When a friend passes on, we are likely to run into spaces in our thoughts and feelings where we realize that a touchstone is no longer there. This in turn can make us more aware of how that person played a role in our lives which cannot now be completely replaced. Such feelings can span the gamut between a friendly nod in the direction of that valued person’s company, all the way to a raw sense of irrevocable loss and absence.
This morning, I had an unfamiliar sense of how we human beings respond to the falling by the wayside of people we have known in our lives. Instead of simply noticing that more and more people are disappearing from my life as I myself age, I thought of my old mentor and friend, Eric, who shared with me how the people he had known in his younger years in Europe—and with whom he shared values and experiences–were now almost all dead. For him, it wasn’t just the loss of friends and the irreplaceable memories they carried of the person he had once been, he also felt that the very world they had known together and for which a whole generation had sacrificed personal hopes and dreams, had itself fallen out of sight and memory. Eric felt that the world which embodied his values, and which had earned his loyalty and respect, had fallen beneath the wheels of a careless society that didn’t honor the cost of those sacrifices.
I thought of Eric this morning in an unfamiliar context. On the one hand, I realized that I now have a fuller appreciation of how the loss of friends carries with it the loss of parts of myself. For instance, I don’t expect to ever again have breakfast with someone like Kip who saw me with eyes that were uniquely his own and bore the imprimatur of his unique life. I don’t expect to ever again sit with someone like Pat, who knew me in our time working with people with MS and ALS. We could together remember a time of life when we did good work together. She also showed how it is possible to remain your true self as physical disabilities gather and your scope of movement in the world shrinks.
I’ve noticed that people often pick springtime to pass from this world: Jon, Stephen, Kip, Pat; and this afternoon we will be attending a memorial for a young man who died this week. I now more fully understand something that Eric expressed in the decades I knew him when I was an adolescent and a young man: I know something of that feeling that our world is becoming poorer in the qualities that nourish and invigorate human life.
At the same time, I am grateful that my experience of these later years of life are significantly different than Eric’s were. I don’t have his sense that a world I once knew and hoped to preserve is falling apart before my eyes, leaving me bereft of what made my own life meaningful. It’s not that I don’t deplore the direction our human world is moving. I just don’t worry much about what I see happening unless I can see a way of affecting what is happening.
I suspect that if I looked more courageously and from the vantage of an open, wounded heart, I might cry out in anguish: “If it be your will, Lord, have mercy on us, your loyal servants.”
But, instead, I keep noticing opportunities that life continues to offer me to take whatever road into the future seems best. There always seems a path through the forest of arising moments that is inviting me to step forward along it. So, I keep walking along the road that is my life, feeling appreciation that it keeps offering me a way forward.
Now and then, it even all makes sense. But that requires a way of looking at this present time on Earth as a chapter in a longer journey. And if pressed about whether I feel confident that this longer journey actually exists—at least for the being now pondering what it all may signify–I have to say that I’m just leaving my options open–trying to act as if there is a continuum along which the living and the dead travel side by side—mere bundles of light in a shining cosmos of eternity.