Biologists tell us, “You are what you eat.”
Psychologists tell us, “You are what you’ve experienced.”
Theologians (that I like) tell us, “You are what you love.”
Poets tell us, “You are the sum total of your losses; your pain.”
One poet, Walt Whitman, for example, says;
“Sometimes with one I love, I fill myself with rage, for fear I effuse unreturn’d love.
But now I think there is no unreturn’d love—the pay is certain, one way or another.
(I loved a certain person ardently, and my love was not returned.
Yet out of that, I have written these songs.)”
We’re here to integrate mind, body and spirit. We are what we think; we are how we feel, physically and psychologically, and we are what we believe—our moral values, the ethical criteria for our decisions.
On Thursday I officiated at the funeral of Eleanor Reycroft who celebrated 109 birthdays: she would have been 110 in less than two months. She was born in 1895. She lived through the entire 20th century; she got her start in the 19th century, and experienced almost an equal amount in the 21st.
There’s an anecdote in her Boston Globe obituary about someone asking, “To what do you owe your longevity?” She responded without skipping a beat, “Accepting the fact that life is change.”
Last January, when she was celebrating her 109th birthday, she was asked what she wanted, and she said, “Why, my usual martini, of course!”
She loved baseball—watched the Red Sox win the world series 86 years ago, and decided to stick around until she could see them win again. She was at Fenway Park, the country’s oldest, for the first game there, in 1912.
She was a champion golfer, winning the Connecticut women’s open in 1925; she walked every day, until she broke her hip at 103. What was her answer to the question about her longevity? “Accepting the fact that life is change.”
She was a pro at learning to accept that life is change. Indeed, we use the Kubler-Ross paradigm to describe the stages of our human response to grief, loss and separation. Those five so-called stages include: denial, bargaining, guilt, anger and acceptance.
Acceptance isn’t as clear nor as final as some assume it is, or should be. A deeper truth is that we all have to learn to live with our losses—first to endure, then to move the loss into that precious place in the heart—the memory of a loved one that stays with us, and continues to inspire and guide us.
All our lives we have to endure losses. Psychologists say that one of the first, and most traumatic losses, is leaving the womb; then the loss that is experienced when, as an infant, you are left alone after feeling the warmth of mother’s love; and the little separations from mother, or a mother substitute.
Many years ago I had to help a mother to do some of that letting go—she had a five-year old daughter who had never been in a room without her mother—not for a minute. It was not a good situation. She finally agreed to put her little girl in the church nursery school and move into the corridor outside the room, and then come back in, repeating this several times in the course of the nursery school hour. As it turned out, it was easier for the daughter than it was for the mother!
Our emotional health is determined by our responses to loss.
There are necessary losses in life. The process of moving through those necessary losses is called growing up, or, to put it in a single word, the process of dealing with necessary losses is called growth, since the process continues from birth to death.
We’re reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem, In Blackwater Woods
Look, the trees
their own bodies
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
the long tapers
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders
of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Longevity requires accepting the fact that life is change. ‘Salvation’ sits on the ‘other side of loss,’ as Mary Oliver put it. Longevity isn’t simply the number of years we live, it’s also about the quality of the days…the hours.
Some change is loss: we all endure some losses. Ageing, itself, requires us to deal with loss. Some endure more losses than others—some endure much more, and we wonder how they have endured…how they have survived.
The Biblical story of Job is the most well-known story of how a person has to deal with loss. Of course it’s about more than that—it’s about the fact that life isn’t fair; that God isn’t a bean counter in the sky; the fact that good people suffer, calling into question the idea that God is just.
Job, you’ll recall, was an exemplary man who lost everything because God and Satan made a bet. Satan taunted his celestial buddy, God, in response to God’s bragging about this good and upright man of his, Job.
Job, of course, doesn’t know that he’s being put to the test, so naturally he complains. He cries out to God, demanding an answer to the eternal question, “Why me?!” Not an uncommon response to significant loss. It seems quite natural to ask, “Why me?”
God answers Job, reminding him that he, Job, did not create the universe, and he, Job, doesn’t keep it all running. He reminds Job of his humble place in the scheme of things, in the Big Picture.
Job endures the loss of his wealth and his children without a complaint. He simply says, “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”
But when his health is destroyed, he cries out to God and curses the day he was born.
That’s when God speaks to him, out of the whirlwind; God tells Job to gird up his loins and to be quiet and to listen! “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth…did you give the horse his strength…did you teach the eagle to fly…and so forth.”
We are humbled by losses. Growing up is the process of dealing with losses; losing the love we had as an infant—losing a sense of unconditional love when we’re disciplined by parents and others—when necessary limits are set; losing the only-child privilege with the birth of a sibling; losing a game; getting less than an A; losing a friend; losing the security of a house when you have to move, and so forth; not getting into the first-choice college; not getting the job—or getting the job; or losing the job, or getting a divorce, and so forth.
Growing up is the process of enduring necessary losses. If we’re to become a mature, independent, autonomous person, we have to go through a series of necessary losses.
I mentioned Eleanor Reycroft who lived through the losses necessary to reach the age of 109.
I wanted to say something about unnecessary losses, so I’ll refer to Eleanor, again. She never lost her sense of humor. She joked with her grandchildren when they visited in the nursing home; she joked with the nurses who took care of her. This past summer she said to one of the nurses, “I won’t be around next summer,” to which the nurse responded, “Well, where will you be?” She replied, with a smile, “Not on the golf course!”
Of course we all lose our sense of humor from time to time; but hopefully it’s a temporary loss.
We lose our sense of security, but it’s a temporary loss.
There are some paradoxical losses, too. For example, when the Red Sox won the world series last month some Boston fans felt a sense of loss. They lost the underdog status, going up against the overly burdened-with-success Yankees; they lost a certain kind of hope that came alive by saying, “Wait till next year.”
In Spanish the verb ‘to wait,’ esperar, is the same as the verb ‘to hope.’ Esperar. Be careful what you ask for. Hope has its own particular meaning and benefit.
The Ken Burns’ documentary on baseball has Roger Angell talking about baseball philosophically, and he says, “Baseball is not about winning; on the contrary, baseball is all about losing; it’s about learning how to lose. The best hitters lose at least 2 out of three times at bat. Games are lost, the series is lost; it’s all about loss, and holding on to hope of winning.”
Yogi Berra said it this way, “Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical.”
There’s often a let down feeling when you get what you wanted, especially if you wanted it for a long time, and didn’t realize that hope was feeding your spirit. Sandburg called it a ‘rich soft wanting.’ (The People, Yes) A rich, soft wanting—as opposed to a desperate desire, feeds the spirit.
One more brief word about the Kubler-Ross grief and loss paradigm—the stages which include denial, bargaining, anger, guilt and acceptance. Those are not a nice, orderly sequence of feelings. And that final stage of acceptance is misleading, too.
It’s clear that there is some grief so big, so devastating, that you never ‘get over’ them; you simply endure; you live with the loss as though it was still happening, because it is still happening.
There’s a line about grief and loss in Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak
Whispers the oe’r fraught heart, and bids it break.”
Sorrow must be given words, but the sorrow doesn’t end with words. That, too, can be a dangerous misunderstanding. We have to get through our losses, to endure. But there are some losses you never get over. Indeed, something in us knows that the idea that you are supposed to get over them is a misunderstanding and may compound the loss with a sense that you are supposed to be over it, so you simply stop talking about it, or do your grieving in secret. This, of course, is isolating, all the more.
You have to live through the losses, and there are some with which you simply have to live.
We are what we love. The soul is created by the losses we endure. In a sense, then, we are what we’ve lost, or what we do with those losses.
I’ll end with a poem that speaks to the ongoing use of loss:
by Edgar Allan Poe
It was many and many a year ago
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.
And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulcher
In this kingdom by the sea.
The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me
Yes! that was the reason
(as all men know, In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.
But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we
Of many far wiser than we
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.
For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling, my darling, my life and my bride,
In the sepulcher there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.