We have recently lost giants in our community, men who were celebrated beyond this valley. One was a journalist, broadcaster, archivist; another a brilliant musician, teacher, tennis patron; yet another a world-class coach, beloved teacher, magnetic public speaker. Each had moved with unbridled energy, love and intelligence, and then they were gone.
As we move along in life, we are reminded that death is no longer a distant concern. News of it surrounds us. Our friends, our relatives, leave with alarming frequency. The losses mount and it seems more than we should bear. For the living, death can be exhausting. Life in an imperfect world tells us that many things break ‒ especially hearts.
A friend who died long ago after a protracted battle with cancer wrote that what the years of living give us is not wisdom, but scar tissue. The best we can hope for is someone to share the anxiety, the pain, the fear. The lucky person is one who can call two or three others to his side when he needs the comfort of a hand, a voice, a smile ‒ or thinks he needs that, which is the same thing.
It wasn’t about dying, he said. It was about how one lived. “My own faith,” he said, “was formed by Joseph Conrad who, along with many other novelists and Tolkien’s Hobbits, found that our existence is a seeking without a finding, that the beauty of life is in the search without putting too much hope in ever getting an answer.”
Others, like Theodore Dreiser, (“Sister Carrie”…”An American Tragedy”) saw a world of profound disorder, a constant adventure but with no navigator, no chart, no order in their stars to guide them, a universe that was purposeless, impotent, unintelligible. Which is it to be?
We have known those who managed for years to face down death as it raged about them ‒ in friends lost, relatives stricken, and in the ICUs and cancer wards they knew too well. Against all that, they can find ways to search into the abyss. The lucky ones discover that the answer to “Why?” lay in the beauty of the search.
My old friend could not see it otherwise. “I can’t afford to believe it, not and get through this day and this night. The dark is beyond our endurance,” he wrote from a hospital bed.
In our endless searching, we hope at least that when we come to that black abyss we can offer a feeble prayer, and that in it are some answers.
My generation is at that juncture familiar for the call, news that another friend or relative is gone. It’s a strange lingering, knowing in our hearts that the days of sweetness, the interludes of simplicity in life are slipping away, one friend, one spouse, one relative at a time, as we hold a cap over our heart, peering into that abyss, hoping for an answer.
An old priest in one of Morris West’s novels spent a lifetime in the church contemplating the sins of man and the cruelties of life. He decided that God is an imperfect architect. “One cannot understand the world,” he said. “One can only love it.”