Sharon, a colleague and friend, passed away on Wednesday, July 28th–her 48th birthday. She leaves behind her husband and 13-year-old twin girls. She also leaves behind a campus in shock, who will have a terrible time trying to find anyone to do what Sharon did. She essentially managed the academic life of this school, with a list of accomplishments and responsibilities that put me to absolute shame. I was always in awe of Sharon–her outward calm when everyone was hysterical, angry or irresponsible around her. She spoke when necessary and important to do so, and I never heard her say anything malicious or gossipy. I wanted to be more like Sharon. She worked harder than anyone else I know, with a commitment to this college that was far more intense than I have been able to manage.
So imagine how difficult it is to find some meaning in her death. On the face of it, this is simply an absurd twist of ugly fate, a tragedy with no silver lining or lesson for us all. There are various ways we try to make ourselves feel better: we tell ourselves that we won’t work as hard, or that we won’t let the stress of our jobs eat away at our health. We can also choose to believe that our “due date” is pre-determined, and when we die is not in our hands. If God has given you 48 years, then that is all you get. Period. If we have faith, then this is not a tragedy, but part of a plan. We may not understand that plan, we may find it cruel, absurd or pointless, but that only reflects our limitations, and the fact that we see through a glass darkly. If we lack faith, then her loss is certainly impossible to make any sense of.
I didn’t know Sharon well enough to know what her thoughts and opinions were on this matter. I don’t even know how to describe my understanding of what happened. What I know is that outrageous, unbelievable tragedy occurs on a regular basis. We insulate ourselves from it, we hide from it, we ignore it, but were we to really open our eyes, could we survive the shock of reality? If we believe that there is nothing but chaos and horror in the world, then certainly our lives will be blips on the cosmic screen, signifying nothing. I refuse to waste this life on that philosophy. I also refuse to believe that there can be real meaning without the spirit, the soul that evolves through and past death. My apologies to existentialists, nihilistic graduate students and Goth kids everywhere, but materialism and the romanticism of the Grim Reaper will not take you anywhere but in circles with yourself and the world.
Two more realities hit me in the face this week: another person I care about informed me that she is in treatment for breast cancer, and my closest friend’s 11-month old niece has inoperable stomach cancer. Beyond the initial shock, there is a struggle to bring some order to this information. My friend with breast cancer will be a force for good, educating and informing those around her about the disease. That is who she is, and she will triumph. But how to find something uplifting in the diagnosis of my friend’s niece? What could possibly assuage the grief and pain of a cancer diagnosis for a little soul who has barely started her life’s journey? What kind of God would choose to end her life in her first year?
I do not dare try to answer that question. It is not for me to attempt such a bold move. It insults those who are struggling with their pain and does nothing to ease their overwhelming sense of loss. All I can say is that my life so far has shown me that there is reason for hope, and there is a need for faith. Life and death are not random events void of all meaning or purpose; but one cannot always know the reasons behind seemingly random and cruel losses. We can only open ourselves to the possibility that everything is moving in the direction it is supposed to, whether it was all pre-planned or our life lessons come wrapped in black paper sometimes. The worst pain can lead to the greatest good; but I won’t pretend to understand why that is, or to figure out a way to explain or justify it.
I asked a friend who had passed away if she might give me a message. She did–in the form of a very clear voice that I heard while attempting to sleep. I won’t try to prove that it wasn’t me, inventing the message, because I can’t prove that. It’s enough for me to know that it came from her. Her message was simple, yet profound:
“Keep the faith”.
And I will.