I believe that, despite the pure accidents of birth and death and of everything in between, life is infused with meaning and significance because we make it so. My present subdued mood and preoccupation with the enigma of life’s meaning accords admirably with entry into the Lenten season. Recent weeks seem to have brought a cascade of grief for our family: dreams lost in the breakup of marriages, sudden financial necessity dictating changes in cherished plans, the unexpected death of a beloved sister-in-law. But mostly it is watching my parents enter very old age, one enfeebled in body, the other in mind, and suffering the final indignities of the end of life, that weighs heavily and constantly on me. As my sisters and I sift through the remnants of their long-ago young lives—high school year books, dance cards, an encoded diary, concert programs, class pictures, letters and cards, and so many pictures—we are confronted with the bright promise of their youth, hopeful words and faces belying any realization that things would ever change. This profusive proof of their eager embracing of lives then stretching endlessly before them, and their current minimal existence: the contrast is stark and heart-wrenching. It is this very amnesia about the future, born of naïve youth—the secret belief that we will never become like them, the incapacitated old—that has given us humans the evolutionary edge. If, on the cusp of our adult lives, we realistically confronted our probable fate, we might very well throw up our collective hands in despair and stop falling in love, refuse to marry and have children. Homo sapiens would disappear from the face of the earth in one or two generations.
But my parents do not see themselves as victims of fatal shortsightedness or of some huge cosmic joke; and it is not despair that I see in their eyes. They would insistently and emphatically proclaim, even from the rooftops, that life was richly worth the living of it, that from that time when everything still lay before them, their lives spun out in glorious, grievous, jolting, halting, rushing ways, full of emotion and intensity, a bountiful fruition of their youthful anticipation.
This is the stuff of my Lenten contemplation, absorbed in my parents’ past and grafting its meaning on to my present: not despair, but a shaft of illumination and sober reassessment of the terms on which I live my life. The wisdom of the liturgical year as a microcosm of the human experience and as metaphor for the span of my parents’ lives—the anticipation of Advent and celebration of Christmas, the somberness of Lent, tragedy of Good Friday, and joy of Easter—finds echoes in the Hebrew Bible’s own wisdom: a time for every purpose under heaven—weeping, laughing, living, dying, mourning, rejoicing. I believe we must make the conscious choice to not passively await, but actively impose on life its robust, rich, insistent meaning, and receive the rewards—not of unabated happiness, but of a life stretching the contours of what it means to be human.
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