Last night, at Ciao Stella, a cozy Italian place on Sullivan Street, I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of people about life after death. I tried to speak about the many lives and many deaths we endure in this one body, rather limiting myself to “the big one.” A little more than a week ago, a friend of mine died suddenly of a heart attack. Since the funeral, I’ve been awash in memories and impressions of simple exchanges I had with this man, simple moments of being humans together and having a laugh at the comedy and mystery of it all. This man had literally hundreds of other friends who had been touched in similar ways. It made me realize the truth of something that great being Mr. Rogers once said (and I paraphrase): In the face of loss or great trauma, it isn’t the big achievements and things–big houses, big prizes–but the softest, least coveted qualities we have given and received–moments of good humor, friendship, love–that prove to be the strongest and most enduring things in the world. As the Taoists say, the softest things overcomes the hardest.
“I would have died if I hadn’t died,” said Soren Kierkegaard at some point or another. This is a quote I have been comforted by, educated by, more than some whole books, whole college courses even. If my heart had not been broken, if my dreams had not been dashed, if I hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have been opened to receive the real magic possibility in life. I would be able to be transformed by it. At my friend Jon Rothenberg’s funeral, people spoke about how he had changed in recent years, after the shattering death of his daughter. One person described him as being like a great warm campfire that people were drawn to sit around. At his best, he emanated acceptance and a keen interest in the mystery of life that people. In his last years, Jon gave many people the incomparable gift of considering their own unsuspected depths and possibilities.
Fresh from experiencing this, and still marveling at the way this fallout of love and acceptance can live on, I tried to begin a conversation about what we might actually acquire when we suffer loss. What can come is a quality of willingness to be here in the real world, a wish to be open to it and changed by it. Phil Robinson, who organized the myth group and invited me to speak, commented that the conversation that evolved had a warming, intimate quality, like sitting around a campfire. May it be so. It was good to be there.