Facing the unfaceable.
How on earth do you do it? If you do it.
I think it’s fair to say denial, or avoidance, is part of human nature. An expert might explain it’s about coping and survival – somehow getting through that initial stage of a grievous loss, like the death of a loved one, or being told you have terminal cancer, or the destruction of your home and community by hurricane Harvey.
I’m almost ashamed to say it under the circumstances – the recent, untimely death of Owen Sound Sun Times’ colleague, Sports Editor Bill Walker, and the suffering of millions of people in Houston and other communities along or near the southern U.S. Gulf coast – but these tragic events have been personally thought-provoking about the trouble I’m having coping with growing old. It’s more than grieving the loss of my youth; that was gone a long time ago. Rather, it’s about the loss of the energy and vitality, and most of all hope about being able to have dreams and make them come true.
And then there’s the realization, finally, of personal mortality; and that it could come any time. (Even now I can’t bring myself to put the word in print.)
No, check that, to be honest, I do feel ashamed, to have such self-centered thoughts at such a time. I hope, at least, I’m saying something that will strike a chord with others of my generation who are struggling, grievously, with the reality of growing old. There are lots of us, after all, we who must have thought life would never end. Otherwise, why would we dedicate our lives to the accumulation of material things?
I will therefore tell you, my friends, about a hurricane Harvey news item I saw this past week on a Canadian TV news channel.
Maybe you saw it too. The mature man being interviewed had lived through two previous hurricanes that had caused extensive damage to his home and community on a small island just off the Texas Gulf coast. The most recent hurricane had finally blown over, the sun was actually shining again, and he was standing in the midst of the personal destruction of his home and everything in it. The other two hurricanes had been bad enough. But this one, Harvey, was by far the worst, he said.
The observant CBC reporter couldn’t help note he was smiling, even laughing a bit, and asked him “why?” It was a good question.
There’s no point in “wallowing in sorrow,” the man replied. It’s a killer, he added, with a look of more serious certainty that comes from having experienced and understood a truth about life.
I don’t recall his name, and haven’t been able to find the interview again on the CBC News website.
But, you know what, it doesn’t really matter. He was an everyman of sorts, speaking for a certain fortitude of spirit and understanding that many in the disaster area are no doubt calling upon to help themselves and their neighbours get through their grievous losses, and carry on.
Not everyone has that spirit. There are others who are not that good, soulless people without conscience who will exploit any tragedy, and the vulnerability of victims, to further their own ends, financial or political – or just because they can.
But I chose to believe such people are exceptions compared with the far greater number of those who, especially in a community crisis, reveal the best instincts of human nature to help others in life-threatening trouble. They are, they affirm, the human spirit’s essential goodness. They are priceless.
I tip my Canadian toque to that Harvey victim on a small island in Texas who lost everything. He is a wise man. I personally thank him for his insightful, inspiring words. It’s how we learn from each other. I’d like to go down there and shake his hand, and tell him, much to his surprise perhaps, that his words of wisdom, were good food for my thoughts too.
I don’t doubt for one moment he had more than his moment of sorrow, at what had happened to himself, his neighbours and his wider community. And I’m also sure he reached out, and will continue to reach out, with help and consolation.
Most of all I thank him for being the human being he is, a living affirmation of the worthiness of humanity. It gives one hope.
A version of this was originally published in The Sun Times in August, 2017.
4 thoughts on “Facing the unfaceable”
I can relate to what you’re saying. For me, it wasn’t so much a loss of personal dreams (I’d given them up before I was 30) but a loss of hope that the world would learn the lessons of history: a general disillusionment. An admission that despite all the truly good and heroic individuals in the world, greed and selfishness and bigotry are currently winning and there is nothing I can do about it. I think by my age (74) it all looks so STUPID! The standoff between Trump and Kim Jong-un? STUPID! What will matter in 100 years isn’t who won, but the hideous waste of individual lives involved that could be avoided if they’d both get off their (amazingly stupid) high horses.
As for my ever-more-imminent mortality – the trick, I find, is not to quantify the years between now and then. I can cope with the prospect of death itself, but not with identifying limits on the time I have left.
Most of all though, giving yourself a hard time about how you feel is completely counter-productive. Why let guilt spoil the nest however-many years?
Thank you for your thoughtful comment. What you say about “the loss of hope that the world would learn the lessons of history” and so on is exactly how I’m feeling too. Until quite recently I used to believe in the idea of progress, in the sense that humanity was moving in the right direction, despite terrible steps backward at times. I believed in the possibility of a better world in the here and now on earth, largely because there was so much that was good in humanity, great music, great literature, great spirituality, great ideas, and an essential goodness. I still see that. But lately it seems the evil, and yes, the stupidity, seems to have tipped things in the wrong direction. Hopefully it will pass, but I’m afraid my faith in that is fading. I was never a transcendentalist. The spiritual message I held close to my heart re forgiveness and redemption was a divine promise to be applied to salvation in this present life, as well as after life. It wasn’t just hope for me, but for everyone. It said no matter what has happened before, the promise of being able to renew ones life and the life of the world is real, and possible – a divine gift, affirming one’s value as a child of God, and the value of the created world.
But now, I don’t know.
Your second paragraph is so true, and such good advice. It’s what Finding Hope Ness is supposed to be about, finding the spirit and joy in the moment, not “wallowing in sorrow.” Like the man said, and you too; it’s such a waste, so “completely counter-productive.”
Thank you, Helen.
Perhaps disillusionment is rite of passage in older age. I know my father was disillusioned before he died.
I agree with you about ‘the promise of being able to renew ones life and the life of the world’, but to me, the first step has to be to admit your mistakes (honestly, not just for the sake of convenience) and be truly sorry about them, and I see that as a huge stumbling block in today’s litigious world where shifting the blame is a way of life. Can you imagine Trump admitting he was wrong about anything?
No, I can’t. He has no conscience.
I agree with you about admitting mistakes, and forgiving oneself, I would add. I’m still working on that part. Meanwhile, I would be the first to tell someone bearing a burden of guilt to let it go, it’s okay, you’re allowed. As someone I knew years ago said – and I’ll never forget it – “there’s way too many people walking around feeling guilty about the mistakes they’ve made, or think they’ve made.”
I’m far from being a “bible thumper,” but by far my favourite moment in the bible is the Gospel of St. Luke’s few verses about the so-called “Good Thief,” who defended Jesus against the harassment of the other man being crucified with them. And then he turned to Jesus and asked him to remember him “when thou comest into thy Kingdom.
And Jesus said in reply, Truly, I tell you, you shall be with me today in paradise.
As I’ve often said to anyone who wanted to listen, Jesus didn’t give that man the ‘third degree,’ he didn’t say something along the lines of, you’d better tell me what you did first. He had already seen his heart. And he was forgiven. That has always been a very powerful passage for me.