John A Buehrens
When we remember those whom we have loved and lost, help us to remember also, O God, how great a privilege is human loving, and that not to have loved at all would have been loss far greater still. Amen.
“What’s a soul?” Not a question Unitarian Universalists ask very often. We are more likely to joke, “Where can I get one, cheap?” In our approach to religious community, we leave the metaphysical issues for each of us to work out for ourselves. But questions of practical religion, like “What does it mean to care?”—especially to care for others while trying to care for one’s own soul, too—those questions deserve a response.
So this morning I want to respond with a story. It may not be an entirely easy story to hear. But it’s one I feel I have to tell first for the sake of my own soul, and second for the sake of illustrating what we mean when we say, from this pulpit, that life, be it short or long, is simply a chance to grow a soul.
It’s a story about my friend David. Last summer David was shot. Shot in the back while crossing the street. Shot in a city he was visiting on business, by three young teenagers—one with a handgun—out robbing tourists.
David survived the attack. Just barely. The bullet severed his spinal cord. He was paralyzed from the waist down—at 42, as a husband, the father of two children I’d christened, and a textbook editor who loved his work and cared for his authors. Two weeks after the attack, he was brought back home, to a rehab hospital, to begin the hard work of adjusting to life in a wheelchair. But he was up for it.
A rehab psychologist came to see him. Later David described the interview to his wife Teena. One question must have had to do with anger. David replied that he didn’t feel much—no desire for revenge, no real hatred toward the kids who had done this to him. Then he was worried. Should he be angry? Would that be helpful?
No, said the psychologist. You don’t feel anger because you care about more important things. You feel connected to others. To your family, your friends, your job, your world. It’s only those who feel disconnected and terribly alone, who lose (or never develop) a capacity to care, whose anger destroys, both consuming them and lashing out at others.
A few days after that conversation, a blood clot formed in David’s legs, dislodged, and suddenly snuffed out his life. His wife Teena told me the story when she asked me to conduct his funeral service.
“Without friends, you die,” Teena remembered me saying in a sermon once. Of course the real truth is that even with friends, we all die—every one of us. Along the way, when our friends and loved ones die too soon, there is something in us that can threaten to die along with them. Some illusions, perhaps. Innocence may be lost, but goodness and caring can endure. The shock and the grief are real. And yes, the anger is real too. But unless it numbs us, even our anger at such losses can have caring uses.
Just before David’s service, a colleague said, with fire in his eyes, “Guns! Damn all the handguns in this country! I’d like to do something about them!”
“Then let’s do it,” I replied, remembering how, when a man came to Mohammed asking what to do with his grief over a friend who had died in the desert, the Prophet advised, “Dig a well for his memory, where others may drink.” Ever since, that friend has been working with Teena and with me, gathering support for handgun control. Gathering signatures on a petition started by a Unitarian family from the Southern U.S., who had a guest in their home the same week that David died, a young l6-year-old exchange student from Japan, who was shot and killed when he and his host brother rang the wrong doorbell by mistake.
Of course, these are cases that penetrate our rather well-protected consciousnesses. I won’t numb you with statistics about how many deaths—most of them among the less privileged, the poor—take place every day and every year in a country where handgun violence is so pervasive. Nor will I pretend that simple measures like handgun regulation will cure the epidemic. But there’s a difference between curing and caring. And the paradox, for those of us who like to fix things, to cure them once and for all, is that sometimes we need a profound shock and loss of innocence to begin to care. Our power to cure may be limited. But our capacity to care, as human beings, is both infinite and, I swear it, immortal.
David’s death reminded me of that. He and Teena had become friends of mine as members of my former congregation. When I christened their son Ian and their daughter Zoe, I remember remarking that her name, in Greek, is one of two words for life. There is bios, as in biology, which is the mortal life that in each of us dies. And then there is zoe, the life that endures, from generation to generation.
Truth be told, they were the kind of family who seemed to teach their minister more about what is of enduring value in life than I had to teach them. Both in that congregation and in their outside lives, I have enjoyed the gracious hospitality of soulful old houses they’d turned into homes, more with their hands than with money. I’ve eaten food fresh from their gardens, and learned to love their honesty and authenticity and their real caring for this world and the people in it.
When David was a university student in philosophy, for example, he volunteered at the local prison, teaching Aristotle to lifers. Sometimes what he heard or saw affected him so deeply that he’d have to stop by the side of the road driving home to throw up. But he didn’t stop going, or caring.
At grad school, he decided to go into publishing and was advised to start out in sales. It ran against the grain of his reflective character, but he never regretted doing it. Or looked back in anger at much of anything. He was too focused on what still remained to be learned, on what new things he could find meaning in, on growing his own soul and passing what he’d learned on to others.
We try to take the raw text of life as it comes, do what editing is possible, and then pass it on. This is like the folk wisdom of Aunt Eliza Jane of Kentucky, U.S.A., who one Sunday declared that she could explain the mysteries of predestination and free will a damned sight better than Parson Jones, though she’d never been to any Bible college, because she was a quilter. And quilters know that what you bring to quilting is just whatever life has dealt you—an old scrap of this, a bit of worn-out that. And that’s predestination! But choosing a pattern, doing the cutting and sewing—that’s where we come to free will! Some choose one pattern, some another. But it’s together that we best produce what’s full of beauty and utility and worth passing on.
At the service, I had to leave it to others, whose relationships with David were closer than my own, to stitch together their images and memories of him. I only tried to sketch out a pattern to help us all retain our caring. First, the paradox of grief and mourning. Grieving we each do alone. We each do it in our own way. No one else can do it for us. Often we’re tempted, in grief, to pull inward, protecting memories and feelings that seem wounded and torn. But Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn.” And that’s something we do together, whenever we share those feelings. Then, we’re not alone. Then, we enter into the deepest communion known to humankind—the fellowship of those who've known the mark of pain, of vulnerability. And in learning that were not alone, we are blessed, with a continued caring in which we’re deeply connected, in which we encounter something immortal.
The rehab psychologist affirmed it, and so did David: how caring and responsible we are in the way we live does matter. It matters forever. It’s not only that we’re observed, as Vaclav Havel puts it, “from elsewhere”—each of our lives inscribed, like David’s, in “the memory of Being.” It’s also that every life is a profession of faith, even involuntarily; and through the influence of a single life on others, that life has the care of other souls.
If there’s one regret I have, it’s this: David loved the theater and music. I’d like to have shared with him—because I know he would have understood—my feeling for a favorite musical, Sondheim’s Into the Woods. In the first half of life, that musical suggests, we all try to live a kind of fairy tale existence. We each have a wish that we wish, alone—to find a princess or prince, to have a career, perhaps a child—a wish through which we hope to live happily ever after, carefree.
It’s in the second act of life that our loss of innocence is likely to come, after “happily ever after.” We still have death to face. And the only triumph over death comes to those who learn to care. For love is stronger than death. And then, no matter what losses we may have suffered—of parents, spouses, siblings, children, or beloved friends—we can affirm together, “Sometimes people leave you/ Half-way through the wood/ [but] No one is alone. Truly. No one is alone.”
“Your soul will live on, you know,” says Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, to a young woman who is dying of cancer. “Your soul is you in others, others in you.” And so it is. Those who love most and care most deeply are those whose influence for good is broadest and most enduring.
In our soul-care groups, as we support one another in growing a soul, in living lives that are worth the dying, may we also learn that to care for a soul, whether our own or that of someone else who grieves, is not to try to cure or fix things. As Henry Nouwen puts it, “The friend who cares makes it clear that, whatever happens in the external world, simply being present to each other is what really matters.”
May we learn together to pass through the things that are fleeting, so as to be richer in those that abide. The beauty that lives with loving kindness. The transmutation of suffering into understanding love. The caring which, if we can fell it deeply enough, will endure from generation to generation.
Then, individually and together, we will be blessed and be more of a blessing in this world, which so needs all the help it can get in caring for its immortal soul. God bless us all. Amen and amen.
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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.
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