Experience as Gift and Call to Life-Giving

Last week, I suggested that our inmost longing for truth and beauty, goodness and love, is best grounded in an underlying sense of gratitude. This is gratitude for the gift of self, of others, and for life itself, all of which have an enduring sacred worth.

We have spoken before of the both/and, the bitter/sweet of life, and suggested that life is a wondrous gift, even though it sometimes hurts. I recently heard a podcast in which a person sustained a sense of that gratefulness even though his son had died because of a medical mistake. To have had his son for 21 years was a gift that outweighed his premature death. I also had a younger brother who died at 26 owing to a heart defect incurred at birth. The wrenching sadness of his death remains. Yet the lasting impact of who he was and its shaping of my thinking and attitudes is an invaluable gift. Again, in Leonard Cohen’s famous words: There is a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets in.

From this perspective, I developed a model for interpreting experience, related to the Grimm Brothers story, The Old Man and His Grandson. The four-year-old child in the story sees how his parents treat his grandfather for spilling some of his food, and send him from the table to eat behind the stove. The child makes them see the hurtful effect of their treatment. As a result, the young couple are moved from seeing the grandfather as a nuisance to be reluctantly tolerated, to recognizing him as a valuable person to be cherished. As a result of seeing him in a new way, they began to treat him differently. A new way of seeing was given to them and a new way of acting was called from them. This experience–and I would suggest–every experience involves a gift and call.

The story suggests a further dimension to every experience. If they had continued to treat him dismissively, they would have killed something of his spirit. By welcoming him positively, they would have enriched his final days. In effect, the gift and call concerns the choice of either bringing something to life or putting something to death in ourselves or others. An obvious sense of bringing to life is to procreate and love a child. An equally apparent sense of putting to death is to abuse, reject or neglect a child. A still more profound possibility is to bring that suffering child to life, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, artistically, spiritually, or in any way.

In this light we may approach every experience–although certainly the more crucial or deeper ones–as involving the gift and task to bring something to life, even out of the many deaths in the midst of life. It is to let the light enter all the cracks in life.

I would suggest further that every story contains a certain way of looking at life, yet may be open to different interpretations. In his retelling of the story of Pandora, for example, the ancient Greek poet, Hesiod, appears to blame women for all the evils of the world. In his version, Pandora is given a jar and told not to open it until her wedding day. When she opens it beforehand, she releases all the ills, and shuts it in time only to keep hope inside.

From a different perspective, however, the name Pandora means all the gifts or the gift of everything. In this context, it can express all that is given with human life both pleasant and painful, the bitter and the sweet. It can also suggest that, while life contains both positive and negative elements, it remains a gift, and can be received with gratitude. The same thought is expressed that life can be lived with hope. There is also the undertone of humour, in the sense that, when the injunction is given not to open the jar immediately, we know that it will be opened. Humour contains a sense of hope if it has the form of being able to laugh gently at oneself (rather than derisively at others).

This ambiguity of life leaves us with a question as to how we interpret it–as a glass half full or half empty. Expressed differently, the question becomes what story we tell around any experience. The philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, told how, as we was travelling by train to deliver a lecture, he discovered that his wife had forgotten to include the talk in his brief case. His first reaction was not annoyance or concern, but a sense of sadness that she would feel badly about it. At this level of growth, his instinctive response was compassion.

Sometimes an event that is initially viewed one way comes to be seen differently at a later date. I am not sure how I responded to my experience at the age six of being hit by a truck. I do recall my response after I was released from the hospital and allowed to get out of bed after a few days at home. I took a few steps and fell over. I remember an acute sense of anxiety at being unable to walk right away. Years later, as I looked back on this experience, I realized that I had a profound experience both of the precariousness and the preciousness of life. That understanding was profoundly reinforced by the friendship with my younger brother, who I mentioned above,was born with a chronic heart condition that led to his death at the age of 26.

The challenge here, as spoken of often before, is to uncover and then possibly change the script which we have inherited, grown up with, or even forged on our own. One script I would suggest–easier in theory than practice–is the precious worth of life as a sacred gift and call to bring something to life within us and around us, even out of the many deaths in the midst of life. It is the script of compassion and generosity. It is a story of an unfolding of life that involves insight, hope, and love. The story of Pandora reinforces that life is a valuable gift even though it involves pain.

May you discover a script, a life story that unveils your own worth and that of others; and may it become a life-giving tale of wisdom and compassion.

Norman King, June 11, 2023