To Insist That Sorrow Not Be Meaningless
I recently spoke at a festival in Grand Rapids, Michigan and this was the title I gave to my talk. It comes from an elegant essay by Jayne Anne Phillips, one I sometimes read to my students, and each time I arrive at this phrase – “to insist that sorrow not be meaningless” — my voice trembles and catches. It has been the story of my life: this sorrow, this insistence. As I delivered my speech, I found myself focusing on the word insist. The work of being human, of living a life of meaning, does not involve merely, say, hoping that our sorrows not be meaningless. Nor may we kind of, sort of try. No. This insistence is what’s called for, because only insistence will do.
It has been a challenging time. The world seems turned upside down for many of us. All we need to do is turn on the television or spend five minutes on Twitter and we’re faced with a cascade of terrifying news. In my own life, I have been unusually sad — my eyes wide open — the reality of time’s passage, mistakes made, trust misplaced, opportunity squandered. At the same time – eyes wide open – I am aware of enormous good fortune, privilege, great love, profound friendship. This too, this too, as the great Jack Kornfield is fond of saying. This too.
I spent two days of this past week in a locked Alzheimer’s unit at an assisted living facility, listening to my beloved mother-in-law scream in agony. I watched my husband, brother-in-law, and father-in-law be broken open again and again by the stark underside of love, which is loss. I wandered the halls and saw elderly people staring into space, or lying in their beds, or gazing at fish swimming around in a fish tank. They were all once active, vibrant people. It was impossible not to think: Is this what it comes to? Is this what it all comes to, in the end?
Which, of course, it does.
And so: what does insistence look like as I sit here on my chaise, sleep still in my eyes, my house quiet, dogs snoozing at my feet? Once, this life would have felt out-of-reach, unrecognizable to me. Downstairs, my husband is working on his own writing, or lost in his own head, as I am in mine. We have been together for twenty years. Out the window, the greening of early spring has finally begun. A bird has made a nest atop our porch light. This afternoon, our boy has a tennis match. Once – a long time ago – I rocked him in my arms, fearing for his life. Tomorrow I lead one of my favorite private retreats. Then I head to Miami for a few more days of teaching. Once, the idea that I had anything to teach anyone would have seemed laughable. It has come – all of it, every last bit of it – from the stubborn, dogged insistence that all I can do is make something of this life. Make books. Make a family. Make meaning. I can’t make my mother-in-law better. I can’t protect those I love from their own pain. But I build a path with words, one following the next like a trail of breadcrumbs out of the wilderness.