This past week, I’ve had several people close to me suffer the loss of a loved one. One person lost her mother-in-law. Another lost a child. And two others lost their spouses. Of course, when death happens, we really begin to see things differently, don’t we? For some reason that I can’t explain, though, I’ve really been touched by it this time.
This go ‘round, I’ve seen the emptiness of our lives, as well as the fulness. What I mean by “emptiness” is the little, petty arguments and irritations that seem to take up so much of our time together. We get irritated at one another over the littlest things — dirty dishes in the sink or on the counter, squeezing the toothpaste in the middle instead of the end (or visa versa), being awakened after finally getting to sleep by a seemingly silly question, putting the toilet paper on the “wrong” way, interrupted while doing our favorite activity, etc. We argue about money or bills or housework or driving or whatever. And, sometimes, those arguments and irritations can last a long time.
Then that person is gone.
And, just like that, we forget what we were arguing about. We realize how silly it is to be irritated at the toothpaste tube being squeezed in the middle. In fact, at the moment of loss, a lot of the time those irritations have somehow been redeemed. We look at that tube of toothpaste and find our loved one there. We don’t remember the irritation. We remember the person. Flashes of images splash across the screen in our memory. Her smiling face. His caring touch.
What if we stood back for a moment, when life is going fairly well for us, and evaluate those moments of irritation and argument? What happens when we see them as moments of time lost on pettiness and selfishness and ego? Certainly, there are times when confrontation needs to happen — we’re arguing over money because we’ve discovered that our partner has a gambling problem — but I’m not referring to those times. A lot of our lives are filled with conflicts because of our egos. When it’s all said and done, does it really matter who washed the dishes when the alternative is to no longer have our child with us? Does it really matter if the bed goes unmade when the other option is to no longer have our spouse with us?
Almost every funeral homily or sermon will say something like, “Life is short. We’re not promised tomorrow. ‘You’re a mist that appears for only a short while and then vanishes’” (James 4.14). And while we’re there in those moments of sorrow and grief, we agree with those statements. But it doesn’t take us long before we’re back to magnifying our differences with those around us.
How can we move past this? How can we see that, yes, life is a precious and wonderful gift but it’s exceedingly short and “there’s no time for fussing and fighting” (We Can Work It Out, 1965, Lennon-McCartney)?
Perhaps the first step is to surrender. Surrender our lives — will, feelings, ego — to the will of G_d in the service to others. Paul wrote that Jesus “emptied himself” (Philippians 2.7) when he surrendered to G_d’s will. If we are followers of Jesus, then we are called to this same emptying. Our vocation is to be Christ to those we meet (John 20.21).
Second, maybe we should “think of others as better than [ourselves]” (Philippians 2.3). We don’t have to always be right. Maybe others do have better ways of doing things. And what does it really matter if they don’t? Do we really want our final words to be about whose turn it was to take out the garbage?
Third, maybe we should see our families (including our extended families and friends) as a place of service and our place within in it as a servant to them. Jesus gave an example of just how far he took his place among his followers when he washed their feet (John 13.1-17). When he finished, he said, “I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them” (vv 15-17). I don’t think Jesus was specifically referring to washing other’s feet (although, that’s a very humbling experience for both people). I think Jesus was referring to one’s perception of oneself and others. If we see ourselves as “greater” than others, then our ego gets the better of us and we argue and fight over the silliest things. But if we “think of others as better than [ourselves]” (Philippians 2.3), there won’t be strife and division. We’ll have a right understanding of our relationships with others.
This won’t be easy. Surrendering our egos never is. But all of the great mystics and religions tell us that the removal of self — of ego — is the key to unlocking freedom and helps to alleviate suffering. As I looked upon the faces of those at the funerals, I could see their suffering and grief; their pain and loss. It was a reminder that all of us will one day be in this situation. It’s inevitable. We’ll all suffer loss. Maybe, just maybe, we can curb some of that suffering by ridding ourselves — our lives — of “every useless word [we] speak” (Matthew 12.36).
When the irritation comes, surrender it to Christ. When the argument starts to flare up, give it to the G_d. When we feel like we’re “entitled” to this or that, remember that we’re servants. Our calling is not to be right. Our calling is not to get our way. Our calling is to:
May the All-Loving Father-Mother, the sustainer of all things, grant us the grace and strength to surrender our egos as we learn to serve our families, friends, and neighbors. Amen.
In the love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC