The author Cormac McCarthy wrote a book called The Road. It is absolutely exquisite while, at the same time, absolutely brutal. Read it at your own peril.
In the course of the story, which I will not recount here, a father realizes the price of remembering his life during happier times for his son who, like all children, has an interest in earlier days.
Imagine the simple delights of your own youth – ice cream, a first kiss, a trip to Disney World – being described to a child who will never know them. Remembering those happy times aloud also means delivering the despair that will accompany the telling and the hearing.
McCarthy writes, “He couldn’t construct for the child’s pleasure the world he’d lost without constructing the loss as well.”
When I was a kid, one of my favorite TV shows was “Insight.” If you never heard of it, don’t be embarrassed. A production of Paulist Fathers, it was a sometimes-heavy-handed series of what I can only call morality plays.
Every actor you remember from the 1950s to the 1970s was in one or more of these half-hour dramas about “the spiritual crises of our times.” In particular, I recall an episode that starred William Windom and Jane Wyatt.
He was an executive of an energy company who had been unwilling to listen to the dire predictions of the impact of production on the environment. Wealthy beyond reason, he and his wife lived in a climate-controlled apartment outfitted with a machine that would play the sounds of birds and other animals now extinct.
From all those years ago (more than 50, in fact), I remember the denouement: his little granddaughter removed her gas mask outdoors and was killed by the polluted air.
Across half a century, McCarthy gives voice to the casualties of nostalgia dramatized in a slightly hokey TV show. We all grieve for pleasures past – pleasures that cannot be recaptured. If the good times have not been succeeded by others, recalling those memories means recalling the grief.
A former colleague of mine who comes from the Mediterranean Jewish community once told me that he never understood the European Jewish custom of naming a child for a deceased relative. “Every time I go to a naming ceremony, people are crying in remembrance,” he said. “They seem to overlook the joy of the baby!”
I have to admit, it made some sense. No matter the intent you have in naming a child, it won’t take long before the name becomes their own. But the world we try to construct for the child out of our loss carries with it a reminder of what is no longer.
Faith communities deal with this phenomenon all the time. The foundation of Christianity is hope emerging from loss. The Christian worshiper is confronted with the reminder of both in the symbol of the cross.
It doesn’t matter if the cross is empty, as among the Protestants, or if it has the representation of Jesus, as is Catholic tradition. And on the most sacred of days – Easter – the story of loss is necessarily recounted as part of the message of hope.
My own Jewish community is no different. Every day traditional Jews recall the destruction of the Temple as we hope for its restoration.
Every year, we devote a full day to mourning that loss, chanting the Book of Lamentations (another book to read at your peril), to be followed less than a week later by a celebration of love.
And, of course, we cannot remember the glories of our vital and productive communities in Europe (and elsewhere) without reconstructing their decimation. It is present in their music, humor and art, even when we reinvent it.
This sad truth has dawned on the U.S. in many ways over the last generation, but especially as some have tried to recapture an imagined greatness of the past.
We can’t celebrate progress without emphasizing those who have been left behind. We can’t bring our soldiers home without recalling every life fallen for the cause. We can’t acknowledge the miracle of an almost instant vaccine without reporting the numbers for whom it came too late. I would suggest it is all as it should be.
But there have been those who have stirred up anger over inevitable loss as they tried to construct the world that they (think they) knew for the next generation’s pleasure. The disappeared ice cream, kiss or trip to Orlando was a snapshot, not a context. That’s the perniciousness of the word “again” when it is used in a slogan.
No one persists in a moment of time because no moment of time persists. I guess, in the end, pain is what makes sweet memory sacred rather than cause for continuing despair.
Hard as it is, the loss is both necessary and inevitable.