Thursday, December 3, 2015

Our Hearts Are Heavy

I wish I understood how the world truly works. Yesterday, three people allegedly opened fire with assault weapons on a group celebrating at a center for developmentally disabled adults. There are reports one of the alleged gunmen may have become radicalized in Saudi Arabia, while he was on the traditional Muslim pilgrimage, and met his future bride, a woman from Pakistan.

My heart hangs heavy with profound sadness when I ponder the loss of life and the sheer terror everyone in San Bernardino experienced amid what was supposed to have been a holiday party. I don’t understand how anyone can resort to such mind-numbing violence even for a cause.

But the melancholy is even thicker today because my neighbor, Jen, died at 4:30 am this morning, after fighting a battle with tongue cancer. She leaves behind a loving husband and two young children, ages 8 and 6, as well as other family. I grieve for them, especially her two adoring and adorable children who now face life without a mommy, something with which I am quite familiar.

Last Saturday, I went outside to play with Maya, who was already at the park, on the swings, next to Jen’s six-year old daughter. They were giggling and smiling as young children often do, enjoying the crisp autumn air and the attention of one father and one grandmother.

I knew Jen’s situation was dire, and when I saw her daughter and pushed her on the swings, at one point lifting her onto Maya’s lap (facing her) so they could do a butterfly swing, legs and arms entangled, I breathed deeply and felt the sadness wash over me again. She was going to experience what Maya had and has: deep, deep loss, tears, anger, anxiety, fear, loneliness. And it didn’t seem right that a little girl, blond-brown hair, and an exuberant smile, should be plunged into such sorrow.

I know people cling to faith in times of crisis, and I admire many of them, but I can’t make sense of Jen’s death or the terror in San Bernardino in any religious or spiritual context. I know someone who once said, after a hurricane had ravaged her town but she was unharmed, “God was looking out for me.” I have seen friends post thanks to God on Facebook for answering their prayers.

But I always come back to: does that mean God did not answer the prayers of the others, such as Verna who wanted to live and grow old as her children became adults and beyond? Or sweet, sweet Jen, an amazing woman also with everything to live for? Or our other neighbor, Shauna, who died this past May from colon cancer, and had a zest for living that shone like a beacon to everyone?

Shortly after Verna died, the priest she’d personally enlisted to officiate her funeral service, said to me on the phone, “I just don’t understand when people say, ‘God wanted her more’ or ‘It was just her time’.”

I think Father Paul was saying we cannot understand why someone dies, but we should not lapse into easy answers and try to make death into some deep theological phenomenon.

But knowing that there are mysteries to the Universe that may never be satisfactorily explained to an agnostic like me does nothing for the utter despondency and helpfulness I feel today as we come to terms with the deaths in San Bernardino and in my neighborhood.


  1. As always, so well put,Steven. Thanks. Just today I learned of a friend's wife, 56 years old, who had a sudden gastric attack that they thought might be colitis. A week of tests later and he is exploring hospice options--she has perhaps six months to live. I am shattered. Like you, I do not believe that God has a purpose for each and every action that happens to us. But I am so blown away by the beauty of life, which can only be understood by the hard outline created by sadness and loss, so amazed at the miracle of our consciousness and the fact of this universe, that I find it impossible to think that everything is just random noise, an accidental mix of carbon and oxygen that somehow arrived at this one singular point of existence. And so I comfort myself with faith that while there may not be a purpose to my life, I can five life to my purpose. There is a great source of strength available to us if we can tap into it, that allows us to try to make this a better world and heal others, and if that is my faith, well, so be it. I am not asking for reason, but I do feel tasked to find a reason. Faith itself is meta-rational; yet it is still a choice we can make. As a friend once paraphrased Emerson: "we all worship something, make no mistake about that, and what we worship we become. So be careful what you choose to worship". Not sure if any of this makes sense, but thanks for triggering a lot of stuff for me.

  2. Well said, Steven. Platitudes are the last thing that we need to hear. In the speeches I give related to Esther and TSWGO, I often list some of the "Things to Never Say to Someone Who is Grieving." We've all heard some from that list! The minister at Esther's funeral said at the gravesite--"We know she is in a better place." My Abe, still 6 years old, whipped around to me and said, "That isn't true, is it, Mom?" And I said no, it was much better for her to be here with us. As someone who grew up with a deep and conservative faith, I have pretty much settled today into humanism, with a dash of existentialism. I hold onto some sense of mystery in nature, or life, or beyond...

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  4. So sorry for the immense pain and loss of your family, Jen's family, and the victims' families in San Bernadino. Your friendship will be a Blessing to Jen's family as they grieve and try to move forward. We are thinking of you and hoping for healing for all of you.

  5. Well said Steve. A perfect reminder of what a great community/ neighborhood I had the pleasure of living in. Verna, Shauna, and Jen are all such extraordinary women and I loved knowing them. Perhaps you will end up being a great road map for Matt and the kids