Patrick Kavanagh, the Irish poet, once wrote:
We are not alone in our loneliness,
Others have been here and known
Griefs we thought our special own
Problems that we could not solve
Loves that we could not have
Pleasures that we missed by inches.
We all suffer pain, even at times tragedies. They mark us for life, for good or for bad. Those who learn to deal with their darker moments grow, eventually finding light even in the darkness. Little by little they put tragedy into a broader perspective. While dealing with hurts, they refuse to wallow in them. They move forward, changed by painful experiences and renewed by them. Unwilling to let the past dominate their lives, they forge a new future.
A wise counselor once said to me that the ability to close some doors, never to open them again, is one of the principal signs of maturity. Let me suggest five significant moments when door-closing is essential for human, spiritual growth.
It is frightening to see anger, resentment or bitterness carved into a human face. The face is really very supple. We hope as Christians that it will radiate the peace and joy of the Lord. But some faces harden. At best, they project restrained combativeness. At worst, they scowl continually at life, only occasionally managing a sarcastic laugh.
A contemporary of mine died recently. I remember him as a perpetually angry man. Even 50 years ago it was difficult to relate to him as a peer in school. A few years ago, as his religious superior, I interviewed him for an hour. Listening to his list of woes was painful, mostly because I felt sad for him. He had gazed bitterly at the world for most of his life. None of us knew precisely why. Nor, I suspect, did he.
Not long ago the superior of a large community of women said to me, “I spend most of my time dealing with wounded people who are nursing hurts.” My own experience, like hers, tells me how important it is for a person to move beyond anger and to transform it into energy for doing good. If anger festers, it is terribly destructive. Unleashed, it results in violence and injustice. Repressed, it results in resentment, sarcasm, cynicism, bitterness, depression.
All experience anger. It is a natural energy that spontaneously arises within us when we perceive something as menacing. It helps us to deal with evil, but like all spontaneous emotions, it can be used well or badly. Many have trouble handling it well. Most of us, at some time in our lives, need help in channeling it toward positive ends. Those outraged at the plight of the hungry in the world must find positive ways to release their pent-up energy in programs for feeding the famine-stricken or for investigating the causes of their hunger. Those who harbor long-nurtured anger against their mother or father or their boss or religious superior must find ways of freeing themselves from the “control” of a parent or authority figure (who is sometimes long dead) and to move on into the future, determined not to make the same mistakes as their predecessors, a trap into which most angry people fall. Learning to be compassionate toward oneself, and eventually toward others, can have a profound effect in softening and even quelling anger.
A key question to pose to those who are eternally angry is this: Do you want to project light in the world, or be an ominous shadow wherever you walk? Are you light in your home, or the office or the classroom? That is not only a question, but a choice. We can choose what we project: light or darkness.
Nothing is the same after the death of those we love. Our grief upon losing them is terrible. Something breaks within us. We want to cry out in pain, and often do. Where love once filled us, an empty space now achingly reminds us of our loss.
The Christian celebration of death and resurrection surely helps enormously. Wakes give us time for mourning, with the support of family and friends. The Eucharist proclaims, even sings, the presence of the risen Lord and his promise of life. We believe, in professing the communion of saints, that the dead remain with us, even while they live in the Lord.
But it is very hard to let go of grief. Those whom we love are irreplaceable, because each love is unique. They leave a lonely dwelling place in our heart that will never be adequately filled. Yet in fact, that intimate room actually remains occupied in a new and different way by the memory of the beloved, with whom, we believe as Christians, we remain united in abiding love.
The human heart has boundless potential for loving. Its spaces are wide and many, if only it can open itself anew after the death or definitive departure of a loved one. The reopening of the grieving heart is not easy. Some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful sonnets are dedicated to the theme:
No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell.
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.
Sadly, some fall in love with their own grieving. They find it wrenching to let it go. But the time comes when we must move on if we are to live healthily, when those whom we love in the communion of saints would surely urge us to open a new space in our heart for new loves, to create a new home for others, even if the newly constructed dwelling place is never quite the same as the old one.
We believe that death is not the final word. Allowing our grief to die is to allow new life to emerge. The challenge is to transform a grieving heart into a heart open to love anew. It is not that new love “fixes” everything. Rather, it gives birth to new life while allowing inner healing to take place. Rainer Maria Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet writes: “Love is this—that two solitudes border, protect, and salute one another.” Uninvasive love salutes a person’s inner mystery, respects the beloved’s solitude and journeys faithfully with one’s friends.
Is there anyone who never fails? All of us experience failure, sometimes in small matters and occasionally in very serious ones. Marriages fail, at times breaking up quite badly. Jobs that seemed promising turn out to be disillusioning. Children whom we love wholeheartedly and nurture as best we can become resentful, do not listen to us, turn to drugs or drink and seem destined toward an alienated life.
I have always been struck by the resilience of politicians. Many have been undaunted by defeat. John Adams felt an utter failure on Dec. 3, 1800, when his son Charles died from alcoholism and on the very same day he himself lost his bid for re-election as president of the United States. But he later felt a huge success at the election of another son, John Quincy, as president in 1825. Abraham Lincoln lost in the senate race of 1858, only to be elected president in 1860. Grover Cleveland was elected, defeated and elected in three successive presidential campaigns. George Bush Sr. lost the Texas senate race in 1964 and again in 1970. He was later passed over for the vice-presidential nomination and felt it as a rather public humiliation, but in 1988 he was elected president.
Fear of failure can be paralyzing. It can stop us from trying anything new. It can make us cling to projects and programs that should have been abandoned or revamped long ago, but which we maintain on an artificial life support system because we are afraid to let them die.
Shutting the door on failure requires humility, courage, hope, optimism. Life is never a continually upward-moving climb. It involves descent into valleys and landslides. Often we need an experienced guide to accompany us, at times to encourage us to move forward more quickly, at times to slow down our overeager steps, at times to urge us to stop, rest and renew our strength in view of starting out again.
Relationships, like all finite things, have a beginning and an end. Some merely fade away. Others come to a sudden, jolting stop. Death is by no means the only painful way in which loving relationships end. Friendships rupture in anger. Marriages collapse in infidelity and abandonment. Unrequited love slams into the wall of rejection.
I have known people who were so hurt in relationships that they protested they would never get “too close” again. I have seen others who were so crushed that they ran from relationship to relationship, seeking rapid sexual intimacy, but afraid to bestow abiding trust.
In “Hamlet” Polonius tells Laertes, “The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grabble them to thy soul with hoops of steel.” But what if intimate friendships shatter suddenly? What if the bonds of love break in betrayal?
The birth or the rebirth of genuine human friendship is possible only if we know that we are loved. “God is friendship,” writes Aelred of Rievaulx. “You are my intimate friend, and you have found favor with me,” God says to Moses. God offers the same love of friendship to each of us. Confidence in God’s friendship can be an enormous help in encouraging us to enter into abiding, loving human relationships.
But of course, that involves risk. Can we make the transition from ended relationships to new beginnings? That is more a challenge than a question. We must make the transition if we are to live in a fully human way. Friends are essential in life. In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Shakespeare describes the process:
So we grew together
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted
But yet an union in partition,
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem,
So with two seeming bodies but one heart....
We carry some problems with us throughout life. The inner weakness we recognized in our youth re-emerges in different forms in our middle and our declining years. Other new problems also surface that, try as we might, we cannot resolve: a chronic illness, a troubled child, a tumultuous marriage or even broader preoccupying issues, like hunger in the world.
In the face of such problems, a recognition of our own limitedness is essential. There are some things that we must finally place in God’s hands, having done our best and knowing that there is nothing else we can do.
The human mind balks at mystery and often rebels in the face of our own limitations. But belief in providence implies trust in an unseen wisdom that guides the events of our own personal history and that is able to reconcile opposites. On occasion we get glimpses of a larger picture in which tragedy works for good. Destructive floods provide fertile land for the future. Enormous fires ravage forests, but also purify them for luxuriant growth in the future. Pain and suffering at times mature a person and help him or her to grow in compassion and understanding for others.
The “hidden plan” of God is a theme to which St. Paul returns frequently. It is revealed in Christ, who brings together death and life. But the fullness of God’s plan is revealed only in the end-time, when all things are subjected to Christ and through him to the Father. Trust in providence enables us to bridge the gap between the polarities of human experience: design and chaos, health and sickness, life and death, grace and sin, care and non-care, plan and disruption, peace and violence.
But ultimately, even for those who trust deeply, God’s plan remains hidden. In a lovely hymn, John Henry Newman bows in awe before the mystery:
Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on....
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
Can we learn to shut some doors, never to open them again? Few things are more important in life.