With some regularity, I have a habit of listening to song lyrics addressing one topic, and seeing how they could be re-interpreted to address another. In the song “Never As Good As The First Time” for example, pop-jazz singer Sade croons about how nostalgia for the past, the good memories and thoughts of what might have been, always seems better than starting over again with second chances. “The rose we remember,” she sings, “the thorns we forget.” I have always thought rather a nice turn of phrase.
Now, this is not merely an excuse for me to plant a song earworm in your head, gentle reader. Rather, I would like you to consider whether in the present age, we increasingly look at the world around us as a series of compartmentalized experiences of either roses or thorns, when the truth is that both are essential parts of the whole. This is true not only in the romantic, as this pop song points out, but also in the broader questions of life reflecting on society as a whole, and our role within it.
This weekend I had three separate, rather long conversations with three different friends in three different cities and time zones, about the question of living out one’s purpose in life. When one is no longer young but not old YET, as Mac and Katherine Barron like to put it on the “Catholic in a Small Town” podcast, certain doors are closed. It is almost guaranteed that if you are now over 30 and have never played tennis in years, you will not now be able to dethrone Roger Federer from the top of the heap. At the same time, you are not going to be toddling your way down the hallway on a Zimmer frame for many, many years yet, so to become despondent over this realization would be the height of self-obsession.
One thing which came to light during all three of these conversations was a common perspective of a sense of uncertainty about the future, as compared to what people experienced in the past. Grandfather started working for a certain company as a young man, and stayed there for decades until his retirement, when he received his gold watch and his pension. That world in many places is already long gone; those of us in Gen X or Gen Y will most likely never experience it. Yet however much we may bemoan the death of some of the virtues which made Grandfather’s life seemingly more certain, we compartmentalize what he went through in the Depression and World War II.
This present life promises us only one absolute, unavoidable truth, and that is that there are always going to be barbarians at the gate. It may be illness, or heartbreak, or disappointment, but it will indeed come, with the ultimate reward of leaving this life entirely. What has happened in the Western world is particular in the second half of the 20th century, is that a majority grew up not really knowing what it was like to be hungry and cold, stalked by disease, armies, or other predators.
This is why what we see going on in places like Ireland, Spain, or Greece is so shocking to many of us in the West, even though the kinds of misery we presently see are as nothing compared to what people in the Third World go through all the time, with no hope of relief. It is also why the Third World in so many respects is much tougher than the First: for they expect disappointment, and while they hope they will make it through today, they have no illusions that they will be cheating suffering and death of their due. We have grown too lazy in assuming that comfort is something we are entitled to, rather than privileged to receive.
Yesterday at mass Monsignor used the Gospel reading as a jumping-off point for the exploration of these ideas of uncertainty and suffering. We are no doubt familiar with Christ’s rebuke of St. Peter who, shortly after declaring Jesus to be the Son of God, then takes Him aside to upbraid Him for talking about His forthcoming suffering and death. Christ then turns on him and rebukes him in front of the other disciples, warning them that if they expected to be His followers, they were going to have to accept suffering. In his homily, Monsignor pointed out that no one likes to talk about the experience of uncertainty and suffering, or ultimately death, but Christ tells us that it is in how we accept our trials that we prove our worth.
This was further echoed in the reading at Lauds this morning, for the great Jewish heroine Judith points out to her people in the midst of a terrible crisis that:
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God who, as he tested our ancestors, is now testing us. Remember how he treated Abraham, all the ordeals of Isaac and all that happened to Jacob. For as these ordeals were intended by him to search their hearts, so now this is not vengeance that God exacts against us, but a warning inflicted by the Lord on those who are near his heart.
Judith 8: 25-26, 27
Returning to Sade, who of course is speaking of romantic love in this song rather than about the overall purpose of one’s life, reflection on what might have been and what is “rightfully” ours is a deadly exercise. Too many spend their lives trying to recapture a moment when everything seemed wonderful and new. Or they use the irritation of suffering and loss in their lives, in the mistaken belief that by so doing they are making some sort of pearl, when in reality they are merely creating an ulcer which will eventually perforate. The line between the formation of each of these is very slim, indeed.
There is of course nothing pleasant about experiencing pain, suffering, setbacks, and loss, but we will experience all of them. If you believe that you will have everything easy in your life from now on, you are exceedingly naive and ill-prepared for what lies ahead. Better to stay focused on the task ahead, of using your gifts and abilities for the greater good of others, in recognition of and preparation for the life to come. It may not always be as good as the first time one experiences that thrill of something good – a first dance, a first touchdown, a first job, a first apartment – but at least we will take the future as it comes, without staying stuck in the past.