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.