L.L. Barkat doesn’t ask this exact question in God in the Yard: Spiritual Practice for the Rest of Us, but suggests something very much like it: Can we experience joy without experiencing grief? And if we cut off our capacity for experiencing grief, are we also curtailing our capacity for joy? That’s a thought she cites from poet David Whyte, author of books of poetry like House of Belonging and even business books like The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America. (L.L. and I both like Whyte’s poems and his writings on business.)
To consider grief and joy in the same context, I need to recall no more than the year 1987, one of those watershed years where so much happens that you come out on the other side of it changed forever. It was the year of three deaths and a birth.
On Saturday, March 7, I came home from running errands to find my wife in tears and our next-door neighbor sitting with her. Our then 7-year-old was outside playing. A call had come from New Orleans – my father had suffered a stroke and was unconscious in the hospital. It took two airline flights to get to Louisiana – two late planes, missed connections, finally getting to Baton Rouge and taking a taxi to New Orleans 75 miles away.
He did not recover from the stroke. It was massive. On Sunday, the family gathered at the hospital, talked with the doctors, and decided to remove him from the machines that were keeping his body functioning. He died early the next morning. He left behind a business that was a mess, unpaid bills, troubled relations with one of my brothers, a life insurance policy he had neglected to pay the last premium on, stacks of old traveler’s checks locked in a box under the bed – all kinds of strange and unexpected things. I was the executor of the estate, and made my first priority salvaging enough assets for my mother to live on until Social Security would start the following year.
There was too much to do and no time to grieve. The fact that he was gone would hit me with a huge wallop more than two years later.
Three months after my father’s death, the church where I was elder embarked upon a building program that was misguided and possibly disastrous. I tried to stand in the breach but was mowed down. People were upset with me – elder boards are supposed to vote unanimously. The action went forward and I resigned from the board, which caused another round of upset. Within a few short weeks, events proved me right. Fortunately the program was not far enough along to cause major financial damage, but it could have destroyed the church. It was small comfort to be proven right when relationships had been irrevocably shattered.
Three months after that, work blew up. I had been pouring heart and soul into work, and then a political move happened, an undeserved promotion was made, and an entire department disintegrated. It was a bitter lesson to learn about corporate life – performance, achievement, and results ultimately did not matter as much as being a favorite of a vice president. A job was open in another division – a job no one wanted because it dealt with issues and mess – that I applied for and got it. It looked like a crazy career move – to go from the high-flying division to an old traditional and rather dowdy one.
The year of three deaths – my father, my relationships at church and seemingly my career.
At the end of December came the joy – the birth of our second child, another boy. You can look at the photographs we have of that Christmas (my wife started labor on Christmas Day) and you can see the exhaustion and grief in our faces. It had been a hard year, but it was a year that was ending right, ending joyfully.
The tidal wave of grief that engulfed us that year actually allowed us, and me in particular, to experience the joy.
Sky Stories by Laura Boggess at The Wellspring.