wondering what if and wishing we could rewind the tape to see where a different set of choices would lead.
Thank God for Kierkegaard.
“I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.”
SOREN KIERKEGAARD, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life
When I internalize these words, then I can accept my new house-guests and the tears and disbelief they bring with them. I can recognize that these guests come with all the others: pleasure, achievement, joy, hopefulness, and gratitude. I can recognize that there is truly no way around these seasons and that really, I would not want to miss them. Perhaps I can allow myself to settle deep into enjoyment of all that is in this moment: the morning glories that are finally blooming, the time spent eating dinner with new friends on the porch, the excitement of a young person’s latest success, the delight in a friend’s soon-to-be born grandchild, the pleasure of a long walk and friends’ good company. I can cry the tears when I have to, allow myself to spend a few moments on what if, and then get back to the business of this, sometimes parched, sometimes painful, always complicated, capacious, and wonderful life.