Sometimes when the bottom falls out of life we are set free. We attain enlightenment, or an enlightenment of sorts, so perspective, some clarity, some sense of reality, some sense of dealing with things as they are.
When that profound thing happens we can expect to go through a process, sometimes a long process, a painful or at least uncomfortable process, in which we slowly let go of something and learn to live again. This is true no matter what we lose: A loved one, a work, a hope, a vision, an image of ourselves, a part of ourselves. Loss makes artists of us all as we weave new patterns into the fabric of our lives.
Rev. Greta Crosby
We’ve had our first snowfalls already, and for all of the promise that winter holds with its beautiful landscapes and indoor coziness, there is also a theme of loss in the season we’re now experiencing. There is the loss of light and warmth, and since the snow is yet to give its cover, there is a kind of barrenness to the landscape right now. So perhaps this is an appropriate time to reflect a bit on the meaning, or the many meanings, of loss as it comes into our lives in a variety of ways.
I know that when I get into such a frame of mind, my thoughts eventually will come round to how I lost my father, and its effect on me in the aftermath. It’s been over 30 years now, so I’m certainly in a much more reflective mood about it at this point in my life. But I remember well some of my feelings in the weeks and months following his passing. And since I am now nearly the same age as he was when he died—that comes to my mind as well.
My father’s story—parts of which I’ve shared here—is largely about his struggling to make something of himself and raise his family as he came out of the back country of West Virginia in the years before and during the Great Depression, and after his service in World War II. Even as a youngster I was aware of how hard he worked as a self-employed house painter with an 8th grade education; and of how tight things got when jobs became scarce. He was a very quiet and undemonstrative man, while still feeling the weight of his family responsibilities on him.
So when my father died, at the age of 69, I experienced more than the feelings of loss one would expect at the death of a loving and caring parent. I felt that, to be sure; but also felt that some cosmic injustice had been done.
As the year 1979 came round my parents had finally reached some measure of financial stability in their lives. My sisters and I were all married and on with our lives. Michele and I had just gotten married in the summer of ’78, and my dad looked remarkably well at our wedding. I felt a lot of gratitude for my parents, figuring that now it was time for them to get a little back for all they’d given and sacrificed on our behalf.
But it didn’t quite work out that way. In that fall of 1978 Dad began experiencing what was first diagnosed as a series of small strokes. It turned out, however, that he had a very rare kind of brain tumor that took his life only a few months after it was finally correctly diagnosed. The most likely cause was from the many years of his inhaling the fumes of the oil based paint he used in his work, before water based latex house paint came into widespread use. In a way analogous to black lung disease, my father’s work most likely killed him, and took away what could have been a much more relaxed time in his life. He was, as noted, only 69 years old.
My Edington grandfather, my father’s father, on the other hand, lived to the age of 90. He was able to do his gardening on his small Ohio farm almost up to the last year of his life, and he saw his grandchildren grow to adulthood. I remember wondering why my father didn’t get the years his father did. Why didn’t he get to tend his gardens and see his grandchildren grow up? And—as I still recall—the more I thought those thoughts the more frustrated I got. What happened to my Dad just wasn’t fair!
All of this took place around the same time that I was coming into the UU ministry, and trying out my recently-put-on set of humanist clothing. Rationally I knew there was no one to blame for my father’s passing in the way it had occurred. I knew it was pointless to shake my fists at the heavens in the way that Tevye does in Fiddler on the Roof since, as I’d come to see it, there was nobody up there listening. But, as just noted, that did not stop me from asking—on some visceral level somewhere beyond the rational—why this had to be. It was a question asked out of grief and anger, and even if I didn’t have a particular place or person or Being to direct it to, the feelings behind it were very real nonetheless.
Well, questions asked out of grief and anger are just that—expressions of grief and anger; and they are legitimate as such. They are not questions for which there is a rational answer. We know that. As I got some reflective distance on my father’s death I was eventually able to ask some more pointed questions of myself: Why am I demanding that life be fair and just and always work out right? Why do I demand justice in such a situation? And when I get into this mode of thought I often wind up in, of all places, the Book of Job. So let’s go there for a few minutes and then we’ll link back up with the Greta Crosby reading I shared earlier.
While found in the Hebraic and Christian scriptures, Job is really one version of an ancient folk tale which deals with the universal question of why good people suffer. It’s one we human beings have been asking in one way or another for as long as we’ve been on earth. Other versions of Job are found in some of the other religious of the Ancient Near East. The poet and playwright Archibald Mac Leash even got a Broadway play out of it titled JB. It’s a story, then, whose theme transcends the bounds of any particular religious faith or culture.
You probably know the Hebraic version. God and Satan made a wager as to whether a good, righteous, and prosperous man like Job can be pushed to the point where he’ll turn on God. So Job, inexplicably since he’s unaware that he’s part of a cosmic bet, loses all he has—including his children—and then gets these horrible boils all over his body. He has three friends who come to visit him and each one gives a long discourse as to why Job is having to endure all he’s enduring. That’s not much help. There’s an object lesion here: When a friend of yours is having a hard time that last thing they need from their friends are attempted explanations as to why it’s all happening. What they really need is your loving and caring presence. Job’s friends did not get that memo.
Well, Job finally does crack. Even the alleged “patience of Job” had its limits. He flat-out loses it, in fact. Like Peter Finch’s character in the movie Network, he gets mad as hell and can’t take it anymore. He lets loose, he rails at God, at the un-fairness and injustice over all that has befallen him. And God answers Job through a whirlwind. If you read much of the Old Testament you can’t help but notice that whirlwinds seem to have been the main mode of communication the Almighty used in those days. God must have had some kind of special fondness for speaking through whirlwinds. And what God says to Job—through this whirlwind—is, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the universe?”
As my world-view became less theistic, and as I took an increasingly critical view of the Bible that had been central to my religious upbringing, I pretty much tossed that passage aside. I decided that it was a cruel, heartless, and foolish—to say nothing of manipulative—God being portrayed in this story/legend. I mean here’s poor Job crying out at his terribly undeserved plight, and all he gets from God, in effect, is “Look, I’m in charge here so shut up and deal with it.” God is not one for feeling Job’s pain in this story. I decided this was a God I was not much interested in, much less able to believe in.
But something kept bringing me back to that line, even as I rejected the theological context of the story which has God and Satan playing out a cruel bet on an unsuspecting mortal. I still found myself asking if there was something I was missing in this “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the universe?” question. If I back out the God part, is there any kind of a coherent message still left? When I mulled all that over I eventually got a rephrased message that went something like this:
Who are you, Steve, to be demanding—or even expecting—life to always be fair and just? Where were you when the foundations of life and the workings of the universe were put in place? Nowhere, to be exact; and that’s the point. Life can come to us in beauty and in fullness, like the fullness of your grandfather’s 90 years, and it can just as easily bring its sudden and seemingly unjust losses, as it did with your father. Furthermore, you can choose and shape your destiny—to an extent. You can shape life—to an extent. And you should celebrate the choices and the opportunities you have. But in the end you don’t control life; it gives and it takes away. The real challenge of living—for as long as you’re given to live—lies in being able to creatively respond to what is given and what is taken. Like Joni Mitchell said, ‘Something’s lost and something’s gained in living everyday.’
Wow, I got all that from one little verse! As you can see, when I read the Bible I have myself a pretty free rein on how I’ll interpret what I read—which is the only way I can read it as a matter of fact.
On this note, let’s turn to that little meditation by Rev. Greta Crosby. In just a few short sentences she writes in a positive and life-affirming way about living with loss, and about when you find yourself looking at life from the bottom up. On first reading, however, I can imagine one pulling back and saying “Wait a minute, here. Hold on Greta, when the bottom falls out of my life I feel confusion and fear and grief and a loss of direction. What is this enlightenment and clarity and perspective you’re talking about? Are you sure your name isn’t Pollyanna?” I don’t know how Rev. Crosby would respond to such questions, but I can back up a bit from her words and then come at them in a way similar to what I did with that passage from Job.
Let’s try this: If I were to ask most of you what it means to have a positive, forward looking, successful stance towards life, I imagine the answer would be along the lines of being able to see possibilities for yourself and being able to act on them. It would mean trusting and believing in your ability to both take care of you most basic needs and fulfill at least some of you desires. Whether we like to admit it or not, we measure in large part what we call “success” and even our sense of self-worth by what we gain—both through our own efforts and through occasional good fortune. And I’m not just talking material gain here. There are also the more human and intangible gains like a good family life, a good circle of friends, the respect of your peers, some inner peace, and a connection—however you may make it and name it—to some larger meaning or purpose to your life. Such things—such gains—are necessary, I feel, for any kind of meaningful living.
Now, alongside all this “life as good gains” business, I’ll introduce a counterpoint. I think it is also healthy and even necessary, to recognize life as a series of losses. Some of these losses can be fairly well accepted, and others will come as cruel, tragic, and unfair.
Another of my personal scriptural texts is a book by Judith Viorst called Necessary Losses. I’m not going to get into it here except to say in very broad terms that it’s about the things one needs to let go of, and be willing to lose, in the course of the life cycle in order for one’s life to be reasonably whole. Being able to let go and accept loss, is as valuable for our ongoing well being as is our capacity for, and our need for, gains.
In terms of the personal example I’ve been using this morning—I’ve never felt the need to let go of the basic idea that my father’s death was very unfair, given the overall context of his life. How his life ended had an air of tragedy about it that I’ll probably never need to forget or deny. What I had to eventually did have to lose, however, was my need for everything to be fair and just when it came to how my father lived and died. That was my necessary loss that I came to reconcile myself to. That didn’t happen all at once, of course—it happened over time.
Moving quickly on, I know it’s just plain scary to look at life from the bottom up. I think this is why there’s a certain kind of discomfort that’s often experienced in being around people who have taken some hard hits. I’ve had more than one person tell me how losing a job, and being unemployed for a stretch, was not only tough enough to deal with in and of itself, but how some of their friends would act differently around them. There was a certain kind of uneasiness about them. It wasn’t that these friends were fair weather companions; there was something else going on. It was that the prospect of loss was personally unsettling to them; as in “this could happen to me as well.”
On a weightier level I recall reading a line from a journal kept by a person whose life was nearing an end due to terminal cancer. He wrote: “I never knew what fear was until I looked into the eyes of the people who were looking at me.” Maybe that’s what was going on with Job’s friends. It was too frightening for them to just be with Job in the midst of all he was experiencing—so they took off on all their rationalizations as to “why” it was happening instead.
To return to Rev. Crosby, what she’s trying to do in this little meditative piece is to take what is fearful and unknown and say that it ultimately can be life-enhancing. Not right away, to be sure. Recall that she says, “When that profound thing happens we can expect to go through a process, sometimes a long process, a painful or at least uncomfortable process in which we let go of something and slowly learn to live again.”
In those few words she describes the life dynamic that runs alongside our gain and accumulations: Letting go and learning to live again. In the case of a loved one it does not mean you ever let go of the love and affection or appreciation you felt for that person. It means, instead, letting go—over time—of enough grief so that you can re-engage with life again. This kind of letting go is far from easy, but it can also be a freeing experience—free to be, as Ms. Crosby puts it, “artists as we weave new patterns in to the fabric of our lives.”
The hope and the promise is that we eventually come to the discovery that life is still there for us, when we are ready to return to it, and become one with it again. Perhaps that is the enlightenment of which Greta Crosby speaks: That having lived the loss, we find that life is there to bless us again, and allow us to love it again.
Since I led this sermon off with a West Virginia story—and I hope you can get used to them because I have a few more yet—we’ll close with a song written by a West Virginia guy who’s from a little town called Slab Fork. (I kid you not). His name is Bill Withers and he wrote “Lean on Me.” It’s number 1021 in the teal hymnal.
February 04, 2018