Having grown up in the Midwest, one of the things I appreciate about living in Montana is the near ever-present sight of snow on the highest peaks. I love the contrast of snow-capped mountains against the bright blue sky of a warm summer day. It reminds me that seasons come and go and life is a series of beginnings and endings, hellos and goodbyes.
I just returned from a two-week stay in Minnesota spending time with my wife’s family. The joyful occasion of a nephew’s wedding—a season of “hellos”—brought us back to Duluth. The opportunity to spend time with in-laws entering the final sorrowful chapters of life marked by dementia and physical decline—a season of “goodbyes”—invited us to remain for an extended visit.
While still filled with plenty of happy and humorous moments, this time with family was sadder than most. We don’t know the precise moment, but for some of them death is approaching. The veil between this life and the next is thinning. Interestingly, in the midst of this very real grief and sorrow there was also a pervasive holy sense of hope.
Watching my wife feed her mother, a once vibrant and energetic woman who now struggles to simply swallow, I was struck by what an honor and privilege it is to serve someone in that stage of dependence and vulnerability. It really is an overwhelming encounter with love itself, the kind of encounter only realized in the midst of a complete outpouring of oneself for another. My wife remarked to me that she felt as though she and her mom had now come full circle together.
One of life’s beautiful truths is that if we are to find meaning and fulfillment, we must willingly sacrifice for the sake of the other making our life a gift. We must empty ourselves in order to be made whole. Perhaps it’s counterintuitive but maybe that’s why Jesus reminded us that, “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:25).
This month and next we have special days set aside to recognize the gift of our parents. Parents know well the realities that come with welcoming a totally dependent and vulnerable child. They quickly become aware of the constant life-giving sacrifices parenthood demands. Their desires and wants must take a back seat to their child’s needs. A woman, once expecting, cannot “will” away her motherhood. A father, once a father, cannot “will” away fatherhood. He can run from the responsibilities associated with fatherhood but all that does is impact the quality of his fathering, the type of father he chooses to be.
A psychologist I know often says that the first duty of the mind is to conform to reality. Failing to fulfill this obligation leaves us confused and miserable, at war with our very selves. But the challenge of embracing reality and conforming our will to that reality can be surprisingly daunting. Around us we see a world consumed with the triumph of the will and the exaltation of autonomy to a position ill-fit for the weak brokenness of our human nature.
During my trip, as I walked through the airport, I saw lines of people—spouses, families, coworkers—one after another fixated on their phones cut off from the life surrounding them. It’s something many of us, myself included, have been guilty of all too often. But it was sad. And I wondered if we disappear into our devices because it’s so difficult for us to embrace the seasons in which we find ourselves. It’s humbling to acknowledge the reality of suffering, our ultimate dependence and the limitations of our will.
It’s tempting to escape into the illusion of a life where we can create our own reality, one we can control, one devoid of pain, sacrifice and ultimately death. But there’s no true hope to be found in that illusion because a life without suffering is a life without love.
Like it or not we are incapable of transcending the earthly and spiritual realities that govern the world around us. Death is the great reminder; suffering is the great teacher. Confronted in faith and entered into properly, suffering and death reveal to us something profound and beautiful. It is here that we find our purpose, a deeper understanding of our interconnectedness and come to appreciate that in our weakness we find our true strength and love itself—a loving and merciful God who has created us for communion with him in this life and the next.
Finding our purpose and stepping into the places we’re called to enter requires an openness on our part. We have to be courageous and open our hearts to enter into the pain and suffering in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. We need to resist the temptation to always “fix” it and instead allow this suffering to transform us. When we do so, we can discover the depth of love awaiting us in those uncomfortable and painful horizons.
Every moment is a gift and a blessing in the company of the cross because no human person, no matter how fragile or vulnerable, and no moment of human existence is wasted on God. The gift of this life, with its immeasurable joys and overwhelming sorrows, points us toward the life of the world to come.
As I watch my father-in-law struggling with the fact that his wife’s earthly life is nearing an end, he embraces the reality of suffering and death in the only way that makes sense—he weeps, holds her hand and accepts the arduous task of accompanying his bride of 53 years with love as her mind and body deteriorate. Together they prepare for a moment that Jesus understands perfectly having taken it on himself—”not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). And there, true hope is born, blooming and breathing life into death.
This article originally appeared in the May 21, 2022 edition of the Helena Independent Record.