I’ve been thinking a lot lately, going over old photographs and reading articles. It’s been introspective. At such times, I always recall an image a friar once used to describe spiritual growth: Augustine’s wineskins.
Augustine noted that a fresh wineskin is too tight to hold much wine. Someone fills it, and it strains, bulging and stretching, ready to burst. Gradually, it stretches enough to hold more, so we pour more in, but again, it fills quickly. Still, it stretches, and as we repeat the process, it can suddenly hold gallons.
Likewise, life stretches us through challenge, reflection, and experience. The same events that hurt us or stretch us as we grow, let us hold more. As another friar told me, “The older I get the more grief I can hold.”
My grandfather died last week, I worked tough 3-day stint at an understaffed soup kitchen, and this week, I took a group of students to prison and talked with a father and son, both imprisoned for DWI. Next to me, a burly man with thick, calloused hands and a rugged face bawled as he spoke, seeing how his son had made the same mistakes he had.
“It crushed me to see him here,” the father said.
Meanwhile, the clip and roll of time continued. Work got done, classes continued, rehearsals occupied nights, e-mails filled mornings, etc. The same rhythms didn’t crack and people continued to rely on me, as if all was well an normal.
To me, that’s a crux in our condition that will always haunt and stretch us: we must reconcile difficult, but powerful, moments with time’s insistent beat. I think one can get mired in either extreme, either forgetting to grow or letting something strand them in a tangle of questions.
Last week, I remember when my brother told me about my dead grandfather. I sat at a cafe table, my palm wrapped around a cup of green tea, and stared at the bent, brown leaves dusting the grass. I watched the other students pass by–couples holding hands, freshmen chattering in packs, others frantic as they moved to class. The noonday sun cut across the table and a gray sky shrouded the campus.
Within the hour, I was in the soup kitchen, cutting chicken and scanning the pasta for bugs; saying hello to Donny, the smiling, autistic man who needs someone to sign him in each day; talking with a young man who weathered the hurricane under a bridge; giving a fork to woman my age with a kid.
That evening I watched freshmen overcome their high-school awkwardness for a stage kiss, finally finding their grounding in the scene and their rhythm in the dialogue. They smiled, a spontaneous smile I haven’t seen in some time. It reminded me of my nephews.
That night, I walked back, studying the stars until I went inside and started leafing through photographs from Egypt, and old road trips, and high school parties. Old faces, old memories.
A line from Tintern Abby often speaks to me about such times. As Wordsworth called it,
... that blessed mood, In which the burthen of the mystery, In which the heavy and the weary weight Of all this unintelligible world, 40 Is lightened:--that serene and blessed mood, In which the affections gently lead us on,-- Until, the breath of this corporeal frame And even the motion of our human blood Almost suspended, we are laid asleep In body, and become a living soul: While with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, We see into the life of things.
“The weary weight of all this intelligible world,” can lighten through the distractions of routine, pleasure, and occupation. We get lost in our work. Or we can cling to alcohol and companionship in desperate efforts to escape its burden. We place our hope in unquestioned religion, we drown it out with video games, television and shopping.
We try to ignore the reality of our condition, that in an instant, as the hurricane showed last week, it can all vanish; that things are not reasonable always; that there are hard nights with no friend standing near.
Indeed, as I told the inmate father this week, “It’s such a hard, painful thing being human,” and our technology only makes it easier to escape that pain. Frankly, I don’t want to call it “escape” because it’s so natural and understandable. Who cares if a little light bears us through the darkness? It’s compassion, right? Love?
And I’m no saint. I, too, try to drown the pain sometimes. I, too, am broken.
But one day I found myself flung into the world, and I decided to examine it. I don’t know if the unexamined life is not worth living, as Socrates said, but I feel I must own up to my decision to examine, no matter where it takes me or what it finds. To me, that’s freedom: holding to our deepest drives, despite the pain of our condition.
That’s what makes my life meaningful and beautiful, and like the friar told me, “the older I get, the more grief I can hold.”