Today Facebook reminded me of this quotation I’d posted a few years ago from Brother Alois’ 2018 letter:
In privileged circles, where people are well fed, well educated, and well taken care of, joy is sometimes absent, as if some people were worn out and discouraged by the banality of their lives.
At times, paradoxically, the encounter with a destitute person communicates joy, perhaps only a spark of joy, but an authentic joy nonetheless.
This reminded me of what has been among the most joyful times of my life – the semester I lived at a homeless shelter as part of an intentional community at the Calgary Mustard Seed.
This evening a friend of mine shared with me about how she had led what she described as “a pretty death-free life” until the death of her grandmother.
Since my friend was a already adult when her grandmother passed away, this experience led her to make a few observations.
First, she noted that this grandmother, who had been a quiet, trusted presence in the family until the end of her life, was somewhat taken for granted by the other family members who presumed that this matriarch would somehow always be there.
Then, when she passed away, my friend said, “She became her whole life. Suddenly, everyone was pulling out family photos and trying to piece together the narrative of her early life. She became 5-year-old her, and 20-year-old her, and wedding day her, etc. seemingly all at once.”
The other realization my friend had was about all of the things that she didn’t know about her grandmother; her grandmother’s death became a reckoning for what my friend had and hadn’t taken the time to learn about her.
After losing a loved one, many people wish that they had taken the time to interview the person, to ask certain probing questions that never seemed urgent before, and to really capture a person’s story in their own words.
Accordingly, think of those you love the most and set out to encounter them in their depth and to record this encounter through writing, audio, or video. In the future, you may be very grateful for having done so, but the activity will also present the occasion for an encounter of depth during the relationship while you are both alive.
Photo: Screenshot from an hourlong video interview of my Zaida telling the story of how he came to Canada from Poland in 1937.
There is a philosopher named Emmanuel Levinas who said, “The relationship with the face is immediately ethical in nature. The face is what you cannot kill, or at least in the sense that says: ‘thou shalt not kill’.”
And so, whenever I see a news article accompanied by an image of an elderly person’s hand, or a syringe, or an empty hospital hallway, this quotation always comes to my mind. How different it is to actually see faces. It is almost as if seeing faces (even if only as images) is to be given a different set of facts altogether.