all of the selves we Have ever been
I knew an older gentleman
who spent the last months of his life adrift on a sea of tears.
An early life of tragedy became an undertow pulling him out into deep water.
Was it depression? Perhaps, but such a diagnosis seemed inadequate. It felt disrespectful to dismiss this kind and remarkable man with a simplistic explanation and a couple of pills. Something was emerging from deep within his soul. Something he could no longer hold back. His biological clock knew time was running out.
A more accurate description of the man’s status might have been an acute state of poignancy, a condition common among the old, but one that is kept a hidden, dark secret. It is an inconvenient truth to acknowledge because treatment requires time, patience, and a willingness to share the pain.
We grow more eyes as we get older. Those eyes have seen many things. They become more insightful with each passing year. Looking back reveals new truths. Poignancy reflects the extraordinary capacity we gain with age, a blossoming spiritual dimension that readies us for life on the other side. It is further evidence that we are made in the image of God.
It is as if we hear the words, “Let there be light.” A big-picture view of our lives is illuminated. We can look back on our childhoods and remember ourselves through our child’s eyes. But more piercingly, we also see our innocent child-selves from the point of view of a loving parent, a grandparent, or one of the many other adult roles we have occupied. And so, we experience deep new feelings for that child we once were. We have greater compassion for a youth who may have been abandoned, lost, foolish, reckless, or misunderstood. We see and understand things about ourselves and our lives that we could not have known back then...And it moves us deeply.
I think of men and women I’ve met who grieved for their child-selves orphaned by the Great Depression, or the teen-selves who enlisted at the age of fifteen unprepared for the horrors of war, or the Holocaust survivor-selves who faced the reality of stepping left and living while a mother and sister stepped right and perished. There is also the reckoning of the other more common twists and turns of life. It is now vivid that day when one drink became one too many. It is clear the morning when the missed assignments added up to failure, when the bills not paid became overdue. And there are the questions and hurts—why didn’t someone help me with my homework? Why didn’t anyone understand that my difficult behavior was grief over the death of parent? Why didn’t someone try to stop me? Why didn’t someone love me? Why didn’t I Iisten? Why? Why? Why?
And the eyes of our eyes become like members of a grand jury with many backgrounds and points of view. The many eyes examine the evidence trying to reach a unanimous conclusion. But there are dissenters, eyes that see things differently. Every dissent means a new and painful re-trial. We argue with ourselves.
The future is so short now. Not much left to see. But the past…the past is so long, so full, so much evidence to review as our own lives go on trial. We question the accomplices and the witnesses, the bystanders who did nothing. Sometimes there is growing compassion for the accused. Sometimes deepening disdain. It is dress rehearsal for the cross-examination we anticipate when we arrive at the gates of Heaven.
Poignancy is part unresolved tragedy and part new-found tenderness for the child and young adult we once were. Poignancy sometimes contains regret that we weren’t wiser while there was still time to change. And poignancy is facing a helplessness we once endured in circumstances we could not influence. It is realizing we did what had to be done when there was no time for examination, no other options. Poignant memories can include gratitude for the things that could have gone wrong but didn’t, for the hands that did reach out, for the voices that did speak, encourage, redirect, for the eyes that acknowledged our lives, our suffering, and our accomplishments.
Poignancy is also part nostalgia for the sweetness of life. Sometimes a memory is so sweet that it hurts. Poignancy is part sadness for the passing of life. So many good years. So many happy memories. A lot to lose. Our loved ones will go forward into a future we will not share…
Poignancy is not a word that lends itself to acronyms and the shorthand of text messaging. It is not a word to be spoken in haste or understood in casual conversation. It does not reveal itself along with heart rate and blood pressure during a fifteen minute office visit. Poignancy is not a word for the young. Its meaning evolves with time. It requires experience informed by living long, suffering, and enduring. It is a courageous word.
Sometimes people pass through Hell on their way to Heaven. Maybe that is how God knows the weary from the wicked, and the self-examined from the self-absorbed. I hope there is a special entrance for all of the humble, good people who drift to heaven on a sea of tears.