Last month, in response to my post Talkin' 'bout My Generation Jimmy J left a comment that deeply resonated for many who read it. He desribed what was surely the most difficult time in his life:
My world all came crashing down on the day my son was killed in a mountaineering accident. I came face to face with the awful fact that no amount of money, no material possession, no accomplishment could bring him back. My whole world been based on doing and now I had to BE a bereaved father. For years I wandered in a purgatory of grief until I finally faced the fact that, unless I got help, I was never going to live, really live, again.
I went into counseling. I'm a slow learner, but eventually I came to the realization that my self esteem was based on the quick sand of my accomplishments. I was a human "doing" not a human "being." [Emphasis mine-SW]
In the ensuing discussion on the post, I responded to a comment by ed the lefty and repeated an offer I had made to Jimmy J to on my Blog. I am quite pleased that he ahs taken me up on the offer. Today I am posting Part I of Jimmy J's very personal and poignant stroy of his joureny.
I undertake this a with a certain amount of misgiving, because smarter, better writers than I have written about faith. I may be plowing through already heavily plowed territory. However, if what I share here can be of any help to anyone then it will have been worth the effort. First a disclaimer: I am not a learned man, especially not in the area of religion. I am a fellow struggler who took a long time to reach a state that could be called a position of faith. I am a fellow traveler on the path through life who has had transcendental experiences that lead me to a relationship with God. Has this path made me a holy or religious person? No, I struggle each day with trying to be tolerant, gracious, understanding, and wise. Am I a better person for the path I have followed? I hope so, but the jury is still out. Is my path normal? I leave that for others to decide. I do believe that part of our job in this life is to try to establish some kind of relation with God. But I also believe that each of us must follow our own unique path and establish a unique relationship that resonates in our heart and soul.
First, I think I should define some words.
Faith: Belief without need of certain proof. As far as I know all religions are based on faith in the existence of a higher power than man. Without faith no religion could endure.
God: When I refer to God I could also be saying - He Whose Name We Cannot Know, The Force, The Creator, The Architect Of All Things, or just Love. I do not think of God as a man who looks like George Burns or a grey-haired, bearded man in flowing white robes. No, I think of God as a feeling, a force, a mystical power that I cannot explain.
Transcendental Experience: An experience that is beyond or contrary to common sense, science, or provable reality. Some call it a "peak" experience. Gagdad Bob has described it as a "peek" experience as it seems to be a quick peek behind the curtain of mystery that cloaks God.
Where to start? I guess in 1979 would be a good time. I was a man with a mission. I was working full time flying for a major airline and making decent money, but I was pursuing more money on the side in real estate sales, just the most recent of my side jobs. Having money, things, and the trappings of success were very important in my life. It was also important that I achieve success and be in control, for when I wasn't I was wracked with feelings of failure and low self worth. I was not aware of this at the time. I merely thought I was an ambitious, hard-charging, all-American male pursuing the American dream. Feeling low self worth that was "treated" by accomplishing things had been so much a part of my being that I thought of it as my "motivational force."
My son, Kevin, was 20. He had begun mountain climbing with me when he was 13. As a young man I had been an enthusiastic climber and when he decided to take up the sport I was thrilled. We climbed together for a few years and were a father-son team. Those years were wonderful times for us to share the outdoors and the challenge of climbing together. When his energy, strength, and ambition exceeded mine, he began climbing with other young men who shared his level of skill and ambition. By this time he had become a very strong, competent rock climber. He was also very careful and extremely responsible about safety and using good judgment. However, one afternoon he went to meet a friend at a local climbing area. When the friend didn't show up, he decided on the spur of the moment to solo climb an easy climb. He had done the climb on several occasions previously and it was well within his skill to successfully climb it without the safety of a rope and climbing partner. An observer on a hill opposite the cliff he was climbing watched him as he ascended. He stated that Kevin was within 50 feet of the top and in a spot where the climbing was quite easy, when something went very wrong. He fell 350 feet, to an instantaneous death. It was, and is to this day, an unexplainable accident.
My wife,daughter, and I were devastated. For weeks after Kevin's funeral we went through the motions of living. It was like being an an awful nightmare from which you could not awake. Our family, neighbors, and even total strangers were extremely kind and very supportive. However, after about a month, the rest of the world was ready to move on, but we, though we tried, were not.
Most pilots learn to compartmentalize their lives. When they strap on that machine to go roaring off into the sky, all other things are put aside and their concentration is only on the job at hand. I had always done that and it helped me because I could actually lock my grief away when I was working.
My attitude about material possessions and success changed though. I realized that no amount of money, no possession, no achievement could bring Kevin back. All that was as dust and I gave it up.
One day about three months after the funeral a woman who was a stranger to us knocked on our door. She came to share a poem with us. Her son had died in an auto accident and someone else had shared the poem with her and her husband. It had helped them and she thought it might help us. (Some people don't believe in angels. I do because of this.)
The poem was:
WHEN I MUST LEAVE YOU
By Helen Steiner Rice
When I must leave you
For a little while,
Please do not grieve
And shed wild tears
And hug your sorrow
To you through the years,
But start out bravely
With a gallant smile;
And for my sake
And in my name
Live on and do
All things the same,
Feed not on your loneliness
On empty days,
But fill each waking hour
In useful ways,
Reach out your hand
In comfort and cheer
And I in turn will comfort you
And hold you near;
And never, never
Be afraid to die,
For I am waiting
For you in the sky!
I cannot explain to you what happened that day except it seemed that I had just seen a message directly from Kevin and it was accompanied by a sudden feeling of overwhelming love. I knew that Kevin was in good hands.
It transformed me in an instant from someone deep in the throes of grief into a person who could actually see that life not only could, but must, go on to honor Kevin's memory. I didn't know it then but I had been struck by grace. I could not explain it to anyone else and it was many years later that I came across Paul Tillich's writing about grace.