Dr. John Young                                                                                                          5-30-08

Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville



Beyond Absence — Memorial Day 2008


Absence is missing those who are no longer present in our lives. We miss friends, loved ones, soul mates and companions who have gone missing, whether they died, left, or simply became unavailable. We want them back; the lack of them makes us feel empty and confused. Sometimes, absence is not that another is missing but that we have become chronically inattentive, absent minded, abstracted from what is going on around us. In this week’s public television special on depression, one of the interviewees said that depression is becoming absent to yourself. 20 million depressed Americans are absent from themselves, as well as those they care about and who want to care for them. Sometimes in our lives, each of us becomes chronically inattentive to people at the center of our lives. We go missing!


            Much of human grief and sorrow is focused on loss, and successful grief and adequate ways of dealing with sorrow focus on how we can move beyond the pain of absence, how we face and cope with the loss of who and what we have loved in our lives that are now gone.


            Stephanie Ericsson catches the trauma of grief when she says:

“Grief is a tidal wave that overtakes you, smashes down upon you with unimaginable force, sweeps you up in its darkness, where you tumble and crash against unidentifiable surfaces, only to be thrown out on an unknown beach, bruised, and reshaped. Grief means not being able to read more than two sentences at a time, 3 a.m. sweats that won’t stop, utter aloneness that razes the rational mind. Grief shears away the masks of normal life and forces brutal honesty. It shoves away friends, makes you laugh at people who cry over spilled milk. It tells the world that you are untouchable at the very moment when touch is the only contact that might reach you. Grief discriminates against no one. It kills. Maims, and cripples. It is the ashes from which the phoenix rises. It teaches that there is nothing absolutely true or untrue. It assures the living that we know nothing for certain. It humbles. It shrouds. Grief will make a new person out of you, if it doesn’t kill you in the making.” [101-102]

            A first step in coping with grief and loss is to face the fact that this absolute absence hurts a great deal. We have grown attached to another, and we have lost that connection. These losses force us to confront our finitude, our own limitations and final mortality. Until we really feel the pain, we cannot begin to let it go. Until we face up to the fact that we each will die, we cannot begin to transcend the childish fantasies and cultural superstitions that surround our finitude. Grieving is some of the hardest work that each of us must do, and too often, people try to take shortcuts since our culture is packed with grief-avoidance. As Lisa Presley says “we cannot deny grief its due, or we will find ourselves misplacing our sense of selves. We must be able to know what is lost before we can truly see what is left. For grief cannot be transcended, but it can be transformed.” [105-106]


            How can we transform grief into something useful? In the midst of feeling alone, being overwhelmed by the absence of some one we love, grief can reveal that, even without this beloved person, we are never alone. In the face of failure and loss, grief can teach us to take chances and to risk further failures because what we had thought would destroy us has not done so. Grief can help us determine our real friends, our dependable intimates, to evaluate more realistically about what is really important in our lives. Grief leaves scars but it washes away delusions, it tempers us, allowing us to melt away into the enduring and universal.


As John Muir pointed out “when you walk with nature you learn that the grave has no victory, for it never fights. All is divine harmony.” [4-5] Grief can teach us to attend well and faithfully to a few worthy things. We cannot know or love every one or understand or do everything; so, grief can teach us instead to focus on a few worthy people, goals, and communities and love, serve, and empower them effectively. Rev. Max Coots feared the little, hypocritical deaths: “the blasé shrug that quietly replaces excited curiosity, the cynic-sneer that takes the place of innocence, the soft-sweet odor of success that overcomes the sense of sympathy, the self-betrayals that rob us of our will to trust, the ridicule of vision, the barren blindness toward what was once our sense of beauty, these are the deaths that come so quietly we do not know” that they have conquered us. [26]


Grief can help us turn our long intentions into deeds, our compassion into helpfulness, and our pain into mercy. Beyond absence and in the embrace of our mortality, we can learn to speak the truth. As psychologist Rollo May said: “The more aware we are of death, the more vividly we experience the fact that it is not only beneath our dignity to tell a lie but useless as well.” [50] We don’t have all the time in the world; so, we need to move beyond the trivial and transient, to focus on what is actually important. Life is too brief for hate, malice, and greed. We have time to love some people and to do some worthy things. As Tennessee Williams said, “snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of human existence.” [70]


Immortality is not a gift, it is an achievement, and those who spend themselves diligently and kindly on what is worthy will possess this immortality. As the former UUA troubadour Rick Masten liked to say: “How much time do I have before I die? Enough to make a difference.”


We take the scars that absence causes, that sorrow makes, that pain leaves, and we transform this absence into a community of the mended- broken, the healer tempered by his sorrows, and the courageous steeled by her pain. The poet John Keats wrote, “Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is, to school intelligence and make it a soul?” Getting beyond absence is not fun, but it is how we make our souls, how we mature into people worthy of this world. Absence, death, loss, and mortality are parts of life, but only parts. Poet Rabindranath Tagore said that we lose perspective, as though we were looking at a cloth through a microscope and see only the holes in the cloth. We see the absence as bleak, as darkness, but he reminds us that we see the sky as blue yet the sky does not leave a stain upon the wings of the bird. [124]


Wounds are a means by which we enter the hearts of other people. Our losses can teach us to become compassionate and wise. We do not need to fear that we are isolated beings in a random universe, that life will not be enough or that we will fail, that life’s demands will deplete us, that our death or the deaths of others destroy us, fear enemies, or the lack of purpose. We do not need to live in fear. [Clare Petersberger, 129]. For love remains stronger than death, loss, failure, or pain. Love gets us beyond absence.


 Myriam Renauld was helping her five year old daughter brush her teeth, when young Sidney said to her ‘that after I died that she would talk to me in heaven.’ Since Myriam was perfectly healthy, she needed to regain her composure; then she said to her daughter, ‘so you think I am going to heaven up in the sky somewhere?’ ‘No,’ said the five year old, ‘not up in the sky. Heaven is everywhere. Like God. When you’re in heaven, you’ll be with me everywhere.’ Myriam took this in and said, ‘do you remember how I told you my Daddy died, and sometimes I feel like he’s very near me. Sometimes I even feel that I can talk to him.’ Young Sidney nodded gravely. ‘That’s the reason people pray.’ ‘You mean people pray so they can talk to the people they loved who have died?’ She smiled yes.” [164]


Let me leave you with the admonitions of two of my honored colleagues, Arvid Straube, our minister in San Diego, and Kim Harvie, at Arlington St. Church in Boston.


“What is it that you need to do, in the face of death, to make your life shine in the memory of others and to die with a satisfied mind, as the old song says? It’s probably going to be a different answer for each of you, but there’s consensus in the great religions of the world that it has something to do with loving and serving and letting go of our greed, ignorance, and our hatred. Let it be about awakening in the present moment, when the infinite beauty of the universe is available to you with all its joy and pain.”


“The best thing we can do, both in grieving and in supporting others in their grief, is to articulate the ways in which the one who has been lost to us will be carried forward in our lives. This is the great challenge of life in the face of loss: Can we make our own lives altars to our dead, and so, through our lives, give them life? Who lives on in you?


We get attached, and then attachments are broken, and we must learn how to cope, heal, and even triumph in the face of absence, loss, failure, sorrow, pain, mortality and death. If today was the last day of your life, how would you write your obituary? Become a faithful steward of your life’s story. Pay attention to how the story is unfolding. It matters to you; it matters to those who care for you, and whose lives you touch. Our Unitarian Universalist faith believes that each of us can play a role in shaping our evolutionary Creation in this world; so, for us, your story matters at an ultimate level too. If you wrote your obituary today, would it reflect what’s most important?