"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Monday, May 7, 2012

Watching Tides and Mourning Brevity

Growing up we used to make a two hour drive up north to stay at a cabin on Hood Canal (west Puget Sound) that belonged to some church friends. One of my most vivid memories of those visits was tide watching. With the help of a tide guide/booklet, I would take frequent jaunts down to the beach to see how much the water had risen. I made seeing high and low tides a priority.

The coming and going of the water fascinated me. And, I’ll confess, I’m proud of my youthful self for so deeply appreciating something like this. The rhythm, the predictability, the naturalness, the connection between moon and water…I don’t know what it was that primarily captivated me, but something did.

I was thinking about this memory today because the rhythm of tides—the water coming in, the water going out—is an image connected with some of my emotions stemming from the season I’m in. Given the impending transitions coming for Joann and I, I’ve entered that final phase where I really start to prepare for the end of an era—if just under two years can be considered an era—and reflect back upon it.

My grandma’s lilacs have already come and gone, I hear, and I wasn’t able to get home for a visit to see them this year. Also, as I took off my running shoes yesterday to find cherry blossoms stuck to the soles, I realized that as quickly as spring has come, some elements of this season are already passing away. Even the sun today reminds me that as quickly as such nice weather comes, so quickly will it leave, this time of year in the northwest.

As Joann and I watched her last show at Tumwater High School this past Saturday night, I was a bit baffled at how quickly two years can pass by. I think about our initial reason for moving to Olympia—to start a church—and how what once seemed a significant part of my story feels now more like a blip, a moment that certainly packed a punch in the way it shaped who I am today but which also now seems only brief event in my story.

I think about all of my international students. Over my 20+ months at EF, I’ve seen hundreds of students come and go. That’s the nature of our school, with some students staying a whole year and some only two or three weeks. Lots of turnover, lots of goodbyes. Lots of people walking into my life and then swiftly walking out of it.

I cope with it by telling them I’ll see them again someday, or that Facebook will be a source of contact; and I do kind of believe that I might see them, given my love of travel and the increasing smallness of the world and my relentless optimism that makes me tell myself little lies, from time to time.

Moreover, part of how I understand Christian hope is that it is a hope that I really do have all the time I could ever need to see those who walked the earth with me. Still…it’s a coping mechanism, a reflection of my grieving over the numerous goodbyes I have to say and have said to me.

And I always begin to think a similar thing at this point when the “tide” begins to shift and recede: have I savored this time? How much time did I spend thinking about what’s next? How much time did I spend not thriving but simply enduring? How lightly or even indifferently did I consider and feel toward the precious souls who blessed my life simply by their presence in it?

It makes me a bit anxious…though I want that pressure, I think. Part of living well, in my opinion, means taking as much of my life as possible as seriously as possible—seriously in the sense of gratitude, awareness, appreciation…not in the sense of being uptight or humorless. But when I get to the end of something, I start to feel that pressure—have I loved this part of my life? Am I aware of its richness, of the greatness of these opportunities, or did I miss it?

I got a little preachy last Thursday to a roomful of 200+ students at a lecture/presentation I gave, and told them the value of “ending well.” Sometimes students leave our school disappointed by something about their experience, and often go out with negative feelings, eager to be rid of “rainy, boring Olympia” or whatever their lament might be.

I strongly suggested to them that a much better way to live life is to end well—to be grateful for whatever it is that’s ending, not because it’s ending but because it contained beauty, goodness, people that mattered, experiences that shaped you, invaluable learned lessons. I suggested that ending well is an important ability that will increase your overall happiness in life.

I’m hoping to feel the same. To do the same. To end well. To be grateful for these memories, but not feel anxious about how quickly everything seems to have passed, nor feel regret that I didn’t do this or that “more” or “better.”

A lot of things come and go quickly. There’s a balance I want to embody: to enter in as deeply as possible to temporary, passing things, yet not anxiously try to hold on to something when its time has come to an end. To both celebrate and mourn the end. To realize that life is full of ends, yet also of beginnings.

I tend to think that after I die, none of the precious events of my life will be forgotten, and that whatever the afterlife looks like, I’ll be afforded the opportunity to be aware of and grateful for all that’s happened in my life. That makes me feel better about letting things go in this life, knowing that they are preserved and cannot be totally lost nor forgotten.

I pray I’d have the capacity to do what I’m talking about. To savor, to embrace the comings and goings without anxiety and self-doubt but instead with gratitude and peace. The virtues of various religious traditions, including my own, come to mind as potential tools: the “mindfulness” and “attentiveness” so valued in Buddhism; the “discipline” I see modeled so well by many of my Muslim students; the “tolerance” and “respect” for everyone and everything and the way of the universe so sought after in Hinduism; the joy, peace, and hope Christians seek after.

Much of life follows this same rhythm of tides: coming and going, ebb and flow, presence and absence. I suppose knowing this is half the battle of coping with a season such as this. The other half of the battle is actually handling this reality well—both mourning it and being at peace with it.

I’m a generally joyful person, contagiously so at times, I’m told. :) But in my heart, I grieve times like this, and must work through the melancholy induced by this very natural part of life.

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