Holding sadness in one hand, and joy in the other
Life has meaning and purpose precisely because it is so very precious.
The show The Good Place is one of the most remarkable things to ever appear on television. It is a show about the afterlife – and behind the all-star cast was an all-star team of PhDs who loaded the scripts with quotes and ideas from moral philosophy.
In one scene, an angel named Michael muses about what makes humans tick. He says: “Every human is a little bit sad all the time, because you know you’re gonna die, but that knowledge is what gives life meaning.”
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately.
Not about death, as such, but about the superpower we humans have. We go through life pretending that terrible things won’t happen – when we know they will. We convince ourselves that we can escape sadness – when we can’t.
When my son was born 18 years ago, my very first thought was a very practical one: “I have to save for university,” I thought. Right behind that was a second thought: “He’s going to leave me and go to university someday.” And finally a third thought followed – brought on by the fact that my own dad was dying that very night – which was: “And I am going to leave him someday, too.”
For the next 18 years, I pushed all those thoughts down (well, not the part about saving for university – I did that). From the first moment I held my son, I have held every moment with him sacred. I tried my best to be present in every one of those moments, and to slow time down. And yet, a few weeks ago, I said goodbye to my son as he went to university – and I wept in a way that I have not since my dad passed away – which was another day that I knew would come, but that I dreaded and pushed out of mind.
To be human
I have realized over time that to be human is to know that all of our existence, all of our thoughts and experiences and all of our love – is touched by the sadness of letting go. We know that someday, what we love today will be gone. The new puppy in our house will become the beloved family dog we need to put down, someday. The friend we make at school this semester will move away and lose touch, someday. The girlfriend who seemed like a soulmate will be a wistful footnote, someday.
The same ability to ignore the inevitable applies to ourselves, too. Every year, you and I go through a normal day on the future anniversary of our death, and do not realize it. The thought makes me shudder a little.
Which makes Christ’s life even more human. He knew that he would die. How he would die. Why he would die. Christ must have been terribly sad all the time. And yet he healed the sick, he fed the hungry, cared for the poor – all of whom lived temporary, transitory lives just like him. He spent his time caring for people who have been dead for 2,000 years now, and yet that kindness still matters. It matters because – sad and short and fast as it may be – life has meaning and purpose precisely because it is so very precious.
We travel through this world always holding sadness in one hand, and joy in the other. Maybe that’s why we bring them together when we pray.