Go With Life i
Valentine’s Day was tough. Three years ago our son was found dead in his apartment. We don't know the exact date of his death. The cause was abuse of alcohol combined with drugs prescribed for chronic health issues. Valentines's day is no longer a time of hearts, flowers and little Cupids. It is a time of love tinged with sadness.
It is also a time of regret as I belatedly acknowledge that I wasn't the nurturing father I could have been. What if I had been a better parent? Would that have kept my son from dying?
I am painfully aware of the many times that I put my job ahead of family. I believed that I was “Called by God” to serve the poor and oppressed. I still remember saying, “If I have to choose between God and my family, I will choose God.” Only now do I realize that my “Call from God” was not a message from beyond. It was work-o-holism, an addictive compulsion to obtain love and acceptance through personal achievement. This addiction spawned a host of other addictive patterns destructive to me and my family.
What can I do? I can't change the past. My son died. I am a work-o-holic, recovering, but still a work-o-holic. It seems that death is the victor.
Furthermore, I'm aging.
I recently dreamed that I was a student at a large university I had one free semester to take elective courses. I chose courses in philosophy, theology and psychology instead of math and physics. I was considering a career transition. As I scheduled these courses, the young registrar looked at me in amazement. She couldn't believe that an old man was considering a career transition.
I awoke from the dream sad and depressed. I am nearing the end of my life. There are many things I will never explore or experience. Death looms over me.
I have been a social activist most of my life. When I survey the divisiveness and violence in our world, I wonder, “What difference did I make.” The shadow of death darkens every corner of my existence.
This is the kind of thinking that fueled my addictive work-o-holism. I believed that I had to earn love and respect. I had to be successful so people would love and respect me.
BUT WAIT A MINUTE
My pastorii recently preached a sermon that helped me immensely. She walks with a limp because she contracted polio when she was two years old. Her mother placed her on the floor on a blanket so she could be with her brother and sister as they played near her. One day she dragged herself to the wall and tried to push herself up. Time and again she pushed against that wall until finally, she was standing. She doesn't remember this because she was too young. She didn't will herself to stand because she was precognitive. Some Life-force had surged through her little body, pushing her to rise.
Now that I am more conscious, I see this Life-force surging all around me. I notice a daisy pushing its way through a cracks in the sidewalk. I see clouds of Monarch butterflies migrating thousands of miles to a sanctuary where they reproduce. I remember the documentary, “March of the Penguins,” that depicts the yearly journey of Antarctic Emperor Penguins to their breeding grounds. There they mate and take turns huddled together, enduring winter blasts, balancing eggs on their feet holding them in the warm furry embrace of their bodies until they hatch in the spring.
There seems to be an innate dynamic in the cosmos that wills itself to life even in the face of extinction.
Psychologist, Carl Jung, observed similar patterns (archetypesiii) in humans. Certain images appear in stories, art, myths, religions and dreams across different cultures and in different millennia We all have a deep sense of “mother,” “battle,” “journey,” “lover,” etc. These images evoke powerful emotions when we experience them personally as our mothers, our battles, our journeys or our lovers. They function like the psychic counterpart of instinct. They resonate as true at a deep emotional level.
Two of these patterns involve the Life-force that my pastor describe in her personal story. These are the “death/rebirth” archetype and the “birth from the virginal” archetype.
Through the millennia and across cultures, humans have experienced the fact that whenever something dies, a new potential for life (a new birth) appears. Furthermore, humans have experienced the fact that in dark times, new “out of the box” potentials arise. These are only potentials however. They are like defenseless babies. They must be actualized by humans who are willing to risk engaging them.
If I am conscious of the function of these archetypal patterns, I can be assured that every time I experience a death in my life, some new thing is trying to be born. My challenge is to search for this new birth and to nurture it. Similarly, when things are dark in my life, I can be assured that many “outside the box” opportunities are arising. Once again, I am challenged to seek these out and risk acting on them.
Returning to my personal story, I continue to experience sadness and regret concerning the death of my son. Yet, I am also experiencing opportunities for new beginnings. I can't undo my past behaviors, but I can act on these present opportunities.
For example, I am being given new opportunities to act as a caring “parent.” I spend time with my grandson who loves and respects me. Young men are asking my advice, much as they might from a father.
My wife and I are experiencing new possibilities in our relationship. When we get caught in negative dynamics, we are now able to say to one another, “Is this worth it? What if one of us dies tomorrow?” This has changed our relationship. We are learning to cherish one another during the time we have left.
Life is emerging in me, even as I age; and my energy wanes. This isn't a matter of increased willpower or resolve. As with my pastor's story, Life just springs forth when I am open to it.
I still regret that I was not available to my son when he was a child. This may never change. Even so, I hear him urging me on. “Hey Pops. You can do it. Go for it, man.”
When I trust the dynamic of Life surging through the cosmos, I am less likely to spend my energy nurturing hatred and anger, or in seeking revenge. I can spend my energy looking for the new Life emerging from death and for those vulnerable “out of the box” potentials that are always present in times of darkness and despair.
Yes, a Life-force surges through the cosmos, pushing us to reach for the light. Death is not the end because death is always followed by rebirth. The darkness of despair is never final. Tiny shoots appear in the forest. Life springs forth regardless of the circumstances.
This is the good news. When we engage the Life-force within us, death and violence cannot prevail.
iI hope to write my next reflection on how we can creatively engage these dynamics personally and collectively.
iiI want to thank Pastor Yoo-Yun Cho-Chang for insights that contributed to this reflection.