I have been traveling a lot the past two weeks. I first had a three-day clergy retreat, then I traveled on to Minneapolis for a two-day academy training, and the next day departed for Seattle for five days. Returning from Seattle I had a final meeting in Minneapolis and then returned home two days ago. I enjoy the opportunities to interact with different people at different times and phases of life, and travel is almost always a way for me to gain perspective. My most recent trip is not an exception.
At my three-day clergy retreat I learned a new, haunting summary of life and death that I have found enchanting. The beat is primal, pounded on a side drum, replicating the human heartbeat. The origin, our musical leader told us, is either Celtic or Native American (she wasn't certain which). The words, sung in a minor key, are these:
When you were born, you cried,
And the earth rejoiced!
So live your life, that when you die,
The world cries and
These two markers of existence – birth and death – are perplexing ones for most of us. No adult remembers the events surrounding his or her birth. We might remember details that parents or others who knew us at that fragile stage of life have conveyed, but we do not have personal memory of our entrance into the human community. Neither, I surmise, will we have personal memory of our departure from the human community. These bookend events, significant as they are, are not ones we have full control or remembrance of. We can only decide what to do with what happens between the beginning and the ending.
It’s the living of our lives that is most perplexing. Most of us find ways to do each day what we need to do. Self-imposed deadlines or others-imposed expectations cause us to act. Our western society has excelled in doing. In our experience as US Americans we have been taught the virtue of work and persistence. The great figurs of our American mythology have been doers … the railraod magnates of two centuries ago, the revolutionary idealists of three centuries ago, the explorers of four centuries ago. We have tremendous cultural regard for those who have “done.”
But what about those who excel in “being.” You know who I mean. They are not the individuals who will be glorified in a history textbook your great-grandchildren will one day read. Typically “be-ers” are not flashy or memorable in some sort of project completion way. They are, rather, those who sow deeply into the lives of others. So deeply, in fact, that their presence may not be acknowledged by those who are the recipient of a “be-ers” gift.
I suspect many parents – by birth or by adoption – fall into this category. The ceaseless hours of endurance, patient or otherwise; the consistent presence, stable or otherwise; the moments of persistence, arduous or pleasant … these are features of parental life that a child seldom sees or acknowledges. Yet it these, and other, salient qualities that provide the foundation for a child’s successful future. It is in so living our lives that we grow a sense of “being” in our son or daughter. It is this sense of “being” that is the greatest gift a parent can offer a child; the irony, of course, is that when it is offered well it is acknowledged least.
In fact, it may not be until that day of our life’s ultimate culmination, when the earth cries and we rejoice, that we understand the value of sincere, authentic “being.”