Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Memory of Roses

George Will has written in achingly poignant prose about the long decline of his aged mother into the oblivion of dementia and the final release of death. He wrote as beautifully in prose as a great poet writes in verse, impelled by a theme that is rarely matched in its grip on our souls. It fills the heart with inexpressible sadness, having known something of grief, as we all have, or will.

We can love people -- opt to love them, volunteer -- who are not worthy of love, humanly speaking. No need for elaboration. It’s a provocative enough statement, for all that betrayal might seem almost commonplace. And we drag ourselves away from such and such a situation trailing most of our courage and all of our hope behind. And being human, imperfect in our capacity for tranquility, we might be infected with rage like a low-grade fever. Self-pity? Yes. It comes with an awareness of our flaws. But who even has a right to an opinion on the matter of the secret flaws in someone else's secret heart? All this is the negative.

And if the ones who work havoc were to fall into the hands of their victims? Best not to speak of it. But the one, the ones we have loved, despite their betrayals? Of course we're angry. Here’s what we must tell ourselves: "I did not love, that it might turn into hate. I did not sacrifice, that it should bring only loss." To love is an act of will as much as a sort of pit into which we fall. This is what it means when we are told that love does not fail. It’s not that the flame doesn’t scorch but that its light doesn’t fade. The outcome of love is not assured, but it's reality should never be in doubt.

High-sounding sentiments however about the unfailing character of love have little merit if they have no effect in the real world. But we do need soft phrases sometimes, as we need soft touches -- they are comforting to us. It isn’t only monkeys that clutch onto each other when the skies grow dark. It’s a picture of ourselves. We are created to love. We were made that we might count ourselves less, that someone else might be more. There is no race that knows no expression of this truth.

It isn’t something that needs to be written in a holy book. It’s written in our hearts -- incised, rather, in deep and ragged gouges. This too might make us angry. What sane person wants more pain? But can it be helped? Honestly. We must, must love, and it hurts the way a little child cries when stung or struck. But we cannot escape our nature any more than we can change our destiny -- or rather, as fools and saints attempt, change the destiny of someone else.

George Will reminds us of the words of J.M. Barrie: God gave us memory that we might have roses in winter. How lovely a thought. Someone wisely said that pain comes to pass, not to stay. It calls to mind the fact that even in our wrath, we may forgo our demand for justice and discover almost out of vacuum a capacity for mercy, and forgiveness.

So, after a long and blessed life, an old woman may descend into the darkness and indignity of senility. Her character so carefully built-up over the decades might fall away as cities succumb to earthquakes. What is left remains only as a mockery. But it doesn’t remain forever, and when she finally passes from sight, that dimming light must flair up bright as garden sunshine. So might we hope.

In this same way, we can only hope ... if we can hope ... that those who have passed beyond our sight after having shed darkness upon our world like Satan in his fall, might with the passing of time enjoy a sort of dementia of an evil character -- where repentance works its transformation and nobility is found where only betrayal has been seen.

It cannot be that the world is destined only for decay. There must be some counterbalancing force, where the agony of watching those we love reduced almost to animals, is matched in some measure by the redemption of those who started life as animals, but who discover the very purpose of what humanity is. This would be grace, and a sort of justice too. For to be human is to be condemned to love.

You see the point. We concern ourselves mostly with comfort and prosperity. For what purpose? That we might be a more excellent sort of animal? It is an easy thing to hold out cliches of love and betrayal -- how wise we might seem. But honestly. What matters? We arrive at the answers we believe by traveling through our lives like fishermen dragging nets. Perhaps we come up with hope, and courage. But it takes strength. We grow strong by enduring trials. That's the point.


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