January is always a time for taking stock, but this year, the personal pull to reflect has ramped up to the power of a starship-worthy tractor beam. I entered 2015 with the news that I was carrying my second child, due in August, a sibling to my four-year-old child. Then, two weeks into the new year, my father died.
The Universe could not be more in-my-face about the cycles of life, the need to take the bitter with the sweet, the yin and yang of it all.
My father’s death was lingering, and I took nine days’ leave—flying out to Arizona to be with him and my siblings, then staying afterward to begin the process of winding up family affairs. My mother died 10 years ago and there is nowhere left to lodge the remnants of our family home, the accumulated boxes of high school trophies, grade school report cards, Halloween costumes, homemade pot holders.
For several days after my father’s death, sorting, stacking, selling, and casting off became my constant form of meditation.
It is said that few on their deathbed say, “I wish I had spent more time working.” I doubt there are few children after a death who say, “I wish my beloved, departed parent had saved more stuff.” Sorting the remnants of a middle class American life can be enough to transform the most stubborn hoarder into a committed minimalist.
It also pushes me to think hard about what is left that truly matters.
Because that is the bottom line question, isn’t it: what is left that matters, after we go? What is it our lives come down to?
Having just sent decades’ worth of belongings to family, friends, charity, and recycling, I can say for sure it isn’t the stuff.
While serving as the Chaplain at Arlington Cemetery about eleven or twelve years ago, a middle aged man chatted me up in an airport. He had been waiting for someone with “spiritual credentials” to turn up. It wasn’t hard to conclude he was in the thick of a midlife “crisis,” bursting with ideas as to what it all came down to, what would be left after he was gone.
Intriguingly, his personal answer was that it all came down to FUN (and he hinted broadly that the debauched forms of fun can win you something like extra game points at life’s end). “I finally realized that’s all that matters,” he said, then rapidly began to name the exotic travels he’d been having since making this discovery. “Our experiences. That’s what we leave behind.”
“So,” I asked with genuine curiosity, “how is it that we ‘leave behind’ the fun we have? Don’t our experiences more or less die with us?”
He looked at me steadily for a moment, then said, “I’m not a theologian. I’m just telling you what I’ve learned.”
I have nothing against fun. Yet there are good reasons that so few philosophers and theologians have put their money on fun as the measure of a life. Honestly, the man in the airport hardly seemed convinced himself. It felt more like he was desperate to believe that FUN was the answer.
Still, he had an answer. Meanwhile, here I am venturing into my own middle-life. No crisis as such in sight, but a lot of sorting to do, both literal and otherwise.
In the process of going through my parents’ accumulated stuff—sorting and stacking, reminiscing and bundling, deciding which things to keep and which things to send on (and where they could find a new home)—I found myself thinking back to the writings of Gershon Scholem, a scholar of Jewish mysticism.
Scholem offered one idea of the purpose of live that I’ve never been able to shake. It has to do with a certain strand of mystical thought, according to which creation of the world was a destructive act that caused vessels of divine light to be shattered. Sparks of divine light scattered everywhere in creation, lodging inside us, inside other animals, in rocks and earth. As humans do good deeds, as they carry out the commandments of the Torah, they help lift these sparks from themselves and the world around them; they liberate sparks to return to the divine source.
On this take, doing good acts restores the Divinity, restores the universe to balance.
My own path never took me further into the study of Kabbalah than reading Scholem, and I have no interest in claiming—or mangling—a tradition that is not my own. But as pure metaphor, as a way of explaining why our wise and loving acts matter, this idea makes sense: creation as destruction with divine sparks awaiting their return.
It isn’t just that God helps us to make good and wise choices.
It’s that our good and wise choices help to make God complete.
Every good act furthers the singular mission of restoring the Universe to peace.
My child and I returned home to Hawaii on a Friday afternoon. In military terms, nine days is a lot of time to take off, no matter what the cause. I was anxious; I planned to drop him at daycare on the way from the airport to my office.
There was just one hitch: Friday is show-and-tell day at the daycare and my child desperately wanted to share his crocodile puppet. The crocodile puppet was at home—which was not en route to the daycare.
“Tick tock,” went the voice inside my head, “time to get back to work.”
Meanwhile, there was my child, in the backseat, not crying, not having a tantrum, just looking sad and tired.
Looking the way I felt.
He hadn’t understood much about my father’s death, though after the last several days in Arizona with no Papa in sight, he had come to sense that a serious wait was involved. That he wouldn’t see his grandfather again for a very long time. Something like resignation had settled in—an adult sort of emotion I’d never seen him register before. It made my own heart heavy to see.
Right or forward when I drive on base?
Right to work.
Forward to home.
The future of the world does not turn on whether toddlers get their prized toys to show off at preschool. Still, like so many things, the show-and-tell puppet wasn’t just about the puppet or about show-and-tell. It was about restoring a sense of joy to my toddler son, reminding him in a visceral way that he always is loved.
It was about choosing who to be at that moment—Captain* or Reverend or Mother. Choosing which “me” could make the most good happen right then, with that one small, choice.
It was about emulating my father, who lived a quiet life but a loving one. Whose constant, daily, loving acts created small ripples of peace within a world that sorely needs more of it.
I went forward to home and got the puppet.
Work could wait another 30 minutes.